Day 1145: By the Pricking of My Thumbs

Cover for By the Pricking of My ThumbsBy the Pricking of My Thumbs is one of the books I read for the 1968 Club. It is one of Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels.

Tommy and Tuppence are a witty and urbane middle-aged couple who used to be involved in some sort of secret service organization.  The novel begins with a visit to Tommy’s Aunt Ada at a retirement home, where Tuppence makes the acquaintance of a Mrs. Lancaster. Mrs. Lancaster asks Tuppence if it was her child and talks about a child hidden behind a fireplace.

After Aunt Ada dies a few weeks later, Tuppence asks after Mrs. Lancaster only to learn that she was abruptly removed from the home. Before she left, she gave Aunt Ada a painting of a house that seems familiar to Tuppence, and she uses the excuse of trying to return the painting to find Mrs. Lancaster. For some reason, she fears that the woman is in danger.

1968 club logoTommy is away at a conference when Tuppence begins trying to track down Mrs. Lancaster. The address left for her at the retirement home is a hotel, which has no record of her. All inquiries seem to dead end, so Tuppence begins looking for the house.

Although Tommy and Tuppence are vibrant, I did not feel that the other characters showed Christie’s usual talent for adroit characterization. Even though they eventually connected, the two strands that the investigation uncovers make the novel overly complicated. I could have done without the crime syndicate angle and thought it was unnecessary to the story. Besides, the other thread was much more chilling. Still, I enjoyed reading this Tommy and Tuppence novel.

Other Books for the 1968 Club

Aside from the reviews I’ve published this week, here’s a list of other books published in 1968 that I previously reviewed:

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Day 1144: The Victorian Chaise-Longue

Cover for The Victorian Chaise LongueThe Victorian Chaise-Longue is a short little tale of the macabre in honor of the season. Its plot is simple.

Wealthy Melanie Langdon is recovering from tuberculosis, complicated by recent child birth. When she is finally recovered enough, she is carried to lie on a Victorian chaise-longue that she bought in an antique store. There she falls asleep.

When Melanie awakens, she has returned to Victorian times and is locked in a Victorian body. When she is alarmed at her situation, she is thought to be hysterical.

logo for RIPI did not find the novel terrifying, but perhaps that is my own lack of imagination. I felt I needed to care for the character more before she was put in her dilemma. I understand from the introduction that Laski moved to a remote house to induce in herself a sense of fear, just to write this novel.

This is the final book I read for the R.I.P. challenge. Happy Halloween!

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Day 1143: Cousin Kate

Cover for Cousin KateCousin Kate was one of the novels that I could read for the 1968 Club, during which we read books for the year chosen. Since I love Georgette Heyer, I was delighted to reread it.

Heyer’s Regency romances usually fit into one of two categories—straight romance or romantic suspense—both laced with humor and wit. Cousin Kate fits in the latter category.

Kate Malvern returns with some dismay to the home of her nurse, Sarah Nidd. She has lost her position as governess, because her employer’s brother made an offer of marriage. As she continues looking for a new position, she realizes her lack of success is due to both her lack of credentials and her good looks. She begins to talk wildly of taking a job as an abigail or a seamstress.

Kate’s mother’s family cut her mother off when she married Kate’s ramshackle father. But Kate’s father had a half-sister whom Kate has not met, Lady Broome. Unbeknownst to Kate, Sarah writes to Lady Broome hoping she will offer Kate a home.

She does, but shortly after arriving at the stately Staplewood, Kate realizes it is not a happy home. Sir Timothy is in frail health and lives in his own wing. Nineteen-year-old Torquil is also subject to headaches and extremely volatile in his behavior. He is constantly attended by either his man, Badger, or Dr. Delabole. Lady Broome claims to have work for Kate, but the household runs smoothly, and Kate, used to being active, is soon bored. Lady Broome also showers her with gifts, which makes her uncomfortable.

