Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer – #1951club

Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their book clubs this week. This time it’s the 1951 Club and the idea is that we all read and write about books published in the same year. 1951 seems to have been a particularly good year for publishing – I have linked to some of my previous reviews at the bottom of this post – but when choosing what to read this week it was the crime novels from that year which appealed to me the most. The first one I picked up was Georgette Heyer’s Duplicate Death. Heyer is better known for her Regency romances, but she also wrote mysteries and, having read two of them (Envious Casca and Footsteps in the Dark), I’ve been looking forward to reading more.

Duplicate Death brings back characters who first appeared in They Found Him Dead, which I haven’t read yet but will eventually. Although a few references are made to things which I assume happened in the earlier novel, I don’t feel that reading this one first was a problem. At the beginning of the novel, Jim Kane receives a letter from his mother telling him of her concerns about his half-brother, Timothy, who has just become engaged to Beulah Birtley, a secretary in the household of the wealthy Mrs Haddington. Jim’s mother is unhappy because she has been able to discover nothing at all about Beulah’s family or background – surely the girl must be an Adventuress! Reluctantly, Jim agrees to visit Timothy to see if he can shed any light on the matter.

Meanwhile, Mrs Haddington is hosting a bridge party at her home in London. When one of the guests is found strangled after leaving the room to answer the telephone, suspicion falls on several of the people present at the party, including the mysterious Beulah Birtley. Chief Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate, but before he’s had time to solve one murder, another takes place. The second murder appears to be identical to the first – but is it? Have both crimes been committed by the same person? And what is Beulah’s secret?

I enjoyed this book, after a slow start, but not as much as the other Heyer mysteries I’ve read. I felt that the story took too long to really get started; I appreciate that some time needs to be spent on setting the scene, but the characters just didn’t interest me enough to hold my attention throughout the build-up. With the exception of Timothy, they’re an unpleasant bunch of people – and although there are still examples of the witty dialogue Heyer is so good at, I think she does it much better in the Regencies than the mysteries. Once the first murder was committed and Hemingway arrived on the scene, though, the story became a lot more compelling.

I said in my Envious Casca review that, as far as literary detectives go, Hemingway is not a very interesting one. This time I found that I liked him more than I did before. I liked his brisk, no-nonsense attitude and the fact that he doesn’t have any little quirks or eccentricities; instead of bringing too much of his own personality to the investigations, he just gets on with the job, which is actually quite refreshing. His relationship with his assistant, Inspector Grant, works well, although I’m not sure that having Grant returning from his trip home to Scotland speaking Gaelic was really as funny as it was obviously intended to be!

I’m now reading a second book from 1951 – They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie – and hope to post my thoughts on that one before the end of the club.

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More 1951 books previously read and reviewed on this blog:

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Historical Musings #25: Ancient Greece

Historical Musings As discussed in a previous Historical Musings post, despite my love of historical fiction I have never really felt drawn to novels set in the ancient world. I’m not sure why this should be, but I have certainly read very few books set in Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt or other ancient cultures, and feel much more comfortable with settings from the medieval period onwards. Since that previous post, when I specifically asked for suggestions of Roman novels to try, I have read Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy (which I loved and can’t recommend highly enough), Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero, and my current read, I, Claudius by Robert Graves, so I think I’m over my aversion to Ancient Rome! Now I need some help with Ancient Greece…

Thinking about books I’ve already read that are set in Ancient Greece, there are some but not many. I have read Homer’s Odyssey (in a translation by TE Lawrence), though not the Iliad yet – it’s debatable whether you would consider those to be historical fiction, I suppose, but they’re obviously a good starting point for exploring Greek history and myth.

Based, like the Iliad, on the Trojan War, there’s The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which tells the story from the perspective of Patroclus, and Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston, this time retelling events through the eyes of Briseis. Briseis is also one of the main characters – the other is Chryseis – in Emily Hauser’s For the Most Beautiful, which I read last year and enjoyed. I’ve recently received a review copy of the next book in the series, For the Winner, a book about Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece.

The books I’ve mentioned so far are all inspired by Greek mythology, some of them including appearances by gods or other mythological beings. Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart is a bit different, concentrating on the life of Sappho, the Greek lyric poet from the island of Lesbos.

Finally, I must mention Mary Renault, a beloved author of many readers when it comes to historical novels set in Ancient Greece. So far I have only read The King Must Die, the first of her two novels telling the story of Theseus in a way which gives plausible explanations for elements of the Theseus myth. I enjoyed it, but didn’t fall in love with it the way I’d hoped to, and still need to read the sequel, The Bull from the Sea.

