Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes edited by Martin Edwards

I’ve said before that I’m not a big fan of short stories, often finding them disappointing. So I’m glad to say that I enjoyed this anthology edited by Martin Edwards: Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes. Some stories, of course, are better than others.

These are the sixteen stories in the collection. Martin Edwards has prefaced each one with a brief biographical note, which I found useful as some of the authors were new to me. I read the collection slowly, which I find is the best way to approach a short story collection.

  • The Lost Special by Arthur Conan Doyle (not a Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson story) about a train that disappears on its route from Liverpool to London. This was first published in The Strand Magazine in 1898.
  • The Thing Invisible by William Hope Hodgson, an author I hadn’t come across before. First published in 1913 this is a murder mystery dressed up as a ‘ghost’ story. Very atmospheric.
  • The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room by Sax Rohmer, another new-to-me author, although I had heard of his most well known character, the master criminal Dr Fu Manchu. In this story amateur detective Moris Klaw  and his beautiful daughter investigate a locked room murder in a museum, involving ‘psychic photographs’.
  • The Aluminum Dagger by Richard Austin Freeman, featuring one of Dr. John Thorndyke’s scientific stories, describing in detail how a man was discovered in a locked room, stabbed to death.
  • The Miracle of Moon Crescent by G. K. Chesterton, a Father Brown story set in America, in which the cleric investigates a death by a curse.
  • The Invisible Weapon by Nicholas Olde, an impossible murder mystery, in which there is only one man who could have done it – and he could not have done it.
  • The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland – an impossible crime, a kind of chess problem. Lilian Hope’s diary provides a list of victims -people she had hated.
  • The Broadcast Murder by Grenville Robbins, in which a murder takes place in a radio station and is broadcast has it happens.
  • The Music-Room by Sapper (not a Bulldog Drummond story), featuring a secret passage and a falling chandelier.
  • Death at 8:30 by Christopher St. John Sprigg, in which a murderer predicts the date and exact time of the death of the victim unless a ransom is paid.
  • Too Clever By Half by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole – Dr Tancred’s advice, if you intend to commit a murder, is don’t make the mistake of trying to be clever!
  • Locked In by E. Charles Vivian – a death by shooting in a locked room.
  • The Haunted Policeman by Dorothy L. Sayers (a Lord Peter Wimsey story) – probably my favourite in the collection. It had me completely mystified. The policeman is new to the beat and can’t believe his eyes.
  • The Sands of Thyme by Michael Innes (a John Appleby story) murder at Thyme Bay, or was it suicide? Footprints in the sand provide a clue.
  • Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin (a Gervase Fen story), a clever and baffling story about a lost train driver.
  • The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham (an Albert Campion and Inspector Luke story) – another favourite, in which a young couple disappear, leaving behind their half-eaten breakfast, taking only a couple of clean linen sheets. There was no clue why they left and no signs of any violence.

My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.

Agatha Christie’s Short Stories: The Mysterious Mr Quin

Agatha Christie blogathon

This post is my contribution to  Little Bits of Classics and and Christina Wehner‘s Agatha Christie Blogathon in honour of Agatha Christie’s 126th birthday on the 15th of September.

Agatha Christie is one of my favourite authors. I first began reading her books when I was in my teens but it was in 2008 when Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise launched the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge that I began to read my way through all her books. There are 66 mystery and detective novels and numerous collections of short stories. In February of this year I completed my reading of her 66 mystery and detective novels and some but not all of her short stories.

The Short Stories

There is some confusion over how many short stories Agatha Christie wrote. The Agatha Christie website records that she wrote 150 stories, whereas Wikipedia records that she wrote 153 short stories, published in 14 collections in the UK and in the US. By my reckoning she wrote 157 short stories, published in a number of collections, but I may have included duplications  as some stories were published under different names in the US Collections. I’m hoping that as I read the stories the actual number will become clear. For my list of her short stories see my Agatha Christie Short Stories Page.

But whatever the real total may be there can be no doubt that it is an impressive collection of stories originally published in several magazines and then in a number of collections. They do vary in quality, some are very short, almost skeletal, with the puzzle element given greater emphasis than characterisation.The first collection of her short stories, Poirot Investigates was published in 1924, when Agatha Christie was 34.

img_20160917_122804
Agatha Christie in 1926

As today’s topic in this Blogathon is dedicated to anything about or by Agatha Christie not related either to Poirot or Miss Marple this post is about one collection of short stories:

The Mysterious Mr Quin

The Mysterious Mr Quin First Edition Cover 1930.jpg
The Mysterious Mr Quin First Edition Cover

This was first published in 1930 featuring Mr Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite. This is my favourite of her collections, containing some of her very best short stories.

In her Autobiography Agatha Christie said these stories were her favourites too. The stories were not written as a series, but one at a time at intervals of three or four months or longer and were first published in magazines. They are set in the 1920s and have a paranormal element to them, as well as a touch of romance. I found them all most entertaining.

In the Foreword she describes Mr Quin as:

… a figure invisible except when he chose, not quite human, yet concerned with the affairs of human beings and particularly of lovers. He is also the advocate for the dead.

Mr Satterthwaite, who was in his sixties, a little man, with an elf-like face, is Mr Quin’s friend:

Mr Satterthwaite, the gossip, the looker-on at life, the little man who without ever touching the depths of joy and sorrow himself, recognizes drama when he sees it, and is conscious that he has a part to play.

The titles are

1. The Coming of Mr. Quin
2. The Shadow on the Glass
3. At the “Bells and Motley”
4. The Sign in the Sky
5. The Soul of the Croupier
6. The Man from the Sea
7. The Voice in the Dark
8. The Face of Helen
9. The Dead Harlequin
10. The Bird with the Broken Wing
11. The World’s End
12. Harlequin’s Lane

In the opening story, The Coming of Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite first meets him on New Year’s Eve, at a house party when talk had turned to the suicide of Mr Capel, the man who had originally owned the house. The enigmatic Mr Quin, a tall, slender man, appears in the doorway.  The light shining through the stained glass above the door makes it appear that he is dressed in every colour of the rainbow but when he moves the effect fades and Mr Satterthwaite can see that he is  dressed conventionally. Whenever he appears in the stories, some trick of the light initially produces the same effect. Mr Quin subtly steers Mr Satterthwaite into discovering the truth behind Mr Capel’s suicide.

In the following eleven stories Harley Quin always appears unexpectedly and suddenly, and then just as suddenly disappears, having influenced Mr Satterthwaite to change people’s lives, and solve mysteries by producing clues and asking pointed questions, making the solution obvious. He is, without doubt, the most mysterious and unusual character in all of Agatha Christie’s books.

One of my favourite stories is The Man From The Sea. Mr Satterthwaite, who is a wealthy man, althought the source of his wealth is not revealed, is on a Mediterranean island. Walking along the cliffs he meets Anthony Cosden, about to leap to his death. He’d been planning to do so the previous evening but had been prevented when he’d met someone else at the edge of the cliff – a mysterious man in fancy dress, ‘ a kind of Harlequin rig‘. Anthony reveals he only had six months to live and doesn’t want a lingering end and in any case he has no one in the world belonging to him – if only he had a son …

Mr Satterthwaite next meets a woman in black in the quiet garden of what seems to be an empty house. The woman asks him if he would like to see inside the house and clearly needs someone to talk to, someone to hear the tragic story of her life. It’s a touching story of remorse and the desire to make amends.

Mr Quin’s role in this and in other stories is to help Mr Satterthwaite to see beneath the surface, to see things in a different light. At the end he takes his leave, and all Mr Satterthwaite see is his friend walking towards the edge of the cliff.

The final story, Harlequin’s Lane is another bittersweet tale of lost love and fate and rather eerie. Mr Satterthwaite goes to visit a married couple, the Denmans, who live at Ashmead, on Harlequin’s Lane. Mrs Denman is a Russian refugee whom John Denman had married after escaping Russia on the outbreak of the revolution.

They are out when he arrives and he takes a walk down the Lane, wondering about its name and was not surprised when he meets his elusive friend, Harley Quin, who tells him the Lane belongs to him; it’s a Lovers’ Lane. It ends at waste ground covered with a rubbish heap where they meet Molly  who is to be Pierrette in the masquerade the Denmans have planned for the weekend. A car accident interrupts the arrangments injuring some of the dancers, until Mr Satterthwaite intervenes, but still tragedy strikes. Mr Quin, seems to have cast a magical air of unreality over Mr Satterthwaite:

Mr Satterthwaite quailed. Mr Quin seemed to have loomed to enormous proportions … Mr Satterthwaite had a vista of something at once menacing and terrifying … Joy, Sorrow, Despair.

And his comfortable little soul shrank back appalled.

Truly a mystifying collection of stories. I enjoyed it immensely.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Reading Challenge, R.I.P. Challenge and the Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the category of a ‘performer’.

The current paperback edition:

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Masterpiece Ed edition (2 Jun. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007154844
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007154845

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford first appeared in Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (first published in 1922) when they had just met up after World War One, both in their twenties. Their next appearance is in Partners in Crime, a collection of short stories, first published in 1929.

Life has become a little dull, especially for Tuppence. Tommy works for the Secret Service but wants to see more action, so when Tommy’s boss Mr Carter offers them both a new assignment they jump at the opportunity. It’s to take over for six months the running of the International Detective Agency under the name of Mr Theodore Blunt. It had been a front for Bolshevist-spying activity and in particular they were to look out for blue letters with a Russian stamp on them. They were also free to undertake any other detective work that comes their way.

All of the stories first appeared in magazines between 1923 and 1928 and they are parodies of fictional detectives of the period, some of whom I recognised and some I didn’t. When she came to write her autobiography many years later, even Agatha Christie couldn’t recognise some of them, noting that whilst some had become household names, others had ‘more or less perished in oblivion. Those I recognised include Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, The Old Man in the Corner, and Hercule Poirot, himself.

Most of the stories are self-contained adventures. They are slight and brief, and not really taxing or difficult to solve. I enjoyed reading them, because they are written with a light touch, and a sense of humour and fun. Tommy and Tuppence are likeable characters; Tommy is not as dizzy as David Walliams played him in the recent TV series. I’ve now read all the Tommy and Tuppence stories. There are four full length novels as well as Partners in Crime (Tommy and Tuppence 2) and unlike Poirot and Miss Marple Tommy and Tuppence age with each book:

  1. 1922 The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence 1)
  2. 1941 N or M? (Tommy and Tuppence 3)
  3. 1968 By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Tommy and Tuppence 4)
  4. 1973 Postern of Fate (Tommy and Tuppence 5)

Reading Challenges: the Agatha Christie Reading ChallengeMount TBR Reading Challenge, and the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt.

My copy is the current edition with this cover:

 

The first UK edition, however, has this cover, which I prefer.


So I’m choosing this cover for the Vintage Scavenger Hunt, in the category of a book showing a Shadowy Figure on its cover.

Books Read in August 2016

I read 6 books this August, three of them TBR books, and all are fiction, a mix of crime fiction, historical fiction and epic fantasy novels. One book is a library book and one a review copy. (The links are to my  posts on the books.)

  • The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman (TBR), a fascinating novel about the Wars of the Roses and Richard III from his childhood to his death at Bosworth Field in 1485 and one of the best historical novels that I’ve read.
  • The Woman Who Walked into the Sea by Mark Douglas Hume (LB), the second The Sea Detective novel, set in an imaginary coastal village of Poltown in the north of Scotland, the story revolves around the main character,Violet who had been abandoned as a new-born baby.  It had been assumed that her mother, Megan had committed suicide, although her body had never been found.  Cal McGill helps Violet find out what really happened.
  • The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth, a Miss Silver Mystery first published in 1961. It begins well as the main character finds herself in the dark in a cellar, not knowing who she is or how she got there. Overall, I thought the book was odd and not very convincing. There are too many coincidences, improbabilities, and loose ends.
  • The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland, a review copy from Lovereading due to  be published in October. This is another unputdownable book by Karen Maitland, set in Porlock Weir in 1361, bringing the medieval world to life in all its brutality and hardship. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My full review will follow later this month.
  • A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire,1) by George R R Martin (TBR), an epic fantasy novel  set in a grim and violent world full of tragedy, betrayals and battles; a tale of good versus evil in which family, duty, and honour are in conflict. It’s complex and multifaceted, and full of stories and legends and wonderful characters. I loved it.
  • The Mysterious Mr Quin (Agatha Christie…The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie (TBR) – I finished this collection of short stories yesterday. It’s one of her earliest books, first published in 1930, not at all like her Poirot or Miss Marple books, and I enjoyed it very much. It’s beautifully written. I’ll write about it in more detail soon.

