North from Rome by Helen MacInnes – 20 Books of Summer

North From Rome cover

North from Rome by the Scottish author Helen MacInnes is the first book that I’ve read from my 20 Books of Summer list. It was first published in 1958.

Bill Lammiter is a young and successful American playwright who has recently been dumped by his fiancee. She works at the American embassy in Rome and Bill is feeling bruised as Eleanor has quickly replaced him with an Italian man with a title. The story begins with Bill looking out from his balcony, admiring Rome in the dark and imagining the Roman soldiers who must have walked there in the past. His attention is taken by a young woman’s scream, she is being manhandled and is almost abducted and bundled into a car. When the man realises he has been spotted the woman manages to get away and so begins Bill’s unwanted adventure.

He had been hoping to be able to speak to Eleanor outside the embassy at some point, but when he does see her she is sitting at a table near his in a restaurant, alongside her Italian prince and his mother, then Rosana, the young woman that Bill had been able to help the previous evening joins them.

It’s all very strange, and becomes stranger. It seems that Eleanor’s new man is not what he appears to be. This is a really enjoyable thriller and I especially liked the Italian settings as the action moved from Rome to Perugia, MacInnes paints the landscape and gives a real flavour of Italy, no actual travelling required.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

 Transcription cover

Transcription by Kate Atkinson was published in 2018, but it begins briefly in 1981 before the action moves to wartime London. Juliet is just 17 and orphaned with the death of her mother. She’s going to have to fend for herself and manages to get a job with the intelligence service MI5. It turns out not to be as exciting as that sounds as she ends up sitting at a typewriter in a room next door to one which is being used as a meeting place for Nazi sympathisers. The walls are bugged and it’s her job to type out what she hears – not as easy as you might think. No-one is to be trusted and Juliet finds herself wondering about her own colleagues. Is her boss who is supposedly posing as a Gestapo officer actually a Gestapo officer? She now has a different name and it isn’t long before she’s embroiled with the Fascists she has been listening in to and given the task of searching for The Red Book which apparently has names and addresses of Nazi sympathisers.

Fast forward to 1950 and Juliet is working for the BBC making the Schools radio programmes, but her life with MI5 comes back to haunt her, or is she just being paranoid?

I really enjoyed this one and I’ll probably give it 5 stars on Goodreads as I can’t give it 4.5. Kate Atkinson has been living in Edinburgh for donkey’s years so I count her as a Scottish author.

You can read Jack’s much more detailed thoughts on this book here.

The crimson in the purple by Holly Roth

The crimson in the purple cover

The crimson in the purple by Holly Roth was first published in 1957 and it’s the third book that I’ve read by the author, I really like her writing. She also wrote under the names K.G. Ballard and P.J. Merrill.

Bill Farland is working as a private investigator until his career as a playwright takes off, so when the youngest member of an American acting dynasty comes to him for help he’s very happy to take on the job, not just because he’s desperate for money, he hopes that it’ll be a chance for him to push forward his new play. It looks like someone has been trying to poison Catherine Hadden who seems to be being treated as a dogsbody by the rest of her illustrious family of actors and set designers. Catherine is their housekeeper in the large Victorian pile that Dominic the head of the dynasty refuses to sell. Strangely Catherine has been told that there’s no money for her to go to college.

Bill Farland is invited to a dinner party at the Hadden family home as a friend of Catherine’s and to begin with he’s rather star-struck but in no time he’s gone right off Terratta Hadden whom he had idolised previously as in real life she’s a bitch. In fact the Haddens are a fairly ghastly bunch who behave badly even in front of guests. Things quickly go from bad to worse, but I don’t want to say any more about that.

For me this was a tense psychological thriller and I didn’t guess the ending which is always a big plus. The book would have made a really good film I think but maybe it was thought that the private detective scenario had been used enough in films by the late 1950s.

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh was published in 2010. Louise Welsh was born in England but I think she counts as a Scottish author as she has lived in Scotland for years and she went to The University of Glasgow.

The setting of this book is Glasgow and Edinburgh but it eventually moves to the Island of Lismore in the inner Hebrides.

Murray Watson is a lecturer in English at The University of Glasgow but his career is not really going anywhere and he has decided to do some research on the poet Archie Lunan who had died in mysterious circumstances 30 years previously. Did he commit suicide or was it an accident? But Lunan had only written one slim volume of poetry and there doesn’t really seem to be any more material for Murray to be able to write anything that would be of interest to anyone.

It looks like Murray’s career is on a downward spiral and when he realises that Fergus the head of the department has discovered that Murray has been having an affair with his wife Rachel, Murray thinks he’ll probably lose his job at the university. In a desperate effort to find out something new about Archie Lunan, Murray contacts the old head of department hoping that he can give him some information on Archie Lunan when he was one of his students. It seems that he can’t but he does imply that the person to ask would be Fergus as he knew Archie well. But Fergus had claimed that he didn’t know Archie at all.

