Miss Grief

Some of you may never have heard of Constance Fenimore Woolson – I hadn’t before I began following Anne Boyd Rioux on Twitter.

Miss Grief and other stories a new collection of stories, by Constance Fenimore Woolson has been edited by Anne Boyd Rioux who is the author of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist (which I am two thirds of the way through). Woolson’s stories and serialisations of her novels appeared in various literary papers and journals during the 1870’s, 1880’s and 1890’s. Her first novel Anne outsold Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady almost ten times. By 1894 when Woolson died she had been compared to the likes of the Brontes and Jane Austen by a notable critic, and was considered one of the best writers of her generation. However I don’t want to talk too much about Constance Fenimore Woolson the woman – although I am completely fascinated by her already – as I hope to review the biography next week. Colm Tóíbín who wrote about Henry James and his friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson in his novel The Master – which I have yet to read – has written the foreword of this edition. It adds a wonderful extra dimension.

Woolson’s stories reflect the places she lived and travelled to during her lifetime Ohio of the mid-west, the Deep South and Europe. They also reflect in small ways her friendship with Henry James – whom she met while in Italy. I loved these stories; I loved the landscapes and the people.

The collection opens with St. Clare Flats – one of Woolson’s Great Lake stories it is set in the freshwater delta of the St, Clare River. This opening story is a gloriously elegiac portrayal of the disappearance of the American wilderness. A couple travel through the maze like St. Clare Flats, meeting the people who make their living on the river. Woolson highlights the conflict between those who saw only the potential for development in the frontier and those who appreciated it for its beauty and artistic inspiration.

“You might call it a marsh; but there was no mud, no dark slimy water, no stagnant scum; there was no rank yellow lilies, no gormandizing frogs, no swinish mud-turtles. The clear waters of the channels ran over golden sand, and hurtled among the stiff reeds so swiftly that only in a bay, or where protected by a crescent point, could the fair white lilies float in the quiet their serene beauty requires.”
(St. Clare Flats 1873)

One of my favourite stories in this collection is Solomon. In this story Woolson demonstrates her belief that literature should represent those people marginalised and overlooked by the society in which she lived. Solomon is set in the German separatist community Zoar in eastern Ohio. In this story two privileged women travel to the region, where they meet the wife of Solomon, a local miner. The two women become drawn into the simple life of this couple, discovering in the eponymous Solomon an aspiring artist. Woolson portrays these characters with understanding and subtle poignancy.

Rodman the Keeper – acknowledges the continuing conflict that remained between North and South following the Civil War. Woolson shows that reconciliation was far more complicated than had often been portrayed at this time. The setting is a Union cemetery in the South; Rodman the keeper of the title is the caretaker of the cemetery, and keeper of the ledger of the names of the dead. Rodman was himself a Union soldier, and now he watches over the graves of his fallen comrades. Meeting Ward De Rosset impoverished, sick, almost starving – Rodman takes him to the keeper’s cottage where he helps to care for the man who was once his enemy.

Sister St. Luke was inspired by the winters Woolson spent in St. Augustine, Florida. Woolson loved the Spanish character of the town and the landscape which surrounded it. Sister St. Luke is set on the barrier island that lies across the Matanzas River. In this story Woolson shows how women can often have unexpected powers. Two travellers, Keith and Carrington land on Pelican Island – where the light-keeper Pedro and his American wife Melvyna live. Also on the island is a nun – Sister St. Luke who has been sent to the island by her convent for her health. The men rather patronise the little sister, thinking her small and fragile and unworldly. They are destined to be surprised in the abilities of their little friend – who they will never forget.

The title story Miss Grief is set in Italy. The story was written before Woolson had actually met Henry James – to whom she had a letter of introduction from James’ cousin. Miss Grief is actually Miss Aaronna Moncrief – whom the narrator insists on calling Miss Grief. Our narrator is a successful male writer – acknowledging himself to be conceited. A middle aged woman shows up at his door while in Rome, finding him out on several occasions she persists until she finally sees him. She asks him to read her writing. In her work he discovers something unique, imperfect but unique. The famous writer is shocked when ‘Miss Grief’ as he calls her reveals how she would have killed herself had he rejected her work. In this story Woolson highlights the difficulties of a woman writer who has been unable to find someone to publish her work and the success of a male writer who has everything he could ever want.

