Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres to read, but I have discovered that I don’t often get around to reviewing books which fall into this category. Here, I have brought together three mini reviews of novels which I have read and very much enjoyed, and which I would urge those who like to read historical fiction to pick up. They provide wonderful escapism, which I have found very comforting during these couple of strange years.
The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea
I have had a galley copy of Caroline Lea’s debut novel, The Glass Woman, on my Kindle for quite some time, but for some reason did not get around to reading it very quickly. Set in Iceland during the 1680s, the novel follows a young married woman, Rósa, and her husband, Jón. Rósa has moved far from her home to an isolated croft, where she is left alone much of the day, and is urged not to speak to the locals. Lea captures her loneliness with care and understanding, and uses the third person perspective to examine her protagonist. One of the real strengths of the novel is the unsettling feel which it has; this builds as the story progresses. The reader is aware that something is not quite right, and that something sinister might be lurking in the croft’s attic space, which Rósa is banned from exploring.
Wonderfully descriptive, The Glass Woman captures space and place very well. She writes about the unforgiving landscape in which Rósa finds herself, and the sadness which she feels at being pulled away from her sick mother. A few other reviews which I have read have commented that The Glass Woman is not particularly well situated, and that its action could quite easily be moved to another location – and even perhaps another time period entirely. I do not agree. Lea mentions specific Icelandic sagas throughout, and also sprinkles a few Icelandic words throughout the narrative, which contribute to embedding the story in one place and time. I feel that this has been rather well done, personally.
Jón’s first person perspective is introduced quite far into the novel, something which I was not expecting to happen. Whilst, as other reviewers have noted, I can see why Lea chose to do this, I would have preferred the novel to use the third person narrative voice throughout. Regardless, my interest in the story did not wane, and I was pulled into Rósa’s world; Lea describes this as ‘a blizzard-blurred huddle of white drifts and blank hillocks, made of nothing more than ice and air. Everything has reduced to an arm’s length away, as if life beyond the croft no longer exists.’ Some of the tropes used within The Glass Woman are arguably a little obvious, but overall, it is a very effective novel, which has been well plotted, and moves along nicely.
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
I have heard so much buzz around Georgia Hunter’s novel, We Were the Lucky Ones. It is set largely during the Second World War, and encompasses one family who are fractured by the Holocaust. The novel opens in 1939, in Poland, where several generations of the Kurc family are trying their hardest to continue with their normal lives. However, like so many millions of Jews all across Europe, they are forced to try and survive in a terrifying new world, in which they are marginalised and persecuted.
Hunter’s novel is sweeping; it moves across five continents, and spans a period of eight years. The novel is based upon true events; the author’s own family, she discovered in her teenage years, were Holocaust survivors. Whilst some names have been changed here, a lot of the details echo reality, and the novel is the result of incredibly extensive research. The author is clearly attuned to the world of which she writes, and the numerous events which affect every single family member. Her characters become almost helpless, as they begin to lose control over every aspect of their lives.
From the outset, I very much admired Hunter’s approach, wherein she follows different members of the family as they move away from their home. A lot of what they have to face – the sacrifices which they are forced to make, and the acts of bravery which they choose to – is difficult to read, but it is obviously also incredibly important to remember. Hunter has interspersed her family’s story with brief factual details explaining the political situation at each particular point in history. The present tense which she uses throughout infuses We Were the Lucky Ones with a real sense of urgency, and the different threads of story have been wonderfully tied together.
The Last Camellia by Sarah Jio
Sarah Jio is an author whom I have become really interested in reading of late. Every single one of her works of historical fiction appealed to me, and I ended up selecting The Last Camellia to begin with merely because my local library had a copy which I was able to reserve. I also love stories about botanists during the wars – rather niche, I know.
I very much enjoy novels with dual timelines, something which The Last Camellia uses to its advantage. Jio has crafted a clever familial saga which stretches across two timelines – the 1940s and the 2000s. The 1940s story, in which a young woman named Flora Lewis travels from New York to a small English village to take over as the nanny for the Livingston family – under false pretences – was my favourite, as I felt that the historical context had been really well thought out. There is also the trope of a mildly unsettling housekeeper, who is somehow still working at the house in 2000. In this more modern timeline, we meet Addison, whose husband’s family has just purchased the manor. She works as a landscaper, and this ties in nicely with the mystery of the rarest camellia in England, the Middlebury Pink, one of which is thought to be still living somewhere around the grounds of Livingston Manor.
