Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Behold, Here's Poison - Georgette Heyer #1936Club

It turns out that Heyer published 2 books in 1936 (a bonus for me this week). The Talisman Ring, covered in yesterdays post, and a contemporary detective novel, Behold, Here's Poison. I can't really argue with the general opinion that Heyer's detective fiction isn't in the same league as her historical novels, but they're still pretty good and probably deserve a bit more love than they've had. 

To be fair Arrow have started reprinting these in smart new jackets - normally around Christmas and presumably thanks to the continuing enthusiasm for nostalgic Golden Age crime, so maybe they're getting a bit more love than I've noticed. There are 11 of these crime novels (one of which, Penhallow, is a bit of an outlier in terms of style) and I think it's a shame there aren't a few more. There might have been some level of collaboration with Heyer's husband, a barrister when she was writing these who apparently supplied some plot details, but I doubt his contribution was particularly significant.

The characters are pure Heyer, and very much part of her stock in trade. She also has a couple of mysteries (more thriller than murder) in her historical novels, including The Talisman Ring so the two strands of her writing are not so dissimilar. Behold, Here's Poison shares other things with The Talisman Ring too. Almost all the action takes place in a few interiors - a substantial house in a wealthy London suburb, Grinley Heath, and a smart London flat off St James, and there are the same very evocative descriptions of certain scenes. 

The one thing I'd remembered really clearly about this book was it's opening. The under housemaid is taking tea up to the still sleeping household, and looks out of a window. She muses about the neighbours but mostly is thinking about the weather - it's going to be sunny and she has the afternoon off. It's a small thing but so very relatable. 

Unfortunately her plans are ruined by finding the master of the house dead. Initially it looks like natural causes - his doctor is certainly ready to say so, but then his doctor also had reason to want him dead, and then Mister Matthews most forceful sister turns up and demands a post mortem. Unfortunately for another sister, a niece and nephew, their mother, an uncle, the doctor, and possibly others who had reason to want Mister Matthews gone, it was murder. Unfortunately for the police it's 5 days later and much of the possible evidence has been destroyed. 

There is a smooth and very intelligent nephew who exists to annoy the rest of his family, whilst running his own parallel investigation to the police - he wants to preserve the family name if possible. He also becomes a slightly unlikely, but eventually oddly convincing love interest for  Stella, Mister Matthews niece and one of the few more or less likable characters amongst the suspects.

Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a couple of quite generous reviews of Heyer's detective fiction. She notes that the plots aren't the best, but that the characterisation and humour are. The relations between two sisters and a sister in law are masterfully handled here. They might be caricatures but Heyer makes them live, or at least she does when it comes to showing how incompatible they are, so that even though they're not likable I still feel sympathy for them having to deal with each other.   

There's an emphasis on dress as well, both male and female which is very Heyer, and also very 1930's. Reading these books makes me realise how much the ideal of masculinity has changed over the last 100 years. Intelligence and elegance seem to be the most important attributes a hero can have. I guess this says a bit about the preferences of the Queens of Crime too. 

In short this is a satisfying mystery, the murder method is clever, Heyer's detective is likable (also very intelligent), there's plenty of her trademark humour and a few twists along the way. If you're new to Heyer and doubtful about historical romance, her mysteries are a great place to start. They come with a slightly different set of expectations, and possibly a bit less genre prejudice attached to them. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Talisman Ring - Georgette Heyer - #1936Club

I had forgotten about the 1936 club until I saw a reminder from Simon a couple of weeks ago, and then got quietly excited when I realised I could read two Georgette Heyer's for it, one of which is an all time favourite - The Talisman Ring. I've been using Simon and Kaggsy's book club as a Heyer enabling tool since they started it and I'm not going to break with tradition now when she's been such a solace in the past year.

This has mostly been due to the #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong on Twitter. Every Sunday we work through 3 chapters of whichever the current book is with plenty of mostly entirely relevant discussion. It's a particularly friendly group of readers with plenty of differing opinions and reading the books like this has been really illuminating. I don't think we've done Talisman Ring yet (I didn't join the group until it had been going for a few months), but I took a lot of what they've made me think about into this umpteenth read of it. 

One reason I love this particular book so much is that although there are romances in it, it's essentially a comedy thriller in fancy dress. An old man (Sylvester) is dying, he's rescued his granddaughter from the dicey position of being an aristocrat in revolutionary France at about the same time that his grandson was suspected of shooting a man in cold blood to get back the talisman ring which had been lost over a game of cards. Ludovic (the grandson) is promptly shipped out the country with almost everybody assuming his guilt. Sylvester has summoned his great nephew, Tristram, to his death bed in the hope that he'll marry his much younger cousin (the granddaughter) who will otherwise be alone in the world.

