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.

A Village in a Valley by Beverley Nichols

This is the last book in Beverley Nichols’s Allways trilogy and I enjoyed it just as much as the first two, Down the Garden Path and A Thatched Roof, despite the fact that there isn’t a lot about his garden in this one.

His books are based on his life in the village of Glatton in what is now Cambridgeshire. They seem to be true accounts of his experiences, to an extent, with a lot of embroidery of details I’m sure. There is a part of the book which is very similar to bits in the previous book, about a lazy servant, but you know – you couldn’t get the staff!

In fact Beverley Nichols rarely has a good word to say about women in general. Miss Hazlitt, his old governess is the exception and she takes the place of a mother in his affections. So far I haven’t come across any mention of his actual mother, which is very strange given that he was obviously gay and in my experience gay chaps often have a very close relationship with their mother. He mentions his father quite a lot, and apparently he hated him, but you wouldn’t know it from the books I’ve read.

I did realise whilst reading this one that the characters remind me very much of those in the Mapp and Lucia books of E.F. Benson. The whole set up is very similar, sleepy English village, early 1930s, buying shares in mines, financial disaster for one of them, penny pinching and remodelling of old clothes by the characters, one of them setting up a shop/teashop… the list goes on! There isn’t as much bitchy wit in the Nichols books but it would be difficult to top the spats between Mapp and Lucia, let’s face it.

I had to laugh when they were all discussing what should be sold in the village shop, they were sure that Miss Hazlitt wouldn’t want to sell tobacco or cigarettes but thought they could get around her if they promised to hand out a leaflet with every packet, warning of the evils of smoking too much.

It was surely proof of the distance we had departed from reality that this suggestion was received with complete gravity. For as I look back on it, I can imagine no stranger principles on which any commercial undertaking could have been begun. To warn one’s customers, with each packet of cigarettes of the dire effects which would result from smoking them, to tell them that they were straining their hearts, impairing their digestions, lowering their morale, and generally hurrying themselves at full tilt towards the nearest lunatic asylum … this would be, indeed, an odd way in which to build up a flourishing retail business.

As Beverley Nichols lived a fairly long life, not dying until 1985, he must have lived to see cigarettes packaged with health warnings I think. How times change, my own mother was actually advised to take up smoking cigarettes by a doctor in the 1940s, to help her digestive problems! Luckily for her she couldn’t get on with smoking at all, and preferred to put up with the indigestion.

Anyway, if you like Beverley Nichols you’ll probably enjoy this book, although he seems to forget what he has written in previous books as I know that he mentioned before that he was a Christian, but suddenly in this one he is an atheist, although he would like to believe. Maybe it depended on his mood at the time of writing!

I had wondered why he ended up moving from his idyllic thatched cottage after only nine years their, apparently the villagers were unhappy that some of his weekend guests (male) were chatting up the young village lads. The possibility of police involvment seems to have resulted in his move away from the village. I can just imagine the parents’ outrage at the possibility of their sons being corrupted, and I can’t say I blame them really.

If you want to read more about Beverley Nichols, have a look at this New York Times article. If you want to see some images of the village of Glatton, the original Allways, have a look here.

My copy of this book is an old library book, first edition I suppose you would call it, in not bad condition, but not as good as the others I have, but it does still have the original library sticker on it. It cost 3d, to borrow the book for 7 days. That seems quite expensive to me considering it was 1934. Thank goodness for free libraries nowadays!

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

I had been looking for this book for ages and had to end up getting it from the internet. My other Thirkell books are all original old hardbacks but this one is a modern paperback from 1983 but the book was first published in 1934.

This one is mainly about the Leslie family and I was really glad that it featured the character of Lady Emily Leslie because she’s often mentioned in the later books as quite a few females in the Rushwater area have been called after her. She’s a much loved grande dame who is exasperating to everyone, particularly the vicar, but her charm and endearing scattiness allow her to get away with her eccentric behaviour.

Her son, David Leslie, is the youngest of her children and he’s a bit of a rake really. He has his mother’s charm but is using it in an entirely masculine way and has the young women just about fighting over him. Not that David cares, he’s only interested in himself and his plans to write a novel – or make a film – or join the BBC …!

Mary Preston has fallen for David so hard that she doesn’t realise that his brother John has fallen for her. John’s wife had died after only one year of marriage and after being a widower for over seven years it comes as a surprise to him that he can think of another woman again.

This is a typical Thirkell comfort read. The back cover says it is a delightful classic of the Thirties, and I agree with that.

Sir Compton Mackenzie said: ‘It is a novel of laughter with just enough sincere emotion… I have never recommended a novel about which I felt so certain that everybody would enjoy every page of it.’

August Folly by Angela Thirkell

For some reason I was under the impression that August Folly was the first in Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, but it isn’t. I should have read High Rising first but I don’t have that one yet. This one was first published in 1936.

It’s set in the fictional Barsetshire village of Worsted, it’s sixty miles west of London and to get there you have to change trains at the village of Winter Overcotes.

