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One From the Archive: ‘Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries’, edited by Martin Edwards ****

First published in July 2015.

The eye-catching British Library Crime Classics publications now have a short story collection in their midst.  Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries has been edited by Martin Edwards, and presents a ‘collection of vintage mysteries’, all of which centre upon the theme of holidays.

In his introduction, Edwards writes9780712357487 that Resorting to Murder ‘shows the enjoyable and unexpected ways in which crime writers have used summer holidays as a theme’.  The tales have a wide range across the Golden Age of British crime fiction, encompassing both ‘stellar names from the past’ and uncovering ‘hidden gems’.  Edwards believes that some of the stories which he has selected for publication within the volume are ‘obscure’ and ‘rare’, and have ‘seldom been reprinted’.  Well-known authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett and G.K. Chesterton thus sit alongside the lesser-known likes of Basil Thomson, Leo Bruce and Gerald Findler.

Only British writers have been focused upon here, but the settings which they use as their backdrops are rather diverse.  We visit Conan Doyle’s Cornwall, E.W. Hornung’s Switzerland, and stop off at golf courses, secluded resorts and walking tours conducted in France along the way.

Edwards’ aim was to present ‘vintage stories written over the span of roughly half a century, and which have the backdrop of a holiday’, whether at home or abroad.  ‘This straightforward unifying theme,’ he tells us, ‘is counterpointed by the stories’ sheer diversity’.  The differing perspectives and shifts with regard to time periods and settings works marvellously, and ensures that the collection can be read all in one go by the greedy traveller, or dipped in and out of by the more relaxed reader.  Diversity exists between the detectives themselves, too; there are shrewd man-of-the-moment types who go out of their way to appear in charge of the situation, and those who are quite unsuspected by others until the pivotal moment at which all is revealed.

It is a nice touch that each story within Resorting to Murder has been introduced with biographical details of each author, as well as the ‘background to their writing’.  The only unfortunate detail which is missing is that nowhere does it specify which year each story was written or published in.  Chronologically ordered they may be, but one cannot help but feel that this small yet important element would have been useful in a collection which purports to show the progression of crime stories.

Resorting to Murder is engaging and filled with aspects of interest.  As is often the case with anthologies, particularly thematic ones, some tales are far stronger than others, but there is definitely something for everyone within its pages.  Resorting to Murder is a wonderful choice for summer escapism, as well as the perfect book for the discerning armchair traveller.

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One From the Archive: ‘Every Eye’ by Isobel English *****

Every Eye is a beautiful Persephone novella, complete with, as ever, stunning endpapers.  It was the publishing house’s fifteenth publication, and is one of my favourites to date.  The copy does not contain a blurb – as many Persephones do not – but, perhaps unusually, there is no extract from the work itself either, as is often the Persephone way.  Rather, we are given an insight into the novella through an extended John Betjeman quote.  In the Daily Telegraph in 1956, Every Eye‘s publication year, he wrote: ‘Sometimes, but not often, a novel comes along which makes the rest one has to review seem commonplace.  Such a novel is Every Eye.  It is remarkable for the skill of its construction, and for the style of its writing…  [English] is on the mark whether she is observing scenery or character.’  I hasten to agree. 9781903155066

Isobel English is a pseudonym for June Braybrooke, a friend of the likes of Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, and Stevie Smith.  For simplicity’s sake, I shall refer to the author as English throughout my review.  The novella’s preface was written by her husband, Neville Braybrooke; he includes many fascinating biographical details, and writes also about the rather charming publication preparation of Every Eye: ‘… after it was returned [from being typed], she wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it by hand to her publishers…’.  English published only three novels in her lifetime, between the years 1954 and 1960.  In 1974, she won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her collection of short stories entitled Life After All.

