Christmas books – vintage crime

Murder in the Snow cover

Can you believe that there are some houses in my neighbourhood that are already decorated for Christmas? Crazy! Nowadays it takes me a while to get into the Christmas spirit, some years I never manage it at all but I find that reading some Christmas themed books usually helps. This year I’ve only got two such books to read, I might have to resort to the library for some more.

Anyway for me murder mysteries and Christmas go together like fish and chips so I’m giving Gladys Mitchell another go. I’ve read quite a few of her books in the past but I’m not really enamoured of her detective – Mrs Bradley. The mystery to me is why she made her detective so unlikeable. I’ll be reading her Murder in the Snow which was first published in 1950 and has an attractive Christmasy cover.

The other Christmas themed book I have is called Silent Nights, a collection of Christmas mysteries which is edited by Martin Edwards. The contributors are:

Arthur Conan Doyle
Ralph Plummer
Raymund Allen
G.K. Chesterton
Edgar Wallace
H.C. Bailey
J.Jefferson Farjeon
Dorothy L. Sayers
Margery Allingham
Ethel Lina White
Marjorie Bowen
Joseph Shearing
Nicholas Blake
Edmund Crispin
Leo Bruce

I have read The Necklace of Pearls, the Dorothy Sayers short story, before and wasn’t all that impressed with it. I hope the others are better.

The Classics Club Spin #19 – a bit late

I’ve been away in Lancashire over the last four days, and I had scheduled some posts to go on here while I was away – but only one of them did go on – technology – huh! Anyway that’s why I didn’t post about this classics spin before it was actually announced, but I’m just going ahead with it anyway. The number has been picked and it’s 1 so I’ll be reading The Earth by Emile Zola. I’m quite looking forward to reading it.

Classics Club

Yes it’s spin time again at The Classics Club. Post a list of twenty classics from your list and read whichever book the spin comes up with.

1. The Earth by Emile Zola
2. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
3. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
4. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
5. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
6. Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
7. Salem Chapel by Margaret Oliphant
8. Doctor Dolittle and the Green Parrot by Hugh Lofting
9. The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov
10. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
11. Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff
12. The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff
13. If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi
14. The Tempest by Shakespeare
15. An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer
16. Angel Pavement by J.B. Priestley
17. Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett
18. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
19. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
20. The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

I’m really not fussed which book I get to read. There’s plenty of time to get around to reading it as the 31st January 2019 is the big day to post my thoughts on the book.

Quite a lot of the books on my list are chunksters.

Almanac 2019 – National Geographic

National Geographic Almanac 2019 over

Have you ever looked at a copy of the National Graphic Magazine? Well Almanac 2019 is like those – with bells on. It contains 381 pages of all sorts of fascinating facts and is stuffed full of beautiful photographs.

The contents include: Exploration and Adventure, classic travel, iconic destinations, the solar system, life on earth, world history, continents and oceans, countries of the world, flags of the world, the future of the planet – and that’s just a few of them.

I suppose this book is aimed at adults but I know it’s the sort of book that I would have loved to dip into from about the age of twelve.

My thanks go to the publisher tlc for sending me a review copy.

Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada

 Nightmare in Berlin cover

Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada was published in German in 1947 and it was translated by Allan Blunden.

This is the second book by Hans Fallada that I’ve read, the first one was Alone in Berlin and although that one is more tense and ultimately very sad, I preferred it to this one which dragged a bit in the middle for me.

The book begins in April 1945 Berlin, for the Germans the war is over. Doctor Doll is the mayor of a small town in north-east Germany and it’s now occupied by the Russians. Doll had been quite a successful writer before the war and he had lived in Berlin but he and his wife had had enough of the bombing raids earlier in the war and had moved to the small town. In the end things didn’t go well for them there so they returned to Berlin.

It transpires that Doctor Doll and his wife are both addicts, she’s a morphine addict and he’s a sleeping tablet addict and in Berlin their entire life revolves around getting their next fix. Addiction is common, especially amongst the medical profession, apparently nerves had been shattered by the bombs and people had resorted to chemical crutches.

At the beginning of this book the inhabitants are all trying to distance themselves from the Nazis and feel guilt over the war that they had started, but towards the end the life they were all having to lead is making some of them long for the good old days of the Nazis when food was more plentiful.

The blurb on the back says:

An unforgettable portrayal of the physical and psychological devastation wrought in the homeland by Hitler’s war.

Hans Fallada was dying when this book was about to be published and from the potted biography at the beginning of the book it’s obvious that this is really based on his own experiences.

