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.

~

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

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.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

the-dead-in-their-vaulted-arches I love Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. I love the 1950s setting, I love getting to know the inhabitants of Buckshaw – the de Luce estate in the little English village of Bishop’s Lacey – and most of all I love Flavia, our eleven-year-old narrator with a talent for solving mysteries and a passion for chemistry and poisons. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, though, is probably my least favourite Flavia novel so far. I found it quite disappointing, but I’m hoping it’s just that I was in the wrong mood for it and that things will get back to normal when I pick up the next book in the series.

The first Flavia novel, if you’re like me and prefer to read a series in order, is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is book number six and although some of the earlier novels could probably be read as standalones, I wouldn’t recommend reading this particular book until you’ve read the fifth one, Speaking from Among the Bones, because it ended on a cliffhanger – and this one picks up the story from that point.

The de Luce family have been joined by their friends and neighbours on the platform at Buckshaw Halt, waiting for the arrival of the train bringing Flavia’s mother, Harriet, home to Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia has never known her mother – she was just a baby when Harriet went missing (presumed dead), in Tibet ten years earlier. It’s an emotional day for Flavia and her family, then, but it’s also an eventful one in other ways…a stranger at the station begins to give Flavia a cryptic message, but moments later he is found dead beneath the wheels of the train as it leaves. Did someone push him? And could his death be connected with what happened to Harriet?

I think every time I’ve written about this series I’ve said that the mystery-solving is only one small element of each book and that the real charm is in the setting, the characters and Flavia’s narration. In this particular novel the mystery is almost non-existent and Flavia doesn’t get a chance to do the detective work she usually does, searching for clues and making lists of suspects. This gives The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches a different feel from the rest of the series and I think that could be why I didn’t like it as much. It seems that the mystery element was more important to me than I thought it was! That’s not to say, though, that there were no secrets to be uncovered here and no revelations to be made – because there certainly were.

Flavia, who was ten years old when we first met her, is now nearly twelve and I think Alan Bradley is doing a great job of showing the subtle changes in her character from one book to the next as she begins to grow up. Things happen in this book which require a more mature attitude from Flavia and she is forced to make some difficult decisions, but there are also times when she still behaves like the child she is – for example, when she becomes convinced that she will be able to use her chemical skills to reanimate a dead body.

With a storyline based around Harriet’s return, most of the action in this novel takes place in and around Buckshaw which means Flavia spends a lot of time with the other de Luce family members. Her relationships with her father and her sisters, Daffy and Feely (Daphne and Ophelia), are still strained, but some of the information revealed in this book helps us to understand why this is. I’ve been wondering since the beginning of the series why Daffy and Feely had such a problem with Flavia, so I’m pleased that things have finally become a bit clearer!

I’m not sure whether I liked the direction the story went in towards the end of the book but I’m still looking forward to reading As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, and hoping I will like it better than this one.

Death in Berlin by M.M. Kaye

Death in Berlin Almost exactly a year ago I read Death in Kashmir, the first in M.M. Kaye’s series of mystery novels. I loved it – in fact, it was one of my favourite books of the year – and last week I decided it was time to try another of her Death in… novels. I chose Death in Berlin because it’s the second in the series (although the books all have different settings and characters and all stand alone).

Death in Berlin, published in 1955, is set in a Berlin struggling to recover from the devastating effects of World War II. The city is divided into zones – American, British, French and Russian – and there are ruined buildings and piles of rubble everywhere. At the beginning of the novel we meet Miranda Brand, who is on her way to Berlin with her cousin Robert and his wife Stella. Robert, an army officer, is taking up a new post there and Miranda has decided to come along for a month’s holiday, keen to have a chance to see post-war Germany. During the journey to Berlin, they and a group of other military families listen to Brigadier Brindley tell a story involving a set of diamonds stolen by the Nazis during the war – a story which has special significance for Miranda. Later that night, the Brigadier is found dead in his train compartment and when a murder investigation begins, Miranda discovers that she herself could be a suspect.

This novel has many of the same elements as Death in Kashmir – a young heroine in danger far from home, a romance with a man she’s not sure she can trust, an eerie and atmospheric setting – but this book didn’t impress me as much as the first one. It doesn’t have the stunning opening chapter that Death in Kashmir has and the characters feel less developed, to the point where I had trouble telling some of them apart. I also thought there was a lack of chemistry between Miranda and her love interest, whom I found very bland.

