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 1837: The Ashes of London

London is in the midst of the Great Fire of 1666. James Marwood is on an errand for his master when he stops to watch St. Paul’s burn. He is barely able to stop what he thinks is a boy from running right into the fire. When clothes begin to burn, the resulting dishevelment reveals a young woman rather than a boy. James puts his cloak around her, and she runs off still wearing it.

The girl is Cat Lovett, whose father is an attainted traitor as a result of the Restoration. She was supposed to meet him next to St. Paul’s. She has been living with her uncle’s family, the Alderleys, but they are trying to force her to marry Sir Denzil Croughton, a man she dislikes. She is hoping her father can help her. That night, though, her cousin Edward rapes her, and she stabs him in the eye, so she runs away with the help of her servant Jem to Jem’s sister.

James is also the son of a man who was on the wrong side of the Restoration. His father is a member of a sect called the Fifth Monarchists, who believed that after the King was put aside, Christ would be King. Now frail and senile, he keeps saying things that are deemed traitorous.

James works for the publisher Williamson, but soon he is asked to meet Mistress Alderley. She wants James to find her niece, and later he is asked by government officials to try to find Lovett.

There is also the matter of two bodies that have turned up. They both have their thumbs tied together behind their backs and have been stabbed in the neck.

I decided to read this series after the strong recommendation by Helen of She Reads Novels. I found it to be engrossing and entertaining. The atmosphere of burning London is well done as is the general paranoia following the Restoration. James and Cat are both appealing characters. Although it is quite a long novel at 400+ pages, it went very quickly. I’ll just have to look for the next one.

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Review 1836: Rhododendron Pie

Ann Laventie comes from an artistic and elegant family, all of whom are witty and have excellent taste. All, that is, except for Ann, who thinks they are wonderful but likes ordinary things and people. While her family disdains their solid Sussex neighbors and stays away from them, she likes them, especially the large and noisy Gayford family. Still, she feels she must be at fault.

A young film maker, Gilbert Croy, comes to stay and pays Ann a lot of attention. After Ann’s sister Elizabeth moves to London, Ann goes to visit her, convinced that she is in love with Croy and determined to come back engaged. But once in London, she begins to notice things. Her brother Dick’s sculptures, for example, all look alike. She absolutely adores a girl that everyone in her siblings’ group of friends shuns.

Rhododendron Pie is Margery Sharp’s first novel, and it’s quite funny as it explores the bohemian world of her upbringing versus the more mundane. Ann is an appealing heroine, and frankly I liked the Gayfords a lot better than the Laventies, especially in their reaction to Ann’s engagement. Her mother, though, an invalid who is mostly just a presence in the novel, gives a wonderful speech at the end. A fun one from Margery Sharp. I’m glad to have read it for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1811: The Blue Sapphire

Julia Harburn is sitting on a bench in Kensington Gardens waiting for her fiancé when a young man sits down beside her and tells her he is on a business trip from South Africa and doesn’t know anyone in London. He is perfectly polite and friendly, but when the fiancé, Morland Beverley, arrives, Julia can tell Morland isn’t pleased.

Julia is taken aback, then, when she comes home one day to find the man, Stephen Brett, having tea with her stepmother. But this isn’t a tale of a stalker—it’s the story of how Julia finds herself.

Julia was close to her mother, who died when she was younger. She has never felt that her father paid attention to her. In fact, he’s always been quiet and depressed. Since he remarried, she has felt in the way, and her stepmother encourages her to move out and find a job. Julia finally finds a room with an eccentric but friendly landlady, who gets her a job in a hat shop. Morland isn’t very happy with her decision, but he has been delaying their wedding until he gets a partnership in his father’s firm, and anyway he is in Scotland golfing.

Julia’s parents are away in Greece when she gets a letter from Scotland from an uncle she didn’t know she had—her father’s brother. He says he is ill and wants to see her, so she goes, even though Morland is very much against her doing so. Thus begins an even greater adventure for her.

This novel is just what you expect from D. E. Stevenson: a heroine who didn’t know she had it in her, some light romance, some self-discovery, and some entertaining characters. Even though I could foresee the result of the romantic angle from the first pages, it didn’t make reading any less enjoyable.

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

Five Windows

Winter and Rough Weather

Vittoria Cottage

Review 1807: Murder by Matchlight

It’s 1945, and London is in blackout during the period of the Blitz. Nevertheless, Bruce Malling is out for a stroll in Regent’s Park. He is sitting quietly on a bench near a footbridge when he sees a man pop over the railing and hide under the bridge. A few minutes later, another man strolls onto the bridge, calling out to ask if anyone is there. By the brief flicker of matchlight as the man lights his cigarette, Bruce sees another face above his. Then he hears a thud. Bruce runs up to find the man dead and then catches the other man as he comes up from under the bridge and tries to run away.

A police constable arrives on the scene as does a doctor, who pronounces the man dead. His ID identifies him as John Ward, but when Inspector MacDonald inquires about him, he can find no one who knows anything about him except that he was Irish, was charming, and had no visible means of support. Inquiries at his previous residence then reveal that he was not John Ward at all.

