Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham

Death of a Ghost cover

Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham was first published in 1934 and it’s the sixth Albert Campion murder mystery, so fairly early in his career and for me that’s the problem with this book. As he matured Allingham wrote Campion as a much more interesting character than he was in his early days, he’s just too shadowy and one dimensional, I much prefer the older married Campion.

John Lafcadio was a great artist and he decided that to keep his name going as long as possible after his death he would paint several pictures to be unveiled after his death – one a year, beginning ten years after his death. I have to say that that is a great idea.

It’s the eighth unveiling of one of those paintings, so eighteen years after his death, and there are lots of famous people at the party, suddenly the lights go out – a shilling is needed for the electricity meter, and there’s a murder!

So begins Campion’s investigation, aided by Stanislaus Oates, but for me there’s just not enough of Campion and it’s all a bit predictable.

Miss Mole by E.H.Young

Miss Mole by E.H. Young was first published in 1930 but my copy is a 1934 re-print, at least the tenth time it had been re-printed so it was obviously a very popular book from the start.

To begin with I really disliked Miss Hannah Mole, there’s nothing attractive about her in looks or character, she seems to have a fleeting relationship with the truth and is quite happy to lie her head off if it suits her.
…Hannah was not scrupulous about the truth. She was not convinced of its positive value as human beings knew it, she considered it a limiting and embarrassing convention. The bare truth was often dull and more often awkward, while lies were a form of imagination and a protection for the privacy of her thoughts and, in a life lived in houses which were not her own and where she was never safe from intrusions.

I ended up admiring her though, she’s quick witted, humorous and kind – what more could you want in a friend?

She’s an odd looking person, almost 40 and dressed in peculiar clothes, although she never skimps on her footwear as she knows that people judge you by your shoes. She’s had a succession of jobs, mainly as companions to wealthy women, and she’s always being sacked from them as she’s not exactly dedicated to the work and she’s insolent to them, and when she gets a chance of a job as a housekeeper to a non-conformist minister whose wife has died she jumps at the opportunity to move up and look after his family and home.

For a large part of the book it’s swathed in mysteries such as – why is Hannah so poverty stricken if she has her own cottage that she’s renting out? There’s a hint of a man in the background, her sorrowful past. But in the end it all works out satisfactorily. This is the second E.H. Young book that I’ve read for the Undervalued British Women Novelists Group on Facebook.

Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh

Death in a White Tie cover

Death in a White Tie by the New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh was first published in 1938 but my copy is a 1949 reprint. It’s a Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn mystery and the setting is London high society where Lady Alleyn, the detective’s mother is going to be attending debutante balls, chaperoning the daughter of friends who are living abroad. It’s not something she’s looking forward to, the whole process is exhausting and she is a lot older than she was when she did it for her own daughter. It throws her into the society of old friends and it soon becomes apparent that not all is as it should be.

Alleyn is aware that there’s a blackmailer operating in London High Society, he has inside information and ends up attending some of the functions his mother goes to, in an attempt to unmask the blackmailer.

I enjoyed Death in a White Tie which kept me guessing and in some ways Marsh’s writing reminded me of A Game of Thrones as she had no hesitation in introducing the reader to a loveable character – only to dispatch him violently. That’s very different from Christie’s and even Sayers’s writing where you often don’t meet the victim until the body is found, or they are particularly unlikeable people.

I was interested in this passage:

How many of these women were what he still thought of as ‘virtuous’? And the debutantes? They had gone back to chaperones and were guided and guarded by women, many of whose own private lives would look ugly in this flood of hard lights that had been let in on Lord Robert’s world. The girls were sheltered by a convention for three months but at the same time they heard all sorts of things that would have horrified and bewildered his sister Mildred at their age. And he wondered if the Victorian and Edwardian eras had been no more than freakish incidents in the history of society and if their proprieties had been as artificial as the paint on a modern woman’s lips.

I think that’s a fair description of the Victorian and Edwardian era, but those years lasted so long that people forgot how bawdy and raucous society had been in earlier times. Writing like Chaucer’s would probably have shocked the Victorians rigid. Is all that Victorian prurience something we have to blame Prince Albert for? Was it the upsurge of a middle class due to industrialisation in Britain? Just wondering.

I know, I wandered again, but it’s an interesting subject. Getting back to the book, I think this is the best Ngaio Marsh book I’ve read so far.

Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom

I was asked by the publishers if I would like to review Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom, apparently because I’ve reviewed some D.E. Stevenson books in the past. I jumped at the chance because I had read and reviewed an old copy of Mrs Bunthorpe’s Respects by Ursula Bloom. I like her writing, it’s funny but also well observed. She was very prolific, apparently writing over 500 books under various names, she was 92 when she died and she started writing at a very early age.

I was a bit put off by the title. Wonder Cruise sounds a bit tacky to me and Mills and Boonish and when I saw the book cover it didn’t make me feel any better. But I did really enjoy the book which was first published in 1934.

Ann Clements is a 35 year old spinster, she was brought up in a country rectory, a very sheltered and quite boring life, her mother died when Ann was only eleven so Ann had taken over many of a vicar’s wife’s duties. Her brother is an evangelical vicar, he’s married with one daughter Gloria, Ann’s goddaughter and they live in London. When her father dies Ann realises that she has to find a way of supporting herself, the proceeds of the sale of the rectory furniture allow her to take a secretarial course. So for the past nine years she has been working in a London office, again her life is boring, hand to mouth and predictable. Then an amazing thing happens, she wins £350 in a sweepstake.

What should she do with it? Invest it at 3% bringing in a teeny amount of money a year – or splurge it on a Mediterranean cruise? Her brother is outraged by the whole thing, she shouldn’t have been gambling and she shouldn’t think of using the money for herself, he wants her to invest it for his daughter’s future. Sensibly Ann chooses the cruise which of course leads to a complete change in her life.

This is one of those wish fulfilment books, the sort of thing that legions of women must have hoped would happen to them and if it doesn’t happen then reading about it is the next best thing.

The blurb on the back of the book says:
A witty heartwarming read with great romantic and comic characters. This warm feel-good tale will make you smile, and you’ll be rooting for Ann to find lasting love and happiness.

But for fans of vintage fiction it’s more than that. It’s a real trip back to 1934, the attitudes, clothes and the amazing things that happen when you get your hair shingled. In fact I almost felt like getting my own hair shingled, but as I have never met a hairdresser yet who does what I ask them to do I thought better of it!

Why do publishers rarely get the covers of books correct? This one would have been so much more attractive if they had gone down the same road that the British Crime Classics have. Art Deco/1930s clothing, buildings or even a 1930s ship would have been so much better than the soppy effort they chose.
That aside, my thanks go to Corazon Books for giving me the opportunity to read Wonder Cruise – a good read.

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons was first published in 1938 but my copy is a Virago Modern Classic. This is a really enjoyable read, four stars on Goodreads I’d say. Inevitably though I find myself saying that you shouldn’t expect it to be as funny as Cold Comfort Farm, which truly did have me laughing out loud a lot, wayback when I was a teenager, I don’t know what effect it would have on me now though.

Anyway, in Nightingale Wood Viola has been widowed after just one year of marriage. Her husband Teddy had come from a wealthy family, his parents were appalled that their son had lowered himself to marry a girl who just worked in a shop. Viola ends up moving in with her parents-in-law, Mr amd Mrs Withers and their two almost middle-aged daughters Tina and Madge. Everyone seems to have given up hope of them ever getting married and moving out, so it’s a very strange household which Viola finds herself living in.

Mr Withers is miserably mean with money and he’s amazed to discover that his son died leaving his widow just about penniless, although as Teddy worked for his father and he was paid pennies in wages it’s a mystery how he was supposed to leave money to Viola. She would leave their home, The Eagles, if she could but she has no family of her own to help her.

That makes it all sound pretty depressing but really it isn’t. One of the sisters-in-law is in love with the chauffeur, the other one adores dogs, and the very well off Spring family are always entertaining the rest of the local nobs.

Viola falls for Victor Spring, the very handsome son, but he has been going out with a girl forever. Is there any hope for Viola?

You’ll have noticed that this bears more than a passing resemblence to a fairy tale. But is has a fair share of humour in it too, mostly from Viola, a very likeable character.

As I said, it was published in 1938 and it has the snobbishness and even anti-semitism which you sometimes come across in books from that era. It also mentions the possibility of a coming war, and that scoundrel who would have been crowned King Edward VIII, if we hadn’t got lucky.

The book has an introduction by Sophie Dahl.

The Provincial Lady in America by E.M. Delafield

The Provincial Lady in America by E.M. Delafield was first published in 1934 but my copy wasn’t published until 1939. It was published in paperback in 2005.

