Mad puppetstown

My first read for this year’s Read Ireland month was Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane, it seems I often read Molly Keane for Read Ireland month. I enjoy her books a lot, but I honestly think that this might be my favourite of hers to date. I have quoted quite extensively from the novel – apologies to those who find that tedious – I had marked so many passages, that for me, show the exquisite nature of Keane’s writing.

Mad Puppetstown is a wonderful evocation of an Irish childhood in the early twentieth century, before the First World War. On page one Molly Keane describes the world as it was – as it would have been for her. The novel begins:

“Then : –
They said: “You naughty man!”
They wore hair nets and tortoise-shell combs.
It was more than fast to accept presents from men.
You bought a blood four-year-old up to weight for £60.
There was no wire.
The talked about “the ladies” and “motor-cars.”
“By George!” they said, but never used Americanisms; such were not known.
Their top boots were shorter and their spurs were worn lower down on the heel.
You loved with passion.
You did not trouble to keep your sense of humour ready in the background.
Love mattered.
Manners mattered.
Children mattered.
Places and dependents mattered too.
Money bought much more.
People drove about in dog-carts and pony traps.
Invitations were issued to tea.
Tea parties mattered too.
Women who powdered their faces were fast
Women who painted them – bad.
Hunting, low wages, feather boas, nipped in habit coats, curly bowlers, bunches of violets, black furs and purple hats were much in vogue.
A book called Three Weeks was both enjoyed and abused.
Champagne was a frequent drink. Women never drank whisky.”

Like poetry, I wanted to learn those lines and recite them. I was captivated immediately both by the world I found myself in, and Molly Keane’s glorious voice – her writing is always fabulous – somehow, I had forgotten how good she is.

Into what Molly Keane calls ‘those full-blooded’ days young Easter Chevington is born and raised. She is eight as the novel opens, living in her father’s country house of Mad Puppetstown with her father, Great-Aunt Dicksie, her two adored boy cousins Evelyn and Basil and their beautiful widowed mother Aunt Brenda. The children live a charmed life – running free, and slightly wild in the Irish countryside, surrounding the house. It is a way of life Molly Keane describes to absolute perfection. Easter and the boys brought up with the ways of horses, learning to shoot woodcock and snipe in the woods. Playing with Patsy; the boot boy, teasing the Peacocks in Aunt Dicksie’s garden – and tormenting the life out of O’Regan who works in the garden. It’s a joy of a childhood,with dogs, ponies and a riot of adventures.

“Out of the schoolroom window at Puppetstown you looked across flat water – where Giles, the swan, sat in immemorial calm and the dogs hunted water rats and moorhens – over the Long Acres, where young blood horses moved in a stately decorum of beauty, away to the chill breasts of the mountains yielding themselves only to the slow rapture of a sunset; thin and stark at any other time and remote as the grey women of the Sidhie that men had seen about their secret lakes. Mandoran, Mooncoin, and the Black Stair were these mountains’ lovely names and whatever was afar and unknown and remote unto themselves in the children, was joined and linked to the dispassionate ecstasy of these mountains.”

The family suffer the loss of Easter’s father during the war but are otherwise unaffected by a conflict Evelyn and Basil are thankfully too young for. Aunt Brenda – who always meant to re-marry but never did get around to it – enjoys the company of a British army Captain from the local garrison. Meanwhile, Ireland is in the grip of another war, a war forgotten by those back in England. Patsy the boot boy receives whispered orders through the window late at night – which he dare not ignore.

“Meetings by night: oaths to the darkened land sworn, signed and forgotten: drillings and revolver practice and always the romantic cup of dizzy words…”

Throughout the dark hills surrounding Mad Puppetstown men gather to whisper threat and plot – and so when violence touches the family at Mad Puppetstown, Aunt Brenda hurriedly takes her sons and niece away to England. Great-Aunt Dicksie will not be moved, refusing to surrender her family home – she bolts the doors, turns the ponies loose and settles down to living alone with just Patsy, in a house that starts to decay around her. Aunt Dicksie becomes more and more eccentric, so very lonely at first – the echoes of her family are in the very walls around her – she learns in time to live alone. Taking refuge in her garden, spending far too much of the little money she has on seeds and bulbs for her garden, she takes to wearing the old clothes from the wardrobes upstairs rather than buy new ones.