Tristram isn't especially enthusiastic but he needs a wife and isn't especially enthusiastic about anybody else either. Eustacie seems to feel much the same - although after a few hours in each others company it's fairly clear that they really won't like each other much. Then Sylvester dies, Ludovic turns up as a smuggler in which guise he meets Eustacie escaping the prospect of a dull marriage. There's some shooting in a moonlit forest, Tristram realises that Ludovic is innocent, another cousin suddenly looks suspicious, and a woman who makes him laugh turns up. There are a lot of jokes, and it's all very enjoyable.

Reading Heyer slowly it also seems crazy that her work was never adapted for film. Most of the action here takes place in a handful of different interiors and a bit of woodland, the dialogue, and running around is very reminiscent of the screwball comedy's of the era, and the cast is limited. It should have been a gift to film - and a well made contemporary adaptation would be delightful (the only book of hers that was adapted was not well served - you can find The Reluctant Widow on you tube - it's an absolute mess compared to the source material) even if it wasn't entirely faithful. 

As it is there are wonderful scenes - such as Sylvester's death bed - lit by 50 candles, furnished with rich brocades, with an old man in his wig and a great ruby ring at the centre of it determined to have the last word. I feel like I'm watching rather than reading, and Heyer invites her readers to be amused as well as entertained by the vision she's created. 

What I hadn't really noticed before this year, but am coming to see as more of a feature of her work is how loosely Heyer sketches in the details of her main characters. Tristram is described as tall, dark, lean, and we know he's good in a fight - but otherwise it's up to the reader to decide on the details. Ludovic is tall blond and handsome, Eustacie is small dark and beautiful... There isn't really a lot about their personalities either beyond humour and intelligence. Her secondary characters by comparison are much more richly detailed. This has to be a big part of why her books have aged relatively well (there are bits which haven't), it's so easy to project yourself into the heart of them. 

Overall The Talisman Ring is lighthearted, well written, fun. It doesn't expect to be taken particularly seriously, it's function is solely to amuse and entertain which it does very well indeed. I'm very happy to have had a reason to read it again right now. 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

In The Garden - Essays on Nature and Growing

It was the 14th of January 2020 when I last went to London, the purpose of the trip was to get a readers card for the National Art Library (housed in the V&A). It was a preliminary for a piece of research that's back on indefinite hold now, and even when it's possible to revisit London for nothing much more than pleasure it's going to be a much longer time before I want to go there (or consider the exorbitant train fare worth while). I've never been to Daunt Books - there's never been time. 

It's London that 'In The Garden' mostly evokes for me though, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Individually each essay in this collection is excellent - there's not a weak link in the chain. Not even Nigel Slater who is not a favourite writer (I can't deny the quality of his writing, but I can't relate to it either - everything in his written and photographed world feels too perfectly curated, too aspirational, for me - even the imperfections, it leaves me cold). Collectively there's a metrocentric feel about the book that I think leaves it feeling a little unbalanced.

Kerri Ní Dochartaigh describing the garden she's growing in Ireland, and Caroline Craig's 'Just Call Me Alan' where she describes her families farming and gardening in Provence, both towards the end of the collection somewhat redress the balance, but a couple more essays like this to add to the mix would have been welcome. 

It's not that I'm unsympathetic towards London bound millennials struggling with high rents and shared housing, longing for a garden to find and ground themselves in. I live in a city centre flat, the lack of a garden of my own is a constant small grief, but I also know plenty of millennials who didn't go to London, who by their mid twenties had mostly bought houses and gardens with their partners, who got allotments and started families before they were 30. I want to read something which reflects what a garden means to these people too.

What is here is excellent though, and there are at least a good number of voices that I don't think we often see in garden and nature writing. How a garden might tie together generations of immigrant families - from the first generation trying to assimilate or recreate a little bit of home through 2nd and third generations making their own identities or reaching back to find links with different parts of their heritage.

Zing Tsjeng's 'A Ghost Story' is a favourite piece for the way she talks about how her garden bridges gaps between her and her mother, and all she has to say on how we transfer our feelings into something like a garden. Francesca Wade is very good on London Square gardens in 'A Common Inheritance' too - but then I'll say again, there isn't a weak essay here. There's no shortage of things to think about either, I guess this is what happens when you chose writers to talk about gardening rather than gardeners to write about it. 

I've also been a little bit on the fence about buying both Kerri Ní Dochartaigh's 'Thin Places' and Francesca Wade's 'Square Haunting' too, but I'm now much more interested in both based on what I've read here. It's definitely a collection to have a good look at.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

There's No Story There - Inez Holden

These are more of the war time writings of Inez Holden, this time from 1944-45 after the earlier collections of Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It Was Different at the Time which covered 1938-1941. There's No Story There is a novel, or something between a novel and a fictionalized account of Holden's war time observations. She did work in a munitions factory in Wales although I'm not clear if it was on the scale of 'Statevale' - which covers seven miles, has 30,000 employees, and is an enclosed world of it's own.

I found Blitz Writing interesting, Holden is too good an observer and too good a writer for it not to be, but it's not as compelling as There's No Story There which given that the construction of the two isn't so very different kind of surprises me. There's an extra something about this book, a subtle sort of alchemy that makes it work in a way I can't pick apart.

