Review 1735: #1976 Club! Sleeping Murder

With the 1976 Club looming, I picked out some books to read for October that were published in 1976. Sleeping Murder also qualifies for RIP XVI! As usual, on this first post I’m also listing anything else I’ve reviewed published in 1976. As far as I know, there are only two:

Newlywed Gwenda Reed is house hunting along the south coast of England for herself and her husband Giles, both newly arrived from New Zealand. When she comes across a house in Dillmouth, she immediately feels at home there, although she experiences a fleeting panic on the stairs. Nevertheless, she buys the home.

Gwenda is residing in it to oversee updates to the house when she begins to experience something odd. She expects the stairs down from the terrace to be in one place but they are in another. When workmen remove some bushes where she thinks the steps should be, they find the stairs used to be there. Similarly, she keeps trying to walk through the wall in the dining room where she thinks there should be a doorway. When the workmen examine the wall, they say it had a door there. She imagines a particular wallpaper in what used to be the nursery, and when a blocked cupboard in that room is opened, she sees that wallpaper inside.

Gwenda is most upset because she’s had a vision of a woman dead at the bottom of the stairs and realized it was Helen. But she has no idea who Helen is. Feeling confused, she decides to consult friends in London. Accompanying the group out for the evening is her friends’ aunt, Miss Jane Marple. After she explains what’s been happening, Miss Marple says she should find out if she ever lived in England as a child.

Inquiries find that Gwenda lived in the house when she was three. At the time, her father had a second wife named Helen. But Helen supposedly ran off with another man. Gwenda and Giles find that Helen’s half brother, Dr. Kennedy, still lives in the area. He has some letters that she sent right after she left but hasn’t heard from her since.

Gwenda and Giles begin to believe that Helen was murdered. Did Gwenda’s father kill his wife, or did someone else?

It was hard for me to judge whether this was a difficult mystery, because I vividly remembered a TV production of it. However, knowing the identity of the killer made me appreciate how skillfully Christie salts in the clues without giving too much away. The characters are clearly defined, and Miss Marple is at her cleverest.

Related Posts

4:50 from Paddington

At Bertram’s Hotel

Murder at the Vicarage

Review 1732: A Day in the Death of Dorothea Cassidy

Here’s another book for RIP XVI, although a cozy one.

People in the town of Otterbridge are shocked when the body of Dorothea Cassidy, the vicar’s wife, is found murdered in the park. Most of the people in town loved her, she was so vibrant and enthusiastic.

Inspector Ramsey and Sergeant Hunter are having difficulty retracing her movements on the day before. Almost everyone who saw her is lying in some way. Old Walter Tanner found her car in his driveway that morning, and only he admits to disliking her, saying she was constantly after him to approve of changes she wanted to make to the church.

The Inspector Ramsey books are one of Cleeves’s earlier series. I have read all of her Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez books and a couple of stand-alones. Although this one has a clever premise, it feels less polished than the others. Cleeves often lets readers know some of what her suspects are thinking, but information about them is introduced naturally in the other books, for example, in conversations between characters. Here, we no sooner meet a character than we are told several facts about the person, a device which seemed clumsy to me. Also, character development seems quite a bit sketchier.

Related Posts

The Sleeping and the Dead

The Long Call

Blue Lightning

Review 1731: Old Filth

From his birth and continuing through his adolescence, Edward Feathers was abandoned or taken away from every person he loved. As an adult, he was a still, stiff man unable to love.

After the death of his wife, Betty, Sir Edward, or Old Filth as he is known in the world of law where he is a prominent lawyer, begins re-examining the events of his past. He also makes attempts to connect with people important to him, but these attempts are abortive. Slowly, all the things he has never spoken of are revealed.

Written in sterling prose, Old Filth is a mesmerizing story about the Raj Orphans, children who were shipped to England at an early age from the Far East. The novel is touching and completely gripping. And for those who loved it like I did, hooray! It’s the first of a trilogy.

Related Posts

The Cat’s Table

The Garden of the Evening Mists

The Singapore Grip

Review 1726: To Calais, In Ordinary Time

It’s 1348, two years after the battle of Crécy, which won Calais back from the French to the English. Will Quate is betrothed to Ness, the prettiest girl in his Cotswold village, but his liege lord, Sir Guy, wants him to join a group of archers on their way to defend Calais. Will would rather stay, but he bargains for a document showing he’s a free man. Sir Guy tells him he will send along the paper with Captain Laurence Haket in exchange for five pounds once he has won his fortune.

Will agrees to go. In fact, his attitude toward Ness seems ambivalent. He doesn’t seem to care that she had an affair with Haket and became pregnant. Will’s friend Hab is plainly in love with him, but Will doesn’t seem inclined.

Sir Guy’s daughter Bernadine is incensed that Sir Guy has betrothed her to a man his own age when she is in love with Laurence Haket. Inspired by La Roman de la Rose, she feels she is entitled to a more romantic life, so she runs away, following Haket on his way to Calais.

