Monday, April 24, 2017

Capital Crimes, edited by Martin Edwards

As I've written before, I am enjoying the collections of short stories edited for the "British Library Crime Classics" series by Martin Edwards. I've read Murder at the Manor (country house crime), Serpents in Eden (crime in the country), and Silent Nights (Christmas crime). This volume, subtitled "London Mysteries," may be my favorite.

It has a very interesting variety, with some familiar authors but several who were new to me. One story concerns a serial killer preying on people riding the Underground. It was "originally serialized in To-Day, a weekly magazine edited by Jerome K. Jerome." (I didn't know that Jerome was an editor as well as a writer.) According to the introductory notes - which are always informative - the serial kept people from riding the trains, and eventually "the Underground authorities wrote a letter of protest to Jerome." Richard Marsh's story "The Finchley Puzzle" features one of the earlier women detectives, Judith Lee. Another, by Ernest Bramah, has Max Carrados, whom the editor calls "perhaps the genre's most effectively realized blind detective." Anthony Berkeley had a story, "The Avenging Chance" (included here), which he later reworked as The Poisoned Chocolates Case (with a completely different ending). I was happy to discover one of H.C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune stories as well. I found several of the stories quite suspenseful, and one (about a older spinster who does a good deed that goes horribly wrong) deeply unsettling.

The stories in most of the collections are placed in roughly chronological order, with Arthur Conan Doyle usually leading off. The women authors appear toward the end, sometimes under their male nom de plume. This collection has stories by E.M. Delafield, Margery Allingham, Lina White, and Lucy Malleson (writing as "Anthony Gilbert"). The Delafield story, "They Don't Wear Labels," has an ambiguous ending - and it's not the only one.

I still have two collections, Resorting to Murder and Crimson Snow, on the TBR shelves. I check for new ones every time I go into Murder by the Book. They are a lovely introduction to classic and Golden Age mystery authors, and I hope that Martin Edwards will keep finding and re-printing these stories.

Isn't the cover gorgeous? I would almost buy these books just for the covers. I'd love to have this one as a poster!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Home Port, by Olive Higgins Prouty

I really only picked up this fourth book in Olive Higgins Prouty's series of novels about the Vale family of Boston because a copy of the fifth book (Fabia) arrived through inter-library loan, with a short check-out time, and I wanted to read them in order. I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did - much more than I'm enjoying Fabia at the moment, to be honest.

It opens with a young man recovering consciousness on a beach. Gradually he remembers that he is Murray Vale (Lisa Vale's youngest child), spending his vacation from Harvard Law School as a counselor at a camp in Maine, Tamarack. He and a new counselor, Briggs, had taken a canoe out on a trip across the lake. When a storm blew up, the canoe capsized. Though Murray tried desperately to hold on to Briggs and keep him afloat, he finally lost him in the rough waters. He blames himself for the accident, and he is prepared to take full responsibility. It's pretty clear to the reader that he isn't thinking clearly, partly from the trauma of the accident. He learns that the canoe has been found, and a full-out search is on for him. But when he also learns that his older brother Windy has arrived to join the search, his guilt overwhelms him. He can't face his brother with the responsibility for Briggs's death on him. So he takes to the road, with no clear plan other than escape, leaving his family to think him dead, lost in the storm.

This is a really interesting and engaging story of guilt and redemption. Being an Olive Higgins Prouty novel, it is also a psychological study. Murray has a huge inferiority complex about Windy. He has always been overshadowed by his older brother, tall and handsome, a natural athlete and charismatic leader, who contracted polio but fought his way back to mobility and an active life. Murray began to find his own path, particularly through nature studies, but he was laughed and teased out of them (by Windy, among others). He has been following the path of least resistance ever since, including enrolling in Harvard and then Harvard Law against his own wishes. Unfortunately for Murray, he has resisted all his mother's attempts to get him to talk with Dr. Jacquith, the psychologist who did so much for his Aunt Charlotte and for Lisa herself. Dr. Jacquith at least recognizes his "brother complex," and he also says that the family has been "trying to shape a copper urn out of a silver vase."