It’s impossible to decide which is my favourite this month between books in different genres. I loved The Sunne in Splendour, The Game of Thrones and The Mysterious Mr Quin in almost equal measure, each book taking me to completely different worlds and times.

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

SandlandsSandlands is a beautiful collection of short stories that held me spellbound from start to finish. This is all the more extraordinary as I am not a great fan of short story collections. I often find that they leave me feeling that something is missing – either the storyline is not developed enough, or the characters are not convincing, or that they are just too trite or banal. In other words that they are disappointing.

Not so with Sandlands – I think this is a special collection of well written stories set in the Suffolk landscape, describing real people, and containing well- researched detail into myths and folklore, wildlife, and environmental changes that slips seamlessly into the fiction. They are just the right length for me, perfect little cameos each one complete and satisfying – that’s not to say that all the ends are neatly tied up, as some, such as Nightingale’s Return, about an Italian visiting the farm where his father had worked  as a prisoner of war, end leaving me wondering what happened next, or rather just what had happened in the past.

The individual stories are varied, some looking back to the past, some are sad leaving me with tears in my eyes, and some have a supernatural element. I loved all of them, but a few are outstanding, for example, Curlew Call in which a teenager spends time during her gap year living in an old house overlooking the the salt marshes, as a companion to Agnes, an old lady who is wheel-chair bound. She is fascinated by the landscape and the wildlife, in particular the curlews, calling out across the reed beds each evening, before she goes to sleep:

You wonder what they’re doing out there in the dark, sleepless and crying like that. And if you lie still and listen – really  listen – there’s something so pitiful about the sound, it could nearly break your heart. like someone whistling hopelessly over and over for a dog that’s lost. (pages 220 – 221)

Agnes paints, but not the usual East Anglian landscape of sky and clouds with a low horizon. I was really taken with the descriptions of her paintings, nearly all foreground, with reeds at the top and the rest of the painting taken up with the mudflats, showing the swirls and squiggles left by the tide. And the colours she’d used held my attention:

You think that mud is only grey and brown but when you look properly, the way Agnes had, you can see she’s right, and that it’s also the blackest black, and pure white, and it holds glints of red and gold and ochry yellow, and reflected blues and greens, and deep, imperial purple. (page 226)

As the story unfolds, so does the story of Agnes’ life.

And I finished reading the final story, Mackerel, with tears in my eyes when I came to the last paragraph, even though I had begun to realise what was inevitably the outcome. This is the story of a grandmother and her granddaughter, Hattie, set in a fishing village near the Suffolk sea. Ganny, as Hattie calls her has lived all her eighty nine years in the same place and is expert at handling and cooking fish.

Hattie, by way of contrast has an honours degree in marine ecology, has travelled the world, but also loves the Suffolk landscape and the world of her grandparents – the sights, smells and Ganny’s cooking, kippers, fish pie and above all the mackerel. This story is filled with images of Ganny filleting the mackerel, coating them in oatmeal to fry in butter, or to bake in greaseproof sprinkled with lemon or cider in a tight parcel. It made my mouth water reading about it.

As in Curlew Call, Ganny’s life unfolds and this story too is full of colour, this time of the sand instead of the mudflats:

This is a land of sand. The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it’s a wonder anything grows in it at all. On the common it’s a powder grey, soft as ash and lifted by the the slightest breeze, but on the roads it’s as golden yellow as any treasure island beach.

… You could almost fancy it the work of strange secret tides which rise in the night to cover the fields and lanes, then slip away before daylight to leave new spits and spars like a signature on the landscape. A land with the imprint of the sea. (page 256)

It’s impossible for me to do justice to these stories. If you like strong, atmospheric stories, stories that bring to life the world of the past, tying them to the present, stories of family life, of the natural world, of folklore and the mystery and wonder of it all then you’ll love this book as much as I did.

With grateful thanks to Rosy Thornton for sending me this lovely book to review. It’s published tomorrow. And she has also written full length novels that captivated as much as this collection – do read them. For more details see her website.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Sandstone Press Ltd (21 July 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 191098504X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910985045

Short Story Sunday: Hans Christian Andersen

I’ve been reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales as part of Carl’s Once Upon A Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest. So far I’ve written about The Rose Elf, The Shepherdess and the Sweep, and The Snow Queen.

I’ve been disappointed in some of the other stories, some are gruesome and moralistic.  I don’t remember feeling that about them when I first read them as a child, which shows, I suppose, the different approach children have to such tales, or maybe it’s just me.

In my descriptions of today’s stories I have not concealed the endings. It’s difficult to write meaningfully without doing so or to decide what should not be revealed in these stories and anyway they are well known and have been told or retold in one form or another. But if you don’t want to know how they end please be aware that there are spoilers in what follows.

First, The Red Shoes, in which a little girl, Karen, longs to have a pair of shiny red shoes, even though the old lady who had adopted her told her that the shoes were very wrong and unbecoming. Karen disobeys her and wears the red shoes to go to church. But they are magic shoes and they compel her to dance, won’t come off her feet and take her dancing where she doesn’t want to go. The result is just awful.

An angel tells her she must dance until she dies, so that children will see the consequence of pride and vanity. In desperation she begs the executioner to cut off her feet along with the shoes, which then go dancing away by themselves and she is left a cripple with wooden feet. She begs for God’s mercy, is taken into service by a clergyman and eventually dies, ‘her heart was so filled with sunshine, peace and joy that it broke. Her soul took its flight up to heaven.’

 

The strange thing is that I didn’t remember what happened at the end! So I either stopped reading when the horrible bit began, or have blanked it out of my memory. The moral of the story is to point out the consequences of pride and disobedience.

The next one I read is The Brave Tin Soldier, a bitter-sweet tale that also ends in disaster. I suppose this one is about the dangers of pride too. He is one of twenty five tin soldiers, but he has only one leg as he had been cast last when there was not enough tin left to complete him. He wants to marry the cardboard ballet dancer, standing in the middle of a looking glass lake as it appears that she too has only one leg as she balances with one leg lifted raised so high the soldier can’t see it.

At midnight the Jack-in-a-box opens and the little black imp inside warns the soldier to keep his eyes to himself. The soldier ignores his warning and the imp tells him to just wait until the morning. Morning comes and a draught from the window (or is it the imp’s doing) knocks the soldier off the window and down into the street. He is too proud to call attention to himself when the little by who owns him looks for him and he is swept away down the gutter and ends up in a canal, threatened by a large water rat and is then eaten by a fish. The fish is caught and cooked, whereupon the soldier is saved. But that is not the end as one of the little boys throws him into the fire, a door is opened and the draught carries away the little dancer also into the fire. She blazes up and the tin soldier is melted down, leaving only a tin heart.

It’s true he was brave, but he was also too passive or too proud and so fails to save himself. But I do remember liking this story as a child, but maybe that was because I just accepted his fate.

Much more encouraging is the tale of The Ugly Duckling – a famous story about the duckling who was different from the other ducklings, mocked and picked on by the other birds. I remember seeing this story in the film with Danny Kaye as Hans Christian Andersen and the song: There Once Was an Ugly Duckling – quack, get out, get out of town. Of course the ugly duckling is not a duck at all! I thought of this story whilst watching Springwatch this week when the poor bedraggled blue tit was worn to a frazzle feeding her babies that were actually great tits, not blue tits!

And another story that has a happy ending is The Nightingale -one of my favourites as a child, so I’m pleased I still like it. It’s about a nightingale whose beautiful singing captivates all who hear her, including the Chinese Emperor. She agrees to come to his palace and sing for him, living in a cage but still allowed to fly twice a day. The Japanese Emperor sends him a mechanical bird, decked in rich jewels, which when wound up imitates the nightingale’s song. Everyone loves the artificial bird and the real nightingale flies away.

But eventually the artificial bird’s mechanism became worn out and it could no longer sing. The Emperor was heart broken when the real bird cannot be found and he collapsed close to death. But the live nightingale comes to his rescue and sings to give him hope and consolation and his death is averted. He wants her to return to the palace but she refuses as she can’t live inside, but agrees to come and sing for him in his garden.

It is a beautiful story contrasting art, technology and nature and one that is full of optimism about the joys of life.

I think this will probably be my last post for the Short Story Quest, which I have enjoyed even though some of the stories failed to live up to my memories.

Classics Club Spin: the Result

and it is … number 15, which for me is

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling, a novella. That’s fine – I should be able to slot that into my Summer reading without any difficulties before 1 August.

I’ve read some of Kipling’s books before, including The Just So Stories, Kim (I thought I’d read this but I haven’t), Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and his poem If. Then there is, of course, The Jungle Book (seen the film and may have read the book).

My copy is an e-book, which I’ve had for several years, so it will also count towards my Mount TBR Reading Challenge too.

Short Story Sunday: The Snow Queen

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

I’m reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child in my mother’s book: P1010936Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

The Snow Queen was one of my favourite stories as a child and I read it many times. So, I have been holding back from reading it now in case I found that the magical experience was no longer there. However, I felt I really wanted to read it this week and told myself that I would stop if it wasn’t as entrancing as before. Of course I read all of it and if it wasn’t quite as magical it was still entrancing.

I wasn’t surprised that I’d forgotten some of the details, but my memories of the way evil came into the world when the magic looking-glass was shattered were vivid and correct. The pieces let loose in the world distorted whatever was reflected in it, so that whatever was good and beautiful dwindled to almost nothing and whatever was worthless stood out boldly. They entered into men’s eyes, so that they saw only evil, or into their hearts, turning them to lumps of ice. Some were made into panes of window glass and some into spectacles. Some are still flying about in the air even today.

I remembered well the two main characters, the childhood friends, Kay and Gerda, and how Kay was changed when his heart and eyes were pierced by pieces of the magic glass  and how he followed  the beautiful Snow Queen and was whisked away to her ice palace.  I also remembered Gerda’s search for him, but not all the detail of how she was enchanted by a strange old woman, who took her into her strange little house, and how the roses and other flowers brought back her memories.

I had forgotten about the Prince and Princess and the Ravens who helped her on her way to look for Kay and the Lapland Woman and the Finland Woman who also helped her. More memorable was The Little Robber Girl who stopped her robber-mother from killing and eating Gerda.

It was the chapter on Kay in the Snow Palace that was most vivid in my memories and it didn’t disappoint me. Kay’s heart was by then just like a lump of ice and he was almost black with the cold and he didn’t recognise Gerda until her tears penetrated his heart, melted the ice and dissolved the broken glass and washed all the pieces of glass from his eyes. It was Gerda’s love that saved him. As the Finland Woman says:

I cannot give her greater power than she already possesses, and do you not see how great that is? Do you not see that men and beasts must serve her, and how barefooted as she is, she has got on so well in the world. She cannot receive power from us, that is in her own heart, and consists in her being a good, innocent child.

What I hadn’t noticed as a child was that this is not only a story of good against evil but also about love versus reason and logic. At first when the ice has entered Kay’s heart and eyes he becomes focussed on science, looking at the snow flakes through a magnifying glass to see their structure and as the Snow Queen lures him from home he couldn’t pray but could only recite his multiplication tables; he could say how many square miles were in the country as well as the number of inhabitants.

The task the Snow Queen gave him whilst she was away from the Palace was the ice-game of understanding to fit together large pieces of ice to make figures of ‘the highest importance’. But he was unable to make the word ‘Eternity’, which the Snow Queen had promised she would give him the whole world if he succeeded. He thought and thought about it until his brain almost cracked. It was only when the ice had melted from his heart and out of his eyes that the pieces of ice danced and formed the letters of the word so that he was able to leave the palace.

Short Story Sunday: The Shepherdess and the Sweep

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

This will be a weekly event for me, until the end of the event on 21 June. I’m reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child. Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

I’m reading from my mother’s book: P1010936This week it’s another fairy tale that I don’t remember reading before – The Shepherdess and the Sweep.

Unlike The Rose Elf, the story I read last week, The Shepherdess and the Sweep is not a gruesome story, but a story of love, romance, and bravery.

The Shepherdess and the Sweep are two china figures who fall in love but their love is threatened by a strange looking carved satyr the children called the Goatsleg-Highadjutant-general-militarycommandant, as he had goat’s legs, short horns and a long beard and was constantly grinning. He stood on top of a very old wooden cabinet, looking down on the beautiful Shepherdess on the table opposite and wanted her for his wife. There is also a bigger china figure than the little couple – a big old Chinese, who could nod his head. He claims authority over the Shepherdess and says she will marry the satyr that night.

So the two little china figures decide to leave the table and venture out into the wide world. In their desperation to escape they decide to climb the chimney, but when they get to the top the Shepherdess is overcome with fear and cries “This is too much” she sobbed, “That I can never bear. The world is too large; oh, were I but back again on the table under the looking glass!”