What are your favourite books set in Ancient Greece? Have you read any that I’ve mentioned here?

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

With its eye-catching cover, Victorian setting and promise of “a labyrinth of unfolding secrets”, Claire Evans’ debut novel The Fourteenth Letter sounded like a book I really needed to read!

The novel opens in June 1881 with the murder of Phoebe Stanbury at a party to celebrate her engagement to Benjamin Raycraft, son of the wealthy Sir Jasper. The killer, a naked man covered in mud with a strange design tattooed on his chest, disappears after committing the crime and it seems that nobody is able to shed any light on his identity or why he may have wanted to kill an innocent young woman. Detective Harry Treadway is given the job of investigating the murder, but the deeper he delves into the mystery, the more bizarre and complex it becomes.

Meanwhile, William Lamb, an inexperienced, timid young lawyer, goes to visit an eccentric client in his partner’s absence – and ends up in possession of a casket of old papers written in Latin and a cryptic message which means nothing to him. His visit is witnessed by Savannah Shelton, an American woman who has been paid to watch the house, but who is employing her and what do they want? At another house in London, Mildred is applying for a position as governess, then changes her mind when the interview doesn’t go as planned. How are all of these events connected? There are no obvious links at first, but slowly the truth is revealed as the story begins to unfold.

When I first started to read The Fourteenth Letter, I was fascinated. There were so many intriguing characters and so many strange things happening all at once. However, the constant switching from one storyline to another made it difficult for me to settle into the story and after a few chapters I began to wish we could spend a little bit longer with one character before moving on to the next. As I’ve said, the various strands of the plot do start to come together eventually but I would have liked it to have happened more quickly.

Being set in the 1880s, the story takes place during an exciting time in history, a time of great advances in science and technology. Sir Jasper Raycraft’s house, Ridgeside, is described as a famous residence with all the latest scientific developments such as electric light. I immediately recognised this as a description of Cragside in Northumberland, a National Trust property I have visited several times, and I was pleased to have this confirmed when I reached the author’s note!

However, for a novel set in Victorian London, I thought there was very little sense of time and place. Although there are references to historical and political events of the period, I never felt fully immersed in the world Claire Evans had created and it didn’t help that I couldn’t quite manage to believe in Savannah Shelton as a convincing character. William Lamb, though, is a great character – not a typical hero at all – and it was interesting to watch him develop and grow as a person over the course of the story.

Although this is certainly a very unusual and imaginative novel, I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped to. Maybe I was just not the right reader for this particular book; that happens sometimes and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t a good book. I’ve seen some very positive reviews so clearly other readers are finding a lot to enjoy in The Fourteenth Letter!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

It’s been a few years since I read my first Barbara Pym novel, Less Than Angels, and I really thought I would have read another one before now. For some reason, though, it has just never felt like the right time and poor Excellent Women has lingered on my Classics Club list until almost the end. I wish I’d managed to read it sooner as I did enjoy it, although I think I preferred Less Than Angels, which is surprising as this is certainly Barbara Pym’s best known book and seems to be many people’s favourite as well.

Mildred Lathbury is one of the excellent women of the title and is also our narrator. An unmarried woman in her early thirties, she lives alone in a flat in 1950s London and works part-time at a society for impoverished gentlewomen. Although her parents are both dead, Mildred’s father had been a clergyman and the church is still a big part of her life. She devotes her spare time to helping out at her local parish church, St Mary’s, where she has become good friends with the vicar, Julian Malory, and his sister Winifred.

As the novel opens, Mildred discovers she has new neighbours moving in below – they are Helena Napier, an anthropologist, and her husband Rockingham (Rocky), who has just come home from the Navy. After being apart for so long, the Napiers are struggling to settle down into married life; Helena is preoccupied with her work and spending a lot of time with another anthropologist, Everard Bone, leaving Rocky to turn to Mildred for companionship and support. Soon Mildred finds herself more deeply involved in the problems of Helena, Rocky and Everard than she had intended to be – and a further complication arrives in the form of Allegra Grey, an attractive widow who takes the spare room at the vicarage and quickly begins to cause trouble for the vicar and his sister.

