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black narcissus

During July, the Librarything Virago group have selected to read books by Rumer Godden. I have enjoyed quite a number of her novels in the past but had not yet managed to read one of her best-known works – Black Narcissus. This was Rumer Godden’s third novel for adults, and the first of several which were adapted for film. The film Black Narcissus was released in 1947 in Technicolor, which not all films were in those days. It starred Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons and was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film was a hit and won a coveted Academy Award for its cinematography. I remember seeing the film years ago, although I can’t say I remembered much about the story other than it involved a dramatic tale of nuns on a mountain in India.

The novel opens as Sister Clodagh prepares to leave her religious community in Darjeeling for Mopu in the Himalayan mountains to the north. Here Sister Clodagh will take on the role of Sister Superior to a small group of nuns who will be helping to set up a convent school community in an abandoned palace. The palace was once known as ‘the House of Women’ built for a harem of the General who leased the land from the British rulers. Now the General’s son, another General has given the palace to the Sisters of Mary – believing a school and hospital just what the poor local people need. Before they leave, Mother Dorothea lets Sister Clodagh know that she has some reservations about Clodagh’s readiness for this responsibility. Clodagh is certain she is ready for the challenge, and leads her fellow sisters; Sister Ruth, Sister Briony, Sister Honey and Sister Philippa – confidently towards a new adventure.

The group of sisters begin the long trek up the hills to their new home, a palace wreathed in scandal, set against a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Mopu is home to tea growers, snow-capped mountain peaks and the glorious flora and fauna one associates with India. As always Rumer Godden portrays the landscape and people of India, beautifully and with obvious affection.

“It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn; across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.
Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on a hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.”

The sisters have a lot of work to do to make the old palace ready to use as a school and dispensary, and they set to work as soon as they arrive. An elderly Chinese woman Angu Ayah has had caretaking responsibilities at the palace and she stays on to help the sisters in their duties. One of the first people the sisters meet is local British agent Mr Dean – who they have been told will be on hand to help the sisters should they need it. Mr Dean is an informally dressed whisky drinker who rather shocks the sisters with his relaxed laid-back attitude and teasing humour. Mr Dean exudes a strength the nuns will have need of in the months ahead, and later, as they come to know him better they discover in him an ability to great sympathy and understanding.

The General’s nephew and heir, the young General Dilip Rai comes to the sisters to learn French, and a beautiful young girl Kanchi – who the locals have gossiped about wildly – has been placed with the sisters at the request of her uncle. Kanchi is soon surreptitiously keeping a close eye on the handsome young General – who, himself has an unusual effect on Sister Clodagh. Something in the character of the young General reminds her of her ill-fated romance with a neighbouring boy; Con – back in Ireland before she took holy orders.

“As he walked he kicked the stones away from him and slashed at the bushes; he looked pretty and naughty as a child, though he was nearly a full man; tall and beautifully built, not like a hill man but like a young Rajpit.
He slashed with his cane at the bushes, and she was suddenly back, walking down the Wishing Lane at home with Con; the green damp lane that led from the House gates past Skinners Farm to the lake, and Con was slashing at the hedge to show his temper.”

Mr Dean’s promise that the sisters will fail in their mission look set to come true as the nuns show time and again a lack of understanding for the people they are living among. The people have their own traditions and long held superstitions – and these are soon at odds with the inflexible attitudes of the sisters. Other troubles, passions and little jealousies play a part in causing the community difficulties as one of the sisters starts to show signs of mental illness. The magical landscape seems to beguile each of the sisters – distracting them from their purpose and allowing them, at times, to dream. Throughout the novel there is an air of forbidden passions rising to the surface, which Godden explores with wonderful subtlety.

Despite the drama and tragedy towards the end, the novel is much quieter than the film, which I remember as being quite melodramatic.

I am hoping to squeeze one more Rumer Godden novel into July as I do have two others waiting and Black Narcissus has served as a timely reminder to what a good writer she was.

rumer godden

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strangers on a train

Patricia Highsmith is one of several writers who I’ve read for the first time this year. In her; I have discovered a writer who was a wonderful creator of mood and suspense her characters explored with psychological acuity. Strangers on a Train was her first novel.

Strangers on a Train, is a story I have been broadly familiar with for many years, I vaguely remember having seen the 1951 Hitchcock directed film. I’m sure many people already know the brilliantly simple premise; two strangers swap murders – what could possibly go wrong?

