Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Man with the Dark Beard - Annie Haynes

Dr John Bastow is an unlikely murder victim (especially if you believe my theory that it's the unpleasant characters who are marked for murder in Golden Age novels). He is a respected doctor, a widower with two children & seemingly no enemies. So, when he's found murdered, the motive seems elusive. Just before his death, however, he had a conversation with his old friend, barrister Sir Felix Skrine, where he hinted that he had knowledge of a crime that had gone undetected. Sir Felix advises him to go straight to the police & advises Dr Bastow to take a holiday as he's obviously overworked. There are other potential motives lurking under the surface of the doctor's seemingly placid life. Dr Bastow's daughter, Hilary, has fallen in love with her father's assistant, Basil Wilton, but the doctor doesn't approve of the relationship. Dr Bastow forbids the relationship & sacks Basil. Also in the household are Hilary's disabled brother, Felix, named after his godfather (usually known as Fee), the Doctor's secretary, Iris Houlton, & Aunt Lavinia, an outspoken, eccentrically dressed woman who lives with the Bastows in between her travels to exotic parts of the world. She struck me as a cross between Mary Kingsley & Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Aunt Lavinia disapproves of Basil & is also suspicious of the Bastows' new housemaid, Mary Ann, who she suspects of planning to entice the doctor into marriage or worse.

That same evening, the doctor is in his consulting room but doesn't respond to the parlourmaid or Basil knocking on the door. Even Aunt Lavinia can't rouse him. The maid goes goes into the garden, looks through the consulting room window & sees the doctor slumped at his desk. When the household break in, they find him dead, shot through the head at close range. Inspector Stoddart of Scotland Yard is called in & examines the scene of the crime. He finds a half-written letter to Sir Felix, about the subject of their earlier conversation, & a scrap of paper with the words, "It was the Man with the Dark Beard". A Chinese box with the proofs of that other suspected crime has also been stolen. A colleague of Dr Bastow's, Dr Sanford Morris, has a dark beard & when he shaves it off soon after the crime, & confesses that he had an appointment with Dr Bastow on the night of the murder which he says he didn't keep, he becomes one of the main suspects. Adding to the puzzle is the disappearance of the mysterious parlourmaid, Mary Ann Taylor, & the sudden transformation of Iris Houlton, who seems to have inherited money. When a second murder occurs, it seems too much of a coincidence that the same person could be involved with both victims & not be the murderer. Inspector Stoddart & his assistant, Harbord (is he a Sergeant? I assumed he was but I don't think his rank is ever mentioned) have their work cut out for them.

This is the first of four detective novels by Annie Haynes featuring Inspector Stoddart. As with The Crystal Beads Murder, I enjoyed Stoddart's investigation of the crime, with its red herrings & false trails. However, I don't think this book is as good as the later one. The villain is fairly obvious from the start although I didn't work out how the murders were done. There's also a touch too much melodrama for me in several scenes. Some aspects of the plot were more Wilkie Collins than Agatha Christie. I did enjoy some of the characterizations. Hilary's brother, Fee, has been indulged because of his disability & is peevish & demanding because of it. My favourite character was Aunt Lavinia. I enjoy characters who call a spade a spade, even though they may be completely wrong. I can't believe that she ever actually left the house in an outfit like this,

Today she wore a coat and skirt of grey tweed with the waist-line and leg-of-mutton sleeves of the Victorian era, while the length and extreme skimpiness of the skirt were essentially modern, as were her low-necked blouse, which allowed a liberal expanse of chest to be seen, and the grey silk stockings with the grey suede shoes. Her hair was shingled, of course, and had been permanently waved, but the permanent waves had belied their name, and the dyed, stubbly hair betrayed a tendency to stand on end.