Illustration from “Fairy Tales, 1850” by Vilhelm Pedersen, Andersen’s first illustrator (from Wikipedia)

Spoiler follows – don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want to know how this story ends.

The sweep can’t console her and so they climb back down even though he thought it was foolish. But they find that the Chinese figure in his attempt to follow them had fallen and broken into three pieces. The family mended him but his head, which had rolled far off into a corner of the room had to be riveted onto his neck, so that he could no longer nod. He was too proud to tell the Satyr and so when he asked if he were to have the Shepherdess or not, the Chinese figure was silent. And the little couple remained together. So, a happy ending for this tale.

Short Story Sunday: The Rose Elf

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

I’m beginning this Sunday, with what I hope will be a weekly event for me, until the end of the event on 21 June. I’ll be reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child. Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

I’m reading from my mother’s book: P1010936

beginning with The Rose-Elf.

I don’t remember reading this story before – and I think I would if I had read it, because it’s such a gruesome story. The Rose-Elf is very short and surprised me by the horror of the events it unfolds.

It begins by describing the Rose-Elf, who is so small he can’t be seen by human eyes. He is a beautiful creature, with two transparent wings reaching from his shoulders to the soles of his feet, making him look like an angel. He lives, as you would suppose in a rose tree, having little rooms behind each rose petal:

‘… what delicious scent filled all his apartments, and how beautifully clear and bright were the walls, for they were the delicate, pale red rose leaves themselves.’

He danced on the wings of butterflies, walked along the veins of leaves, which he looked upon as roads. But one day the weather grew cold and the leaves closed before he could get back inside the roses, so he flew to a honeysuckle for shelter and here he came across a pair of young lovers – a handsome young man and a charming girl. It’s at this point that the story moves from a cosy fairy tale that you would be happy to read to very small children into something dark and chilling. For the girl has a jealous, wicked brother who plots to get rid of the young man and kills him.

The girl is heartbroken and the Rose-Elf who witnesses the murder of her lover, does what he can to help her but this is a tragedy. It’s not an ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ ending. The horror is not in the actual killing but in what happens to the corpse afterwards.

The Queen of the bees hums her praise of the Rose-Elf saying ‘how beneath the smallest leaf dwells one who can expose and avenge crime.’

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes contains twelve short stories first published between 1921 and 1927. In the Preface Conan Doyle  wrote that he hoped his Sherlock Holmes stories had provided

that distraction from the worries of life and stimulating change of thought that can only be found in the fairy kingdom of romance.

In this post I’m only writing about three of them for The 1924 Club; stories that were first published in 1924 (for more details about The I924 Club click on this link). They do indeed, provide both a distraction and a stimulating change of thought. The narrator in these three stories is Dr Watson.

The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire – this was first published in the January 1924 issues of The Strand Magazine in London and Hearst’s International Magazine in New York.

As Sherlock Holmes says when he first heard about a case concerning vampires,‘we seem to have been switched on to a Grimm’s fairy tale.‘ He tells Watson they cannot take it seriously:

Rubbish Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy!

But he takes on the case for two reasons – one, he’s interested in the house in Essex belonging to Mr Ferguson where his wife is suspected of being a vampire, and two, Ferguson had known Watson when they played rugby together for Blackheath. His Peruvian wife had been seen attacking his son from a previous marriage and also leaning over her own baby and biting his neck. She refused to explain herself. Holmes solves the mystery, indeed he had reached his conclusion even before arrived in at the house, based on his conviction that the idea of a vampire was absurd. I enjoyed this tale, mainly because Holmes used logic and deduction in coming to his conclusion, overriding the supernatural.

The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – first published in October 1924 in Collier’s Weekly and then in The Strand Magazine in January 1925.

I think this is a rather strange and artificial story, Dr Watson says it may have been a comedy or a tragedy. It led to him being shot in the leg and yet there was certainly an element of comedy. It’s about a man with the unusual name of Garridebs, ostensibly looking for two other men with the same name  to inherit five  million dollars each. Of course, that is not his real reason and the man is none other than a  known murderer.  It shows, however, the depth of Holmes’ feeling for Watson, as he says:

It was worth a wound – it was worth many wounds – to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaken. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of service culminated in that moment of revelation.

It’s in this story too that Watson reveals that Holmes had refused a knighthood.

The Adventure of the Illustrious Client – first published in Collier’s Weekly in November 1924.

At the request of an unnamed but illustrious client, Holmes and Watson investigate the case concerning Violet de Merville, young, rich and beautiful who has fallen under the spell of the notorious Baron Gruner. Her father, General de Merville wants to prevent them from marrying.  Gruner is known as a violent murderer and Holmes is keen to meet a man who may be more dangerous even than the late Professor Moriarty. But he has to enlist the help of one of Gruner’s past mistresses to open Violet’s eyes to the true nature of the man she thought she loved.

I like the personal touches in this story, the opening scene for example shows Holmes and Watson in the drying-room of a Turkish Bath, lying in an isolated corner on two couches, side by side, smoking in a state of lassitude. Watson says that it is where he finds Holmes less reticent and more human than anywhere else. Watson knows that although he was nearer to Holmes than anyone else he was always conscious of the gap between them – Holmes leaves his closest friend guessing what his exact plans may be.

These three stories all illustrate Holmes’ deductive powers and seemingly cold nature but also reveal the depth of feeling between him and Watson. Bur I’m not sure that they reflect anything in particular about what was being published in 1924.

I shall write about the remaining stories in the Case-Book at a later date.

First Chapter ∼ First Paragraph Tuesday: Parker Pyne

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter ∼ First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

I’ve been looking at some of Agatha Christie’s short stories and wondering which to read first. One of the collections I own is The Complete Parker Pyne: Private Eye. It looks a good place to start.

In the Author’s Foreword Agatha Christie tells how she came to write these stories:

One day, having lunch at a Corner House, I was enraptured by a conversation on statistics going on at a table behind me. I turned my head and caught a vague glimpse of a bald head, glasses and a beaming smile – I caught sight that is, of Mr Parker Pyne. I had never thought about statistics before (and indeed seldom think about them now!) but the enthusiasm with which they were being discussed awakened my interest. I was just considering a new series of short stories and then and there I decided on the general treatment and scope, and in due course enjoyed writing them.

I like the details she gives – the Corner Houses, smarter and grander than tea shops and noted for their art deco style first appeared in 1909 and  remained until 1977. And I love the fact that she was eavesdropping on the conversation going on behind her and the insight this gives into how she got ideas for her stories.

The stories were all written in the 1930s and first appeared in various UK and US magazines. The first story in this collection is The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife and it begins:

Four grunts, an indignant voice asking why nobody could leave a hat alone, a slammed door, and Mr Packington had departed to catch the eight forty-five to the city. Mrs Packington sat on at the breakfast table. Her face was flushed, her lips were pursed, and the only reason she was not crying was that at the last minute anger had taken the place of grief, ‘I won’t stand it,’ said Mrs Packington. ‘I won’t stand it!’ She remained for some moments brooding , and then murmured: ‘The minx. Nasty sly little cat! How can George be such a fool!’

Agatha Christie: Short Stories

Agatha ChristieSo far in reading Agatha Christie’s books I’ve concentrated on reading her full length novels and have only read some of her short stories. As I’ve nearly read all of her novels, although none of those she wrote as Mary Westmacott, I’ll be reading more of her short stories from now on.

So far I’ve read the following short story collections:

  • The Thirteen Problems – Miss Marple stories. It was first published in the UK in 1933, collecting together 13 short stories previously published in various magazines. The first story The Tuesday Night Club introduces the character of Miss Marple.
  • The Hound of Death – 12 stories of unexplained phenomena, in most cases tales of the supernatural rather than detective stories. Of the twelve stories I think The Witness for the Prosecution is the best. Agatha Christie later wrote a play based on this story which has subsequently been adapted for film and television.
  • The Labours of Hercules – 12 short stories featuring Hercule Poirot, first published in 1947. Poirot is thinking of retiring, but before he does he wants to solve 12 more cases and not just any cases. These have to correspond to the Twelve Labours of Hercules, specially selected problems that personally appeal to him.
  • Murder in the Mews – four stories about crimes solved by Hercule Poirot, first published in 1937.
  • The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées – 6 short stories

I also have the following collections to read:

  • Poirot Investigates – 11 Poirot stories
  • The Golden Ball and Other Stories – 14 stories
  • The Mysterious Mr Quin – 12 stories
  • The Complete Parker Pyne: Private Eye – 14 stories
  • Miss Marple and Mystery – 55 stories

By my reckoning Agatha Christie wrote 157 short stories, published in a number of collections. Wikipedia records that she wrote 153 short stories, published in 14 collections in the UK and in the US. Some stories were published under different names in the US Collections. And some stories appear in more than one collection, which is rather confusing.

So, I’ve compiled a list arranged in a-z order of titles from the list of books on the Official Agatha Christie Site. My list is on my Agatha Christie Short Story Progress Page.

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

It seemed the right time of year to read The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées by Agatha Christie. It’s a collection of six short stories but only the first one, the title story, has any Christmas connection.

As Agatha Christie explained in her Foreword this story was an ‘indulgence‘, recalling the Christmases of her youth, spent at Abney Hall:

The Christmas fare was of gargantuan proportions. I was a skinny child, appearing delicate, but actually of robust health and perpetually hungry! The boys of the family and I used to vie with each other as to who could eat the most on Christmas Day. Oyster Soup and Turbot went down without undue zest, but then came Roast Turkey, Boiled Turkey and an enormous Sirloin of Beef. The boys and I had two helpings of all three! We then had Plum Pudding, Mince-Pies, Trifle and every kind of dessert. During the afternoon we ate chocolates solidly. We neither felt, nor were sick! How lovely to be eleven years old and greedy!

But I don’t think this story reflects her own Christmas experience apart from the setting, that is, for this is a collection of crime fiction! Poirot is invited to spend ‘a good old-fashioned Christmas in the English countryside’ in a 14th century English manor house, a prospect that fills him with apprehension, only agreeing to go when he hears there is oil-fired central heating in the house. There is of course a reason for inviting him – for a discreet investigation into the theft of a priceless ruby stolen from a Far Eastern prince. The Christmas Pudding in question is a ‘large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it’. For a short story this is really complicated with several twists for Poirot to work through.

Four of the other stories feature Poirot, with the last one, Greenshaw’s Folly being a Miss Marple mystery, which I read last year in Miss Marple and Mystery.  Greenshaw’s Folly is a house, an architectural monstrosity, visited by Raymond West (Miss Marple’s nephew) and Horace Bindler, a literary critic. Later, Miss Greenshaw having drawn up a new will, is found murdered.

The remaining four stories concern the murder of a man found a Spanish chest (The Mystery of the Spanish Chest), a widow who is convinced her nephew had not killed her husband despite all the evidence against him (The Under Dog), a man who has inexplicable changed his eating habits is found dead (Four and Twenty Blackbirds), and a man who has the same dream night after night that he shoots himself is found dead (The Dream).

I enjoyed reading these stories. They are of varying length and are all cleverly done, if a little predictable.

She Never Came Home by Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

She Never Came Home is a perfect little ghost story for Halloween. Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen spins a suspenseful story of Alice and her husband Peter and their little dog, Foxy as they move into an old farmhouse deep in the Danish countryside. Just why is Foxy nervous about the cupboard under the sink, what is in the bedrooms upstairs that are excluded from their tenancy agreement, and why has the house been empty for over thirty years?

Both Peter and Alice are out of work, but Peter still has to work out his notice in Germany and leaves Alice alone in the house… Alice slowly discovers the horrible truth.

I really liked this short story, with its chilling atmosphere and shocking twist at the end. In just a few pages Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen has written such a compelling and entertaining tale.

This is my last entry in this year’s R.I.P. challenge and another one for the My Kind of Mystery challenge.

She Never Came Home – FREE for Halloween!

She never came home

To celebrate Halloween, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen has made her latest ghost story, She Never Came Home, free today and tomorrow.

Short story of 9,000 words – crime & ghosts. 

Grab it while you can, and feel free to share the news with your friends or blog readers –and remember to keep the lights on! 

Muhahaha!

http://authl.it/1zt

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories by Hilary Mantel

When I first saw The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it – not because of the controversy over the title story, but because I’m not especially keen on short stories. But Hilary Mantel is one of my favourite authors and after seeing her talk with James Runcie on The Culture Show I decided I definitely wanted to get the book.

I enjoyed this collection of stories,  which are brooding, somewhat melancholic, dark, disturbing and full of sharp and penetrating observations – brilliant! The title story is the last one in the book and is the only new story, the others having first appeared in other publications. I don’t find it easy writing about short stories, especially the very short ones, and so I’m not going to attempt to write about each of the ten stories in this book.

