Book review · Fiction · Photography

Book review: ‘Mystery in white’ by J Jefferson Farjeon

This is a murder mystery novel from the excellent series of British Library Crime Classics, a collection of detective novels that were once very popular but went out of print in the 20th Century. Many of the books, which have been reprinted by the British Library, date back to the years between the two world wars. ‘Mystery in white’ was first published in 1937 and has been updated with a typically attractive Crime Classics cover.

mystery in white
‘Mystery in white’ by J Jefferson Farjeon (1937)

The tale begins on Christmas Eve, in a train compartment where a group of disparate individuals are making their way to various destinations for Christmas. Heavy snowfall causes the train to stop and there’s no sign of it getting going again any time soon. After discussing with each other what to do about the situation, one of the group suddenly decides to jump off the train. The others soon follow, and before long are wishing they’d never left the comfort of the train.

They blunder on through snowy countryside, hoping to find somewhere to shelter, when they come upon a house in the middle of nowhere. Finding nobody at home but the door unlocked, they make their way in and find to their astonishment that, despite the lack of occupancy, there are cheering fires burning in the grates and tea has been laid out in the dining room.

Two of the party are in a bad way, one with a sprained ankle and the other with a raging fever. The others do their best to look after them while trying to discover the mystery behind the deserted house. One of them, elderly Mr Maltby of the Royal Psychical Society, assumes the position of leader and appoints a younger man as his second-in-command. Between them they begin to investigate the house and then the area outside, which isn’t easy due to the weather conditions.

By and by, several other characters appear, and it becomes clear that at least one murder has been committed. A strangely compelling portrait on the wall holds Mr Maltby’s attentions, and slowly but surely he uses his powers of detection to solve the mystery of the house.

According to Dorothy L Sayers: ‘Jefferson Farjeon is quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures’ and I would certainly agree with her that he has an uncanny ability to create atmosphere and draw the reader in. I lost myself in this book at bedtime one night and had a hard time putting it down. Jefferson Farjeon wrote more than 60 novels and was apparently very popular in his lifetime. I’ll be looking out for more of his stories after enjoying this one so much.

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Book review · Fiction

Book review: ‘Rooted in evil’ by Ann Granger

Ann Granger has written over 30 detective novels and this is one of her most recent, published in 2017 and featuring the sleuthing duo, Campbell and Carter .

Rooted in evil
‘Rooted in evil’ by Ann Granger (2017)

When Carl Finch is found dead in a forest, it initially looks as if he’s committed suicide. A gun lies over his body, but something about the way he’s lying suggests the body has been moved since he was killed.

Superintendent Ian Carter and Inspector Jess Campbell start investigating the likely suspects, starting with Carl’s sister and brother-in-law, both of whom seem to be holding something back in their interviews with the police.

What I liked best about this book was the setting. Events unfold in the Cotswolds, an attractive rural part of southern England and a popular location for crime novels. There’s a nice feel of old England about it, with a close-knit community, country pubs and pleasant pastoral scenery.

This is the first Campbell and Carter mystery I’ve read and I didn’t get a particularly strong impression of the two main characters.  Perhaps if I read another in the series I’ll get a better idea of their personalities.

I was slightly bemused by the very end of the story, although pleased that Ann Granger didn’t allow herself to be tempted into an obvious ending. On the whole, I enjoyed this book, found it hard to put down, and am looking forward to trying another in the series.

* * * * *

In January I made a resolution to post at least 12 book reviews on this blog, and read 100 books this year. I’m more or less on course with the reviews (I’ve done 6 to date), but I’m a long way off the reading total, which would ideally be over 50 by now, but is in fact only 33. I’m going to have to make a big effort if I’m to reach 100 by the end of December.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: ‘Rainbow’s end’ by Ellis Peters

Ellis Peters is probably best known for her series of murder mystery novels featuring 12th Century Welsh monk, Brother Cadfael.

