Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

In this house, for quite a long time now,  Anthony Horowitz has lived in a box labelled ‘A Great Author But Not For Me.’ I might have bought his books as gifts for younger relations, I might have considered his recent sequels of I ever finished reading Conan-Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories, but that was about it. Until I saw this book and I thought it could have been written for me!

It’s not going to be the easiest book to write about without giving too much away, but I have to try.

‘Magpie Murders’ is a wonderful pastiche of a golden age murder mystery, wrapped up in a contemporary mystery. Each one was a wonderfully engaging story and an intriguing puzzle; and the cleverness and originality of the connection between the two  made this book a joy to read.

The book begins in the present day.

Susan Ryeland works as editor for Cloverleaf Books, a small, independent publisher, that has stayed in business because it has one hugely successful author. Alan Conway is the author of the hugely successful  Golden-Age-style series featuring German detective Atticus Pünd.  Susan has never warmed to the author but she has always loved his books, she knows that a proposed BBC television adaptation will be very good for business, and so she is delighted when a new manuscript arrives and she can get to work.

The title of Alan Conway’s new work is ‘Magpie Murders’.

As soon as the situation in the present day has been established, the book turns into the manuscript that Susan has begun to read.3785646

She reads a story set in the 1950s, in the little English village of Saxby-on-Avon. One of the villagers, Mary Blakiston, has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs in Pye Hall, where she worked as a cleaner. It could easily have been an accident, she might have tripped over the cable of the vacuum cleaner at the top of those stairs, but somebody who wanted justice to be seen to be done called in Atticus Pünd has in to investigate.

This is the beginning of a wonderfully engaging mystery. There are a number of suspects, and they all seem to have something to hide or something that don’t want to talk about. There are events in the past to be uncovered and understood. There are a great many clues, many of which may well be read herrings. And there was an intriguing puzzle to be solved.

There were lovely echoes of real  Golden Age mysteries – especially those written by Agatha Christie – and that made this original story feel wonderfully familiar.

I knew it was a manuscript, I could see some things that needed tidying up, and that worked very well, reminding me that I was reading a manuscript but not detracting from the story I was reading.

Such clever writing!

The manuscript ends at the point in the story when Atticus Pünd has announced that he has the solution to the mystery but before he has explained or there has been a grand denouement. The final chapters are missing.

Back in the present day, Susan in perplexed.

When she learns that Alan Conway has died at his country home she realises that the circumstances of his death, believed to be suicide, might just be murder. She knows that she has to find those missing chapters; she wants to know how the story end, and she know that her professional future might depend on it.

As she searches Susan finds striking parallels between the fictional world of Saxby-on-Avon and world of its creator, Alan Conway; and she finds a great deal to help her understand the man himself rather better, and like him even less.

I loved this story too.

It gave me some lovely insights into the world of publishing; it helped me to place one or two points in the manuscript that had felt very familiar, and it was just as engaging and compelling as the story in that manuscript.

I know I’ve mentioned that links and the parallels between the two stories already, but I have to mention them again because they were so well thought out and so lovely to spot.

I spotted some of the clues and some of the red herrings; I suspect that I fell into one or two traps along that way; but I don’t mind at all because I had such a wonderful time watching the story unfold, and thinking how clever and how well executed everything was as the truth was gradually revealed.

There are so many interesting things woven into this book.

The author played fair – the clues were there – and while the story was clever and beautifully engineered it wasn’t that just for the sake of it. Everything was there for a reason, and I always had the sense that the author loved what he was doing and that her had read and loved many of the same books that I had.

If you pushed me I could find a few small niggles – I didn’t find Susan’s personal life 100% convincing; there was an aspect of the denouement of one of the stories that was a little overdone – but in the end that didn’t matter. Both stories were resolved beautifully, and as a whole the book worked wonderfully well.

I’m a little sorry that I’m not able to read more about Atticus Pünd’s past cases.

But two excellent, intertwined mysteries for the price of one really was an excellent deal!

The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison #1947Club

Naomi Mitchison lived a remarkable life. She was born into an aristocratic Scottish family; she studied at Oxford, but gave up her studies to become a VAD nurse; she married a Labour MP and became a campaigner for social justice; she travelled widely; and yet she still found the time to write poetry, three volumes of autobiography, and a wide range of novels.

the-1947-clubI picked up three of those novels, in green Virago editions, but they sat unread for quite some time; because they seemed so diverse – in size and in subject-matter – and there were so many other books on the Virago bookcase that called me more than they did.

But when I noticed that ‘The Bull Calves; was published in 1947 I decided that its time had come and that I would read it for The 1947 Club.

I am so pleased that I did; it was a big book, it required careful reading, and it was utterly absorbing!

Naomi Mitchison spent the Second World War in Carradale, Kintyre. She welcomed evacuees and refugees into her home,  she managed the farm, she organised the local Labour Party, she was involved with her local dramatic society, and she wrote a diary for Mass Observation, of more than a million words.

