I had plenty of books on my e-reader (and a little World’s Classics edition of Persuasion, just in case), but what I actually read during my first week in China was a book that I found at the splendid Red Wall Garden Hotel in Beijing. I like the custom that’s grown up of people leaving their holiday reading behind. You can come across some good things that way. Years ago I discovered a copy of Michael Connolly’s The Concrete Blonde in a hotel in Greece and he became one of my favourite crime-writers.
It is always fascinating to see what other people have been reading. A day or two into our holiday we were having lunch in a hotel in one of the hutongs, the old residential quarters of Beijing, and I spotted a veritable library of discarded paperbacks. The books were divided into escapist crime fiction and solid classics, pretty representative of my own holiday reading. Agatha Christie’s N or M ? rubbed shoulders with Kakfa’s The Trial, A is for Alibi with Portrait of a Lady and The Great Gatsby. I was pleased to see a copy of The False Inspector Dew by my friend, Peter Lovesey.
The book I found in the Red Wall Garden Hotel was Paul French’s Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China, highly appropriate reading, and I’ll be saying more about it in another post.
And as for the actual holiday, less than a fortnight ago I was actually standing on the spot on the Great Wall from which my husband took this photograph.
I’ve been reading with great pleasure Virginia Nicholson’s excellent, Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. In a chapter on the stereotype of the spinster I was interested to come across this as an example: ‘Agatha Christie’s knitting detective Miss Marple incarnated the spinster sleuth.’ Last week I was reading The Thirteen Problems, stories featuring Miss Marple, and it seemed to me that here Virginia Nicholson rather misses the point. Miss Marple only appears to be a stereotypical English spinster, unworldly and ineffectual, forever fussing with her knitting. In fact she is anything but.
In The Thirteen Problems she is pitted against a solicitor, a clergyman and Sir Henry Clithering, retired Scotland Yard commissioner and beats them all hands down and this in the 1920s and 1930s. Agatha Christie has plenty of fun here – there is a lot of quiet humour generally in her books – at the expense of everyone who makes the mistake of underrating Miss Marple. She may have spent a sheltered life in St Mary’s Mead, but she knows all about the seamy side of life: housemaids ‘in trouble’, wives murdered by husbands, lives ruined by ill-founded gossip. Miss Marple is in fact a pretty tough cookie and has no compunction about seeing murderers sent to the gallows. She is such a familiar figure that one is inclined to forget what an original creation she was.
Today I am blogging about books set in schools and Moira at Clothesinbook.com is doing the same. Our tastes are similar but don’t quite overlap, so I’m always fascinated to see what she has chosen.
There are very few fictional schools that one would like to have attended or to have sent one’s own children to, but Llanabba Castle in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928) takes the biscuit. As Mr Levy of Church and Gargoyle, scholastic agents, explains to Paul Pennyfeather, ‘We class schools into four grades: Leading School, First-Rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly . . . School is pretty bad.’ And so it proves. Very dark and very funny.
As a child I didn’t go in for school stories, but this was an exception: Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did at School (1873), her follow-up to What Katy Did. I adored this story of Katy and Clover and their year at a boarding school in Connecticut and I still enjoy it even now.
In Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853) Lucy Snow goes to teach at a girls school in Belgium and falls in love with Monsieur Paul. It is years and years since I read this, but I vividly remember the atmosphere of erotic longing and repressed emotion.
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). Ah, Miss Brodie and her crème de la crème: the influence of a teacher – for good or ill – can be lifelong. An examination of good and evil through the prism of school life – but funny, too.
Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof (1935). Closed communities such as schools, especially boarding schools, make excellent settings for crime novels. This one, set in a boys prep school, was the first crime novel by poet, C. Day Lewis, writing as Nicholas Blake, and is a Golden Age mystery with a difference: the detective, Nigel Strangeways, was based on W. H. Auden.
Robert Player, The Ingenious Mr Stone. Another crime novel, partly narrated by the bursar at a dreadful boarding school for girls. Ingenious, yes, and funny.
How to be Topp and Down with Skool by Geoffrey Willans with illustrations by Ronald Searle: ‘Hurra for the botany walk! Now boys get into croc. Tinies at the front, seniors at the rear. Off for the woods and keep your eyes skinned. Ha-ha- what do we see at once but a little robin! There is no need to burst into tears fotherington-tomas swete though he be. Nor to buzz a brick at it Molesworth 2. Pause at the zebra, look left look right. Strate into the vicar’s bicycle. That’s all right we were none of us hurt and i canot believe the vicar really said that grabber . . . A dead bird, Peason? I don’t think that would find its place in the nature museum it is so very dead.’ I was a grown-up when I discovered Molesworth, ‘the curse of St Custard’s.’ The kind of book that is wasted on children. A perfect marriage of text and illustrations. Sublime.