In England the cousins are educated and groomed for British society, it’s a world away from Mad Puppetstown. As Evelyn falls in love with an English society beauty, Basil starts to yearn for Ireland, and Mad Puppetstown. Easter turns twenty-one and her father’s house now belongs to her, so she and Basil decide to run away – heading back to Aunt Dicksie and the home of their childhood. However, neither Aunt Dicksie nor the house is as they remember.

I simply loved every bit of this novel – compulsively evocative – and for those who have been irritated by such things in other novels – rather less of the huntin’, fishin’, and shootin’ that was such a part of Molly Keane’s own life.


the girls of slender means

The Girls of Slender Means is a novel of taut perfection – a wonderful precursor to A Far Cry from Kensington. Told in flash back from the present (1963) looking back at the summer of 1945, and those months between VE day and VJ day. The London streets are scarred by bomb damage and rationing bites those who have put up with it so long already.

“The May of Teck Club exists for the pecuniary convenience of and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means, below the age of Thirty years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.”

The May of Teck Club has had its windows shattered three times since 1940. It is a hostel for young ladies under thirty. Spark herself lived in a very similar establishment, and she recreates the community perfectly. That atmosphere of everyone being in it together – endless chatter, borrowing and swapping belongings, young men visiting, careers just beginning. The upper floors look down over Kensington gardens, the Albert Memorial just around the corner, it’s a rather nice area of London to be residing in, even in 1945.

“Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit”

Despite being over fifty, three middle aged spinsters have been allowed to stay at the club since before the First World War, and though one of them insists that one of the bombs that dropped into the garden of the May of Teck Club is still there, no one listens. These three older women hold something of a privileged position at the Club and are generally tolerated by the younger women.

The younger women are an interesting mix, there is Jane Wright, an overweight young woman who requires extra food for her brain work. Some of this work is writing letters to famous writers, on behalf of  Rudi Bittesch – who Jane thoroughly dislikes. During the day Jane works in publishing. Joanna Childe gives elocution lessons from her room, her beautiful voice ringing out through the house. ‘Mad’ Pauline Fox frequently goes out to dinner with her imaginary companion; well-known actor Jack Buchanan. Beautiful, Selina Redwood, who daily recites an incantation to maintain her well-practised poise. Dorothy Markham is the impoverished niece of Lady Julia Markham, who is a member of the club’s management committee. Then there is the worldly Anne, who owns the coveted taffeta Schiaparelli dress. The dress is shared between the girls slender enough to wear it, swapped for little pieces of soap or coupons.

In the back ground of all this there is a sense of darker goings on, largely ignored by those girls of slender means, but nevertheless there. The reality of war is everywhere, in the landscape all around and the coupons they trade for the right to wear the Schiaparelli dress. Whispers of another great bomb being prepared, remind us that the world was on the brink of frightening great change.

It is important to be very slim at the May of Teck Club, not only so girls can fit into the Schiaparelli dress, but because girls who are slender enough are able to squeeze through the lavatory window to the flat roof. Here girls can sunbathe unseen or meet lovers who climb over from the building next door.

Selina is quite the expert in getting through that window, while Jane of course can only stand and watch. This ability, or not to get through the tiny aperture of the window to the roof beyond becomes very important as the novel progresses.
Into this all female world that runs smoothly enough, comes Nicholas Farringdon an aspiring writer to unwittingly unsettle the status quo.

“We come now to Nicholas Farringdon in his thirty-third year. He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal; that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was.”

As the novel opens in the present time of 1963, former residents of the May of Teck Club pass along the news of Nicholas’s death in Haiti where he had worked as a missionary. In those former days he had made great friends of several of the young women from the May of Teck Club, and becomes a regular visitor. He decides he would like to do nice things for Jane (though not sleep with her) he takes her to parties and poetry readings, introducing her to other writers, but it is Selina who really turns his head. Many hot summer nights are spent with Selina out on the roof of the May of Teck Club.

Nothing lasts forever, and the days of the May of Teck Club are sadly numbered. In typical Spark fashion the conclusion of the novel is shockingly dramatic. The Girls of Slender Means is a slight novel, in which not a word is wasted – Spark re-creates the atmosphere of a hostel for young ladies, in 1945 with absolute perfection. Who wouldn’t want to be one of the nice poor people in 1945 who live at the May of Teck Club across the road from Kensington Gardens and have a share in a taffeta Schiaparelli dress.