A Florentine Experiment – reminded me a little of those society stories of Edith Wharton. This story is also set in Italy – among a group of American ex-pats. It tells the story of the complicated romantic life of Margaret Stowe and Trafford Morgan.

The final story of the collection is the only one that Woolson wrote about England.

“I have only found one place in Europe where the coffee is as good as ours, and that is Vienna. But as regards tea, they do keep at it, that family upstairs. First, they all drink it for breakfast. Then again with luncheon. Then it goes in a third time at five or six, with piles of bread-and-butter. Then they have it in the evening after dinner. And if they go to the theatre or anything of that sort, they have a cup after they come home. In addition, if anyone has a cold, or is tired, or has been out in the rain, there are extra supplies ordered. I should think it would make them nervous enough to fly.”
(In Sloane Street 1892)

In Sloane Street focuses on a family and their spinster friend who are drawing to the end of their visit to England. Philip Moore is a writer – and in this story Woolson explores her own feelings about family and art through the depiction of a writer who writes for art’s sake rather than money. Gertrude Remington is his friend who is ambitious for him and Amy his wife who cares nothing for art and would much rather he churn out the big selling type of stories she herself prefers to read. Also in this story we see the English and our weather through the eyes of the American tourist I rather loved that.

I loved all of this collection without reserve, although for me it is the wild American landscapes of the nineteenth century that Woolson captures particularly well and that I will remember.

constance fenimorewoolson

Virginia woolf2

Goodness how time flies. Suddenly it is almost May and phase two of #Woolfalong is drawing to a close.

The idea for March and April was to read one or more of: The Voyage Out, Night and Day (Virginia Woolf’s first and second novels) or Between the Acts which was her final novel.

2016-02-28_23.12.30Having read The Voyage Out last year, I read Night and Day in March, probably Virginia Woolf’s most conventional novel, and also her longest. The novel examines relationships within marriage and asks whether love and marriage can co-exist. The novel contrasts the daily lives of the central characters in the novel. I loved it – it is just so wonderfully evocative of a time and place.

In April I read Between the Acts – Woolf’s final novel published after her death without the revisions she would have undoubtedly have made. It is a novel which heralds the coming of the war which was already raging when V W was writing. Although it won’t be my favourite novel by Virginia Woolf – it is beautifully written and so evocative again of a time and place.
There have been other people reading for phase two – and I’ll do my best to include them all here.

On Twitter Eleanor who blogs at Lit Nerd informs me she has been loving The Voyage Out, Caroline from Bookword also read The V oyage Out, which was a re-read for Caroline. While Jamie from These Infinitely Obscure Lives chose The Voyage out for her very first ever book review on her new blog. Phillipa also from Twitter has read both The Voyage Out and Between the Acts. Phillipa says it has been fascinating to read Woolf’s first and final novels.

Like me Audrey from Books as food loved reading Night and Day a novel she says reminded her of Jane Austen.

Anneontheshelf – from Twitter was thoroughly engaged by Night and Day and also went on to Between the Acts.

Sarah from Hard Book Habit read Between the Acts which she says gave her much to chew on. I definitely agree with that. Karen from Kaggsy’s bookish Ramblings re-read Between the Acts she calls the prose, wonderful, vibrant and musical. Another blogger who reviewed Between the Acts was O from Behold the Stars.

Thank you everyone who has kept me company with Phase 2  – if I have missed anyone please let me know. I realy hope some of you will be back to join in Phase 3.

Phase three of #Woolfalong is just days away. The theme short stories – any collection or even just one or two single stories. I aim to read two collections.  Happy Woolfing.

Giveaway results

My giveaway for the OUP editions of Orlando and Flush and a small hardback edition of Woolf’s story Kew Gardens closed on Monday night. The winners are as follows.