“People, feelings, everything! Double! Two people in each person. There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.”

Up and coming architect Guy Haines badly wants a divorce from his difficult, promiscuous wife from whom he has been separated for three years. He wants to start his new life with Anne and as his career begins to take off the last thing he needs is for Miriam to hold him back. On a train journey to Metcalf, Texas to meet with Miriam at her request, Guy meets Charles Bruno – on his way to Sante Fe. Bruno is a hard-drinking young man, the son of a wealthy household, he deeply resents his father – and with several drinks already inside him he engages Guy in conversation. Bruno is not an attractive proposition as travelling companion, and Guy is reluctant to engage with him yet gets drawn into a bizarre conversation despite himself. Bruno has a private dining car and invites Guy to join him, here we begin to see Charles Bruno as a very troubling, psychopathic personality. He tells Guy all about his father and how he hates him, and almost against his will Guy finds himself imparting a lot of information about himself and his estranged wife Miriam.

“For here it was now, as clear as it had ever been. And, worst of all, he was aware of an impulse to tell Bruno everything, the stranger on the train who would listen, commiserate, and forget. The idea of telling Bruno began to comfort him. Bruno was not the ordinary stranger on the train by any means. He was cruel and corrupt enough himself to appreciate a story like that of his first love.”

Charles Bruno makes a dreadful, drunken suggestion – they each want rid of someone – so why not help one another out, if he were to kill Miriam there would be nothing to connect him to the crime, it would be a perfect murder. Then, in return a few months later Guy would kill Sam Bruno – Charles’s hated father. Guy is repelled by the suggestion – and fatally doesn’t take it too seriously. Once off the train, he reflects upon the meeting with a shudder, feeling that he has met with evil. Following an unhappy and unsatisfactory meeting with Miriam, Guy travels to Mexico to spend a few precious days with Anne. While he is away, Charles Bruno decides to put his plan into action, and using the small amount of information Guy unwittingly gave him, he tracks Miriam down, and follows her. Bruno’s personality is such that it is the idea of committing the so called perfect crime that appeals to him almost as much as the idea of ridding himself of his father. He strikes.

“People talked about the mystery of birth, of beginning life, but how explainable that was! Out of two live germ cells! What about the mystery of stopping life? Why should life stop because he held a girl’s throat too tightly? What was life anyway – What did Miriam feel after he took his hands away? Where was she? No, he didn’t believe in life after death. She was stopped, and that was just the miracle.”

In Mexico Guy receives a very odd note from Bruno – and soon there follows the most shocking news about his wife. A dreadful idea occurs to him, an idea too terrible to contemplate and Guy immediately holds on to the idea of an unknown maniac stalking the neighbourhood where Miriam lived.

Deep down of course Guy knows the truth about what happened to Miriam, but as the police make it quite clear that they believe Guy to have a perfect motive he isn’t keen to go to them with the preposterous story of a stranger on a train. Guy is running scared, of both the police and of Bruno. Charles Bruno is a manipulative young man, and he begins turning up unannounced, writing letters, gradually increasing the pressure on Guy to fulfil what Bruno considers his part of the bargain. The pressure becomes almost unendurable, and the longer he stays silent of course, the more Guy implicates himself in the crime. Highsmith brilliantly portrays Bruno’s psychological manipulation, how he gradually wears Guy down, turning him into a nervous shadow of himself.

At Guy and Anne’s wedding there is the inevitable uninvited guest – as Charles Bruno ratchets up the pressure. Sending Guy detailed plans of how to carry out the murder of his father, Bruno gets under Guy’s skin – to such a degree that Anne begins noticing that things aren’t right.

Strangers on a train – which I read most of aboard a train, travelling back and forth to Cornwall last weekend – is a brilliantly intelligent page turner. Guy is an ordinary man as the novel begins – ensnared in a terrifying series of events, brought about by the horrifying trap he finds himself caught in.

patricia-highsmith

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save me the waltz

The one and only novel written by Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, Save me the Waltz is the novel my very small book group chose for our July read. It is the book Zelda wrote during a period she spent in a Baltimore hospital to receive psychiatric treatment, while there she spent around two hours a day writing as a part of a daily routine to aid her recovery. The book was written in just a few weeks and to be absolutely honest it shows. Both Harry T Moore who wrote the introduction printed in this edition, and the Wikipedia page for the novel suggest that F. Scott Fitzgerald insisted upon or at least strongly encouraged her to make various revisions. I can’t help but feel very sad for this woman who had so many hopes and dreams, suffered so much illness and who, devastated by the lack of success her novel had, never published another.