I particularly enjoyed Murray's adventures once he fled from the camp and his old life. He travels by bus and by hitch-hiking, staying in small boarding houses, eating in diners (not at all the types of places a Boston Vale would feel at home). I kept seeing Norman Rockwell images in my mind - though Murray's travels are far from comfortable, and always overshadowed by his own misery and guilt. I liked his grit and his determination to make his own way, and I enjoyed his adventures (a lot more than he did). The story (published in 1947) covers several years of his life, moving into the Second World War. Prouty doesn't tell us what happens to him at the end of the book - she leaves his story hanging. I am hoping to find out in Fabia - and it better be a happy ending.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Looking for Betty MacDonald, by Paula Becker

The subtitle of this new biography is "The Egg, The Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I." I first learned about it from Constance Martin, who blogs at Staircase Wit. I immediately broke out a Barnes & Noble gift card that I had been hoarding, to order a copy.

The author, Paula Becker, is a staff historian at HistoryLink.org, an on-line encyclopedia of Washington State history. (I lived in Washington State for many years, and I wish we'd had this resource when I was in school.) As I did, she first met Betty MacDonald as a child, through her "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books." As I did too, she came to MacDonald's books for grown-ups as an adult herself, and was quickly captivated. Living in Seattle, MacDonald's home for many years, Ms. Becker began, in the words of the title, looking for Betty MacDonald. She traced the homes she lived in, she met people who knew her. And when she realized there was no biography of this author, she wrote one.
At the beginning of this treasure hunt, I wanted to find Betty. By journey's end, I wanted others to find her, this young woman whose face was as familiar during the 1940s and 1950s as any movie star's, whose voice was the first - male or female - to entrance readers around the planet with a story deeply rooted in the great Pacific Northwest. I wanted none of her story lost. And I wanted modern readers - who knew her for the Piggle-Wiggles, if they knew her at all - to understand how richly Betty MacDonald deserved to be found.
I have read all four of Betty MacDonald's memoirs, more than once (and written briefly about them). I felt that I had the basic outline of her life straight in my mind. For me, much of the interest in this book was learning about the real life lived, and how MacDonald transmuted that into her stories, what she changed or deleted, and why. Her last memoir, Onions in the Stew, was published in 1955. Ms. Becker carries the story of MacDonald's life through the difficult years that followed, to her death from ovarian cancer in 1958. She was only 50. I can't help wondering what she might have written, given time and health.

The book has wonderful illustrations, of Betty's family (I felt I knew them already, from her books), and also of the homes where she lived. Ms. Becker's research took her all over the west and to New York as well. I envied her access to MacDonald's family members, and above all to MacDonald's archives. From the chapter describing her research, it sounds like she might have been the first to open the boxes and file folders in fifty years or more. It also sounds like Betty MacDonald was as funny and snarky in her letters as in her books, and I'd love to read a collection of them. I hope that her heirs will consider donating the collection to a library or archives, so they can be preserved and protected.

For anyone who doesn't know Betty MacDonald, or only knows Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (as wonderful as she is) this would be a wonderful introduction. Well-written and engaging, it conveys Ms. Becker's enthusiasm for Betty MacDonald and her books. It gives a real sense of the person behind the books. I can almost guarantee it will send people off in search of the books they haven't read yet. It certainly makes me want to pull them all off the shelf again. The meticulous bibliography also added a book to my reading list, Much Laughter, a Few Tears: Memoirs of a Woman's Friendship with Betty MacDonald and Her Family, by Blanche Caffiere. Thanks again to Constance, I have also added one of MacDonald's children's books, Nancy and Plum, which I somehow missed growing up.