The first one, Sorry to Disturb, describes the dilemma of a British woman living in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia when she finds herself befriended by a young Pakistani businessman – a situation that was ‘ripe for misunderstanding‘. This is one of my favourites in the collection. It has a claustrophobic atmosphere, as feeling trapped in her flat, yet ‘always observed: overlooked, without being precisely seen, recognised’ she was unable to refuse a friendship, wondering if Jeddah had left her ‘for ever off-kilter in some way‘.

This view of life from a slightly different, skewed perspective and of being trapped is there in all these stories. The children in Comma, for example, spend their days during a long hot summer, ‘each day a sun like a child’s painted sun burned in a sky made white with heat’, drawn to watch what was happening at the Hathaways’ house, the house of the rich, built of stone, with a lofty round tower. In both this and Sorry to Disturb, there is an element of distinct class/cultural difference, of being outsiders.

Winter Break is one of the shorter stories, but complete in itself, unlike so many short stories I’ve read. A childless couple are taking a winter break, the husband trying to convince his wife she wants a child – she’s reluctant as she ‘had reached that stage in her fertile life when genetic strings got knotted and chromosomes went whizzing around and re-attaching themselves.’ A moment of anxiety on the journey to their hotel ends in horror.

How Shall I Know You is a much longer story. I often wonder what it’s like for authors going to venues and talking about their books and this story gives an insight into how it can be a dispiriting experience, staying in obscure and dingy places, feeling forlorn, exposed and generally insufficient. It has a grimly humorous side and underneath there is a darkness and bleakness. As with the other stories in this collection it is superbly written – you are there with the narrator, seeing the scenes, meeting the people and understanding their feelings and emotions.

And then the last story – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Mantel sets the scene – of the ‘place where she breathed her last‘ – a ‘quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees: a street of tall houses, their façades smooth as white icing, their brickwork the colour of honey.’  Waiting for the plumber to arrive, a woman lets a man into her flat, only to find out he has a gun and wants to shoot Margaret Thatcher from the flat window, as she leaves the hospital behind the flats. Far from being horrified or scared the woman sympathises with the gunman – her first reaction is that she should get a fee for the use of her premises. This too is a dark tale told with a dark sense of humour, and with depth of feeling.

Overall then this is a compelling book, brilliantly written, keenly observed, with the power to chill and shock me. It is one that I will re-visit.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (25 Sep 2014)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0007580975
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007580972
  • Source: I bought it

Knavesborough Stories by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

Recently Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen kindly made two of her short stories available to me (e-books) for review. They are both about the Gershwin family in Knavesborough, a fictional village in Yorkshire, namely Ding Dong Bell, the Kitten in the Well and Green Acres. I often find short stories lack the necessary depth to be convincing – either weak plots and/or characterisation, but these short stories are both convincing and satisfying. Maybe it helps that they are continuations of other stories, or in the case of Ding Dong Bell, the Kitten in the Well, a prequel.

Ding Dong Bell, the Kitten in the Well goes back in time to Rhapsody Gershwin’s childhood in the early 1990s. Rhapsody is the vicar’s daughter first featured in The Cosy Knave. In this short story Rhapsody and her sisters are worried about the disappearance of the black kitten they have called Black Pete. The last time they had seen him was when they had played in old Ursula Abbot’s garden and they wondered if he had he got locked in her cottage. Ursula had died but as she was nearly ninety it wasn’t entirely an unexpected death … but she had been in good health. Is Ursula’s death connected to Black Pete’s disappearance?Rhapsody helps to solve the mystery.

Green Acres* takes us to the latest in the Gershwin and Penrose Mysteries series. Green Acres, once a country mansion, has been converted into a home for the elderly. Rhapsody visits Rowan Dougal, a farmer who has broken his hip and is currently living at Green Acres. Lavinia Banbury staying in the room next to Rowan dies in her sleep. Nothing unusual in an old people’s home, but is her death really a natural one?

Green Acres* was originally published in the anthology The Red Shoes. This is a new and longer version.

I like these stories. They’re humorous crime fiction, with colourful characters all with quirky names. There’s no blood and gore and each story has an unexpected twist at the end. In other words, they are cosy crimes (if any crime could really be considered as ‘cosy’, that is).

Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen is Danish. After many years as a teacher she is now concentrating on a writing career, publishing in both Danish and English. As well as writing her cosy mysteries she has also written a full length psychological murder mystery novel, Anna Marklin’s Family Chronicles, which I thoroughly enjoyed too – see my post here.

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

When I finished reading The Rendezvous and Other Stories I had absolutely no hesitation in giving it 5 stars – I loved it. This is most unusual for me as generally I’m not too keen on short stories because they often leave me feeling dissatisfied, thinking they are lacking in substance or characterisation. Not so with this book, even though some of the endings were predictable and some of the stories are very short I think they all worked well!

Daphne du Maurier wrote some of these stories before she wrote her first novel (The Loving Spirit, 1931), when she under 23, and the rest between 1937 and 1947, when she was a well established writer. The earlier stories are shorter than the later ones as they were written for magazines

There are 14 stories:

  • No Motive ~ this begins with the suicide of an apparently happy woman expecting her first child. Her husband desperate to discover what could have caused her to take her own life and that of their unborn child employs a private detective to investigate. What he discovers is just so sad and tragic.
  • Panic ~ This is one of the shorter stories about a casual love affair that ends in death and the panic that ensued.
  • The Supreme Artist ~ Another shorter story of an aging actor trying to fight off the years.
  • Adieu Sagesse ~ I loved this one about a hen-pecked husband who plans to escape his tedious life and have an adventure.
  • Fairy Tale ~ A gambler and his long-suffering wife face destitution – unless he wins the lottery!
  • The Rendezvous ~ Now this story really caught my imagination. It’s the story of an ageing writer, who meets a fan of his books whilst on a trip to Switzerland to lecture about his work. As in some of Du Maurier’s books this is about an unequal relationship and the exploitation of one of the partners. It is vividly written, the sense of disappointment, the misunderstandings and subsequent let down is brilliant.
  • La Sainte-Vierge ~ A very short and predictable story about a naive young wife.
  • Leading Lady ~ a beautiful actress manipulates the men around her.
  • Escort ~ Another of the really good stories, full of atmosphere set in set in World War II on board a merchant ship as it sails across the North Sea. Just what is the ship that offers to escort it as a submarine threatens  – and who is its captain?
  • The Lover ~ More sexual manipulation, this time by a young man.
  • The Closing Door ~ A young man is told of his terminal illness and the devastating effect it will have on his life.
  • Indiscretion ~ An amusing tale of what happens when you say something without knowing the consequences – a bit signalled but still enjoyable.
  • Angels and Archangels ~ A bitter and cynical look at religion and hypocrisy.
  • Split Second ~ A brilliant story to finish the book – about a woman who leaves her highly organised house for a walk and finds everything has changed when she returns.

This is one of a set of Du Maurier’s books that I bought at least seven years ago. It was well worth the wait! I still have one more of the set to read – I’ll Never Be Young Again, her second novel.  And there are more that I don’t own to enjoy in the future too.

Greenshaw’s Folly: a Miss Marple Mystery

Agatha Christie’s Marple last night was Greenshaw’s Folly. I saw in the Radio Times that it was based on Christie’s short story of the same name and so I read it before watching the programme. It’s less than 20 pages and I wondered how the script writers were going to make it last 2 hours, even with the advert breaks. Well, of course, they padded out with other plot elements and characters. And there are more murders, and some farcical scenes with policemen running wild – all a bit of a mess really, but lightly done.

Greenshaw’s Folly is a house, visited by Raymond West (Miss Marple’s nephew), who does not appear in the TV version and Horace Bindler, a literary critic (an undercover reporter in the TV version). It’s an unbelievable architectural monstrosity, built by a Mr Greenshaw. Raymond explained:

‘He had visited the chateaux of the Loire, don’t you think? Those turrets. And then, rather unfortunately, he seems to have travelled in the Orient. The influence of the Taj Mahal is unmistakeable. I rather like the Moorish wing,’ he added, ‘and the traces of a Venetian palace.’ (extract from the short story)

The short story is compact, whereas the TV version is packed with poisonings, ghosts, locked rooms, concealed identities, and so on. But apart from that, I’m not going to try to compare the TV show to the short story as there are so many differences that they are really two separate entities. And both are enjoyable in their own way. Julia Mackenzie is nearly right as Miss Marple, not as good as Joan Hickson, but then who could be. I just wish the sweet smile was toned down a little. The rest of the cast included Fiona Shaw, Julia Sawalha, Joanna David, Judy Parfitt, Robert Glenister and Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves). All were very good, especially Bobby Smalldridge as Archie Oxley (Mrs Oxley’s young son who does not appear in the short story).

Greenshaw’s Folly was first published in the Daily Mail 3 – 7 December 1956 and is included in Miss Marple and Mystery The Complete Short Stories.

I see that one of the plot elements involving the use of atropine and its antidote has been taken from one of the other stories in this collection, The Thumb Mark of St Peter, first published in 1928. I think the script writers must have had great fun with these stories.

Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie

I don’t usually find short stories as satisfying as novels, but the stories in Murder in the Mews are good, mainly, I think, because with one exception they are novellas, longer than the average short stories. The collection was first published in 1937.

There are four stories about crimes solved by Hercule Poirot:

  •  Murder in the Mews – at first it looks as though a young widow, Mrs Allen has committed suicide, but as the doctor pointed out the pistol is in her right hand and the wound was close to her head just above the left ear, so it’s obvious that someone else shot her and tried to make it look like suicide. The plot is tightly constructed, with a few red herrings to misguide Poirot and Inspector Japp and a moral question at the end. The book begins on Guy Fawkes Day and I like this conversation between Poirot and Inspector Japp:

(J): ‘Don’t suppose many of those kids really know who Guy Fawkes was.’

(P): ‘And soon, doubtless, there will be confusion of thought. Is it in honour or in execration that on the fifth of November the feux d’artifice are sent up? To blow up an English Parliament, was it a sin or a noble deed?’

Japp chuckled. ‘Some people would say undoubtedly the latter.’ (page 7)

 

  • The Incredible Theft – Poirot is called in to investigate the theft of top secret plans of a new bomber from the home of a Cabinet Minister, Lord Mayfield, where a number of guests are gathered for a house party: Mrs Vanderlyn is an American siren who had formed friendships with ‘a European party’ (this was written in 1936). Air Marshall Sir George Carrington  wonders why she is there. Lady Julia Carrington, Sir George’s wife is a keen bridge player, who has ‘the most frightful overdraft’ and their son Reggie, fancies the French maid. Also present are Mrs Macatta MP, and Mr Carlile, Lord Mayfield’s private secretary. This is perhaps the weakest story in the collection.
  • Dead Man’s Mirror – a conventional murder mystery. Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore is found dead in his locked study, shot through the head. The bullet had shattered the mirror on the wall behind his desk. Again it looks like suicide, but the question is why he should kill himself. Poirot considers it’s all wrong psychologically – Sir Gervase was known as The Bold Bad Baronet, with a huge ego, much like Poirot, considering himself to be a man of great importance. This is another story, complicated by family relationships. Things of interest I noted are that Poirot studies the footprints in the garden outside the study, Mr Satterthwaite (seen in later stories) makes an appearance, and on a personal note I wondered if this was Agatha Christie’s cynical view of divorce?

 I can’t see it makes a ha’p’orth of difference who you marry nowadays. Divorce is so easy. If you’re not hitting it off, nothing is easier than to cut the tangle and start again. (page 115)

 

  • Triangle at Rhodes – although this is the shortest story, not my preferred length, I think this is the best one in the book. It’s similar to her later book Evil Under the Sun in that it is about a love triangle and a crime of passion. Poirot is on holiday in Rhodes and observes the jealousy and passion between two couples as he sits in the sun on the beach. He foresees trouble ahead and is worried as he traces a triangle in the sand. There aren’t many people on holiday there and he wonders if he is imagining things , reproaching himself for being ‘crime-minded‘. But he is not wrong and Valentine Chantry, a famous beauty, married to a commander in the navy, a strong, silent man, is murdered.

These stories demonstrate some of Agatha Christie’s plot elements and endings – the locked room murder, the murderer conceals the motive, Poirot foresees murder, the clues (often odd clues) are there hidden or in plain sight, there are red herrings and bluffs, chance remarks that have significance, and the final denouement, explaining the solution to the mystery.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Letter O

Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet has reached the letter O.

I was surprised quite recently to discover that Baroness Orczy had not only written books about the Scarlet Pimpernel, but had also written crime fiction.