She also wrote this novel; beginning in the dark days of 1940 and working slowly and carefully because she knew that what she wanted to say was important. She wanted to write about the need for peace and reconciliation after war; and she did that in a story set early two hundred years earlier, in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745.

Her setting is Gleneagles House, home of the Haldane family, set on the southern side of Perthshire where the lowlands of Scotland give way to the Highlands. Over the course of a summer’s weekend in 1947 the family gather for the first time in many years; they have different feelings about what has happened, and different ideas about what should happen in the future. There is much to talk about and a great deal will happen over the course of that weekend.


At the centre is Kirstie Haldane, the daughter of a Whig family, who has married Jacobite William Macintosh of Borlum. Her brother have concerns about her choice of husband; his political views are quite different to theirs and they have heard stories about his past, about what might have happened in the years he spent in the Americas.

Kirstie has no such doubts. She tells her young niece, Catherine, about the difficult years she had to endure with her first husband, about how she coped during the uprising, and about how she finally met and married the right man. Catherine was fascinated, and so was I.

That leads Kirstie to tell her husband a little more about her past than she has before; she tells him about the time when she crossed paths with witches. He tells her about some of the difficult things he had to do in America, and husband and wife both feel that they have reached a better understanding.

Neither has told everything though, and they both face the prospect of their darkest secrets being revealed before the end of the gathering.

Meanwhile, younger members of the family are concealing a Jacobite rebel. Robert Strange was an engraver, and all he wanted was to travel south, to practice his craft, and to return to his beloved books. Catherine began to fall in love with him, and I did too.

When a message arrives, saying that the Lord President Duncan Forbes will visit the house as he travels south, they are worried. Can they keep their man hidden, or can they get him away on time?

Those are the bones of a story that is underpinned by a wealth of detail.

Naomi Mitchison writes beautifully of the house, the grounds and the surrounding countryside. I couldn’t doubt for a moment that it was a place she knew and loved.

The stories that her characters tell and the conversations that they have say a great deal about the history they lived through and the future that they saw for their country. Some question, and even consider repudiating, the Act of Union, but others believe that Scotland’s agriculture, trade, and relations with the rest of the world are stronger as a result of that Act.

It was helpful that I had some idea of the history and that I was familiar with the rhythm of Scottish speech; those two things ran right through the book,  I appreciated that the author did it very well, but it took a lot of concentration to keep track of everything, and I suspect that the significance of some things passed me by.

This books greatest strength is that it is a wonderful human drama. The characters were quite simply drawn, but I found it easy to warm to them, to understand their cares and concerns and to be drawn into their different stories.

I particularly appreciated the way the story showed the differences between generations who had lived through different periods of history and were at different stages of life; and how so much happened and so much changed over the course of a few days without the story feeling too contrived.

I have to admire the way that Naomi Mitchison reflected her concerns about the world she lived in, and the future it faced, in this historical family saga; and I know that a great deal of what she says is still relevant.

I loved the lengthy notes that she provided.

I can’t say that it is has become one of my favourite Virago Modern Classics,  or one of my favourite historical novels; it’s a little too serious, a little too detailed, and a rather lacking in humour or light relief for me to be able to say that.

But I can say that it is a very good book.

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson (1940)

I wasn’t at all sure how to explain how I felt about this book, until I thought of this:

“Imagine that you found an old battered box of books tucked away in an attic. The books had been tossed in, in a fairly haphazard way, and as you inspected them one by one you found that you had some absolute gems, some rather ordinary books, and some books that looked rather odd and that you wouldn’t be quite sure about until you had examined them much more closely. You would be bemused as to what sort of person would put away a selection of books like that, but you would be very curious to know more about them and what else they might have read. And, though you wouldn’t claim to have found the  best box of books ever,  you would be very glad that you did find it…”

I hope that makes some kind of sense.

Rachel Ferguson begins, conventionally enough you might think, by describing a house; it’s history and it’s inhabitants. Her writing though is anything but conventional. It comes in wonderfully complex, elaborate and discursive sentences; each one is a wonderful construction, loaded with facts and descriptions, inferences and opinions; and they come tumbling down one after another, in a way that feel entirely natural and right.

“There are denes, priories, castles and manors, in the rooms, galleries and grounds of which Catherine Howard still screams and Jane Grey had pricked her finger, Bloody Mary exclaimed ‘God’s death!’ Raleigh had smoked the first pipe of tobacco, Charles the Second hidden in an oak tree, someone else had signed something historic and damaging, Barbara Castelmaine had threatened to throw herself out of the window and Prince Arthur had actually done so; where the Queen of Scots had given away trinkets to faithful retainers and Wolsey had all of his taken from him. And there are English families with fairy banners and ‘lucks’ famed in ballads, and others of equally ancient lineage and no luck at all. One contingent still entertains the autumnal shooting party and is pictured in the papers filing like portly Sherlock Holmeses across the moors, while the second party emerges from posterns at sunset and hopefully pops away at rabbits for the larder on their own mortgaged estates.