1968 club logoSir Timothy’s nephew, Philip, arrives. At first, he seems disdainful of her, but soon he is urging her to leave. She does not see how she can do so without seeming ungrateful and hopes there will be something she can do for Lady Broome. Little does she know that there is.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve appreciated the truly silly humor of some of Heyer’s funnier novels most. So, Cousin Kate is not one of my favorites. That being said, it still features an engaging heroine, witty dialogue, and an interesting plot. It is hard to go wrong with Heyer for a light, cozy read.

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Day 1141: The Moonstone

Cover for The MoonstoneBest Book of Five!
Although the first mystery stories are credited to Edgar Allen Poe, The Moonstone is widely regarded as the first ever mystery novel. It is not a murder mystery (although it includes a murder), but is instead about the mysterious disappearance of a valuable diamond.

Rachel Verinder inherits the moonstone from her uncle on her 19th birthday. Since the diamond was ruthlessly stolen by her uncle in India and is rumored to be cursed, this gift is meant maliciously, because Rachel’s mother wouldn’t have anything to do with him.

Rachel’s cousin Franklin Blake acts as courier of the diamond, and only his decision to travel early, we learn later, may have saved his life while the stone is in his possession. The Verinder’s house is visited twice by three mysterious Indians.

The night of Rachel’s birthday dinner, the moonstone disappears from a cabinet in her sitting room. Rachel’s subsequent behavior is inexplicable. She declines to be interviewed by investigators trying to find the diamond and is uncommonly offended by Franklin’s attempts to help solve the mystery.

A house maid named Rosanne seems to be involved in some way in the crime. But perhaps she is being unfairly judged, as she has a criminal past and is trying to reform.

The Woman in White is certainly Wilkie Collins’s most famous novel, but The Moonstone has always been my favorite. An epistomological novel, it is made vibrant by the distinctive and sometimes amusing voices of the various characters, who are requested to submit their testimonies of events. I especially enjoy the sections written by Gabriel Betteridge, the house steward with a fascination for Robinson Crusoe.

logo for RIPThis reread for my Classics Club list has not changed my opinion. The Moonstone has a complicated, but not absurdly so, plot and an exotic element. Although it occasionally contains comments, especially about women and Indians, that are no longer politically correct, they reflect the novel’s time and the attitudes of the narrators.

P. S., I am also reading this for the R.I.P. challenge.

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A New Project, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize Shortlist

In the most recent Tea or Books? podcast, Simon and Rachel discussed whether they were less or more likely to read a book because it had won a literary prize. This was an interesting topic to me, because as you may know, I am working on two projects to read the shortlists of the Man Booker prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction starting in 2010. Although I never used to read a book because it won a prize, I personally have found, despite some disappointments, that reading the shortlisted books has helped me by raising the quality of the books I read in general. I agree with Simon and Rachel, though, that the book winning the prize is not necessarily the best one in the shortlist.

During the course of this conversation, Simon mentioned the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which is one of the oldest literary prizes in Britain and is given by the University of Edinburgh. (I hadn’t heard of it.) He said that he felt as if the books chosen for that shortlist more adequately represented what people were actually reading. That led me to take a look at the shortlist for that prize, and I decided that, nuts as it may seem, I would add the shortlist for that prize, just the fiction portion of it, to my projects, beginning in 2010 as I have done with the others.

So, here are the books that I have challenged myself to read. The winners are indicated in red (or purple, if there is a link to my review). It helps that I have already read half a dozen of them. I will transfer this information to a page where I can keep track of my progress. (Note that, depending on where you look for a list, there is some difference of opinion on the numbering of the years. I have chosen to follow the numbering that the prize itself uses.)

Cover for Wolf Hall2010

Strangers by Anita Brookner
The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt
Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivett by Reif Larsen
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Cover for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
La Rochelle by Michael Nath
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

2012

Solace by Belinda McKeon
Snowdrops by A. D. Miller
You and I by Padgett Powell
There But For The by Ali Smith

2013

The Panopticon by Jenny Fagan
The Big Music by Kirsty Gun
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warren

Cover for Harvest2014

Harvest by Jim Crace
Benediction by Kent Haruf
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Cover for We Are Not Ourselves2015

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

2016

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits

2017

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimer McBridge
The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan

Day 1135: Death Among Friends

Cover for Death Among FriendsDeath Among Friends is a much more typical Elizabeth Cadell novel than the last one I read, Consider the Lilies. Here is her trademark humor, a likable heroine, and a couple of eccentrics, in this case Madame, the heroine’s employer, and James, her nephew. Also, a mystery rounds off the plot.

