Review 1635: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

This sequel to The Devil in the Marshalsea is lots of fun. The opening of The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins finds our reluctant, roguish protagonist on the way to the gallows. There have been rumors in the neighborhood that he murdered a man in the Borough, but this isn’t the crime he’s been found guilty of.

The story begins with Tom in the street at night on the way home from his usual carouse. He hears the cry of “Thief” from inside the house of his neighbor, Mr. Burden, but when he tries to help, the neighbor becomes abusive. It is Mr. Burden who has been spreading the rumors about Tom.

When Mr. Gonson, the magistrate, comes to investigate the supposed crime, Tom finds that Mr. Burden is accusing Sam Fleet, the nephew of Samuel Fleet, Tom’s friend who was murdered in the Marshalsea in the previous novel, a boy that Tom is supposed to be teaching to be a gentleman. Later, Tom, in a drunken rage, hammers on the Burdens’ door and threatens Burden’s life.

Tip: If you’re in a drunken rage, never threaten anyone’s life. The next night, of course, Burden is murdered, which Tom and his girlfriend Kitty discover when they find Burden’s maid Alice in their house covered with blood. She has come through a secret passage into their house after finding her employer dead. Tom knows that if the authorities find the passage, which he didn’t know about, they’ll assume he is the murderer. The magistrate arrests him anyway, upon no evidence, but then must release him.

Tom also finds himself embroiled in the affairs of Henrietta Howard, the King’s mistress. He undertakes a job, hired by Sam’s father James Fleet, the king of the London underworld, to meet a lady in the park. The lady is Henrietta Howard, whom he finds being attacked by her own husband, Charles. Tom is hired by Queen Caroline to try to find some dark secret to put pressure on Howard, who is trying to blackmail King George by threatening to force Mrs. Howard to return to him.

This novel is atmospheric of Georgian England, especially the nasty places, and full of adventure. It is also quite suspenseful.

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Review 1616: The Lost Gallows

The famous French detective Inspector Bencolin and his friend Jeff Marle are sitting with Bencolin’s friend Sir John Landervorne in the Brimstone Club in London while Bencolin tells a strange tale of a man seeing a gallows in the fog. Upon leaving the room, they find a toy model of a gallows there. Later that evening, Marle encounters a wealthy Egyptian, El Moulk, on the floor of his rooms in the club. He appears terrified.

On the way back from the theater that evening, Marle is nearly run down by El Moulk’s limousine. When he looks into the window, he sees the chauffeur is dead. Returning to the club where the car has stopped, they receive a message saying that El Moulk will die on the gallows at Ruination Street.

The three investigate the case along with Inspector Talbot, trying to rescue El Moulk and locate Ruination Street even though they become convinced that the Egyptian is guilty of a heinous crime for which someone is taking revenge.

Like many Golden Age crime novels, this one is extremely complicated, almost to the point of the ridiculous, as the perpetrator takes a bizarre revenge. However, it is fast-paced and even contains a love interest for Marle. I believe that long ago I read a locked room mystery by Carr. I liked this one a lot better.

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

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Review 1614: A Pink Front Door

Stella Gibbons’s books always start out seeming to be froth, but there is an edge to them, I’ve found. Still, she handles her characters’ foibles with compassion.

In A Pink Front Door, her heroine, Daisy Muir, is engaging, but she has one big flaw. She tends to make the problems of a set of misfits her own, much to the discomfort of her husband, James. At the beginning of the novel, she’s trying to keep one silly friend, Molly, from running after men, in particular an Eastern European refugee named Tibbs, who keeps losing both jobs and his lodging. Lodging is difficult to find in post-war London, and the next thing Daisy knows, she has Don, a man she barely remembers from Oxford, at her front door. Don and Katie and their three young children have just lost their lodgings, and Don hopes Daisy can help.

Daisy remembers “little Katie” from university, the most promising student of her year. Later, Katie reflects that she became stupid with love and made only a poor third. Don, however, is only a few months from finally taking his exams to qualify as a chemist, and Katie hopes to find a quiet place where he can work. If he passes, he can take a good job and they can begin a better life, but until now, they have been living in cramped, noisy, unpleasant quarters.

Daisy thinks of a former neighbor and friend of her father, Mrs. Cavendish, a horrible snob who has an entire upper floor free. Mrs. Cavendish, like many of the upper classes, has fallen on comparatively hard times and has lost her last servant. She agrees that the family can move in but insists that the hard-pressed Katie spend some time every day cleaning in exchange for the low rent that is all they can afford. The house is inconvenient. Katie must haul all their water and coal upstairs. It is also not laid out for children. But it is quiet, and Don is finally able to work.