I also didn't believe the end of Lavinia's story for one moment. However, The Man with the Dark Beard is a suitably convoluted mystery. Once the second murder is committed, I couldn't stop reading. I'm looking forward to reading more Annie Haynes & luckily, Dean Street Press are reprinting all her novels & kindly sent me this one for review.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Crystal Beads Murder - Annie Haynes

It struck me while I was reading this book that one of the differences between the Golden Age murder mystery & a lot of modern detective novels or thrillers is the status of the victim. In the Golden Age novel (& some modern police procedurals), the victim is hardly regretted. They are introduced only in order to show the reader how repulsive they are & then they're mercifully bumped off. In modern thrillers, particularly those with serial killers, the victims are portrayed as innocents, invariably in the wrong place at the wrong time. They usually don't know their killer so they can't have done anything to "justify" their death. The plot of the Golden Age novel was generally more concerned with the puzzle of the mystery & to have a reasonable number of suspects, the victim had to have made a certain number of enemies. I know this is a terrible generalisation but there it is, for what it's worth. The unlikeable victim is one of the characteristics of the Golden Age puzzle mystery & as I enjoy a good puzzle as much as the next reader, I loved The Crystal Beads Murder by Annie Haynes, another neglected writer rediscovered by Dean Street Press.

When the body of Robert Saunderson is found in the summer house of Lord Medchester's country house, Holford Hall, in Loamshire, there are several people who are glad that he's dead. Saunderson was a man of mysterious antecedents. Rich & connected to the racing set, he had been invited to Lord Medchester's house for a weekend mostly because of those racing connections. There are also rumours that Minnie, Lady Medchester, is having an affair with Saunderson. Saunderson had also become acquainted with Lord Medchester's cousins, Harold & Anne Courtenay. Harold is a weak young man, trying to gamble his way out of financial difficulties & failing. He's running around with a vulgar crowd that includes Maurice & Sybil Stainer, a couple of chancers who have battened on to Harold & are leading him astray. Anne dislikes Saunderson & is repelled by his obvious interest in herself. She is engaged to Michael Burford, the trainer at Lord Medchester's stables. Harold has put himself into Saunderson's power & the only way for him to avoid disgrace is if Anne agrees to marry Saunderson. She is horrified by this but is also afraid of scandal & afraid of upsetting their elderly grandfather.

Some weeks after the weekend house party at Holford House, Saunderson writes to Anne, asking to meet her in the summer house to discuss her future. The scandal over Harold's misdemeanor is about to break & Saunderson is pressuring Anne to marry him. The house is full of guests but Anne goes to her room after dinner & prepares to meet Saunderson. Someone hiding in the shrubbery watches Anne as she enters the summer house & as she leaves with a look of horror on her face. Next morning, the body of a man in evening dress is discovered in the summer house. He has been shot in the heart. Robbery doesn't seem to be the motive but there are three crystal beads found in his pocket. Beads that were not there when the local policeman, Superintendent Meyer, first examined the body.

Inspector Stoddart & Sergeant Harbord of Scotland Yard arrive to lead the investigation into Saunderson's murder. They soon discover that there are almost too many suspects. Saunderson owned a money-lending business & dabbled in blackmail on the side. There are the rumours of his affair with Lady Medchester & the evasiveness of Anne & Harold Courtenay. What was Saunderson doing at Holford Hall when he wasn't a member of the house party? It seems likely that the murderer must have been among the household or guests at the Hall but then a figure from Saunderson's past makes a surprise appearance & sends the investigation in another direction entirely. The significance of the crystal beads continues to be elusive & it takes a visit to the dentist to provide a vital clue.

I thought this was a terrific mystery, I read it in just a couple of days. The pace is brisk & I really liked Stoddart & Harbord. I love a good police procedural & I enjoyed the way that Stoddart works his way through the different scenarios that present themselves. The characters of Anne Courtenay & Lady Medchester are particularly well-done as they are both caught in traps partly of their own making & we watch as they thrash around trying to extricate themselves. The minor characters are individuals, not just stock characters, from Mrs Meyer, wife of the local policeman to Mrs Yates, keeper of the lodge at the Hall & the tramp who becomes a vital witness. The Crystal Beads Murder was published in 1930 & was Annie Haynes's final mystery. In fact, she died leaving it unfinished & another writer completed the manuscript. I couldn't see the join but then, I was reading so fast that I'm not surprised I failed to notice.