I persuaded my very small book group to join in #ReadingMuriel2018 and pick this for our March read. We meet on Wednesday to discuss it.



Way back sometime in the 1970s – when I was a very little girl, but already in love with books I read a book called The Tree that Sat Down by Beverley Nichols. I loved every word of that little book and have remembered it ever since. I even remembered the author (as a child I thought Beverley Nichols was a woman, and it was many years before I discovered my mistake). I think we carry the books we loved as children with us somewhere – though I’m hopeless at remembering the titles of many of them now. That was pretty much my only experience of Beverley Nichols – until many years later – a few blogging friends began sharing their love of his adult books, their enthusiasm ensuring that I soon acquired some for myself.

Beverley Nichols was an enormously prolific writer – journalism, politics, autobiography and novels. Though some of his most popular works seem to have been his books of gardening and house restoration. Down the Garden Path is the first book in one of the two gardening trilogies that Nichols produced. A book about gardening restoration is not something I would usually read, but there was something very appealing about this trilogy. Having heard such wonderful things about Nichol’s warm witty writing from other readers, it seemed a good place to start. However, I think I probably have the best books still to read, as it seems some people believe the other gardening trilogy starting with Merry Hall is better than this one. Yet, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

“I bought my cottage by sending a wireless to Timbuctoo from the Mauretania, at midnight, with a fierce storm lashing the decks.
It sounds rather vulgar, but it is true.”

In the early 1930’s Beverley Nichols was already a well-known writer – still quite a young man, he also had a passion for gardens, and it would seem, enough money to buy a cottage with large gardens in the country. This book tells the story of the garden (and cottage) he bought in Cambridgeshire. It and the two sequels which follow were illustrated by Rex Whistler – and were a huge success.

Having quite rashly bought his cottage – because of the gardens he knew came with it –Beverley hurried down to view his new house, hardly able to wait to see the garden. He is met by Arthur – a strange, oddly behaved servant who provides him with uneatable food and stays in bed all morning. The garden however, which Beverley remembered so well has been sadly neglected, and is nothing like it had been. He is devastated, but the immediately starts putting it to rights, planning how it will look, researching in detail winter flowers, so that there is always flowers in his garden. It is a labour of love.

“It was not till I experimented with seeds plucked straight from a growing plant that I had my first success…the first thrill of creation…the first taste of blood. This, surely, must be akin to the pride of paternity…indeed, many soured bachelors would wager that it must be almost as wonderful to see the first tiny crinkled leaves of one’s first plant as to see the tiny crinkled face of one’s first child.”


Nichols writes deliciously about his garden, his descriptions are glorious, his passion for his flowers is infectious. Despite not being a gardener – or even all that knowledgeable about flowers I found myself quite happily caught up in Nichol’s enthusiasm and as someone who has been known to push a few daff bulbs into my garden soil and sit in my zero-gravity chair with a cup of tea and book on a sunny day I found myself oddly able to fully appreciate the glory in the appearance of little garden miracles. Though even while he is describing the glories of nature and his simple, never ending joy in the miracle of mother-nature – he can’t resist a little cheeky humour on the side.

“The seed of a blue lupin will usually produce a blue lupin. But the seed of a blue-eyed man may produce a brown-eyed bore…especially if his wife has a taste for gigolos.”

However probably the best parts of this book are Nichol’s mischievous portraits of some of his neighbours. We never get to know these people as well as I would have liked but, he is rather funny about them all – Mrs M, Miss W, Miss X (we never learn their full names either). One of his visitor; hilariously described, an affected woman, who makes much of her apparent tininess and feminine weakness. Another neighbour, Mrs M becomes Nichols’s rival and nagging thorn in his side. She finds something to criticise in everything he does, and Beverley presumably makes himself feel better by writing about her with such scathingly sharp wit. We even meet his parents who visit him in his country home.

It is Beverley Nichols simple joy for life that is so adorable here. I am really looking forward to reading a lot by him now.

BN allways garden


The Bright Day Mary Hocking’s 1975 novel does have a very seventies feel to it. The sense of time and place is always strong in a Mary Hocking novel, and I so enjoy a seaside setting!

“…the bright day is done
And we are for the dark”

The place is Scotney – the fictional seaside town in the South East of England, a typical seaside town ripe for redevelopment that butts up against marshes and the Sussex Downs.