While Daisy is embroiled in the difficulties of her friends’ lives, Molly has homed in on James and has begun dropping by Daisy’s house especially when Daisy isn’t there, making tea for James and babysitting James Too. James himself, usually tolerant of Daisy’s projects, has begun to lose his patience.

Gibbons has an eye for social follies and foibles, and she employs it here with effect. I enjoyed this novel and was touched by its conclusion.

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

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Review 1606: Things in Jars

Best of Ten!
Imagine a combination of Victorian London, eccentric Dickensian characters, a ghost, a supernatural being of myth, hints of Jane Eyre, a lady detective, and a fascination with grotesqueries. If you can imagine that, you might go a little way toward a hint of this unusual novel.

Bridie Devine, the lady detective, has been summoned to a graveyard to examine a dead body found shackled in a crypt. On her way there, she meets a scantily clad ghost, a prizefighter named Ruby Doyle who claims to know her and follows her on her investigation.

But her real case comes when a baronet, Edward Berwick, hires her through a Doctor Harbin to find his daughter, who has been kidnapped. As she investigates, though, she learns the girl was kept alone in the west wing of the house, and there are rumors that she is some kind of unusual creature. Bridie begins to believe that the kidnappers, who probably include the girl’s nurse, mean to sell her to some freak show.

Bridie has had a difficult path in life that includes encounters when she was a girl with Gideon Eames, the sociopathic son of a man who rescued her from poverty. She thought he was dead but finds he is very much alive.

With an entourage that includes a seven-foot-tall bearded maid, Bridie braves dead bodies, attacks, and visits to a freak show as she pursues the child. We know from the beginning that the girl was taken by her nurse and Dr. Harbin, but more people who want to possess or sell this valuable child get involved.

Not quite at first but very soon I got so involved with this quirky novel that I dropped everything until I finished it. Bridie is an interesting, likable character, Ruby Doyle is endearing even though he is constantly hitching up his drawers, the novel was exciting at times. What’s not to love?

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Review 1602: Friday on My Mind

Because I read the Frieda Klein mystery that comes after this one first, I was aware of a plot point in Friday on My Mind, but writing about it is not really a spoiler, because it happens in the first few pages. That point is that Sandy, Frieda’s ex-lover, is found dead in the Thames with his throat cut and Frieda’s hospital bracelet on his wrist.

Frieda had broken up with him several months ago, but recently he had been trying to contact her. Friends said he was in a state of agitation. He had come to her office with her belongings and shouted at her when he wasn’t allowed in. Frieda is the police’s suspect, and when they find Sandy’s wallet in her home, they plan to arrest her.

Frieda thinks her nemesis, Dean Reeve, has killed Sandy, as he’s killed other of her enemies, and is framing her. She feels that the police will not investigate further, so she flees, determined to find the murderer herself.

As usual, this is a complex mystery with interesting characters. It also has a gripping ending, and I enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I liked Sandy, and I was bothered by how unlike himself he was behaving after the breakup, as well as by his murder.

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Review 1601: Chatterton Square

Two very different families live across the road from each other on Chatterton Square. Mr. Blackett is self-satisfied and judgmental. He thinks Mrs. Fraser across the way is no better than she should be and is trying to attract him. He doesn’t understand that Rosamund Fraser is teasing him because of his conceit.

Rosamund Fraser is separated from her husband and supporting a household that contains her three sons and two daughters as well as Miss Spanner, a single friend and boarder. She runs her household loosely, and their warm home contrasts starkly with the Blacketts’, where Mr. Blackett is always picking on someone, particularly his daughter, Rhoda.

This novel is about more than two families or even about the three statuses available to women at the time. For, it is set shortly before World War II, when the British government was for appeasement. Mr. Blackett, who somehow managed to avoid serving in the First World War, is all for appeasement. Across the road, Rosamund Fraser believes appeasement is shameful, that you don’t make deals with criminals. Despite her fears for her sons, she feels war is the only honorable way forward.

There is finally the state of Rosamund’s marriage as well as Bertha Blackett’s. Rosamund, having been deserted by Fergus and assented to divorce, feels free to fall in love again, with Piers Lindsay, Bertha Blackett’s cousin. But having asked for a divorce, Fergus fall silent. Bertha has for years been hiding her contempt for her husband by pretending complete subservience to him. But eventually her true self must emerge.

This is an absorbing and ultimately touching novel about a particular time and place. The characters are believable and the women and most of the children sympathetic.

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

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Review 1572: Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light dealt with a relationship in the life of the playwright John Millington Synge. Shadowplay deals with a period in the life of another Irish literary figure, Bram Stoker.

In a novel that shifts back and forth over a 30-year time period, Stoker goes to work as general manager for the Lyceum Theater in London, having been hired by Henry Irving, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time. Stoker has taken what he believes is a part-time job that will allow him to work on his fiction, but he finds himself assuming responsibility for everything in the theater, an overwhelming position. Further, he has to cope with his employer’s extravagance and his occasional wild rages. Worse, Irving is dismissive of Stoker’s literary efforts. Nevertheless, they form a lasting friendship.