What I did like was the portrayal of a ruined Berlin in the aftermath of war. M.M. Kaye herself spent some time in Berlin when her husband’s regiment was stationed there, so she could draw on her own knowledge of the city while writing this novel. While it isn’t the exotic setting that 1940s Kashmir is, it does provide a great backdrop for a story of murder and mystery. Kaye really excels at creating a sense of unease and writing spine-tingling descriptions of what it feels like to be alone and vulnerable in dark, lonely surroundings – to be the only person awake in the sleeper carriage of an overnight train or to be sitting downstairs in a large, empty house and hear noises coming from upstairs.

I didn’t guess the solution to the mystery, but I did have my suspicions about various characters. I don’t think it would have been possible to work out everything, though, because a lot of information is withheld from us until the final chapters of the book. This information is provided by one of the characters who, in one very long scene near the end, sums everything up for Miranda and the reader. This is something that works well in an Agatha Christie novel, but feels a bit unnatural here.

While I didn’t like this book as much as Death in Kashmir, it hasn’t put me off wanting to read the rest of the Death in… mysteries. Death in Cyprus will probably be the next one I read, but I also have a copy of Kaye’s historical novel, Shadow of the Moon, which I’m looking forward to reading (and should really have read before now as The Far Pavilions is one of my favourite books).

Have you read any of the Death in… books? Which do you think is the best?

The Separation by Dinah Jefferies

The Separation Imagine that you’ve returned home from visiting a friend to find that your house is empty – your husband and children have disappeared, the servants have vanished and when you pick up the phone the line is dead. You set out in search of your family, determined to find them no matter what, but it’s not going to be an easy task because this is Malaya in 1955: a country at war.

This is what happens to Lydia Cartwright in this wonderful debut novel by Dinah Jefferies. As Lydia leaves the family home in Malacca and heads north to Ipoh believing that her husband (who works for the British Administration) may have been posted there, we discover that Alec and the two girls – Emma, aged eleven, and Fleur, eight – have gone somewhere else entirely. Will Lydia ever see her daughters again?

The Separation is divided into two distinct storylines told in alternating chapters. In one we follow Lydia as she makes the discovery that her children are missing. As she embarks on her nightmarish journey through the dangerous Malayan jungle, she faces terrorist attacks, gunfire and overcrowded buses and trains, as well as the possibility that she has been betrayed and deceived. In the other thread of the story we join Emma as she and Fleur try to settle into their new lives while coming to terms with the loss of their mother. Things are not easy for Emma and she too is forced to go through some terrible ordeals, all the while clinging to the hope that her mother is still alive and one day they will be reunited.

I thought the structure of the novel worked well; I enjoyed reading both Lydia’s chapters and Emma’s and never felt that we were spending too much time on one character at the expense of the other. Lydia’s story is more dramatic (and full of beautiful, exotic descriptions of Malaya) but of the two I think I preferred Emma’s. That could just be due to the fact that I felt closer to Emma as she narrates in the first person while Lydia’s chapters are written in the third person – or maybe it’s because although I’m not a mother I am a daughter so it was easier for me to identify with Emma. I did like and sympathise with both main characters, though, and desperately wanted them to be together again. Of course, I’m not going to tell you whether that happens or not!

I have never read anything about the history of Malaya (as it was still known in the 1950s before becoming Malaysia) so that was another aspect of the book I found interesting. The story isn’t weighed down with too much historical detail but by the time I’d finished the book I felt that I’d learned a little bit about The Emergency (the name given to the war) and what it was like to be a woman and a European living in Malaya during that period. I was interested to read that Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaya and lived there until the age of nine, which means she was able to draw on some of her own experiences and memories.

This was a very impressive first novel and I’m already looking forward to the second book from Dinah Jefferies, The Tea Planter’s Wife, which is going to be set in Sri Lanka.

Thanks to the author for sending me a copy of this book for review.

