Review 2101: A House in Bloomsbury

Dora Mannering is a little brat when we first meet her at 16. She and her father are tenants of a house in Bloomsbury. They are not wealthy—he is a scientist who works at a museum—and they occupy three rooms although the rooms are well-appointed. Dora has no understanding of what it means to be very poor and disdains thoughts of money.

Dora doesn’t remember her mother, and her father never speaks of her. Someone sends her a box of gifts once a year, anonymously, and he is not happy when it arrives.

Dora’s father becomes very ill, which throws Dora more into the company of others in the household. Miss Bethune is one, a wealthy Scottish spinster who lives with her maid. Dr. Roland, who believes he could treat Mr. Mannering’s illness better than the expensive society doctor called in, is another.

Then a strange lady appears, or rather, her envoy, a young man, who approaches Miss Bethune with a request that she receive the lady and invite Dora over at the same time. It’s not too hard to guess who the lady is, but the circumstances of the original separation also come out.

Miss Bethune also has a secret.

I’m not sure if this novel would have been considered a sensation novel in its time, because the secrets don’t turn out to be that shocking, but there are a few emotional scenes and two different women who are hysterical at times. However, the novel features likable characters and has a satisfying ending. The heroine grows up, and people are kind to each other.

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Review 2079: Partners in Crime

I decided to read all of the Tommy and Tuppence novels in order when I read that they were Christie’s favorite sleuths. Partners in Crime is the second book in the series, set six years after the first.

Tuppence is beginning to be bored when Mr. Carter, Tommy’s boss, asks him to take six months off his work in the Secret Service to reopen the Blunt Detective Agency, which the department believes is connected with espionage. They are to look for a Russian blue stamp on a letter and further contacts.

Partners in Crime is not exactly a collection of short stories, but it is about a series of crimes Tommy and Tuppence solve in between tussles with the bad guys. Each case takes up one or two chapters. The book also has a running theme of either Tommy or Tuppence taking on the persona of a different detective from literature in each case. Unfortunately, I didn’t know who most of the detectives were, so I missed some jokes.

Some of the mysteries are laughably obvious, but others are more difficult. The novel suffers slightly from the problem I find with short detective fiction—not a lot of time to develop plots, red herrings, and characters. However, Tommy and Tuppence are funny and charming, so I enjoyed the book.

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Review 2068: The Secret Adversary

I decided to read all of Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels after learning that they were her favorites of all her sleuths. There are unfortunately only a few of these novels, and The Secret Adversary is the first.

Tommy and Tuppence are old friends who haven’t seen each other for a while when they meet again after World War I. They are both broke and have been looking for work, so they decide to band together to look for jobs, calling themselves Young Adventurers, Inc. On leaving the café where they have been lunching and discussing this plan, Tuppence is approached by a man who overheard them and says he thinks he has a job for them, but when he asks her name, she says, “Jane Finn,” a name she heard mentioned in the café. He reacts indignantly and leaves.

After placing an ad, Tommy and Tuppence are contacted for work and find that the job oddly involves Jane Finn, who was a passenger on the Lusitania when it was sunk five years before and is believed to have been the recipient of a package important to the government. Tommy and Tuppence are hired to find Jane Finn.

The search brings with it many adventures, during which their steps are dogged by a mysterious Mr. Brown, apparently a criminal mastermind. This novel has a silly Cold War plot before the Cold War, and the slang spoken by an American millionaire seems completely unlikely. I think Christie must have watched too many gangster movies. However, Tommy and Tuppence are delightful and resourceful, so this was a fun reading experience.

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Review 2064: Clothes-Pegs

After reading Susan Scarlett’s Summer Pudding, I wasn’t sure she was my jam. However, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Clothes-Pegs, a Cinderella story.

Annabel Brown is an unassuming young woman whose only ambition is to do well at her job as a seamstress before marrying some young man whom she loves. She has no idea that she is beautiful.

Her employer, Tania Petoff, has noticed her, though. Tania runs an exclusive dress shop, designing and making her own creations in the shop. When one of her models quits without notice, she decides to give Annabel a try.

At first, Annabel feels totally out of place in her promotion. Of the three other models, Bernadette, Freda, and Elizabeth, only Bernadette is nice, and she helps Annabel out with suggestions.

When Annabel sees Octavia Glaye at a fitting, she thinks she’s the most beautiful woman she has ever seen. But Octavia is jealous of how much attention her friend, Lord David de Bett, pays to Annabel. Annabel soon notices David, though, and falls in love with him on sight. She doesn’t have any illusions of a future with him. She is content to love him.

For his part, David is struck by Annabel’s naturalness and innocence but thinks he’ll probably marry Octavia. Octavia is ready to try to make Annabel regret any attention David pays her.

The Cinderella story was fun, but I especially enjoyed the parts about Annabel’s engaging middleclass family. Annabel is a nice, occasionally foolish but usually practical heroine who only gets into situations because of her lack of experience and the venom of others.