Orlando has been won by Margaret of Books Please

Flush has been won by Cathy at 746books

and Liz from Adventures in reading, writing and working from home – has won that lovely little copy of Kew Gardens.

All the winners have already been notified and the books will be winging their way to their new homes in the next few days.


Greengates is the 1936 novel by R C Sherriff who before Persephone books started re-issuing his novels was probably best known for his play Journeys End.

In his novel A Fortnight in September R C Sherriff wrote about the annual two-week holiday enjoyed by countless ordinary working families. In this novel Sherriff again turns his attention to the working man in the story of Mr Baldwin and his wife. Greengates is a novel about the realities of retirement; it is also a novel about houses and the homes they become. Yet this is also a novel about the dream that was persistent in the 1920’s/1930’s – the dream of a home of one’s own, a home of modern conveniences which would allow the occupants to live a happier, better life. The changes taking place in land use at this time is also highlighted – as we see the continuing urbanisation of parts of the English countryside.

The setting is 1925; and the novel opens on the day that Tom Baldwin retires from the insurance company where he has worked for forty-one years. On his last day at the office Mr Baldwin is allowed rather longer than usual for lunch – told not to hurry back. In the afternoon he anticipates the presentation of a clock that he has witnessed so many times before – happening to other men. He travels back home to the house called ‘Grasmere’ in Brondesbury Terrace that he shares with his wife Edith. The small cheap clock is in a box under his seat as she sits on his commuter train for the final time reading the newspaper. In the newspaper that day is an article about the ‘tragedy of retirement’ and relates the story of a man who never having adjusted to his retirement has killed himself. Tom Baldwin determines to find a purpose – to be active, to do something for which he can still gain recognition. He is, after all, still only fifty eight.

“Mr Baldwin lowered the paper. He felt better for having faced it, in an unexpected way he felt happier. There was no madness in his family: in any case, he had no garage and no beam, and he would never dare abuse the gas-oven while Ada ruled the kitchen. He had read the ultimate, most pitiful thing that could happen from retirement, and gained strength from it. He pitied Mr. Stoner – and despised him. He had killed himself though not knowing how to live: he had been picked out of eternity, given a tiny pinpoint of precious light and blotted it out with a rope over a garage beam: a sordid, pitiful crime.”

It isn’t long before Tom’s retirement takes its toll on both him and his wife Edith. They are unused to being together all day – they each have their own little ways which don’t always fit with the other’s routine. Tom begins to see his history studies and gardening as being all rather futile. Tom even incurs the wrath of Ada, the maid who has lived in their home for years, her routine changes too and she is less than pleased. The light goes out of both the Baldwins, and Tom particularly starts to age.

One autumn day Edith suggests that the two of them take a day out in the country, and enjoy once more the walk they used to take often before the war. The walk culminates in a beautiful valley – and the two look forward to seeing it again. However change has come to the valley – homes are being built within sight of the path they have walked along.

“The desolate charm of it – the wild, fragrant peace – had gone for ever: through the soft gorse field stretched broad hideous gashes of naked yellow clay, and clustering along them, like evil fungus to a fallen tree were hideous new houses – stacks of bricks – pyramids of sewage pipes – piles of white timber – mud stained lorries and sheets of hunched tarpaulin – a nightmare of perverted progress. “

Shocked at the scene before them, the Baldwins encounter a salesman for the development – and despite telling him they are not thinking of buying a new house, are taken around the show house. The wonder of the show house quickly works its magic on the couple – and they are soon persuaded of the benefits of this progress, they begin to see the possibility such a life would offer. This unexpected end to their day out changes their life forever. They trudge home to ‘Grasmere’ with the memory of the beautiful show home at the forefront of both their minds. It isn’t long before they are doing sums, indulging in what ifs – making plans.

