Starting Over

I’ve abandoned this blog, because I struggle with those wretched blocks. And ads which I do not want have appeared, and I can’t get rid of them, and they are nothing to do with me, but I can;t get rid of them. And I tried exporting the blog back to Blogger, where I was originally, but I can’t do that either, even though I followed the instructions, So I’m setting up a new blog, Pages From The Book Trunk, at https://mybooktrunk.blogspot.com/

Sleeping Murder

The inimitable Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in the BBC dramatisation of Sleeping Murder.

Time for another Agatha ChristieSleeping Murder, written in the 1940s, but not published until shortly after her death in 1976, so I read it for the 1976 Club, organised by Karen at https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com/ and Simon at https://www.stuckinabook.com/ way back in October, but didn’t get round to posting. Anyway, better late than never!

This mystery features newly-married Gwenda Reed, who has been brought up by an aunt in New Zealand, and has come to England to buy a house on the south coast, while her husband Giles completes his business abroad. The search leads her to Hillside, in Dillmouth, and she feels she has come home. Everything is just as she imagines it will be, right down to the mahogany surround on the bath. But there are some unnerving oddities. A blocked-off door is uncovered in one room, in the exact spot where she expected to find an opening; she is convinced there should be steps outside the French windows leading to the garden and, sure enough, there they are, hidden beneath soil and shrubs; and the walls of a sealed cupboard are papered with the design she wants for the room she has taken as a bedroom.

Shaken by the co-incidences, she accepts an invitation to stay in London with her husband’s relatives, the novelist Raymond West and his wife Joan. They take her to see Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, but she screams and runs out of the theatre when she hears the lines ‘cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle, she died young’. It seems the play has triggered a memory of herself as a child, peering through the bannisters at Hillside and listening to a man with monkey paws recite the words as he stands over a blonde woman with a blue face…. The woman is Helen, and she has been strangled – but Gwenda doesn’t know anyone of that name and has never been to England before! Fortunately, Raymond (as Christie fans will have spotted) is the nephew of renowned sleuth Miss Jane Marple and, even more fortunately, the theatre trip is her birthday treat. She is convinced Gwenda is not mad or imagining things, and suggests the young woman lived in the house as a small child, before moving to New Zealand, and really did see a murder almost 20 years ago, but the crime was covered up and has never come to light. “I always think myself that it’s better to examine the simplest and most commonplace explanations first,” she tells the couple.

She sets about helping them unravel the mystery. They discover that Helen was Gwenda’s stepmother, who was thought to have run away, and they track down the men who knew her. There is her brother, a youthful boyfriend, the fiance she jilted (not once, but twice), the man she fell in love in love with on a boat to India and, of course, Gwenda’s father, who believed he had killed Helen – but did he? It seems no-one’s account of the past can be trusted, and there is another death before the killer is finally unmasked, thanks to a helping hand from Miss Marple and a syringe full of soapy water intended for greenfly on the roses!

There are some lovely descriptions of Miss Marple in this book. “You’ll adore my Aunt Jane,’” Raymond tells Gwenda. And he adds, somewhat flippantly: “I should describe as a perfect Period Piece. Victorian to the core. All her dressing-tables have their legs swathed in chintz. She lives in a village, the kind of village where nothing ever happens, exactly like a stagnant pond.’‘ He goes on to explain that she adores problems. “Any kind of problem. Why the grocer’s wife took her umbrella to the church social on a fine evening. Why a gill of pickled shrimps was found where it was. What happened to the Vicar’s surplice. All grist to my Aunt Jane’s mill. So if you’ve any problem in your life, put it to her, Gwenda. She’ll tell you the answer.”

Gwenda is not quite sure how to take this, but she likes the look of Raymond’s aunt. “Miss Marple was an attractive old lady, tall and thin, with pink cheeks and blue eyes, and a gentle, rather fussy manner. Her blue eyes often had a little twinkle in them,” Christie tells us.

Actually, her eyes seem to reflect her mood quite a lot (a little like Miss Silver’s coughs). They are guileless, troubled, and they flash appraising glances, as well as shining brightly. I haven’t noticed this before, but I may re-read some of the other Miss Marple books, just to check!

Sleeping Murder

A New Year Miscellany

From the calendar of the Tres Riches Heures, created for Jean, Duc de Berry. He is shown seated right (in blue) while members of his household exchanges New Year gifts.

Here, to celebrate the New Year, I’ve gathered a few seasonal excerpts for your delectation, fictional and non-fictional. First up is the sumprtuous New Year Feast in Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight translated from Middle English by Simon Armitage. (Please note, I abandoned any effort to replicate the line spacing).

The first course comes in to the fanfare and clamour of blasting trumpetshung with trembling banners, then pounding double drums and dinning pipes, weird sounds and wails of such warbled wildness that to hear and feel them made the heart float free.