Emmuska Orczy (1865 – 1947) was born in Hungary and she and her family moved to London in 1880, where she went to the West London School of Art and then Heatherley’s School of Fine Art.  Several of her paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy. She married Montague MacLean Barstow in 1894 and encouraged by him, she began writing in 1900. As well as the Scarlet Pimpernel stories she wrote mysteries for the Royal Magazine and Cassell’s Magazine. She created one of the earliest female detectives in a collection of short stories about Molly Robertson-Kirk – Lady Molly of Scotland Yard in 1910.

The Old Man in the Corner
The Old Man in the Corner, Greening & Co. 1910, Design by H. M. Brock. From Flickr

Her book of short stories, The Old Man in the Corner features one of the earliest armchair detectives. It was first published in 1909, although she had written the stories before that and published them in magazines. The ‘Old Man’ sits in the corner of an A. B. C. (Aerated Bread Company) tearoom and relates the mysteries to Polly Burton of the Evening Observer. She was amused by his appearance:

Polly thought to herself that she had never seen anyone so pale  so thin, with such funny light-coloured hair, brushed very smoothly across the top of a very obviously bald crown. He looked so timid and nervous as he fidgeted incessantly with a piece of string; his long, lean and trembling fingers tying and untying it into knots of wonderful and complicated proportions. (Location 47 of 2760)

Tying knots in a piece of string seems to be essential to his deductive powers, for as he unravels the knots so he solves the mysteries. His philosophy is:

There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.  (Location 29)

Very like Hercule Poirot, I thought, but the resemblance ends there. The Old Man’s sympathies are with the criminal rather than the police; he solves the mysteries just for the love of doing it, to discover the motive and method. He doesn’t pass his information onto the police and in most of the cases there is still an element of doubt.

The mysteries included in The Old Man in the Corner are:

The Fenchurch Street Mystery
The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace
The York Mystery
The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway
The Liverpool Mystery
The Edinburgh Mystery
The Theft at the English Provident Bank
The Dublin Mystery
An Unparalleled Outrage (The Brighton Mystery)
The Regent’s Park Murder
The De Genneville Peerage (The Birmingham Mystery)
The Mysterious Death in Percy Street

They seem to be the most baffling cases that the police had been unable to solve, involving murder, blackmail, forgeries and puzzling crimes. I enjoyed reading them, although they don’t overtax the brain.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 302 KB
  • Print Length: 186 pages
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0084BMM6W
  • Source: my own copy
  • My Rating 3/5

 

Guilty Consciences: a Crime Writers’ Association Anthology

I’ve taken my time reading this collection of short stories Guilty Conscience: a Crime Writers’ Association Anthology, edited by Martin Edwards, who has also contributed one of the stories. I read them one or two at a time, which for me is the best way.

The contributors are Robert Barnard, Ann Cleeves, Bernie Crosthwaite, Judith Cutler, Carol Anne Davis, Martin Edwards, Jane Finnis, Peter James, Alanna Knight, Susan Moody, Sarah Rayne, Claire Seeber, L.C.Tyler, Dan Waddell and Yvonne Walus, and there is an introduction from the current Chair of the CWA, Peter James.

I haven’t been too keen on short stories in the past but I enjoyed this collection and think it’s one of the best I’ve read. As Peter James writes in his introduction:

I believe the short story is long overdue for a renaissance, and the ideal literary form for our increasingly busy, time-poor modern lives. What better for a quick read between tube station stops, or using your e-reader to turn a tedious airport security queue into fifteen minutes of surprises and delight?

Or as I found the ideal length to read at breakfast.

As the title suggests the stories all reveal various aspects of a guilty conscience. I find it hard to write about short stories without giving away the plot, so here are just a few notes on some. There are many I could pick out but these particularly stand out in my memory, now that I’ve read the book:

  • Hector’s Other Woman by Ann Cleeves – an intriguing insight into Vera Stanhope’s past and her motivation for joining the police, as Vera recollects her visit to Holy Island with her father whilst she was in the middle of her A-level year.
  • Squeaky by Martin Edwards – about a couple who both have something to hide and how their marriage began to fall apart when Squeaky came into their lives.
  • Deck the Hall with Poison Ivy by Susan Moody – a cautionary story about Christmas and a family’s arrangements.
  • The Train by Dan Waddell – as a husband anxiously waits for the return of his estranged wife he remembers their lives together and vows it will be different this time.

All the contributions were written specially for this collection with the exception of The Visitor by H R F Keating, who died in 2011, a story that had previously been included in a Penguin India collection, featuring Inspector Ghote. Ghote’s visitor is consumed with guilt about something that he had done in the past – but had he?

An excellent collection.

Library Loot

It’s been ages since I did a Library Loot post. These reflect the variety of books that I enjoy. For more details about the books click on the links which take you to Amazon UK:

  • D H Lawrence – Daughters of the Vicar. This is a novella written in 1911. I’d never come across this before and thought it looked interesting. It has a foreword by Anita Desai – she writes that ‘here in the little story, Daughters of the Vicar (could any title be more redolent of the England of its time?) we have the essential D H Lawrence – the little contained world in a mossy valley of coal-veined hills from which that D H Lawrence grew’.
  • Kate Atkinson – Started Early, Took My Dog. This is the fourth Jackson Brodie book, described by The Times as ‘A comic novel of great wit and virtuosity.’ I’ve been meaning to get this since it came out a couple of years ago.
  • Edna O’Brien – The Country Girls. This was first published in 1960 and it’s set in a country village in Ireland in the early 1960s – a period piece now. Her books then were both successful and scandalous. In her native Ireland she was considered irreligious.
  • Guilty Consciences: a Crime Writers’ Association Anthology, edited by Martin Edwards (himself a successful crime fiction writer and blogger). I had to borrow this collection of short stories from some of my favourite crime fiction authors.
  • Peter James – Looking Good Dead. Even though I’ve had a couple of Peter James’s books for a few years I’d never read them, until I started Dead Simple (the first Detective Superintendent Grace book) this week. I’m hooked – it’s really good. So when I saw this in the library today I was delighted – it’s the second of his Roy Grace books!
  • M R Hall – The Flight. Another series of crime fiction that I like – this is the fourth in Hall’s Coroner Jenny Cooper series. I’ve read the first and the third – Jenny Cooper is a coroner who acts as a detective. Again, another series that has me captivated.

And finally, two books on a subject that is equally as absorbing as reading and blogging – painting:

Both books include demonstrations and advice on techniques, types of paint and pastels, and composition. I just need to get painting – and reading!

Best Books January to June

Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise recently asked what are your favourite crime fictionbooks so far this year, which got me to thinking about my favourite books as a whole (not just crime fiction). About half the books I read are crime fiction and the other half is a mixture of fiction (of many genres) with a smattering of non fiction.

After much thought I’ve decided on these ten books as my favourite reads so far. I’ve only included one book from Ian Rankin and Agatha Christie, although I’ve read several from each that I rate as highly as the ones I’ve chosen. Six of the books are crime fiction (marked *), there is one non fiction and one book of short stories. They are listed in the order that I read them.

I hope to vary my reading during the rest of 2010, maybe a few more non-fiction books as I have several biographies/autobiographies I’d love to read and more classics, but I expect crime fiction will still be high on my list of best books by the end of the year.

Library Loot

Here’s a pile of books I’ve recently borrowed:

From top to bottom they are

  • Brat Farrar by Joesphine Tey. Patrick had committed suicide, so who is the mysterious young man claiming to be him and calling himself Brat Farrar? I borrowed this because I enjoyed Tey’s books, The Daughter of Time and The Franchise Affair.
  • The Sea Lady by Margaret Drabble: a story of first and last love and the ebb and flow of time giving shape to our lives. I borrowed this because it’s been a long time since I read anything by Drabble, the last one being The Witch of Exmoor.
  • Naked to the Hangman by Andrew Taylor. Detective Inspector Thornhill is under suspicion of murder and his wife and former lover join forces to try to help him. The only other book by Taylor that I’ve read is The American Boy, historical crime fiction, set in 19th century England, with links to Edgar Allan Poe.
  • The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber. This was on display at the library in a section of books called ‘Thrills and Chills’, not normally the sort of book I read, but this looked interesting about an art dealer with a dark past and the discovery of a previously unknown masterpiece by Velazquez. When I got the book home I realised I’ve got another book by Gruber – The Book of Air and Shadows, which I started once and put to one side, so I don’t expect much from this book.
  • Truth to Tell by Claire Lorrimer. I fancied reading something different by an author I’d not heard of before. The title appealed to me. The Library Journal blurb tells me it’s ‘Nicely done pyschological suspense, firmly in the cozy tradition.’ It looks more like a historical romance though.
  • Green for Danger edited by Martin Edwards, a collection of short crime fiction stories on the theme of ‘crime in the countryside.’ I’ve become quite a fan of these short story collections. This one includes stories from Robert Barnard, Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell, Ann Cleeves and Martin Edwards, himself. I think I’ll start with this book.
  • The Death Ship of Dartmouth by Michael Jecks, a medieval mystery set in 1324. In Dartmouth a man is found lying dead in the road and a ship has been discovered half ravaged and the crew missing. I first came across Jecks when I read King Arthur’s Bones by The Medieval Murderers, in which he wrote one of the short stories. I hope this is just as good.

Have you read any of these books – are they any good?

Library Loot is hosted by is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

Long and Short of It – Booking Through Thursday

btt button

Which do you prefer? Short stories? Or full-length novels?

Comparing short stories and full-length novels is like comparing a weekend away with a month long holiday. A few days away means that you can only skim the surface of a place, not really getting to know it very well, seeing the highlights and you can come home thinking you wanted to stay longer, wanting more. Short stories can be like that. Or a weekend away can be just right  – you’ve seen and done all there is to see and do, you’ve enjoyed it but don’t hanker after any more. Short stories can be like that too.

A month away means that you can settle into a place, explore it in more detail, get to know people and become immersed in it, so much so that you don’t want to go home. Novels can be like that, you never want a good book to end. On the other hand it can get boring, repetitive and tedious and you can’t wait to get home. Novels can be like that too.

In other words both can be right under the right circumstances, but if I had to choose between an enjoyable short break or a longer one then of course I’d go for the longer one.

The Holly-Tree Inn by Charles Dickens

The Holly-Tree Inn by Charles Dickens and others is a lovely little book, both to hold and to read. It’s a Hesperus Press publication, smooth paper and a softback cover with flaps you can use as bookmarks. I received my copy via Library Thing Early Reviewers Programme. I enjoyed reading it.

This was originally published in 1855, being the Christmas number of Dickens’s periodical Household Words. It was so popular that it was then adapted for the stage. It’s a collection of short stories by Dickens, Wilkie Collins, William Howitt, Adelaide Anne Procter and Harriet Parr, around the theme of travellers and  inns. I liked Collins’s and Howlitt’s stories the most.

It begins with a story by Dickens, The Guest in which a gentleman on his way to Liverpool is snowed in at the Holly-Tree Inn in Yorkshire. To keep himself entertained he reminisces about inns he has visited, giving glimpses into travel and inns in the 19th century. Having exhausted his own memories, this story ends with the idea of asking the inmates of the inn for their own stories.

So, the next stories are from:

The Ostler by Wilkie Collins. In this the landlord tell’s the ostler’s tale of his dread of his wife after dreaming that she is about to murder him, a tale of impending doom:

His eyes opened owards the left hand side of the bed, and there stood – The woman of the dream again? – No! His wife; the living reality, with the dream spectre’s face – in the dream-spectre’s attitude; the fair arm up – the knife clasped in the delicate, white hand. (page 53)

The Boots by Charles Dickens – according to Melisa Klimaszewski’s Introduction this tale was such a favourite that Dickens included it in his later public readings. It’s not quite to my taste, a sentimental tale about two young children determined to elope, staying at the Holly- Tree inn:

Boots could assure me that it was better than a picter (sic) and equal to a play, to see them babies with their long bright curling hair, their sparkling eyes, and their beautiful light tread, a rambling in the garden, deep in love.

The Landlord by William Howitt. An entertaining tale of the landlord’s brother who emigrated to Australia in order to better himself. But when they get there they wished they’d stayed in England. It seems they arrived just at the wrong time. Howitt, himself had travelled to Australia in search of gold and his experience is reflected in his tale. 

The Barmaid by Adelaide Anne Procter – a sad story told in verse by the landlord’s niece of Maurice and his love for ‘the loveliest little damsel his eyes had ever seen.’  Not the most challenging of tales.

The Poor Pensioner by Harriet Parr. Hester lives at the inn on ‘broken victuals’, now a poor demented creature refusing to believe that her son was guilty of murder. She waits in vain for his sentence to be reversed. This tale reveals how her wild and wilful ways as a young woman led her to seek for change and excitement with disastrous results. 