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

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Review 2063: Can You Forgive Her?

Can You Forgive Her? is the first of Trollope’s Palliser novels. Phineas Finn, which I read first, is the second. Palliser doesn’t actually appear in this novel until page 150, but then he plays an important role.

At issue in this novel are three romances, which explore the theme of who has the power in courtship and marriage. The most important is that of Alice Vavasor, and as I read her story, I couldn’t help reflecting how different it reads now. Alice is in love with and engaged to John Grey, but she feels that he is too perfect. Further, she is inclined to marry a man in politics while he prefers a retired life in the country.

As Trollope explains it, she overthinks her impending marriage. She goes on a trip to Switzerland with her cousin Kate Vavasor and Kate’s brother George. Years before, Alice was engaged to George but he somehow betrayed her and the engagement was broken off. But Kate is determined that Alice will marry George. George seems indifferent, but he frankly needs Alice’s money for a run for parliament. Slowly, though, readers learn that George is a scoundrel.

Another love triangle involves Alice’s cousin Lady Glencora. Lady Glencora is newly married to Plantagenet Palliser, the heir to the Duke of Omnium. Lady Glencora, a great heiress, is very young, and she was madly in love with Burgo Fitzgerald, a young wastrel. Her horrified relatives quickly pushed her into a marriage with Palliser, but he doesn’t have much in common with her and doesn’t know how to handle her. Lady Glencora befriends Alice and confides in her that Burgo wants her to run away with him. She is unhappy enough to be tempted.

The final love triangle is a comic one. Kate Vavasor’s Aunt Mrs. Greenow is a wealthy widow who has two suitors. Mr. Cheeseacre is a vulgar wealthy farmer who talks about his money all the time. The other is Captain Bellfield, who has some style and panache but probably isn’t a captain and has no money.

Modern audiences may have problems with some of the assumptions of this novel, but I always try to keep modern judgements out of my opinion of older novels. I found this novel interesting and especially got involved in Alice’s situation. She is so honest yet so misguided that it made her story intriguing. I was a little bored with the comic romance, although it dealt with some of the same issues as the other relationships.

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Review 2038: The Last Protector

It’s 1668. When James Marwood’s boss Williamson sends him to secretly observe a duel between the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Shrewsbury, James is alarmed. He has already come to the attention of the powerful Duke, and not in a good way. He has to do what Williamson asks, but he is observed and must flee for his life.

Cat Lovett has come to regret her marriage to the elderly Mr. Hakesby. As he has become less able, he has begun demeaning her and making demands of her. What she believed would be a marriage of just companionship has turned out not to be so, and she finds it distasteful.

When an old friend, Elizabeth Cromwell, the daughter of the last Protector, Richard, claims her acquaintance and behaves as if they were closer than they were, Cat eventually recognizes she is using her to get the plans for a building called the Cockpit from her husband. She also realizes that Richard Cromwell, who is supposed to be banished to Europe, is in the country. The Cromwells want the Hakesbys’ help to regain a personal possession, they say, but Cat thinks Hakesby is foolishly getting embroiled in treason.

The Last Protector is another fine entry in the James Marwood/Cat Lovett series set during the Restoration. It combines political intrigue with suspense in a realistic seeming historical setting.

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Review 2014: Something to Hide

Tani Bankole, a teenage boy of NIgerian descent, believes that his father, Abeola, has arranged a marriage for Simi, his eight-year-old sister. He begins making preparations to flee with her, because his mother, Monifa, seems totally subservient. Soon, though, he is horrified to realize that Simi is being prepared for female circumcision to “cleanse” her in preparation for marriage.

DS Teo Bontempi is found unconscious on the floor of her apartment after being bashed on the head and dies later in the hospital. When DCI Lynley and his team begin investigating, they find that her boss, DCI Mark Phinney, had her transferred shortly before, out of a project she loved, trying to shut down female genital mutilation in London. Phinney reports that she tended to do too much on her own instead of working with the team. But it soon comes out that he was having an affair with her. Phinney’s wife Pete is wholly subsumed with caring for their severely disabled daughter and is so afraid of having another child that she refuses sex, encouraging Phinney to look elsewhere. Only Phinney had fallen in love with Teo.

Teo also had a husband, although they were separated, who wanted to get back with her. He, Ross Carver, discovered her injured but acceded to her request to help her to bed instead of calling an ambulance. Teo’s sister Rose has her eye on Ross and has become pregnant by him during the separation.

These are the immediate suspects in the murder, but suspense is added when Tani flees with his sister from their abusive father.

Although as usual Linley is having romantic problems, this series continues to be really good. George takes her time getting to the crime, but the preceding background is necessary and interesting. Although the series went astray for several books after Linley’s wife Helen’s death, it has improved again with the last few books and is getting even better. We find out more about DS Winston Nkata’s home life in this one, too.

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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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