“The river twisted through a flat valley with the Downs rising on either side. The valley was treeless and rather drab with pylons striding across it. There were one or two herds of cattle. The only sign of human occupation was an old cottage standing beside what had once been a railway halt. It was a melancholy place, a half-way house between dream and nightmare; it had an attraction for Hannah which she could not define, except to say ‘it speaks to my subconscious.’ Whenever she came to Picton’s Quay, she made a point of visiting the cottage; it was more than a habit, it was a ritual and if she didn’t perform it she felt uneasy.”

A local election has returned Neil Moray as an independent member of Parliament for Scotney. On the night of the election, William Lomax; editor of the town’s newspaper receives a visit from the estranged wife of Moray’s main opponent. She has a tale to tell about Moray’s campaign manager Rodney Cope – which is suggestive of underhand dealings. Mrs Ormerod is known to drink rather heavily, suspected of being rather irrational – Lomax treats her story with little interest initially. However, Lomax’s journalistic interest has been spiked. He starts to wonder.

A great deal has been made of Neil Moray’s personal integrity – his determination to clean up Scotney – and Lomax can’t help but sense there is a story there somewhere. The West Front re-development is a big talking point in Scotney and naturally formed a big part of both Ormerod and Moray’s campaigns. Two very different businessmen have plans for the development, neither of them exactly squeaky clean. One of these men, Mario Vicente is a larger than life Italian, owner of several local restaurants, but who wants to retain the character of the development of the town. The other man, Heffernan sits at the helm of a big company, his plans for the town will change it out of all proportion. So, while Neil worries he may have shown too much bias toward Heffernan over Mario – Lomax wonders whether Rodney Cope could have been just a little too self-serving in his dealings before the election.

Hannah is Neil Moray’s secretary – he takes her for granted – and the scales have started to fall from Hannah’s eyes already. Hannah takes walks past an old abandoned cottage on the marshes outside the town, one day spotting two people who really shouldn’t be there. She spends time ruminating on her family’s disapproval of the choices she has made. They don’t think much of Scotney, would prefer Hannah to just get married. Hannah thinks Scotney has life – and has thrown her lot in with Moray to prove it – living in a small flat above a lock up garage near to the seafront. Now with the election over and won, the only thanks she gets from Neil is a half-hearted bunch of flowers – bought at the last minute – it really doesn’t feel like quite enough to Hannah.

Then, Mrs Ormerod is found dead. Rodney Cope – a nasty, self-serving man if ever there was one – continues along his own path, shrugging off any suggestion of scandal or corruption. Seemingly able to charm everyone around him, with his peculiar fascination. Hannah and Neil begin to look at Cope anew – exhausted after an election campaign but with so much still to do – they begin to recognise there is an enemy much closer to home. Neil begins to see there are more challenges ahead for him than perhaps he had first realised. Distracted, uncomfortable about his campaign manager and the promises his campaign might have made about the development, Neil seems ill-equipped to meet them.

“This disorientated feeling had been even worse this morning. The heat didn’t agree with him. It was still very warm now. Everywhere, windows were open and music blared into the streets; people spilled out of pubs and stood drinking and laughing on the pavements. A young couple strolled in front of him, the tips of their fingers touching; this roused more erotic sensations in him than if they had been mauling each other. The girl wore a long brown dress which looked dowdy and old fashioned. Moray didn’t like brown.”

Lomax steps up his investigation into Cope’s affiliations, putting himself into unexpected danger.

As the summer season gets under way and the weather hots up, holiday makers queue for donkey rides and troupe down to the beach. Meanwhile the scene is set for a dramatic standoff, police sharp shooters gather in a street outside a first-floor office, with TV cameras ready to capture every move.

This isn’t the first Hocking novel I have read that has such a dramatic ending – proving once again that she is a really versatile writer. Where Hocking’s strength lies for me has always been in her exploration of her characters’ psychologies – here beautifully capturing both naïve, and self-serving personalities. She is also adept at making the absurd both plausible and realistic. In The Bright Day small seaside town politics, corruption and journalism make for a compelling story.

Mary hocking typing


I’ve really come to love Olivia Manning’s writing, and so I was delighted when I received The Doves of Venus as part of the Librarything Virago secret Santa parcel exchange. This accompanied me on the journey home from Devon almost two weeks ago now and proved to be one of the highlights of last month. Sometimes it is hard to write about a book I loved as much as I did this one, as I can’t really be objective. So, I should probably keep this simple.