Every Eye runs to just 119 pages, but its length is perfect; English’s writing certainly works well in the more compact literary frame.  The novella charts the life of a newly married woman named Hatty, and begins with the death of her aunt, Cynthia: ‘It is strange that this news should arrive today, the eve of our departure.  Tomorrow morning Stephen and I are to set off for Ibiza, the most savage of the Balearic Islands.  We have been married a year and this is a long-promised holiday.  Now it seems something over and above, an involuntary almost predestined mark of respect to a dead person, for it was Cynthia who first told me of this place which must have been when I first met her  about the time of my fourteenth birthday’.  Indeed, Cynthia, who was married to Hatty’s ‘big brown bear’-like Uncle Otway, lived there for much of her life.

Hatty is often frank, and I was immediately endeared to her; she strikes one as rather an original character construct, by all accounts.  When asked for Cynthia what she likes to read after a fraught exchange has taken place, for instance, we are given the following information: ‘Still cautious but placated almost completely, I answered, a little gruffly I remember: “I like good books,” and then to illustrate the extent of my knowledge: “I like Rider Haggard very much, but I can’t stand Jane Austen”.’

Every Eye is not at all a run-of-the-mill portrait of a young newlywed.  The details which English gives too, particularly with regard to Hatty and Stephen’s relationship, and their wider circle, intrigue: ‘6.30am and Victoria.  Stephen’s mother, Amy, is already on the platform waiting to see us off; she has brought with her the young girl that she hoped Stephen would marry before he met me.’

The structure which English has used here, of a continuous narrative with no chapter breaks to speak of, works well; it allows her to present us with a coherent barrage of thoughts and memories, which run simultaneously alongside her present day life and travels.  English’s descriptions are incredibly perceptive; she picks up on all kinds of minute details.  Of the train journey which Hatty and Stephen take through France, for instance, she writes: ‘To begin with we are a carriageful of nondescript putty-coloured figures.  But with the thinning out from station to station, there develops before our accustomed eyes brilliant coloured designs on women’s dresses, cyclamen gashes on mouths and headscarves; the cerulean of the sky greased and shining on the eyelids of the girl in front of me’.

Hatty has such realistic touches to her, and she has been thoughtfully and intelligently constructed.  English’s writing is strong and distinctive throughout, and the novella is often quite darkly funny: ‘So it is Wednesday, and the first for Cynthia below the ground – the cold raw earth lined with evergreens.  “Six feet of semi-detached will do me nicely, dear,” I had heard her say often enough when she was looking for another smaller flat when their lease expired.  At last this has been realised as a permanency’.  Every Eye is a beguiling and sometimes unsettling book, with a vivid sense of place.  From the first it is incredibly absorbing, and is a fantastic choice if you are looking for something which you can read without too much trouble in a single sitting.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Enchanted Places’ by Christopher Milne ****

First published in 2014.

Christopher Milne’s The Enchanted Places is one of the newest books on Bello’s thoughtful list of reprints. He was the son of A.A. Milne, and the inspiration for the darling character Christopher Robin – ‘the small boy with the long hair, smock and wellington boots’ – who shares his adventures with a cast of lively and captivating animals, including Pooh and Piglet. 9781509821891

The Enchanted Places has been written from the vantage point of the author’s mid-50s, and tells of his childhood in the ‘enchanted places’ in Sussex in which he used to play – the Hundred Acre Wood, Poohsticks Bridge and Galleon’s Lap, among others.  As well as talking of his own adventures as a young boy, Milne ‘draws a memorable portrait of his father… [in] a story told with humour and modesty’.

The Enchanted Places, first published in 1974, is the first book in Milne’s three volume autobiographical series, and deals solely with his life as a young boy.  His memoirs begin ‘somewhere around the year 1932’ in his Crotchford Farm home, a place which he and his family adored. Milne describes the reason for which he decided to write about his life as follows: ‘To some extent, then, this book is an attempt to salve my conscience; and it may perhaps be some slight consolation to all those who have written and waited in vain for a reply that this, in a sense therefore, is their reply’.

Throughout, The Enchanted Places is absolutely charming, and full of vivacity.  Milne’s descriptions are beautiful, and it is clear that he was forever full of love for both nature and life.  Rural England springs vividly to life beneath his pen.  Each chapter presents a mini essay of sorts on one subject or another, and whilst Milne’s prose style echoes his father’s, there is also something wonderfully original about it.

