Miss Carter and the Ifrit by Susan Alice Kerby (1945)

I read this book slowly for the very best of reasons – I was so taken with two very different characters, with the relationship that grew between them and with the story that played out, that I just had to stop at the end of each chapter to think about what I had read, about what it might mean, and to smile.

The story opens in London, late in World War II.

Miss Georgina Carter is an intelligent single woman, closer to fifty than forty, who works in the censor’s office. She is looking forward to a pleasant evening in her own home, as has something that in wartime is a rare treat – a fresh egg that was a gift from her friend and colleague Miss Margaret Mackenzie. She also has a knitting project close to completion, she has a new biography of Lady Hester Stanhope that she was looking forward to reading, and she has procured some old wooden road blocks that she knew would produce a lovely, warm fire.

Abu Shiháb is an Ifrit; one of a race that once lay somewhere between angels and men, but was doomed after using its powers for evil ends many centuries earlier. This particular Ifrit had been trapped inside a tree for most of that time, until the tree was felled and made into road bricks, after which he was trapped in one of them.

When Miss Carter puts a match to her fire there is an explosion, and she thinks that a bomb has fallen. In fact she has released the Ifrit, who is delighted to be free and explains that he is now her devoted and grateful slave. At first she thinks that he is a housebreaker or an escaped lunatic, but a small demonstration of his powers, his explanations, the evidence of her senses – and maybe the books that she has read over the years – led her to accept this extraordinary situation.

Well, perhaps this was all a dream. Perhaps she was insane. Perhaps even she was dead and wandering in that strange limbo of those half-forgotten things that one had always desired and never achieved. But—and she made up her mind suddenly and firmly—but this present situation she would accept … and enjoy it, as far as possible. That was perhaps not sensible, but sense be hanged, it was at least interesting!

She decides that Abu Shiháb must have a new name, more appropriate to the age and the place, and so, after careful thought as to would suit him best, he becomes Joe Carter. He is delighted with his new name, especially with being granted that use of Miss Carter’s family name, which he considers the greatest of honours.

Joe’s conjuring up of banquets and home comforts, after years of war-time deprivation, is a delight for Georgina  and though she feels she should share her bounty she soon realises that she can’t do that, or deploy Joe’s other talents, to help others or to help the war effort, without being dismissed as a mad spinster who has been on her own for much too long.

All of this might make an Ifrit sound rather like a Genie, but though they have things in common they are actually quite different, and to mistake one for the other is likely to cause offence. An Ifrit has much more substance, and though he has skills he is not all-knowing, but is willing to study and learn. Joe was captivated by many things in the world he was freed into, and his interest, his comments and his questions allowed Georgina to see the world differently.

She found him books to answer some of the questions that she couldn’t answer, and he loved that; but she realised that some of the questions that he had aired really were unanswerable.

His enthusiasm was unbounded, but that cause Miss Carter one or two problems and, wonderful though his skills were, they belonged to a different age and in need of some updating. But that enthusiasm, and Joe’s great determination to change Georgina’s life for the better would transform both of their lives ….

The characterisation of the pair was brilliant. They came to life on the page; and I loved watching their relationship develop, I loved their dialogues, I loved following their adventures together.

Susan Alice Kerby had the knack of using the fantastical to enhance and enrich a story set in the real world, rather than writing a fantasy, in the same was that Edith Olivier did in ‘The Love Child’ and Sylvia Townsend Warner did in ‘Lolly Willows’. This story might not be as deep as those, but it has other attributes that make it a joy to read.

This is a wonderful example of the art of the story-teller; and I could see that the teller of this tale had attended to every detail of plot, of character, of setting; that she loves all of that and she could make her readers feel that same love.

When I read these words ….

Georgina was recovered from her cold by the weekend, which with Joe’s assistance she spent in Penzance, where the weather was kind and really did her good.

…. I immediately thought that they probably stayed at the Queens Hotel, that they probably walked on the Promenade, and that maybe my mother – who would have been ten or eleven at the time – saw them when she was walking her dog or heading to the beach with her friends.

I wanted to keep turning the pages, I wanted to linger and think, and I appreciated a resolution that was a proper ending but also made me wonder what might happen next.

I had high hopes for this book, as I share a name with its heroine, as it has been likened to books by many authors I love, and as even without that I loved the sound of it. Books don’t always live up to expectations like that but this one did.

Silence in Court by Patricia Wentworth (1945)

I hadn’t investigated a mystery with Miss Silver for ages, I was thinking that it was time I did, but I was wonderfully distracted when I learned that lots of her other books were being sent back out into the world.

More mysteries! I had to investigate!

An excellent introduction told me a little more about Patricia Wentworth, and it told me that she wrote standalone mysteries, that some of them had recurring characters, and that one or two of those characters appeared in Miss Silver stories too.

I was intrigued.

This story stands alone, and it is set in London, in the later years of the war.

“She was so rigidly controlled as she came into the dock that she wasn’t Carey Silence any more, or a girl, or young, but just a will to walk straight and seemly, to hold a proud head high, to bar sight and hearing against all these people who had come to see her tried for her life. There was a moment when the grip she had on herself wavered giddily ….”

