Review 1407: Murder at the Vicarage

I decided to reread Murder at the Vicarage for the 1930 Club, but it also applies to Readers Imbibing Peril. It is the first Miss Marple book, and for much of it she seems like a minor character.

The novel is narrated by Len Clement, the vicar of St. Mary Meade. He is called away one evening by what proves to be a false call for help. He arrives home late for a meeting with Mr. Protheroe, a wealthy man who is disliked by many. In his study he finds Protheroe dead, shot in the head.

Of course, there are lots of suspects and red herrings. Mr. Hawes, the curate, is behaving oddly. Mrs. Protheroe had just decided to part from Lawrence Redding, who is in love with her. Lettice Protheroe has inconsistencies in her alibi. Rumor reports that a local poacher has a grudge. A team exploring the local barrow seems to be up to something besides archaeology.

No sooner does Inspector Slack appear on the scene when first Lawrence Redding then Anne Protheroe make confessions of guilt. Miss Marple lives next to the vicarage so has some testimony to offer about its comings and goings. And she also has some interesting ideas about who may be guilty.

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Review 1406: Strong Poison

There are those who feel that Dorothy L. Sayers ruined her Lord Peter Wimsey series with the introduction of the character Harriet Vane. I am on the fence about this. On the one hand, I don’t really enjoy Peter’s sappiness as he courts and marries Harriet. On the other hand, I like Gaudy Night, the mystery that Harriet solves herself.

I also enjoyed Strong Poison, the novel in which Harriet is introduced. Harriet, a mystery writer, is accused of poisoning her ex-lover, Philip Boyes, with arsenic. In 1930, when the book was published, no one quite understands why Harriet broke off with Philip. Philip convinced her, against her principles, to live with him without marriage, stating that he did not believe in it. Then he turned around and asked her to marry him, which Harriet views as his having tried her out. Her resulting anger seems to be the police’s motive. Lord Peter doesn’t believe it for a moment. He thinks Harriet is innocent and wants to marry her himself. Luckily, there’s a hung jury, so Peter has a month to investigate.

At first, Peter can’t get anywhere, because he can find no motive. Yet he is struck by the precautions Philip’s host at dinner took when Philip was taken ill to preserve the food. Peter is even more struck by the precautions he took not to be left alone with Philip or give him medicine when he was ill. But this host, Mr. Urquhart, Boyes’s cousin, had no opportunity to administer the poison, and Harriet did. Moreover, Harriet purchased arsenic as research for her book.

About halfway through, this mystery becomes more a puzzle about motive and opportunity than the identity of the killer. It skillfully unwinds, however, and does not cheat by hiding information from the reader.

I reread this novel for the 1930 Club and Readers Imbibing Peril, and was glad I did. I had forgotten the witty dialogue and the deft characterization.

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Review 1405: Cakes and Ale

I previously read only one book by Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge. Frankly, I did not enjoy that book about two frightful people tormenting each other.

That was a long time ago, though. So, when I saw Cakes and Ale listed under books published in 1930, I thought, Why not give the guy and another chance and read it for the 1930 Club?

Another book I have already reviewed for 1930 is As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.

* * *

William Ashenden, a moderately successful writer, unexpectedly hears from Roy Kear, another writer. Although Kear is a perfectly pleasant fellow, Ashenden knows he wouldn’t be hearing from him unless he wanted something. But Kear doesn’t come directly to the point.

Around the same time, Ashenden receives an invitation from Mrs. Driffield, the widow of Ted Driffield, widely considered Britain’s most important late Victorian novelist. He ignores this summons as he doesn’t know Mrs. Driffield. Finally, Kear admits he wants to pick Ashenden’s brain. He is writing an authorized biography of Driffield, and Ashenden knew Driffield and his first wife, Rosie, when Ashenden was a young man. Rosie was a beautiful, vibrant force of nature who was massively unfaithful to Driffield. The second Mrs. Driffield has dragged Ted into respectability and is concerned for his legacy. She wants Kear to leave Rosie out of the biography even though Driffield’s most important work was written during their marriage.

This novel about class snobbery is also a character study of an unusual woman. Because of Rosie’s promiscuity, the novel was highly controversial in its time. I wondered whether Ted Driffield was supposed to be Thomas Hardy and found out that others had supposed that at the time, although Maugham denied it. He did admit that Kear was modeled after Horace Walpole, however.