Finally, Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, set in an elite girls boarding school. Not among her best – Poirot takes far too long to appear – but good fun all the same.
So that’s it. I’ll add a link to ClothesinBooks once Moira’s post is up.
Now it is: with surprising results! http://bit.ly/16X4I99
I’ll begin by saying right away that I am not suggesting that these are the five best Agatha Christie’s. I wouldn’t dare. I am not even saying that they were my favourites last week or would be next week. But right now I am choosing these as my desert island five (though even now at the last minute I’m wavering). I have been thinking about it off and on ever since Moira and I challenged each other. I didn’t have time to reread the whole lot, so I browsed a bit, did a bit of rereading – and here goes in no particular order.
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe: I love the opening. Hercule Poirot is at the dentist and feeling all the dread people do feel in the dentist’s waiting room. It’s funny, but also ingenious. Shortly after he leaves, the dentist dies from a gunshot wound and all the other patients who were waiting with Poirot are suspects.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas: I picked this up from my mother’s book shelf a few years ago when I had a long wait to have the tire replaced on my car. Sitting in the dreary waiting room, suffering from a cold, I was very grateful to Agatha Christie. It’s a classic country house set up – and I was thoroughly bamboozled.
Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. The last outing for Poirot and dear old Hastings. Touching and elegiac. And what an audacious plot. I love the fact that she wrote this in the middle of her career and waited over thirty years to publish it. Some of her late novels are pretty thin stuff, but this ensured that the Poirot books ended on a high note.
The Body in the Library: There would have to be a Miss Marple. She is especially acute and perceptive in this one. I love the title and – it almost goes without saying – the plot is very, very clever.
And now the last one and it is almost impossible to chose. I am tempted to chose The Mysterious Affair at Styles for symmetry, but in the end I am going for The Moving Finger. It is by no means the best plotted: others such as Peril at End House and The ABC Murders are better, but I just like it, that’s all.
And now over to Moira at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com.
The school holidays have started. I don’t expect to do much writing, but I plan to do plenty of reading. First on the list is my book group’s big read, Middlemarch, and I am so much looking forward to it. It’s a long time since I have reread it from cover to cover, and I’ll be reporting on that.
Then there are the crime novels that I’ll be tackling either at home or abroad. I am a big fan of Martin Cruz Smith, so I’ll be packing his new novel, Tatiana. I recently reviewed The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst, which I loved, so I’ll follow that up with Closed for the Winter, the only one in English that I haven’t yet read. I plan to try Johan’s Theorin’s The Quarry. He comes recommended by Barry Forshaw in his guide, Nordic Noir, and the novel’s set on the Swedish island of Oland, which I’ve visited on the Swedish trip I recently wrote about here: http://somethingisgoingtohappen.net/ and http://bit.ly/1jRNrnk
We’ll be in northern France part of the time, so I’ll be brushing up my French with Simenon’s Maigret et l’inspecteur Malgracieux and maybe Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon moulin. Adrian Magson’s series featuring Inspector Lucas Rocco are set in 1960s Picardy and I’ve downloaded the latest, Death at the Clos du Lac.
I’ll be blogging, but maybe not quite as regularly as usual. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, I’ve been rash enough to agree to list my five favourite Agatha Christie’s after being challenged by Moira at ClothesinBooks. She’s doing the same and we’ll both be posting our lists on Thursday.
It is a feature of crime fiction as a genre that a lot of writers are expected to produce a book a year, often featuring the same detective. It’s not surprising that some of these series get a little tired and even the sainted Agatha wasn’t exempt from this. I’ve just read one of her later novels, At Bertram’s Hotel, and, sad to say, it is pretty thin stuff. It was published in 1965, a full forty-five years after her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. By then Christie herself was 75. Her last novels are really not up to much in comparison with her dazzling prime. That isn’t to say that crime-writers can’t write successfully in old age: look at P. D. James. However P. D. James doesn’t write a novel a year, and other writers who have maintained the quality of their work by letting the time stretch out between books include Martin Cruz Smith and Sue Grafton. I found myself musing on this as I read Ian Rankin’s new novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible. He is one of those writers who does pretty much produce a book a year, but the standard shows no sign of slipping. Exit Music was supposed to be the last Rebus novel, but Rankin did not make the mistake of killing him off, so letting him return from retirement hasn’t been too problematic. It is rather surprising though that Rebus is in such good form, considering the quantities of fags, alcohol and junk he has consumed over the years. Does a vegetable or a piece of fruit never pass his lips? In this novel he finds himself teamed up with the teetotal Malcolm Fox, Rankin’s new series character, who has appeared in two novels of his own. He is am much a straight arrow as Rebus is a maverick. That’s fun, as is the development of Rubus’s friendship with Siobhan Clarke, once his protogee and now his senior. The novel’s intricately plotted, and there’s some terrific dialogue. Perhaps it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Rankin’s best – The Falls is my favourite – it’s still a very good read.