I wonder whether Zelda is still best for who she married (the fate of many women with talent and ambition sadly) or whether Vintage’s re-issuing of this novel in 2001 and the recent novel; Z a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler has re-established interest in Zelda for her own sake – I hope so. In her day, she was a famous glamour girl and an aspiring ballerina, dubbed the first American flapper by her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda and Scott were the epitome of the jazz age, and their story still fascinates many fans today. The novel is highly autobiographical, and tells a similar story to that of F. Scot’s novel Tender is the Night. There are many well written passages, some lovely description and the novel shows that Zelda was certainly a writer of some talent – however there is also a lot of the novel which is rather overwritten, and for me the characters lacked depth. The novel is still fascinating for what it might teach us about Zelda herself.

“She felt the essence of herself pulled finer and smaller like those streams of spun glass that pull and stretch till there remains but a glimmering illusion. Neither falling nor breaking, the stream spins finer. She felt herself very small and ecstatic. Alabama was in love.”

The novel tells the story of Alabama Biggs, the youngest of three sisters, she grows up in the south, fascinated by her older, beautiful sisters and their beaus, she is in a hurry to grow up. The daughters of Judge Austin Biggs and Miss Millie – the opening to this novel had a wonderful Southern feel which transports the reader to another time entirely.

“A southern moon is a sodden moon, and sultry. When it swamps the fields and the rustling sandy roads and the sticky honeysuckle hedges in its sweet stagnation, your fight to hold on to reality is like a protestation against a first waft of ether.”

Just before World War One Alabama meets her own beau, David Knight, the two marry and David goes on to become a very successful painter. The Knights (like the Fitzgeralds of course) become the toast of jazz society – everyone seems to know them or want to know them, their lives for a time is almost one long party.

They have a baby daughter Bonnie, who is something of mysterious novelty to the dizzy pair – thank goodness for the nanny – and the Knights move their little family to the Riviera. Here there are more parties, and little distractions and temptations for each of them. The story is sometimes hard to follow, a bit fragmented although it certainly captures the spirit of an age. Like her creator, Alabama doesn’t want to just be the wife of a successful artist, she has ambitions and dreams of her own. Others don’t take her ambitions seriously, but Alabama has a fierce determination to succeed as a ballerina – despite being rather old for someone starting out.

“It seemed to Alabama that, reaching her goal, she would drive the devils that had driven her – that, in proving herself, she would achieve that peace which she imagined went only in surety of one’s self – that she would be able, through the medium of the dance, to command her emotions, to summon love or pity or happiness at will, having provided a channel through which they might flow. She drove herself mercilessly, and the summer dragged on.”

Alabama starts training under Madame, her determination driving her to aching muscles and bleeding feet. Her desire is to dance the role of La Chatte – which she had once seen danced by the Russian ballet. Ballet allows Alabama the freedom she has craved to be just herself, and shrugging off the small jealousies of the dance world she begins to blossom. As Alabama begins to succeed in dance the cracks in her marriage become gradually more apparent. This section – where Alabama begins her dance training (along with the passages set in the Biggs family home before Alabama marries) are the best in the book.

Save me the Waltz is not a great novel – but it isn’t a terrible one either – and Zelda didn’t deserve the dismissal it seems to have received in her lifetime. And although Alabama isn’t as strong a character as I would have liked her to be she is the one thing that shines from the novel – and I liked her enormously. I didn’t love Save me the Waltz as much as I thought I would, but it is worth reading, and a fascinating insight into the life of a woman whose sparkle still has the power to dazzle.

zelda fitzgerald

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A Lady and her Husband

A Lady and her Husband, first published in 1914 surprised me with the modern outlook of several of the female characters. I hadn’t realised it would be such a feminist novel – it was a really nice surprise, and the element which would make me recommend the novel to others.

According to the Preface by Samantha Ellis, Amber Reeves was a brilliant young woman, the uncompromising daughter of a suffragette and Fabian society member. The inspiration for A Lady and her Husband came from a real-life project undertaken by Amber Reeves, her mother; Maud Pember Reeves and other Fabian society women, who spent four years visiting working-class families in Lambeth to find out all they could about their lives. The result of this was Maud Pember Reeves’s book Round About a Pound a week, which is also published by Persephone books, I have an old Virago edition which I have yet to read. Ellis considers this novel very much a companion piece to that other book.

