A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith was published way back in 1965, but it was in the 1970s that I discovered her and then went on a Highsmith binge, recommended to other people that they should read her books, and then for some reason didn’t keep up with her books myself in subsequent years.

So this was a recent library choice for me, I’m fairly sure that I didn’t read this one in the 1970s. It has been republished as a Virago Modern Classic.

Sydney Bartleby is a young American writer and he is living with his wife Alicia in the wilds of rural Suffolk. Sydney has a very vivid imagination and I suppose he is the writer’s equivalent of a method actor as he feels the need to act out one of his plots to see how he will feel, he wants to get the emotions correct as he digs a grave in a remote patch of countryside.

At times I was in two minds as to whether Alicia had actually been murdered by him or not, so when Alicia does disappear from their cottage, supposedly having gone to visit her parents but never arrived there, things look very bad for Sydney indeed. All the clues point to him having done her in and everyone is sure he is guilty, including the police.

This was a cracker of a book, really full of suspense. Why oh why have I left it getting on for 40 years since I read a Patricia Highsmith book?!

Do you have a favourite book by her which you can recommend me to read next?

Bab: A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart

I had only read a mystery by Mary Roberts Rinehart and I enjoyed it so when I read in a blog (sadly I can’t remember which blog) about her book called Babs – A Sub Deb and realised it was available on Project Gutenburg I thought I would give it a go. You can download it here.

The book was written in 1916 and is completely different from the book which I had read of hers before- The Circular Staircase, which I enjoyed but Bab: A Sub-Deb is an absolute hoot.

Barbara Archibald is the youngest in her family, there’s all of 20 months between her and her sister who has ‘come out’ and is husband hunting, so lives in a whirl of social engagements. Much to Bab’s disgust she is still treated very much as a little girl, but she runs rings around her family as her parents become more and more alarmed at her crazy exploits, usually involving boys/men.

It’s all very innocent but it doesn’t look good and even she has to admit that she takes things too far. Bab herself writes about her shenanigans and spelling isn’t one of her strong points, which is a bit off putting until you get used to it.

Appropriately for this time of the year the First World War does feature in this book with some of the young men going off to war. I’m a wee bit puzzled though because the book was apparently published in 1916 but the Americans didn’t go to war with the Germans until April 1917. Unless – the war that they were involved in was that 1916 one involving the US and Mexico, which also featured German spies.

I’m even more confused because I read this book back to back with another old one The Head Girl at the Gables by Angela Brazil which coincidentally was first published in 1919 (I had no idea those books were so old) and also features WW1, German spies and even the loss of a leather dispatch case. It’s amazing how often things like that happen when I’m reading.

Anyway, a fun read.

Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber

Roast Beef Medium

I downloaded this book from girlebooks because I have previously enjoyed Edna Ferber’s writing. I believe she won the Pulitzer prize twice. This reads like a book but I think they were stories which were published in a magazine between 1911 and 1913. It also includes a lot of illustrations, I didn’t even realise that was possible on a Kindle!

Emma McChesney is a travelling saleswoman working for the Featherloom Petticoat Company and travelling in the mid-west of the U.S. The title of the book comes from her advice to stick to roast beef medium at the many hotels she has to frequent in the course of her work. Apparently fancier food with rich sauces ruins your digestion and complexion.

Emma is a single parent, a divorcee with a 17 year old son, Jock, her pride and joy. She has brought him up on her own, is the best salesperson in the firm and earns a man’s wage. She’s determined to stay independent – in fact, considering her character was written 100 years ago, she’s an amazingly sassy and modern lady.

She runs rings around all the male characters and does it all with great style and wit. My only complaint is that this ‘book’ ended very abruptly.

The only other books I’ve read by Ferber are Show Boat and Ice Palace but I’ll be looking out for more. She was wildly popular in her day and quite a few of her books were made into films/movies. Yes, that Show Boat!

The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe

This is a book which I borrowed from my local library entirely because it’s one of those ‘cultural tumbleweed moments’ for me. Do you know what I mean? It’s something which is often referred to because we are all supposed to have experienced it and for some reason there are always things which have just passed me by – or I’ve passed them by, hence that feeling of complete ignorance whenever the subject comes up.

So I thought it was high time I got around to reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue especially as vintage crime is one of my favourite sorts of reading matter. There are two other short stories in the book – The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter.

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1809 and this short story was first published in 1841. It’s generally described as the first real detective story and Dupin the detective is a type similar to Sherlock Holmes. Poe seems to have set the pattern for the brilliantly observant detective with a helpful partner which so many other writers have copied. Conan Doyle described Dupin as the best detective in fiction, some Holmes fans might have argued with him on that one.