Excellent Women is definitely the sort of book in which characters are more important than plot, and I’m happy with that when the characters are as real and as convincing as these. I liked Mildred from the beginning – partly because, as a single woman myself, I could understand and sympathise with her in a lot of ways, but also because she seems a genuinely nice person. Her friends and neighbours expect Mildred to always have time for them and their problems, to listen, to give advice and to provide cups of tea – all the things that make an ‘excellent woman’ – but there’s also a sense that she is often taken for granted and misunderstood. She likes living on her own and values her independence and, while she hasn’t completely ruled out the prospect of marrying one day, it isn’t a priority for her either.

I enjoyed getting to know Mildred and spending some time in her world, but I didn’t love this novel as wholeheartedly as I hoped I would and as I know most other readers have. Although the writing is quite witty in places, I remember finding Less Than Angels a much more humorous book and I think that could be why I liked that one more. Or maybe I just like to be different! Still, I’m looking forward to reading more of Barbara Pym’s work – and will try not to wait so long before picking up another one.

Andrew Hughes: The Coroner’s Daughter

I found so much to love in The Coroner’s Daughter! A strong, resourceful heroine with a passion for science; an interesting historical setting – 19th century Dublin; and a twisting, turning mystery to keep me guessing. Just like Andrew Hughes’ first novel The Convictions of John Delahunt, which I read and loved a few years ago, this is another great book which manages to be both highly entertaining and darkly atmospheric.

The story takes place in 1816, known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’. The city of Dublin is shrouded in fog and when a frosty July is followed by snow in August, people are at a loss to explain what is going on. Eighteen-year-old Abigail Lawless, however, has conducted her own research into the phenomenon, linking the unseasonable weather to a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world. As the coroner’s daughter, Abigail has always possessed a natural curiosity for anything scientific – and is particularly interested in her father’s work, performing autopsies to establish the cause of death.

When a young servant in a neighbouring household is accused of murdering her newborn baby – and is found dead before the inquest can be held – Abigail is sure there is more going on than meets the eye. She easily discovers the identity of the maid’s lover, but this is only the beginning. The strict religious sect known as the Brethren has been increasing in size and power since their influential leader, Mr Darby, arrived in Dublin the previous year. As she continues to investigate, assisted by her father’s young Scottish apprentice, Ewan Weir, Abigail becomes convinced that the Brethren are connected with the death of the maid and her baby. But who else might be involved? And if Abigail becomes too deeply involved herself, could she be putting her own life in danger?

I really enjoyed The Coroner’s Daughter. I think I preferred John Delahunt as the plot seemed more original and unusual, but this book is excellent too. I loved following Abigail around the Dublin of 1816 which, thanks to the gloomy and oppressive weather, is a very atmospheric setting. Our heroine’s investigations take her to a variety of locations from the Lying-In Hospital at the Rotunda to the smart terraced houses of Fitzwilliam Square and a clockmaker’s workshop on Abbey Street – and all of these are vividly described. Although it’s quite a dark story, it’s written with a lot of humour, which was obvious from the very first sentence: For my eighteenth birthday, Father promised me the hand of a handsome young man, which he duly delivered mounted in a glass bell-jar. First sentences can be so important and that one captured my attention immediately!

I found the scientific aspect of the novel particularly interesting. The story takes place at a time when the fanatical religious views of groups such as the Brethren are coming into conflict with the work of scientists such as the astronomer Professor Reeves, a friend of Abigail’s father. As a woman, Abigail faces additional obstacles, as is seen when she is forced to submit one of her reports to a scientific journal under her father’s name in order to get published, and again when she is the only female member of the audience at an astronomy lecture given by Professor Reeves. Mr Lawless does try to encourage his daughter to be more ‘feminine’ but at the same time, not having any sons, there’s the sense that he is only too pleased to have someone to share his knowledge and passion with!

Now I’m hoping Andrew Hughes will write more books about Abigail Lawless. She’s a great character and the way the novel ended makes me think that she could easily be brought back for a sequel. If not, I will look forward to reading whatever he writes next.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review.

My Commonplace Book: March 2017

Looking back at March’s reading – in words and pictures.

My Commonplace Book

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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My brother buried his resentment that day. But resentment buried is not gone. It is like burying a seed: for a season it may stay hidden in the dark, but in the end, it will always grow. I did not see it, though we were still close, even at that age. I think now that to be too close to someone can be to underestimate them. Grow too close, and you do not see what they are capable of, or you do not see it in time.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown (2017)

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Nero

No one in the training grounds knew who I was. I had taken another name – I called myself Marcus and gave myself a familial name not connected to anyone of importance. No one ever came to watch me, except Anicetus, so people assumed I was an orphan or a ward; in any case, not anyone of importance. I loved the freedom of being nobody. I think all children want this freedom. That does not mean they would be content with it forever.