The plot of this novel is fairly simple. Mary Heyham is the wife of a prosperous business man. Mary has spent her adult life so far bringing up her children, and running her home with the help of the usual servants. She has always been the conventional little wife – the soft, unquestioning mother figure her husband James so depends upon. Now her children are grown up, they don’t have the same need of her, her son Trent works alongside James in the business, Laura is recently married, and now her youngest daughter Rosemary has announced her engagement.

Rosemary is very much a forward looking young woman of keen socialist principles. She recognises that Mary needs something to do – a challenge. Rosemary can’t help rather fearing the result of marriage for herself – afraid of becoming soft and useless. So, Rosemary enlists James’ help, and they come up with a scheme for Mary to have a look at his chain of successful tearooms – enquiring into the lives of the girls who work there. James is happy for Mary to have a diversion, expecting her to find him out to be a wonderful employer. James is a brilliantly created character – one I wanted to frequently hit over the head with something heavy. His condescension is hugely irritating, pompous and complacent – he calls his wife ‘old lady’ and doesn’t ever expect her to think too hard about anything. The following quote perfectly demonstrating his patronising attitude.

“James was detached and good-humoured, perfectly ready to talk things over with her. He seemed to think that it was really very creditable that she should have stuck to the thing like this, and taken such an interest in it. One gets rather too much into the habit of assuming that women do not care about serious things. Well then, to what revolutionary courses did she – dear little person that she was – wish to commit her wretched husband and his old fashioned business?”

James and Mary love each other deeply – but they have become used to their conventional roles, and neither have ever had to face their differences. James is a different man in business than he is at home, and Mary has never really met that man before. Rosemary supplies her mother with a pile of socialist literature, and Mary engages a secretary – Miss Percival, whose own deeply held socialist and feminist beliefs are soon revealed. Mary’s education begins.

“Miss Percival shook her head. ‘I don’t know how it came,’ she said, ‘though I could find a hundred reasons – I can see a fresh reason in every man I meet! When I look at their faces in the street, in a bus, anywhere, their mean stupid faces – men who get their ideals out of the half-penny papers, men who think about money on an office stool all day, and then go home and treat some woman as an inferior -I wonder than any woman has ever loved a man.”

Mary begins to visit the tearooms in the company of Miss Percival, and her visits soon raise a number of questions. Mary discovers that the girls who work in the tearooms are expected to come from families where there is already money coming in, where they are not relying on the twelve shillings salary to live. Mary meets a young woman for who this is certainly not the case, and Mary is drawn awkwardly into the story of Florrie and her very sick mother’s life – and realises at once that the employment policy is not realistic and twelve shillings (though more than many women in service) not nearly enough. Her visits raise other questions too – why do the women not have a room in which to eat? She sees women standing in corridors hurriedly eating – no chance to sit down during their hours at work, the women whose job it is to wash up reduced to standing for hours, water slopping around their feet. Others are obliged to carry heavy trays and stand around looking bright and efficient. -1

The women work long days for little salary, and Mary starts to realise how very difficult and uncomfortable their lives are. James is not happy with the suggestions Mary makes to improve his workers’ lives – and Mary is made to feel quite unhappy about his reaction.

Mary starts to see the world very differently – she starts to ask questions – much to James’ discomfort and irritation. In starting to see the world very differently, Mary also begins to see her husband differently – it causes Mary to re-examine her life and her marriage.

A Lady and her Husband is a quite subtle examination of women’s lives at this period – before the First World War, we meet women from different sections of society, and see clearly how differently the world treats them.

Amber Reeves

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Ajest of god

My final read of June was my second Margaret Laurence novel of the month – A Jest of God, which is the second novel in her famous Manawaka sequence of novels. The novel takes place during a couple of months of one summer, exploring loneliness, desire and disappointment.

“I may become, in time, slightly more eccentric all the time. I may begin to wear outlandish hats, feathered and sequinned and rosetted, and dangling necklaces made from coy and tiny seashells which I’ve gathered myself along the beach and painted coral-pink with nail polish. And all the kids will laugh, and I’ll laugh, too, in time. I will be light and straight as any feather. The wind will bear me, and I will drift and settle, and drift and settle. Anything may happen, where I’m going.”

Rachel Cameron is a shy, thirty-four-year-old school teacher, leading a life of stifling conventionality in the small Canadian town she grew up in. Years before she had made a brief escape to attend college, but returned to live with and care for her mother following her father’s death. They live in the flat above the funeral directors that her father had once owned. Mrs Cameron (like Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel) is a wonderfully drawn character, a coyly manipulative terror she is overbearing and demanding. Rachel’s older sister Stacey escaped – married now, living in the city with four children, she very rarely visits.

Each year, Rachel silently directs her love toward one of the pupils in her class of seven-year olds (as the novel opens it is young James) although she goes to very great lengths to make sure no one guesses. Rachel is in part surprised to find herself teaching in the school where she was once a child – there is a definite feeling that she has not had the opportunity to move her life forward, stuck still in the landscape of her childhood.

“I remember myself skipping rope to that song when I was about the age of the little girls out there now. Twenty-seven years ago, which seems impossible, and myself seven, but the same brown brick building, only a new wing added and the place smartened up. It would certainly have surprised me then to know I’d end up here…”

Rachel’s one friend in the town, is Calla; a kind hearted fellow teacher who dresses oddly, calls Rachel child, and is a member of the Tabernacle church where worshippers have recently begun speaking in tongues. Calla exacts a promise from Rachel to attend a future meeting with her, and Rachel is torn between the knowledge of how excruciating she will find it – and not wanting to hurt Calla’s feelings. The evening, when it finally happens is even worse than Rachel had anticipated, affecting her powerfully and emotionally in a way she finds acutely embarrassing.

Rachel has a powerful inner life – she is sharp, intelligent and an astute observer of those around her, the children, the school principle, Calla and her mother.

“Nothing is clear now. Something must be the matter with my way of viewing things. I have no middle view. Either I fix on a detail and see it as though it were magnified – a leaf with all its veins perceived, the fine hairs on a man’s hands – or else the world recedes and becomes blurred, artificial, indefinite, an abstract painting of a world. The darkening sky is hugely blue, gashed with rose, blood, flame from the volcano or wound or flower of the lowering sun. The wavering green, the sea of grass, piercingly bright. Black tree trunks, contorted, arching over the river.”

There are moments when she isn’t as kind as he would like to be, dimly aware of being unkind toward Calla’s friendliness, she then feels guilty for her sharpness. However, Rachel is also vulnerable, caught still in the life of her childhood, ministering to her mother and living a life of quiet, conventionality. Deep down, Rachel harbours more than a little resentment for the life she is leading, making sandwiches and serving coffee at her mother’s bridge parties, accompanying her mother to church – where she would in fact rather not go at all. Inside, Rachel isn’t quite the quiet, dutiful small town spinster school teacher that she appears.

As Rachel says goodbye to her class of children for the summer holidays, another former child of the town returns. Nick Kazlik; the son of the town’s Ukrainian milkman, returns for the summer. Nick is a high school teacher in the city, to where he will soon return. The two embark upon a passionate relationship. Nick’s attitude to their relationship is much more casual than Rachel’s. Rachel is more like a gauche young school girl than a woman in her thirties – unpractised in the ways of love and sex. Nick visits the scenes of his childhood and adolescence with Rachel, haunted a little by the memory of his twin brother who died several years earlier. As Rachel grows in sexual confidence, she becomes more reliant on Nick, worrying when he doesn’t ring for several days, even imaging a future for the two of them.

A Jest of God is beautifully written, a sympathetic, tender novel which sees Rachel come to a new understanding about herself, and her standing with her difficult mother. A thoroughly beautiful novel, Margaret Laurence is someone I shall be reading much more of.

I have The Diviners tbr – which I believe is the fourth or fifth novel in the Manawaka sequence – though I assume it doesn’t matter in which order they are read.

margaretlaurence

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IMG_20170622_221800_698

I always come back to Agatha Christie – it’s a world I understand, everything makes sense because it all gets tidied up so neatly. I saw this novel mentioned somewhere else recently, and I realised I couldn’t remember if I had ever read it. I own a nice first edition, with tatty dustjacket but once the fragile wrapper had been removed I was happy to read it carefully.

First published in 1963, it does feature an ageing Poirot, although he rightly gets to do the best bit (the reveal) – Poirot features much less than in earlier mysteries. Although to be fair – he is getting on a bit by 1963 – so that seems fair enough.

“To every problem, there is a most simple solution.”

It seems like a perfectly ordinary day at The Cavendish secretarial and Typewriting Bureau in Crowdean; Edna has broken the heel off her shoe, and Sheila Webb is a little late back from lunch. Upon her return Sheila is called into Miss Martindale’s office – a request has been telephoned in, for Sheila to go to Wilbraham Crescent, number 19 and if there is no one in to let herself in and wait. Slightly puzzled at the request – for she can’t remember having worked for this client before – Sheila follows the instructions exactly. Sheila finds herself in the sitting room of number 19 Wilbraham Crescent, she is not alone, behind the sofa is the body of a man. Moments later, Miss Pebmarsh arrives home, a blind, braille teacher – who later claims to have never called The Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau. Aside from the presence of a dead body, the other notable addition to the room are four clocks – set to thirteen minutes past four.

As any self-respecting secretary would, Sheila rushes screaming from the house – straight into the arms of one Colin Lamb, a marine biologist come intelligence officer. We later learn that Colin is an old friend of Poirot’s (there is a suggestion that his father was one of the police Inspectors to benefit from the Belgian’s brilliance.) Colin was following a lead in one of his own cases, looking for a spy in hiding – when he happens upon an altogether different puzzle.

The police are soon on the scene, Detective Inspector Hardcastle in charge of what looks like a fiendishly difficult case. Hardcastle is a friend of Colin’s too – and quite happy to have him tag along as he interviews the neighbours – and attempts to identify the dead man. There are naturally, many questions. Did anyone see or hear anything? How did the body get into the house? What do the clocks mean? Why was Sheila asked for by name?

Colin quickly starts to feel very protective towards Sheila – who he feels Hardcastle is looking at suspiciously. The two are drawn to one another – and Hardcastle isn’t sure that he approves.

“I looked at her. Sheila was my girl–the girl I wanted–and wanted for keeps. But it wasn’t any use having illusions about her. Sheila was a liar and probably always would be a liar. It was her way of fighting for survival–the quick easy glib denial. It was a child’s weapon–and she’d probably never got out of using it. If I wanted Sheila, I must accept her as she was–be at hand to prop up the weak places. We’ve all got our weak places. Mine were different from Sheila’s, but they were there.”

Colin decides to pay a visit to his old friend Hercule Poirot. He remembers how Poirot once claimed that he could solve a crime, merely by sitting in his chair and giving the matter serious thought. Colin gives the details of the case to the old detective, hoping at the very least to relieve some of boredom he knows Poirot often feels. Poirot is happy to give the case his consideration, although he hasn’t been entirely idle – he has been making a detailed study of famous works of crime fiction. Having Poirot’s take on The Levenworth Case, The Mystery of the Yellow Room and Sherlock Holmes is great fun for those who like their vintage crime.

Another bookish joy I wanted to share with you is this description of a tiny cluttered bookshop.

“Inside, it was clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild and taken possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down. The distance between bookshelves was so narrow that you could only get along with great difficulty. There were piles of books perched on every shelf or table. On a stool in a corner, hemmed in by books, was an old man in a pork pie hat with a large flat face like a stuffed fish. He had the air of one who has given up an unequal struggle.”

Back in Crowdean and the inquest of the dead man is opened and adjourned, within hours of the inquest however, there is another violent death – leading to more questions. Inevitably, Hardcastle’s case and Colin’s hunt for a spy look like they may be connected, and eventually someone comes forward to identify the dead man.

I really don’t want to say any more about this story – which I think is really well plotted mystery, firmly rooted in the 1960s. The solution is clever, and one can sense Poirot’s old eyes twinkling as he reveals all – a minor point: the ending is perhaps a tiny bit rushed – overall though, of course I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Agathachristie2

 

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thedevaststingboys

I’m sure most of you know by now just how much I love Elizabeth Taylor – but I still haven’t read quite everything she wrote. I have been saving the last two volumes of short stories for quite a while – now there is only one left. The short story form, seems to have suited Elizabeth Taylor perfectly, and The Devastating Boys first published in 1972 I have seen described as her best. It is pretty much sheer perfection.

There are eleven stories in this collection – and they are all quite brilliant, though I am not going to write about each story separately – but attempt to give a flavour of the whole collection. On of things that Elizabeth Taylor can do in her short stories is to have her characters step fully formed from the pages, and the reader is immediately involved in their lives. These stories take place both at home and abroad, and concern a variety of types. We have remembrances of childhood holidays and the infatuations they bring. Loneliness and humour sit side by side throughout this delicious collection. In two of the stories there is certainly an acknowledgement of the changing face of Britain, as Elizabeth Taylor introduces us to some more diverse characters than we perhaps usually associate with her, in the title story and in Tall Boy. This later story tells the rather poignant story of Jasper; a young man, an immigrant not long arrived in England. I don’t want to say too much about that one as it could spoil it – but it is certainly one of my favourites in the collection.

“He imagined home having the same time as England. He would have felt quite lost to his loved ones if when he woke in the night, he could not be sure that they were lying in darkness too and, when his own London morning came, their also came, the sun streamed through the cracks of their hut in shanty-town, and the little girls began to chirp and skip about.” (Tall Boy)

The title story, the first one in the book, is an absolute delight, some of the language is a little old fashioned, though never offensive, it brings together two vastly different worlds. Laura and Harold are a fairly typical Taylor married couple, upper middle class, they live in a nice house within easy reach of a railway link to London, their daughters have grown up and left home. Harold came up with the idea of having disadvantaged London children to stay for a holiday. Having read of the scheme, Harold had volunteered himself and Laura (though it will be Laura who will have to entertain them) insisting that the children they take should be black. So, when summer comes, it is a nervous Laura who waits at the station for these two young London boys, Septimus Smith and Benny Reece.

“They stood on the platform, looking about them, holding their little cardboard cases.
‘My name is Laura,’ she said. She stooped and clasped them to her, and kissed their cheeks. Sep’s in particular, was extraordinarily soft, like the petal of a poppy. His big eyes stared up at her, without expression. He wore a dark long-trousered suit. So that he was all over sombre and unchildlike. Benny had a mock-suede coat with a nylon-fur collar and a trilby hat with a feather. They did not speak. Not only was she, Laura, strange to them, but they were strange to one another. There had only been a short train-journey in which to sum up their chances of becoming friends.” (The Devastating Boys)

Two weeks stretches out before them all, what will Laura do with these silent, large eyed small boys. Elizabeth Taylor writes these characters with such affection and without any of the patronising condescension that other writers of her class have been known to adopt when writing of the working classes. The Devastating Boys is a story I could read over and over – by the end – when the children must return to London – there is a definite feeling that Septimus and Benny will always be a part of Harold and Laura’s life.

In stories like Sisters – Elizabeth Taylor achieves quite a lot in just a few pages. Here we have Mrs Mason, a widow, she prides herself on her respectability. We quickly learn all we need to know, Mrs Mason is childless, attends coffee mornings in aid of worthy charities, plays bridge regularly, takes tea in a nearby tea-rooms. She is a respected figure in her English county town, and she shudders at the thought that her respectability could be threatened when a journalist appears asking questions about the sister that no one in the town knows anything about.

An annoyingly precocious child spends her summer holidays making daily visits to various houses in the story In and Out the Houses. At each house, she drops snippets of information about the other households she has visited that day. Small jealousies and pretensions are revealed, as Kitty Miller happily skips from house to house leaving tiny seeds of chaos in her wake.

Several stories take place abroad; the differences in a newly married couple becoming painfully apparent in Hôtel Du Commerce, the ending almost inevitable is nevertheless brilliant. Blowsy pub landlady Phyl; contemplates a fling while on holiday in a sunbathed Mediterranean resort, in the story Flesh. Even here, we meet a recognisable type of person, and as ever Taylor recreates them perfectly.

“For the sake of a tan, she was wasting her holiday – just to be a five minutes’ wonder in the bar on her return, the deepest brown any of them had that year.” (Flesh).

The one story which feels a bit like the odd one out (not to say it isn’t brilliant because it is) is The Fly Paper, which I have read before in another collection. It is a real spine chiller – reminding me a little of those Tales of the Unexpected that I used to watch with partial dread, occasionally, when I was in my teens. Sylvia is an eleven year old, travelling on a bus to her music lesson, it is a journey she makes regularly, but what happens to Sylvia on this particular Wednesday – really is the stuff of nightmares – and yet Taylor writes it with such exquisite subtlety.

The Devastating Boys is a truly superb collection, and one which demonstrates Elizabeth Taylor’s skill at revealing the truths within communities. Dangerous Calm is the final collection of Elizabeth Taylor stories I have to read, I want to have it to look forward to for a little while yet.

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