Anyway I enjoyed these short stories although I have to admit that it’s really 1930s crime fiction which is my favourite, for me that was really the golden age of crime fiction. Given that this is part of the history of the whole crime genre I’m really glad that I read them and I now know what people are talking about when they mention The Murders in the Rue Morgue. I think it must have been quite shocking when it was first published as it’s really quite gory and violent.

I’m sure I read somewher that Edgar Allan Poe was of Scottish descent but according to Wiki it was just his foster father who was Scottish. Poe did go to school in Irvine, in the west of Scotland, at one point before moving to England and then back to America. He also married his 13 year old cousin, so I’m not at all sure that we would want to claim him as a Scot!

Is there anything which you feel you should have read or experienced years ago and for some reason haven’t, resulting in those tumbleweed moments?

Show Boat by Edna Ferber

Show Boat cover

It was Anbolyn of Gudrun’s Tights who nominated the author Edna Ferber for the CPR Book Group, the idea of which is to give neglected authors and or books a bit of a boost and breath some new life into them. So thank-you Anbolyn because I hadn’t even heard of Ferber who was so popular in the 1920s and 30s and even won a Pullitzer Prize.

I started off with Show Boat which I think everyone will know was made into a Broadway musical in 1927. The 1951 movie is so famous that it’s one of those ones which I’m not sure if I’ve actually seen in entirety or maybe I’ve just seen lots of clips over the years. Anyway next time it’s on TV I’m going to watch it to see if it differs from the book.

I really enjoyed this. The show boat is the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre and it plies its trade on the Mississippi River, calling in at towns on the river as the local crops ripen and the inhabitants have money in their pockets. Magnolia’s parents are the boat owners, they are Captain Andy Hawks and Parthenia Ann Hawks and while Andy is a popular and kind chap, Parthy is a grim-faced terror with a dislike of the theatre, actors and just about everything else. She has a tongue that would cut cloot (cloth) – as we say here.

Against Parthy’s wishes Magnolia ends up on the stage and when they call in to St Louis she falls for the wonderfully named Gaylord Ravenal, who ends up joining the show boat’s cast.

That’s a brief outline but there’s lots going on in this book with characters being accused of miscegenation (marriage between a black person and a white person) which was illegal in some places in America at the time and that ‘n’ word is used quite a lot by the more ignorant characters. One of the characters is ‘passing’ as a white person.

As a Jew Edna Ferber was no stranger to prejudice but it didn’t stop her from having a very successful career as a writer, which you can read about here. I have one other book by her – Ice Palace, but I’ll certainly be looking out for more in the future.

I’ve loved the idea of a Mississippi river boat since I started reading Mark Twain years ago but I know that the reality would kill me in no time – too hot!

Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike

Gertrude and Claudius cover

This was one of the books which I snapped up from last month’s library book sale. I thought that it was about time that I read something else by Updike. I really enjoyed the ‘Rabbit’ series and Couples years ago and I’m slowly working my way through a massive tome which I think contains every short story which Updike ever had published.

Apparently Gertrude and Claudius was his 51st book, that’s some output, and I didn’t even bother to read the blurb before buying it so I was really surprised at how different this one was from the other ones that I’ve read so far.

It’s the story of Gertrude and Claudius from before they even got married and became King and Queen of Denmark and leading up to just before Shakespeare took up the story of Hamlet. Updike used the same legends that Shakespeare had based his play on and writes a backstory for us which I found to be really readable and somehow completely likely.

Written in three parts, the first part begins with Gerutha the 16 year old daughter of King Rorik being nagged by her father into a marriage with Horwendil the Jute. She eventually gives in and does as her father wishes but she never really feels that Horwendil has deep feelings for her. Gerutha thinks her husband married her to make it more likely that he would gain the Danish crown from Gerutha’s father when he dies. Gerutha gives birth to Amleth who is a difficult and sickly boy who grows up to spend most of his time away from home. Inevitably Gerutha blames herself for her son’s shortcomings.

In the second part Amleth’s name has changed to Hamblet and he is being a perpetual student, still studying at Wittenburg at the age of 29, much to his father’s rage. If Hamblet doesn’t come back to Elsinore there’s no chance of him being elected as King in the future.

By the third part of the book all of the names have been Romanised, hence Gertrude and Claudius. I enjoyed the book, I usually like books with a Scandinavian setting, and the moral of the tale is, I suppose, bad things happen when people feel unloved and hard done by.