And somewhere in England, in rating between the extremes of screaming queen and the pedigree’d pursuit of pot-luck stands Delaye, seat of the Roundelays, presently occupied by Sir Edmund Roundelay, his family and various collaterals.”

Others have written this way, but none of them that I have read have written in quite the way that Rachel Ferguson has here.  I believed that her voice rang true, I believed that she had a point of view, and I loved it. She gave everything such depth, and I came to know the house and the people who lived and worked there so well.

31671319The men of the house were Sir Edmund Roundelay, who hadn’t expected to inherit the estate and wasn’t entirely sure why he had been knighted; his son and heir, Stacey, who was temporarily exiled to learn estate management at agricultural college; and his cousin, Maxwell, who had some to stay when he left the army and his horrified mother decided not to come home.

The women were Evelyn, Lady Roundelay, who hadn’t expected to live in a country house and was rather taken by it; their two daughters, Margaret who was practical, and Angela, who was sensitive; three unmarried great-aunts, Miss Amethyst, Miss Sapphire and Miss Jessie, who had lived in the house all of their lives and continued to follow the customs that knew as young women; and Nursie who had a wonderful sense of her own importance and was clearly sliding into some kind of dementia.

There were some lovely digressions into the interests and concerns of that marvellously diverse band of characters.

But I couldn’t help feeling that this book was missing a plot.

When war broke out it seemed that the story was beginning. The Roundelays were horrified that they might have to take evacuees into their home and did their level best to escape responsibility; they were not amused by the call for blackouts, and considered it wholly unreasonable that they should have to find materials to cover their windows themselves; they went just as appalled to find that they were expected to travel to the nearby village of Rohan to have gasmasks fitted; and they really didn’t understand why the butcher could not provide meat for their table,

Evelyn’s sister set letters from London, telling her what was happening, and what she was doing for the war effort, but still they didn’t understand. They were oblivious, completely failing to appreciate why the country was at war, what others might be going through, and why it might be incumbent on them to play any part.

The satire was biting.

But the portrayal of the household staff and the residents of Rohan made it clear that the gentry was not the author’s only target. She indicated, rather more gently, that the people around them were happy with – or at least accepted – the status quo, and expected it to continue.

There is also the matter of the running footman and the peacock to consider.

I had a idea of what a running footman was. A superior kind of errand boy I thought, but I was wrong. The job was much more onerous.

“… to footslog over hill, over dale, through bush, through briar, herald and warning to the approaching town or hamlet or to any pedestrian that the coach of his master was imminent, and that a way for it must instantly be cleared. Hardly human, the running footman was more in the nature of a social gesture to the world at large, an earnest of the importance of the family he served, a panting castemark. Without change of linen at the end of a heating run in all weathers, including winter’s snows, the running footman must wait for hours in the kitchen, steaming in front of the open hearth, before word was brought him via a chain of house servants, that his family above-stairs had concluded its visit. He then took staff and nerved himself for the return footslogging. Oh yes, these fellows, poor devils, died off like flies of consumption—the local graveyards were known to be peppered with them. Pay? Oh, five pounds a year, livery and all found. And, oh yes, it might interest Sir Edmund’s visitors to know that the staff borne by these footmen possessed a metal cap at the tip in which was placed one hard boiled egg to sustain them during the runs …”

Might the peacock that stalked the grounds be a reincarnation of a running footman named Thomas Peacock who had died in the house? Might the bird’s attachment to housemaid Sue Privett have something to do with another member of her family who was a housemaid when Thomas Peacock was the running footman?

Angela thought so, and events might prove her right.

I loved this fanciful and illuminating aspect of the story; but, other than illustrating that the Roundelays had always been unthinkingly cruel, it didn’t really sit naturally with the rest of the book.

That was my problem with this book. The whole was less than the sum of the parts, because the parts didn’t work together as well as they might have.

There were moments of brilliance, but there were also some quiet spells when I couldn’t help thinking that this book needed an editor with a very firm hand.

I’m delighted that I read it though, because I found so much to love: wonderful and distinctive writing, masses of lovely details, and characters, incidents and opinions that struck me in so many different ways.

And because I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like it.

The Story of a Literary Knit

It began with the perfect skein of yarn.

It had wonderful provenance – it was Daisy Sock by Posh Yarn – 80% merino and 20% bamboo; it was named ‘Promenade’ – and I live on The Promenade; and because I saw a colour in the mix that was the best colour match I had ever seen for my collection of Virago Modern Classics.