A.A. Milne with Christopher and Pooh Bear

Milne is a rather humble man, and comes across so nicely on the page.  He takes the reader on a journey back in time with him to encompass his nursery days, his forays into the Hundred Acre Wood, tours of his home, the discovery of his very first treehouse, and the adoration he held for his childhood nanny.  He goes on to talk of the problems which he encountered due to his immortalisation in fiction, and demonstrates how his father’s fame impacted upon him from such an early age.

The Enchanted Places is a quaint and an incredibly lovely read, and is sure to be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.  The natural settings and shyness of Milne as a young boy have been captured perfectly, and the book presents a rich treasure trove of memories, certain to enchant everyone for whom Winnie the Pooh was a part of childhood.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Wonderful Weekend Book’ by Elspeth Thompson ****

When is there a better time to read such a book as The Wonderful Weekend Book than over a bank holiday?  That is exactly what I did.  I had hoped that I could read a little here and there and supplement it with other books, but that didn’t happen in the end.  Instead, I read it from cover to cover in one greedy gulp.  In The Wonderful Weekend Book, Thompson has created such a lovely concept for a piece of non-fiction.  She aims to help her readers to reclaim their weekends back from the mundane tasks which seem to fill them – chores and supermarket shopping being top of her list.

9781848540538Some of the ideas which Thompson has come up with to make the most of weekends are absolutely lovely.  I personally loved the way in which the book was split up into the four seasons, which enables the reader to easily locate appropriate activites to fill hours or entire days.  Thompson’s mini essays are very sweet, as are her introductions. The illustrations throughout are lovely, and I really like all of the different inclusions of recipes.  I was given so many ideas for places to visit, all of which have been entered into my travel journal.  I have picked up my hardback notebook which I began to fill with lovely quotes I came across a few years ago once more, and am now referring to it as my ‘anthology’, as Thompson does in her book.

Despite the general loveliness of this volume, there were a couple of definite drawbacks for me.  The first was that although the lists work well, they are entered rather haphazardly into the main body of text and often split up paragraphs in consequence.  Another downside was that much of the book felt like a plugging exercise for different brands and companies.  Early on in the book, Thompson speaks about buying ‘good bath towels from John Lewis’.  Rather than merely making this statement and moving on, she puts John Lewis’ phone number and website address in brackets right after it, which detracts a little from the text.  Overall, The Wonderful Weekend Book is a wonderful addition to any bookshelf, and will be invaluable for anyone aiming to spend their weekends doing more worthwhile things.  It is a volume which I will be dipping into a lot in future as the seasons change.

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One From the Archive: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet ****

“Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich – chief of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German spells “HHhH”.

9780099555643“All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up? HHhH is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life of one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifyingly modern, a moving and shattering work of fiction.”

I was so very impressed by Laurence Binet’s HHhH. I found the entire novel incredibly engrossing, and I loved the mixture of fact and fiction which Binet had used. The different narrative structures which he made use of worked wonderfully, both singularly and together. The translation has been rendered with such care and precision that it never feels awkward, as many pieces of translated fiction can so easily. Binet’s writing suits the story he has crafted, and his take on the tale is really quite chilling at times. He portrays the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime very well indeed. His descriptions of Prague, one of my favourite cities, are exquisite.

I have never before read a book without page numbers, but I am glad that this was the first. Odd as it may sound, the structure of the book just does not make them necessary. HHhH is a book to be drawn into and to forget the world around you as you continue to read. It is more interesting in such cases, I feel, to be so engrossed that you no longer wonder how many pages you have left to go until you reach the end. HHhH is marvellously paced, particularly towards the end, and is a must read for any self-confessed history nerds out there.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Triumphant Footman’ by Edith Olivier ***

Originally published in 2014.

9781447263517The Triumphant Footman is one of Edith Olivier’s five novels, and was first published in 1930.  The volume has been dedicated to war poet Siegfried Sassoon.