Dean Street Press are republishing all twelve of Haynes's mystery novels which she wrote in the 1920s. She was well-regarded in her time, one of only two women mystery writers published by The Bodley Head (the other was Agatha Christie). I'm not sure how relevant that is as Agatha left The Bodley Head for Collins as soon as she was able to get out of her contract, but they did give her a start. Curtis Evans has written the Introduction to all the Haynes reprints & he's done considerable research into her life & career. Born in 1865, she was the daughter of an ironmonger, who lived with her mother & grandparents after her father left the family. Her grandfather was the gardener at Coleorton Hall in Leicestershire. In later life, Haynes lived in London with Ada Heather-Biggs, a prominent feminist & social reformer. Haynes published her first novel, The Bungalow Mystery, in 1923, although she had written newspaper serials. Her novels were admired by critics who enjoyed the crafting of her plots & characterization as much as the twists & turns of the puzzle. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for the last 15 years of her life & it's remarkable that she was able to continue working. Her novels were out of print only a few years after her death & were forgotten until this rediscovery.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me a review copy of The Crystal Beads Murder.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Shakespeare and Finzi

The other night I was reading the April edition of BBC Music magazine. I know it's October now but I'm six months behind with most of the magazines I read thanks to my library's Zinio subscription. It was a special issue on British music & one of the articles was about the life of Gerald Finzi (there's a website dedicated to his life & work here). I've always loved his Shakespeare song cycle, Let Us Garlands Bring, especially when sung by Bryn Terfel, so I thought I would combine Shakespeare & Finzi; poetry & song today & share one of the songs, Come Away, Come Away, Death, from Twelfth Night.
Thanks to Spotify I was also able to explore more Finzi & I especially loved the Eclogue for piano & strings & the Romance in E flat major (beautiful photos of snowy Derbyshire in this clip). One of the wonderful things about the internet (& probably one of the reasons why I'm six months behind in my magazine reading) is that it's so easy to go off on a tangent & explore a new composer or read more about something mentioned in an article. Then there's all the free content from my library through Zinio & our eBook providers.

(I do realise that the photo is upside down, I'm not trying to be arty. It's the right way up in Photo Studio but when I download it here, it's upside down... I thought I'd be clever & turn it upside down in Photo Studio but it was still upside down here)

Come away, come away, death,
    And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away, breath;
    I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
             O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
         Did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
    On my black coffin let there be strown.
Not a friend, not a friend greet
    My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
             Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
             To weep there!

Friday, October 2, 2015


Now here's a very enticing idea. Simon from Stuck in a Book & Karen from Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings are hosting a reading challenge later this month called The 1924 Club.
All you have to do is read a book published in 1924. There's a list of possible titles on Simon's blog. I've read quite a few of them but two that I do have on the tbr shelves are The Matriarch by G B Stern & The Three Hostages by John Buchan. I'm looking forward to exploring the shelves to see what other possibilities I have.

Which brings me to my other plan. Christine Poulson (author of Invisible, one of my Top 10 books last year) has just blogged about her plan to stop buying books for a while. I read this & thought Yes! What's good enough for Christine is good enough for me - until Christmas, anyway! I do have several pre-orders on the way - Alison Weir's biography of Lady Margaret Douglas, The Lost Tudor Princess, Claire Harman's biography of Charlotte Brontë, the British Library's collection of Christmas mysteries, Silent Nights, & Jennifer Henderson's biography of Josephine Tey, so I won't feel too deprived. It's the eBooks that are the real temptation because they're so easy to buy & they're invisible so don't even take up room on the tbr shelves. Let's see how long I last.

I've been able to think about all this because we're having a public holiday today - for a football game. It's not even on until tomorrow but we're having a day off on the eve of the AFL Grand Final anyway. So now we're the city with a holiday before a football game & a holiday for a horse race (Melbourne Cup Day in November). It's also the start of the first run of hot weather we've had since last summer. At least the sun is warming up the veggie garden so I can start planting in the next few weeks.