I loved the element of mystery which has been woven in here, and it certainly kept me guessing throughout. The different threads of story were well handled, and whilst I felt that some of the denouements were a little far-fetched, I still very much enjoyed this absorbing reading experience, and the transporting stories within it. Jio’s prose is really quite nice; it did not make me swoon at all, as some historical fiction does, but it is undoubtedly vivid. I reserved another of Jio’s books from my local library before I had even finished The Last Camellia, and am hoping that she could fast become a new go-to historical fiction author for me.
I studied the Second World War and the Holocaust extensively whilst at school and University, and have been lucky enough to visit Holocaust museums and memorials all around the world, from Poland and Hungary to Australia. It is a subject which I keep coming back to, time and again, particularly as more scholarly books and works of memoir are published. As an historian, it is so important to me to learn as much as I can about different periods in history, and about the many causes and triggers which led to a particular situation.
In The Nine Hundred, Heather Dune Macadam has chosen to focus upon a particular instance and group of women whom I knew little about – those who were sent on the first official Jewish transport to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In Poprad, Slovakia, in March 1942, almost one thousand young and unmarried Jewish women, many of them teenagers, boarded a train. They were “asked” to ‘commit to three months of government work service’, and believed that they were going to be working in a factory, before coming back to their families. With a ‘sense of adventure and national pride’ they set off. Only later did they realise what was in store for them, and many had to watch whilst their families were also forced to Auschwitz, and sent straight to the gas chambers. By the end of 1942, two thirds of the women on this first convoy had been murdered, and just a handful survived the war.
The Slovakian government despicably paid 500 Reichsmarks – or about £160 or $200 apiece – for the Nazis to take these young Jewish women away, and use them for slave labour. As news travelled slowly around rural Slovakia at that time, the announcements were staggered, and no immediate warnings could be made before more women were taken away. Macadam writes: ‘All over Slovakia, the same notices were being posted and simultaneously heralded by town criers clanging brass bells or banging drums. The only variable between communities was where the girls should go: firehouse, school, mayor’s office, bus stop. The rest of the news was the same…’.
Relatively little is known about this initial transport, but Macadam has pieced together so many sources, from consulting with historians to the relatives of these first deportees. She has also interviewed as many survivors as she could firsthand. She writes that knowing about these women is ‘profoundly relevant today. These were not resistance fighters or prisoners of war… Sent to almost certain death, the young women were powerless and insignificant not only because they were Jewish – but also because they were female.’
The foreword to the volume has been written by historian Caroline Moorehead, whose book, A Train in Winter, I loved. She comments that in The Nine Hundred, Macadam ‘has managed to re-create not only the backgrounds of the women on the first convoy but also their day-to-day lives – and deaths – during their years in Auschwitz.’
Alongside the wider historical context, which she covers excellently, Macadam has taken the decision to focus upon as many of the individual women in this transport as was possible. This means that what we read as a result is concurrently a shared experience, and a solitary one. In her author’s note, Macadam explains: ‘This book would not be a memoir… It would be about all of them, or as many as I could find information on and fit into this complex history.’ She goes on to write: ‘It is a great honor and privilege to be a part of these women’s histories, their champion and their chronicler.’
I liked the way in which Macadam has structured The Nine Hundred. It is a work of non-fiction, but some of the writing reads more like that of a novel, allowing one to become involved with the individuals immediately. Macadam begins her narrative in the incredibly cold winter of 1942, just before the girls were snatched from their homes. At this time, rumours were beginning to fly around Slovakia’s small towns and villages: ‘Flames of doubt and uncertainty were quenched by reason. If the rumor was true, the most reasonable said, and the government did take girls, they wouldn’t take them far away. And if they did, it would only be for a little while. Only for the spring – when and if spring ever arrived. If, that is, the rumor was true.’ Macadam goes on to recap many of the restrictions and laws made against Jewish people in Slovakia before this point, which ranged from being ‘forbidden to reside on any main street’ in a town, and being banned from having pets, to having to deposit their fur coats with the right-wing Hlinka Guard, and the denial of operations at any hospital.