Flavoursome delicacies of flesh were fetched in and the freshest of foods, so many in fact therewas scarcely space to present the stews or to set the silver bowls on the cloth. Each guest received his share of bread, or meat or broth; a dozen plates per pair – plus beer, or wine, or both!

Bell Ringers by Ryland, Henry (1856-1924); Christopher Wood Gallery, London.

Next is Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors which, I think, is one of the best detective novels ever written. It is New Year’ Eve, and Lord Peter Wimsey is stranded in the village of Fenchurch St Paul, following a car accident. The rector provides shelter, and waxes lyrical about his plans for a nine-hour bell-ringing marathon to welcome the New Year with 15,840 Kent Treble Bob Majors (despite reading the book several times over the years, I still have no idea exactly what this means, so please don’t ask). Anyway, when one of the ringing team falls ill Lord Peter nobly comes to the rescue, and there is the most wonderful onamatapoeic account of the bells ringing out:

The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo – tan tin din dan bam bim bo bom – tin tan dan din bim bam bom bo – tan tin dan din bam bim bo bom – tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom – every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again.”

The Vicarage in Winter, Eric Revilious

And here are more bells – real this time – from the Rev Francis Kilvert, writing in his diary on New Year’s Day 1871:

My Mother, Peche and I sat up late last night to watch the old year out and the New Year in. The wind was in the North and the sound of the bells came faintly and muffled over the snow from Chippenham and Kington. We opened the dining room window to ‘loose in’ the sound of the chimes and ‘the New Year’ as they say in Wales. It was bitter cold, but we went to the door, Perch and I, to hear better, I was carrying my travelling clock in my hand and as we stood on the terrace just outside the front door, the little clock struck midnight with its tinkling silvery bell in the keen frost. We thought we could hear three peals of Church bells, Chippenham, St Paul’s, and very faintly Kington. ‘Ring happy bells across the snow.’ (The Rev Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary)

Still in diary mode, let’s have a quiet evening in the company of Gladys Taber, who wrote Stillmeadow Daybook, a year-long account of her life on a Connecticut farm in the 1950s, . I suspect her views on New Year celebrations must have seemed old-fashioned even them but I think she’s absolutely right.

Seeing the new year in seems to involve much paper caps, night clubbing, and hangovers for some people. This is not my idea at all, never was. I wish to start my new year with a few people I dearly love, and in front of an apple wood fire, with bowls of popcorn and apples, and hot buttered rum, and Port Salut cheese and crisp crackers. And playing some good music, and reading aloud some choice bits. And feeling so secure in the fact that beginning a new year is a beginning with the same old friends.

Children Playing by Honor C Appleton.  

And here’s the opening lines from The Months by Sara Coleridge). It’s a very short couplet, but seems to be full of joy, and to capture the excitement of snow falling – justlike Honor Appleton’s painting,

January brings the snow, Makes our feet and fingers glow.

Just as enchanting is New Year arriving, in Alison Uttley’s The Country Child, which I love now as much as I did when I was young.

The New Year hung in the air, hovering with wings outstretched above the farm, carrying joy and sorrow in its feathers, waiting, waiting for the big clock to strike twelve. Dan stood outside with his coat-collar up, shivering in the steely air, staring up at the sky and across the vast dark to the hills. The New Year shook and swooped down as the clock began to strike. Dan opened the door and entered as the last stroke died away, and the year flew in, filling the house at once, from the empty attics to the dairy where the milk froze in the pans.

The New Year hung in the air, hovering with wings outstretched above the farm, carrying joy and sorrow in its feathers, waiting, waiting for the big clock to strike twelve. Dan stood outside with his coat-collar up, shivering in the steely air, staring up at the sky and across the vast dark to the hills. The New Year shook and swooped down as the clock began to strike. Dan opened the door and entered as the last stroke died away, and the year flew in, filling the house at once, from the empty attics to the dairy where the milk froze in the pans.

Finally, there’s the strange landscape in Sylvia Plath’s New Year on Dartmoor – ‘awe full’ rather than awful perhaps. I don’t always like Plath’s work, she’s a little too dark or me, but I think this is wonderful.

This is newness : every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

Murder in the Mill-Race

Murder at the Mill-Race

Doctor Raymond Ferens, his health ruined by his wartime experiences, and his wife Anne move to Milham in the Moor, an isolated village high on Exmoor. It seems idyllic, but soon they find themselves caught up in a murder mystery when Sister Monica, warden of the local children’s home, is found drowned in the mill stream. Villagers, who generally regard Sister Monica as ‘a wonder’ claim she must have come over dizzy and fallen off the bridge. But Sgt Peel (from the nearby town of Milham  Prior) is not so sure. He is suspicious because there has been another unexplained drowning (of a maid from the children’s home) in the same place. And there are puzzling aspects to the case. So Scotland Yard is drafted in to help, in the shape of Chief Inspector Macdonald and Detective Inspector Reeves.