I placed my order, and when it arrived it was just as lovely as I hoped. I had to rest it on that bookcase, and there it sat for a very log time. Partly because it has become part of the scenery and partly because I was never quite sure what I should do with it.


A month or so ago I was inspired by a knit-along. Picture This invited knitters to draw inspiration, in any for they chose, from a painting or a photograph or of any kind of image at all.

I’d been thinking along those sort of lines ever since I made my Nut Hap, and I have some big plans, but, because I have a sweater in progress that I really want to wear soon, I knew that this was time to keep things simple.

That skein caught my eye, and so I decided that the Virago bookcase would be my image, and that as I was in the middle of reading Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Pilgrimage’ I would knit her a shawl!

The pattern that I thought would suit her – and me – was Simmer Dim by Gudrun Johnson. It’s interesting without being obvious, feminine without being girly, and just a little bit different to the norm.

I love the traditional Shetland construction – the pattern begins with a garter stitch triangle, with yarn-overs at the end of each row to make the triangle grow and to create loops that you pick up after casting off your triangle, to knit the rest of your shawl outwards.


It was lovely, mindless knitting, and my triangle was wonderfully stretchy. There really is something about garter stitch!

The next phase had bands of garter stitch and bands of stocking stitch, with lots of increases along the way, and changes of needle size that make the knitting look like rather more that it actually was.

The pattern was very well written. I don’t do this kind of knitting often, and I did find that  had the wrong number of stitches at one point, but it was easy to out things right and all was well at the end of the section.

The phase that came next was zig-zag lace. It was so simple, but I forgot what I was doing when the increases changed direction and went horrible wrong. It was my fault entirely – lack of concentration – so I went back and did it again and it came out perfectly.

All I had left was a picot bind-off. It was simple, it was effective, but it took ages.

Then I had a crumpled heap of knitting!


I wasn’t worried – I know that’s what you get when you knit on needles that are a little too big for it.

When I draped the shawl over the bookcase I was very pleased with it, and I was sure that it would grow beautifully when I blocked it.


I am so glad that I bought some blocking wires, and that I just had to run them through, measure and pin them in place. I can’t say that it was quick, but it was definitely quicker than pinning out each picot.

Here’s the finished shawl, draped over the inspirational bookcase.


I can say that I like it, but I can’t quite say that I love it.

I think that the pattern and the yarn are mismatched. My yarn was very smooth, and I think a yarn with a little halo would help the increases to blend into the knitting a little more. And, because the yarn is very unforgiving, I can see a few little mistakes. Not things that many people would spot, but another knitter might, and I know they’re there.

(I knitted this same pattern years ago, in a yarn with a little mohair, and I love that version.)

More worryingly, the yarn snapped in a couple of places after blocking. I wasn’t that I over-stretched it. I was carful but it was my fault.

I really should have known better than to keep yarn in a room with an Aga for a long period of time, and, though there was nothing obviously amiss when I knitted, I wasn’t as lovely as I had thought it might be, and I think that it must have dried out rather more than was good for it.

I was able to repair the damage, but I realised that this probably wasn’t going to be a shawl for wearing.

Lesson learned!

I’m going to drape my new shawl over the bookcase.

I’ll think that I could unravel and re-knit it one day. But I probably won’t.

I’m glad that I finally knitted that skein; and, though it wasn’t quite what I planned, I rather like that it still adorns the Virago bookcase.

My sweater is progressing nicely.

And I have another literary knit in mind, but that’a another story for another day.

The Bookish Time Travel Tag

antique_mechanical_clockIt’s a long time since I’ve done anything like this, but englishlitgeek was kind enough to tag me, I loved the theme and the questions that  The Library Lizard set out in the world, and so I decided that it was time.

* * * * * * *

What is your favourite historical setting for a book?

Oh my goodness, it is so difficult – almost impossible – for me to pick a setting; because as long as I’ve been reading the most magical thing about books is that they can take me to so many different places and so many times in history.

There is one setting though that has an extra special magic, and I love those authors who have set stories close to my Cornish home and had me believing that the people they wrote about really lived and the stories they told really played out.

I loved the familiar train journey down through the county that John Trevena caught in well in ‘A Pixy in Petticoats’.

I’ve sat on top of a hill near St Just and placed character and events in ‘Penmarric’ by Susan Howatch in places I could see.

I’ve wondered which town centre pubs were visited in ‘The Owl House’ by Crosbie Garstin – The Star, I suspect.

I loved that the title character  in ‘Ruan’ by Bryher walked across the same beach that my dog loves ….


* * * * * * *

What writer/s would you like to travel back in time to meet?

I’m a little wary of meeting authors, because I’m shy and would be overwhelmed by some of them, because I can see that some of them valued their privacy and I want to respect that, and because in same cases books are better when you don’t know too much about the author.

But I can think of a few, and I’ve planned a day out with three of my favourite 20th century English lady writers.

