Review 1875: Death of a Bookseller

Published in 1956, Death of a Bookseller has long been unavailable except for costly used editions. I was surprised by the publication date, because in many ways the book reads like a much older novel. It employs a rather formal, factual narrative style, and although it is more of a police procedural, it espouses notions about policing that seem naïve and decidedly rosy compared to the probable reality. Also, it refers to phrenology as if it were a considered a science when it was largely debunked by the 1840’s.

Sergeant Wigan decides to take up a hobby, and the one that appeals to him is collecting books. In learning about them, he develops a friendship with Michael Fisk, a buyer and seller of rare books. He has a collection of very rare ones at home, quite a few about the occult.

When Fisk is found murdered in his home, Wigan is assigned to help the Detective Inspector because of his interest in books. He notices that someone has stolen a rare edition of Keats from his collection, but later learns that someone may have also stolen one of Fisk’s books on the occult, substituting in its place a book of little value.

Very quickly, a runner named Fred Hampton is arrested for the crime with serious evidence against him. Hampton claims he is being framed, and Sergeant Wigan tends to believe him, but the D. I. thinks he has his man. However, he gives Wigan permission to continue investigating on his own time. Wigan does so with the help of Charlie North, another runner.

This novel is interesting in its information about the bookselling trade and has a complex plot, although the clues didn’t seem to me more likely to point at one one suspect over another until the very end. One extremely unlikely plot point was the seriousness with which some characters treated the supernatural angle, as Fisk was apparently trying to raise the devil when he was killed. This feature was another thing that made the book seem more like a 19th century mystery.

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

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Review 1874: The Fire Court

The second book in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood/Lovett series, The Fire Court begins shortly after the Great London Fire that was the setting of the first book. James Marwood’s father wanders off in his senility and discovers a salacious scene in chambers near where the Fire Court sits—a lascivious painting of a woman dressed like a whore stretched out on a couch.

His father comes home with blood on his sleeve babbling about what he has seen, but James thinks he has experienced a senile delusion. However, a few days later the body of a woman is discovered nearby in a pile of rubble. She is dressed up like a whore, but she is not one. She is Celia, the widowed niece of Mr. Poulton, a client of Mr. Hakesby.

Hakesby has given refuge to Cat Lovett, who has fled her family. She is now going by the name of Jane Hakesby, supposedly Mr. Hakesby’s cousin and servant. But Mr. Hakesby is very frail, suffering from an ague. Cat has been helping him with his architecture work, and he badly needs the custom of Mr. Poulton, who has a case before the Fire Court.

The Fire Court’s mission is to make decisions quickly about competing rights of property so that London can be rebuilt. Mr. Poulton wants to develop some property called Dragon yard that is mostly owned by himself and his niece Celia, and Hakesby is drawing up the plans. But Philip Limbury, an upperclass personage with influence at court, has some rights to Dragon Yard and also wants to develop it. Marwood is sent to look into the death of Celia, and he soon realizes that his father must have seen her murdered in the apartments of Mr. Gromwell, his father’s description of where he went being so vivid. Marwood begins to believe there is some sort of conspiracy going on involving the Fire Court, and both he and Cat are soon in danger.

Although I felt the characters in this book took too long to realize they were involved in real estate conspiracies, this was another complex and interesting novel in this series. The 17th century setting seems convincing, and James and Cat are interesting characters.

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Review 1871: Four Gardens

Furrowed Middlebrow calls Four Gardens one of Margery Sharp’s most beloved books. At first, I thought the novel was just okay, but gradually it won me over. It’s essentially a character study of Caroline, a woman born into the Victorian era who has to learn to adapt to more modern times.

The novel begins with Caroline as a teenage girl, still in the 19th century. She comes from an ordinary middle-class family and recognizes a big divide between herself and the people she knows and the others from the Common, the area where the wealthier people live. She and her family, for example, work on the annual festival, but they are not invited to it.

In the neighborhood is a deserted house with extensive gardens. Although it is trespassing, Caroline sneaks in there and meets Vincent, an upper-class boy. During the summer, she runs off to meet him in the garden. But once he sees her with her family, he stops coming.

Beginning with this disappointing first romance, Four Gardens follows Caroline as she marries, has children, meets with a change of fortune, gets through World War I, and continues into middle age and older. She is an endearing heroine, realistically experiencing the changes of the times. It’s an affectionate and lovely novel.

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Review 1864: #ThirkellBar! Growing Up

Growing Up takes us to Beliera Priory, the home of Sir Harry and Lady Waring. The Warings have moved to the servants’ quarters, because the Priory has been taken over as a convalescent hospital. Nearby is a secret base, and the Warings receive a request to house an officer who is stationed there along with his wife. Although they are expecting their niece Leslie on a convalescent leave, they agree to billet the couple in their larger extra room.