Suddenly the Baldwins have a new zest for life. They put their house on the market – with a rather dismissive estate agent – make plans to sell all their old fashioned furniture – and buy new. Edith’s investments are cashed in to help with paying for the new house and contents – and Tom decides that it will be perfectly alright to get a small mortgage to make up the short fall. As giddy as a couple of youngsters they anticipate their new life – as they wait for their new house to be built on a plot of land they picked themselves.

greengates2When Tom and Edith first see the development of houses taking shape in the valley they loved so much they are momentarily filled with horror. Soon their dismay is replaced by excitement, they quickly become invested in the developer’s view of the future – these houses seem to be very much the housing ideal of the 1920’s. I must admit I found it really hard to visualise it as an ideal – probably because I think these days we don’t see the building of housing developments in the countryside as quite so ideal – though necessary they might be at times. This post WW1 Shangri-La though while it might herald the sprawling housing estates of the late twentieth century is a considerable improvement from ‘Grasmere’ in Brondesbury Terrace. The Baldwins are utterly bowled over by the mod-cons which the owners of these houses will enjoy, the clean, newness and comfort. The developers are selling more than beautiful houses; they are selling a dream a new way of life. The dream for the Baldwins is a new house in the country, close to a village, and still within sight of the countryside which the Baldwins had previously had to travel by bus to enjoy.

This is a wonderfully engaging novel – I loved Tom and Edith Baldwin – and I was cheering them along the whole time. I wanted them to get the new life they craved. R C Sherriff is so good at portraying the reality of ordinary everyday lives, the small disappointments and triumphs that punctuate our days. There is a timelessness to this novel in many ways, which makes it every bit as relevant today as it ever was.



Between the Acts was Virginia Woolf’s final novel – published posthumously – it is a novel which remains as she left it when she took her own life in 1941. We will never know what revisions and alterations she might have made.

Taking place on one English summer day in 1939, Between the Acts perfectly re-creates a long June day before the war changes everything for the comfortable upper classes. The war looms large throughout the novel, Virginia Woolf of course writing the book after hostilities had begun – it is clear she was very affected by it. Throughout the novel there are illusions to the coming war. We are reminded of flight by the swallows in the skies above the characters who muse about what may be ahead – the legions of aircraft which will soon take to the skies. Vague references made to the unsettled continent lying a few miles across the channel.

It is the day of the annual village pageant at Pointz Hall – which has become quite a local tradition. In typical British fashion on such occasions there is some discussion about the weather – and will the barn need to be used. The day starts well, the weather looks like being fine. The pageant; attended by all sections of the community, the grand and not so grand – is a grand celebration of English history, a play within a play.

The Oliver family; Isa, Giles and their young children, are staying with Giles’ father Bartholomew Oliver and his sister Lucy Swithin at Pointz Hall. Around the Olivers gather a disparate group of characters through whom we witness the comings and goings of the day, as Woolf weaves together their various musings and concerns.

“Miss La Trobe was pacing to and fro between the leaning birch trees. One hand was deep stuck in her jacket pocket; the other held a foolscap sheet. She was reading what was written there. She had the look of a commander pacing his deck. The leaning graceful trees with black bracelets circling the silver bark were distant about a ship’s length.”

Miss La Trobe organises and directs the players in the pageant to raise money for the local church. Miss La Trobe feels herself to be an artist – an unappreciated one, though she still dreams of the success which has eluded her. Miss La Trobe, so often smirked at behind her back, is continually frustrated in her vision of what she wants to present to the audience – with speakers lines getting lost, nothing quite living up to her idea of it, she seems unable to present her vision to her audience as she wished to. It is suggested that Miss La Trobe has a past; was herself an actress, sharing a bed with another actress.

Isa has noticed Haines a local, gentleman farmer, a man she convinces herself she has feelings for, though they do no more than exchange glances. Isa has lost interest in her husband – she attempts to find affection for him by remembering he is the father of her two children. Yet later when Mrs Manresa and her friend William Dodge arrive – Isa is irritated by her husband’s apparent interest in this vibrant, unconventional free spirit.

“She tapped on the window with her embossed hairbrush. They were too far off to hear. The drone of the trees was in their ears; the chirp of birds; other incidents of garden life, inaudible, invisible to her in the bedroom, absorbed them. Isolated on a green island, hedged about with snowdrops, laid with a counterpane of puckered silk, the innocent island floated under her window. Only George lagged behind.”