As you would expect from a Thirkell book this is a light hearted romance and it mainly concerns the planning and rehearsals for a village play, an annual event. The book is full of characters who say things like: ‘Oh golly, that’s good, I’m frightfully, terribly, ghastly pleased.’

An enjoyable read but definitely not one of Thirkells best. I don’t think she really hit her stride until the outbreak of World War II. The whole thing gave her so much to write about with the big upheaval in society, especially all the red tape and rationing and the influx of foreigners and evacuees.

It’s still worth reading though and I hope to work my way through them all eventually. You can see a list of all of her books here if you’re interested.

The Unfinished Clue by Georgette Heyer

This book was first published in 1933 and for some reason seems much more like an Agatha Christie book than the others which I’ve read by Heyer. So if you’re a fan of Christie you’ll probably really enjoy this one. I didn’t dislike it but I was just a wee bit disappointed that there wasn’t much of the witty repartee in it which I’ve come to expect of Heyer. Maybe her humour was more a feature of the later books, it’s a shame really because as far as I’m concerned there’s always a place for a bit of fun, even when there’s been a murrrderr!

It’s a classic country house whodunnit, a favourite setting of mine and it’s a plus that I didn’t guess who the culprit was until very late on in it. Either my brain wasn’t in gear or it was more of a puzzle than the last P.D. James book which I read.

It wouldn’t be a Heyer without romance, she seemed to be incapable of leaving it out of any of her books. It’s daft how quickly it all happens though – certainly no problems with her men being incapable of commiting!

The blurb on the back of the book says:

‘Miss Heyer’s characters are an abiding delight to me… I have seldom met people to whom I have taken so violent a fancy from the word “Go”.’ DOROTHY SAYERS

I’m pleased that good old Dorothy was generous with her praise of another crime writer, it wasn’t always the case, especially with female crime writers. I believe Margery Allingham was a bit of a bitch where Sayers was concerned which must have been a bit awkward as they both lived just one train stop from each other and were often on the London train at the same time.

I do love vintage crime but feel that there are far more crime writers I should be giving a go. Any recommendations vintage or modern?

The Provincial Lady Goes Further by E.M. Delafield

I bought this 1942 edition of the book in the Callander bookshop which according to Carolyn is called King’s Bookshop. We didn’t manage to get back over that way during the summer holidays which are now at an end. How can six weeks flash past so quickly?

Anyway, this one is also written in diary form and I always find books like that very quick reads. As the title says it’s more or less the further adventures of the provincial lady but now she has some money due to the success of her previous publication. As often happens, instead of the money being used to solve the family money problems and placate the bank manager, it’s used to rent and furnish a flat in London. The bank manager is not amused but Robert, her husband is so laid back about everything and he seems to be quite confident that his wife will be able to keep earning more money through her writing. The PL thinks that Robert isn’t really interested in anything – she could be right about that.

Both children are packed off to boarding school leaving the Provincial Lady free to gallivant around London and meet up with her friends there. Pamela Pringle is very ‘fast’ and is on her fourth surname since the PL first met her as a young woman. Pamela is well on her way to her third divorce and is using our PL as her alibi whilst pursuing and being pursued by hordes of young men. All very daring for 1932, which is when this book was first published!

The Provincial Lady is still having problems finding servants for her house as it’s situated in the country and servants don’t want to live out in the Sticks. It’s a look into a time when you went to Boots the Chemist to change your library books, never went out without a hat and had your shoes re-covered to match your evening dress.

She’s still getting herself into plenty of amusing scrapes and the usual sort of trouble with the children when they’re not at school.

I’m looking forward to reading more books by E.M. Delafield as they’re a good laugh, and as I’m getting to the stage where I’m sometimes wary of switching on the news because it seems that there is no good news nowadays, and a good laugh is often sorely needed!

The Jasmine Farm by Elizabeth von Arnim

I didn’t even realise that this book existed before I spotted it in the Oxfam bookshop in Stockbridge, Edinburgh, but I pounced on it nevertheless as I’m trying to work my way through everything by von Arnim. Unfortunately I don’t think this is an easy one for people to obtain because it doesn’t seem to have been reprinted. My copy is a 1934 edition.

The first twenty-five pages or so are about how terrible it is that Lady Midhurst is inflicting gooseberries on her guests at every meal during the weekend and I really thought that it wasn’t a great opening for a book but things improved greatly after that.

Lady Midhurst is a very wealthy widow who is famous for her hospitality to the right sort of people. Her philandering husband sickened her and put her off that sort of thing (that was a whisper) for life. So any whiff of scandal about a person meant that they were dropped by Lady Midhurst.

Her husband had been killed during the last year of the Great War and since then Andrew Leigh had helped and advised her in the running of her finances. He had been with her husband during the war and had been regarded as a close family friend for years. As a young officer in the army Andrew hadn’t expected to survive and so he seized the chance to marry a very beautiful 17 year old called Rosie whilst on leave. It was only later that he discovered that Rosie was completely empty headed and self-centred and well, it has to be said, not quite the same class as him. Rosie’s mother is living with them and she directs Rosie’s life for her. Rosie and her mother are only interested in money and clothes and looking beautiful, unfortunately Andrew doesn’t have much money.