Voices on the Wind by Evelyn Anthony

Voices on the Wind cover

Voices on the Wind by Evelyn Anthony was first published in 1985. I read a lot of her books in the 1970s and loved them, she specialised in World War 2 espionage books.

In this one it’s forty years after the war and Katharine Alfurd is living in a small Sussex village, she’s fairly recently widowed and only has one daughter who she doesn’t get on with very well, so she leads quite a lonely life and has taken to visiting the local pub, drinking too much and telling anyone who will listen to her about her wartime exploits as an undercover British agent. As she had a French mother she could speak the language like a native.

The 1980s were a time when now and again high profile Nazis who had escaped justice popped up in the news, and that’s what happens in this book. Katharine had been involved with the Resistance in Occupied France and she had come into contact with Standartenfuhrer Christian Eilenburg. Now he is in France after having spent most of his life in Chile hiding from Nazi hunters. He’s about to stand trial and as Katharine had actually come into contact with him during the war she’s asked to travel to France to meet him.

Katharine’s wartime memories were never far away and now her thoughts go back to 1944 when along with others she was sent to France to help the Resistance and prepare for the Normandy invasions.

This was a great read, it does jump around a lot but I didn’t have a problem with that. I’ll be looking for more of her books.

Melrose Abbey, Scottish Border

On the same day that we visited Abbotsford we managed to squeeze in a visit to the nearby town of Melrose, mainly to have a look at Melrose Abbey. As you can see – it’s another ruin.

Melrose Abbey Information Board

It was King David I who in 1136 asked Cistercian monks to found an abbey in Melrose.

Melrose Abbey

Melrose Abbey

Melrose Abbey

Between Jack and myself we took loads of photos of the abbey and its surroundings.

Melrose Abbey

Melrose Abbey Bell

One of the information boards told us to look out for the carving of a pig playing the bagpipes, and we found it, we had to hike up 72 steep and narrow steps of a spiral staircase to reach the very top of the abbey, and from there you can look down on the pig. Whoever designed the place had a sense of humour anyway.

Melrose Abbey Decoration  pig

As this abbey is situated in the Scottish Borders it got more than its fair share of attention from English invaders, including Edward II’s army and later Richard II’s army. Then Henry VIII had a go at it; given all that – it’s surprising there’s anything left of it at all!

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley

Crome Yellow cover

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley was first published in 1921 but it has been reprinted regularly since then, the copy I read was from Fife Libraries’ reserve stock. This is the first book by Huxley that I’ve read and the reason I read it was because it was mentioned in another book that I read, one of the characters was reading the book for the third time. I don’t think I will be doing that but I did enjoy it. It’s a gentle parody of English country house novels.

It begins with a railway journey, always a good thing for me especially when I realise it will be a steam train. Denis is a young man on his way to spend some time at Crome a country house he has been invited to as part of a house party. He’s a more or less penniless poet and he’s planning to write a novel. Other guests are a well known portrait painter and a couple of bright young things in the shape of young women, one of whom Denis is enamoured of. The changing times due to World War 1 are in evidence with the young women determined to get rid of their repressions and live a more free life.

This is one of those books that you can’t help thinking that you must be missing many of the allusions in it. When it was read by contemporary readers they would have been able to recognise many of the characters I’m sure. One of them – Mr Callamay – is apparently meant to be modelled on the then prime minister Herbert Asquith who must have been in the habit of chasing after pretty young women.

There are some interesting comments during conversations about people who upset the world such as Luther and Napoleon.

“We can’t leave the world any longer to the direction of chance. We can’t allow dangerous maniacs like Luther, mad about dogma, like Napoleon, mad about himself, to go on casually appearing and turning everything upside-down. In the past it didn’t so much matter; but our modern machine is too delicate. A few more knocks like the Great War, another Luther or two, and the whole concern will go to pieces. In future, the men of reason must see that the madness of the world’s maniacs is canalized into proper channels, is made to do useful work, like a mountain torrent driving a dynamo.”

I wonder what on earth Aldous Huxley would have made of the maniacs that we’re having to put up with nowadays!

May Belfort by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec

This afternoon we drove to Edinburgh thinking that it wouldn’t be too busy as it’s a Sunday and we might find it easier to get parked. Insert a hollow laugh here as we couldn’t have been more wrong, it was MOBBED. It turned out that the Christmas Fair in Princes Street gardens (just below the castle) had just opened yesterday and some other streets were closed to traffic. I even saw an actual ballerina dancing on a stage in the distance – to The Sugar Plum Fairy of course.