Between the acts of the pageant the audience – the Olivers among them – continue with their own preoccupations. Isa wanders through the grounds looking for her gentleman farmer, Giles who generally seems ill at ease – even angry spends much of the time with Mrs Manresa. It is Giles who seems particularly aware of the gathering storm from the continent. William Dodge; meanwhile finds some understanding in Isa – although her husband is quick to show his dislike for the man who it is suggested is homosexual.

“Suppose the looking glass smashes, the image disappears, and the romantic figure with the green of forest depths all about it is there no longer, but only that shell of a person which is seen by other people – what an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in. As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes.”

The pageant presents the audience with a wonderful vision of England; Shakespearean scenes give way to restoration comedy a Victorian scene based around a policeman directing traffic. The final scene called ‘Ourselves’ the audience get an unexpected surprise as Miss La Trobe rather turns the tables and shows them themselves.

Virginia Woolf’s writing is as evocative in Between the Acts as I have come to expect – the scene is one so typically English – it beautifully highlights how for so many people that summer of 1939 was a time of innocence before great change came to Europe.

Reading Between the Acts – one can’t help but wonder what else Virginia Woolf might have produced had not her life ended when it did – but perhaps it there is no point thinking like that.

Virginia woolf2

#Woolfalong giveaway

Virginia woolf2

I have been waiting for months to do this – and really wasn’t sure when would be a good time. Well now seems as good a time as any.

#Woolfalong participants might be aware that Phase 2 of #Woolfalong ends in a couple of weeks. During May/June – Phase 3 of #Woolfalong the theme will be short stories – and during July/August Phase 4 the theme is biography. More about all of that on my #Woolfalong page.

2016-04-19_20.50.05(A very big thank you to OUP for donating these lovely editions)

Back in January when someone at Oxford University Press heard about the project I received an email offering me some books. How lovely, the Oxford Classics are real beauties – so I gladly accepted some for myself and a couple for you too. So thanks to the generosity of OUP I have a copy of Flush and a copy of Orlando to give away – which can be read for phase 4 (or sooner if you really can’t wait).


Phase 3 of #Woolfalong comes next – short stories – and for that I have one rather pretty gift edition of Kew Gardens (1919) courtesy of… well me. I saw it and couldn’t resist. The slim little volume contains one short story – produced by Kew publishing it also contains simple black and white illustrations. It will make a perfect little gift – for either yourself or someone else.  2016-04-19_20.24.28
If you would like to win one of these three giveaway editions – please leave a comment telling me what your favourite read for #Woolfalong has been – or what you are particularly looking forward to reading if you haven’t had chance to join in yet. Don’t forget to tell me which book you would like. If you are happy to win any of the three then you have three chances to win. I shall close the giveaway on Monday evening (25th April) – and draw the three names using Random.org.

Good luck everyone.

young man with a horn

My third read for the 1938 club was Dorothy Baker’s first novel Young Man with a Horn. The novel catapulted Baker into the literary limelight – and for many years it remained her best known work having been made into a film starring Doris Day, Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall. I read her later novel Cassandra at the Wedding (1962) a few months ago – and loved it. Cassandra at the wedding remains my favourite of the two – but Young Man with a Horn is a brilliantly assured novel, wonderfully atmospheric, it simply oozes jazz. Although not in any way biographical, the novel is said to have been inspired by the life of legendary horn player Bix Beiderbecke.

“Our man is, I hate to say it, an artist, burdened with that difficult baggage, the soul of an artist. But he hasn’t got the thing that should go with it – and which I suppose seldom does – the ability to keep the body in check while the spirit goes on being what it must be. And he goes to pieces, but not in any small way. He does it so thoroughly that he kills himself doing it.”

The young man in question is Rick Martin – who we are introduced to by an unnamed narrator. From the prologue we know that Rick has already come to a sad end – and that the story of his all too short life is being told by someone who witnessed his rise and fall.