The Triumphant Footman takes place largely within the upper-class circles in Italy.  A lot of the plot within the novel revolves around the mischievous half-French footman of the Lemaurs, Alphonse Biskin.  A case of mistaken identity ensues, confusing society to its limits, and all of which he is responsible for.  This element of the story is farcical at times, and causes the whole to become almost a comedy of manners in its consequent tone and style.

Olivier sets the scene wonderfully from the very beginning: ‘Shadows gathered in the corners of the high Florentine drawing-room, and the faded frescoes on its walls assumed a new prominence in the half-light.  The room became ghost-like, and the painted figures were ghosts among ghosts.  These shadowy forms, the gilded furniture, the heavy brocade hangings, and the curiously wrought silver goblets and vases which stood on consoles against the walls – all of those things seemed far more truly the living occupants of the room than the little pale lady who was lying near the window’.

This ‘little pale lady’ is Mrs Lemaur, a woman who decided to change her life whilst still in her teens: ‘When she was eighteen, she had decided that to be bedridden should be her role’.  She is the ‘little wifie’ to a Captain, who ‘liked looking for bargains, and he often found them’.  Both relocated to Italy – Florence, to be exact – some decades ago.  Olivier builds her characters by using the finest of details; Mrs Lemaur, for example, has a ‘little face’ which is ‘puckered and wrinkled in criss-cross squares, and the corners of her mouth were drawn down till they seemed about to slip off from the two sides of her chin’.  Captain Lemaur is a shadowy being in comparison to the descriptions of his wife; she ‘had passed her life surrounded by love and by things of beauty, but she deserved neither of these’.  Mrs Lemaur is definitely the most interesting creation in the book, and none of Olivier’s other characters feel quite as vivid or memorable as she does.

The Triumphant Footman is interesting and somewhat unexpected, and one cannot help but think that it would be a marvellous addition to the Virago Modern Classics list.  The plot, whilst not always as evenly paced as it could have been, has been well crafted, and although The Triumphant Footman is by no means Olivier’s best novel, it still intrigues.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Road Through the Wall’ by Shirley Jackson *****

‘In… an attractive suburban neighbourhood filled with bullies and egotistical bigots, the feelings of the inhabitants are shallow and selfish: What can a neighbour gain from another neighbour, what may be won from a friend? One child stands alone in her goodness: little Caroline Desmond, kind, sweet and gentle, and the pride of her family. But the malice and self-absorption of the people of Pepper Street lead to a terrible event that will destroy the community of which they are so proud. Exposing the murderous cruelty of children, and the blindness and selfishness of adults, Shirley Jackson reveals the ugly truth behind a ‘perfect’ world.’ 9780141392004

The Road Through the Wall is Queen of Creepy Shirley Jackson’s first novel.  In the foreword to the Penguin edition which I borrowed from the library, Ruth Franklin writes: ‘Compared to The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s masterful late novels, The Road Through the Wall is a slighter work.  But it is marvellously written, with the careful attention to structure, the precision of detail, and the brilliant bite of irony that would always define her style’.

The novel was published in 1948 to a ‘largely unappreciative audience’; its critics were ‘put off by the book’s unpleasant characters, its grim tone, and its violent conclusion’. The Road Through the Wall is a prelude of sorts to ‘The Lottery’, which was published the following year.  It takes place in 1936, on Pepper Street in small town California.  Instead of a familial saga, it is rather more of a neighbourhood affair, although the familial relations are nothing less than fascinating throughout.  We meet several families resident on the street, and come to know them intimately thanks to Jackson’s wonderful, measured prose.  Every single character has differing traits, and one of Jackson’s real strengths here (and there are many) lies in demonstrating the imagination and power of children.

The Road Through the Wall is not my favourite of Jackson’s works, but it is taut, surprising and compelling, and certainly an accomplished debut.  It took a final direction which I wasn’t expecting, but which made an awful lot of sense in retrospect.  The ending is marvellously and creepily crafted, and I very much liked the way in which Jackson left some of the most pressing questions unanswered.

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