To our delight, the couple turns out to be Noel and Lydia Merton, and in their exchanges of news with the Warings, we get to hear about almost everyone from the previous books. The Warings have been busy during the war, but the Mertons bring a little extra interest to their lives.

Leslie’s arrival is marked by a stranger carrying her case from the station. In the dark, she can barely see him, but he turns out to be Philip White, now a Colonel, whose disastrous romance with Rose Birkett was a feature of Summer Half. Leslie finds herself immediately interested in Philip.

In this novel, we are treated to the courtship of Selina, the Warings’ maid, by three men (a private young enough to be her son, a sergeant with eye trouble who is a greengrocer by trade, and Jasper, the Warings’s mysterious half-gypsy gamekeeper); the return of Tommy Needham, the fiancé of Lydia’s best friend Octavia Birkett, missing an arm; the goings-on at the Winter Overcotes (which you will be delighted to know is near Summer Underclose) railway station; as well as, of course, the progress of Leslie’s romance. Tony and Mrs. Morland make a brief appearance as do other old friends. Another delightful novel by Thirkell.

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Review 1862: Strange Journey

Polly Wilkinson, a middle-class suburban housewife and mother, is leaning on her garden gate, tired from housework. She sees a woman in a Rolls Royce stopped in traffic and wishes she was that woman. For a moment, she is, but it doesn’t last long and she thinks the experience is a daydream.

After that, Polly is periodically removed from her life and takes the place of aristocratic Lady Elizabeth Forrester. After some initial confusion about what is happening, she believes Elizabeth is causing this exchange, and she is put in some awkward positions, such as finding herself in the middle of a fox hunt when she can’t ride. She purposefully makes Elizabeth do things she doesn’t usually do, such as play bridge brilliantly, in a sort of revenge. She also returns home to find the furniture moved and her children demanding stories she’s not familiar with. What could be causing these body exchanges?

I wasn’t sure I was going to like this novel, which reminded me of The Victorian Chaise-Longue, but it grew on me. It wasn’t as dismal as the other novel, and I liked how Polly’s more open and positive personality had an effect on Elizabeth’s life while Elizabeth’s confidence helped Polly and her husband’s career.

Of course, the novel comments on class issues, but Cairnes’s representation of Polly’s suburban life is so realistic that I was surprised to find Cairnes came from a background closer to Elizabeth’s. She doesn’t skewer or patronize the suburban characters. If anything, Polly’s frank kindness opens Elizabeth’s eyes to some truths. Sadly, (small spoiler) the class divide is still strong enough in 1930’s England that the women can’t remain friends in the future.

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

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Review 1861: Great Circle

After getting fired from a hit TV series with a cult following for damaging the brand, Hadley Baxter thinks her career might be over. However, she is approached about starring in an independent film about the life of Marian Graves, an early aviator who disappeared in 1950 while attempting to circumnavigate the earth via the poles.

Although the novel sometimes follows Hadley as she tries to figure herself out, its main focus is on Marian and her twin brother, Jamie. As babies, they are on their father’s ship when it sinks, and because he chooses to save them rather than go down with his ship, he serves time in jail. They are raised in Missoula, Montana, by their alcoholic artist uncle, who lets them run wild.

When a pair of barnstormers stop over, Marian is bit by the flying bug. She is already doing men’s work, so she begins working harder to earn enough for flying lessons. But no one will teach her until she meets Barclay Macqueen, a bootlegger.

Great Circle is a broad-ranging novel that takes us from bootlegging in the West to serving mining camps in Alaska to ferrying planes in England before the flight around the world. I found Marian’s story more compelling than Hadley’s but still found the novel fascinating. Since I read it, it has been nominated for the Booker prize, so is part of my project.

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Review 1858: The Night Hawks

D. I. Harry Nelson calls forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway to a site on the coast where a body was discovered nearby by some metal detectorists. The same detectorists, a club called the Night Hawks, have also found a trove containing a skeleton.

Ruth, as the new department head, has hired her replacement, David Brown, who is already irritating her. She finds him coming along to excavate the skeleton despite herself.

Although the young man found along the coast turns out not to have drowned, and in fact, is a local ex-con, the cause of his death is not immediately apparent. Shortly thereafter, two of the Night Hawks report hearing shots at a remote farm. A young policeman is the first onto the scene, where he discovers what appears to be the murder/suicide of a scientist and his wife, Douglas and Linda Noakes. A few days later, the young policeman is dead from an apparent virus, the same as, it turns out, killed the young man found by the sea.

This novel mixes in local folklore with an intriguing mystery. Further, it seems to be moving along Ruth’s relationship with Nelson, the married father of her child, even though they don’t actually spend much time together in this one. I’m still finding this series enjoyable.