Murray takes himself off to Lismore, the island where Lunan had lived for a while and where he had died. The ‘dry’ island is not a place of joy. Archie isn’t the only person to have come to grief there and during a howling winter gale things go from bad to worse.

This thriller was mildly entertaining but not as good as the other books that I’ve read by the author.

Guest in the House by Philip MacDonald

Guest in the House by Philip MacDonald was first published in 1956 and it’s the first book by the author that I’ve read. He wrote under various names and he was one of the many men who took to writing thrillers/mysteries after serving in World War 1, but writing was obviously in his blood as his grandfather was the very successful Victorian Scottish author George MacDonald and his father Ronald was also a writer.

The setting is California where an Englishman who had been a Lieutenant Colonel in WW2 is so down on his luck that he decides he must visit an old wartime friend of his. He is driving a borrowed Alfa Romeo so on the surface Ivor Dalgleish St Pelham St George, V.C, D.S.O is very respectable and well to do looking, but in fact he has only a handful of dollars left to his name, hence the visit to his old friend, whose life he happened to save during the war. From the beginning the reader realises that he’s a con man.

Jeff Gould is very happy to see his old friend although his wife Mary isn’t so keen, but their house guest makes a best friend of the daughter/step daughter of the home so it’s two against one and she has to make him welcome.

There are tensions within the marriage though which is a second marriage for Mary and the strife is caused by Mary’s first husband Victor who is demanding to have more access to his young daughter. His daughter doesn’t know him at all, Mary is determined to keep her away from her ‘dodgy’ father who has tricked her into signing an unusual divorce/child access agreement. Victor has already squeezed $10,000 from the couple to stay away from them, and that has caused them a lot of financial problems and now Victor has come back for more money.

I’ll give this book three stars on Goodreads I think. It’s well enough written but I wasn’t comfortable with the plot which involves a decent couple being manipulated by two very unlikeable men. I’ll definitely try another of his books though if I come across any on my wanderings.

The Watersplash by Patricia Wentworth

 The Watersplashcover

The Watersplash by Patricia Wentworth was first published in 1954 and it’s a Miss Silver mystery. Wentworth is so skilled at conjuring up the atmosphere of a small English village, and the way that so many of the inhabitants are linked to each other – by blood, marriage and extended family friendships. Throw in a local telephone system where everybody has a party line and can listen in to their neighbour’s conversations and a huge capacity for gossip as a way of brightening up what is generally a boringly quiet life and you have a good recipe for a mystery.

Edward Random has just returned home to Greenings after a five year absence during which time his father (the local squire) believed him to be dead. Edward’s father had changed his will in favour of his brother Arnold, so his nose was very much out of joint when he realised his nephew was still alive. Everyone expects Arnold to give up his inheritance to Edward, but he has no intention of doing that, in fact he won’t have anything to do with his nephew.

Rumours abound – what has Edward been up to during his five years of absence? When there’s a murder in the village Miss Silver is asked to investigate. Luckily she had already been invited to stay at Greenings by the daughter of an old friend and it’s not long before she’s getting submerged in everybody’s business.

Whilst she knits a succession of pale pink baby vests she gets to the bottom of it all satisfactorily. I had a fair idea who the perpetrator was but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. I really think I prefer Miss Silver to Miss Marple. I believe the two characters were ‘born’ in the same year. Patricia Wentworth just seems to have been unfortunate that Agatha Christie’s books were much more of a commercial success. Maybe Patricia Wentworth should have indulged herself with some sort of adventure that was taken up by the tabloid newspapers the way Christie did!

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes

 The Salzburg Connection cover

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes was first published in 1968. I remember reading some books by the author way back in the 1970s but haven’t read any since then, after reading this one I’ll have to track down as many others as I can because this was a really great read with loads of twists and turns.

It’s set some twenty-one years after the end of World War 2 but there are Nazis still around, they’ve been searching for things that had been hidden by them at the end of the war. There’s a bit of a race on to track down and recover a metal box which it’s thought has been hidden in a lake called Finstersee which is surrounded by the Austrian alps. Several such boxes have been found over the years, the Russians would also like to get their hands on this one, although what it might contain is a mystery.

This is a Cold War setting with spies and double agents galore – a great read.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

Helen MacInnes was born in Glasgow and went to Glasgow University where she got a degree in French and German before going on to get a diploma in librarianship at London. During her librarianship career she chose the books for libraries in Dunbartonshire, which happens to be where I worked in libraries, but she was there decades before my days there.