“There isn’t much to it, in its bare outline. Rick was born in Georgia five or ten minutes before his mother died and some ten days before his father checked out and left him with his seventeen year old aunt and her brother. These two worked their way to Los Angeles eight years later and brought him with them; and there he grew up in the way he apparently had to go. He learned to play the piano by fooling around with the pianos in churches and roadhouses – any place, in fact, where there was a piano that could be got at and fooled around with. And because he had right in his bones whatever it takes to make music, he became while he was still a kid a very good pianist. But a piano wasn’t exactly right for him, and he turned to brass finally; he earned enough money to buy himself a horn.”

We first meet Rick when he is just a boy, with no idea at all of playing music, no idea of jazz, and the musicians who make jazz their lives. With his aunt and uncle – who have charge of him (I won’t say care) Rick moves to Los Angeles. Although only young, Rick is left largely to his own devices, he has a bed of his own a cupboard for his clothes and that it seems is pretty much all he has. There is little mention of his uncle and aunt (a brother and sister who both go out to work) except to say that his aunt provides him with trousers from the factory where she works. Rick has struggled to get on at school – so many other kids already far ahead of him. After grammar school – from where everyone graduates no matter what – Rick has to enrol at High school – but for a year or so he simply doesn’t go.

Instead Rick takes to hanging round the All Soul’s Mission, which is empty for much of the day. Here Rick begins to mess around with the piano – and a musician is born. Rick finds he can pick up a tune quickly – he practises all day – until the mission becomes too dark for him to see. All Rick can think of is music, improving, trying new things – it develops into an obsession. Finding a job at the local bowling alley – for a time still skipping school, until they catch up with him, Rick is desperate to save up enough money to buy a trumpet – having decided he wants to play the horn. Here he meets Smoke Jordan, a jazz musician himself, Rick finds in Smoke a life-long friend, and through him enters into the world of jazz.

“After Rick came to Gandy’s, Smoke knew with the instinct of a compass where his audience was, and he came to sweep almost exclusively behind the bowling alleys where there was no great need of it. And there it was that the black one taught the white one what rhythm is, and not by precept, either. By example.”

The jazz world in the 1920’s is a very colour-conscious world. There are black musicians and white musicians and they generally don’t play together. Rick is white, Smoke Jordan is black, and the jazz musicians that he introduces Rick to are also black. While the white musicians are the ones who become famous – the black musicians play in relative obscurity. Rick just wants to play jazz. I had expected to encounter the unpleasant racial epithets of the time – and while they made me uncomfortable, I was cheered by Rick’s unconcern of colour. He chooses his friends and colleagues among the people who he admires, who can teach him something and with whom he shares a great passion.

The novel skips forward a few years, and we meet Rick at twenty – he has now become a gifted horn player. Jack Stuart a bandleader from Balboa – a seaside town thirty miles away – takes Rick on as first trumpet.

From Balboa Rick goes to New York, this time poached by another big time band leader. In New York Rick finds himself back with Smoke Jordan and the other musicians he had regaled his friends in Balboa with stories of. Playing and recording with whichever group of musicians want him, Rick plays jazz most of the night, and sleeps most of the day. Rick is destined for stardom it seems – still so young and at the peak of his brilliance. It is his meeting with Amy North which seems to herald the beginning of the end. Rick is bowled over by Amy, and rashly marries her, predictably perhaps the relationship is a disaster – and from here on the end really isn’t far away.

It is in the ‘voice’ of this novel I think that Baker really shines – so authentic it gives an extra dimension to the atmosphere of this novel. While some of the musical details might well go a little over the heads of those of us who don’t play or read music – the non-musician can still appreciate the all-encompassing obsession that truly gifted jazz musicians enjoy. The relationship between Rick and Smoke poignantly portrayed with subtle understanding is one of my favourite aspects of the novel.

Bloggers Karen, Simon and Jacqui have reviewed this novel too.




I think I am sometimes in danger of forgetting how much I love Agatha Christie. The 1938 club provided me with the perfect excuse to pick one up – one I have certainly read before, long enough ago to have forgotten the crucial details. I love the familiarity of Agatha Christie’s world – old fashioned and a little class conscious it might be – there is nevertheless a wonderfully polite kind of justice within the pages of an Agatha Christie mystery which is oddly comforting. Appointment with Death is a Poirot mystery – and he was always my favourite.1938club

On his first night in Jerusalem Hercule Poirot over-hears part of a rather odd conversation while fiddling with his window at the Solomon Hotel.