I’ve decided this year to try to make more of my London Library subscription. I’ve been a member since 1984 – I think – around thirty years at any rate and since 1990 I haven’t actually been living in London, though I was pretty close when I was in Cambridge. Sadly Sheffield does not have a subscription library and though I have sometimes toyed with joining the splendid Portico Library in Manchester (it has interesting events too), I know I wouldn’t go enough. I manage to get to London once a month, but one of the really marvellous things about the London Library is that they will post books out to you and very prompt and efficient the service is, too. And as I am a country member I am allowed to have fifteen books out rather ten. You can keep the books out for as long you like if no-one requests them and in my case, while I was doing my Ph.D that was literally years. All the same there have been times when I haven’t used it very much and that is a waste, given how much the subscription has gone up in recent years.
So I’ve got a pile of books now,and I have been reading with pleasure, The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels by Matthew Sweet. The Ritz, the Savoy, The Dorchester, Claridge’s. What glamour the names of those hotels conjure up: women in silk dresses, men in evening dress or uniform, famous dance bands such as Ambrose and his orchestra. And, Sweet shows, how unsavoury the reality often was. Sweet points that if they ‘were the homes of Cabinet ministers and military leaders, plutocrats and aristocrats’ London’s war-time hotels were also awash with spies, crypto-fascists, adulterers, con artists and swindlers, and young men and women on the make. The stories are all here: of aristocratic jewel thieves, Nazi double agents, deposed monarchs and governments-in-exile. No wonder hotels have been such a useful resource for writers: all kinds of people who are not necessarily what they seem can meet and mingle in them. Agatha Christie often used them as ways of bringing people together or even as settings: Evil Under the Sun, At Bertram’s Hotel, A Carribean Mystery. And it’s not just crime novels. Elizabeth Taylor’s fine novel, Mrs Palfrey at the Cleremont, makes good use of the poignant setting of a residential hotel where the elderly residents eke out their days and try to hang on to their dignity.
I recently read ‘VANTAGE STIKER, a little known Golden Age crime novel from 1931 by a writer called Helen Simpson. Martin Edwards mentioned it to me, and told me it was very difficult to get hold of, but as often happens, the London Library came up trumps. I enjoyed it. She is a lively and engaging writer. The novel is very much of its time and reminded me a little of Nicholas Blake’s early novels. Dermot is a witty sardonic young man working in a government office. He suffered an head injury in the First World War that makes him liable to uncontrollable rages. He is the ideal person, then, to be framed for the murder of the Prime Minister (no less!)and that is just what happens. At one point a friend points out that if the true murderer isn’t unmasked, Dermot could hang in a matter of weeks. As Dr Johnson is supposed to have said, ‘Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ It concentrates the mind of his friends, too, and is the engine of the plot in a number of other novels, notably Agatha Christie’s MRS GINTY’S DEAD. Of course it is still a plot device that’s available for writers setting novels in US states that still have the death penalty: Andrew Kavlan’s TRUE CRIME springs to mind, and there are many others. There isn’t quite the same sense of urgency when it simply a matter of imprisonment which can be reversed. Perhaps even as I write this there is someone researching a PhD thesis on the impact of the abolition of the death penalty on the British crime novel. I wonder if in their modest way these novels helped to bolster opposition to the death penalty in suggesting ways in which an innocent person could be hanged for a crime they hadn’t committed.
I spent Thursday to Sunday last week at Crimefest, where I moderated a couple of panels. Linda Stratmann was on one of them. She is the author of a book entitled CHLOROFORM which I’d heard was good – and it is. As far as I’d thought at all about it, I’d been aware of chloroform as a staple plot device in nineteenth century crime fiction and I might also have been able to come up with the fact that Queen Victoria was one of earliest women to have the pangs of child-birth relieved by it. But there is far more to the story of chloroform and Linda’s carefully researched and well-written account is enthralling. Until its discovery surgery had been an agonising process and the risk of shock was considerable. Chloroform at first seemed nothing short of miraculous. However it was not longer before rumours of a disquieting nature began to circulate; a number of young and apparently patients failed to come round from the anaesthetic. It was to be a very long time before the reasons for this were discovered and for around a hundred years chloroform continued to be in common use. It was superseded by among other things, including ether, which I remember being given at the dentist as a child. It was vile stuff, and chloroform in spite of its risks sounds much nicer. I was amused to learn that it would take far more a whiff of a chloroform-soaked hanky that so often features in early mystery stories to put someone out. However it was nice to learn from Linda at the conference that Agatha Christie, who had worked in a hospital dispensary, was one writer who knew her poisons.
Linda’s own first novel, THE POISONOUS SEED, set in 1880s Bayswater, has just come out.