Murder at the Mill-Race: A Devon Mystery, by ECR Lorac, is one of those lovely British Library Crime Classics, with an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, who edits the series, and has a very nice blog here. I’d never been a huge fan of crime fiction until I discovered these BLCC ‘Golden Age’ murder mysteries, and I think I’ve loved all the ones I’ve read. There’s not too much blood and gore, which is what puts me off many modern crime novels, which sometimes seem almost to be a celebration  of violence. These bygone authors (who were immensely popular in their day), produced well crafted tales, with believable characters, and their detectives (policemen as well as amateur sleuths) rely on their brains (rather than intuition) to unravel the clues, which is something I always appreciate. And their portrayal of the life and times they write about is nearly always brilliant – Golden Age crime writers are really good on domestic detail the social set-up, and the way people respond to events, and that’s especially true in this book.

Anyway, I digress. Our Scotland Yard detectives quickly discover that Sister Monica (or Miss Monica Emily Torrington, as she should really be known) was neither as wonderful nor as well-liked as people would have them believe. A post mortem reveals traces of alcohol in her blood, yet she was a strict tee-totaller, and her secret savings amount to far more than her meagre wage – so where does the money come from? But no-one is willing to admit any fault in Sister Monica. And if they have their suspicions about the identity of the killer and the reason for the murder they’re not admitting that either. Lorac tells us:

“Never make trouble in the village,” is an unspoken law, but it’s a binding law. You may know about your neighbour’s sins and shortcomings, but you should never name them aloud. It’d make trouble, and small societies want to avoid trouble.”

Chief Inspector Macdonald and Detective Inspector Reeves pursue their inquiries kindly, but firmly, and are quite prepared to undertake practical investigations to prove their suspicions – unwittingly aided by Dr Ferens and land agent John Sanderson, who carry out their own experiment in a bid to discover what really happened.

Gradually a clearer picture emerges of Miss Torrington, who adopted the title ‘Sister’, along with an air of religious humility, and a ‘long dark cloak and veil  which hospital nurses had worn as uniform in the early nineteen hundreds’. A capable nurse, she managed the children’s home efficiently and economically for almost 30 years, and while the youngsters in her care were not loved, they were not ill-treated. But by the time Raymond Ferens and his wife meet her she is ‘ageing, domineering, narrow-minded’ and has been in the job too long. Miss Braithwaite, one of the few people to speak out against Sister Monica, tells the police:

She was one of those women who cover a mean and assertive mind with a cloak of humility, and there was something abnormal about her, almost pathological. Also, she was malicious gossip, an eavesdropper  and a raker-up of other people’s secrets.”

There’s a host of believable characters, and I like the way you get a glimpse of their personalities, as well as a descriptions of their physical appearance, each of them a power within their own own sphere, like Mrs Yeo who runs the Post Office, the village shop, the WI, the Mothers’ Union, and all the other ‘worthy efforts’. But the social niceties of the village hierarchy must always be observed – it would take a brave person to treat Lady Ridding as a social equal! On the whole I rather like Lady Ridding, whose aristocratic charm hides a shrewd business brain, and I love the way the London detectives remain polite, but steadfastly refuse to be influenced by her social standing! However, she is chairman of the committee which runs the children’s home, and I couldn’t quite understand why she closed her eyes to Sister Monica’s oddities.

There is quite a bit of dialect in this novel, which I don’t always like, but here it somehow rings true, isn’t patronising, and seems in keeping – as I was reading I could hear that lovely slow, soft-spoken Devonshire burr. And I liked the way Milham in the Moor ‘ten miles from anywhere and nothing but the moor beyond, all the way to sea’ was as much a character as the people – there are some lovely descriptions of the landscape, and I can see how its isolation could make villagers band together against outsiders.

Overall I really enjoyed this, and I didn’t guess who the killer was – but then, as I’ve said before, I very rarely do. My main quibble is that we kept being told that some women go a bit peculiar as they get older, especially when they’ve been in a position of power for a long time, and they become very dominating, and Sister Monica is one of these. She was certainly very unpleasant, and the more we found out about her, the more unpleasant she became, and I know this was published in 1952, and you have to put things in perspective, but it’s a spurious argument.

Why is it that women in positions of authority, like hospital matrons, headmistresses, chairwomen of committees and so on, are so frequently portrayed as power-crazed, domineering harpies, who should be retired, or removed from their positions? But men’s right to abuse their position, or hang on to power when their abilities are no longer up to it is rarely questioned. Sorry about the rant. I could go on about this for a lot longer, but it didn’t actually spoil my enjoyment of the book – I just felt I had to say something!