As it happens, I have an extra copy of Betty MacDonald's third memoir, Anybody Can Do Anything. I came across a U.S. first edition recently, and I couldn't resist buying it. I would be happy to share the British edition that I found first. If you'd like it, just send me an email (maylisa66 at earthlink dot net). If I get more than one interested reader, I'll draw names.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Lisa Vale, by Olive Higgins Prouty

This is the second in the series of novels that Olive Higgins Prouty wrote about the Boston Brahmin family the Vales. The titular character, Lisa Vale, is married to the oldest Vale son Rupert, and the sister-in-law of Charlotte (of Now, Voyager, the third in the series). I haven't come across too many heroines named Lisa!

Like Now, Voyager, this story opens on board a ship. Lisa is returning from an extended stay in Europe with her two daughters, Fabia and June. Fabia is secretly engaged to a young doctor, Dan Regan, who is socially and economically far beneath one of the "Boston Vales." Lisa has a secret of her own (this isn't a spoiler, it's explained in the first chapter - and it's not quite so secret as Lisa thinks it is). Her marriage to Rupert has never been a happy one, and she has been in love for years with Barry Firth, a partner in her husband's firm. Though their affair is an emotional one, not a physical one, Lisa is careful to keep everything in the proper bounds. She recently helped get Barry promoted to the Chicago office and away from Boston, but they still write to each other.

As if worry for her daughter and about Barry weren't enough, Lisa receives word that her elder son Rupert Junior (known as Windy in the family) has been arrested for drunk driving. There was a young woman in the car with him (like Dan Regan, she is not of their class). His father is apoplectic, particularly since Windy has just failed to get into Harvard. She is also worried about her second son, Murray, a frail boy who is struggling in school. At least her daughter June, about to make her debut, is enjoying it all and causing her mother no qualms.

Someone commented on my post about Dorothy Whipple's Greenbanks that it is "A very satisfying, a bit old-fashioned family story." I think the same could be said of this book. I had met most of these characters already in Now, Voyager. I already liked Lisa, who was such a good friend to her sister-in-law Charlotte. Here she is trying to balance her role as wife and mother with her own needs. I think she is a good mother, who loves her children and tries to support and help them, even when she disagrees with the choices they are making. While she plays her expected part as a wife, she stands up both to Rupert and his overbearing mother, Grandmother Vale. And she is very resourceful, in helping Windy out in his situation and in handling a financial setback with an unexpected pragmatism that I found charming. She deals with what is, rather than wasting time worrying or whining about what can't be helped.

As much as I liked Lisa, I found this book less satisfying than Now, Voyager. It didn't have the same impact as Charlotte's re-birth and growth into her own life. The story spends quite a bit of time with Fabia's romance, which I thought rather boring despite the drama (and then I knew from the later book how it turned out). I did enjoy this book though. Charlotte made several cameos - at one point Fabia declares that she won't be another Charlotte. I was glad to know how much happiness is ahead for her.

The fourth book in the series, Home Port, focuses on Lisa's younger son Murray (who seems to be the proverbial ninety-eight pound weakling). The library has already found me an inter-library loan of the fifth and last book, the elusive and expensive Fabia. I want to read them in order, and the ILL period is short, so I will be spending more time with the Vales in the near future.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Greenbanks, by Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple is an author whose books I enjoy very much, but I have the hardest time writing about them! I think it is in part because I feel like I am late in discovering her - that everyone must have read her books already. That's true of other authors that I read, yet I don't have such a block in writing about them. Here again with Greenbanks (as with High Wages and The Priory) I'm struggling with what to say about this story of a home and three generations of the family that owns it, other than I liked it very much. I am still thinking about how the characters' lives carried on after the story ended, and wishing that Dorothy Whipple had written a sequel, set say five or six years later.
 