There are 13 loosely connected chapters - vignettes really, of life at Statevale from the perspective of varied characters, the final chapter presented as a letter a newish arrival is writing home ties everything together. There are also 3 final chapters which are unrelated, but all add to the war time picture, especially Musical Chairman.

This book came out with Margaret Kennedy's Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry and it is absolutely worth reading both together because both feel like they show a part of war time history that's under represented. In  Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry it's Kennedy's willingness to share her fears and prejudices, in There's No Story There it's all about the behind the scenes work and this time I was really surprised by my own ignorance.

Holden was a Bright Young Thing who ended up as a socialist, and reading this book there's more than a suggestion that conditions at Statevale verge on being a socialist utopia - sort of. there's a place for everybody - jobs for people to damaged to go into, or back into the army. Conditions in the hostels are basic but good and for a portion of your wages every need is taken care of. What I hadn't realized is how little choice people had in how and where they were employed.

There's comedy here - especially in chapters 7 and 8 (Factory Tour and Visit) when the visitor who turns up isn't quite the visitor expected, and then something much darker in 9 (Check Up) where a Jewish man finds persecution where none is intended. His paranoia has good foundation of course, which adds to the bleakness of his situation.

There are chapters about being snowed in to the factory, and out of it, Snowed In is perhaps my favourite in the book - it's where I think Holden's magic touch is most evident. She creates images which have an almost mythic power here without being heavy handed about it. It's something about the other worldliness of a snowy landscape and the warmth of a boiler room contrasted with each other. 

There's also a casual look at the strain that war time years apart put on marriages, all the human frailties and weaknesses and how we accommodate them in a community, hints of a mystery, and above all the extraordinariness of ordinary people. Readers will recognise as clearly as Holden did that there is a story - the curious thing is that in all the endless stories of the war that we keep remaking and rewriting how seldom this one seems to be told.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Castle Skull - John Dickson Carr

I’ve been saving this Rhineland Mystery as a treat – I thought the combination Of John Dickson Carr and a suitably gothic Germanic setting to let himself loose on would be quite something. The promise of an Aleister Crowley like figure was also hopeful, but in the end I either wasn’t in quite the right frame of mind, or John Dickson Carr was showing a certain restraint. I think it’s more likely to be that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind because Carr does provide a castle full of secret passages perched high above the Rhine, and shaped so that it looks like a giant skull – which can hardly be thought of as restrained.

This is another Inspector Henri Bencolin mystery, Bencolin is lured from Paris by the great Belgian financier Jérôme D’Aunay, after the equally mysterious and horrifying death of his friend and host, Myron Alison (Carr definitely wasn’t holding back, Myron turned out to be almost as hard to kill as Rasputin). Both men were friends with the charismatic, unpleasant, and very successful magician, Maleger who’s body was supposedly found in the Rhine 17 years previously with yet more mystery attached.

Odd things happen on the way to the Rhine, and when Bencolin and Jeff finally arrive there’s a massive thunderstorm, all the better to appreciate the skull shaped castle in. The suspicion is that one of Myron’s house guests must have murdered him, and as everybody has been stuck in his house together suspecting each other for several days they’re not very happy. An old friend and adversary of Bencolin’s is also on the scene – his German counterpart, officially in charge of the case. The two had been spies on opposite sides during the first world war and have retained a good deal of respect and friendly rivalry.

As I describe this book I realise I’m going to have to read it again at some point, because it sounds better and better, and hopefully next time I’ll be in a better mood to appreciate all the details – of which Carr is a master. As it is the moment I really perked up was near the end when he’s describing a somewhat macabre dinner party and does a role call of Vermouth’s and Amaro’s – which made me long for any sort of aperitif suitable occasion – even a dinner party designed to flush out a murderer in a ghastly castle shaped like a skull with black onyx floors (especially such a dinner party – it would be one memorable way to end lock down).

There’s also a delightfully incongruous cocktail in production at this point – it’s not one I’m familiar with, and a quick look in my own books on the subject and online doesn’t throw up any references for it from 1931 – there’s a similar recipe that claims to be from 1960’s. At some point I’ll dig a little deeper on this – Carr’s version is simple, and I think it would be very drinkable, although I can see why Jeff Marle opts to change to Pernod after his first one. I haven’t made it yet as I don’t have an open bottle of apricot brandy to hand – but it’s 2 parts gin, 1 part apricot brandy, 1 part freshly squeezed orange juice, shaken over ice and strained into a cocktail glass.

It sounds like a decent cocktail for spring – it should allow the apricot brandy to really shine, be quite fruity, and have a hell of a kick to it. As Carr’s characters have been stuck in their own mini lockdown, a couple of relationships have come to a messy end as well as the matter of the murder under investigation it’s a clever choice – so at odds with the rest of the Gothic atmosphere and high emotion.