Now for some completely unrelated cat photos. I don't have any new photos of the girls (I almost got a shot of Lucky with my 1924 books but she was unco-operative) so here are the collages I made last year when I discovered the collage app.
The clocks go forward tomorrow night & summer is almost here. Oh well, only six months until I can change the clocks back again!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Envious Casca - Georgette Heyer

I like to read Christmas-themed mysteries at Christmas & I planned to read Envious Casca last Christmas. However, I didn't get to it, I read J Jefferson Farjeon's Mystery in White instead. I'm not sure what made me pick up Envious Casca last week & make it my lunchtime book, but I did. It's a well-plotted murder mystery with the requisite nasty victim & cast of plausible suspects & I enjoyed it very much.

Nathaniel Herriard is a rich but miserable man. He lives at Lexham Manor with his brother, Joseph & his wife, Maud. Joseph is an out-of-work actor who loves to talk about his great roles but was really only ever a character actor. Maud is quiet & colourless, her only enthusiasm is her love of reading royal biographies, the more romantic & tragic the life, the more she enjoys it. Joseph has decided to bring the family together for Christmas, against Nathaniel's wishes as he hates Christmas. Nat & Joseph's nephew, Stephen & his sister, Paula are invited. Stephen is presumed to be his uncle's heir but the two have an abrasive relationship. Stephen has just become engaged to pretty, empty-headed Valerie Dean, a young woman that Nat has taken an instant dislike to. Paula is an actress & is desperate to borrow money from her uncle to put on a play written by Willoughby Roydon, a young man who writes serious plays about the sordid underbelly of modern life. Unsurprisingly none of his plays have been produced. Paula is excited about his new play because he's written a perfect part for herself. Nat's business partner, Edgar Mottisfont & Mathilda Clare, a cousin of the Herriads, make up the party.

Despite Joseph's desire to keep the party on an even keel, the cracks soon begin to appear. The guests arrive on Christmas Eve &, almost immediately, Nathaniel is rude to Valerie, who dislikes the house & its atmosphere. Stephen seems to be having second thoughts about his engagement anyway as he's rude to Valerie & abrasive with his uncle. Paula pushes everyone into hearing Roydon read his play & is then upset when Nathaniel is offended by the content. It seems it won't be so easy to get the money from Nathaniel & Roydon is upset because Paula had told him she would get the money as her inheritance so why shouldn't she have it now? Unfortunately she hadn't taken her uncle's disposition into account. Nathaniel has a meeting with Edgar Mottisfont which leaves Edgar furious & frightened. Then, Maud's copy of The Life of the Empress Elizabeth goes missing & Joseph & Mathilda have a hard time keeping the peace.

When the party assemble for dinner on Christmas Eve, they're all upset or angry to some degree. When Nathaniel doesn't appear, Joseph & Ford, the valet, go up to his room. The door's locked &, after calling Stephen to help, they break in, finding Nathaniel dead on the floor. It soon becomes apparent that he's been stabbed in the back. However, the door & windows were all locked &, apart from a tiny window in the bathroom, there seems no way a murderer could have escaped. The local police are called & then Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard arrives to take over the baffling case.

Envious Casca is a very good mystery, with almost everyone in the house party having a motive. As Inspector Hemingway puts it, "Here I've got no fewer than four hot suspects, and three possibles, all without alibis, and most of them with life-size motives, and I'm damned if I see my way to bringing it home to any of them." The locked room & the absence of a weapon is another twist in the tale. None of the house guests is particularly sympathetic, although I did like Mathilda Clare, a plain (or ugly, as Valerie Dean keeps emphasizing) thirtyish spinster with a dry sense of humour. I got to the solution ahead of the detectives but it was more to do with my knowledge of history than spotting any other clues. I liked Inspector Hemingway, he's intelligent & clever at choosing the right manner when questioning his suspects, from flirting with Valerie Dean to refusing to take umbrage when the very superior butler Sturry (who tends to speak in Capital Letters) turns his nose up at the police & sees the murder as a personal affront.

According to Jennifer Kloester's biography of Heyer, she had a very hard time writing the book, which was originally called Christmas Party. It was 1940, her brother-in-law was killed in action in May & she was upset & preoccupied by the news of the war. She had also just published The Spanish Bride & was worried by the opinion of some readers (including her mother) that her regular readers wouldn't enjoy it as much as her usual, lighter, books. She also felt that the subject matter - another European war, even though it was over a hundred years earlier - was ill-timed. Every time she tried to work on the mystery, she wanted to be writing a light romance instead. I also loved the anecdote in the biography that, after trying various titles for the book, she thought that Envious Casca would be a good title & assumed that everyone would recognize the allusion to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar & not be too annoyed that the number of stab wounds in the murders was different.