So I thought I'd share some of my favorite passages. I loved Louisa Ashton, the kind and patient matriarch of the family. She has a special bond with her granddaughter Rachel, who spends a lot of her time at Greenbanks. I think Rachel and her uncle Charles, Louisa's son, are the only people who truly appreciate her. Charles tells her one day, "The only person I find completely satisfying, Mother, is you."
     'Me?' asked Louisa, going quite pink.
     'Mmmm,' said Charles. 'The French have an expression "Bon comme le pain." When I heard it, I thought of you. You're good, like bread; you're essential, you know, Mother. The world couldn't get on without people like you.'
     'Nay, nay,' protested Louisa. 'I'm not half clever enough. Not clever enough for your father, not half clever enough for you children. I've always felt that drawback.'
     'It's better to be wise than clever, and that's what you are, darling. But don't look so bothered. I won't praise you any more.'

One day Rachel wants something to dress her dolls, and Louisa opens up the ottoman in her bedroom.
It was long and stiff, with a high rolled end; no one dreamed of accepting its invitation to recline. . . When Louisa opened it, it let out a smell of time, a faded, shut-up smell of prints and silks and flannels that had been there for years. Rachel leaned into it, drumming her toes on the side, entirely unaware that the ottoman contained an almost complete record of her grandmother's life.
Rachel asks to hold a little box, which belonged to Louisa in her own childhood. She steps over to
a little water-colour drawing of Louisa as a child in short black boots and royal blue frock, clasping the very box Rachel now held in her hands. It gave Rachel a queer feeling to hold the box and look at it in the picture. She felt the little girl with a round face and curls so fair you could hardly see them on the paper could not possibly be her grandmother, but the box was the very same box still. She looked from the box in her hands to the box in the picture for several minutes. Then she handed it back to her grandmother and leaned into the ottoman once more.
I've had that same feeling, looking at a photo of my grandmother as a child in the 1910s. There was no box to connect us across the years, just the family likeness.

Louisa rummages through the layers of her life and her memories, while Rachel watches, unaware of what is passing through her grandmother's mind. Eventually Louisa finds a piece of red bombazine, which satisfies Rachel. This scene reminded me of Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl,  where Polly and the Shaw children spend an afternoon with Grandmother Shaw, digging through her cabinets of treasures. But Mrs. Shaw tells the children stories about what they discover, and her memories are happy ones. Louisa's aren't, for the most part. And in the end, she puts back "a beautifully stitched night-gown and a night-cap with a frilled edge. These were her death clothes..."

Finally, it's always lovely to meet a fellow reader, even a fictional one:
Rachel had a passion for reading, shared by no member of her family . . . But Rachel, surreptitiously visiting the book-cases where her father had all the best books on show, extracted volume after volume of Shakespeare, Sterne, Fielding, Goldsmith, Dickens, Scott, Jane Austen, bound Cornhills, bound Punches . . . She skimmed over what she did not understand and got what she wanted from the rest . . . She read the classics with avidity, not knowing them to be classics, but she read with equal avidity St. Hilda's, Brenda Shows the Way, The Hockey Heroine and other school tales lent to her by Judy, who always had books of this kind given to her at Christmas. She read, too, the penny novelettes she found in the kitchen at Greenbanks and at Beech Crescent. She made no discrimination between these literatures; she read and enjoyed them all.
I finally redeemed a book token from Persephone that I have been hoarding, so I'll soon have a copy of Because of the Lockwoods to add to my Dorothy Whipple collection (all in the lovely grey spines).

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Three Brides, by Charlotte M. Yonge

Charlotte M. Yonge really puts her characters - and her readers - to the test. The last book of hers I read, The Pillars of the House, began with a poverty-stricken family of eleven children (one crippled with a "diseased ancle-joint"), a tubercular father, and a frail mother (pregnant, as it turns out, with twins, her second set). I knew from the first page I was in for serious drama (if not melodrama), but also for a good story. Her strong characters and easy narration make her books so very readable.

