Christmas books

I was lucky and got a few books as Christmas gifts.

Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith
A Horseman Riding By by R.F. Delderfield
English Garden Flowers by William Robinson (a lovely old gardening book)
The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham
Murder in the Snow by Gladys Mitchell

I also got Pawn in Frankincese by Dorothy Dunnett – but that one didn’t make it into my photo.

Books for Christmas 2017

I intend to read The Oaken Heart soon, it’s the story of Margery Allingham’s village in wartime Britain.

At the moment I’m reading Long Summer Day, the first book in the Delderfield trilogy.
I’ve already finished reading Portrait of a Murderer but haven’t written about it yet.
The old gardening book will be one for dipping into from time to time I think.

This year I really want to concentrate on reading my own books, but no doubt that desperately alluring site – Fife libraries catalogue will lure me into temptation at some point!

Two Vintage Crime Books

I have been getting quite a bit of reading done, despite the DIY obviously taking up a lot of time. I read The Brading Collection by Patricia Wentworth, it was first published in 1952 and is a Miss Silver thriller.

Lewis Brading is a wealthy man who has amassed a large collection of famous jewellery. Famous in that the pieces have often played a part in history, such as the wearer having been murdered whilst wearing a brooch, or there is a supposed curse on something.

Brading has been quite happy to acquire the pieces nefariously over the years and perhaps that it why he is so worried about his collection being stolen. Brading has a secretary, James Moberley and he doesn’t trust him, but at the same time he seems to be stopping Moberley from leaving his job. Miss Silver declines to help Brading but circumstances soon change and Miss Silver ends up investigating. I enjoyed this one and am becoming more attached to Miss Silver with each book I read.

Tom Brown’s Body by Gladys Mitchell was first published in 1949. The setting is a boarding school called Spey College. The schoolboys play a large part in the book, they seem to be quite out of control and two of them leave their rooms and go jaunting about during the night on bikes, planning to go to watch a dog race. They get completely lost in the darkness and eventually find a cottage with lights on, but they see one of their masters through the window and are worried that he has recognised them.

Meanwhile Mrs Bradley has been looking into her family tree and has discovered that one of her ancestresses was a witch in the 17th century. An expert on such things has told Mrs Bradley that there is an old white witch who may be in possession of Mrs Bradley’s relative’s ancient spell book.

Of course the modern day witch is living near the boarding school and when one of the schoolmasters is murdered Miss Bradley gets involved. There’s no scarcity of suspects as Mr Conway – the victim, is such a nasty character, there are plenty of people who would have been glad to be rid of him.

I enjoyed this one but not as much as The Brading Collection. I’m not drawn to Miss Bradley as a character and as ever I’m left wondering why Mitchell made her so unappealing. She is described as being lizard-like or sometimes yellow skinned with claw-like nails. The actual mystery is quite good though.

I read these two for the Reading My Own Damn Books Challenge. Two down,, but who knows how many still to read – not me anyway!

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop by Gladys Mitchell

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop by Gladys Mitchell was first published in 1930 and it’s the second book in which Mrs Bradley is the sleuth. She’s a particularly unappealing elderly lady with yellow skin and fingers like claws who has a horrible habit of addressing people younger than her as ‘child’. Under those circumstances I find it amazing that she didn’t become a murder victim herself.

But it’s a man’s body which has been discovered hanging up on meat hooks in a butcher’s shop, having been cut up into joints. However the head is missing.

Rupert Sethleigh, the owner of the local manor house is also missing, supposedly having suddenly left for America, but that seems unlikely. Sethleigh is not popular in the neighbourhood and it turns out that he’s a blackmailing moneylender with lots of potential enemies. Is he the murder victim?

I can’t say that I was enthralled with this book but it took me a while to get through it, just because I’ve been busy recently and it seemed to me to be a bit disjointed (no pun intended – or was it?) The blurb on the front from the Independent says ‘Superbly odd’ – it’s definitely that. On the other hand it does have a skull on the cover so if you’re that way inclined that’s a plus. One reason why I prefer vintage crime to contemporary crime fiction is that I find the modern book to be more grisly than I’m comfortable with but I found the idea of a murder victim’s limbs and torso hanging up on butcher’s hooks in a shop fairly horrible and quite extreme for something published in 1930.

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.

Death at the Opera by Gladys Mitchell

This book was first published in 1934 and it’s just the second book by Gladys Mitchell which I have read. As with the other one, Watson’s Choice, Mrs Bradley is the sleuth. The school is putting on a performance of The Mikado, with most of the parts being taken by the staff. The show is only going ahead because Miss Ferris has been generous enough to finance the whole thing, because of this she’s given the part of Katisha, much to the disgust of the P.E. teacher who wanted the part. In fact, it turns out that the shy and retiring Miss Ferris has accumulated quite a few people who aren’t exactly fans – oops that was nearly a pun!

I quite enjoyed the characters and plot, but Mrs Bradley herself really annoyed me because she called everybody ‘child’. Just imagine how much you would hate anyone who was like that in reality.

Gladys Mitchell herself was a teacher in a high school and she captures the atmosphere of a school, behind the scenes. Obviously things haven’t changed too much in the past 80 years since this book was written, staff-wise. At one point a member of staff begins to talk about a pupil and everybody in the staff room shouts SHOP – and she has to pay a fine of one shilling. I wish I had thought of that years ago – I would be very rich by now.