Another voice on the journey is Thomas Pitkerro, a proctor, who is sent along with the archers on his way to his home in Avignon to give last rites, if needed. Thomas is afraid of the plague, which is said to be moving north from Italy and France.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time echoes its medieval inspirations with its tale of adventures while on a journey. It does so in more than just plot, however, for it is written with only words in use in the time it was set. Thomas, who is writing letters and keeping a diary, writes in a stiff, bombastic style that thankfully loosens up . The novel is narrated in a style a little less formal than the speech of Bernadine, which contains some French modes of expression. Several times the point is made that her workers do not understand many of the words. The speech of Will and the characters around him is littered with expressions native to the Cotswolds.

This attempt is similar to that of Paul Kingsnorth in The Wake, which I read several years ago—written to be readable to modern audiences but to have the feel of Old English (in the case of The Wake, that is). This effort doesn’t seems as likely to me except in the speech of the characters of the lowest status, which has a flow to it. The dialogue between characters of higher status seems overly elaborate, even pretentious, and perhaps echoes written work of the time.

Meek doesn’t do much to get readers interested in his characters, so at first I had difficulty becoming involved in the novel. After a while, I got more interested. I read this novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

Related Posts

The Wake

The Last Hours

The Illuminator

Review 1725: Cluny Brown

Mr. Porritt, the plumber, is worried about his niece, young Cluny Brown, because, he says, she does not know her place. Why, the other day she went to the Ritz just to see what it was like. When he catches Cluny about to take a bath in a gentleman’s lovely bathtub after she made a plumbing call, Mr. Porritt decides to take advice and send Cluny into service.

She ends up as a parlor maid in Devonshire for Lady Carmel and Sir Henry. There, although she’s not very adept at being a parlor maid, she finds she likes the country and she befriends a golden lab belonging to Colonel Duff-Graham, who allows her to take the dog out for walks.

In the meantime, Lady Carmel’s son Andrew has met Mr. Belinski, an eminent man of letters who has had to abruptly flee Poland and is barely getting by. Andrew invites Mr. Belinski to stay at his parents’ manor, where he can write. Andrew himself is preparing to propose to the beautiful Betty Cream.

Cluny is struck by Mr. Wilson, the chemist, and he rearranges his shop’s closing day to take walks with her. There’s something about Cluny, who is direct and forthright and doesn’t seem to understand customary boundaries.

This is a wonderful comic novel, absolutely delightful, and my first by Margery Sharp (I have reviewed one that I read after this one). I’ll be looking for more.

Related Posts

The Stone of Chastity

Beneath the Visiting Moon

Joanna Godden

Review 1723: A Fugue in Time

Godden attempts something unusual in A Fugue in Time. She makes a house that has held the same family for a century into a sort of conscious entity and tells the story of the family in collapsing time.

It’s World War II, and old Rolls Dane has received notice that the 99-year lease on his house has elapsed and the owners want it back. The house was the one his parents moved into upon their marriage, and it has been the scene of many events, including his own unhappy love affair.

Rolls has been leading a reclusive life with only one servant left in the big house, and he is not pleased when his great niece, Grizel, an American officer, comes to ask if she can stay in the house. Later, Pax Masterson, an RAF officer being treated for burns, comes to visit the house that he’s heard about all his life from his mother, Lark, the girl Rolls’s father brought home many years before after her parents died in a railway accident.

Although I eventually got involved in this novel, its basic premise seemed at first affected and I didn’t think it was going to work. Early on, for example, there is a five- or six-page description of the house that slowed momentum to a standstill. Then, the shifts in time sometimes take place within the same paragraph, and at first it’s hard to grasp the when. There are some cues, for example Rolls’s name changes from Roly to Rollo to Rolls.

This is not one of my favorite Godden books, but the idea behind it is an interesting one. It reminded me a little of A Harp in Lowndes Square, in which images and sounds of the future and past reside in a house.

Related Posts

A Harp in Lowndes Square

The Lady and the Unicorn

Pippa Passes

Review 1717: Joanna Godden Married and Other Stories

After reading Joanna Godden, I was excited to learn there was a sequel. “Joanna Godden Married” is a longish short story or a short novella, in this volume combined with several other stories.

To say much about “Joanna Godden Married,” I must include spoilers for the previous novel. Joanna has sold her farm and moved because of the disgrace of being an unwed mother. She is looking for a new farm to buy as a hobby, determined to devote her attention to her baby son, Martin. But Joanna is a woman of so much energy that being a hobbyist won’t last long.

Most of the other stories are about ordinary people living in the marshlands of Sussex. In “Mrs. Ardis,” a woman on a remote farm hides Peter Crouch for the sake of his friendship with her son after he has shot a gamekeeper while poaching. In “The Mockbeggar,” an old Romany couple encounters an upper-class runaway couple while sheltering in an abandoned house. In “Good Wits Jump,” after working hard to save money for her marriage, Nellie learns her old friend is ill and needy.