I’d spend the morning walking along the River Dart with Agatha Christie. I love the countryside there, and I’ve always admired her riverside home. I’d love to talk to her about books – her own and others she admires – and everything I’ve read about her suggests that we have similar values and would get on well.

I’d call on Margery Sharp in the afternoon. She always looks so at ease in photographs taken in domestic settings, and I so want to tell her how much I love her books. I’d like to ask her what might have happened to Cluny Brown after the surprise ending of the book that bears her name, and I’d hope that she might have a copy of ‘Rhododendron Pie’ – a book that is very scarce and horribly expensive – that I might borrow.


In the evening I’d go to a dinner party with G B Stern. Her gloriously discursive memoirs have told me that she had an extraordinary circle of friends, that she had wide ranging interests – many of which I share – and that she would be a wonderfully entertaining companion.

* * * * * * *

What book/s would you travel back in time and give to your younger self?

There are two kinds of books that I would take. There are books that I’ve read recently and suspect I would have liked even more when I was a little younger; Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels come to mind. There are books by prolific authors I would have liked to have made a start on earlier; authors like Anthony Trollope and Patricia Wentworth.



But I would leave all of those books here in the present of I could just give my younger self some advice; that there are so many great books in the world already, as well as books still to be written and rediscovered, so there’s no need to read anything that isn’t wonderful; that many of the long, classic novels that look like hard work are nothing of the kind; and that the green Virago Modern Classics that she will see on a display in her university bookshop would be excellent investments ….

* * * * * * *

What book/s would you travel forward in time and give to your older self?

I’m not sure that I’d take anything. I’m filling the house with books and I think I have to trust my older self to make her own choices, because I really don’t know how life will change her and influence what she wants to read between now and then.


* * * * * * *

What is your favourite futuristic setting from a book?

I really can’t think of one – the books I read all seem to be set in the present or the past.

* * * * * * *

What is your favourite book that is set in a different time period (can be historical or futuristic)?

I can never pick a single book, and I could give you umpteen titles, but these were the first five must-mention books that I haven’t mentioned already:


The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
South Riding by Winifred Holtby
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

* * * * * * *

Spoiler Time: Do you ever skip ahead to the end of a book just to see what happens?

Never! I learned my lesson a long time ago when I looked to see how many pages were left in a particular book and saw something that ruined the rest of the story.

* * * * * * *

If you had a Time Turner, where would you go and what would you do?

I’d go here, there and everywhere!

I’d go to Ireland and visit Delia Scully and her lovely gran.
(‘Never No More’ by Maura Laverty)

I’d go to Venice and have my portrait painted by Cecilia Cornaro.
(‘Carnevale’ by Michelle Lovric)

I’d go to Edwardian London to walk, talk and argue with Miriam Henderson.
(‘Pilgrimage’ by Dorothy Richardson)


I’d travel north, to Yorkshire, to see a very special garden with my own eyes.
(‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson-Burnett)

I’d love to spend some time exploring Castle Gormenghast.
(‘The Gormenghast Trilogy’ by Mervyn Peake)

I’d board a certain boat, and travel to America with Adeliza Golding.
(‘The Visitors’ by Rebecca Mascull)

I’d settle in Canada for a while, and try to be a good friend and neighbour to Sophie Forrester while her husband is away.
(‘To the Bright Edge of the World’ by Eowyn Ivey)

And when I grew weary of travelling I would visit the library at Hurfew and read and read and read ….
(Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clark)


* * * * * * *

Favourite book (if you have one) that includes time travel or takes place in multiple time periods?

“Lying awake at night, Tom hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . thirteen . . . Thirteen! When Tom gets up to investigate, he discovers a magical garden. A garden that everyone told him doesn’t exist. A garden that only he can enter . . .”

I fell in love with ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce when I was very, very young.

* * * * * * *

What book/series do you wish you could go back and read again for the first time?

This is a wish I make often about beloved books. The book where it would make the most difference is ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ by Agatha Christie, because I would love to read it again without knowing its clever twist.


* * * * * * *

I don’t want to push anyone to do anything they don’t want to do, but I will mention some names of others who might be interested and whose answers I’d love to read:

Jessica @ The Bookworm Chronicles

Cirtnecce @ Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices

Helen @ She Reads Novels

Sandra @ A Corner of Cornwall

Lori @ The Emerald City Book Review

Answering those questions pulled some lovely books and ideas from the back of my mind, so please, even if I haven’t mentioned you, do go ahead and answer some or all of them.

Dawn’s Left Hand by Dorothy Richardson (1931)

The tenth of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’ – picks up the story of Miriam Henderson exactly where the ninth ended. She is on a train, travelling home, after a two week holiday in Switzerland.

She is happy and confident throughout that journey; but when she arrives back in London it seems that little had changed. She is still working at Mr Hancock’s dental practice; and she is still sharing a room with Miss Selina Hastings,back on friendly terms, or at least having reached an accommodation, after their relationship seemed have reached breaking-point at the end of the book before last.