Actually, the plot is very simple, but Olivia Manning brings so much to the story, her exploration of the characters is absolutely spot on. As always, her characters step fully formed from the page, they have a past and a future – and speak with the voices of people Olivia Manning herself must have known.

Eighteen-year old Ellie leaves her home in the provincial seaside town of Eastsea in search of independence. In Eastsea, Ellie’s mother runs a restaurant, and favours Ellie’s sister – who is about to get married. Ellie’s help is wanted – and everyone in the town seems to think it entirely appropriate that Ellie should stay and help her mother – and completely scandalous that she has gone off to London instead. Ellie is suffocated by the atmosphere of home; the small-town mind is not hers – she seems to be able to do nothing right anyway – and is always getting on the wrong side of her mother. Having done a night school art class at the technical college Ellie has her sights set on the art world.

In London, Ellie takes a small bedsit in Chelsea and manages to get a job at a furniture studio – initially in packing – but soon she is moved to the ‘antiquing’ room where she paints bits of furniture. She also acquires a middle-aged lover Quintin Bellot – who has a much more laid-back attitude to their affair than Ellie – who has fallen head over heels. The affair is destined to be a short one, with Ellie learning quickly, the complexities of a married lover.

“During her weeks with Quintin she had lived, it seemed like the ‘Snow Queen’ girl, in a garden where it was always summer. Now she was shut out from the summer garden of love.
‘My fault’ she said
All female gossip, all advice given in women’s magazines, made it clear that a woman thrown over had only herself to blame.”

Quintin is harried continually by his estranged wife – Petta; a familiar figure around the pubs on the Kings Road with her circle of assorted bohemians. When Petta leaves her most recent lover, she lands back at Quintin’s flat – much to his irritation – charming his housekeeper Mrs Trimmer and setting up home in his dressing room. Petta is manipulative and slightly hysterical, bitterly resentful toward all of Quintin’s ‘little girls’ – shrugging off her own indiscretions, a previous marriage and an abandoned daughter. She yearns sadly for a time that is long gone, a world she understood, the world as it had been when she was young.

“‘Why is it all so dismal now? What happened to life? What’s missing from it? It used to be such fun. It’s true, conditions were different. Money bought things then. Everyone had country cottages: they picked them up for a few pounds. Other people did the work for us – but it wasn’t all that that made life fun…’”

When Quintin tells Ellie, he won’t be able to see her anymore, she is devastated – but is determined to believe he will come back to her in time. In the meantime, Ellie concentrates hard on impressing with her work at the studio – and ignoring her mother’s attempts to get her to go home. Ellie is at the bottom of the rung at the studio – her tasks quite menial – she attempts to win the friendship of colleagues Denis and Bertie and when a new girl Nancy starts the two become firm friends.

Although she doesn’t see Quintin again for months – Ellie unknowingly spends time in a world not so far from Quintin. Nancy introduces Ellie to her uncle. Tom Claypole an old roué – who is also related to Quintin. Tom loves to surround himself with young girls, the doves of the title (nothing inappropriate occurs, Tom’s a gentleman). Ellie and Nancy spend several delightful weekends at Clopals – Tom’s country home. Nancy wants to put Tom’s mistress Maxine’s nose out of joint – and the two enjoy dancing attendance on the old man – who is a generous host. There is a wonderful exchange between Nancy and Tom about equal pay for men and women – an argument that rumbles on still.

“Recently she had spoken to Daze, the chief of staff, and had been told that there was one wage scale for men and another for women.
Tom nodded his approval: ‘Men need more money.’
‘They don’t need more’ said Nancy crossly, ‘they just get more, that’s all. Prices aren’t reduced for me because I’m a woman. You bet they’re not.’
‘Surely my dear girl, you’ve discovered by now that you’re living in a man’s world. You must try to gain things by your charms. We men are delighted to reward you, but we won’t disarm ourselves in your favour, Why should we? Eh?”

As the months pass, Quintin is never too far from Ellie’s thoughts – though the image of him fades a little – and she stops seeing him everywhere she goes. When they do meet again, he is no longer quite the romantic figure he was. Ellie has had to learn how to live in London on little money – and with few friends – she loses her job and is terrified to be in debt to her landlady. Ellie’s determination to remain independent sees her through – and by the time the novel ends she is a stronger, wiser young woman – who has found a new happiness for herself.