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George (2017)

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But extracting the stumps and roots almost killed him each time he hacked and dug and pulled and ground. Prying out a stump reminded him of how deeply a tree clung to the ground, how tenacious a hold it had on a place. Though he was not a sentimental man – he did not cry when his children died, he simply dug the graves and buried them – James was silent each time he killed a tree, thinking of its time spent in that spot.

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier (2016)

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“Autumn-coloured?” said Silence, struck by the aptness of the description. Tabby had a felicity with words which delighted her mother, and often such phrases would emerge casually without, it appeared, much thought, and yet strangely poetic. In her mind’s eye she saw Captain Hellier, his brown and tawny colouring, and smiled. “What a good description – ‘the autumn-coloured man’! Much too good for the likes of him, though, chicken – you’ll have to call him something foul, something more appropriate for him.” She gave Tabitha a sudden, flashing grin, crackling with mischief. “Take your time, and think of a good one.”

Wintercombe by Pamela Belle (1988)

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Sir Christopher Wren

There were diagrams of instruments for grinding glass, illustrations of the lenses of telescopes, and other inventions for pneumatic engines, embroidering by machine, a variety of musical instruments and a weather wheel. He told her that some of his inventions had been put to use over the years while others were still only working models.

Circle of Pearls by Rosalind Laker (1990)

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“Oh yes, there is no official bar on females. It is just a habit they have fallen into. There is even talk of electing Caroline Herschel as an honorary member.”

I thought that unlikely considering the Academy’s history with regard to women. When it was founded, one of its most prominent antiquarians was Charlotte Brooke, who translated Gaelic poetry into English. She fell on hard times, and members of the Academy wondered what they could do to improve her situation. They decided to appoint her housekeeper of the Academy premises.

The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes (2017)

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British Museum

“It’s a wonderful place,” Rhoda was asserting, “and ‘instructive’ very; it makes one realise the depth and extent and thoroughness of one’s own ignorance. Do people reading here never sigh for an easy-chair and a footstool and a collection of comfortable, unreproachful light literature?”

“No, we are all profound students here,” Stephen assured her; “when we want relaxation we come for a walk among the mummies.”

London Roses by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1903)

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Mr Bridge smiled. “I suspect that timetables are written for people of the opposing disposition to your good self, those who live their lives in a perpetual rush. Obviously they need a two-minute grace period to manage themselves on to a train. We all have our flaws, William.”

Mr Bridge loved to argue a good defence, but William was unsympathetic. “The latest I’ve ever managed to be was on time.”

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans (2017)

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Madame de Montespan

Her firm chin, straight nose, fine wrists, waist and neck; her thick and plentiful blond locks. She had invented a style of coiffure and baptised it the hurluberlu. Her hair had been pulled back from the forehead and was held in place by a hoop on top of her head, leaving her hair to fall on either side in a cascade of curls that framed her face.

The Hurlyburly’s Husband by Jean Teulé (2008)

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“Nat! You can’t give your grandmother’s name to a parrot!”

“Why not? They have so much in common – both venomous, abusive, malicious and terrifying old birds.”

“You can’t,” said Silence, trying unsuccessfully not to laugh. “You really can’t. I can probably, if I’m extremely lucky, and even more extremely careful, explain away a parrot, even one with Royalist views and a profane vocabulary. I cannot face the servants knowing that it has been christened in memory of my mother-in-law.”

Herald of Joy by Pamela Belle (1989)

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Simon Forman c. 1611

“Am I then to put myself in his power?” whispered Frances from the shadow of her hood. She knew well enough in what repute witches and warlocks were held; she had been told by her great-uncle that Simon Forman lived within the jurisdiction of the Archbishop that he might better escape the authorities…she had heard, too, that he had once been in prison for trying to raise the dead; she shuddered, half afraid, half excited.

The King’s Favourite by Marjorie Bowen (1937)

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Even the unexpected has a double image to it as if it had occurred sometime before in the same way and in the same place. There is a pattern to the week: the mail-boat on Saturday; mass on Sunday; the weekly wash on Monday. So the memory shortens itself and goes from day to day; the pattern is lost among the individual threads…

The Sea Road West by Sally Rena (1975)

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Favourite books read in March: Wintercombe and Herald of Joy.