The Nine Hundred is an invaluable resource, which has a real quality of immediacy about it. It goes without saying that the content of Macadam’s book is shocking and horrific, and I did find some of it very difficult to read. The author demonstrates real strength in setting the scene, and in giving appropriate background information whenever it is needed. One gets the sense, from the very beginning, that Macadam cares deeply about each of these girls, and she handles the portrayal of each expertly. The Nine Hundred is heartbreaking, but learning about these brave women, many of whom were forced to abruptly grow up and face so many horrors, is a powerful and moving privilege.
I’ve used Claire Messud’s The Last Life, which I reviewed in my last post, to kick off this edition of the Book Trail. As usual, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to collate this list. Please let me know if you’ve read any of these books, or if any of the titles take your fancy!
1. The Last Life by Claire Messud
‘The Last Life is the story of the teenage Sagesse LaBasse and her family, French Algerian emigrants. It is set in colonial Algeria, the south of France, and New England. The LaBasse family had always believed in the permanence of their world, in which stories created from the past had the weight of truth, in which cynicism was the defense against disaster. But when shots from the grand-father’s rifle shatter an evening’s quiet, their world begins to crumble, the reality to emerge: the bastard son abandoned by the family before he was even born; Sagesse’s handicapped brother for whom the family cared with Catholic dignity; her American mother who pretended to be French; the trigger-happy grandfather; and Sagesse’s father, whose act of defiance brought down the Hotel Bellevue, her grandfather’s house built on rock, to its knees. Observed with a fifteen-year-old’s ruthless regard for truth, The Last Life is a beautifully told novel of secrets and ghosts, love and honor, the stories we tell ourselves, and the lies to which we cling.’
2. Home by Manju Kapur
‘Tender and funny, Manju Kapur’s third novel is an engrossing story of family life, across three generations of Delhi shopkeepers. When their traditional business – selling saris – is increasingly sidelined by the new fashion for jeans and stitched salwar kameez, the Banwari Lal family must adapt. But, instead of branching out, the sons remain apprenticed to the struggling shop, and the daughters are confined to the family home. As envy and suspicion grip parents and children alike, the need for escape – whether through illicit love or in the making of pickles or the search for education – becomes ever stronger. Very human and hugely engaging, “Home” is a masterful novel of the acts of kindness, compromise, and secrecy, that lie at the heart of every family.’
3. No Name by Wilkie Collins
‘Magdalen Vanstone and her sister Norah learn the true meaning of social stigma in Victorian England only after the traumatic discovery that their dearly loved parents, whose sudden deaths have left them orphans, were not married at the time of their birth. Disinherited by law and brutally ousted from Combe-Raven, the idyllic country estate which has been their peaceful home since childhood, the two young women are left to fend for themselves. While the submissive Norah follows a path of duty and hardship as a governess, her high-spirited and rebellious younger sister has made other decisions. Determined to regain her rightful inheritance at any cost, Magdalen uses her unconventional beauty and dramatic talent in recklessly pursuing her revenge. Aided by the audacious swindler Captain Wragge, she braves a series of trials leading up to the climactic test: can she trade herself in marriage to the man she loathes?
Written in the early 1860s, between The Woman in White and The Moonstone, No Name was rejected as immoral by critics of its time, but is today regarded as a novel of outstanding social insight, showing Collins at the height of his powers.’
4. The River Home by Hannah Richell
‘In their ramshackle Somerset home, with its lush gardens running down to the river, the Sorrells have gathered for a last-minute wedding—an occasion that is met with trepidation by each member of the family.
Lucy, the bride, has begged her loved ones to attend—not telling them that she has some important news to share once they’ve gathered. Her prodigal baby sister, Margot, who left home after a devastating argument with their mother, reluctantly agrees, though their family home is the site of so much pain for her. Meanwhile, their eldest sister, Eve, has thrown herself into a tailspin planning the details of the wedding—anything to distract herself from how her own life is unraveling—and their long-separated artist parents are forced to play the roles of cheerful hosts through gritted teeth.