Carey Silence was entering the dock on the first day of her trial for the murder of Honoria Maquisten, her grandmother’s cousin and dearest friend. She was scared, she knew the case against her was compelling, and she really didn’t understand how that could be.

Her fear was palpable.

I was drawn in and I was made to care straight away; because Patricia Wentworth was such a good storyteller and so good at creating engaging, likeable and believable characters.

After a first chapter in court the story went back in time, to explain how Carey came to be there.

She had gone to stay with Honoria when she left hospital, after being bombed and left jobless and homeless. They hadn’t met before, because Carey’s grandmother had died when she was very young and there had been family estrangements, but Honoria took to her newly discovered young relation straight away. It seemed that she was just like her grandmother!

Honaria was elderly and frail, but she was undoubtedly head of her household; she had always been – she would always be – formidable and flamboyant.

“What was the good of saying that Cousin Honoria was like the Queen of Sheba and leaving it at that? The Queen of Sheba didn’t wear a vermilion wig dressed about a foot high in several thousand curls.”

She had brought a number of younger relations into her home. There was her nephew Dennis, an RAF pilot who had been invalided out of the War. There was her niece Nora, who had a husband in the Far East and who was employed as the driver of a senior military man. There was another niece, Honor, who packed parcels for POWs and was much less welcoming to Carey than her two cousins. And there was another nephew, Robert, who didn’t live there but visited often.

30075219Honoria kept them all in her thrall, by calling her solicitor in on  regular basis so that she could revise her will ….

It was clear that Carey was a favourite, and that she would be gaining from the revisions.

One day a letter was delivered by hand, and when Honoria read it she was furious and she insisted that her solicitor be sent for immediately. He was away? Then his clerk must come instead! One of the beneficiaries of her will – she didn’t say who, she didn’t give anything away – was to be written out.

But before Honoria could sign that new will she was dead – from an overdose of her regular sleeping draft.

Carey was arrested, because she had fetched the sleeping draft and handed it to Honoria; because there were suggestions that she was going to be written out of the will, because Honoria had discovered more about her new-found relation; and because witness statements – from a long-serving maid and a terribly professional nurse – suggested that she was the only person who had the chance to doctor the sleeping draft.

She had been welcomed into the family, but now she was cast out.

Luckily Carey had one person on her side. Jeff, her American beau, had been away on business but he came back to London as soon as he head what had happened, he made sure that she had a excellent barrister, and he made sure that everything that could be done to find out the truth of the matter was done.

Carey had often found him infuriating, but he proved his worth. Though maybe she was too distracted to appreciate that ….

The second half of the book told the same story as the first half; but as a courtroom drama. It could have been repetitive, but I loved seeing the different characters take the stand to give their own accounts, and going over events again gave me a wonderful opportunity to try to work out what had happened.

I wondered for a while if Carey was unreliable – after all, even murderers can be afraid – but I ruled that out quite quickly. That wasn’t Patricia Wentworth’s way, and Carey was far too likeable. I wondered if a certain character was being particularly duplicitous, but I ruled that out too because of his reactions to certain things. And because the real solution was quite obvious.

This wasn’t the most mysterious – or the most complicated – of mysteries, but the plot was well thought out. There were a few little contrivances, but nothing unreasonable. I read a lovely period piece, an engaging human drama, and a wonderfully readable book.

I saw echoes of other books, but the story as a whole was distinctive – and distinctively Patricia Wentworth.

The characters were very well done, the period setting was just as good, and I think the details of clothes and the like were done as well as Patricia Wentworth always does them, but I was too dazzled by Honoria’s flamboyant style and fabulous collection jewels to take as much notice of other, similar things as I might.

I can say definitively that there was no knitting and nobody went anywhere near the edge of a cliff; that is clearly Miss Silver’s domain. She could have stepped into this book, she and Carey would have got on so well, but the story didn’t need her and I didn’t miss her too much.

But I am looking forward to meeting her again.

I have lots more Miss Silver books to read, and now I have a stack of Patricia Wentworth’s other books to investigate.

Trouble on the Thames by Victor Bridges (1945)

‘Trouble on the Thames’ is a wonderfully engaging human drama, laced with intrigue and suspense, and set in London just before the war. It was a time when many realised that war with Germany; and when some thought that would be a war that Britain couldn’t win.

Trouble on the ThamesOwen Bradwell was a young naval officer who had just come home after service abroad. He feared that his career was over, because it had been discovered that he was colourblind; but it seemed that the navy thought well of him, because he was offered a special mission. He was ask to carry out surveillance on Mark Craig, who was believed to be a Nazi Agent. He could set himself up as a fisherman near Craig’s house on the Thames, as he had been abroad there was no chance that Craig would recognise him, and he should be able to pick up a lot of useful information. He hoped that he would be able to uncover the kind of evidence that would lead to a criminal conviction.