“You see, don’t you that she’s got to be killed?”

Poirot doesn’t attach too much importance to the words at first – realising he has heard only a snippet of a conversation – totally out of context. Poirot remembers the words of course, and knows that he will recognise the voice again should he hear it.

Staying in the same hotel is the Boynton family from America. The Boyntons stand out rather – as they make a point of keeping themselves to themselves. Already they have come to the attention of Sarah King a young woman from England who has just completed her medical degree, and a Frenchman; Dr Gerrard a renowned psychologist/psychiatrist – not sure which. The two doctors put their heads together and discuss the peculiar family – Sarah has her romantic eye on one of the sons – despite having only spoken to him once in the corridor of a train.

Mrs Boynton is a truly horrible creation – with obvious malice, she keeps her family in thrall to her peculiarly cruel whims. Almost an invalid – Mrs Boynton’s family run around her, ensuring she has what she needs. Terrified of upsetting her, they won’t allow themselves to get drawn into interacting with fellow travellers. Mrs Boynton is the step-mother to Lennox, Raymond and Carol, Lennox’s wife Nadine probably the least damaged of the group, while Mrs Boynton’s own daughter Ginevra – the youngest appears to be the most nervously affected.

“And then, suddenly, the old woman’s eyes were full on him, and he drew in his breath sharply. Small black smouldering eyes that were, but something came from them, a power, a definite force, a wave of evil malignancy. Dr Gerrard knew something about the power of personality. He realised that this was no spoilt tyrannical invalid indulging petty whims. This old woman was a definite force. In the malignancy of her glare he felt a resemblance to the effect produced by a cobra.”

Sarah tries to engage Raymond in conversation, while Mrs Boynton watches with grim disapproval from nearby. The conversation is not repeated. Later Sarah manages to snatch a late night conversation with his sister Carol – but Mrs Boynton discovers Carol returning to her room, and any future meetings are stopped before they can be arranged. Frustrated Sarah allows her dislike of Mrs Boynton to show, causing a little scene on the steps of the hotel on the day she and Dr Gerrard and two other western tourists leave Jerusalem for a tour of Petra. Lady Westholme and Miss Pierce are Sarah and Gr Gerrard’s companions in the car driven by a local guide.
In Petra there is a camp set up for the tourists, some people staying under canvas some in caves. Already settled into the camp at Petra when Sarah King and her party arrive, are the Boynton family with Jefferson Cope; an old friend of Nadine Boynton’s from before her marriage.

As you might expect, it isn’t long before Mrs Boynton is found dead in her chair in front of her cave. Evidence of a needle prick in her arm, and certain items having gone missing from Dr Gerrard’s tent, point to a suspicious death.
Hercule Poirot is staying in Amman with a letter of introduction to Colonel Carbury, Carbury has already been informed of Mrs Boynton’s death, a death he really isn’t happy about. He consults Poirot and Poirot promises to have the matter satisfactorily explained in twenty-four hours.

“We will make them tell us what it is,” said Poirot.
“Third degree?” said Colonel Carbury.
“No.” Poirot shook his head. “Just ordinary conversation. On the whole, you know, people tell you the truth. Because it is easier! Because it is less strain on the inventive faculties! You can tell one lie – or two lies – or three lies or even four lies – but you cannot lie all the time. And so – the truth becomes plain.”

The comings and goings of everyone in the camp are gone over in minute detail – but I had already more or less worked out who did what and why – though not quite the how. There are various rules to an Agatha Christie mystery which I suppose are well known. Hercule Poirot spends something like fifty pages setting out various theories attached to each person in the camp at the time of the murder, dismissing them one by one until the culprit is revealed.

This is not the best Agatha Christie novel, it’s not quite clever enough for that – but I do think it’s a very enjoyable one, hugely readable and for me comfortingly familiar.



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