Also involved in the theater is the famous actress Ellen Terry. Shadowplay is primarily about the enduring relationship between these three. However, it reflects other events of its time, particularly Jack the Ripper and the trial of Oscar Wilde. It deals with Stoker’s struggles to earn a living as a writer, a feat he never accomplished. And it has a ghost.

Shadowplay, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was involving and interesting.

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Review 1565: A Struggle for Fame

After reading The Uninhabited House, I looked for more books by Charlotte Riddell and came across the Recovered Voices series published by Tramp Press and this book, A Struggle for Fame. A Struggle for Fame is Riddell’s semi-autobiographical novel about the publishing industry.

Although Glen Westley is the main character in the novel, it follows the progress of two Irish young people who meet on the ship from Ireland and both end up in London’s literary milieu. Through poor investments, Glen’s father has lost the family home and all his money. She determines that they will travel to London so she can try to make a living as a writer.

On the ship, they meet Barney Kelly, a young chancer who is looking for a way to make money.

Glen works hard at good literary fiction and is repeatedly rebuffed by editors even while being told she has promise. Barney, on the other hand, falls into an opportunity to write articles for a journal. The novel makes clear that Glen has much more ability than Barney, but he is able to make a living at writing much earlier than Glen. It is clear from the beginning that the novel is about Glen’s rise and fall, but we are drawn in to see what happens.

A lot of characters are vividly drawn and quite Dickensian in their idiosyncrasies. It is fairly obvious that Riddell is depicting, sometimes satirically, publishers and authors she knew. Although written in 1883, the novel has observations about gender and ability that still apply today.

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Review 1492: Instructions for a Heatwave

I’m really liking Maggie O’Farrell. I don’t know why it took me so long to try her.

In 1976 London, the country is experiencing a record-breaking heatwave. (Of course, those of us who have lived in Texas don’t think 90° F is that hot.) One morning, Gretta Riordan’s newly retired husband doesn’t return from his trip to the store. When her grown children go to the police, they find out he’s taken money from the bank account and say he is not, therefore, a missing person.

This event brings the rest of the family together for the first time in three years, which was when Aoife, the youngest sibling, left for New York after her sister, Monica, broke with her. Aoife still doesn’t understand the reason for the break.

Monica herself is not happy. After her first marriage, to Joe, broke up, she married Peter. Peter has two daughters who hate her. She hates the old house in Gloucester where she lives, in which Peter will allow her to change nothing.

Michael Francis loves his wife and children but feels his wife is becoming distant. It takes a while to find out why.

All, even Gretta, have secrets, which must come out before relationships can be healed.

O’Farrell writes luminous prose and understands the complexities of people. This is a lovely book.

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Review 1478: Literary Wives! War of the Wives

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Selina Busfield thinks her husband Simon is working in Dubai when the police notify her that he’s been found drowned in Southwark. She can’t imagine what he’s been doing there, and the circumstances around his death are unclear. Did he commit suicide, was his death an accident, or was it murder?

But this concern is soon pushed aside when some complete strangers show up at the funeral, one of them claiming to be Simon’s widow. It appears that for the past seventeen years, Simon had two families, one with Selina and one with the much younger Lottie.

When we chose the last set of books for Literary Wives, I could tell by the description that this would be the one I liked least. And so it proved. I am always wary of any book that describes almost any outfit a woman has on except if it’s important to the plot. But worse, I thought that almost everything about this book was predictable except for the cause of Simon’s death, and that was too far out in left field. The wives were such extremes of direct opposites that they were almost clichés—Selina the society dame focused on appearances and Lottie the air-headed artsy girl. Then there was their immediate reaction of fury at each other when they were both victims of their husband’s deceit. Finally, the pileup of discoveries showing what a creep he was (and by the way, they never knew!). And then the finish, which I won’t reveal. Sorry. Absolutely not for me. I only finished it because it was for the club.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

In the context of this book, I find this question almost impossible to answer because both marriages were a mirage. Although there have been a few disconcerting exchanges in the past, as far as Selina knew, she was the wife Simon wanted—organized, active, immaculate, still attractive, a good if reserved mother. He has frequently told her she is the perfect wife. As the book continues, Selina finds some reward in relaxing her standards a bit, including a more genuine relationship with her children.

As for Lottie, her marriage seems murkier to me. She is much more emotionally dependent on Simon even while being less financially so. She is also so engrossed in her romantic feelings that it’s hard to get an idea of their day-to-day life. Certainly, it seemed as though Simon was a warmer husband to her and her daughter than he was to Selina and her children.

But this novel has a lot more to say about life after marriage than about life during it.

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