I read and really enjoyed Delafield’s other Provincial Lady books and liked this one too, although it might not have been quite as amusing as the others.

The Provincial Lady is invited to America to do a book tour, giving lectures in various American and Canadian cities. This comes as a great surprise to her because when her publishers suggested a tour she gave them a list of stipulations as to financial requirements and substantial advances. She’s quite shocked that they have agreed to all of her wishes.

After lots of preparations and a week long voyage on the S.S. Statendam she sails into New York and so begins a busy schedule where she meets plenty of odd characters, almost as odd as the ones she comes across in England!

It’s 1933 and if you know your America you’ll realise that that means The Chicago World Fair, a must visit obviously. Empire Exhibitions and World Fairs are a couple of Jack’s interests so even he liked the bits about the exhibits she had visited. She described the postcards that she bought there and Jack has most of them in his collection. Another place she’s determined to visit is Alcott House in Concord (have any of you been there?). Everyone tells her that Boston is exactly like England but she has never felt cold like it.

She’s swaddled in American hospitality and has a wonderful time shopping for gifts for everyone back home. The result is of course that she has a terrible problem with her luggage. She has piles of books to take back home, and everyone advises her to get a strap for them. I think that’s something particularly American. Anyway, her luggage problems are as nothing compared with being over-booked and over-bagged when you turn up at an airport nowadays. I wonder if there are any liners ploughing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic now? It’s tempting to travel that way if only so that there would be no strict baggage allowance.

Her Provincial Lady books are very autobiographical, and at one point she mentions that it’s very strange to be in a country where there isn’t a huge imbalance of women (or words to that effect). It must have been weird to live in a society with far fewer men around than there should have been, due to World War 1.

I started reading this one after I had given up reading Hilary Mantell’s Beyond Black, as after the incidents in Paris I just didn’t feel up to reading something which wasn’t light hearted. Have any of you read Beyond Black? The Provincial Lady in America was just perfect light reading.

Below is an image of the ship which she supposedly sailed to America in.

S.S. Statendam

The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude

The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude, also known as Ernest Elmore, was first published in 1935 but my copy is one of those British Crime Library Classics reprints.

I quite enjoyed this book but again I think that there must have been better British vintage crime books which could have been reprinted before this one. I think that if I had been given this book to read but not told that it had been written by a man it wouldn’t have been long before I realised that the author was indeed male. They always seemed to concentrate more on teeny details and timing, at the expense of character and background. Or is that me madly generalising?

The setting is Boscawen, a small village in Cornwall, where Mr Dodd the local vicar and his friend the local doctor are in the habit of meeting once a week to have a meal and choose crime fiction books from a parcel of six which they have ordered from the library. They like to talk over the books they read and fancy themselves as connoisseurs of crime.

When Julius Tregarthen a local magistrate and landowner is murdered in his own sitting-room the local police are baffled. Inspector Bigswell (I had a real problem taking that name seriously!) really hopes that he won’t have to call in Scotland Yard but with few clues as far as he is concerned, he needs help from someone, and that turns out to be Reverend Dodd.

Bigswell is happy to have Dodd point him in the right direction and more or less solve the case. Completely different from poor Miss Marples’ experiences with police detectives of course – sexism no doubt. There’s also a policeman called Grouch, I don’t know if the names were meant to be amusing or what, anyway, I would give this one a 3 out of 5. I do love the cover though.

Results of an Accident by Vicki Baum

Results of an Accident cover

Results of an Accident by Vicki Baum was first published in 1931. It was written originally in German as Zwischenfall in Lohwinckel and was translated by Margaret Goldsmith.

Doctor and Frau Persenthein live in an ancient wooden house which creaks and groans and leans at angles, making it difficult to sleep in a bed without worrying about falling out of it. But it’s a cheap house which is all that the doctor is bothered about. Nick, the doctor is only interested in his medical research and buying more apparatus to help with it. The upshot is that his poor wife Elisabeth never has enough money for food and she has to spend most of her time cleaning up after her husband and his patients. He makes them have mud baths and she has all the towel washing and bathroom cleaning to do. It’s a hard and boring life for Elisabeth and she doesn’t get much joy from their strange five year old daughter Rehle, who is so like her father.

Some well known people are being driven by a chauffeur through the town, they’ve come from Berlin and are on their way to Baden Baden but they crash and are taken to the doctor’s house to be patched up.