As the Sorrells come together for a week of celebration and confrontation, their painful memories are revisited and their relationships stretched to the breaking point.
Moving, poignant, and unforgettable, The River Home showcases once again Hannah Richell’s talent for creating characters readers can relate to—and telling stories that linger in the mind long after the final page.’
5. The Corset by Laura Purcell
‘The new Victorian chiller from the author of Radio 2 Book Club pick, The Silent Companions.
Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?
Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.
When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.
The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality and the power of redemption.
Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?’
6. Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton
‘WHEN Esther Thorel, the wife of a Huguenot silk-weaver, rescues Sara Kemp from a brothel she thinks she is doing God’s will. Sara is not convinced being a maid is better than being a whore, but the chance to escape her grasping ‘madam’ is too good to refuse.
Inside the Thorels’ tall house in Spitalfields, where the strange cadence of the looms fills the attic, the two women forge an uneasy relationship. The physical intimacies of washing and dressing belie the reality: Sara despises her mistress’s blindness to the hypocrisy of her household, while Esther is too wrapped up in her own secrets to see Sara as anything more than another charitable cause.
It is silk that has Esther so distracted. For years she has painted her own designs, dreaming that one day her husband will weave them into reality. When he laughs at her ambition, she strikes up a relationship with one of the journeyman weavers in her attic who teaches her to weave and unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household.’
7. Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal
‘1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.
But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.
In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother?
Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.’
8. The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré
‘The unforgettable, inspiring story of a teenage girl growing up in a rural Nigerian village who longs to get an education so that she can find her “louding voice” and speak up for herself, The Girl with the Louding Voice is a simultaneously heartbreaking and triumphant tale about the power of fighting for your dreams.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her path, Adunni never loses sight of her goal of escaping the life of poverty she was born into so that she can build the future she chooses for herself – and help other girls like her do the same.
Her spirited determination to find joy and hope in even the most difficult circumstances imaginable will “break your heart and then put it back together again” (Jenna Bush Hager on The Today Show) even as Adunni shows us how one courageous young girl can inspire us all to reach for our dreams…and maybe even change the world.’
Messud is an author whose writing I greatly admire. Over the last few years, I have slowly been making my way through her back catalogue, and have thoroughly enjoyed each of her books. Messud, as an author, appears to me to be rather underrated. I rarely see reviews of her work unless I seek them out, and one of my absolute favourites amongst her novels – The Emperor’s Children – seems polarising among readers.
One thing which I love about Messud’s work is that each of her books is so different in subject matter. Everything which she writes about, from an obsessive female friendship in The Woman Upstairs, to a complicated relationship between two sisters living on opposite sides of the world in When the World Was Steady, is utterly compelling. The Last Life, her second novel, was published in 1999, and is certainly a book to savour.
The Last Life takes as its focus a fifteen-year-old girl named Sagesse LaBasse, who tells her story with a ‘ruthless regard for truth’. She comes from a family of French Algerian immigrants who own a hotel, the Bellevue, on the French Riviera. This overlooks their old homeland. The family are ‘haunted by their history’ and, early on in the novel, they are ‘brought to the brink of destruction by a single reckless act.’
Sagesse has an American mother, and muses throughout about her heritage, and what her mixed nationalities mean to her. The novel is told from a position of retrospect, from Sagesse’s apartment in New York City; it opens: ‘I am American now, but this wasn’t always so.’ A couple of paragraphs later, she reveals the following: ‘I’m not American by default. It’s a choice. But it is a mask. Who, in the thronged avenues of Manhattan, hasn’t known this?’ The grown Sagesse has reached a point in her life where she wishes to ‘translate the world inside, beginning with the home that was once mine, on France’s southern coast…’. So begins her story.
From the outset, everything about The Last Life intrigued me. Messud’s prose is rich, and characteristically searching. The many descriptions which she gives throughout to situate Sagesse and her family are luscious, and incredibly evocative. Messud’s attention to detail renders every landscape, every object, almost tangible to the reader. When living in the South of France, for instance, ‘… the days lingered like overripe fruit, soft and heavily scented, melting into the glorious dusk. We gathered by the hotel pool, on the clifftop, after supper, watching the sky falter into Prussian blue, to blue-black, and the moon rise over the Mediterranean, the sea spread out before us, whispering and wrinkled.’