Things are happening though, and things will change.

20160106_193046Much of this book follows Miriam as he encounters and she thinks about many of the people who have passed through her life. It might have been a test to see how much I remembered. She visited Dr Densley, who had become a suitor after that met when Miss Eleanor Dear was his patient. There were aspects of the life of a doctor’s wife that appealed to Miriam, but whem her thoughts suddenly shifted it was clear that she did not see her future there. Miss Dear herself had died. The Brooms, who Miriam came to know at her second teaching post, who she had visited often, were still in her life; as was Sissie Bailey, her former landlady who I am sure hadn’t been mentioned since Miriam, for reasons that were never made clear, left her boarding house.

What was telling was what wasn’t mentioned. The setting – London – had always been at the centre of Miriam’s thoughts, but now it seemed to be taken for granted. Maybe that, maybe the tour of friends and acquaintances was suggesting that Miriam was preparing to move, to change her life.

Michael Shatov was also absent, probably because two other relationships were central to this part of Miriam’s story.

When she was in Oberland Miriam had know that, back in London, Hyppo Wilson was waiting for her to make a decision. It was unsaid, but it was clear what that meant, and when she came home to a letter professing love any element of doubt was gone. The relationship was consummated. Miriam had felt no physical attraction, but otherwise her feelings remained opaque.

The pattern of the relationship was so familiar though; an intellectual bond, pushed into something else by a male who had to be dominant, not realising that he might be changing everything …

Meanwhile, Miriam was being pursued by a bright young woman – who even went into her room to write ‘I love you’ on her mirror. She was intrigued, she was flattered, but she was unsure of what it might all mean.

All of these different things came together to make a book that felt rather muddled and messy. There was much to hold the interest; but there was a lack of shape to this chapter of Miriam’s story, and that bothered me. It didn’t help that the steam of consciousness often seemed more random and less penetrable than it had before.

The last chapter went some way to redeeming things.

Miriam was spending a weekend at the country home of Hyppo and Alma Wilson. It was clear that Alma was either blind to the relationship between her husband and her friend, or that she was choosing to ignore it. Her brightness suggested the latter, and that she knew her husband’s foibles and understood and would maintain her position. That helped Miriam to understand her own position, and time and space in the country allowed her to think over may things.

She knew at heart that she was just a passing fancy for her young lady admirer. She thought about her sister Eve, who had written to he urging her to break with Hyppo Wilson; I was so pleased that Miriam who often failed to appreciate her sisters came to appreciate that. She thought of her sister Harriet, who had emigrated to Canada and who seemed to be making a success of her new life. Maybe that gave her food for thought.

Certainly she loved being in the country, and there was some lovely prose.

There were some rather odd passages, but I think that was when Miriam fell ill and so I am going to overlook them. I’ve learned that I have to do that sometimes, otherwise I would be completely bogged down, trying to understand things that Dorothy Richardson – through Miriam’s sub-conscious – will never make clear.

Over the course of the book it became clear that Miriam had matured, that she had a greater sense of who she was as a woman, in relationships and in the world,

And at the end it was clear that she had gained understanding, maybe made some decisions; because she seemed happier and more purposeful than she had for some time.

I do hope that will herald a new direction, that the next book will show that she has made decisions and is going to act upon them.

Miriam Henderson and Dorothy Richardson can both be infuriating; but they can also be inspiring, and ‘Pilgrimage’ is like nothing else I have ever read.

I’ll be glad to reach the end, but when I reach the end I want to read more about Dorothy Richardson and understand how she drew on life, how she came to write as she did, and why she chose to devote as much of her life as she could to writing about one woman’s consciousness.

The next book – a very short book – is already in my sights

The Draycott Murder Mystery: A Golden Age Mystery by Molly Thynne (1928)

The first of Molly Thynne’s six detectives novels – which have just been sent out into the world again, after being lost for many years  – opens with a wonderfully painted scene.

On a stormy night in late winter a young gentleman farmer arrived home, after a wasted journey, to find his front door swinging wide open. When he goes through that doorway he finds a young woman he has never set eyes on before, dressed in evening wear, sitting at his writing desk, and shot dead in the act of writing a letter.

All of his neighbours believe that scene played out exactly as he said it did, but the police are think otherwise.

He is arrested, and tried for murder.

Because the murder weapon was the shotgun that he kept in his bedside table. Because he had no alibi, and his account of how he had spent his time that day seemed rather improbable. And because it was very easy to build a scenario that had him in the role of murderer.

The evidence was circumstantial but it was compelling.

31812958It was fortunate that there were people who believed that the man on trial was innocent, and were willing to do whatever they could to help his cause. There washis fiancée, a lovely girl, who had complete faith in him; there was a local lawyer who was ready to act, even though his beloved wife was in poor very health; and there was a gentleman who had just returned from colonial service and was ready to take the lead in an investigation of their own.