Pamela Belle: Wintercombe and Herald of Joy

Having read and loved Pamela Belle’s wonderful Heron series, I knew I would also have to try her other series, of which Wintercombe (originally published in 1988) is the first. Although I was looking forward to reading it, I have to admit that after being so captivated by the adventures of the Heron family, I doubted whether I could possibly enjoy this book as much. Of course, I was wrong. What I found was another beautifully depicted setting, another moving story to become absorbed in and another set of characters to fall in love with (or to hate, as the case may be).

Our heroine this time is Silence St. Barbe, whose unusual first name was bestowed on her by her strict Puritan father as it represented one of the qualities he valued in a woman. When we meet Silence at the beginning of the novel, she has been married for several years to another Puritan – George St. Barbe, a man much older than Silence and with little love or compassion for his young wife. With the outbreak of England’s Civil War, George has gone off to fight with the Roundheads, while Silence stays safely behind at Wintercombe, the family’s country estate in Somerset, with her three children and two step-children.

When a troop of Cavaliers descend upon Wintercombe, however, it seems that it is not such a safe haven after all and soon the house is full of noisy, drunken soldiers under the command of the vicious and ruthless Lieutenant-Colonel Ridgeley. As she struggles to keep her family and servants safe and her lovely home intact, Silence is grateful for the help of Captain Nick Hellier who is able to provide some protection from the worst of his Colonel’s cruelty and violence. But much as Silence comes to value Nick’s friendship, she still isn’t sure whether she can trust him…he is one of the enemy, after all.

I have read a lot of novels set during the Civil War but one of the things I liked about Wintercombe (and also The Moon in the Water and The Chains of Fate) is that, although the progress of the war is followed and battles and significant political events are mentioned, the focus is on the lives of ordinary people, showing how, in one way or another, the effects of war eventually touch even those who have stayed at home and aren’t directly involved. A Parliamentarian house being garrisoned by the Royalist army is an aspect of the war that I haven’t read about in fiction before and I really felt for Silence and her family as they tried to prevent their beloved house and gardens from being destroyed. According to the author’s note, the model for Wintercombe is Great Chalfield in Wiltshire. I have never been there but it looks beautiful and is now on my list of places to visit if I’m in that area of the country.

There is also a romantic thread to the story, although I won’t say too much about it other than that I loved both hero and heroine and enjoyed watching their relationship slowly develop, giving them time to get to know each other – and the reader time to get to know both characters. But there are also other relationships which I found it interesting to follow, particularly the ones Silence has with her two teenage stepchildren, the difficult, troubled Rachael and the gentle, loyal Nat.

After finishing Wintercombe I couldn’t wait to continue with the story, so I moved straight on to the second book in the series, Herald of Joy. *Spoiler warning – you may wish to avoid reading the next few paragraphs until you’ve read Wintercombe.*

Herald of Joy takes up the story about six years after Wintercombe ended. Death is approaching for George St. Barbe, Silence’s husband, but it seems that his eldest daughter, Rachael, is the only person at Wintercombe who will truly grieve for him. Silence’s marriage to George has never been a happy one and even in death he manages to cause more problems for her. She and her stepson Nat are dismayed by the contents of his will, which leaves Silence reliant on Nat’s goodwill and Rachael faced with marrying a man who, as the rest of the family can see, is completely unsuitable. To complicate things further, Silence’s younger sister, the inappropriately named Patience, has recently been involved in a plot to restore Charles II to the throne and has been packed off to Wintercombe by their brother, where he hopes she will be kept out of trouble.

For Silence, George’s death means she is now free to be with her lover, Nick Hellier, after six years of separation – but Nick is fighting in Charles’ army at Worcester and is unaware of events at Wintercombe. When the battle ends in defeat for the Royalists, Nick is forced to go on the run. Will he and Silence be reunited at last?

Following Wintercombe’s emotional final chapter, I was hopeful that this novel would have a happier ending. But although some of our characters do find happiness by the end of the book (I’m not saying any more than that, of course) they have to endure more drama, betrayal, heartache and danger before they get to that point! While the story of Silence and Nick is at the heart of the novel again, I also enjoyed catching up with the rest of the St. Barbe family, their servants and friends, and seeing how they had developed and changed during the intervening years. The new characters are great too, particularly the lively, irrepressible Patience, the aristocratic Mervyn Touchet, who bears a striking resemblance to the King, and, best of all, the children’s ‘profane and Royalist’ parrot.

*End of spoilers*

I loved both of these books and will definitely read the other two in the series, A Falling Star and Treason’s Gift. However, I’m aware that they deal with the next generations of the St. Barbe family so I will wait a little while before reading them as at the moment I would probably just want more of Silence and Nick!