Eighteen months ago, Alison was jilted nearly at the altar. She left her home in Edinburgh and got a job in London, working for Madame as her companion/secretary. Now, her past is coming after her. James Maitland, Madame’s nephew, is preparing a play written by Madame’s brother for production in Edinburgh. The well-known producer, Neil Paterson, wants to produce it, and he wants Eden Croft to take the lead.

The problem is that Eden is Alison’s ex-fiancé and is now married to Alison’s godmother’s daughter, Margaret, whom she grew up with. Because Madame has delegated Alison to help James, she is forced to interact almost daily with the cast of the play, and with Margaret and Neil.

Although she has always disliked Neil and blames him for the break-up of her engagement, Alison is surprised to find him asking her out. When Eden tries to get her back, she is relieved to find she has no difficulty in brushing him off.

But as the group prepares for and begins their trip to Edinburgh, accidents start to happen to Alison. When she leans over a banister to call the cook, it collapses, and she is only saved because the cook moved a sofa to a position under the stairs. When she is driving down a steep hill at a B&B, her brakes give way, and only because she gave a young man a lift is she saved from going over a cliff. Later, when the travelers stop for lunch, an old man is killed because a rock knocks him off a cliff, where Alison was standing moments before.

Alison slowly realizes that someone is trying to kill her. But why? And who?

This was an enjoyable light read, as I usually expect from Cadell. It is another book for R.I.P.

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Day 1129: Consider the Lilies

Cover for Consider the LiliesWhile I was looking for a cover image for Money to Burn, I noticed that someone has been republishing Elizabeth Cadell’s novels (with horrible covers) and that there were several I’d never heard of. I went ahead and ordered three. This is the first one.

I have long read Cadell’s novels when I wanted something very light and funny. In general, they are mild romances with good dialogue, a touch of mystery, and a plethora of eccentric characters. Often they take place in a family setting.

A writer who produced more than 50 books from the 1940’s through the 1980’s, Cadell did not always produce work that was uniformly good. Unfortunately, Consider the Lilies, which she published as Harriet Ainsworth, is not one of her best. This novel is a murder mystery, which is unusual for Cadell.

Caroline is visiting her sister Kathryn and family for Easter when the vicar’s sister, Miss Burnley, asks Kathryn to do her a favor by asking Mrs. Lauder to donate some lilies for the Easter service. Mrs. Lauder has loads of lilies, but she has never been known to donate any or to give anything else, for that matter. Kathryn, however, is the only person from the village that Mrs. Lauder will receive, so Kathryn goes, taking Caroline with her. Mrs. Lauder, a wheelchair-bound invalid who is nasty to all, refuses.

Guy and Kathryn Heywood receive a surprising visit from Miss Parry, Mrs. Lauder’s companion. She asks Guy to read a letter that she believes threatens Mrs. Lauder and wants advice for what to do about it. Guy suggests she do nothing, since the letter was not addressed to her, but to Mrs. Lauder, and is ambiguous.

Later, Miss Parry reports that the letter was stolen from her purse, and not too long after that, Mrs. Lauder is found dead. Her wheelchair appears to have slipped off the veranda and she fell out of it. But Inspector Avery Freeland seems to think the death is suspicious.

This novel is not a murder mystery in the sense that we follow the investigation very closely. Rather, it is about how the murder affects the Heywoods, who live next door. They are on hand to witness a few strange incidents, and they are shocked to find that two people in their household may know something. The novel is also not a proper mystery, because there is no way anyone could guess the culprit, who appears so slightly in the novel as to be almost unnoticeable.

Further, Cadell’s trademark character development is lacking. We have very little sense of any of the characters, even the main ones. so, this book was a disappointment. This is the third book I read for the R.I.P. challenge.

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