They found new suspects. The victim had a very proper sister who disapproved of her behaviour. The local doctor’s unusual reaction when he was called to the scene did not pass unnoticed. And a tramp who was sheltering near the farm might have seem something or might have done something.

Where would they find the answers they sought? In the past? In the dead woman’s character?

Why did she go to the farm? How did she get there, in evening slippers on a stormy night?

What really happened?

Could the answer be found – and could the case be made – in time?

This plot plays out beautifully. It was cleverly structured, it was well paced, and it really was intriguing. My suspicions kept shifting, and I never could quite make up my mind

There are familiar elements to the mystery, but as a whole it feels original; it is firmly rooted in the golden age but I saw the influence of an earlier generation of sensation novelists at play as well as the influence of more famous crime writers who were Molly Thynne’s peers.

Some of those peers may have written more complex, more sophisticated, mysteries; but I can’t think of one who wrote a more engaging human drama.

The characters involved in this story were so real, so natural, so believable, that I couldn’t help being drawn in and their concerns became mine.

That took time, and in the early chapters of this book I didn’t think I would like this book as much as I did.

It isn’t that it’s perfect. There were some startling coincidences. There were some points that could have been made with a little more subtlety. And there was a clear lack of understanding of medical science.

But I have to say that this was an engaging story and that it was very well told.

I had a lovely time forming theories. Some were underpinned by the facts that were emerging and some were inspired by my wishes for particular characters.

The conclusion caught me by surprise. I think that it was right, I think that it was inevitable, but it broke my heart in a way that few golden age crime novels ever have.

An afterword tied up the loose ends.

And left me eager to read the rest of Molly Thynne’s work.

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)

When I saw that the 100th anniversary of Mary Stewart’s birth fell last weekend I knew that it was time for me to read another of her books.

I had always liked the look of  ‘Airs Above the Ground’, and so off the shelf it came.

The story is set up beautifully.

Vanessa March is shocked to see her husband on a newsreel item about a circus fire in Austria, because she had believed him to be in Sweden on business. An old family friend saw the same newsreel and called Vanessa, asking her to escort her young relation – Timothy Lacey – to Vienna to visit his father. Vanessa hadn’t quite decided what to do, she was a little annoyed by the lady’s assumptions, but she seized the opportunity; because she really did want to find her husband and understand what  was going on.


In Austria, seventeen year-old Tim admitted that his father wasn’t expecting him – that was only a story for his grandmother – and that what he really wanted was to see the country and to visit The Spanish Riding School in Vienna. And so he and Vanessa formed a plan to find the circus, to reunite Vanessa and her husband, and then to have a wonderful holiday.

Things don’t go entirely to plan.

They are caught in a web of intrigue that has been spun around the circus. And – in particular – around an old piebald horse.

This is a classic Mary Stewart story of romance and suspense; with all of the elements you might expect and with enough to make it feel a little different to her other books.

Vanessa was bright, capable and resourceful young woman, and I found it very easy to like her and to understand her feelings and her actions. I was sorry though that she had put her career as a vet (which was integral to the story) to one side to be a housewife, and that when her husband appeared she was rather too ready to put all of her trust in him. It was a nice change, having a married leading lady, and I liked her relationship with her husband, but I didn’t see enough of him to understand why she had married him.

Her relationship with Tim was much more interesting; an initial wariness grew into friendship, and they became a wonderful team. I suspected that they were only children who were discovering that it would be rather nice to have a sibling.

The settings were beautifully evoked and described: I loved visiting the countryside, the circus, the mountains, the villages and a wonderful gothic castle.

stewart-mary_airsabovetheground_hcThere were some wonderful moments. My favourites were the time in a meadow when Vanessa made a wonderful discovery about that old piebald house; and a dramatic chase around the battlements of the castle.

But I have to say that I don’t think this is Mary Stewart’s best book, and that this story didn’t hold me as it should have.

Some of that was down to me.

This might not have been the right book at the right time, and I might have enjoyed this book more when I was younger.

But some of it was down to the book.

Having a married heroine was a lovely variation on a theme, but it diminished the romance and the suspense, and there wasn’t enough in the rest of the story to make up for that.

The pacing was uneven, with the story slow to start and over-filled with action in the later stages; there was one sequence in particular where Vanessa and Tim did not belong. I can’t say more than that without revealing too much of the plot.

And, though the story of the old piebald house was very well done, there was much less of horses and of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna that I had expected.

None of these flaws were fatal though. I found much to enjoy, and I was always going to follow the story to the end.

Mary Stewart is still a favourite author; and I’m hoping that this was a wobble rather that a sign that I’ve outgrown her books.

Do you like her writing? Do you have favourites among her books?