Mrs Martell

Mrs MartellIt takes courage and skill to write a novel where the central character is thoroughly unlikable, whilst ensuring that the book remains enjoyable, but that’s just what Elizabeth Eliot manages to do in her 1953 story Mrs Martel – and she does it extremely well. Rescued from obscurity by Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow (read his original review here), it’s been re-published by Dean Street Press under their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint, and is well worth a read.

Mrs Martell (Cathie) is a monster. A beautiful, self-obsessed monster woman will stop at virtually nothing to get what she wants. She’s been brought up in genteel poverty by her mother, who is too scared to try and restrain Cathie in any way whatsoever. Her Aunt Violet pays for her to be educated at a good (but inexpensive) school, where her beauty allows her to hold sway over staff and pupil alike. Aunt Violet is not completely taken in by Cathie, but is not up to the task of making her niece do anything she doesn’t want to do. And Cathie is not a bit grateful to Aunt Violet:

“Aunt Violet, Cathie realised, was one of the problems of her life. If Aunt Violet had not had money, Cathie would have forbidden her mother to see her and that would have been that; but it isn’t possible to put an absolute ban on one’s only rich relation, particularly when that relation pays one’s reduced school bills.”

On leaving school she visits France (which she refers to as being finished), works as a beautician, is married, divorced, inherits Aunt Violet’s money, and sets herself up in a little flat in London, with a maid who comes in each day to do all the things that Cathie doesn’t want to do, like answering the door, cooking, and cleaning. She seems to have few, if any, female friends, and although she has had a string of lovers, the gaps between them are getting longer.

Basically, Cathie is on the lookout for another husband who will provide her with the status and wealth she not only craves, but feels she deserves. She sets her sights on Edward, unhindered by the fact that he is already married – to her distant and much younger cousin Laura. Under the guise of friendship, she sets about undermining Laura’s confidence and sanity, eroding the marriage piece by piece. She’s not bothered about Laura, and never once considers Edward’s feelings, or sees him as a person in his own right: he’s just a means for Cathie to achieve a luxurious lifestyle, and she wants to possess him in the same way she possesses a hat or a pair of shoes that will enhance her beauty and make her more admired. 

She works hard at her beauty, and somehow it seems manufactured. There are exercises, and skin creams and potions, and lots of lying down to rest her face. Her hips are always at exactly the right angle, her beautiful legs and neat ankles are displayed to best advantage, and her face is carefully ‘arranged’. I think her beauty is what defines her, it’s how she sees herself, and she believes it gives her the right to have what she wants. Without her beauty she is nothing. For the moment, it seems, her beauty is untarnished, and her charm (mostly) undiminished. We learn that:

“There were evenings when Mrs Martell decked out in snoods and golden earrings appeared to be around thirty, and there were other evenings when she hadn’t tried at all and then she looked thirty-five. Her actual age was thirty-eight. So all the times when Mrs Martell had lain on her bed after luncheon, and all the hours she had spent patting this and that into her face, had after all been well spent.”

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Cathie’s snoods weren’t those peculiar scarf things described as such today. They were decorative mesh hair nets, which were often made from glittery, metallic threads, and embellished with beads.

And we are told:

“She was still very beautiful. But somehow it wasn’t enough. She deserved something better than this, and optimistically, almost as an idealist, she continued to seek for it; for some deep experience which should be all-satisfying. She had visions, which she managed to see through scudding clouds, of power and fame and of a great love.”

As the book progresses cracks begin to appear in the facade and, as her control slips, her true character becomes more and more apparent. She’s not a feisty ‘bad girl’ getting by on her wits and looks, like Scarlet O’Hara or Becky Sharp. The closest comparison would probably be with Louise in Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance which was published in the same year). Oddly, she is not as worldly and sophisticated as she likes to think – her view of life seems to be gleaned from gossip columns in women’s magazines, and has no connection with her own upbringing. For example, she knows she must get a job on leaving school, but she thinks:

The job must be the kind of job which ladies took for their entertainment, to fill in the time which might elapse between being presented at court and being married. Flower shops and interior decorators came quite definitely under that heading; mannequins and assistants in beauty parlours were better paid.”

Oh dear, I seem to have spent a lot of time writing about Cathie without mentioning the other characters, but she overshadows them all.  Laura is a thoroughly nice, rather shy young lady, who has no idea how to behave in society, enjoys talking to servants and people on trains, and likes possessions that have no value. Edward is a male chauvinist pig who is very aware of his position in society and, quite frankly, he deserves everything he gets. Many of the minor characters make brief appearances, so are not fully developed, but Eliot is very good at skewering the social pretentious and aspirations of the would-be upper classes, who are not quite what what they like us to believe, and there are some very funny moments.