Envious Casca is about to be reprinted with the original title, A Christmas Party, in time for Christmas this year. I think there's also a nod to the very successful British Library Crime Classics in the cover art of the reprint. The BLCC series has a new Christmas book out as well, a collection of short stories, Silent Nights, selected by Martin Edwards. My copy is on its way. There's also a reprint of an earlier BLCC title, The Santa Klaus Murder, with a new cover (a great improvement on the hideous cover it had when first published a few years ago). I doubt the British Library Crime Classics would be so successful if they hadn't come up with that gorgeous cover art based on railway posters. All the earlier titles have been reprinted with covers in this style & I'm sure their sales must have improved. A copy of Envious Casca is available at Anglophile Books.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Winifred Holtby

Each chapter in Vera Brittain's Testament of Friendship is prefaced with one of Winifred's poems. I especially like this one, The Harvest at Anlaby. It explores the history of the Yorkshire country that Winifred knew & loved & the continuity of rural life. It reminds me a little of Edward Thomas's poems of the English countryside. Tuesday is the 80th anniversary of Winifred Holtby's death so this is in remembrance of her.

The heavy wains slow moving go
Across the broad autumnal wold
To great brown-throated men below
Who gather in the glowing gold. 

And thus it was they harvested,
They harvested at Anlaby
Before the Danes from Bessingly
Flooded the manor like the sea,
And left Earl Godwin’s barley red—
At Anlaby.

The lovers linger down the lane
When moths awake and small owls cry.
Their dresses fade, as pale moons wane,
And glimmer as they wander by. 

And thus it was they made their vows at Anlaby,
When all the wolds were young as they
Amongst the dusky sheaves they lay,
And kissed beneath the darkened boughs
At Anlaby

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Testament of Friendship - Vera Brittain

A few weeks ago I read John Forster's biography of Charles Dickens & one of the things I loved most about it was that Forster & Dickens were friends & he brought all his personal knowledge of Dickens to the biography. Vera Brittain's biography of Winifred Holtby is also the story of their friendship. I first read this book over 20 years ago &, as it's 80 years since the death of Holtby this month, I wanted to read it again.

Winifred was born in 1898, the daughter of a farming family in Yorkshire. Her schooldays were unremarkable, the most memorable event was being caught up in the Zeppelin raid over Scarborough during the War. Her family life was happy. Her father, David, ran the farm & her mother, Alice, eventually became the first female County Councilor in the East Riding, an achievement Winifred was very proud of. She based Mrs Beddows in her novel South Riding on her mother. In the last year of the War, Winifred joined the WAACs & helped to run a hostel in France for a Signals unit. It was at Huchenneville that she met her lifelong friend Jean McWilliam. Jean later emigrated to South Africa & their correspondence was published as Letters to a Friend.

Vera & Winifred met at Oxford after WWI. On the surface, they were unlikely friends. Vera had nursed throughout the War, had lost her fiancé, her brother & two close friends. She returned to Oxford bruised & exhausted by her experiences. Winifred's war had been quite different. Too young to join up until almost the end, she had lost no one close to her. Physically they were quite different. Winifred was tall, blonde, gregarious & outgoing. Vera was small, dark, pretty & intense. They first met during History tutorials & clashed over a debate where Vera felt ambushed by Winifred & the other students who hadn't suffered as she had done. Eventually though, they became friends &, when they graduated, decided to live together in London to pursue their dream of becoming writers.

Winifred's first novel, Anderby Wold, was accepted for publication & she was also in demand as a teacher. She was careful never to accept a full-time teaching post because she knew that writing & journalism was what she wanted to do. Vera & Winifred also became involved in the League of Nations Union (the precursor of the United Nations) & did a lot of lecturing for the cause of peace in Europe. Winifred's life was so full of commitments that it's exhausting to read. She became involved in encouraging Trade Unionism in South Africa after she spent five months touring & lecturing there; she wrote for the feminist journal, Time and Tide, & became a member of the Board; she continued tutoring & lecturing for the causes of peace & feminism that she felt so strongly about & she kept writing fiction. She was always disappointed in the results because she felt she was never able to satisfactorily carry out her original inspiration.