The Bill by Charles Dickens. This story completes the cycle. A week has gone by, the Guest’s route is now clear of snow and he can leave.He then discovers that his enforced stay at the inn has changed his life!

Reading this book has made a welcome break in reading modern fiction and has made me keen to read more of Dickens’s and Collins’s books.  I knew nothing about the other authors but fortunately there is a short section at the end with biographical notes about the contributors.

The Breaking Point: Short Stories by Daphne Du Maurier

The Breaking Point, first published in 1959, is my first book for the Daphne du Maurier Challenge. It’s a collection of eight short stories written after The Scapegoat and before The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte. Sally Beauman sums up the stories well in her introduction:

The stories here reflect the concerns of those adjacent books: they are dark, difficult, perturbing – and sometimes shocking. Du Maurier grouped them together under the title The Breaking Point – and they were written during a period when she herself came close to a severe nervous breakdown. They reflect and echo that psychological stress; it runs through them like a fault line. Here, we are a stylistic world away from the smooth technical assurance of her bestselling novels of the 1930s and 1940s: these stories are jagged and unstable; they constantly threaten and alarm; they tip towards the unpredictability of fairy tale, then abruptly veer towards nightmare. They are elliptic, awkward – and they are fascinating. (page ix)

I don’t really need to add much more, other than to indicate the stories themselves.

  1. The Alibi – about a man wanting to escape his ordinary life who takes on a new identity. He lives a double life, which ends as he becomes involved in two deaths.
  2. The Blue Lenses – a truly strange tale of a woman undergoing an eye operation who then sees everyone around her having an animal’s head appropriate to their character. She discovers that she is a victim, subject to betrayal and exploitation, fooled by those close to her.
  3. Ganymede – set in Venice, where a man on holiday is seduced by the beauty of a boy who is killed in a water-skiing accident. He returns home but inevitably he cannot escape his own nature.
  4. The Pool – a supernatural story with a mystical quality about a young girl reaching puberty and her overwhelming sadness at the loss of the hidden secret world she inhabited.
  5. The Archduchess – has a fairy tale atmosphere, about an imaginary principality in southern Europe, where the Archduke’s benign reign is overthrown by the insidious influence of two greedy and jealous men.
  6. The Menace – a silent movie star, a heart-throb until the advent of the ‘feelies’ when it is discovered that his magnetism is almost non-existant. Despite the efforts to raise it by the usual means,such as pretty girls, nothing can be done, until he meets an old friend. This one is much more optimistic than the other stories.
  7. The Chamois – about a married couple hunting for chamois in the Pindus; a chilling story of fear and fanaticism.
  8. The Lordly Ones – about a boy who cannot speak and is thought to be backward. Terrorised by his parents and unable to communicate he finds refuge for a while with the ‘lordly ones’.

The stories tell of double lives, split personalities, paranoia and conflict, each one with a ‘breaking point’. My favourite is The Pool.

Teaser Tuesdays – Crime on the Move

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Share a couple or more sentences from the book you’re currently reading. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

My teaser this week is from Crime on the Move: the Official Anthology of the Crime Writers’ Association of 2005, a collection of short stories edited by Martin Edwards. The last one in the book is Seeing Off George by David Williams.

Disposing of the body was so often the undoing of conspirators like Tristan and Laura, and she knew it. But not only had she lighted upon the perfect solution to their problem, she had also devised a credible story to account for George’s disappearance which would purportedly take place more than a thousand miles away from Farringly. (page 318)

I’ve now finished reading this book, which is an excellent selection of crime stories from a number of authors who were new to me, as well as some very well known ones.

A New Rebus Story

A new Rebus short story by Ian Rankin, The Very Last Drop was published in The Scotsman today. I couldn’t find it online but it is in a four page pull-out in the paper, complete with illustrations and a photo of Ian Rankin reading his story at the Royal Blind School fundraising event that took place last Thursday at Edinburgh’s Caledonian Brewery.

Rebus, now retired, is on a tour around The Caledonian Brewery as a retirement present from Siobhan Clarke. When the tour guide Albert Simms tells the group about the ghost of Johnny Watt, who had died sixty years ago “almost to the day” after banging his head when he fell in one of the vats overcome by fumes, Rebus’s interest is aroused.  As Siobhan says

Soon as you get a whiff of a case – mine or anyone else’s -you’ll want to have a go yourself. 

He can’t resist looking back at the case, using the company’s archives and back copies of The Scotsman. What he finds is more than a ghost story.

Teaser Tuesday – Crime on the Move

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Share a couple or more sentences from the book you’re currently reading. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

This week I’ve been reading short stories from Crime on the Move: the Official Anthology of the Crime Writers Association edited by Martin Edwards. The contributors include  Ann Cleeves, Reginald Hill, Michael Gilbert, Keith Miles Martin Edwards and Kate Ellis who wrote Top Deck, the story  I’m quoting from today.

The theme of the collection of the stories in this book is illustrated in Top Deck through Keith’s journey home from work in Liverpool by bus in 1965. What he sees has a profound effect on the rest of his life.

When the bus stopped briefly in the Ullet Road to let somebody off Keith found himself staring straight across into a lighted upstairs window. The curtains were wide open and two people were silhouetted behind the glass; a man and a woman who, for a split second, seemed faintly familiar. The man seemed to have both his hands raised up to the woman’s throat and they were moving slowly to and fro as if the woman was trying to ward him off, trying to save her life. (page 92)

The stories in this collection are varied, succinct and satisfying, ranging from the macabre and eerie to the comic, about journeys on the sea, in the air and on land. This is a book to dip into and enjoy.

Not Safe After Dark by Peter Robinson

Not Safe After Dark and Other Works is a collection of twenty short stories by Peter Robinson. There are three Inspector Banks stories, one of which Going Back is a novella that had not been published before. The other stories are varied in length, technique and style.

 Of them all I prefer the Inspector Banks stories, in particular Going Back. There isn’t much mystery in this story, but a lot about Banks himself, his youth, relationships with his parents and brother Roy and about his old girlfriend, Kay. It’s his parents’ golden wedding anniversary and Banks goes home for the weekend for the party. He sleeps in his old bedroom with its old glass-fronted bookscase containing a cross-section of his early years’ reading, finds old records he’d forgotten he had, his old school reports, photos and his books of adolescent poetry. His mother treats him like she did as a child, prefering his younger brother Roy and his visit is spoilt by the presence of a new neighbour, the ever-helpful and charming Geoff Salisbury. He is suspicious of Geoff from the start – and with good reason.

Some are historical –In Flanders Field, Missing in Action and The Two Ladies of Rose Cottage. The latterwas inspired by Robinson’s visit to Brockhampton in Dorset where Thomas Hardy was born and also by his interest in Hardy. In 1939 the narrator of the story as a young man first met Miss Eunice and Miss Teresa, who had known Thomas Hardy – was she really the Tess on which he based Tess of the D’Urbervilles? She denied it but then it turned out that Miss Teresa was charged with murder, although  nothing was proved. Years later Miss Eunice had a shocking tale to tell.  This reminded me I still haven’t finished reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Hardy – The Time-Torn Man.

Of  the other stories I also liked Some Land in Florida, in which Santa ends up in the pool with his electric piano thrown in after him – still plugged in. A private eye, there on holiday isn’t convinced it is an accident. April in Paris is a poignantly sad love story about happened when love turned to hatred.

Some of the stories were written when Robinson was asked for stories on a specific topic – Gone the the Dawgs, about American Football and The Duke’s Wife, a modern telling of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

I enjoyed some of these stories more than others – mainly the longer ones. I do prefer novels where characters and plots are more developed than is possible in a short story. I wrote more about this book here.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: N is for Not Safe After Dark

My choice this week for the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is N for Not Safe After Dark by Peter Robinson.

This is a collection of twenty short crime stories, including three Inspector Banks stories and an Inspector Banks novella (90+ pages). The title story Not Safe after Dark is just six pages long and yet those six pages are full of tension and suspense as an unnamed man enters a park after dark, even though he knows that such big city parks are dangerous places.

Peter Robinson’s introduction is interesting for me in that he explains how he writes and compares writing a novel to writing short stories. He’s used to thinking in terms of the novel, with it’s ‘broad canvas’ and finds it hard to ‘work in miniature’. Short stories don’t come easily to him.

I carry a novel around in my head for a long time – at least a year, waking and sleeping – and this gives me time to get under the skin of the characters and the story. Also, plotting is probably the most difficult part of writing for me, and being asked to write a short story, which so often depends on a plot twist, a clever diversion or a surprising revelation, guarantees that I’ll get the laundry done and probably the ironing too.

In short stories there is no space to develop the characters or the plot, nor to give different points of view as in a novel. But, as far as I’m concerned, with the stories I’ve read so far in this book Robinson has succeeded in creating convincing stories with believable characters in real settings.

Often reading short stories I’m left wanting more, which is what happened to Robinson with one of these stories. Innocence is a haunting tale of a man accused of murduring a teenage girl. After writing Innocence, which won the Crime Writer of Canada’s Best Short Story Award in 1991, he couldn’t let the story go and went on to write a whole novel expanding on the events of the story. This eventually became Innocent Graves, featuring Inspector Banks (who is not in the short story).

The other stories include a private-eye story set in Florida, a romantic Parisian mystery, a historical story inspired by Robinson’s interest in Thomas Hardy and the place where he was born, and stories about such varied topics as American Football and Shakespeare.

Note: Peter Robinson’s website is here.

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro is a quintet of stories exploring the themes of love, music and the passing of time. All have narrators who are musicians. As I wrote in an earlier post I’m not a great fan of short stories but these are better than most as they do flesh out the characters in more detail, although some of them just seem to stop rather than ending, leaving me wanting more. There’s nothing dramatic here, rather they are gentle stories with a touch of nostalgia and a sense of loss for what has gone or what could have been.

The first story is The Crooner set in Venice. A young Hungarian musician playing in a cafe meets his mother’s favourite singer, the ageing Tony Gardner. Tony enlists the musician’s help in seranading his wife, Lindy from a gondola.  He reminisces, looking back with nostalgia over the 27 years he and Lindy have been married. They rehearse the songs he’s going to sing to her, all the while going round in circles passing the same palazzo several times. By the end of the story I was left feeling sad – things were not what they initally seemed.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Come Rain or Shine. Ray goes to stay with his friends Emily and Charlie. Their marriage is obviously going through a bad patch and when he is left alone in their flat bored with reading Mansfield Park and browsing their CD collection he can’t stop himself from reading Emily’s diary. What follows is farcical as in his attempts to hide the fact he read the diary he ends up wrecking the room and pretends that it was the neighbour’s dog.

The Malvern Hills, is another sad story about a young musician who’s struggling to make his way in the rock world. He retreats to the Malvern Hills to compose love songs. There he meets an older couple, Swiss folk singers Sonja and Tilo, whose lives are on the point of change.

Noctune, the title story again features Lindy some years later. She and a saxophonist are neighbours, convalescing in a luxury hotel after they’ve both had plastic surgery. A sad bittersweet story as they listen to CDs and then go on a nocturnal walk around the hotel in the early hours of the morning. But their lives have not lived up to their dreams and a plastic surgeon can’t fix that.

The last story Cellists completes the cycle – back in the same cafe in a piazza in Venice seven years later. Tibor, one of the cellists, meets and falls under the spell of Eloise, an American who is apparently a distinguished musician. Their encounter changes his life for the worse.

These stories are full of longing and regret, something which I think Ishiguro does well.

Tuesday Teaser – The Hound of Death by Agatha Christie

teaser-tuesday

Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read.
Let the book fall open to a random page.
Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page.

Hound of death The Hound of Death is a book of short stories. Today’s teaser is from the second story, The Red Signal on page 46:

And I will tell you this, if the man suffering from a delusion happened to hold his tongue about it, in all probability we should never be able to distinguish him from a normal individual. The extraordinary sanity of the insane is a most interesting subject.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes

good-eveningThere are 21 short stories in Good Evening Mrs Craven: the War-time Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. These portray the lives of people on the Home Front, getting on with their lives set against the backdrop of war. They’re not stories of action but their subjects are psychological, emotional and social.  They offer a glimpse into what life was like then – the mood, the atmosphere, the tension and the fear, the hopes and the devastation, the loss and the loneliness, the stress and the tragi-comedy of life.

Mollie Panter-Downes’s style is fluent, a touch journalistic, sometimes subtly ironic and most pleasurable to read. There are stories of housewives, evacuees, billeted soldiers and Home Front volunteers, of the ladies in the Red Cross sewing party who met ‘twice a week to stitch pyjamas, drink a dish of tea, and talk about their menfolk’,  the effects of food rationing, of lovers separated by the war and of ‘The Woman Alone’.

