Review 2180: They Do It With Mirrors

I am fairly sure I have never read They Do It With Mirrors before, but as I recently watched a TV adaptation, it was difficult for me to judge how easy it would have been to predict the outcome. I suspect it wouldn’t be.

Jane Marple has not seen her old school friend Carrie Louise for many years, but their mutual friend Ruth thinks something is not right, so she asks Jane to visit if invited. Carrie Louise is a frail woman whom others yearn to protect. She was left with a fortune after the death of her first husband. Her second husband left her for a dancer. Her third husband, Lewis Serrocold, is using wings of her massive home as a rehabilitation center for young criminals.

When Jane arrives, she finds quite a few people residing in or visiting the main house. Carrie Louise’s granddaughter Gina is there with her American husband Walter. Carrie Louise’s daughter Mildred is widowed and living there. Alex and Stephen, the two sons of Carrie Louise’s second husband, are there (well, Alex soon arrives on a visit), and they all get a surprise visit from Christian Gulbrandsen, an executor of the estate trust and Carrie Louise’s stepson. He is there to talk to Lewis, who is momentarily away, but Miss Marple sees them conferring outside when Lewis returns home.

After dinner, Christian has gone to his room to write letters when one of the inmates, Edgar Lawson, strikes up an argument with Lewis Serrocold and starts flashing a gun around. Edgar sometimes says different important men are his father and has moments of confusion and paranoia. This time he says Serrocold is his father and has been spying on him. The two go into his office, from which the others can hear the argument. They hear a gun fired outside, and then the gun in the office is fired, but when they get into the office, both men are fine. Later, though, Christian Gulbrandsen is found shot to death.

When questioned by the police, Lewis tells them Christian suspected Carrie Louise was being poisoned, her arthritis symptoms being similar to slow arsenic poisoning. And sure enough, when the police check a bottle of tonic that Serrocold told her not to take, it’s poisoned.

Soon there are two more deaths, and insights are needed from Miss Marple.

There are a lot of characters in this story and perhaps they’re not as vivid as Christie’s usually are, but she has set us an entertaining puzzle to solve.

Related Posts

4:50 from Paddington

Sleeping Murder

Murder at the Vicarage

Review 2176: The Duke’s Children

This last of Trollope’s Palliser novels begins with the unexpected death of the Duchess of Omnium, Glencora Palliser. This event begins a series of incidents that makes the Duke even more unhappy.

First, he learns that his daughter Mary has fallen in love with his son’s friend Frank Tregear while Mary and Glencora were traveling in Italy. Apparently, Glencora approved of the situation even though Tregear has neither position nor fortune. The Duke feels that Tregear does not have a position fit for his daughter, so he refuses permission but is upset that Mary is so unhappy.

Then Lord Silverbridge, his oldest son, tells him he has decided to run for Parliament—on the Conservative side, when the Pallisers have been prominent Liberals for generations. This despite the fact that Silverbridge doesn’t seem to have any strong political beliefs at all. However, the Duke is very pleased when Silverbridge tells him he would like to marry Lady Mabel Grex.

Lady Mabel has known Tregear for years, and they pledged to love each other. But neither of them has any money, so Mabel recently released him, only a few months before he met Mary. Although she has had several proposals of marriage, she cannot bear the idea of being married to any of those men until she meets Silverbridge, whom she sees is kind. However, when he proposes to her, she doesn’t want to be too hasty, so she turns him down.

Much to her later regret, Silverbridge, who thinks Mabel has been unkind, meets Miss Isabel Boncassen, the daughter of a prominent American of inferior roots. After a series of misunderstandings, Silverbridge decides he prefers Isabel.

The Duke remembers how his Glencora had been in love with another man when she was talked into marrying him, and that had worked out well. But Mary isn’t yielding, and soon he has two children of whose choices he disapproves.

I found this novel a fitting end to the series, although I was sorry Glencora died. The Duke seems to become closer to his children as a result, though. The interchanges between him and his two sons, Silverbridge and Gerald, are well handled, and it is nice to see all behaving affectionately. I have to admit that I preferred Lady Mabel to Isabel, who doesn’t have much of a personality until the end. However, I enjoyed this series very much.

Related Posts

The Prime Minister

Phineas Redux

The Eustace Diamonds

Review 2174: The Black Spectacles

Detective Inspector Andrew Elliot is vacationing in Italy when he overhears an English party discussing some poisonings in a town back home. He is struck at first sight by Marjorie Wills. This proves to be unfortunate, because when he returns home, he is assigned the poisoning case and Marjorie is a suspect.

The poisoning case involves someone substituting poisoned chocolates for harmless ones in a local shop. One boy has died. However, this case is soon overshadowed by the murder of Marcus Chesney, Marjorie’s uncle, under bizarre circumstances. Chesney has a hobby horse that people aren’t observant, so he designs a demonstration of his point. During the demonstration, a bizarrely dressed man comes in to the room where Chesney is manipulating objects at a desk and forces a capsule down his throat. Although this is part of the demonstration, it is not part of it for the capsule to be poisoned. Chesney dies and his assistant is found outside bashed over the head. Later, the unconscious assistant is also poisoned.

Present are Chesney’s friend Dr. Ingram, the assistant, Marjorie, and Marjorie’s fianceé, George Harding, whom she met on the trip. Not present is Dr. Joe Chesney, Marcus’s brother, out on a house call.

As Elliot investigates, things keep pointing to Marjorie, but he can’t prove anything. Finally, he asks Gideon Fell for help.

The Black Spectacles is supposedly Carr’s most popular book, even though it doesn’t feature a locked door mystery, his specialty. I enjoyed it a lot, more than the other books I’ve read by Carr, although I immediately picked out the killer and never wavered. Still, I never figured out exactly what was going on during the demonstration.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

Related Posts

The Seat of the Scornful

The Lost Gallows

Sad Cypress

Review 2169: The House on Half Moon Street

In Victorian London, Leo Stanhope is leading a difficult existence as a clerk for a hospital mortuary. His only extravagance is a weekly trip to the whorehouse, where he meets Maria, with whom he is madly in love. She is one of only a few people who knows his secret—that he was born a girl but has always believed he’s a boy. At 15, he left a comfortable home to live as a man.

One day the body of a murdered woman arrives at the mortuary. It is Maria, who did not turn up for the date they had for Saturday. Leo is soon brought in for questioning, but he is let go, and he becomes obsessed with trying to find Maria’s killer. He believes that her death may be related to that of another corpse brought in a few days before.

Of course, Leo finds that almost nothing Maria told him about herself was true, and that leads me to the first general discomfort I had with this novel even before Maria’s body turned up. That is, I really hate the trope of a young man being obsessed with a woman who is leading him on, especially one who exhibits stalker behaviors. If that wasn’t bad enough, Reeve puts Leo through so much physical and mental torment before he’s through that it made me very uncomfortable.

I think the mystery was complex and interesting, but Leo, who is self-obsessed and humorless, reminded me a lot of C. J. Sansom’s depressing hero, Matthew Shardlake. At one point, another character tries to point out that he is not only jeopardizing his own life but hers, but he thinks only of himself and continues to go on the same way.

Related Posts

Special Assignments: The Further Adventures of Erast Fandorin

The Gods of Gotham


Review 2165: #ThirkellBar! What Did It Mean?

The focus of What Did It Mean? is on Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. The novel deals principally with Lydia Merton, who has been asked to chair the committee for the Northbridge coronation pageant. This gives Thirkell the opportunity to poke fun at village committee meetings, during which very little seems to get done.

Lydia also gets acquainted with the Earl and Lady Pomfret and takes an interest in their oldest son, Lord Mellings, who at 16 is too tall for his strength, sensitive, and shy. Lydia arranges for him to meet the actress Jessica Dean and her husband Aubrey Clover, the playwright, and they enlist him in a part for their short play for the coronation, which promises to do much for his confidence.

For a while when reading this book, I thought Thirkell was starting to phone it in or that she needed a better editor. For example, there is a scene in which Lydia telephones to the Clovers to ask them to participate in the pageant. Then immediately following that, she takes Lord Mellings to the Deans to ask the Clovers the same question. Similarly, she reminds us several times of the little romance that took place between Noel Merton and Mrs. Arbuthnot when Lydia became so sick. There are also too many meetings described and no apparent romance until quite late in the novel.

However, the novel picked up as it went on, and the romance, once it emerged, was understated and touching. I finally ended up liking this one almost as well as the others.

Related Posts

Jutland Cottage

Happy Returns

The Duke’s Daughter

Review 2164: Classics Club Spin Result! The Moorland Cottage

When I selected The Moorland Cottage for my Classics Club list, I didn’t really read what it was about. Then when it arrived—a print-on-demand novella without any extraneous information—I thought maybe it was a gothic story, since most Victorian writers wrote some early in their careers. However, it is a romance with a strongly moralistic ending.

The Brownes live in an isolated cottage on the moor. Mrs. Browne is the widow of the respected curate of Combehurst. She dotes upon and spoils her son Edward while scolding and nagging at her daughter Maggie. As a result, Edward is selfish and unheeding, while Maggie is loving and giving.

When the local squire, Mr. Buxton, who was friends with Mr. Browne, decides to send Edward to school, the Browne children meet Frank Buxton and his cousin Erminia, both about their same ages, with Frank being a little older. Both Buxton children are impressed by Maggie but dislike Edward, and Maggie and Erminia become good friends.

As young men and women, Edward has not improved his character, while Maggie is good and beautiful, used to thinking of everyone but herself. Frank falls in love with Maggie, but Mr. Buxton is strongly opposed to their engagement. Then Edward’s misdeeds complicate the situation.

I had to laugh when I saw this novel described as “feminist” on Goodreads. When I was a little girl, I detested a fairy tale called “Patient Griselda.” It was about a prince who subjects the girl he loves to a series of painful tests to see if she is worthy of him. I wanted the girl to tell the prince to buzz off. This novel is going in the direction of Griselda except it is Edward, not Frank, who is always making demands. Thankfully, the ending was a little better than I expected. The novel has a strong religious message but one that seemed wrong-headed to me.

Related Posts

The Grey Woman

Tales of Mystery and the Macabre

Dolly: A Love Story

Review 2162: Shrines of Gaiety

It’s 1926. Ma Coker is being released from jail, and it’s like a circus in front of the prison. Nellie Coker is the head of a crime family in London, the owner of five clubs that Frobisher, the new broom at the police station, thinks are responsible for the disappearance of quite a few girls.

Miss Gwendolyn Kelling has unexpectedly inherited some money, so she quits her job in York as a librarian and decides to search for her friend’s sister, Florence Ingram, and Freda Murgatroyd, both 14, who have gone to London to make their fortunes, Freda being positive that she is going to be a star. When she goes to the police station, Frobisher asks her to visit one of the Coker clubs to report what she can observe.

Niven Coker, Nellie’s oldest son, by coincidence comes upon Miss Kelling on the street after she has been mugged. He gives her a ride to her ladies hotel, and afterwards she receives her purse.

Frobisher has been asking at the office for Maddox, one of the inspectors, but he has been on sick leave. Frobisher is sure Maddox is corrupt, but what he doesn’t know is that Maddox is putting the final pieces in place to take over Nellie Coker’s clubs. To start with, there is arson.

Maddox isn’t the only one after the Coker empire. There’s also Mr. Azzopardi, who begins by trying to exploit the weaknesses of Nellie’s youngest son, Ramsey.

There are some dark deeds in this novel, but it is written with a lightness that conveys more the fevered fun seeking of the time. For a crime family, the Cokers are curiously benign, and Nellie Coker seems to be three steps ahead of everyone else. The novel is more of an ensemble piece and doesn’t have a main character, although we admire Miss Kelling and also the plucky but naïve Freda. Although ostensibly a crime novel, I found it more a portrait of a particular period and enjoyed it very much. Atkinson has based some of it on the life of Kate Mayrick, the owner of clubs in Soho.

Related Posts

Big Sky


A God in Ruins

Review 2160: The Prime Minister

The Prime Minister is the fifth of Trollope’s Palliser novels and the most political so far. It follows two stories, one political and one not so much, but they intertwine.

The introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition says that Trollope wanted to write about politics but included a romance to make the book more acceptable to his readers. However, in this case, he admitted his idea of a romance was unfortunate. As a result, this novel was not as appreciated by his audience.

These days, we have bigger problems with this plot than Trollope’s contemporaries probably had. And that’s because of an anti-Semitism on the part of Mr. Wharton that seems so commonplace it’s not even commented on. As usual, I try not to judge older books by our standards, but be warned.

Instead of falling in with her family’s wishes and marrying Arthur Fletcher, who has been Emily Wharton’s friend since childhood, Emily falls in love with Ferdinand Lopez. Lopez has been generally accepted as a wealthy man and a gentleman, but no one knows anything about his family or his past.

Mr. Wharton is against the marriage, but the only reason he gives is that Lopez isn’t an Englishman and may even be a Jew. He doesn’t inquire into Lopez’s finances (which would have saved him a lot of trouble) or his background, but just refuses his permission until he finally gives up and allows Emily to marry. Slowly, we find out that Lopez has no money or any morals at all. Emily begins to learn what she has done on her honeymoon when Lopez insists that she ask her father for money after he has already given them £3000.

The political story concerns Plantagenet Palliser, now the Duke of Omnium. No one has been able to form a government, so the Duke is asked to attempt to form one, which of course would make him the Prime Minister. He tries to resist this honor, but he finally accepts it. At first he hates the position, because it doesn’t involve a lot of work on an important project, which is what he likes. He also has few social skills. He is upright and conscientious but not likable.

The Duchess at first determines to make a splash, so she begins endlessly entertaining. However, the Duke’s lack of appreciation for some of their guests begins to create problems, for example, when a man she invited to set up her archery range directly approaches the Duke for a political position and gets thrown out of the house.

One of her errors is to make Lopez a favorite, a decision which later causes problems for her husband. Despite its anti-Semitism, I found The Prime Minister to be an insightful depiction of marriage to an abuser, as Lopez separates Emily from her friends and family, belittles her, and makes all of his disappointments her fault. Even after he is gone, her behavior in thinking she has been shamed and must always bear that shame is true to the condition of an abused spouse.

I didn’t enjoy the political story quite so much but felt it to be insightful about people’s behavior in a political environment. I also like the ebullient, incisive Duchess.

Related Posts

Phineas Redux

The Eustace Diamonds

Phineas Finn

Review 2157: War Among Ladies

The staff at Besley High School are choosing up sides. Not only has the ineffective head, Miss Barr, appointed the steely Miss Lexington as second head, favoring her superior degree over the years of experience of Miss Parry, but then there is the problem of Miss Cullen, the French teacher.

The staff has been frantically preparing for exams. Miss Cullen used to be a good teacher, but her methods are out of date and her students don’t respect her or pay attention in class. Unfortunately, the system is structured so that failure in French (for some incomprehensible reason, and I assume for some other subjects, too) means that the student fails the exams as a whole, no matter what her other scores are. The result is that only four students pass the exam, which reflects on the whole school.

Further, Miss Cullen has taught for 26 years, but if she quits or is fired before she puts in four more, she loses her pension, including any money she has put into the fund herself. She can’t afford to quit.

All the other teachers are more or less in the same boat. If the school is closed or they lose their jobs, they are unlikely to be hired elsewhere because of the school’s poor reputation. Miss Parry begins actively trying to drive Miss Cullen out, suspecting that Miss Cullen will blame her inability to teach the students on Miss Parry’s failure to prepare them in Beginning French.

Into this hotbed come three new teachers, particularly idealistic Viola Kennedy. She does not understand that Miss Cullen’s attempts to befriend her are misunderstood as her joining Miss Cullen’s side in the school brouhaha.

This book was written to show how hard teachers work and how unfair the system is that forces teachers to work beyond their effective years (also how unfair the pension system is). However, it certainly makes women at work look bad. Although even the most badly behaved have flashes of sympathetic impulses (except maybe the despicable Miss Parry), they are relentless gossips and many of them are petty and vindictive. Women at work, at least here in the States, were stigmatized for years (as masculine or man-traps, and the word “unnatural” is used several times), and this book doesn’t do them any favors. Only Viola mostly keeps above the fray, but that doesn’t keep her from being dragged down by some of the others.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

Related Posts

The Headmistress

Summer Half

Miss Bunting

Review 2154: #1940 Club! Sad Cypress

Elinor Carlisle is on trial for murdering Mary Gerrard at the beginning of this Christie novel. A doctor who knows her hires Hercule Poirot to find some evidence that will save her.

It all begins when Elinor receives an anonymous letter telling her that her inheritance from her Aunt Laura may be in jeopardy. Elinor isn’t really worried about that, since she and her cousin Roddy have long understood from her aunt that they will inherit. However, she realizes she should go down for a visit because her aunt is not well, and Roddy goes with her. They have always planned to marry, no matter who gets the money, and they decide to become formally engaged.

The note warned against Mary Gerrard, a lodge keeper’s daughter, whom Aunt Laura has had educated. Mary has been visiting Aunt Laura frequently since she returned from school. No sooner does Roddy see Mary than he falls in love with her. Elinor, who has always hidden how much she loves Roddy, sees this and breaks the engagement.

When Elinor is there on another visit, summoned because her aunt has had another stroke, the county nurse misses a vial of morphine. Aunt Laura asks Elinor to summon her lawyer, but she dies that night.

Elinor is surprised to learn that Aunt Laura died intestate and that as her closest relative, she gets everything. However, she gives £2000 to Mary and tries to give money to Roddy, but he won’t take it. When she is there to go through her aunt’s things, Mary is poisoned while eating sandwiches with Elinor and the county nurse, and dies.

Things look bad for Elinor, and at first everything Poirot can discover seems to point to her guilt. But the answer may lie in the past.

I began to have an inkling of the truth but not until the very end of the novel. However, I was sympathetic to Elinor and wanted her to be innocent. This was a Christie I hadn’t come across before and may not have read had it not been for the 1940 Club.

Related Posts

Death on the Nile

Sleeping Murder

4:50 from Paddington