Review 1415: The Poison Bed

In 1615 London, a glittering couple was imprisoned in the Tower for murder. They were Robert Carr, long a favorite of King James, and his wife Frances of the powerful Howard family. The victim was Thomas Overbury, a friend of Robert’s who was poisoned while imprisoned in the Tower.

The narration of this novel is split between Frances in the third person and Robert in the first person. It tells the story of their meeting, when Frances was married to the Earl of Essex, and their subsequent struggles to be married, which resulted, almost as collateral damage, in Overbury’s death. One of these narrators is undoubtedly unreliable, however.

This novel was based on a scandal in Jacobean England, and Freemantle proposes a theory of its solution, although the truth is still not understood. A few reviewers have criticized it as being historically inaccurate. Based on my very little research, I can’t speak to that, but I can say that, considering the subject was interesting to me, the novel dragged curiously at times. Perhaps this was a result of the he said, she said format. It got a little more interesting when the truth about one narrator came out, but then it dragged again.

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Review 1412: Classics Club Spin Review! The Wise Virgins

The novel selected for me by the latest Classics Club Spin is The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf. This semi-autobiographical novel is partially about the courtship of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, in the characters of Harry Davis and Camilla Lawrence.

Harry and his family have just moved to the London suburb of Richstead and are shortly befriended by the Garland family, which has four unmarried daughters. Harry is disdainful of life in Richstead and of the fates of the spinster daughters, given up to good works or golf and tennis. The youngest daughter, Gwen, is naïve and gives undue weight to his discontented utterances. He amuses himself by giving her books and plays to read of Dostoevsky and Shaw.

In his art class, Harry is drawn to Camilla Lawrence, a cool beauty. When she invites him home, he finds it one of ideas and stimulating conversation. Camilla has suitors, but she is less interested in marriage than in a quest for self-fulfillment. She is repeatedly alleged to be passionless.

This novel was considered somewhat shocking in its time but was notable for examining the fates of conventional young women in Edwardian England. Harry is not a likable hero nor is Camilla very knowable. I personally did not like their glib and superior dismissal of whole classes of people. I always imagine the Bloomsbury circle snidely sniping at everyone else (and behind each other’s backs), and this novel didn’t make me rethink that idea.

This is probably taking the novel out of its time, but simply the continual reference to unmarried women by Harry as virgins irritated me to no end. He is so superior and supercilious. The introduction to the book says that “virgin” was synonymous with unmarried woman to Edwardians, but clearly for Harry there’s a sneer involved. One article I read calls Harry a truth-teller, but some of the things he says seem only designed to stir people up and make him seem more like eighteen than twenty-eight. Also uncomfortable for modern readers is the antisemitism that is accepted unquestioned by Harry and his family, who are Jewish.

Finally, there are lots of references to talking in this book, and for people who are looking for a purpose in life besides marriage and other predictable fates, they aren’t doing much actual acting. I think Woolf is pointing that out, though, by the chapter headings.

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Review 1411: The Crossing Places

Even though I often tire of series fiction, I still enjoy finding a promising series, and Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series is off to a good start. I selected this mystery to have a suitable review near Halloween and also for Readers Imbibing Peril.

Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist who lives by the Saltmarsh near Norfolk and teaches at the nearby university. Detective Inspector Harry Nelson asks her to help him with some bones that were found on a beach near where she participated in a dig five years ago. Harry Nelson was involved in the case of the disappearance of five-year-old Lucy Downey several years ago and fears they are her bones, but Ruth finds they are from the Iron Age.

A few months later, another little girl disappears from the area. Nelson begins consulting Ruth about the case, showing her the letters he received during the first case. Now, new letters are arriving.

Around this time, friends from the dig five years ago begin to resurface. Ruth’s professor Erik travels in from Norway, and her old boyfriend, Peter, reappears.

This novel is very atmospheric, using the bleak Saltmarsh effectively as a setting. The characters also are colorful yet believable. Although I guessed the identity of the criminal fairly early, Griffiths threw in some interesting red herrings. I’ll gladly read another Ruth Galloway book.

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Review 1410: The Catherine Wheel

Jacob Taverner, a rich eccentric, invites some of the cousins of his extensive family to the family inn, The Catherine Wheel, for a reunion. He seems to have an ulterior motive, though, because he questions several about the stories of a hidden tunnel.

The inn has a past as a smugglers’ nest, and Detective Abbott thinks it is still so used, for drugs and stolen jewelry He asks Miss Silver to take a room at the inn to observe activities.

Jane Heron and Jeremy Taverner are among the cousins invited to the inn. It is cheaply furnished, ill kept, and creepy, and Jane’s misgivings are furthered when she recognizes Miss Silver as a detective she met before. She makes sure Miss Silver gets a room. That night, Luke White is found dead. Luke is a cousin on the wrong side of the blanket who worked as a waiter at the inn. Earlier, he was overheard telling Eily, the maid, that he was going to have her whether she wanted him or not, and if she tried to marry her sweetheart, John Higgins, one of the cousins who chose not to attend the reunion, he would murder him. Eily was discovered near the body, but so was another cousin, Florence Duke.

The dull-witted Inspector Crisp is ready to arrest John Higgins, but Miss Silver is quite certain something else is going on.

Wentworth is good at creating eccentric or likable characters, but she also telegraphs the bad guys fairly obviously, so that you know who was likely to be involved, just not why. The problem of repetition that irritated me in The Arlington Inheritance isn’t quite so pronounced in this one. Overall, the book is entertaining enough but not a great mystery.

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Review 1407: Murder at the Vicarage – #1930Club

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 1405: Cakes and Ale – #1930Club

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 1403: Washington Black

Best of Ten!
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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