In many ways, The Last Life is a coming-of-age novel; we watch the teenage Sagesse grow, preoccupied with stuffing her bra, and being around her peers rather than her family. There are moments of intrigue here, and others of surprise. The single incident, which serves to make the LaBasse family question so much, felt unexpected, as did Sagesse’s expulsion from the family home soon afterward, to stay with her aunt in America. Messud demonstrates great insight throughout, especially on the many and varied experiences of being a teenager. I found Sagesse and her reactions to be thoroughly believable.
The storyline of The Last Life is an intricate one. The feelings of displacement, of ‘otherness’, ricochet through the novel, affecting many of the characters. When with her aunt in Boston, Sagesse comments: ‘It dawned on me in those early days that I was, in this place, remarkably, a cipher. I didn’t speak much. The tidal wave of American English was tiring for me, and it took all my energy to keep up, and anyway I felt that my personality didn’t translate. I couldn’t make jokes in English, or not without planning them out before I spoke, by which time they ceased to be funny and I couldn’t be bothered to voice them… But because they didn’t know me, my cousins didn’t notice. They thought me reserved, perhaps, or pensive, or homesick (which I often was, but they didn’t ask about my home), and each projected onto me the character she wanted or needed me to have.’
I have always found Messud’s work to contain incredibly deep portrayals and explorations of the human condition. This novel is certainly no different; it is just as astute, direct, and thorough as I was expecting. I cannot fathom why Messud seems to be such an underappreciated author, and I hope that if you pick up The Last Life, or one of her books based on this review, that you enjoy her work just as much as I do.
One thing which I have loved consistently for many years now are Golden Age murder mysteries. I read these as often as I can, and enjoy nothing more than discovering new-to-me authors who wrote in this genre, primarily during the 1920s and 1930s. I have decided to collect together ten of my favourites (and also not to include too much Agatha Christie, even though I easily could have!). I would highly recommend these books whether you are already a superfan of this genre, like me, or whether you are looking to dip your toe in. I hope you find something here which keeps you guessing!
- A Blunt Instrument by Georgette Heyer (1938)
‘Who would kill the perfect gentleman?
When Ernest Fletcher is found bludgeoned to death in his study, everyone is shocked and mystified: Ernest was well liked and respected, so who would have a motive for killing him? Inspectors of Scotland Yard felt it was an unlikely crime for the London suburbs: a perfectly respectable chap at home with his head bashed in. It seems the real Fletcher was far from the gentleman he pretended to be. There is, in fact, no shortage of people who wanted him dead.
Superintendent Hannasyde and Sergeant Hemingway, with consummate skill, uncover one dirty little secret after another, and with them, a host of people who all have reasons for wanting Fletcher dead. Who tiptoed into the study to do the deed? The rather nefarious nephew Neville? A neighbor’s wandering wife? A fat man in a bowler hat?
The mystery’s key was a blunt instrument–a weapon that the police could not find… and that the murderer can to use once more. Then, a second murder is committed, with striking similarities to the first, giving a grotesque twist to a very unusual case, and the inspectors realize they are up against a killer on a mission…’
2. The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie (1922)
‘Tommy Beresford and Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Cowley are young, in love… and flat broke. Just after Great War, there are few jobs available and the couple are desperately short of money. Restless for excitement, they decide to embark on a daring business scheme: Young Adventurers Ltd.—”willing to do anything, go anywhere.” Hiring themselves out proves to be a smart move for the couple. In their first assignment for the mysterious Mr. Whittingtont, all Tuppence has to do in their first job is take an all-expense paid trip to Paris and pose as an American named Jane Finn. But with the assignment comes a bribe to keep quiet, a threat to her life, and the disappearance of her new employer. Now their newest job are playing detective.
Where is the real Jane Finn? The mere mention of her name produces a very strange reaction all over London. So strange, in fact, that they decided to find this mysterious missing lady. She has been missing for five years. And neither her body nor the secret documents she was carrying have ever been found. Now post-war England’s economic recovery depends on finding her and getting the papers back. But he two young working undercover for the British ministry know only that her name and the only photo of her is in the hands of her rich American cousin. It isn’t long before they find themselves plunged into more danger than they ever could have imagined—a danger that could put an abrupt end to their business… and their lives.’