Other stories are about a woman determined to break with a careless lover, a Romany family who decide to thank an old farmer in their own way, and a woman who goes to tea with an old lover, perhaps whom she should have married.

I liked these stories, although some were sad. However, after reading a few pages, I did not read the last two, described as “Christian fairy tales.”

Related Posts

Joanna Godden

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

That Lass o’Lowrie’s

Review 1710: Classics Club Spin Result! The Woods in Winter

I might have saved The Woods in Winter for a chillier time of year, but its number was chosen for me for the latest Classics Club spin. It’s a lovely tale.

Ivy Gover (not Gower, as it says on the back cover of my Furrowed Middlebrow edition), three times a widow and a charwoman, is living in a tidy but small North London flat when she receives a letter. Not being able to read well, she takes it to her employer, Miss Helen Green, who tells her she has inherited her great-uncle’s cottage out in Buckinghamshire for her lifetime.

Ivy abruptly moves to the country but not before stealing a neighbor’s dog that she has heard barking for months and finds living in its own dirt. Although the cottage is primitive and has a hole in its thatch, she moves right in and begins befriending the local animals. For she has a touch with wild things and for healing, as Lord Gowerville finds out when she magically cures his dying dog. The next day, he sends someone over to fix the thatch in her roof.

As Ivy befriends the birds, a fox, and eventually a boy, her neighbors also have their adventures. The vicar is suddenly taken with Pearl Cartaret, one of two sisters who open a tea shop. Helen is sometimes nearby pursuing an affair with an elusive young man. Angela Mordaunt, a “spinster” brought up by her mother more as a well-bred boy than a girl, catches the eye of Sam Lambert, a kind farm laborer.

This novel was the last one published (in 1970) during Stella Gibbons’ lifetime and displays a longing for the England of 40 years before, when most of it is set. I just loved it. It is funny yet astringent, has some engaging and other very lifelike characters, and contains lyrical descriptions of the countryside around Ivy’s cottage as well as a conservationist conclusion. Ivy herself is a spunky individualist. I liked her a lot.

Related Posts

Nightingale Wood

A Pink Front Door

Bramton Wick

Review 1709: The Redeemed

The third book of Pears’ West Country Trilogy and the book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project, The Redeemed begins in 1916. Leo Sercombe, now about 16, joined the Royal Navy at the beginning of the war as a boy seaman. In a battle, his ship, the Queen Mary, is sunk, and he is one of only 20 crew members rescued.

His father’s former employer’s daughter Lottie begins training as a veterinarian with Mr. Jago. He believes that soon the veterinarian college will be opened to women and she will be the first graduate.

The novel works slowly toward the reunion of its two main characters. There is one incident where this reunion is delayed because of a misunderstanding. It’s the type of plot device used frequently in movies, where the problem could be solved in a few words, and I think using it was a bit lazy.

Although Pears continues with his spare, understated writing style that is so eloquent, I found after a while that his minute descriptions of work, whether it be birthing a foal or floating a sunken ship, were losing my attention. Finally, the long-awaited reunion seemed somewhat anticlimactic. Pears’ style is very detached, maybe too much so. Although I was always interested in what happened to the characters, I probably could have been more so. Of the trilogy, I think the first book was the strongest.

Related Posts

The Horseman

The Wanderers

All the Birds, Singing

Review 1706: Milton Place

Milton Place is sort of an update of King Lear—set in the 1950’s. It is partially drawn from de Waal’s experience and is one of two novels published posthumously.

Mr. Barlow, the elderly owner of Milton Place, receives a letter one morning from Anita Seiler. She is the daughter of a girl he fell in love with long ago in Austria, but unfortunately he was already engaged. Anita tells him that she no longer has ties in Austria and would like to come to England, asking him to recommend her to someone for work. He writes back inviting her to stay.

His daughter Emily is a busybody who thinks it’s time he sold Milton Place and moved somewhere smaller where he can be more comfortable. It’s true that the place is cold and shabby, but Mr. Barlow is comfortable in the few rooms he uses and loves his garden. However, Emily is already setting out on a plan to have the county request the house for a home for unwed mothers. When Emily hears about the new house guest, she is certain that Anita is after her father’s money.

Anita and Mr. Barlow get along beautifully, and he wants her to stay. She feels uncomfortable staying as a visitor, so she begins cleaning all the vacant rooms and making the house more cheerful.

Things change, though, with the arrival of Tony, Mr. Barlow’s beloved grandson, on break from university.

One plot line of this novel bothered me a bit. I want to be a little mysterious about it, but my difficulty hinges on how adult an 18-year-old boy is. I admit there is probably a difference of opinion on this, that clearly in the novel there is, and that this idea changes over time. That is, an 18-year-old of either sex is now considered less of an adult than they would have been then, and then less than 50 years before.

This caused a problem for me, but I found the novel beautifully written and affecting.

Related Posts

A Thousand Acres

King Lear

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance