Posts Tagged ‘Dean Street Press’

I think I chose to buy and later to read Much Dithering primarily for the title. I had certainly never heard of Dorothy Lambert who – I see from the introduction to this edition by Elizabeth Crawford – was a pretty prolific writer. In fact, several of the characters from this novel had already appeared four years before this novel was published in a play written and produced by Dorothy Lambert, performed by Shepherdswell Village players.

The Much Dithering of the title is a village – a village that some people think is terribly sunk in the past – sleepy, old fashioned and in need of some modernisation. The pace of change is set by the lady of the manor – she has put her foot down over the question of a petrol pump outside the village pub to begin with.

“The most striking thing about Much Dithering was its peacefulness. The few people who saw it from charabancs on morning or evening circular drives said: “Isn’t it quiet?” And some said they thought it was a lovely place to be buried in, but while they were alive they preferred a place with more life, if you know what they meant.”

Jocelyn Renshawe is the heroine of this lovely little comedy of manners. Jocelyn is the very young widow of the local squire. Downtrodden by years of doing the bidding of her aunt and mother-in-law (the aforementioned lady of the manor). Jocelyn sees herself as ‘a specimen of human cabbage’ utterly unaware it seems that she is a very attractive young woman – and thus the reader is assured of her goodness (rolls eyes – but never mind).

Having lived with her spinster aunt in the village as she grew up – married off to Lancelot, the sickly, weak son of the local squire in her teens – poor Jocelyn knows practically nothing of the outside world. Her husband had died of a chill a few months before his own father died, and so the property that might have been hers has instead gone to a nephew of whom no one knows anything and is somewhere abroad. Jocelyn lives quite comfortably meanwhile in the Dower house – though less comfortably as the novel opens as her mother Ermyntrude has decided to pay a rare impromptu visit.

Ermyntrude is a woman to set anyone’s teeth on edge and really couldn’t be more different to her daughter. Now Jocelyn can be found doing good works and generally keeping her aunt and mother-in-law happy. Ermyntrude is quite disgusted at the life her daughter has lived – though it clearly suited her to off load her offspring on to her aunt. Ermyntrude in fact despises her daughter, she has her own reasons for coming to Much Dithering and they aren’t in any way maternal. Widowed for the second time, Ermyntrude lives in London hotels and spends her life visiting friends. She prides herself on still being young, and in looking much younger – and is currently in hot pursuit of who she hopes will be her third (much younger) husband. Adrian Murchison-Bellaby is the son of a family who having made their fortune in potted meat have recently bought a new country home – in Much Dithering – and Adrian is planning on spending several weeks there while on leave from his regiment. Concerned that Jocelyn might age her a little – she insists on her daughter not calling her mother – a deceit that doesn’t fool anyone. Adrian has already begun to tire of his dalliance with Ermyntrude – especially on meeting the pretty young widow at the Dower house. Adrian’s sister Jasmine has caught the eye of the young lothario at the pub, much to her family’s horror. The family are keen to make a name for themselves in local society – but as ‘new money’ are completley beneath the notice of Jocelyn’s mother-in-law.

“The dinner party at the Murchison-Bellaby’s was a rather difficult affair. The mixture of Jasmine’s London friends and what she contemptuously termed ‘the village people’ was not altogether a success. The vicar was still unable to take part in social events owing to his lumbago, but Mrs Pomfret came determined to make the most of her opportunity to enlist the sympathy and interest of the new and wealthy parishioners in her numerous activities. Ermyntrude came resolved on creating the right impression on Adrian’s people. She had never met any of them but was convinced she had only to be seen to conquer any prejudice that might have to be overcome. Jocelyn came rather diffidently, for she dreaded new acquaintances, especially rich and (she was sure) clever, smart people with whom she would feel shy and out of things. A few days spent in her mother’s company invariably upset her usual serenity and made her feel stupid and ‘Impossible.’

Jocelyn’s aunt and mother-in-law have decided that Jocelyn should re-marry and they have set their sights on the elderly Colonel Tidmarsh – a very dull retired army man. Not long before Christmas a stranger arrives in the village, Gervase Blyth – who rescues Jocelyn from a rainstorm as she out delivering leaflets – later manging to set almost everyone else against himself and falling under suspicion as a jewel thief. However, he also helps to open Jocelyn’s eyes as to the narrowness of her life.

Much Dithering is a real cheer up of a book, Jocelyn is a lovely heroine and the reader is fairly assured of a happy ending. Sometimes I think I would like a less conventionally happy ending with these books but it’s still a satisfying, quick little read. Perfect for tired weekends or when under the weather.

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Many of us I think are finding ourselves in need of a comforting hug in book form every now and again, and the Mrs Tim books slide very nicely into that category. Hester Christie is delightful company for a few days, there is nothing too silly or fluffy here – she is instead sensible and nice and immensely likeable. Mrs Tim Flies Home is the fourth and sadly final book in the series – and time has marched forward. The war is over – though many service personnel like Colonel Tim are still stationed abroad.

It is always difficult to review books that are part of a series – as readers may not have read the others. However, for those of you who like these Furrowed Middlebrow type novels, and especially have enjoyed D E Stevenson’s Miss Buncle books, or the novels of O Douglas then I think the Mrs Tim books would suit you admirably. I think it is generally accepted that D E Stevenson’s novels vary a little in quality, but the Mrs Tim books are light without being silly, charming without being mawkish and have a gentle humour and warmth that make them just perfect for tired, lazy weekends.

All the novels take the form of a diary – and Hester’s voice is always a delight, while she is clearly and firmly middle class there is nothing snobbish or condescending about Hester, there is a lovely normalness about her. In the three previous novels we have followed Hester Christie through the war years and before – through several moves and promotions of her husband.

“In the course of my wanderings I have started life anew in many places, and in every place the same thing happens: at first there is little to do, one knows nobody and life passes by like a pageant, then gradually the world breaks in and one becomes a part of the pageant instead of a mere spectator.”

We have watched her throw herself at all those little domestic disasters that come along, child rearing, war work and a spell at a Scottish hotel. Through all those years Hester can’t help but be a good friend, she has even been known to try her hand at a little romantic match making.

Hester has spent a very happy eighteen months with her husband Tim stationed in Kenya, however as the novel opens she is heading home alone. While Tim stays in Kenya for a while Hester is heading back to England to be with their two now almost grown up children – who are both still nevertheless at school.

Hester has arranged to rent a house in the village of old Quinings close to the pub run by her faithful former maid Annie and her husband. She is planning a quiet summer with the children when they are home from school and looks forward to catching up with Annie too. 

Hester is flying home – which in itself is quite the thing for the early 1950s – but will be breaking her long journey by spending a couple of days in Rome. On the plane from Kenya Hester meets a woman called Rosa Alston – who she swerves spending any more time with in Rome, when an old friend turns up to surprise her.

A few days later settled back in England, and reunited with Annie, Hester is getting to know the charmingly named The Small House – where she looks forward to welcoming Bryan and Betty. Hester has almost forgotten all about Mrs Alston – but of course she turns up – having remembered Hester’s descriptions of the village and attracted by the sound of the place she arrives in Quinings with her son who needs plenty of quiet to complete his studies.

Soon enough Hester is dragged into the lives of others too. There are the usual curious neighbours as well as a dishonest landlady to be dealt with. As ever D E Stevenson gives us an enjoyable cast of characters, including an impoverished village librarian in need of some good fortune, young lovers and a nice chatty daily woman who advises everything should be done ‘straight off.’

“My life has made me what I am. It hasn’t been easy, sometimes I have found it almost unbearable, but suffering can be transmuted into strength-as a rod is tempered by passing through a furnace-and all my hard work, all my anxieties and failures and disappointments have made me what I am. When the rod is tempered it has to be polished and made fit for service…everything that happens as one goes through life helps to polish the rod. If I didn’t feel sure of that I couldn’t go on; I couldn’t face the future.”

The only cloud on the horizon for Hester is the knowledge that she has become the subject of some rather silly gossip – and Tim’s latest letters seem oddly abrupt.

This was a lovely conclusion to the Mrs Tim series – and of course there are lots and lots of D E Stevenson books still to read – she was nothing if not prolific. A lovely little nod to her Miss Buncle series of books can be spotted in a few mentions of the town of Wandlebury – where Hester has a pleasant lunch with family friend Tony Morley. It seems D E Stevenson often pops people and places from other books into her novels.

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With thanks to Dean street press for the review ebook

Rhododendrom Pie was Margery Sharp’s first novel – it is famously hard to find and generally expensive when a copy comes up for sale. Therefore, there was great excitement among Margery Sharp fans when Dean Street Press announced it as one of the titles in their next batch of releases which are out at the beginning of January. I actually read this at the end of October – but have held my review back for a few weeks – it didn’t really seem quite fair to dangle a book in front of your noses when you couldn’t buy it for another two months – now at least you don’t have long to wait.

The story concerns Ann Laventie and her family. The Laventies are a family of social snobs, they see themselves as intellectual or artistic, they are cool and composed. The beauty of their surroundings matters to them enormously – an ugly chair for example is just not to be born no matter how comfortable it might be. Living at Whitenights in the Sussex countryside, they keep at arm’s length people they find dull or ordinary – and are known for not being very sociable locally. Ann however is rather different to her parents, her brother Dick and sister Elizabeth – she gets a lot of pleasure out of the ordinary things in life – and though she is proud of her family, and loves them, she feels unable to admit always to how she really feels about things.

One of the things Ann keeps quiet about is the odd family birthday tradition of presenting whoever’s birthday it is with a floral pie – a thing of beauty which naturally can’t actually be eaten.

“Every year she had hoped against hope, and every year the lovely inedible petals have cheated her. For she has a fundamental, instinctive conviction that they are out of place, Flowers are beautiful in gardens … and in houses, of course … but in a pie you want fruit. Apples. Hot and fragrant and faintly pink, with lots of juice … and cloves. She wished there had been apples in her pie.”

Dick is a sculptor, Elizabeth has become a writer of rather fine essays, Ann does not really have a talent – she is more down to earth, kind, practical and a good friend. Mrs Laventie had some kind of accident years earlier and is now disabled, and we get the impression that Mr Laventie takes himself off to Paris whenever it suits him to do so. The family have what they clearly all see as a more intelligent and progressive attitude to life. While the Laventies generally rather approve of the bohemian lifestyle of Elizabeth and Dick’s London friends and of people living together rather than marrying – Ann rather likes the idea of a white wedding with orange blossom and living happily ever after. She loves the garden at the family home in Sussex and enjoys living in the country. She does not entirely fit in with her sister’s friends in London, although on a visit to London, Ann easily makes friends and is found by everyone around her to be very likeable indeed.

“Ann settled down on the grass again with her chin on her fists and one shoe waving in the air. She wasn’t reading really, only pretending to, so that the others wouldn’t talk to her. It was too nice in the garden to talk. How queer to think she was lying on the surface of the world…an enormous warm green ball spinning slowly through space somewhere, under a lime tree like a sliver of grass, a minute pink dot.”

Ann is good friends with the Gayford family from next door – they are a large, noisy, loving family – a little chaotic, relaxed, and unpretentious and really quite different to the Laventie family. She is particularly fond of John Gayford, a gloriously ordinary young man, who works in the nearby town as a bank clerk. The Laventies sneer just a little at the Gayfords, react to a picnic invitation with eye rolling irritation and are certain that they are on a higher plane altogether.

“Ann reflected with pleasure that she was always known for English at sight – like Dr Gayford, who was invariably answered in his mother tongue whenever he tried to order a meal in French. They were English too – more than that, Sussex – and – well, Ann liked the Gayfords. And she liked Jimmy and James and Delia, and the next time an opportunity occurred she would say so. The flags of Ann’s rebellion swept on unchecked…”

When Gilbert, a handsome screenwriter comes to Whitenights from London to visit – he rather turns Ann’s head. Gilbert’s view of the future though would be totally different to Ann’s dreams – after a whirlwind visit to London, Ann is rather glad to get back home and happy to see stolid, sensible John Gayford again. John Gayford would not be the Laventie choice of suitor for their daughter however, John challenges Ann’s assumptions about him and his family – and while Ann has to find her way to her own happiness she must also find a way of reconciling her family to what she wants. 

Rhododendron Pie is a lovely book, in this first novel by Margery Sharp we can see something of the writer she was to become, as a debut it is excellent. A charming, whimsical novel which I am delighted to see back in print.

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My recent purchase of five Dean Street Press books included two by Doris Langley Moore. Having so enjoyed Not at Home, I had known it would not be long before I read another of her novels. A Game of Snakes and Ladders is a little different to Not at Home less domestic though fully immersive. In this novel Doris Langley Moore gives us another heroine who (like Elinor MacFarren in Not at Home) the reader roots for from the start.

There is some kind of odd publishing history for this novel, first published in 1938 as They Knew her When – it was revised and published under this title in 1955. The opening sentence immediately showing one revision.

“During the First World War, as during the Second, all the lighter kinds of theatrical business flourished.”

In a note from the author to the publisher re-printed in the front of this edition, Doris Langley Moore explains how she came to write this novel – or at least what inspired her to create her heroine. She wanted a heroine that would go through a multitude of trials before emerging victorious at the end – like in the novels of Fanny Burney.

“Fanny Burney would not approve of some of my chapters, but it was my affection for the novels of her school, in which the heroine goes through all kinds of distresses but emerges in a sweeping triumph at the end that made me long to try my hand at the same theme – treating it, however, in our down-to-earth twentieth-century way.”

After the end of World War One two young women, Lucy a vicar’s daughter sensible and unflappable, and Daisy, pretty, ambitious, and highly self-interested are performing with a theatre company in Egypt. Lucy is about twenty seven, Daisy a couple of years younger, and the two had been thrown together by their touring company while in Australia, a fairly superficial friendship had developed. In 1919 Lucy is still nursing a heartbreak, she had been very much in love with Henry, the younger son of a titled English family – who she argued with and separated from during the war. When the show in Cairo comes to an end Daisy decides to stay in Egypt, Lucy meanwhile is keen to return to England. Of course, things don’t quite work out for Lucy in the way she expects – and the novel follows her over the course of almost twenty years through a variety of trials and tribulations.

Daisy has caught the eye of a wealthy businessman, who has some involvement with the theatre. When Lucy falls seriously ill Daisy has her moved to an expensive nursing home, and upon her recovery Lucy finds herself in serious debt to her friend’s lover. Daisy – who doesn’t really want to lose Lucy’s company, further promises that Lucy will remain in Egypt until the debt is repaid. Moving back and forth between Cairo and Alexandria Lucy is forced to find work that will pay her enough to live on, repay her debt and eventually fund her passage home to England. Lucy feels trapped by her position and with her illness having taken a toll on her looks and her singing voice she is obliged to take a job as a kind of dogsbody assistant to a theatre manager – all arranged by Daisy’s lover Mr Mosenthal. Lucy is determined to save what she can of her meagre earnings and get back to England, from where she will continue to pay off her debt to Mr Mosenthal – who is really not as bothered about the debt as poor Lucy imagines.

“Daisy was one of those plastic and adaptable persons who are able to produce whatever sentiments expedience may demand of them. She had the happy faculty, of adjusting herself, without either effort or knowledge on her own part, to people, circumstances, and surroundings. She held, upon almost every topic, exactly such opinions as it seemed advantageous to hold, and if the paradox is tolerable, being quite without intellectual honesty, she honestly believed in those opinions.”

Daisy is a very selfish young woman, totally incapable of recognising her own selfishness, she manages to delude herself about her own motives. She enjoys having Lucy at her beck and call – when it suits her, but she is far too invested in her relationship with Mr Mosenthal to really think too much about Lucy. As her relationship develops and looks to becoming more permanent, Lucy is really only needed to help fill Daisy’s quiet afternoons in the comfortable flat she shares with Mr Mosenthal.

Lucy is living in one room of a rooming house – waging a continuous battle with the threat of cockroaches, making what little economies she can in her living costs. She’s made no friends at work – as everyone is suspicious of her involvement with Mr Mosenthal – wondering if she is reporting back to the big boss. However, Lucy does befriend a young girl living in her boarding house, Constance and her father live on the floor above Lucy, and despite Constance being only about seventeen, the two become good friends – until a dreadful argument severs their friendship. Lucy has not lost sight of her main objective, to secure passage back to England – but she hasn’t reckoned on so many things going wrong. The reader watches in dismay as poor Lucy lurches from one crisis to another – each of them making it harder and harder for her to get home to England. As time goes on, and the fares start to rise – Lucy becomes resigned to staying in Egypt. Daisy – the cause of all Lucy’s initial troubles becomes an ever more distant figure in Lucy’s life – as she attains married respectability.  

The reader has some realistic hopes of things working out well for Lucy – it is that kind of novel – and we sense this right from the start. Her stay in Egypt is long – very long, and we wonder what will take her home? – who might help her?  and what will lie in wait for her after such a long absence?

A thoroughly enjoyable read, with a wonderfully satisfying ending, I am so looking forward to my next read by Doris Langley Moore – hooray for Dean Street press bringing her books back to us.

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In these strange and sometimes sad times that we have all been living through the past few months – many of us have found ourselves turning to a certain kind of book to get us through. We all have our different escapes in reading material, for some it is cosy or vintage crime, for others light modern fiction – whatever works for you – I understand that need. For me, I like fiction from a bygone age – I read all sorts of backlisted fiction, the literary and non-literary alike. In these times I have sometimes turned to books that lifted me a bit, helped me forget the reality of 2020 for a while.

There are times though when we need a happy ending – a nice setting, characters we love – those books that we lay aside fully satisfied with a great daft grin on our faces.

There are some titles that may immediately spring to mind to those of you who like these kind of books too – The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M Delafield, Miss Buncle’s Book by  D.E Stevenson, The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett  and of course Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. So, in case you are in need for a little something in a similar vein – I have a few recommendations. These are books that are unashamedly feel good, funny, or just light, bright and charming. Many are well written too – great characterisation, sparkling dialogue and amusing set pieces – just what a stressed out reader may be in need of for a weekend of quiet reading. Many of the books below, I really could have done with this year!

Patricia Brent Spinster (1918) Herbert Jenkins

An effervescent little gem, a feel good little fairy tale to be read with a wry smile. Living the shabbily genteel existence of a paying guest at the Galvin House Residential Hotel, is attractive twenty four year old Patricia Brent. Secretary to a “rising” politician with an absurdly socially ambitious wife, Patricia is lonely and stifled by life. One day Patricia overhears a conversation between a couple of her fellow residents – a spiteful couple of “old cats”, called Miss Wangle and Mrs Mosscrop-Smythe – pitying Patricia’s loneliness, with some relish. So, Patricia rashly tells a lie – which has all sorts of consequences. Sadly, out of print, while second-hand copies may be found, I am sure that this is available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg.

 Our Hearts were Young and Gay (1944) Cornelia Otis Skinner

Cornelia Otis Skinner, an American actress, writer and screenwriter co-wrote Our Hearts were Young and Gay with her good friend Emily Kimbrough, a memoir about their travels in Europe in the 1920’s. It is difficult to see where Kimbrough’s collaboration is exactly as the book is written in Skinner’s first person narrative. None of that seems important however as the book is full of charm and humour, and both women come across quite hilariously full of adorably lovable quirks and eccentricities. My edition also came with some adorable little illustrations.

The True Heart (1929) Sylvia Townsend Warner

The True Heart is apparently a (very loose) re-telling of the story of Cupid and Psyche – though don’t let that put you off. If you weren’t aware of that then it wouldn’t matter – and it wouldn’t alter the delightfulness of this imaginative love story. The novel is deceptively simple, but it is a glorious non-sentimental celebration of love, and the wonderful capacity of the human heart. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is superb – as always, I actually find her very readable, and I defy anyone not to absolutely love Sukey and her Eric. There is a wonderful fairy-tale quality to this novel – there’s a feeling that all is possible.

84 Charing Cross Road (1970) Helene Hanff

Probably a book that needs no introduction. It’s a long time since I read it, and I would love a chance to re-read it. Twenty years of correspondence between Helene a writer living in New York and an English second-hand book dealer in the famous Charing Cross Road in London. The two famously never meet, and this book is as poignant as it is joyful – but I had to include it, because what a wonderful portrait of friendship and book collecting it is.

Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945) Susan Alice Kerby

Of course, Dean Street Press had to have a place in this list of books. There were probably more I could have included. Miss Carter and the Ifrit is whimsical and charming and a brilliant little escape. Miss Georgina Carter is a woman in her late forties – she lives alone in a small London flat and works in the censorship office. Her life is one of fairly dull, predictable routine, she feels like she has rather missed out on life, nothing of any interest could possibly happen to her now, she believes. An Ifrit (like a genie) is released from a piece of wood she throws on her fire – and her life is suddenly wholly different.

Something Light (1960) Margery Sharp

Light, effervescent and endlessly charming. Something Light, is aptly named, but Margery Sharp’s writing is excellent, her characterisation faultless. Instantly likeable; Louisa Datchet is a woman who has achieved the milestone of thirty. A moment it seems likely to focus the mind. Dear Louisa, has always been a good friend to needy men. She now decides, quite suddenly that she wants to get married – and having decided to do so, she immediately sets about it, with, needless to say, mixed results.

Business as Usual (1933) Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford

Recently re-issued by Handheld Press Business as Usual is full of delightful period detail, humour and spirit. Ann Stafford’s charming, line drawings are reproduced alongside the text as they were originally in 1933.

Written in letters it tells the story of Hilary Fane, a young woman from Edinburgh who having finished with university wishes to spend a year earning her living in London before returning home to be married. The novel faithfully recreates the reality of work, shopping and conventional society while also acknowledging the poverty and even illegitimacy that existed alongside it. In no way a novel that preaches however, it is instead a novel of light, bright intelligence, deeply charming and ultimately heart-warming.

Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940) Romilly Cavan

Beneath the Visiting Moon is a little longer than some of the other Dean Street Press titles I have read – a fully satisfying novel that combines family life, romance and the trials of growing up. Scott recommended it particularly for fans of Guard your Daughters, and I can see why, although this novel isn’t as dark as Tutton’s brilliant novel, there are shadows, glimpsed fleetingly at a distance.

What we do have though is a genteelly impoverished family living in a large house in a typical English village – characters are wonderfully well drawn, their voices distinct. There is a large supporting cast of eccentric characters, in whom we can see some slightly darker elements hidden beneath the surface.

The Mrs Tim books (1932-1952) D.E Stevenson.

This is a bit of a cheat because there are four Mrs Tim books. The first one Mrs Tim of the Regiment is published by Bloomsbury, and the next three books have been re-issued by Dean Street Press. I still have number four waiting to be read. The first book if I am honest is the one I liked least – but generally these stories of a regimental wife before during and after the Second World War, are a delight. In the company of Hester Christie, we experience life, love, motherhood, friendship, romance, and work, with charming humour.

Home Life (1986) Alice Thomas Ellis

In 1985 Alice Thomas Ellis began producing a weekly column in the Spectator called Home Life. These short pieces were collected together in four volumes of which this is the first – and I really will have to collect the other three (not sure how easy they are to get hold of though). This book was an absolute joy – and I would happily have read on and on had there been more. These articles about the author’s own family life are full of fun, tongue-in-cheek observations and ruminations – a (not so) Provincial Lady of the 1980s perhaps. She is also very honest, blithely referring to visiting her son’s grave almost in passing – you begin to feel very much one of the crowd.

So, if you’re looking for something joyful to read to shut out 2020 you could do a lot worse than one of these. Happy reading.

Oh, and look what just arrived – a bit more joy here too I should think.

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With thanks to the publisher for the ebook

I have been lucky enough to be sent a few of Dean Street Press’s Golden Age mysteries and there they sit on my kindle where I’m afraid I forget all about them. I have been sent three or four Brian Flynn novels – a name that was completely new to me. So, the other week, when I was in that strange reading mood, where I didn’t really know what I wanted to read I decided to give one a go. The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye is the third in Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst mysteries – I’m never sure how crucial it is to read these mystery series in order – but I don’t think my experience was affected by not having read numbers one and two.

Brian Flynn was an impressively prolific writer – turning out about fifty novels – most of which were in the Anthony Bathurst series. I enjoyed this mystery – though not as much as many later Golden Age mysteries – the writing style put me off a little – it is really quite mannered – with not much in the way of description or depth of character. I like a lot from my mysteries – perhaps my mood affected my reading experience – so I am sure I will give Flynn another go. There were though several things I did like about this novel – the main one being the cleverness of the denouement which was a fabulous surprise and I really hadn’t seen coming at all – that is always satisfying. Flynn is also good with dialogue – there are some interesting exchanges between characters – and the story moves along at a good pace.

The novel opens at the hunt ball in Westhampton. Sheila Delaney dances with a mystery man who insists on being known only as Mr X. By the end of the evening he has disappeared as mysteriously as he came.

“‘Anonymity is such a terribly strong position in which to entrench one’s self. To you I am Sheila Delaney – to me you are – an unknown quantity.’

He smiled appreciatively. ‘Yet one usually concludes by finding the value of X – shall we say.’

‘If one is successful,’ she replied, ‘you have to be successful, you know, to discover the true value.’”

Major Carruthers accompanied Sheila to the ball – he’s an old family friend. After the ball they drive home together – this was the last time Sheila was to see Major Carruthers – a month later he is killed in a car accident.

A few months later Anthony Bathurst is consulted by the Crown Prince of Clorania, he is being blackmailed over a secret romance that has now ended. The Crown Prince asks Bathurst to look into the matter – as confidentially as possible.

At the same time Chief Inspector Bannister is having an overdue holiday on the coast at Seabourne. He is nearing retirement and enjoys a fine reputation as one of the big six investigators at Scotland Yard. So, when the local constabulary find themselves with a peculiar case on their hands they waste no time in calling on the experience of Chief Inspector Bannister – although irritated to have his holiday disturbed Bannister agrees to help. A woman has been found dead in a dentist’s chair – murdered in the few minutes he was out of the room – apparently injected with cyanide. While the young woman was being murdered the dentist was locked in another room, his banging on the door alerting his housekeeper to his plight. It is the start of a perplexing case – one full of misdirection, twists and turns. I liked the fact that Flynn clearly understands how desperation works in some people – how they can be pushed to their limits.

“‘…You people who never want for a few pounds don’t realize what it is to be in debt year after year and to see little chance of ever getting out. To be forced to borrow for anything special because you have no margin. Self-denial and going without most of the things that make life worth living may mean the saving of a few shillings, month by month, but no more than that.”

Anthony Bathurst finds himself in Seabourne – his case and Bannister’s beginning to look as if they have some connection. Bathurst assists Bannister in his investigations – a case which sees them travel from Seabourne to Westhampton – and discover the existence of a fabulous jewel called the Peacock’s Eye.

After a complex and involving mystery which is really very clever – the ending is a wonderfully satisfying surprise. I shall say no more. Flynn is clearly a consummate storyteller and weaver of intriguing mysteries. There is a lot for the vintage armchair detective to enjoy with this one – but I wasn’t completely sold on it. It’s been a couple of weeks since I read this one, and earlier this week I found myself reading Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey – my first by her – I shall talk about the book properly in a future post, however that was much more to my taste. There was so much more to it than just the mystery – and that’s the kind of thing I really like I think.

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With thanks to the publisher for the ebook

It probably comes as no surprise that after Hurricane Season, I was in need of another palate cleanser – my collection of Dean street press books were the obvious place to go.

The House in the Country by Ruth Adam is not to be confused with the Persephone title of the same name.

“This is a cautionary tale and true… Never fall in love with a house”

Straightaway then we sense that perhaps this story of a love affair with a house won’t be an entirely happy one.

There is still a lot of joy in this book, and it was a pleasure to spend time with. Really a quite different book though to the previous books I have read by Ruth Adam.

“It was the end of the war, and we were very tired of the squalor. We were tired of the blackout edging obscuring the daylight from the windows and of breakfasts of powdered egg eaten at noon because one had been fire-watching last night. We were so very tired of disorder – of living in one room to save fuel, of the smell of scraps boiling up for the backyard hens, of beds in the downstairs rooms and of grubby air-raid shelter in the tiny neglected garden.”

The novel – I think it is safe to still call this a novel, just – is based on Ruth Adam’s own experiences of sharing a large country house with some other families after the war. Here the narrator is unnamed until late in the book when she is revealed as Mrs Adam – i.e. Ruth herself – her husband is also unnamed – but we can take him to be Ruth’s own husband Kenneth Adam – who later became a director for the BBC. Together with their own three children and assorted friends and relations Lefty, Bob, Timmy and Diana the family set up home in a large country house in Kent.

After living through years of wartime privations, bad food, cold, unsuitable housing, blackouts and rationing Ruth and her friends decide to live the dream they have had so long. The fantasy life they talked about through years of hardship – to live in a house in the country where they will have space and privacy and the opportunity to enjoy the world around them in all its beauty. They envisage open fires and good food – a larder stocked with hams. An advertisement in the Times – a large country house for rent, attracts their attention – the finances carefully worked out – everything divided by six – and it’s not long before they are actually moving in.

There is a lot of lovely detail here about setting up the house – allocating rooms, decorating, and laying out their scant pile of furniture and possessions in the large spaces of this thirty-three roomed house. All houses have their quirks and odd little features, even small ones. This house comes with a temperamental boiler, five kitchens a resident bat, stabling and a wonderful garden stocked with flowers. It is also possessed of a head gardener – Howard – who once worked for the previous owner – and has been taking care of the empty house throughout the war. He is a marvellous character – prefacing almost every speech to Ruth with the words “don’t you say nothing…” before immediately setting off to put right what ever is wrong. He fixes the boiler, sees about leaks, and intercedes with his late employer’s daughter who turns up wanting her lino and apple tree retuned. Howard is a marvel with one of Ruth’s young sons she is charmed by the affect this new way of life is having on him.

“Every boy should have a year at the heels of an old craftsman sometime in his life. A dozen nursery schools could not have given Colin the half of what Howard gave him. Howard accepted him, with serious and conscientious calm, like a schoolmaster who has got countless generations of boys through their first Latin primer and then let them go, satisfied that the foundations have been well laid.”

Howard will have absolutely no truck with the nearby village. However, Ruth’s household include those who could be called loosely – BBC types – and they impress themselves on the villagers by producing a radio star to open the village fete. Many of the relationships built up through the years spent in this house are with those who come to work here.  There are a succession of staff – and in the description of their comings and goings, working days and carefully worked out rotas I can see something of those socially historical details that Ruth Adam writes about elsewhere. The world has changed, and those who work in large house now have set hours, duties laid down and timetables stuck to – these are the kind of details that Ruth Adam is so good at laying before her readers.

The novel covers something like eight years – and so there is a sense of time hurrying by – and perhaps a few pages cover quite a length of time. Some of the original residents of the house move on – new arrangements are put in place – money becomes an issue. There are triumphs and disasters – and some pretty horrific rats – and the house changes with the departure and arrival of those who come to stay, this includes paying, foreign guests and household staff who become part of the family.

We know from the beginning that this wasn’t a forever home – and so the time inevitably comes when Ruth and her family leave this house – there is a sense of poignancy and moving on. The end of an era for them, and a lovely reading experience for us.

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With thanks to the publisher for the ebook.

If your idea of hell is an unwelcome house guest/tenant who upsets the rhythm of your home and spoils your most loved possessions, then this is a book that will resonate strongly. As someone who has lived alone a long time, and despite having lots of great family and friends who I love spending time with, appreciates my own company, this novel played into all my anxieties. Within a few pages I found myself shuddering at the predicament the central character of Not at Home finds herself in.

Elinor MacFarren is a middle aged single woman, and in the summer of 1945, finds herself obliged to enter into a house share with another woman. She is living in what has been the family home, where she lived once with her brothers, and where she helped to raise her nephew. Now she is alone, and money is tight. Miss MacFarren has spent her adult life writing about botany, publishing several books, and has something of a reputation in the field. She also has a wonderful collection of old botanical prints and some beautiful, antique pieces of furniture in the house of which she is very proud. Two china cats are her particular pride and joy, and their welfare the reader can’t help but fear for throughout the book. From the first page I was #teamMacFarren all the way – even though Elinor is a bit stuck in her ways (who isn’t).

Elinor has one live in servant – who may not like the idea of two people to run after in the house – so that is the first problem to be faced.

“On the step was a woman laden with flowers, a wonderfully smart woman with a white cloth coat, a yellow taffeta turban draped in the newest style, and white wedge-heeled shoes as complex as a Chinese puzzle. Her hair was pale gold and her ivory-coloured face suggested rather than achieved the most extraordinary beauty. With a smile of such radiance as lies only in the consciousness of flawless teeth, she extended from amongst the flowers a lemon-coloured suede glove.”

When Mrs Antonia Bankes comes to discuss the prospect of a house share she assures Elinor – that she is quiet – has few guests – will help with the domestic duties around the house etc. Having been recommended to Elinor through a mutual friend Mrs Bankes – whose American correspondent husband is still in Europe – seems like the perfect tenant. Elinor divides the rooms in the house between them – giving all the best rooms – as her nephew Mory declares in amazement – to Antonia. Mory works in film – and lives a pretty rackety life- especially compared to his aunt – she is frequently ready to be shocked by his exploits.

“It was not that she was ignorant of young men and their ways; she had read books, she had grown up with two brothers. But Mory sowed wild oats as systematically as if he were bedding out some useful vegetable for the kitchen garden, He seemed to invite one to approve of his crop.”

Naturally, things don’t turn out quite as poor Elinor MacFarren has expected. Antonia Bankes we quickly learn is quite able to present to the world which ever face is most advantageous to her – even when that is about as far from the truth as you can get. She is quite simply an appalling tenant. Soon the ‘shared’ spare room is constantly filled with Antonia’s friends – they troop in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night – dropping cigarette ash all over the carpets in the sitting room that has been given over to Antonia. The china cats are in daily peril, often used – to Miss MacFarren’s horror – as doorstops. The house soon starts to suffer, Antonia never lifts a finger – the servant Manders does her best – but in time she predictably leaves them to it.

Whenever Antonia breaks something or Miss McFarren has to politely remind her about something she behaves as if poor Elinor is being ever so fussy and silly – poor Elinor is constantly on edge and is unable to do a stroke of work. Antonia, Elinor realises is like a spoilt child, incapable of seeing the consequences of her actions or having any conscience at all. Some domestic pets unfortunately come in for poor treatment by Antonia Bankes too – a cageful of birds bought on a whim and later a fox terrier that she is supposed to be looking after for a friend. Animal lovers – I’m afraid the dog doesn’t last long – but is thankfully not dwelt upon or described in too upsetting a way.

Time moves on and Elinor finds herself unable to evict her nightmare tenant – the thought of living with her for a month under such conditions simply horrifies her. When Antonia’s husband Joss arrives home on leaves he loves the house, and Miss MacFarren realises he is much better than his wife, but his visits are short lived. Elinor’s adored nephew Mory introduces her to the beautiful Maxine Albert – a young actress, of whom, Miss MacFarren isn’t sure she approves at first – but the two soon become unlikely friends and co-conspirators in the fight to rid the house of Mrs Bankes. Others are brought into Miss MacFarren’s plans too – Harriet – who first introduced Mrs Bankes – has to finally admit that Antonia isn’t at all what she thought, and Dr Wilmot who Elinor always saw as a rival – soon shows himself to be a friend too. Poor Elinor is desperate to have the house back to herself.

Not at Home is the first novel by Doris Langley Moore that I have read – it won’t be last I am sure, Dean Street have re-issued a few. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel of domestic disharmony – and enjoyed absolutely loathing Antonia Bankes.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review ebook

The lovely Dean Street Press brought out a lovely clutch of Second World War novels last year – and this was one of them. It has been sat on my kindle for some time therefore.

Barbara Noble is probably known best – especially to Persephone fans – for her novel Doreen (1946) – another World War Two novel which paints a very poignant portrait of the relationship between an evacuated child and her mother. It’s something like twelve years since I read it and didn’t review it properly so it’s definitely one I want to pull from the shelf again. The House Opposite is a slightly earlier novel, published in the middle of the war, when no one could be quite certain how things would resolve themselves.

I would say that along with A Chelsea Concerto – another DSP book – The House Opposite provides an extraordinarily vivid picture of what it was really like to live in London during the Blitz. Normal life goes on just the same in a sense, yet the nightly bombardment is never far away whether in people’s minds or in the everyday conversations with neighbours and work colleagues. Work must still be attended – if the buses are running – food acquired and cooked, the minutiae of everyday life attended to, just as if bombs aren’t falling from the sky almost every night. What Barbara Noble doesn’t do which is particularly strong – is to make her novel all about the drama of the Blitz. She shows us the underground stations crammed with people, the rubble strewn streets, the city landscape that is changing almost daily – but it is a background hum, a constant presence with which ordinary life, and each individual’s petty concerns must co-exist.

“All through September they had taken the day raids very seriously at the office. The dingy old-fashioned house held three other firms besides their own and when the sirens sounded most of the personnel of all four would walk or run, as their temperaments directed, down to a basement room which had, by the addition of a little timber, been converted into a shelter. Each small group occupied a separate corner and had provided their own chairs or benches. Some attempt was made to carry on work. Carter staggered up and down with Elizabeth’s typewriter, but there were too many people in a confined space for much mental concentration to be possible.”

Elizabeth Simpson is a young woman in her late twenties – living at home with her parents. They live in a typical London suburban street, and in the house opposite live the Cathcart family. Elizabeth works as a secretary for Alex with whom she has been having an affair for three years. Alex is married with children, a marriage he can’t leave – so he says – because of the children. Alex’s wife and children are living in the country away from the bombs and the devastation. Elizabeth is able to spend time at Alex’s flat without fear of discovery. She keeps a kind of boyfriend Bob Craven – dangling – as a cover for her relationship, no one knows about her and Alex and despite all the difficulties they have kept their secret for three years unsuspected by anyone.

“It was curious that the aerial bombardment of London, which had ennobled so much that was normally sordid, should only debase a love affair between two people who had managed for three years to overcome the threat to their relations implicit in all such. To die together would be simple. It would not be so simple to be dug out still alive from the same collapsed building.”

The day doesn’t end when the working day is done, on many nights Elizabeth must take her turn fire watching with the Cathcart boy from the house across the street. She has also volunteered for a couple of shifts at the hospital – long, gruelling hours where she is faced with some fairly upsetting scenes. Her father is an air raid warden, so on many evenings both father and daughter are out of the house together. Elizabeth and her father have a wonderful relationship, they are clearly cut from the same cloth, and theirs is a relationship built on affection and understanding. Meanwhile Mrs Simpson, left alone in the house as the bombs rain down over the city is terrified. She would like nothing more than to go to the country. She starts to take courage with a little nip of rum that no one knows about. She is comforted further by Peter – her imaginary son – with whom she holds satisfactory conversations, Peter always knows the right thing to say. Mrs Simpson is a sad little character, beautifully portrayed by Noble, though I wanted to know more about her.

Across the road in the house opposite Owen Cathcart is just eighteen years old, having finished with school he awaits his call up, hoping to go into the RAF. An overheard and rather unfortunate remark from Elizabeth in the past has rather coloured his view of both Elizabeth and himself – and it is with some resentment that Owen takes up his fire watching duties alongside her. For years Owen has hero worshipped Derek his slightly older cousin – he starts to fear what his feelings might mean – and is confused and angry a lot of the time. His mother meanwhile is nursing a long held secret that seeps into her brain almost daily, and his father is about to get into trouble with the police, having sold on government timber that shouldn’t be sold on. Owen’s cousin Derek, who Owen joyfully goes off to visit – lives in the country, coincidentally in the village where Alex’s wife and children are spending the war.

Over the course of the novel both Owen and Elizabeth make discoveries about themselves and the people they love. As the nightly bombardment quietens and starts up again, lives move forward just the same. This novel is a brilliant social document – as well as being just a very good read – thoroughly recommended for those of you who like novels of the Second World War.

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Patricia Wentworth was a hugely prolific writer of Golden age mysteries – for some reason I had never read her before. Probably best known for her Miss Silver mysteries she also wrote many standalone novels and Silence in Court is one of them. Dean Street Press have re-issued a number of her standalone novels, and I picked up several for my kindle when they were being offered up very cheaply or even free. I actually read this right at the end of April but haven’t had chance to review it till now – it was a really good quick read, perfect for a lazy weekend.

Set in London, during the Second World War; the novel opens as Carey Silence steps into the dock. She stands accuses of the murder of Honoria Maquisten, whose home Carey had been welcomed into just two weeks before the murder. Carey is numb with the shock of her situation, feeling unlike herself she stands shakily to hear the indictment.

“She was so rigidly controlled as she came into the dock that she wasn’t Carey Silence any more, or a girl, or young, but just a will to walk straight and seemly, to hold a proud head high, to bar sight and hearing against all these people who had come to see her tried for her life. There was a moment when the grip she had on herself wavered giddily ….”

The narrative then takes us back to the time when Carey Silence first met Honoria Maquisten. Having been working as a secretary to an MP, Carey was hospitalised when a bomb exploded near to the train they were travelling on. Still recovering from her ordeal, Carey was contacted by Honoria Maquisten when she saw her name in the paper – Honoria had been the cousin and greatest friend of Carey’s grandmother. Another distant cousin, American Jeff Stewart, who has been fluttering rather dotingly around Carey accompanies her to the door of the Maquisten house – insisting that she promise to see him soon.

Carey is given a fond welcome by Honoria – who sees something of her dear cousin Julia in Carey, and quickly Carey becomes the new favourite. Carey’s arrival has a somewhat mixed reaction from the other members of the household – because she is by no means the only one who has been taken up by Honoria. Three other relatives live in the house, three cousins, Honoria’s niece Nora – whose husband is away in the East, nephew Dennis invalided out of the war, and another niece Honor who volunteers packing parcels for POWs. Robert, another nephew visits regularly but doesn’t live in the house. A maid who has served Honoria faithfully for many years and a professional nurse who cares for Honoria in her fragile health complete the household.

Here Wentworth provides us with some really well-drawn characters, Carey herself is immediately engaging and Honoria a wonderfully vivid creation, with a safe full of fabulous jewels and a constant preoccupation with her will. The reader can never be certain who it is that we need to be suspicious of – and the dynamic of this household and its inhabitants is well portrayed. Told in relatively short chapters, that make the narrative feel perfectly paced – I found myself flying through the book.

Honoria likes to keep a firm hand on her affairs and is well known for altering her will at a moments notice, telling everyone about it and generally making a bit of a drama about the document. Not long after her arrival, Honoria announces that Carey will be added into the will – though she doesn’t reveal to what extent.

Carey has settled into the house well, she has begun to get on well with some members of the household, when a hand delivered letter arrives one day and upsets everything. Carey, Nora, Dennis and Honor are all out when the letter arrives. The contents of the letter put Honoria into a terrible rage – and she demands that whichever of her relatives return first they be sent straight to her. This falls to Carey. Carey can do nothing to soothe the old lady, and is directed to phone Honoria’s solicitor, who it happens is away for a day or two. Honoria demands that his clerk should come to the house instead the following day. Insisting that she has been deceived she tells everyone that one of the beneficiaries will be cut out of her will completely – though she never reveals who that is.

That night, a sleeping draught is prepared for the old lady who is still upset – it is prepared by the nurse as usual and left on the shelf in the bathroom. As it happens Carey is asked to fetch it. When Honoria is found dead the following morning, the house is in uproar. The police are called in and an awful lot of emphasis put on who was where when, and who could or could not have tampered with the medicine glass. Carey is almost immediately put under suspicion, and the evidence of one member of the household sees her placed under arrest.

“She had come to an inner strength that held her up. When things were so bad that they couldn’t be any worse, something came to you—some courage, some control.”

The second half of the book is more in the realms of a courtroom drama, and here Patricia Wentworth pitches the tension just right. Jeff Stewart has arrived back after some time away, and convinced that Carey is innocent, is desperate that her consul prove it. Jeff ensures that Carey is represented by the best – he lets Carey know how he feels about her, that he believes in her. Imprisoned and alone; Carey is still reeling from having been welcomed into a family and then accused of murder all within such a short period of time.  

I thoroughly enjoyed the court room scenes – the tension as the reader awaits a crucial piece of evidence to come along and settle to matter, certainly makes it hard to put down at this point. We hear the evidence from the point of view of several of the characters, and eventually everything falls into place.

My first foray into the world of Patricia Wentworth was certainly an enjoyable one. I have several more of these re-issued standalone novels on my kindle – I am sure I will read another before too long.

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