Sally Deane was an interior decorator, running a successful business on the Kings Road with her friend, Ruth Barlow. Her sister came to her with a problem. She was engaged to a rising politician, but she was being blackmailed with a very indiscreet letter that she had written to a former lover. Sally had promised her mother, just before she died, that she would always look after her sister; and so she set off – in her sister’s place – to confront the blackmailer.

Mark Craig was being blackmailed by the same man.

And so four people converged by the Thames.

The blackmailer was stabbed.

Owen was coshed.

And Sally came to his rescue.

That was just the beginning; and those are just the bare bones of the story. There are lots of lovely details, the sense of place and period is lovely, and the story twists and turns very nicely.

Owen was an engaging hero; he threw himself into his new role, he was thoughtful, and he was modest. Sally was bright and resourceful heroine; she was loyal to her friends and ready to stand up for what she believed in. I liked them both, very much. I also liked the relationship that evolved between the two of them.

The villain of the piece was just as well drawn. He was one of those who thought that there would be a war and that Britain would lose, and so he was going to make sure he was on good terms with the Nazi victors.

Everything works together very well. I wasn’t quite sure how the convict who made a daring escape from Dartmoor Prison was going to fit in, but he did. The story rolls along beautifully. It’s firmly rooted in it’s period, but it doesn’t feel dated; the only thing that a contemporary author writing a period piece might do differently is leave out the odd reference to smoking.

I’d happily follow the characters from this story into a sequel, if there is one, and I’d happily try other books by the author. He had a long and successful writing career, but his books fell out of print. I know that there are an awful lot of books in the world, I know that their number is growing and growing, but that is something that happens far too often.

The British Library – in association with the Poisoned Pen Press in the USA – did very well to send this book back out into the world.

A Fugue in Time – or, Take Three Tenses – by Rumer Godden (1945)

This is so lovely; the story of a London house and the family who lived there, wrapped together quite beautifully.

The author explained what she did far better than I ever could.

“This novel was the first in which I used a theme that has always intrigued me, Dunne’s Experiment With Time, i.e., that time is not consecutive, divided into past, present and future, but that these are all co-existent if only we could see it: if you are in a boat on a river you can only see the stretch on which your boat is travelling – a picnic party on the bank perhaps: a kingfisher diving. What you traversed before, passing willows, a barge tied up, cows in a field, as far as you are concerned, is gone; what lies around the next corner – a lock working, a man fishing – is hidden but, were you up in an aeroplane, you could see all these at once – the willows, the barge, the cows, the picnic party, the diving kingfisher, the lock, the man fishing.

In a Fugue in Time I have taken the part of being up in the aeroplane, seeing three generations of a family at once, all living in a house in London, their stories interweaving, as do themes in a fugue … “

That she did it, and that she did it so very well, says so much for her skill as an author.

The story opens in wartime London, where the elderly General Sir Roland Ironmonger Dane, K.C.B., D.S.O, is the last member of the family he was raised in left in the family home. He had been advised by his solicitor that the ninety-nine-year-lease of his home would expire in a just few weeks,  and that the  owners of the freehold were unwilling grant him a renewal or an extension. To Sir Rolls that was unthinkable; he knew that the house and the family. were inextricably linked.

Fugue in TimeAlone in his study Sir Rolls was aware of the life of the house, and of the  lives lived in the house. There was his mother, Griselda, who had seen so any possibilities in life before she was overwhelmed by the demands of family life; there was his father, who would always be known as “The Eye” because it seemed to his children that he saw and knew everything; there was his sister, Selina, who had tried to play the role of mother after Griselda’s death; and there was Lark, the orphan his father  had brought into the household, who Selina had resented and Rolls had dearly loved.

Rolls hadn’t been able to hold on to Lark. He had blamed circumstances, but he came  to realise that he should blame his own weakness and indecision. Lark had married an Italian and she lived for many years and died without ever coming back to her childhood home.

The story moves through all of this, and the way it does that is one of the things that makes this book so special. Though the author uses musical terms, the best way I can explain it is to say that she had painted a glorious artwork in which you can see a wealth of lovely details and well as a wonderful, complete picture.

In the hands of a less skilled author it might have been confusing, as family names repeated, as the places of cooks and butlers and others who kept the house going were passed on to younger members of their own families, but it wasn’t at all. The themes and strands of the story repeated,  but each was distinctive and each had its own emotional power.

This is a book to touch the heart as well as the senses.

The story of the people is wrapped up in the house; in lovely swathes of description, and in glorious lists of every item – furniture,  china, linen, glassware – that makes that house into a home, makes the picture complete.

There was, of course, a story in the present to be resolved.

Grizel, the granddaughter of Sir Rolls’s brother Pelham, came to London with the American Ambulance Force, and when she visited the house she felt that she come home. Pax, Lark’s nephew, came to the house a little later, recognising it from stories his aunt had told him. When they are drawn together it seems that there must, surely, be a solution to the problem of the lease; that the family and the house must continue together into the future.

That was maybe a little too neat; and a sign that the characters and their stories were secondary to the bigger story of the house and the family. I understand that, but I have to say it to explain why this book falls just a little short of perfection.

I loved it though; I know it will stay with me, and I am already wondering which of Rumer Godden’s books to pick up next ….

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