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Review 1849: Much Dithering

Jocelyn Renshawe is a young widow who has always done what is expected of her, that expectation arising from two older ladies, Mrs. Pallfrey, her aunt, and the Honourable August Renshawe, her mother-in-law. She leads a quiet life, mostly doing good works. At the beginning of the novel, she is about to suffer a visit from her mother, Ermyntrude.

Ermyntrude is the most selfish being in this novel, which is full of them. She finds her daughter a bore, and her only reason for visiting her is because she is what Lambert calls a “baby-stealer” and what we would call a cougar. She is interested in cementing her affair with Adrian Murchison-Bellaby, whose parents have just taken a house near the village of Much Dithering, where Jocelyn lives. Ermyntrude wants to show Adrian’s parents how suitable she would be as a wife. However, when Adrian meets Jocelyn, Ermytrude is unable to see that he falls in love with her daughter.

In a thunderstorm on the way back from one of her good deeds, Jocelyn accepts a ride from a stranger who is having trouble finding Much Dithering. He is Gervase Blyth, who has unexplained business in the area.

Soon, Jocelyn unaccountably has three men in love with her. But the one she prefers is most likely to force her out of her protective shell.

It’s not very hard to guess the outcomes of this entertaining light novel, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to read. Its characters’ foibles are all too human, but still funny. This was a perfect light read for me from my Classics Club list.

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Review 1847: #ThirkellBar! Marling Hall

Lettice Watson, the Marling’s older daughter, has moved back home with her two little daughters after the death of her husband at Dunkirk more than a year ago. The younger Miss Marling, Lucy, is one of those bouncing, hearty girls that Thirkell depicts so well. Brother Oliver, whose poor eyes don’t allow him to serve, has a job in the regional government offices. Mr. Marling is aggressively deaf and likes to play what his children call “the olde squire.” Mrs. Marling is a bit silly.

From the beginning of Marling Hall, we realize we’re going to encounter some familiar characters. The Marlings, along with Miss Bunting, their former governess (who gets her own book later in the series), go to call on the Leslies at Rushwater. It was David and John Leslie who made up two thirds of a love triangle in Wild Strawberries, and David very soon is trying his charm on Lettice. Soon after, Lucy brings home Captain Tom Barclay, a much steadier young man, who is also attracted to Lettice.

Because of this visit, we meet again the charming but disorganized Lady Emily as well as her daughter Agnes, so besotted with her own children that she can talk of nothing else. And we continue not to meet Agnes’s husband Robert. The efficient Miss Merriman also reappears on the scene. We hear about characters from Pomfret Towers and other books in the series.

Some newcomers to the area are the Harveys, who both work in Oliver’s office. Geoffrey Harvey is one of the artistic types that Thirkell likes to make fun of. His sister Frances is Oliver’s very organized assistant. The Harveys have been living with the Nortons and wish to find a house for themselves, but housing, along with everything else, is difficult to find during these days of war. They find the Red House, a repulsively decorated place owned by Mrs. Smith. A lot of the comedy of this novel comes from their encounters with Mrs. Smith, who, after she leases them the house, continues to return to it to remove one object after another, including the beans from the garden and the eggs from the chickens the Harveys purchased, and eventually the chickens themselves.

Unfortunately for me, more humor is derived from the visits of Harvey’s old French teacher and later her nephew. Although Thirkell has poked fun at the French before, she hasn’t actually included so much dialogue in French, which I don’t really know. Last time, it was little enough for me to type into my iPad and get a translation or simple enough for me to muddle out myself, but this time there was a lot more, also, I think, including some mocking of the quality of one character’s French. The part with the nephew was funnier because of being told the gist of what he was saying rather than the exact words.

In this novel, the difficulties of life during the war become more apparent, especially in regard to food and clothing shortages. However, it continues on in the Thirkell vein—funny, with its little side comments directed at the reader, insightful, touching, and certainly snobbish, but more as if she is laughing at her own and her characters’ snobbery. Another good one.

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Review 1843: The Shape of Darkness

Newly recovered from a vicious bout of pneumonia, Agnes is still weak, but she is so poor she has returned to her job as a silhouette maker. Her mother is ailing, and she also has her nephew Cedric to support. Then she notices that her last few customers have been murdered—their throats slit.

Pearl is an 11-year-old albino who up until recently has been appearing as a ghost in her sister Myrtle’s seances. But Pearl seems to have a gift herself, so Myrtle has been advertising her as the White Sylph. Certainly something happens when she attempts to contact the spirits. She, though, doesn’t know what, because she passes out.

Agnes, worried that someone is targeting her business, decides that Pearl can help her.

Although I have been enjoying Purcell’s novels and this one is creepily Gothic, set as it is in old, dilapidated houses in Victorian Bath, it took me a while to get into it. However, I had patience that paid off. I had lots of theories about what was going on, but there’s no way I could have guessed the truth.

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