I of course forgot my camera, but you can see images of the Christmas Market here.

May Belfort; Henri de Toulouse Lautrec

Anyway, the main reason we decided to go to Edinburgh wasn’t for shopping – it was to visit the Toulouse Lautrec poster exhibition which is on in The National Galleries. It’s called Pin-Ups and the Art of Celebrity. Sadly it’s one that you have to pay to see, the galleries and museums in Scotland are free to the public but they usually have some special exhibitions on that you have to pay for if you want to see them. Luckily we get free entry as we’re Friends of the Galleries. We enjoyed the exhibition but don’t really think it was worth the £11.50 they were charging to see it.

Are you old enough to remember the 1970s when Toulouse Lautrec posters and merchandise seemed to be everywhere? as well as Mucha posters of course. Well we still have some of the merchandise from those days but the two Lautrec prints we have in our bedroom are of Jane Avril and May Belfort and they originally belonged to Jack’s grandparents, probably dating from the 1920s.

As it happens, elsewhere in this blog I mentioned that we stood at a shoe shop window in Bruges – singing How Much is That Doggie on the Window? Well there was a dog sitting amongst the shoe displays! You know what it’s like – being on holiday somehow encourages a bit of daftness.

So where is all this meandering leading to I hear you ask? Well – today I discovered that May Belfort was the original singer of Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow-wow – which is a variation on the theme, and sure enough she did go on stage holding a little cat, which according to the song she was very fond of. I doubt if it was a real cat though as they’re not well known for behaving themselves and staying where they should. Now every time I look at that print I’ll hear her singing.

On the way out of the National Gallery we had to make our way up the steps at the Christmas Market to get on to Princes Street – nightmare!

Spring Magic by D.E. Stevenson

Spring Magic cover

Spring Magic by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1942 but I read a 1986 reprint which had to be hauled out of Fife Libraries’ reserve stock. I’m only thankful that they haven’t got rid of the books completely, as they have with so many other authors.

I’m not close to having read all of D.E. Stevenson’s books but so far Spring Magic is my favourite. The setting is mainly Scotland and during World War 2. I’m very partial to wartime books especially when they are contemporary.

Frances Field is living in London with her aunt and uncle, she has been with them for years as her parents died when she was quite young. Her aunt is a very silly selfish woman and she believes that Frances is there to pander to her every wish. The aunt is a hypochondriac and Frances had been very sorry for her, but when the doctor tells Frances that there’s nothing wrong with her aunt and urges Frances to get out and get a life for herself, she does just that, taking the aunt’s decision to decamp out of London to a supposedly safer location as her cue to have a holiday in Scotland and think about her future.

The island fishing village that Frances finds herself in is sleepy and friendly but it isn’t long before the whole area is inundated with a battalion of soldiers from the British army, changing everything, especially as some of the officers’ wives have arrived too. Frances has never really had any women friends her own age before and it opens up a whole new world for her.

Not everything is sweetness and light as Frances realises along with everyone else that one of the wives is in an abusive marriage, but nothing can be done about it. Aerial dogfights and air raids bring the war right to her door and there are misunderstandings but as you would expect – all’s well in the end.

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West

No Signposts in the Sea cover

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West was first published in 1961 but my copy is a Virago Modern Classics reprint from 1985.

I really liked this one, the setting is a cruise ship which is sailing to exotic locations and Edmund Carr is a passenger on it, one of the reasons he decided to go on the cruise is that he discovered that Laura is going on it and he has secretly admired the beautiful and smart widow for years.

Edmund had never married, his life had been taken up with his career in journalism and he had ended up being an influential leader writer on a serious Fleet Street newspaper. Edmund’s doctor has recently given him bad news, he doesn’t have long to live so he gives up his job to go on the cruise and spend his last weeks with Laura who knows nothing about his illness or indeed even that he will be on the cruise.

This is a thoughtful read as Laura and Edmund’s friendship deepens and they explore each other’s views on marriage and other things and Laura realises just how different their backgrounds are (possibly this explains Edmund’s reticence where a relationship with Laura was concerned) as Laura is obviously well-heeled and Edmund grew up in poverty in a teeny wee cottage. There’s plenty of humour though in observing the other cruisers and those must have been gleaned from the author’s own cruising experiences.

There is an introduction by Victoria Glendinning.

This was Sackville-West’s last novel, written when she was dying of cancer. She had a complicated personal life but was also a very keen and knowledgeable gardener, creating the famous Sissinghurst – a place that I have yet to visit.

I read this one for The Classics Club.