The people of the small town are agog, never did they think that a well known and beautiful young actress, a famous boxer and a wealthy and handsome industrialist would be staying in such a backwater.

Their arrival and the fact that they have to stay in Lohwinckel for some time leads to mayhem as the townspeople hang about in the hope of glimpsing the celebrities. For Nick and Elisabeth it could be the nail in the coffin of their marriage.

I enjoyed this one although it did remind me a lot of The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim. Not only because of the German setting but also the husband who spends all of his time experimenting and trying to prove theories and also a change in the attitude of the wife when she meets people from outside her small world.

Vicki Baum has one of her female characters talking about the possibility of lesbian relationships, something which must have been a very risque subject for books in 1931 when this was published. But so authentic when you think of Berlin of the 1930s, think Cabaret. In fact given that Vicki Baum was Jewish and that she was writing about people who would have been deemed to be degenerates as far as the Nazis were concerned, she was doubly lucky when she was asked by Hollywood to write the screenplay of her 1929 book Grand Hotel, she took the chance to emigrate to the US, thus avoiding the fate which befell poor Irene Nemirovsky.

I’m going off subject here but have you heard that Suite Francaise has been made into a film? Sadly I think the film is one to avoid, according to the reviews I’ve read anyway.

Anyway, I now feel that I have to track down Grand Hotel. Have any of you read it? The only other book by Baum which I’ve read was her 1943 book Hotel Berlin and that was very good although completely different from Results of an Accident.

Behold, Here’s Poison by Georgette Heyer

Behold, Here’s Poison was first published in 1936 and it was just the second crime/mystery book which she wrote, she ended up writing a dozen of them. You can read more about Georgette Heyer’s vast output here.

As a vintage crime fan I enjoy these books more than her Regency romances although there are similarities in that all of her books are witty and she had a great knack of writing natural sounding and snappy dialogue.

I think possibly she hadn’t quite got into the swing of them in this early one. I did enjoy it, especially once I had got into it but at the beginning I did find it a wee bit less entertaining because although there were plenty of characters there was only really one who was close to being likeable.

This is a Superintendent Hannasyde mystery and it involves a large and argumentative extended family. When the head of the family is found dead at his large home, The Poplars, it’s assumed that he has died of natural causes, but of course – he didn’t and there’s speculation amongst the family about the will and who was most likely to gain from the death.

They are a ghastly bunch of people but at the same time amusing in their nastiness to each other and as always with Heyer there has to be some romance, it wasn’t as obvious as they usually are – which was a plus for me.

I think I only have a couple of her crime books to collect now, I’ll be sorry when I’ve read them all, I wish she had written as many mysteries as she did romances, but heigh-ho, such is life, and at last I’ve got around to beginning Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series and I’m really enjoying the first one, but more about that later, luckily there are a fair few more for me to get my hands on too, I can’t wait!

The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell

This book was first published in 1932 and features Mrs Bradley as the detective, she isn’t the most appealing of characters which is probably why these books never reached the dizzy heights of Christie with the much cosier Miss Marple. In fact I’m sure Mrs Bradley is described as having yellow skin and claw-like nails and she screeches horribly. She’s a psychoanalyst and a devotee of Sigmund Freud. There are a fair few truly eccentric villagers and one fat cat financier who weighs up everyone, wealth-wise and when he hears that Mrs Bradley has been married and widowed twice he says: Gosh, got that amount of money has she? Well, it made me laugh.

The tale is told by Noel Wells, he’s a curate in a sleepy village called Saltmarsh. Noel has fallen for Daphne, who is the niece of Mr Coutts the vicar, he has the misfortune to be married to a ghastly woman who is obsessed with the love life of the villagers and spends her time spying on them and then raging and carping about their behaviour. When she discovers that her unmarried housemaid is pregnant she dismisses her and suspects her husband the vicar is the father.

It’s an enjoyble read, a good mystery with some humour too. Considering that this is a 1932 publication the morals of the villagers are really surprising as it seems to be the custom in the village to wait until the female gets pregnant before the marriage takes place, they find that to be a sensible way of going about life.

I know that we laugh nowadays saying that sex didn’t exist until the 1960s but really when I think back to the 1970s, in Scotland it was shocking for a girl to be pregnant before getting married and the few I knew of were forced by their parents to give their babies up for adoption. Changed days now as the kids are often the page boys and flower girls at the wedding – not that I’m complaining.