Lady Midhurst has a young daughter called Lady Terence (strange name for a girl) and Terry has been in love with Andrew ever since she was very young. So it’s a bit of a personal disaster, given her mother’s high moral attitude to life.

In the end I really enjoyed it, it has humorous moments as well as serious ones. There is a German Count in it who has designs on Lady Terence because he knows that she and her mother are extremely wealthy. I thought it might interest people to read this extract.

What he wanted – and he considered it did him credit, – was to ask, of her mother, Terry’s hand in marriage.

Not many men, he felt, would be willing to do this at such a moment, especially not many of the gentlemen of Germany, where, since the advent to power of their great new Leader, much store was set by female virtue. And he asked nothing in return, either for all he was bestowing – an ancestry completely Jewless, a name written in glorious blood across the pages of Prussian history, a career which ran no risk of ever being interrupted by concentration camps, because only a fool these days was going to hold any opinions except those he was told to …

It makes all those people that I remember seeing on various BBC history programmes in the 1970s, who professed complete ignorance of concentration camps which were only half a mile away from their home seem even more ridiculous now.

This book was published just one year after Hitler came to power in Germany and von Arnim was already mentioning concentration camps. At that stage they wouldn’t have been the death camps which we think of today, but that wasn’t long in coming.

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

The Diary of a Provincial Lady cover

E.M. Delafield is one of those authors who until very recently I wouldn’t have dreamt of reading, and it’s all thanks to book bloggers that I am now.

This one was first published in 1930 but my copy is a Virago with an introduction by Jilly Cooper. Despite the fact that the book is over 80 years old the whole thing is immediately recognisable, the situations and characters are just the sort of thing that I find myself getting involved in, (minus the servants problem) exasperating things, but when you read about them happening to other people it’s all so funny.

The diary starts off on November 7th and the Provincial Lady – we are never told her name, is struggling with her indoor bulbs and bowls and wondering where she should put them, cellar or attic. Joan Kyler and I were both doing that not so long ago, and there’s about 5,000 miles between us. In fact the whole diary is a sequence of events which are common to most of us, especially if you have children or cats. The cats have unexpected kittens, the children generously give you measles, although in my case it was chicken-pox at the age of 35, toes to scalp!

Thankfully I haven’t had the experience of having to pawn jewellery to pay bills, but then I suspect that a pawnbroker wouldn’t be interested in my rings. On the other hand I have always resisted the temptation to take myself off to the south of France! In that respect it did remind me of Elizabeth’s German Garden (which is mentioned in the book) when Elizabeth merrily orders two hundred rose bushes whilst the household finances are obviously very precarious.

Robert, the husband is such a typical awkward and maddening one, but then he has his moments, although few, when he’s worth his weight in gold. This is a comfort read if ever there was one, something for the times when you can’t bear to watch the news any more. A good laugh!

My copy of the book has a cover which has been designed by Cath Kidston. I know she’s all the rage and it does fit in with the feel of the book but I grew up with wallpaper like this on my bedroom in the 1960s and I was mightily glad when it was covered up by an orange dinner plate sized pattern around about 1970. I know, there’s no accounting for it!

Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell

This book was first published in 1939 and because of the school holidays it took me longer to read than usual, so possibly that was why I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as her other books. There didn’t seem to be as many really likeable characters and I didn’t find it as amusing as her others. Maybe it was just the wrong choice of book for me at the time though.

Still I’m glad that I read it as I want to read the whole series and there are bound to be some which you like more than others.

The Island of Sheep by John Buchan

The Island of Sheep cover

I hope to work my way through all of Buchan’s books so when I saw this one for sale in the library I snapped it up. It’s a continuation of Richard Hannay’s adventures, a good few years on from The Thirty-Nine Steps, and the now Sir Richard Hannay is married to Mary and they have a 14 year old son called Peter John.

He’s in a very comfortable rut and living a pleasant country- gentleman’s existence when the past pops up and Hannay finds himself embroiled in another adventure with his old friend Sandy, now Lord Clanroyden. Years before whilst on another jaunt in South Africa they had taken an oath to protect the explorer and prospector Haraldsen and his descendants, they hadn’t really taken it seriously at the time but when they discovered that Haraldsen’s son was being hunted down by a nasty set of characters, they feel obliged to go to his aid.

The action moves from Buchan’s beloved Scottish border country to the Norlands and The Island of Sheep (The Faroe Islands). Another enjoyable ‘Boys Own Storybook’ sort of a romp ensues.

I enjoyed this one even more than The Thirty-Nine Steps although towards the end it does feature a whaling ship and its crew, it was a surprise to me that it was sort of frowned upon, even in 1936 when the book was published.