I enjoyed this novel and am willing to give Maugham another trial. The movie of The Painted Veil that came out a few years ago was beautiful, so I may try it next.

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Review 1404: All’s Well That Ends Well

Although All’s Well That Ends Well is grouped with Shakespeare’s comedies, the introduction to my edition says that, like Measure for Measure, it is a problem play. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but Wikipedia says it applies to ambiguity and a shift in tone between darkness and light.

The actions in this play by Count Bertram bear many resemblances to those of Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southhampton, who was made to marry a girl he didn’t want. Helena, the ward of the Countess of Rousillon, is the daughter of a physician and so is inferior in position—or at least he thinks so—to Count Bertram, the Countess’s son. Yet, she is in love with him.

When the Count goes to the court of France, Helena follows. The King is deathly ill, and she offers him a cure of her father’s. He agrees, if it works, to marry her to the single lord of her choosing.

Of course, the cure works, and she chooses Count Bertram. Forced to marry her, the young man leaves for war in Italy vowing never to consummate the marriage.

Frankly, this later play is not one of Shakespeare’s best. Its main theme is the disagreement between young and old, as everyone in the play who is older thinks Bertram is an idiot to reject such a virtuous, lovely bride, and also the part that status plays in marriage as opposed to character. The play has no rolling speeches, however, and pretty much just gets down to doing its job.

From the modern viewpoint, it’s fairly easy to see why this play isn’t presented as often as others. I read it before I went to see it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Mainly, Count Bertram is pretty despicable despite his change of heart at the end. First, he rejects Helena just because of her social status, even though she is beloved by his mother and the King. Later, he attempts to seduce a virtuous Italian girl of good family, Diana, even promising to marry her despite being already married. When she pursues him to France, he lies about her, saying she is a camp bawd. What a great guy. Obviously, all would be well if Helena didn’t end up with him at the end, at least for Helena. But that’s the 21st century view.

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Review 1403: Washington Black

Washington Black is a twelve-year-old field slave on the Barbados plantation of Faith in 1830 when a new master arrives. Masters are to be feared, but it soon becomes clear that the new master is cruel and thinks nothing of the death of a slave.

Washington and his protector, the old woman named Kit, are alarmed when one evening they are summoned to the master’s house. They are expected to wait table while the master entertains his brother, Christopher, although they have no training. After the dinner, the brother asks for Washington to wait on him personally.

Christopher, or Titch, as he asks to be called, is a man with a scientific mind. He is working on an airship he calls Cloud Cutter, which he plans to launch from a mountain at the top of the plantation. Once Titch sees how exactly Washington draws, he begins to involve him in his experiments.

The master is away when Titch’s cousin Philip arrives. He brings some news that disturbs the plans of both Titch and the master. Then a terrible event occurs. Because Washington is present for it, he knows it means his death. Titch knows it, too, and the two flee the plantation in the Cloud Cutter.

Washington’s life becomes one of adventure overshadowed by fear. Although during the novel he travels to the Arctic, Upper Canada, England, and eventually Morocco, for years he fears being recaptured.

This novel is part adventure story, but it has the more serious aim of exploring the bonds between the exploiter and the exploited. Titch is a mystery to Wash, a seemingly compassionate man who yet abandons him in the Arctic. For years, Wash believes him to be dead, but then he hears he is alive. This sends him on more journeys to try to find and understand his mentor.

I thought this novel was fascinating, especially the descriptions of sea creatures when Wash begins studying them in Upper Canada. Later on, he begins to build the world’s first public aquarium.

I liked Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, but I was really caught up in the story of Wash’s life. This novel applies to my Man Booker Prize project, but I would have read it anyway.

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Review 1402: Literary Wives! Happenstance

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Happenstance is really two novels, back to back, upside down from each other, about a marriage. Depending upon which way you pick up the book, you get either the husband’s or wife’s point of view first. I just happened to read the husband’s story first.

Jack Bowman is a historian who lives a life of the expected. Every Friday he has lunch with his childhood friend Bernie at the same restaurant, where they discuss this week’s philosophical question. He works at the same institute where he was hired straight out of college more than twenty years ago. He still loves his wife, Brenda, and has always been faithful. He is skeptical of, in 1978, new political and social movements. He has been working on the same book for three years, sort of. He attends periodic parties with neighbors he dislikes.