‘Rainbow’s end’ isn’t a Cadfael book but the story does involve the solving of a murder in an ecclesiastical setting.

Rainbow's end
‘Rainbow’s end’ by Ellis Peters (1978)

Arthur Rainbow is an antiques dealer and recent incomer to the rural English neighbourhood of Middlehope. Keen to get involved in community life, he joins various clubs and societies and frequently hosts parties for the great and the good at his impressive house. Despite his attempts to mingle and impress, he’s not well liked by the locals, who don’t think much of his apparent desire to become lord of the manor.

When his broken body is found lying in the graveyard, having obviously fallen from the bell tower of the church, Superintendent George Felse quickly comes to the conclusion that this is a case of murder.

Shortly before Rainbow’s death, precocious schoolboy James Boswell Jarvis, known to all as ‘Bossie’, gets hold of a genuinely old piece of parchment and uses it to manufacture a faked ancient manuscript. One evening after choir practise he shows it to Rainbow. The antiques dealer is obviously interested and takes the parchment from Bossie but claims the item is worthless. He asks Bossie where he found it and Bossie tells him it was in a chest in the bell tower.

That night, Bossie hides in the churchyard to see if Rainbow will go looking for more pieces of manuscript. Rainbow is indeed in the bell tower, but someone else comes out of the church, shortly after which there’s the sound of a tremendous crash. Thinking a piece of parapet must have fallen off the building, Bossie goes to investigate. As he’s approaching the scene he stops when he sees a man appear from amongst the tombstones. The man has a torch and switches it on briefly, just long enough to light up Rainbow’s dead body, before hastily disappearing. Bossie can’t make out who the torch-bearer is, but believes the man might have seen him.

Not long after Rainbow’s demise, Bossie gets knocked down in a hit and run incident. The car strikes him while he’s making his way home from choir practice one evening, on a quiet country road leading to his house. Bossie is convinced it was a deliberate attempt to murder him. The piece of parchment he gave to Rainbow has disappeared, and the hunt is on to find both the killer and the valuable old paper Rainbow is presumed to have been killed for.

I particularly liked the setting of this story: a quiet part of rural England containing old churches and a real sense of history.  I also enjoyed the character of Bossie, and the way in which his prodigious intellect and curiosity arouses the respect of both peers and elders. I haven’t reach much Ellis Peters, and none of her Cadfael series, but I think ‘Rainbow’s End’ will encourage me to delve further into her impressive back catalogue. She died in 1995, having published more than 70 books.

 

Book review · Fiction

Book review: ‘And then there were none’ by Agatha Christie

Even by Agatha Christie’s extremely high standards, this novel contains a truly ingenious plot. By her own admission, the book took an enormous amount of planning, and it’s only in an epilogue that the brilliant solution to the problem is revealed.

And then there were none
‘And then there were none’ by Agatha Christie (1939)

The mystery begins when ten people from a variety of backgrounds are invited to Soldier Island. The island, which lies off the Devon coast, has recently been sold to an unknown buyer and there has been much discussion in the newspapers about who may have bought it.

Each of the ten invited to the island have been lured there on different pretexts, including a young woman who believes she has been engaged as a secretary, a doctor who has been sent no details about his invitation but has received a large fee for attending, and an elderly General who expects to be meeting up with old army chums.

A local boatman takes the guests to the island, where they find a married couple acting as butler and housekeeper. The butler and his wife are two of the ten who have come to the island at the request of the owner, a Mr Owen.

When word arrives that Mr Owen has been held up and will not be joining the party immediately, the guests begin to discuss who this mysterious man might be. None of them have met him or have any idea who he is. Even the butler and housekeeper are in the dark, having taken up their positions on the island just days before the guests arrived.

In each of the bedrooms there is a printed nursery rhyme about ten little soldier boys. The rhyme begins ‘Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were Nine.’ As the verses go on, a soldier boy dies in each one, until the poem concludes with the words ‘And then there were none.’ In the dining room the guests notice ten small china soldier figures, which appear to represent the soldiers in the poem.