This novel is full of colorful characters that MacDonald meets at the victim’s boarding house. It is an interesting puzzle with lots of secrets. Being part Irish myself, I didn’t appreciate the aspersions cast on them in one passage, but otherwise I enjoyed this mystery.

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

Murder in the Mill-Race

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Review 1806: Harlequin House

When Mr. Partridge decides he needs a holiday, he just walks off from the Peters Lending Library, leaving it closed. He may be an older man with a shape like an egg, but he is lawless. Wandering around the seaside town of Dormouth Bay, he spots Lisbeth Campion and follows her. Lisbeth is the type of girl that men are always following. He not only follows her, he has tea with her and her aunt.

Later that night, he sees Lisbeth getting into a car with a man. He gets in the back. Finding they have landed in London at midnight, he learns that Lisbeth has been looking for her brother, Ronnie, who through a misunderstanding, of course, has been in prison for delivering cocaine and is just out. Ronnie claims he thought it was baking powder.

Although Lisbeth is engaged to a fine, upstanding captain in the army, Captain Brocard wants to ship Ronnie to Canada with a small pension, as he has never successfully kept a job. Lisbeth has other plans, though: to rehabilitate Ronnie so that the captain returns to find him an upstanding citizen with a job.

Using Mr. Partridge’s five pounds, the three find a modest lodging in Paddington and set out to find jobs. And they find very odd ones.

Harlequin House is a charming, silly comedy. It made me laugh.

Cluny Brown

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Review 1803: Five Windows

In Five Windows, D. E. Stevenson uses the metaphor of windows to reflect her main character’s growth, or change in mental outlook.

David Kirke (his last name again misspelled on the back cover of my Furrowed Middlebrow edition) begins his story as a young boy during World War II, the son of a rector of a small Scottish village. He comes from a happy home and loves rambling the countryside with his friend Malcolm, a shepherd, or Freda, a girl from a nearby farm.

David grows up a bit naïve, even after he goes to live with his uncle Matt in Edinburgh so that he can attend a better school. His eyes are opened to a less salubrious life when he moves to a London boarding house while he works as a clerk in a law office. That’s when he begins to learn that people aren’t always trustworthy or likable.

Five Windows follows David from childhood until just before he is married. It is pleasant, light reading about a likeable hero.

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

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Review 1801: Classics Club Dare! The Grand Sophy

The latest Classics Club Dare is to read something romantic for February, so I have chosen The Grand Sophy from my list.

When Sir Horace Stanton-Lacey unexpectedly arrives at Lord Ombersley’s home to ask his sister to take charge of his daughter Sophy for a while, he discovers a depressed household. Lord Ombersley’s gambling debts had almost overrun the establishment until his son and heir, Charles Rivenhall, inherited a fortune from a distant relative. Charles “did something with the mortgages” and paid off the debts, and now he is trying to get the household to economize.

Charles is also engaged to Eugenia Wraxton, whose outward sweetness hides a self-righteous and meddling disposition. Her plans to occupy the family home after the wedding depress everyone except Charles.

By the time Sophy arrives, the announcement of her cousin Cecilia’s engagement to Lord Charlbury has been delayed by his having contracted mumps. Cecilia now thinks herself in love with Augustus Fawnhope, a devastatingly handsome but vague young man who fancies himself a poet.

Sophy arrives like a breath of fresh air. She brings a monkey and a parrot to entertain the children, a shy greyhound, and a fabulous black steed to ride. She immediately realizes that the family needs her help. And she never shirks her obligations.

Sophy is a firecracker of a heroine, and The Grand Sophy is one of Heyer’s most beloved novels. There is lots of fun to be had as Sophy’s stratagems twist and turn the plot. The novel is a re-read for me for the Classics Club, but I loved it this time just as much as I did the first time I read it.

Frederica

Venetia

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Review 1776: Strangers

Anita Brookner is a writer I’ve sometimes considered reading but never have until now. I read Strangers for my James Tait Black project.

Paul Sturgis is a 72-year-old bachelor who leads a routine life. He has always wanted a family, but after his last girlfriend, Sarah, left him, he resigned himself to bachelorhood. Since his retirement, he has felt lonely and purposeless. He routinely visits an elderly cousin, but he always feels that he bores her. She asks him no questions and constantly talks about her social engagements.

He takes a trip to Venice and meets Vicky Gardner, a woman some years younger than he. In London they meet again and develop a sort of acquaintance that is characterized again by her talking about herself and asking favors but not asking about him. She is a free spirit of no fixed abode who asks him to take charge of some luggage.

He also meets his old girlfriend Sarah again. She is now a widow, and although she is 10 years younger than he, she has changed from an active, decisive woman to an old lady who is always thinking of her health. She also never asks him any questions.

Most of this novel is concerned with Paul’s ruminations about his situation and the past and his yearning for real company and a different kind of life. Although it is well written, it seemed slow moving and repetitive. The cover reviews refer to its wry humor, but I guess I missed it, because it just seems sad. Paul is eventually galvanized into action, but it takes a long time, and I’m not convinced that the new life he chooses will be much different from the old one.

Sweetland

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