Winifred also spent a considerable amount of time supporting friends & family. She was an integral part of the household when Vera married Gordon Catlin in 1925 & helped to look after the children & encourage Vera in her work, especially when she was writing Testament of Youth. Family responsibilities also took her back to Yorkshire & she supported many friends both emotionally & financially when she could. She was always in demand as a lecturer & reviewer & her own needs often took second place. When she was at Oxford, so many friends came to her rooms to talk about their problems or just as a meeting place that she often had to go to the library to study, leaving them in possession. This exemplifies Winifred's unselfishness but also highlights one of the downsides of her nature. She was so busy supporting other people that her own needs often went unrecognised. She had never been strong & when her health began to fail, she was eventually diagnosed with kidney disease. She died in September 1935 at the age of just 37.

Testament of Friendship is such an interesting book on many levels. On one level, it's the story of a woman who was loved by everyone, almost a saint in her unselfish devotion to other people. It's the story of a life cut short by illness & of potential unrealized. On another level, this is as much a book about Vera as it is about Winifred. Even the title of the book links it to her own Testament of Youth. Vera's motives for writing the book have been much analysed. She states in the Prologue that she wanted to write a book about female friendship, a relationship that has not been celebrated as male friendship has been through the centuries. She wanted to celebrate a friendship that had saved her sanity after the losses of the War & maybe wanted to atone for her own feelings of guilt over taking advantage of Winifred's good nature. There's definitely an element of guilt here but there's also a feeling of proprietorship over Winifred's life that upset Alice Holtby & Winifred's other friends. Vera was Winifred's literary executor & saw South Riding through the Press after her death, even though Mrs Holtby didn't want it published.

Vera even gave Winifred a love story, a romance that, in reality, was so tenuous as to hardly exist. Was this because she wanted to show that Winifred had been a "normal" woman (far from the rumours of lesbianism & ménage a trois that circulated about Winifred, Vera & Gordon) or was it from a feeling of guilt that the demands of Vera, her family & friends prevented Winifred ever having time for a life of her own? After reading Testament of Friendship, I went back to Vera's diaries of the 1930s (published as Chronicle of Friendship) & read the entries for Winifred's last days. I was astonished all over again at how Vera stage-managed a death-bed proposal of marriage from the man she calls Bill in the biography at a time when Winifred was so ill that she could hardly see or recognize anyone. In the biography, this is presented as the touching end to a lifelong romance.

I loved the way the book opens, with a conscious imitation of the way Elizabeth Gaskell begins her Life of Charlotte Brontë. The pilgrimage to a Yorkshire village, recreating the steps of the literary pilgrim through the village to the churchyard where Winifred's grave lies. It's a beautiful piece of writing, the descriptions of nature & the countryside are just gorgeous & she ends with a description of the grave & the explicit comparison of Winifred with Charlotte Brontë. When I reread Testament of Youth earlier this year I noticed how often Vera prefigures the end of her story all the way through. She does this again here. I also loved all the details of Winifred's journalistic career & her work with Lady Rhondda, owner of Time and Tide. The quotations from Winifred's letters bring her to life with all her good humour & self-deprecation.

One of the lingering questions in a biography of a woman who died so young is, what might she have done differently if she'd known that she would die at 37? Would she have concentrated on her fiction? Would she have been more ruthless about the encroachments of others? Somehow I don't think she would. She was ill for several years before her death &, apart from her determination to finish South Riding, she kept on as she always had - supporting her friends, even going on holiday with Vera & her children when she was obviously not well so that Vera would be able to keep believing that she would recover. Testament of Friendship isn't the whole story of Winifred Holtby (Marion Shaw's The Clear Stream is an excellent modern biography) just as Forster's Life of Dickens isn't the whole story of Charles Dickens. Both books, however, are invaluable for the personal insights they give into the lives of their subjects. Copies of many of the books mentioned in this post can be found at Anglophile Books.