As the guests sit enjoying coffee after dinner on their first evening on the island, a disembodied voice suddenly fills the dining room. The voice details the names of each of the ten people staying in the house along with an accusation of murder committed on a certain date. The guests listen in astonishment as each of them is accused of a dreadful crime.

Not long after that, one of the guests chokes to death, and that night the housekeeper dies in her sleep. The butler is disturbed when he notices two of the little china figures have disappeared from the dining room. When the General is murdered by an unknown hand the following day and another china soldier disappears, it’s obvious that something decidedly sinister is going on. A search of the island reveals no possible hiding place for an eleventh person, and no sign of there being anyone else present.

The story carries on with rising tension as each of the original ten people meet their end by one means or another. When they are all dead the mystery remains: who killed them?

I quite often read Agatha Christie at bedtime, but I would recommend keeping this particular novel for daytime pleasure. From a reasonably innocuous beginning, a sense of menace increases as the book goes on. The tension builds once the killings start, and from then on there’s no let up until the culmination of the book.

There’s an author’s note at the beginning of the edition I have, taken from Agatha Christie’s autobiography, in which she explains that she wrote the story because it was so difficult to do that the idea fascinated her. ‘The murder of Roger Ackroyd’ is often hailed her most brilliant novel, and it is indeed a superb creation, but this one is a real class act and has one of the cleverest plots of any novel I’ve read.

Fiction · Non-fiction · Photography · Writing

Resolutions

New Year’s Day is one of my favourite days of the year. I like the feeling of making a fresh start, leaving behind the old year and marching on into new territory.

Every January I enjoy reading fellow blogger Darlene’s end of year report and her resolutions for the coming year.  It’s some years since I last posted my new year’s resolutions on a blog, and I think it’s time I did it again, in an attempt to hold myself more accountable.

Last year I was aiming to read 100 books, but I dropped that total to 90 when 100 seemed unlikely. As of last night I had read 89, but if I had known I was going to report my reading achievements online I might have made more of an effort to finish the one I’m currently reading (“A room with a view” by E M Forster, which I’m finding more of a slog than I thought I would).

My resolutions for 2018 are as follows:

1.  Read 100 books, at least 35 of which are non-fiction, and at least one of which concerns Greek history/mythology.

2.  Write (and post on this blog) at least 12 book reviews.

3.  Visit the McManus Galleries in Dundee (a museum and art gallery I’ve been meaning to visit for years).

4.  Finish writing the novel I started last month (over the past few years I’ve started several stories I thought might turn into novels, only to have them dwindle away to nothing).

5.  Edit the novel mentioned above and submit it to 5 publishers.

Of the above resolutions, numbers 4 and 5 are the two that seem most likely to fail. I’m nervous about making them public because I’ve been in this position before with my writing, and I know how easily I fall by the wayside. Hopefully, by declaring my intentions online I might find the motivation I need to achieve them.

A very Happy New Year to you, and I hope 2018 brings many interesting experiences.

boxing day walk
Enjoying a walk on Boxing Day with my dad, my mum and my sister. This would have been my Friday photo last week if I’d remembered to post it.
Book review · Fiction

Book review: “Arctic summer” by Damon Galgut

Although this is a fictional book, it’s almost a biography of the writer, E M Forster (perhaps most famous for his novel ‘A passage to India’).

Drawing on Forster’s own writing, including his personal diaries, as well as biographies written by other authors, Damon Galgut has produced a beautifully written story of Forster’s triumphs and tragedies.

arctic-summer.jpg
‘Arctic summer’ by Damon Galgut (2014)

Novels fall into various categories, one of which is literary fiction. It’s not always easy to know what does and doesn’t count as literary fiction, but it struck me as I read this book that it fitted easily into this genre. There was something refined and stately about the writing style, and the precision with which the book had been crafted.