Social changes are highlighted in stories such as ‘Cut Down the Trees’. Forty Canadian soldiers are billeted at Mrs Walsingham’s big house by the river. Her maid, Dossie is horrified by the changes. She mourns the passing of the old way of life, blaming the Canadians:

Of course it wasn’t precisely their fault they were there, but it made her sick to hear their big boots clattering up and down the stairs and to see their trucks standing in line along thelime avenue. (page 150)

She looks forward to the end of the war:

When peace came, sane existence would be immediately resumed. Dossie sincerely believed that the big house, quietly chipping and mouldering above its meadows, would be instantly repopulated, as though by a genie’s wand, with faceless figures in housemaid’s print dresses, in dark-blue livery and gardener’s baize aprons. She believed that the lawns would be velvet again, that visiting royalty would once more point a gracious umbrella towards Mrs Walsingham’s Himalayan poppies, that the gentry would know their places and sit over their claret in the dining room, where they belonged.

In contrast, Mrs Walsingham is more realistic and accepts the inevitable change. When the trees are cut down to make space for the soldiers’  ‘paraphernalia’ she thinks it is an improvement, letting in more air and light. She says

It’s altered the view from this side of the house, but what’s a view? Everything else is changing so fast I suppose we shouldn’t bother about trees and water staying the way they were. (page 153)

Sunday Salon – An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

Yesterday I finished reading An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah. My copy, via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer’s Programme, is an uncorrected proof and is not for quotation, so no quotes in this post.

elegy-for-easterly001This book has one of the most attractive covers I’ve seen for a while – the colours as well as the trees receding into infinity.

I sometimes don’t get on very well with collections of short stories but these are long enough for the characters to be more developed and the stories to be more satisfying than others I’ve read. But several I though would be even better developed as full length novels. They are about the lives of people in Zimbabwe, struggling to live with escalating inflation, where a loaf of bread costs half a million dollars, of corruption, scams, disappointed lives, unfulfilled dreams and broken promises. They paint a bleak picture of the resilence and resistance of people in extreme circumstances, coping with despair.

Something Nice From London is one of the most poignant tales. Relatives living in England often sent something special to their families back home but one family are waiting at Harare airport for something different  – the arrival of Peter who died in London.  His cousin, also living in England keeps promising his body will be on the flight. Peter was the golden boy and much was expected of him. This is the story of unfulfilled ambition and expection. Because you’re not allowed to speak ill of the dead, the family have to forget how he bled them dry with constant demands for more money to pay his fees and provide accommodation and food as they mourn his death. Eventually the body does arrive, but not how they expected.

I also enjoyed Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euros, the story of a diplomat conned by an internet scam. In At the Sound of the Last Post, a politician’s widow at her husband’s funeral ponders the corrupt society they’re living in as his collegues bury an empty coffin – her husband was not the national hero he was made out to be. Death and sickness figure quite prominently in most of the stories and the book as a whole, although laced through with ironic humour,  is a lament – a lament for  Zimbabwe and its suffering people.

a Leap

a-leap002I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of a Leap by Anna Enquist, translated by Jeannette K Ringold from LibraryThing Early Reviewer’s Program. It’s a very short book (80 pages), to be published in April 2009, made up of six monologues. Overall they are sad, even tragic stories.

The first one, Alma, was commissioned by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival and its performance preceded a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. I liked the fact that it’s based on historical facts taken from letters and diaries. Alma was Gustav’s wife and she reflects on her life, having given up her own music to support him. It seems he forced her to do so and she is at once repelled and intoxicated by him, but she is torn between her love for him and Alex, a former lover. This is my favourite of the monologues.

The second story, Mendel Bronstein, shocked me. It’s about a Jewish tailor who decides to lter_small_transparentleave Rotterdam in 1912 to make a new life in America. He is desperate not to forget his own language, with disastrous consequences. This story actually made me squirm.

Cato and Leendert, form the interlinked monologues three and four. Set again in Rotterdam in the spring of 1940 they are a pair of young lovers. Cato first waits in the kitchen for Leendert as the bombs drop on the city and then goes out to search for him as the Germans take control. Meanwhile Leendert is still working at the zoo and ordered to kill the dangerous animals, including his favourite lion, Alexander. I thought this was a touching story full of pathos. It was also based on historical sources and together with Mendel Bronstein was written for the production of Lazarus as part of Rotterdam Cultural Capital of Europe in 2001.

The Doctor is a very short monologue also set in Rotterdam during World War II from a doctor who saves the life of a wounded German general. He wonders if he has done the right thing. This was commissioned by the Bonheur theater company in 2005 for the commemoration of the bombing of Rotterdam in 1940.

The final monologue is  …and I am Sara. Sara is alone in her parents house. She is twenty seven and so far her life has not turned out how she wanted. So much has gone wrong, but now it seems life is set to improve but then disaster overtakes her.

In all these stories fate or circumstances take control, no matter how the characters have struggled in their lives. Anna Enquist is a musician, and a pyschoanalyst as well as a poet and novelist. Her writing is clear bringing the people and places to life. I particularly liked the stage directions in first and last monologues and the insights into the characters’ thoughts.

Tales of Terror

The Body Snatcher and Olalla are two short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson included in my copy of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a Penguin Classic. Both stories were written for the Christmas “crawler” tradition in 1884 and 1885. Christmas was a season traditionally associated with supernatural and creepy tales. In the introduction to the book, the editor, Robert Mighall explains that a “crawler” was a ‘sensational tale of a supernatural incident designed to produce a pleasurable thrill in its readers.’

The Body Snatcher is very much a traditional Christmas ghost story, beginning with four men gathered in an inn on a dark winter’s night telling tales round the fireside of grisly deeds. On this particular night Fettes, the local drunk, is roused from his stupor  as if “arisen from the dead” when he hears the name ‘Dr Macfalane’. What follows is the tale of their relationship in the past when they were both medical students. The title of this story of course gives the game away and it is based on the activities of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh in the 1820s, body snatchers who turned out to be murderers selling bodies that had never been buried. I didn’t find this story to be very chilling or thrilling, although I didn’t predict the slight twist at the end. The interest for me is in the two personalities of Fettes and Macfarlane and how the turn of events affected their lives. Macfaarlane had gone on to be a successful and wealthy doctor, untroubled by his conscience, and

richly dressed in the finest of broadcloth and whitest of linen, with a great gold watch chain and studs and spectacles of the same precious metal; he wore a broad folded tie , white and speckled with lilac, and he carried on his arm a comfortable driving coat of fur.

Whereas Fettes overcome by his conscience had lived in idleness, pursuing

“crapulous, disreputable vices”. Permanently in a “state of melancholy, alcoholic saturation”, a “parlour sot, bald, dirty, pimpled and robed in his old camlet cloak”.

Olalla is a longer story and to my mind is the better of the two. When does a short story cease to be considered short, I wonder? It is definitely written as a Gothic tale, set in an ancient Spanish castle surrounded by deep woodland, about a young man recovering from his war wounds and to “renew his blood”, who finds himself living with a strange family. The castle is as much a character in this story as the people, fallen into disrepair as much as the family has degenerated from its noble ancestors who fell prey to evil.

The young man, naturally, falls in love with Olalla, the beautiful daughter, with a strange mad mother and a simpleton brother.  She fears she has inherited the evil of her ancestors and the hint of vampirism in her mother. There is almost a fairytale feel to this story with references to Sleeping Beauty locked by magic within the castle, and also a chill factor which Bram Stoker later developed in Dracula.

This completes my reading for the RIP Challenge, although I have several more books that I would like to read such as The Turn of the Screw. Thanks to Carl for hosting the Challenge.

The Sunday Salon – Reader Satisfaction

I’m in the middle of two very different books – Going Into a Dark House, a book of short stories by Jane Gardam and Messenger of Truth, a Maisie Dobbs mystery by Jacqueline Winspear. Both are giving me a lot of reader satisfaction; they take me out of myself and into their worlds, peopled by believable characters, set in realistic locations, and with plots that are detailed and complicated enough to keep me wondering how everything will turn out and hoping for a sequel.

I’ve only recently begun to appreciate short stories and still prefer the longer short stories in preference to those of just a few pages. The plus factor is reading short stories is that you can read one in just one session, making it a complete experience. Going Into a Dark House is a collection of eight short stories, all long enough to satisfy my requirements. The title story, which I haven’t read yet is the longest and is in three parts. Death figures quite a lot in these stories, in different guises and also reflections on age, youth and nostalgia. The first story is Blue Poppies which begins: “My mother died with her hand in the hand of the Duchess.” You know at the start that there is a death; the rest of the story leads up to this death and its effect on the daughter.  I like the way Jane Gardam writes, conjuring such vivid images that it seems as those I’m actually witnessing the scene. For example the blue poppies are

… just like Cadbury’s chocolate papers crumpled up under the tall black trees in a sweep, the exact colour, lying about among their pale hairy leaves in the muddy earth, raindrops scattering them with a papery noise. 

Zoo-Zoo is a strange little tale about a dying nun who is taken by two of her fellow nuns to a nursing home to end her days. She is not as senile as they suppose. My favourite story so far in this collection is Dead Children, which I think is absolutely brilliant. How Jane Gardam can write twelve pages about such a deceptively simple meeting of a mother and her two children and infuse them with such depth of meaning and emotion is just beyond me.  The twist at the end makes an ordinary everyday event amazingly extraordinary.

Messenger of Truth is a much longer book and my reading has been spread out over a few sessions already. It is a detective story set in 1930/1 in England. The artist Nick Bassington-Hope has fallen to his death from the scaffolding whilst installing his work at an art gallery. The police believe it is an accident, but his twin sister Georgina isn’t convinced and hires Maisie Dobbs to investigate his death. Along with Nick’s death there is also the mystery of the missing piece of art work that was to be the centre of the exhibition.

I’m just over half-way through this novel and I think I’m going to have to abandon other books I have on the go in order to finish it. Maisie’s methods of investigation take her to the art gallery, to Dungeness where Nick lived in a converted railway carriage and to visit his family at their home near Tenterden. After questioning his friends and seeing Nick’s paintings she becomes convinced the mystery of his death is related to the missing painting and that this is connected to Nick’s experiences as a war artist during the First World War.

I like the way the mystery is set in the cultural and social setting of this period, between the two World Wars. England is a place where there is a great divide between the wealthy and the poor. Maisie’s assistant Billy Beale is struggling to accept that people have money to spend on artwork when others can’t afford food and medicine. The realities of life are highlighted when Billy’s family catch diphtheria and his two year old baby, Lizzie is taken into hospital. The lingering effects of the war are starkly and shockingly described in Georgina’s reminiscences about the treatment during the war of men suffering from shell-shock.

 Maisie is a an independent woman living on her own, working out her relationship with Andrew Dene, who hoped to marry her. Their relationship is floundering as she is absorbed in her work and doesn’t want to give it up and conform to the accepted role of being a doctor’s wife. She is discontent and is seeking a quality out of life that she cannot quite define. She finds the thrill of investigation outweighs her desire to help others. It is the search for truth that motivates and thrills her.

Both books are immensely satisfying.

A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin


Happy Birthday to Ian Rankin. My choice for the Celebrate the Author Challenge in April is A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin whose birthday is today 28 April.

A Good Hanging is a collection of twelve short stories featuring Inspector John Rebus, set in Edinburgh. All the stories are concise and I think convey the character of Rebus; he is cynical and analytical, a lone worker, who drinks and smokes too much. None of the stories pose complex mysteries and are seemingly easily solved by Rebus. I did enjoy the book but it is less satisfying for me than a full length novel. I have several other Rebus books in line including Black and Blue, which promises to be ‘a first-rate and gripping novel’, according to the Sunday Times.

First published in 1992 it’s one of the earlier Rebus books. The first story in this book is called “Playback”. Rebus is impressed by being able to phone your home phone “from the car-phone” to get “the answering machine to play back any messages.” You can tell from this that it’s rather different from current crime detection fiction. As the title indicates, solving the crime in this story hinges on phone messages. The police receive a phone call from the murderer confessing his crime. He panics and tries to flee, only to be caught as the police arrive on the scene of the crime. He then insists on his innocence. Rebus disentangles the puzzle even though this seems to be “the perfect murder”.

In “The Dean Curse” Rebus is reading Hammett’s novel “The Dain Curse”, which he tosses up into the air disgusted by how far-fetched and melodramatic that book was, piling on coincidence after coincidence “corpse following corpse like something off an assembly line”, when he receives a phone call with news of a car bomb that had just gone off in Edinburgh. He cannot believe it has happened. It seems as though this is the work of terrorists, the bomb having all the hallmarks of an IRA bomb and it had gone off seconds after the car had been stolen. It seems to Rebus as if the coincidences in the Hammett story have nothing on his case. But there is more to this case than at first meets the eye.