This book, published in 1876, opens at the home of Julia Charnock Poynsett, a widowed mother of five sons (and two more lost in infancy). She is confined to her room after a riding accident some years ago. Her three eldest sons have recently married, one after the other, and the brides of the title are coming to meet their new family for the first time. Raymond, the eldest and heir to his mother's property, has married his second cousin Cecil Charnock, the only child of the head of the senior branch of the family. Julius, recently named rector of the parish, has married Lady Rosamond, the daughter of a impoverished Irish earl, an army officer whose family has traveled the globe with him. The third son, Miles, is a sailor who has sent Anne, the wife he met and married in the South African bush, home while he completes his tour of duty. Two unmarried sons are at home, preparing for careers, Frank in business and Charlie in the army. Though they will soon be gone, the other sons and their wives will be living together with their mother, who is "lady of Compton Poynsett in her own right," holding the property and the purse strings. Now, isn't that a perfect recipe for family drama? Add in a missing cousin accused of embezzlement, a young curate who'd rather be playing cricket, a thwarted young romance, and an epidemic, and you've got a real page-turner.

Julius, the third son, and the rector, is introduced matter-of-factly as an albino. It is mentioned in passing, as a family trait, with a cousin sharing his white hair but not his "coral" eyes. I have noted before that Charlotte Yonge is the first Victorian novelist I have read to include characters with disabilities so fully in her stories. In The Pillars of the House, the young woman with the diseased ankle decides to have her foot amputated and gets fitted with a cork foot, giving her much more freedom of movement. That really surprised me - I always think of surgery as a last resort for the Victorians, and I hope to heaven she had chloroform - though it made sense to and for the character. Here Julius is a strong, virtuous, spiritual character, as one would expect a parson to be in Yonge's novels. He has married a woman of rank, who is also beautiful and kind - and it's clearly a love match on both sides. She doesn't seem to have boggled at his appearance, and neither does anyone else, except his new sister-in-law Anne - but she has the excuse of being ill after a long voyage. I find this simple acceptance and integration of people with disabilities into families and communities really interesting.

If Charlotte Yonge seems progressive in that area, she is certainly of her time when it comes to women's roles. The story of the three brides isn't just of their adjustment to marriage or their new family. Each also has to change, to grow in her proper womanly role. Cecil is spoiled and too caught up in family pride. She also resents her mother-in-law's control of the household (however lightly exercised), and the close relationship she has with her sons. Rosamond is too frivolous and lazy for a rector's wife, though her warm heart makes up for almost everything. Poor Anne comes off the worst initially. Sickly, terrified of everything new, she is also rigid in her church doctrine and very judgmental of the family. She even asks if Julius the model rector is really a Christian. I started to wonder if Miles just married her because she was the first woman he'd seen after a long voyage! But eventually she relaxes a bit and becomes much more human.

The question of the proper role and place of women plays a big part in the book. Cecil, bored with playing second fiddle to her mother-in-law, takes up with the local black sheep of the neighborhood (without knowing the lady was previously engaged to her husband, a fact the reader learns in the first few pages). Lady Tyrrell has gathered some very dubious people around her, including an American woman who lectures on The Equality of the Sexes and Women's Rights. Charlotte Yonge has no time for either. Like the saintly Mrs. Poynsett, she would probably say that she had all the rights she needed. Several characters, women as well as men, argue for role of women as Angel in the House, secluded away lest any corruption of the world touch them to make them unfit for the sacred duties of wives and mothers. There is a lot of talk of women's "pure" spirits. The American Mrs. Tallboys, from "the other Cambridge," with her complacent and largely silent husband, is clearly set up as a straw-woman here.

A second major plot element involves the evils of horse-racing. An annual race-meeting is held in the neighborhood. As the local Member of Parliament, Raymond is a subscriber. Julius sets himself against it from the first, though Rosamond loves the excitement of a meet. The right-minded characters discuss the problems, not so much with racing itself, but with the betting, and with the low-life characters that are drawn to it. Several characters are addicted to gambling, and family fortunes have been lost. Despite these examples, and all the well-reasoned arguments Yonge's characters present, it takes a large-scale tragedy to finally convince at least the upper classes to give up the races.