Edward Morgan Forster was born in 1879 and grew up in London, later attending Cambridge University. During most of his life, homosexuality was illegal in Britain. From an early age Forster knew he wasn’t attracted to women, but he found it impossible to establish a fulfilling relationship with a man. Damon Galgut’s book introduces this issue in the first chapter and much of the story relates to this aspect of Forster’s character.

Having read ‘A passage to India’ many years ago, and enjoyed film versions of ‘Howard’s End’ and ‘A room with a view’ (based on novels by E M Forster), I was interested to learn more about the writer behind the tales. I had no idea his life had been so varied, or so challenging from a personal perspective. Damon Galgut tells Forster’s story sympathetically but without sentimentalising the facts. The writing is fluid and finely honed, and gave me a vivid sense of the complicated person E M Forster must have been.

Finishing this book left me feeling I would like to re-read ‘A passage to India’, which I suspect will take on a new dimension now that I know how Forster struggled to complete the story. It was the last, and most celebrated, novel he published, although he went on to write plays, short stories and non-fiction. I would also be interested to read some of Damon Galgut’s other novels, two of which were shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “A capital union” by Victoria Hendry

“A capital union” takes place in Edinburgh in the 1940s, and for that reason alone (as one born and bred there) it was of interest to me. Although the colours and design of the cover didn’t initially appeal to me, the Edinburgh landmarks were familiar and I was intrigued to know what might lie inside.

a-capital-union.jpg

The story follows the challenges faced by Agnes Thorne, 17 years old and newly married to Jeff McCaffrey. As part of his work on a new Scots dictionary, Jeff has been interviewing native speakers from across Scotland. When he comes across Agnes at her home in Ayrshire, he falls for her dialect and beauty and persuades her to marry him and set up home with him in Edinburgh.

Agnes’s troubles begin shortly after her arrival in the city, when she discovers the pitfalls of being married to a man who refuses to sign up for military service during the Second World War. As well as being a conscientious objector, Jeff is a staunch supporter of the Scottish independence movement and believes the British government has no right to enforce conscription on Scottish nationals.

As Jeff becomes more involved with nationalist politics and his views on independence become more extreme, Agnes feels a chasm growing between them. While this is going on, a German airman called Hannes, who has survived being shot down over Edinburgh, finds sanctuary in the empty flat above them. Initially, he’s helped by Mrs MacDougall, a cantankerous neighbour of Agnes’s, but Mrs MacDougall is keen to get Agnes to take over the responsibility of looking after Hannes. Agnes does her best to look after him, without admitting to her husband that she’s aiding the enemy.

The secret of Hannes is revealed, however, when he bursts into the McCaffreys’ flat after hearing Agnes scream. Jeff has been attempting to rape his wife and only Hannes’s timely intervention saves her. For Agnes, this behaviour by her husband is the final nail in the coffin of their marriage, but it isn’t until Jeff is jailed for refusing to sign up for military service that husband and wife are physically separated. Left alone, Agnes has to find a new life for herself, and vows to do whatever she can to help Hannes escape.

After all the foregoing drama, the novel could easily have fallen flat at this point in the story, but Victoria Hendry did a top notch job of keeping my attention and gripping me to the final page. She made me care about what happened to Agnes, and I found her characterisations strong throughout the book.

An unusual feature of this novel, and something I initially thought might irritate me, was the number of Scots words included in the dialogue. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the mixture of English and Scots, and interested that some of the Scots words were words I’ve only ever heard spoken, never seen written down. There are also quite a few German words and phrases, and I would have understood more of the conversations involving Hannes if I’d realised at the beginning that every Scots and German word used is translated at the back of the book. The German translations were helpful for me and I daresay the Scots translations would be much appreciated by non-Scottish readers.

Rating this book in my 4Ps rating system, I gave it 18/20, with extra credit for what I call ‘poetry‘.