3. The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham (1929)
‘A house party is under way at the remote mansion of Black Dudley, and among the guests are some very shady characters. As they playfully recreate the ritual of the Black Dudley Dagger, someone dies. Pathologist George Abbershaw suspects foul play, and when a vital item is mislaid, a gang of crooks hold the guests hostage. Will they escape the house – what did happen to the Colonel – and just who is the mysterious Mr Campion? Neither the story nor Albert Campion is quite as vapid and slow as you might expect…’
4. Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey (1949)
‘In this tale of mystery and suspense, a stranger enters the inner sanctum of the Ashby family posing as Patrick Ashby, the heir to the family’s sizable fortune. The stranger, Brat Farrar, has been carefully coached on Patrick’s mannerism’s, appearance, and every significant detail of Patrick’s early life, up to his thirteenth year when he disappeared and was thought to have drowned himself. It seems as if Brat is going to pull off this most incredible deception until old secrets emerge that jeopardize the imposter’s plan and his life.’
5. While She Sleeps by Ethel Lina White (1940)
‘This novel is a classic mystery written by Ethel Lina White, one of the best known crime writers in Britain and the USA during the 1930s and ’40s. Her novels today keep delighting the lovers of the gendre with interesting plots which conquered the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, whose film The Lady Vanishes (1938), was based on her novel The Wheel Spins.
In this novel, Miss Loveapple has always prided herself on her extraordinary good luck. But her luck takes a turn for the worse when she is marked out as a killer’s victim…’
6. The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (1930)
The Murder at the Vicarage is the first of Christie’s Miss Marple books, and was first published in 1930. Oddly, there isn’t much of the lady herself here; rather, she is a character who exists largely on the periphery, and the whole is narrated by a vicar. Regardless, this is a fantastic murder mystery, and parts of it are really quite amusing and witty. My favourite line in the whole is as follows: ‘His poems have no capital letters in them, which is, I believe, the essence of modernity’. All of the twists and turns are so very clever, and renders The Murder at the Vicarage rather a fantastic reading experience.
7. A Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell (1929) – my full review can be found here
‘Alastair Bing’s guests gather around his dining table at Chaynings, a charming country manor. But one seat, belonging to the legendary explorer Everard Mountjoy, remains empty. When the other guests search the house, a body is discovered in a bath, drowned. The body is that of a woman, but could the corpse in fact be Mountjoy? A peculiar and sinister sequence of events has only just begun…
This is Gladys Mitchell’s first book and it marks the entrance of the inimitable Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, psychoanalyst and unorthodox amateur sleuth, into the world of detective fiction. But instead of leading the police to the murderer, she begins as their chief suspect.’
8. The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin (1944) – my full review can be found here
‘Yseut Haskell, a pretty but spiteful young actress with a talent for destroying men’s lives, is found dead in a college room just metres from the office of unconventional Oxford don and amateur detective, Gervase Fen. The victim is found wearing an unusual ring, a reproduction of a piece in the British Museum featuring a gold gilded fly but does this shed any light on her murder? As they delve deeper into Yseut’s unhappy life the police soon realise that anyone who knew her would have shot her, but can Fen discover who could have shot her?
Erudite, eccentric and entirely delightful – Before Morse, Oxford’s murders were solved by Gervase Fen, the most unpredictable detective in classic crime fiction.’
9. Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers (1923)
‘The stark naked body was lying in the tub. Not unusual for a proper bath, but highly irregular for murder — especially with a pair of gold pince-nez deliberately perched before the sightless eyes. What’s more, the face appeared to have been shaved after death. The police assumed that the victim was a prominent financier, but Lord Peter Wimsey, who dabbled in mystery detection as a hobby, knew better. In this, his first murder case, Lord Peter untangles the ghastly mystery of the corpse in the bath.’
10. Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1937)
‘On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but no one is at home.
Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.
This classic Christmas mystery is republished for the first time since the 1930s, with an introduction by the award-winning crime writer Martin Edwards.’