The Doves of Venus is a brilliant novel – which has reminded me I should get back to the Pringles and read The Levant Trilogy – having finished my re-read of The Balkan trilogy some months ago.


thirteen guests

Thirteen Guests re-issued by the British Library Crime Classics has all the ingredients of an excellent mystery. A large group of people gathered in one place, vandalism, sudden death, secrets and superstition. J. Jefferson Farjeon was an extraordinarily prolific writer – the list of his works on his Wikipedia page is certainly impressive. I have previously read just one of them – A Mystery in White – which was very good indeed and would be perfectly suited to the weather the UK is currently experiencing.

Lord Aveling is hosting a hunting party at his large house, Bragley Court. The first guests have already arrived as beautiful widow Nadine Leveridge arrives at the station and comes to the aid of John Foss – injured as he leaves the train. Nadine insists that John accompanies her to Bragely Court where a doctor is regularly in attendance, as Lord Aveling’s mother-in-law is seriously ill.

“But welcome alone did not reign in the spacious lounge-hall… something brooded as well. The shadows seemed to contain uneasy secrets, and none of the people John had so far met reflected complete mental ease.”

The title refers to a superstition that the thirteenth guest to arrive will be beset by bad luck. John Foss is not the thirteenth guest to arrive – as his unexpected inclusion to the household precedes that of some of the invited guests. Lying in an ante room, where various members of the household regularly come to chat to him, John can’t help but notice that it is Mr Chaters who is the thirteenth guest. Mr Chaters we soon learn, is not a nice man, a man not adverse to a bit of blackmail in his bid for social advancement – his wife isn’t much better.

Other members of the party include: Lord Aveling’s family, his wife, daughter Anne and ailing mother-in-law, Mr Rowe, his wife and daughter Ruth – Rowe has made his money in sausages. Harold Taverley a keen cricketer. Leicester Pratt, an artist, commissioned to paint the portrait of the Honourable Anne. A politician Sir James Earnshaw, Edyth Fermoy-Jones a mystery writer, Zena Wilding an actress and Lionel Bultin a renowned gossip columnist. Leicester Pratt and Lionel Bultin seem to be great friends – sharing a wry view of proceedings. John, almost instantly smitten with Nadine, seems to be carrying a secret of his own, proves a popular member of the house party, making a friend of Harold Taverley and regularly visited by Anne and Nadine.

In the neighbourhood a stranger has been seen, carrying a large black bag. He seems peculiarly concerned with the time of the trains.

“A man sat at the uncurtained window of the Black Stag, staring with moody eyes at the deserted smudge of platform. He had arrived that morning on the 12.10. He had partaken of an unpalatable lunch, and had spent the early afternoon strolling about in a purposeless way, smoking incessantly, and almost as incessantly consulting his watch.”

Soon after the arrival of everyone at Bragley Court, Leicester Pratt discovers his portrait of Anne – has been slashed, after he unwittingly left the door of the studio unlocked.

Mr Chaters quickly makes himself very unpleasant to several people. That night the house is disturbed by the incessant barking of Haig; one of Lord Aveling’s dogs. Several people are observed by John from his position on the couch, wandering the house at odd hours, indulging in whispered conversations. The next day it is discovered that the window in Leicester Pratt’s studio has been smashed – from the inside – and poor Haig the dog brutally killed.

On the final day of stag hunting – a party from the house set out, leaving behind those whose interests lie elsewhere. Before the hunting party return, and just before a rider less horse is seen streaking past the house, an unidentified man’s body is found in a nearby quarry. Lionel Bultin stands guard over the body while help is fetched – and soon Detective-Inspector Kendall is on the plot.

“Detective-Inspector Kendall made no secret of the fact that he never did things by halves. He left nothing to chance—or so he boasted—and his methods, with which he permitted no interference from anybody, were almost blatantly complete. “If I’d been born with a kink in my brain,” he said, “I’d have been one of the big criminals, but fortunately for law and order my brain is not pathological, so I catch ’em instead.””