Actions have consequences, in Charlotte Yonge's stories, and people pay for their mistakes and bad choices. Sometimes they pay with their lives. Sometimes it is innocent bystanders who pay. I never start one of her books without wondering which character - or how many - will be dead by the book's end. Someone always will - and she usually presents that as a "happy" ending, a reward. Here at least she spares one attractive young man, though she takes him to the very brink of death. I peeked ahead to the end of that chapter, because I was so sure he wasn't going to make it.

Despite my occasional frustrations with Yonge's books, I enjoy them very much. (Heartsease was my least favorite, of those I have read so far.) She is more earnest, less fun, less satirical, than Anthony Trollope or Margaret Oliphant, but I do find her books addictive. I've been lucky finding reprints on-line, particularly in "three-and-sixpenny" Macmillan editions from the 1880s and 1890s, which are surprisingly affordable. My copy of The Pillars of the House came in two volumes, a genuine "double-decker"! Somehow these escaped the general purge of Victorian literature in World War II that seems to have struck the women authors particularly hard. It's a joy to hold and read these old books.

Edited to add: I had almost forgotten about my Century of Books! Now I can fill in another year.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Silence in Court, by Patricia Wentworth

Ever since I learned that Patricia Wentworth wrote mystery novels that don't feature her detective Miss Maud Silver (I think first from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock), I have been keeping an eye out for them. When I stopped in at my beloved Murder by the Book the other day, I was thrilled to find several shelves of the recent reprints from Dean Street Press. This was the first time I have seen any of them in print, and I was glad to see a list of all the titles. I hadn't realized that some of them feature Miss Silver's frequent collaborators Frank Abbott and Ernest Lamb of Scotland Yard. Nor did I know just how many stand-alone books Patricia Wentworth wrote!

Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness recently wrote about one of them, Who Pays the Piper?, which sounds like a good one. But it wasn't on the shelves - not that I wasn't spoiled for choice. I was trying to restrain myself, so I only bought two to start with, this one from 1945 and The Dower House Mystery (published in 1925). I didn't remember at the time that this was the very book that Jane had written about.

As it turns out, it was a lucky choice. I think it's one of the best I've read by Patricia Wentworth, and an excellent example of a Golden Age mystery. It opens as Carey Silence steps up into the dock, to face the charge of murdering her relative Honoria Maquisten. The story then moves back to introduce us to Carey, a young woman just out of the hospital, recovering from a German air attack that killed her employer. She hasn't fully recovered, and with no job and no resources, the offer of a place to stay from her distant relative Mrs. Maquisten is very welcome. Carey isn't the only family connection living in the old house at Maitland Square, nor the only one dependent on the old lady's generosity. Mrs. Maquisten is generous, but she also enjoys holding her money over her young relatives' heads, re-writing her will on a regular basis. The arrival of an anonymous letter one day puts her in a rage. A summons to her solicitor follows, and an announcement to the family that one of them will be finally cut out the next day. Instead, the next day finds her dead, and Carey Silence accused of her murder.

I realized part-way through the book that I was subconsciously waiting for Miss Silver to arrive. I know just how she would have insinuated herself into the house and made herself at home. I did worry for a bit how the case would be solved without her. And then I realized that while I had some idea how the story would turn out, if Miss Silver were on the case, Patricia Wentworth might have written an entirely different type of story here. In none of the Miss Silver stories I have read so far has the main protagonist been the criminal (or the victim, for that matter).

One of the main differences I found in this story was how much of it focused on the trial itself. We experience it from Carey's point of view, standing in the dock, realizing that her life is at stake, in the hands of twelve men and women. I thought this part was very well done. It reminded me of one of my favorite Peter Wimsey stories, Strong Poison. Carey is as lucky as Harriet Vane in having a strong advocate at hand, a large American cousin named Jefferson Stewart. It's too bad she couldn't have Sir Impey Biggs for the defense!

I also enjoyed the brief biographical sketch of Patricia Wentworth that introduces the book. It mentions the historical fiction that she published before turning to crime. It might be interesting to find those books. I know I'll be adding more of these new reprints to my shelves before too long.