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos The Midwich Cuckoos begins as our narrator, Richard Gayford, and his wife, Janet, attempt to return to their home in the quiet English village of Midwich after a trip to London to celebrate Richard’s birthday. As they approach the village they discover that the road has been closed by the police; something very strange is happening in Midwich, a place where, as Richard tells us, things just did not happen. That night, Monday 26th September, everyone within the boundaries of Midwich has fallen asleep and anyone who tries to enter the village also loses consciousness.

The next day this phenomenon, which becomes known as the ‘Dayout’, disappears as suddenly as it arrived – the invisible barrier is lifted and people begin to wake up. At first it seems that most of the villagers have been completely unharmed by the ‘Dayout’, but a few months later they make a shocking discovery. Something did happen during their twenty-four hours of unconsciousness and it’s going to have a big effect on the lives of everyone in Midwich.

I’ve decided to end my summary of the plot here rather than tell you exactly what happened to the people of Midwich. I’m sure some of you will already know (maybe you’ve seen the film based on the book, Village of the Damned, or maybe the title of the book and the cover of my old Penguin edition pictured here have given you some clues) but I don’t really want to spoil things for anyone new to the story so I won’t go into any more details. All I will say is that I thoroughly enjoyed this book from beginning to end!

I don’t often choose to read science fiction (looking back through my blog archives I can only see five or six that I’ve read since 2009) and I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but The Midwich Cuckoos was probably the perfect type of science fiction for me – instead of being filled with too much action or violence, it’s a subtle, thought provoking portrayal of a small, seemingly normal community trying to cope with something that is threatening their way of life. I think it was the ordinariness of the setting that made the story so effective; this, combined with Wyndham’s thoughtful, undramatic writing style, made it possible to almost believe in what happened in Midwich, while also creating quite an eerie atmosphere.

The only problem I had with this book was that I didn’t feel any connection with the characters. The narrator himself doesn’t have a big part to play and is actually absent from the village for long periods of time, leaving large portions of the story to be told through second-hand accounts, particularly through the philosophical musings of one of the Midwich residents, Gordon Zellaby. It was also disappointing that despite the women of Midwich having such an important role in the story, we never really get to know any of them and they are rarely given a chance to participate in any of the discussions or decisions being made by the men. But although there were a few aspects of the book that I thought could have been better, I did love my first John Wyndham book and am now wondering which one I should read next.

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag is the second book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mystery series. I read and loved the first one, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, last year but it’s taken me so long to find time to read this one that the third book has also now been released and is waiting patiently on my shelf.

For those of you who are new to the series, the novels are set in the small English village of Bishop’s Lacey during the 1950s and feature Flavia de Luce, an eleven-year-old detective and chemistry genius. The mysteries are not particularly complex but Flavia’s unique narrative voice makes the books a lot of fun to read.

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag begins shortly after the previous book ended, but if you haven’t already read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie I don’t think it would matter too much. And if you have read The Sweetness… you’ll find that this book is really very much the same: Flavia is still conducting experiments in her laboratory, her sister Daffy is still obsessed with books, her other sister Feely is still obsessed with her appearance, Father is still collecting stamps. But the tone of this book is slightly darker than its predecessor and I enjoyed the mystery more as there were a lot of possible suspects and the villain wasn’t immediately obvious – at least not to me!

This time Flavia investigates a murder that takes place during a puppet show in the village hall and begins to connect this death with the hanging of a little boy in Gibbet Wood several years earlier. As a detective, the advantage Flavia has is that being an eleven-year-old girl she can ask questions that the police can’t ask and can convince the local people to tell her things they might not tell an adult. Being an expert in poisons helps too, of course!

Flavia hasn’t changed a lot between the first book and this, but she does feel that little bit older and her sense of humour seems sharper. I’m hoping her character is going to develop further as the series goes on. The thing I love about Flavia is that she is somehow both a believable and an unbelievable character at the same time. She has a vocabulary like no eleven-year-old I’ve ever met and both her chemical and general knowledge are exceptional even by adult standards, but despite this she still feels real to me. She also has fears and insecurities (usually covered up by her tough exterior) and this book continues to explore her difficult relationships with her sisters and father, as well as introducing another family member, Aunt Felicity.

I love the old-fashioned, innocent feel of this series, which reminds me so much of the Enid Blyton books I grew up reading. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I can let you know what I think of A Red Herring Without Mustard!