Tell it to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge (1947)

This book sat on a shelf for such a long time, until a week or so ago, when I realised that it was months since I had read a short story or a Persephone book, and I picked it up.

I had high hopes, because I had stumbled across Elizabeth Berridge’s final novel a few years ago and I had been impressed by it. I suspected that it wasn’t the work of an author at the height of her powers, but I saw things that told me that I had found an author who could write with wonderful insight and clarity, and I found moments that suggested that she was very special indeed.

This collection of stories, published when the author was in her late twenties, lived up to those hopes.

They speak lucidly of human lives and relationships during and just after the war; and of our failure to speak of the things that are really important to us.

The first story – ‘Snowstorm’ – was so striking.

A woman doctor looks on as a group of expectant mothers arrives at a nursing home.

“As she looked the doors of the charabanc opened and the women dropped heavily, one by one, on to the snow-buried gravel. For a moment she was reminded of the blundering honey-bees of summer, over-weighted with pollen. But the moment passed as they clustered together before the house, gazing about, their faces cold, movements distrustful. She counted them.”

It is business as usual; but one of those women is different. Her situation is irregular and she is dignified and undemonstrative; she fails to do the things and to express the feelings expected of her. That disturbs her doctor, and she begins to question her vocation.

The writing was perfectly controlled, and the skill of the author drew me right in and made me think so much of the situation of each woman.

That control, that skill, and an extraordinary clarity made every story fascinating.

It was the clarity that really struck me; I can only compare it to the feeling you have when you have new glasses and you see the world just that little more clearly than you did through the old pair.

The stories sit well together, but they are wonderfully diverse.

‘Lullaby’ is another story of motherhood, and it is so short that it would spoil it to write of any specifics at all; but I must say that shows that the author had a wonderful range, and was able to manage suspense and leave her reader a little shaken.

There are more stories of motherhood, and there are stories that show the differences between the generations.

The most striking of these is ‘Subject for a Sermon’.

A young man who has come home on embarkation leave finds that his mother has no time for him; because she is so caught up in her role as lady of the manor, leading the community in doing everything possible to win the war, that she has failed to understand what the war means for him.

The story illuminates the differing viewpoints of their two generations. She is so very sure of her place in the world, and has no doubt that the war will be won and nothing will change; while he, facing the very real prospect of going to war and fighting, is sure that the future will be very different.

They cannot – will not – find common ground.

There is a touch of social comedy, but there is much more poignancy.

I could say the same for the title story.

Mrs Hatfield, who has returned to her London home to find it ransacked, rehearses how she will tell her story when she returns to the seaside guest house where she and others have lodged in the hope of escaping the impact of the war.

“She had something to tell this time. Here was real news, directly touching her, every person at Belvedere. The war had at last affected them personally; they were no longer grouped outside it, they shared in the general lawlessness. Lack of respect for property. What are we coming to? Police finishing off the whiskey, wouldn’t be surprised if – and so it would grow and, filling more than an evening, filling the days, recreating their lives, and more important, affirming their belief in the past.”

Her story will not play out as she expects.

There are many stories that speak of how we deal with loss.

I was touched by ‘The Prisoner’ the story of a woman who is alone and grieving and who is at first disturbed but later concerned for a group of German POWs working in the area. When one young man is sent to her house on an errand a tentative friendship grows between two lonely souls.

‘The Notebook’ tells a very different story, of a widow who must cope with being alone and with being the guardian of her husband’s legacy. That takes her life in an unexpected direction, and brings her some small comfort. I felt for her when her first instinct was to hide away, and I was pleased to be able to follow her progress.


(Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition)

I could go on writing about specifics, about different aspects of different stories, but it would probably be better to say that you really should read them.

Each one has its own distinctive character. Each one is well written and beautifully judged, with a wonderful awareness of the different aspects of each tale. There are some lovely turns of phrase, there is often a hint of subversion, and there was almost always an unexpected twist or a sting in the tale.

There is also an occasional burst of an entirely justifiable anger.

“What would she do, what would the people like her do, once they realised that their lives were indeed their own? Had she, had they, the courage to take them up and see?”

That such a young author showed such understanding of the people and the world around her, and distilled that into such exquisite and distinctive stories, is quite extraordinary.

There is just one more story that I really must mention.

‘Woman About The House’ tells the story of a man who is a disappointment to his wife and her family, having failed to proved for her as they would have liked and having failed to even find a steady job. He was a disappointment to himself too, but he stirred himself to set out to try to secure a job he had heard about. He got the job, he found lodgings nearby, and he began to build a better life for himself. When he went home his wife was gone, but he didn’t lose heart, he continued to plan for the future.

It’s an odd little story, but it speaks profoundly. It speaks about how poverty can be a trap, about how employment brings self-esteem, and about how just one chance can create the momentum to transform a life.

That story still resonated.

It really should be required reading for people in power.