Library Books

My local library is out of action at the moment as it’s in the middle of major refurbishment. So for the last 15 months or so we’ve had to put up with a tiny library which they have opened in one of the many empty shops in the High Street, it’s not ideal but it’s better than nothing I suppose. But over the last week I’ve managed to visit two bigger libraries in different Fife towns and the selection was better, so I ended up borrowing:

Love All by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Death at the Opera by Gladys Mitchell
The Winter Ground by Catriona McPherson
Miss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson
The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

I think all of these books or authors have been recommended by other bloggers or commenters, which leads me to wonder how I chose my reading matter before the internet. I’m sure it was Margaret@BooksPlease who pointed me in the direction of Catriona McPherson and Andrew Taylor, but I’ve kicked off with Miss Buncle Married as I enjoyed Miss Buncle’s Book so much.

I also have five books on request so I’ll have to get down to more reading, just at the time when I’m also trying to buff my house and garden up. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

Watson’s Choice by Gladys Mitchell

This is the first book by Gladys Mitchell which I have read, it was first published in 1955 and my copy is an old green Penguin from 1957. Mrs Bradley features in this book and she seems to be Mitchell’s lady detective and has featured in lots of her books. She’s another knitting lady detective.

Mrs Bradley and her secretary Laura Menzies have been invited to a party at the country home of Sir Bohun Chantry, a wealthy eccentric who has a penchant for Sherlock Holmes. All of the guests have to attend in fancy dress, got up as characters from Sherlock Holmes stories.

The first chapter has a lot of info dumping in it but it’s done well as at the end of it the reader has been introduced to all of the main characters, before they actually appear in the story.

I ended up enjoying this book more than I thought I was going to, I’m really not a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, despite the fact that I live near Edinburgh. Conan Doyle’s beloved Holmes annoys me too much, he would have been insufferable to live with. As the storyline involves a treasure hunt of things which appear in Holmes stories that was all completely lost on me, but I’m sure it would go down well with Holmes afficianados.

Sir Bohun’s relatives are upset that he seems to be intent on marrying Linda Campbell, a governess. His illegitimate Spanish son, Manoel is particularly worried about it. He wants to inherit from his father and be legitimised. When a murder occurs it’s Laura’s fiance Gavin, who is in the C.I.D. who investigates.

I’ve read that this book isn’t one of her best, I think it was the second last book which she wrote, but plot wise it isn’t a disappointment as there were unexpected twists, for me anyway. It does feature a large dog, described as looking like a cross between a Great Dane and an Irish Wolfhound, with maybe a bit of donkey in there too – a big soft lump, which was of course playing the part of the Hound of the Baskervilles.

I will be looking out for more books by Gladys Mitchell in the future. I found this one in a charity shop just after Joan had mentioned that she was reading it – on the other side of the pond. I’ve never found a vintage Penguin in my home town before, people must hang on to them. It seemed like an amazing coincidence to me, one of those spooky parallel universe things!

Another thing which I must mention is that red-hair features in this book, the sort of stereo typical disparaging remarks which you get used to if like me you have red hair. They are daft though and do perpetuate silly prejudices which even nowadays end up contributing to kids with red hair getting bullied at school. Looking at the photo of Gladys Mitchell on the back of the book, it looks to me as if the author might have had red hair herself – she was certainly very fair, it’s a black and white photo. Maybe she was just claiming the territory as some people do if they have a perceived ‘handicap’. Does anybody have any info on that subject. Is red-hair a feature of her books?

Although Gladys Mitchell was born in Cowley, Oxford she is of Scottish descent and a Scottish influence is apparent in some of her books, according to the blurb on the back.

Autumn Break Book Purchases

I came back home with very few books this time, slim pickings indeed. I didn’t see one Angela Thirkell book but I did buy:

Fire, Burn! by John Dickson Carr
A Thatched Roof by Beverley Nichols (sequel to Down the Garden Path)
and on the way home I bought a 1970s edition of Four Hedges by Clare Leighton.

The bookshop in York, just beside the Minster is one of those ones which sells a lot of prints too. I always find that quite sad because most of them have been ripped out of books. But I couldn’t help admiring some woodblock prints by Clare Leighton, I don’t recall ever seeing anything by her before, so when I picked up a book in an antiques centre at Powburn, Northumberland I was amazed to see that the book underneath was one by Clare Leighton with 88 illustrations by her. How lucky was that?! At only £5 it was definitely coming home with me. You can see some of her work here.

When I got home I looked her up and discovered that her brother was Roland Leighton, whom I always think of as O Roland – if you’ve read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth you’ll know that she was engaged to him but of course he died of his wounds in 1915. Four Hedges is subtitled A Gardener’s Chronicle and needless to say I won’t be breaking it up to hang any of it on my already overcrowded walls.

So that was it, just three books bought whilst in England but today we wandered down the High Street and I went into one charity shop and ended up buying:

The Demoniacs by John Dickson Carr
Watson’s Choice by Gladys Mitchell and
Taken By The Hand by O. Douglas

I’d better get down to some serious reading at the rate the TBR pile is growing, especially as two of the books which I had requested from the library have also turned up. I still haven’t got around to sorting through the photos I took whilst we were away. Maybe tomorrow!