Her husband was a British agent for MI6 and no doubt his experiences helped to fuel her imagination for espionage. Her second book Assignment in Brittany (1942), was required reading for Allied intelligence agents who were being sent to work with the French resistance against the Nazis. Four of her books were made into films. Later in life she and her husband moved to the US.

Have you read any of her books?

No Resistance by Evelyn Anthony

No Resistance by Evelyn Anthony was first published in 1967, but at somepoint the title seems to have been changed to The Rendezvous, – so confusing. I remember way back in the 1970s I devoured these books which are mainly set in wartime, often spy stories. I had no idea that this was the first such book which Anthony had written, despite having had a lot of books published before this one, they were all historical fiction. I don’t recall ever reading any of those ones – have you?

In No Resistance a young female French resistance agent Terese Masson has been arrested by the Gestapo. She’s interrogated by Colonel Alfred Brunnerman who employs psychological techniques to get information, but she knows that eventually he will have to hand her over to the torturer, if Brunnerman’s techniques fail.

She’s terrified, but at the same time very attracted to Brunnerman. Years later Brunnerman and Masson meet up in America where they have both settled. Brunnerman has changed his name and nationality to dodge prosecution, as a Nazi originally and latterly to foil the Israeli execution squads which are tracking down ex-Nazis.

This is the type of romance full of suspense which I find to be very enjoyable.

Warpaint by Alicia Foster

Warpaint by Alicia Foster was first published in 2013. The setting is 1942, Bedfordshire where in a villa close to Bletchley Park there’s a small community of people who are working to compile Black propaganda to send to Germany, with the idea of demoralising the German population. Some of them draw cartoons of the Nazi leaders and others write letters which are sent to the parents of dead German soldiers, supposedly from their sons who are claiming to be alive and well and living in England, happily.

Sam and Vivienne are a husband and wife working in the Black villa, with Sam being the head of operations, Charles and Frido are the others in the team. Frido is a ‘good’ German who is top of the Nazi’s most wanted list and knows all of the top Nazis so his knowledge and talents are invaluable.

Meanwhile, in London The War Advisory Art Committee has been set up, there’s a small community of women artists who have been given commissions to draw and paint scenes which portray Britain in wartime and capture the atmosphere and reality. They must conjure up the bulldog spirit.

Sir Kenneth Clark (Director of the National Gallery) has been given the job of getting the women to come up with the goods but he has passed the task on to Aubrey Smith, a much younger and inexperienced pen-pusher. As the whole war art idea came from Churchill it’s obvious that Clark wants to avoid the responsibility of the job as he has been having trouble getting any work out of the women.

Like everyone else at that time, their lives are anything but normal and the reader is drawn into all the personal problems which have come about mainly because of the war.

This book was right up my street, I loved the wartime setting which is inevitably tragic as all those ‘few’ were scrambling for their planes and all too often not coming back, as Dame Laura Knight was capturing the moments on canvas. It’s a thriller with lots of twists to keep you turning the pages.

This book weaves a couple of actual people with fictional characters, not something which I’m terribly fond of but I think in this case it works well, despite the fact that I couldn’t stand Sir Kenneth Clark, especially after reading Alan Clark’s biography where it was a toss up as to which one was the most ghastly – father or son.

Warpaint is Alicia Foster’s first novel and is very well written. She has a Ph.D in art history and teaches art students.

Like all good books, this one piques your interest in the subject and urges you to go and do a bit of research of your own.

Below are a couple of Laura Knight’s wartime paintings.

Laura Knight artwork

You can see a lot more of her work here and here.

Dame Laura Knight became the official artist at the Trials of Nazi war criminals in Nuremburg.

A House of Many Rooms by Marius Gabriel

Occasionally I’m asked if I would like to review a particular book and I don’t often take up the chance as I have so many books of my own to get through but I was intrigued when I was asked to read some books by author Marius Gabriel, he’s a thriller and mystery writer and also writes romances under the name Madeleine Ker, Mills and Boons I believe, don’t knock them, a friend of mine says that as she has been married such a long time – M and B books are her only way of experiencing romance! I had never heard of him before but as he has written quite a lot of books over the years, I thought I would give this one a go.

Michael and Barbara Florio are a wealthy couple, although it’s really Barbara who holds the purse strings. Their marriage is falling apart, Barbara is on the booze and has become abusive and their two adopted daughters are caught in the middle of it all. Therese, the youngest, has a history of fire raising and when her biological mother reads about her troubles in a newspaper she determines to track her down.

This book had plenty of twists and turns in it and didn’t go the way which I was expecting at all. I had thought it was going to be a bit of a Thornbirds scenario but thankfully it wasn’t. I will be reading more by Marius Gabriel in the future.