The events of one week make him begin evaluating his life. First, he finds out that an old flame may be publishing a book on the same topic as the one he has been dilatorily writing. Second, his wife is leaving town for five days to attend a crafts conference. Finally, his friend Bernie arrives on his doorstep after separating from his wife.

Jack wonders if he wants to finish his book. He isn’t really interested in the topic, which was suggested by his boss. Further, he wonders whether his work in his comfortable, stress-free environment serves any purpose.

For her part, Brenda began making quilts several years ago and has begun attracting attention because of them. She tends to be placid and self-deprecating, but before she took up quilting she sometimes found herself angry about her life.

At the conference, she finds friendly people who are interested in conversations about things that interest her. Moreover, because of an embarrassing incident, she befriends a metallurgist attending another conference at the same hotel. Soon, she can tell she may have to decide whether to have an affair.

I couldn’t decide what my reaction was to this book. On the one hand, characters are examining their lives through the lens of mundane events. On the other hand, I feel that the portrait of the marriage was more realistic than usual because of this, showing a couple doing ordinary things. I thought that approach was braver than a depiction of horrid secrets coming out. On the other hand, especially the conversations seemed ordinary and not very interesting. As a side note, I am interested whether reading the book the other way around would make any difference.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

What stands out for me about this marriage is that Brenda, open and ready for change, ultimately decides to stick with her old life. Jack, on the other hand, previously so resistant to change, seems to decide that some changes might be good.

Literary Wives logoAs to her role as a wife, Brenda entered marriage with naïvete and not much thought at a time when it was expected. Twenty years later, she isn’t sure she made the right decision, or rather, she thinks maybe she missed something. Her quilt making, however, has given her a sense of purpose and creativity. She doesn’t seem to resent that she must be a wife, mother, and housewife before being a creative person, even though that topic is raised in one of her conference sessions. Still, she is tempted toward change.

It’s interesting to me that in this time of a growing awareness of feminism (this book was published in 1980), Brenda doesn’t seem to be very aware of it or interested in the ideas the movement has spawned.

I am glad, although Jack doesn’t necessarily understand Brenda, that the book didn’t follow the cliché of the husband being unsupportive of his wife’s activities.

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Review 1401: The Muse

In 1967 London, Odelle Bastien has been making her way with difficulty. Although she is well educated, her race and origins in Trinidad are keeping her from getting a job. Then she gets a break. Marjorie Quick hires her as a secretary in an art institute and makes friendly overtures.

Odelle finds Quick mysterious. She asks Odelle about herself but tells her nothing. She does, however, encourage Odelle to write.

Odelle has also met Laurie Scott, a young man who is interested in being more than her friend. His mother has just died, leaving him only an unusual painting. To support himself, he intends to try to sell it. Odelle encourages him to bring it to the Skelton Institute, her workplace. When Quick sees the painting, she has a strong reaction to it.

In 1935, Harold Schloss, an art dealer, has fled Vienna with his family. Unfortunately, he has chosen Spain, which will soon be little safer, to flee to. His daughter Olive has been accepted at Slade, but she hasn’t told her father. He believes that women can’t be artists, just dabblers.

Olive meets Isaac Robles, an artist, and his sister Irene. Both are servants for the house the Schlosses are renting. Olive is struck by Isaac’s good looks and begins painting in a new style with vibrant colors.

The novel follows these two time threads as it explores the mystery of the painting. Who painted it, and how did it end up in London? How does Quick know about it?

I was struck by Burton’s weird and wonderful The Miniaturist, so much so that as soon as I finished reading it, I bought this book. I found The Muse to be a bit more mundane, with few surprises. For a long time, I was much more interested in Odelle’s section than Olive’s, particularly because Olive makes a decision about her art that I found shocking and unbelievable. In theme, this novel is similar to The Blazing World, and in an action taken by an artist, but with a crucial difference.

Also, like some other bloggers, I am wearying of the dual time-frame format. I am beginning to think it is a little lazy. After all, it seems easier to write half a book about two historical time periods (or one depending upon the time chosen for the more recent period) than a whole book about one. One of the delights of The Miniaturist was how it immersed me in the period. This novel doesn’t really do that.

Mind, it’s not a bad novel, and many people will like it. I just found it a disappointing follow-up to Burton’s first book.

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