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The 1944 Club: ‘The Case of the Gilded Fly’ by Edmund Crispin ****

Hurrah!  I have finally been organised enough to be able to participate in one of the wonderful yearly clubs run by Simon and Karen.  The year which they have chosen for bloggers to read books from this week is 1944, and I was so pleased that I could read and review the first book in the Gervase Fen series, The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin, for the occasion.

9780099542131The Guardian praise Edmund Crispin’s series of crime novels as ‘a ludicrous literary farce’, and The Times call the author ‘one of the last exponents of the classical English detective story… elegant, literate, and funny.’  In this, the first novel in the series, a ‘pretty but spiteful young actress’ named Yseut Haskell, who has a ‘talent for destroying men’s lives’, is discovered dead in a University room ‘just metres from unconventional Oxford don Gervase Fen’s office.’  In rather an amusing aside, the blurb says: ‘Anyone who knew her would have shot her, but can Fen discover who could have shot her?’

The Case of the Gilded Fly begins in early 1940, in a typically British manner: ‘To the unwary traveller, Didcot signifies the imminence of his arrival at Oxford; to the more experienced, another half-hour at least of frustration.’  On such a railway journey is where we first meet English Language and Literature Professor Fen – ‘And as his only distraction was one of his own books, on the minor satirists of the eighteenth century, which he was conscientiously re-reading in order to recall what were his opinions of these persons, he became in the later stages of the journey quite profoundly unhappy’ – as well as the other protagonists.  This cast of characters is rather a diverse one.  After brief sketches of their personalities and professions, Crispin discusses them for the first time as a group: ‘By Thursday, 11 October, they were all in Oxford.  And within the week that followed three of those eleven died by violence.’

Crispin controls his writing and characters wonderfully.  The opening description of Yseut gives her character a complexity, and sets the reader – like her acquaintances – against her rather quickly.  Crispin writes: ‘To a considerable extent we are all of necessity preoccupied with ourselves, but with her the preoccupation was exclusive, and largely of a sexual nature into the bargain.  She was still young – twenty-five or so – with full breasts and hips a little crudely emphasized by the clothes she wore, and a head of magnificent and much cared-for red hair.  There, however – at least as far as the majority of people were concerned – her claims to attractiveness ended.  Her features, pretty enough in a conventional way, bore little hints of the character within – a trifle of selfishness, a trifle of conceit; her conversation was intellectually pretentious and empty; her attitude to the other sex was too outspokenly come-hither to please more than a very few of them, and her attitude to her own malicious and spiteful.’

The Case of the Gilded Fly is both intelligently written and highly immersive.  Whilst not my favourite in the Gervase Fen series – that accolade has to be given to the magnificent The Moving Toyshop – The Case of the Gilded Fly, whilst stylistically different in some ways, serves as a marvellous introduction to the series.  Crispin sets it up so that everyone has a grievance against Yseut, and the reader is consequently left guessing who could have perpetrated the crime, when all have a motive.

The sense of place here has been well captured, too, as well as the early Second World War time period in which it is set.  Crispin notes that the college admissions at Oxford University have been greatly affected, with many students going off to fight.  The blackout conditions are also in place when Yseut is murdered, which does not help matters; her death is first ruled as a suicide, until Fen and an Inspector from the local police force probe more deeply and discover several clues.  The novel does not throw up as many red herrings as I had come to expect from the later books in the series; it is more of a measured and meditative novel.  I did correctly guess one of the elements, but found it incredibly well pieced together nonetheless.

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‘The Palace of the Snow Queen’ by Barbara Sjoholm *****

‘A Frequent traveler to Northern Europe, Barbara Sjoholm set off one winter to explore a region that had long intrigued her. Sjoholm first travels to Kiruna, Sweden, to see the Icehotel under construction and to meet the ice artists who make its rooms into environmental art. Traveling to the North Cape, she encounters increasing darkness and cold, but also radiant light over the mountains and snow fields. She crosses the Finnmark Plateau by dogsled, attends a Sami film festival (with an outdoor ice screen), and visits Santa’s Post Office in Finland. Over the course of three winters, Sjoholm unearths the region’s rich history, including the culture of the Sami. As Sjoholm becomes more familiar with Kiruna, she writes of the changes occurring in northern Scandinavia and contemplates the tensions between tourism, the expansion of mining and development of the Ice Hotel, and age-old patterns of land use, the Sami’s struggle to maintain their reindeer grazing lands and migration routes.’

I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle.  Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.  9781593761592

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things.  She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past.  Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account.  It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further.  The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.

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‘Nancy and Plum’ by Betty MacDonald ****

Betty MacDonald’s Nancy and Plum has been republished as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics series, which features such titles as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  The novel includes an afterword by former children’s laureate Jacqueline Wilson, who says that it is her favourite work for younger readers, and charming new illustrations by Catharina Baltas.

Nancy and Plum, which was first published in 1952, begins on Christmas Eve.  MacDonald sets the scene immediately: ‘Big snowflakes fluttered slowly through the air like white feathers and made all of Heavenly Valley smoth and white and quiet and beautiful.  Tall fir trees stood up to their knees in the snow and their outstretched hands were heaped with it.’ The book’s young protagonists are ‘locked up in rotten Mrs Monday’s house, while all the other children have gone home’

Mrs Monday owns the ‘big brick Boarding Home for Children’, in which sisters Nancy and Pamela Remson – the latter who goes by the nickname of Plum – have been placed.  The girls’ parents were killed in a train crash when they were only small, and their guardian, bachelor Uncle John, had no idea what to do with children.  MacDonald exemplifies the differences between the sisters immediately; Nancy is filled with a ‘dreamy gentleness’, and Plum is daring, with a ‘quick humor’.  Her young protagonists have been built so well that they seem to come to life, and one is soon immersed within their tale.  Each child who meets Nancy and Plum is sure to fall in love with them.

The extra material in Vintage’s reprint is thoughtful, and makes a lovely addition to the story.  It includes a biography of American author Betty MacDonald, a quiz, a recipe for Nancy’s dream meal, a glossary of words which may be unfamiliar to younger readers, and a recommended reading list with which to follow the book.  Nancy and Plum is a heartwarming and entertaining novel, which is sure to delight children and parents alike.  It is the perfect choice for a cosy festive read.

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