My favourite in the book is the title story “A Good Hanging” in which Rebus solves the crime through his knowledge of “Twelfth Night”. It’s set during the Edinburgh Festival period, when the city is full of young people, theatrical people. A Fringe group, comprising a number of students are staging a play called “Scenes from a Hanging” promising a live hanging on stage. The story starts with the discovery of a young man found hanging from the stage scaffold in Parliament Square. It appears to be suicide according to the note in his pocket “Pity it wasn’t Twelfth Night”. Rebus investigates and finds that all is not as it seems.

The other stories involve the discovery of a skeleton buried beneath a concrete floor, a Peeping Tom, and blackmailers. One story I particularly like is “Being Frank” about a tramp who overhears two men talking about a war that’s coming. He is well known for making up stories and informing the police of numerous conspiracies so they just laugh at him. But fearing the end of the world Frank confides in Rebus who eventually begins to suspect that this time Frank is not lying.

I see on Ian Rankin’s website that he has written the final Rebus book Exit Music. Another book to add to the book mountain.

The Sidmouth Letters by Jane Gardam

The Sidmouth Letters is a collection of eleven short stories. It’s a short book of just under 150 pages, so it doesn’t take long to read the whole book. With a collection of short stories I tend not to read from the start to the end, picking and choosing which ones to read, but with this one I read the stories in the order they are in the book. I was glad I did as I think the last one is the best. The stories are nicely varied in style and content with convincing and authentic characters. I liked some more than others.

The first story is “The Tribute”, a perceptive and amusing study of a trio of Kensington widows exposing their small-minded attitude to a former nanny, when they receive news of her death.

I wasn’t too keen on “Lychees for Tone”. It is written in the present tense, which I find irritating. A lonely mother lives with her son. As she waits for him to bring home a new girlfriend she ponders what she will be like and her isolation and prejudices become apparent. I thought the ending was disappointing with a predictable play on words.

“The Great, Grand, Soap-Water Kick” is a story about a tramp, Horsa looking for a house in which he can have a bath, which only happens every second year or so. You can imagine the state he is in and the state of the house by the time he has finished. I liked the idea and the structure of the story. Although I liked the imagery and the style of writing does reflect the character, I found it jarring and disjointed. But then I don’t think you’re actually meant to like Horsa.

“Up steps smelly Horsa.
Rings bell no answer.
Ringsgain no answer.
Ringsgainturns look updown. Not living soul. Not motor car. Not bike. Only cat gatepost watch through yellow slits. Cat stands, stretches on four fat sixpences, turns round, curls upgain, goes sleep.”

In “Hetty Sleeping” a married woman on holiday with her two children meets a former lover, and wonders what her life could have been like.

In “Transit Passengers” two young students are leaving Greece and go their separate ways. Will their love survive, or is it as transitory as their journey?

“The Dickies” are a married couple. Mrs Dickie is neurotic and has to suffer her husband’s infidelities. All is not as it seems, however.

I particularly liked “A Spot of Gothic”. A young army wife living in the remote countryside is driving home alone late one night when she encounters a woman standing in her garden waving to her. It’s the loneliest part of the road and she is shaken and frightened at the sight. She wonders if she saw a ghost. When she returns to the road the next day she feels she is being watched and sees a woman who asks her the time and walks away, leaving the young wife feeling terrified: “The dreadful sense of loss, the melancholy, were so thick in the air that there was almost a smell, a sick smell of them.” Who has she seen?

The last story “The Sidmouth Letters” deals imaginatively with Jane Austen’s love life. Annie meets a former professor who had claimed credit for her work when she was a student. He has discovered that love letters, supposedly written by Jane Austen have been found and he sends Annie off to Sidmouth with instructions to buy the letters. The story reveals how Annie gets her own back on the professor. The question is – did Jane Austen write the Sidmouth letters? This story was the reason that I read the book and it didn’t disappoint.

Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke and illustrated by Charles Vess


I started the R.I.P. Challenge II aiming to read just one book. It’s now nearly the end of the challenge and I have exceeded my target. I have read Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott, several short stories from Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, from the Great Ghost Stories collection published by the Chancellor Press and today I finished reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke. I’m glad I took this challenge as it has made me read Poe’s Tales after years of wondering what they are like, but I am a little disappointed that they are not as spooky as I imagined them to be and I don’t like the gory elements and Poe’s fascination with premature burials. I’m probably in a minority on this.

Ghostwalk was to my mind a much more satisfying read and I’m pleased that The Ladies of Grace and Adieu was as fantastical as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (also by Susanna Clarke), which I read about two years ago. I was entranced by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is set in a parallel nineteenth century England and tells the story of two magicians, full of mystery, magic, fantasy and faerie tales and The Ladies, although much shorter, is another book full of fantasy stories.

As a child I read all the fairytale books I could find and The Ladies collection takes me back to the magical world of those stories. They are full of deep dark woods, paths leading to houses that seemingly move locations, ladies who are never what they appear to be, princesses, owls, and above all fairies, including the Raven King.

The stories are all captivating and strange and set up echoes in my mind of such fairytales, as Rumpelstiltskin (in On Lickerish Hill). My favourite stories are The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Mrs Mabb, and The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. The Ladies explains why Jonathan Strange prevented his clergyman brother-in-law from an engagement with Cassandra Parbringer as Strange discovers that his magic is no match for Cassandra and her two friends, the three bewitching ladies of Grace Adieu.

Mrs Mabb is a fascinating story in which the heroine, Venetia Moore contends with the mysterious Mrs Mabb who has stolen away Venetia’s fiancé. Whichever path she takes to get to Mrs Mabb’s house she cannot find it, although she catches sight of the house and wonders at the smallness of it. She is surprised to realise that she remembers little of what has happened to her after she is found in a state of confusion, with her clothes in tatters. On another occasion after trying to get to the house she dances all night until her feet are bleeding, and finally she is attacked by what seems to be a great crowd of people with glittering swords. This reminded me of a book my mother used to have full of strange and wonderful stories and poems, one of which was about Queen Mab. I wish I still had that book. I have tried to find what the poem could be – as I remember it, Queen Mab was a fairy queen, full of malice and mischief, who turned out to be not what she seems. I think the poem I read must have been from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Mercutio’s speech in Act 1 scene iv:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

The story I enjoyed the most was The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. I have not read any of Neil Gaiman’s books, but I think I really should. The story of the Duke’s horse is set in Wall, a village in the world created by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, where there is an actual wall dividing our world and the world of Faerie, guarded by burly villagers with cudgels. The proud Duke, the Nation’s Hero, passes unchallenged by the intimidated villagers into Faerie, in pursuit of his horse. His fate is then seemingly set in stitches in a magnificent piece of embroidery in exquisite pictures. I wonder if the creator of Heroes has read this story – there are similarities with the painter, Isaac, who has the ability to paint the future? The Duke’s fate depends on whether he can alter the future shown in the embroidery. The ending has a satisfying twist.

I have enjoyed this Challenge and although it ends on 31 October I shall carry on reading “R.I.P.” books. I have Susan Hill’s The Man in the Picture and Raold Dahl’s Completely Unexpected Tales waiting in line.

Ghost Stories R.I.P.Challenge II


Great Ghost Stories

This is a collection of ghost stories by different authors including G.K. Chesterton, Walter De La Mare, O. Henry, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, R.L.Stevenson, and H.G. Wells. So far I have read just a few of them and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. It’s a good book to dip into from time to time.

Berenice by Edgar Allen Poe
Keeping His Promise by Algernon Blackwood
Honolulu by Somerset Maugham
The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant
The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett

Berenice is not included in Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. According to Wikipedia it was first published in the Southern Literary Messenger in March 1835 and due to public outcry an edited version was published in1840.

The opening sentence sets the scene “Misery is manifold.” From then on you know that this is another of Poe’s tales of unrelieved tragedy. There is no escaping it. The narrator is Egaeus, an obsessive intellectual who falls in love with his cousin, Berenice. She is his opposite, beautiful, agile, healthy and full of energy. His obsession is monomania;he is fixated on objects to the exclusion of everything else around him. Alas, disease befell Berenice and she wasted away until all that was unchanged were her teeth. Egaeus as you would expect is devastated, but is totally obsessed with her perfect teeth and he sees them everywhere. She dies. He comes to as though “awakened from a confused and exciting dream” to an horrific discovery …

This story is very much what I’ve come to expect from Poe and repeats a number of themes he uses in other stories – death, burial and mental illness. To me they lack suspense, maybe because they are so short. When he revised Berenice Poe wrote in a letter to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger on April 30, 1835: “I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste — but I will not sin quite so egregiously again.” I not sure that he succeeded.

Keeping His Promise by Algernon Blackwood is a story with a supernatural twist; he builds up a tale of gradually increasing tension. Marriott is a student at Edinburgh University studying for his exams. He is disturbed in his room by the arrival of a Field, who appeared to be starving, thin as a skeleton, exhausted and under the influence of drugs. Marriott gave him a whisky and they had supper together before Field dropped with exhaustion on Marriott’s bed where he slept the night. Marriott could hear his heavy deep breathing in the next room as he resumed his studies. When morning came there was no sign of Field and Marriott feels a sensation of fear, his left arm throbs violently and he trembles from head to foot. There is the impress of a body on the bed and Marriott can still hear the breathing.

The pain in his arm is caused by a scar on his wrist and he realises that it is now bleeding. Then he remembers how the scar had been made and why, which leads him to discover the truth about his nightmare experience. Had Field really been there? Marriott had fed him and seen him eat and drink– but in the morning the food was untouched, although he could still hear the breathing…

In contrast Honolulu is an amusing but sinister tale of a little fat sea captain, who tells of the strange events that had overtaken him whilst sailing in the South Seas between Honolulu and various small islands. An enjoyable tale of love, betrayal and voodoo.

The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant is set in the High Alps in the depth of winter. The Schwarenbach Inn is left in the care of two mountain men as the family descend to the village below. De Maupassant’s description of the freezing conditions as the snow falls and the two men are isolated on the mountain sets the scene for the events that follow. When one of the men goes out hunting and doesn’t return the other is alone in the inn. He can’t get out because something is trying to get in!

The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett tells the story of a young wife with an unimaginative and controlling husband, set in one of the Pottery towns in Staffordshire. She wants a belt to enhance her ball dress, which leads her to a strange experience connected (or is it?) to the death of a mandarin in China. This is not a scary story. It’s a study of how an ordinary situation can become seemingly extraordinary through the power of imagination.

R.I.P. Challenge Tales of Mystery & Imagination

I found the unexpected when I started to read Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales. I was disappointed. They had built up I my mind as scary, creepy tales, partly as a result of my mother saying not to read her copy of Tales when I was a child. Of course I got it out of the bookcase when she wasn’t around and had a peek inside and was scared and put it back quickly before she caught me. I hadn’t looked at the book since.

The first one I read, William Wilson, just wasn’t scary at all. I didn’t find it mysterious, or very imaginative either. I read this a few days ago and on reflection it wasn’t as bad as I first thought. It’s about the nature of personality and how we can’t see or come to terms with our own nature.

If you don’t want to know the story then you’d better not read any further, but I did find it predictable and so there was no suspense or shivery feelings for me in this tale.

William Wilson, not his real name, meets another William Wilson, not his real name either, at school and becomes convinced that his namesake is making himself into a perfect imitation, which he detests and he left school to get away from him. Three years of “folly” follow and then at Eton during an evening of “debaucheries” when the wine flowed freely at a “party of the most dissolute students” he re-encounters his double. He continues in this vein whilst at Oxford University descending to yet greater depths of depravity, and then flees to Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Moscow in attempts to shake off the presence of his tormentor, all the time demanding, “Who is he? – whence came he? – and what are his objects?”

Finally in Rome, having “indulged more freely than usual in the excesses of the wine-table” he determines to confront him “Scoundrel! Impostor! Accursed villain! You shall not – you shall not dog me unto death! Follow me, or I will stab you where you stand!” They struggle – he stabs him. Then, and this is where I think the tale is so predictable and I had seen it coming from way back, he sees a large mirror and the reflection of his antagonist who whispers “In me didst thou exist – an in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”

So I thought I’d try one I’d heard of and read The Fall of the House of Usher, having a vague memory of seeing an old black and white movie with Boris Karloff opening a huge, ancient door, covered in cobwebs and creaking loudly on its hinges, at the dead of night. I’ll write about what I made of this in another post.