Which are your favourite Golden Age mysteries? Have you read any of these? If you have any recommendations within the genre, I would love to hear them!
Footage from our first holiday since March 2020, featuring sea views, blue skies, and many, many cats.
Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill was the winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award, upon its publication in 1982. The Independent calls the novel Chatwin’s ‘deepest and best book’ and, having read nothing of the author’s before, I felt it would be a good starting point. His travelogue, In Patagonia, has been hovering somewhere around the top of my to-read list for years now, and when I do finally pick it up, I am keen to see how it compares.
On the Black Hill is described as ‘an elegantly written tale’ of Benjamin and Lewis, identical twin brothers who grew up on a farm in rural Wales, and who never leave home. They ’till rough soil and sleep in the same bed, touched only occasionally by the advances of the twentieth century.’ I am always drawn to books set in rural locations, or isolated communities, and this novel ticks both boxes. The nature of the novel allows Chatwin to comment ‘movingly on the larger questions of human experience.’
On the Black Hill opens in a way which perfectly sets the scene. Chatwin writes: ‘For forty-two years, Lewis and Benjamin Jones slept side by side, in their parents’ bed, at their farm which was known as “The Vision”.’ Owned by their parents since 1899, it lies right on the line between England and Wales – so much so that the brothers can see the ‘green fields of England’ from one window, and the black hill of Wales from the other. Aside from one holiday at the seaside during their childhood, they have never left. They have seen the same view every day of their lives.
I found the prose throughout the novel rather powerful, and sometimes even haunting, in what it revealed. I admired the way in which Chatwin uses just a few details to say so much. Of the brothers’ bedroom, he says, for instance: ‘The room was always dark and smelled of lavender and mothballs.’ Descriptions of the landscape, too, are highly effective, and effortlessly create a panorama of the twins’ surroundings. Chatwin writes: ‘To the east was the River Wye, a silver ribbon snaking through water-meadows, and the whole countryside dotted with white or red-brick farmhouses. A thatched roof made a little patch of yellow in a foam of apple-blossom, and there were gloomy stands of conifers that shrouded the homes of the gentry.’
Whilst identical and difficult to tell apart in childhood, clear differences grow between the brothers; these, Chatwin captures throughout. He writes, for example, ‘Benjamin was shorter, pinker, neater and sharper-tongued.’ The relationship revealed between the twins is one of the great strengths of On the Black Hill; as adults, they ‘quarrelled without speaking’. As youngsters, they ‘persisted in sharing everything. They even split their sandwiches in two, and swapped the halves.’
When we first meet the twins, they are eighty. Chatwin moves back in time to encompass not just their childhoods, and their experiences of adulthood, but the relationship between their kind mother and hot-headed father, which soon spirals into violence. I found the characters to be rather fascinatingly drawn, and they each felt fleshed out in their unpredictability. A good example of this regards the twins’ parents. Before they married, their parents were both more exuberant, and more unsure, ‘bursting with things to say to each other. Both felt, at that moment, there was nothing more to say; that nothing would come of their meeting; that their two accents would never make one whole voice; and that they would both creep back to their shells – as if the flash of recognition in church were a trick of fate, or a temptation of the Devil to ruin them. They stammered on, and gradually their words spaced themselves into silence: their eyes did not meet as he edged out backwards and ran for the hill.’
Whilst this novel tends to be rather dark, there are some amusing moments here, which I’m not sure that I was quite expecting. I felt as though the entirety of the novel was well controlled, particularly with the way in which it moved back in history. It is also effectively rooted in the according time periods; Chatwin is very aware of details in this regard, and weaves small details in throughout. At the annual Flower Show in 1903, for instance, ‘… the pony shied at a dead hedgehog in the lane, and their mother won First Prize for runner beans.’
On the Black Hill is a thoughtful and readable novel, which spans two entire lives. Alongside the more serious elements of the plot, there are some really charming and meditative scenes to be found throughout. On the Black Hill is not hugely dramatic by any means, and is more quiet and contemplative than anything else. Through Chatwin’s words, I sank into rural Wales; I delighted in the not always idyllic countryside presented, and the very memorable people who called it home.