Hoping for an exclusive for his paper, Bultin is happy to assist the inspector and is really rather good at it. It’s not the only violent death, however, as the hunting party bring back news that one of the party is missing. Another dead man is found, and as the investigation gets underway, it is discovered that a tube of poison had been hidden away by the Chinese cook, a tube that is now missing.

I’ll say no more, there’s an ingenious solution, and a little romance all making for a very engaging mystery. The one possible weakness is that the solution is not really possible for the armchair detective to work out – we glean certain details after the fact – and the reader doesn’t witness much in the way of detecting. Still Thirteen Guests is readable and engaging, though a little slow to start, and I particularly liked the character of Lionel Bultin.

j jefferson farjeon

February in review


I’m a little behind myself this week for one reason and another – so a few hours later with my monthly roundup than usual. Back to reviews soon I promise, I’m a bit behind there too – with four of my February reads still to write about. I read ten books during February three of them on my kindle, which therefore makes its appearance in the books read photograph above.

Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was the last book to arrive from the Asymptote book club, a classic of Bengali literature. Beautifully descriptive, the story was written out of the diary entries the author himself kept during the years he spent in the Bihar region, between 1937 and 1939.

The Journey Home and other stories by Malachi Whitaker I read for the Persephone readathon – a delightful collection, by a wonderful Yorkshire writer. Her canvas is the ordinary, the domestic, but she perfectly captures the ordinary – making them appear less than ordinary – even the absurd in a way that not every writer manages. Here we have a boy starting work with his father, a couple getting drunk for the first time, honeymooners, children left to their own devices, young women ‘in trouble’.

Uncle Paul by Celia Fremlin an excellent suspense novel of fear and paranoia set in an English seaside resort. Fremlin’s story is suspenseful but subtly done, her characterisation superb. This engaging novel was my first by Celia Fremlin, and I’m hugely impressed.

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer was my February book group read – it proved a superb choice for us and introduced me to another author I will want to read more of. At the age of sixty-four Joan Castleman decides to leave her husband Joe who she has been married to since the 1950s. Thought provoking and well written, Meg Wolitzer’s is a strong feminist voice, who I may never have read if not for my book group.

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark was my third read for #ReadingMuriel2018 and I loved it. It all begins with something of a mystery. A group of elderly, upper class people receive anonymous phone calls. The caller says – ‘remember you must die’ – unsettling – especially when one has reached a certain age. Not all these characters are that likeable, but they are so compellingly written about that, that doesn’t matter.

Rhapsody by Dorothy Edwards is a little short story collection, by the Welsh writer who published only this collection and one novel, during her short, sad life.

Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjeon the first of those books I still have to review. A really good dose of Golden Age crime from the British Library Crime Classics. Lord Aveling hosts a hunting party at his country house. Among the guests are an actress, a journalist, an artist, and a mystery novelist. The unlucky thirteenth is John Foss, injured at the local train station and brought to the house to recuperate.

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning – definitely my stand out book of the month – the kind of book I loved so much I was sorry to finish. Eighteen-year-old Ellie has come to London in search of adventure. She gets a room, a poorly paid job in a studio and has an affair with an older, married man. All to escape the dull, suffocation of home with her mother.

The Bright Day by Mary Hocking a story of 1970s small seaside town politics and corruption. As ever her sense of place is excellent, as is her depiction of petty, small mindedness.

Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols, I now own four books by Beverley Nichols, Simon and Karen have waxed very lyrical about his writing (and I can see why) and their recent pod cast for Simon’s Tea or books was the push I needed to get one of the shelf. Down the Garden Path is an absolute delight – I love Nichol’s ironic voice and his unwavering enthusiasm for his garden. It is joyful.

My A Century of Books list is doing ok too – I have nineteen years ticked off now. I realise, how much harder it will get in the coming months. I’m fairly obsessed though, and the other day found myself ‘buying 1926’ – aka Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay.

readirelan2018March is under way – the first day of Spring – ha! No one told the weather – it’s simply unspeakable, good time to hunker down with a good book or two. I’m about to start my next Muriel Spark read – The Girls of Slender Means, I’ll be reading my three 1960s novels slightly out of chronological order – because The Girls of Slender Means is my book group read. I am then planning to join in with Read Ireland month. I haven’t settled finally on what to read, but I have three or four Molly Keane novels a Colm Tóibín and an Anne Enright in the running.

So, keep warm, stay safe and let me know what you’re reading – you know I like to know these things.