I’m closing in on blacking out my Halloween Bingo card, but there is still no sign of that first bingo. If all things go to plan, then I should finish my last bingo book by the end of next week. I left some of my favourite books as re-reads for the last few bingo tasks, so I am very much looking forward to them. I have updated my bingo card here.
Most of this week – the working week part – has again been insanely busy, so I had little time for finishing books. However, a spell of bad weather meant that I could make up for my missed reading time this weekend.
All in all, this has been an excellent reading week, packed with new-to-me authors that I already know I want to read more of, as well as some solid offerings from authors that I already love.
My first pick was Gladys Mitchell’s Laurels are Poison (1942). This is book # 14 in the Mrs. Bradley series. Some may be familiar with the tv adaptation of The Mrs Bradley Mysteries of the same title (starring the glorious Diana Rigg), but sadly the tv series has nothing in common with the original title by Mitchell. Laurels are Poison is set at a training college, where one of the wardens has disappeared and a lot of strange goings on have led to a lot of discontent.
This was an odd book, but I really liked it. Had it not been for one aspect that made no sense and that offended my 21st-century sensibilities, Laurels are Poison would have been a solid 4* offering. Mrs Bradley is on top form, but she is absolutely up-staged by the young woman, who will join the series later as her assistant.
Death in Fancy Dress (1933) took me most of the week to finish, partly because I had little time to read in the evenings, and partly because I very much enjoyed spending time in the story and with the characters.
This was not my first book by the author, but it was my first one written under the Anthony Gilbert pen name. Lucy Malleson also wrote under the name Anne Meredith and her book Portrait of a Murderer was one of my reading highlights in the run-up to Christmas in 2018. It was an odd story in some ways, but I really, really liked it. The reveal and conclusion felt a little abrupt, but I loved the setup and the underlying story, and most of the characters.
I felt there was a John Dickson Carr feel to the story, but it was executed so much better than anything I have read by Carr. I also loved that parts of the story reminded me of a favourite Sherlock Holmes story involving a master criminal of the worst kind, and I do not mean Moriarty. However, to say more would be a spoiler.
There was also something that puzzled me about the writing: Tony and Jeremy, the two main characters who could have walked in right out of a Wodehouse novel, had some very odd ideas about women, and for parts of the story it was really confusing me that a woman writer using a male pen name wrote some dialogues which have male characters talk in stereotypes about women. It was just really, really odd. Mind you, the male characters in question are also stereotypes.
The book redeemed itself, tho. There is a female main character, Hilary, who cracked me up. She was a delight to read about and, even more, to follow in dialogues with other characters. For example, her interview with the coroner made me laugh out loud :
“You were on intimate terms, I think, with Sir Ralph Feltham?” he began without preamble.
“He was my cousin.”
“And there were times when you contemplated marrying him?”
Hilary said sweetly, “There are times when one contemplates marrying anything, one’s so bored.”
“But he was in earnest, even if you were not.”
“Of course he was. Men are.”
“And ladies are usually flippant?”
“I don’t know about that. It depends on how keen they are, I suppose. But it stands to reason a man doesn’t talk about getting married unless he’s serious, because he might be taken seriously, and think what fix he’s be in then.”
I already look forward to reading more by Anthony Gilbert.
The next new-to-me author I encountered this week was Margaret Millar. Her book Beast in View (1955) had been recommended to me some time ago but I had put off reading it because I thought it would be similar to other books in the hard-boiled detective story genre. I had previously read The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, and none of these worked for me. So, imagine my surprise when I instantly clicked with Millar’s story. Maybe it was that the story managed to create a level of suspense from the first page, but I was gripped from very early on and I finished the book the same day.
Maybe women noir writers were just so much more interested in characters and dark and twisted psychology than their male counterparts? Or rather, at least the ones I’ve read?
I’m open to being convinced that there is some worthwhile classic noir out there, but so far the Hammets and Chandlers are not what works for me. Also, step aside Dorothy B. Hughes!
Despite my excitement, the book was not perfect. It had problems…but given the 1950s publication date this was to be expected. In a way, I commend Millar for including some of these “aspects” even if they now read dated, such as the portrayal of LGBT characters and the description of mental health conditions. I much rather see these “aspects” portrayed in book in a well-meaning way than have them erased out or used as a cliche.
Anyway, Millar will be my new go-to author for gripping noir.
Yesterday I finished The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird, which was a charming instalment in the Callashire Chronicles.
I liked it. I liked it a lot. The tone was the same as in The Religious Body – humourous and in the style of a Golden Age mystery (even though the setting is in the late 60s/early 70s), with the odd tip of a hat to actual Golden Age mysteries. In this one, someone leaves a body in the library and the Inspector draws the obvious parallels.
This is only my second book by the author but Aird will be an author I will read more by. The tone of narration is worth it. It is absolute comfort reading, even if the plots are not particularly twisted.
“Like Miss Mavis Palmer and her young man, Bernard, she came from Paradise Row, Luston. Any student of industrial philanthropy would immediately recognize this as a particularly grimy part of that particularly grimy town. By some Victorian quirk of self-righteousness the street names there varied in inverse proportion to their amenity.”
Lastly, I finished my re-read of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It is very hard to believe that this book was published 100 years ago this month. It is such an iconic book and, of course, it is the book that started Christie’s famous Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. Even for this alone, I recommend the book to anyone who has ever wondered about Christie’s writing. However, I do so with the following words of caution:
This was her first novel, and let’s just say that it is good (certainly better than many other author’s first novels), but it is nowhere near at the level of quality as her later books.
On my fourth (?) re-read, I still do not love the book as much as the later ones, but I loved it more than when I first read it. Apart from the mystery, which is not a favourite of mine in this book, the book thrives on the interaction between Hastings and Poirot. It is worth reading for this alone. Also, readers should not be put off by Hastings’ behaving like a puppy. It is a recurring joke in the series and there is a point to it once one gets to know Hastings as a character.