A read from the 1980s this week – Peter Dickinson’s The Last Houseparty. I was a big fan of his works for children, in particular the Changes trilogy, set in an England that had gone backwards, when the machines were smashed and the population took up the lives of medieval peasants, with only a handful of children somehow immune, and able to remember a time when there were machines.
I found echoes of this in The Last Houseparty, which flits between eras, from 1937, when the eponymous houseparty took place, an encounter in the North African desert in 1941, up to the early 1980s (the mention of Laker Airways dates this). In the present day, the young daughter of Lady Snailwood’s secretary is an adult, showing visitors round the house, which is falling apart, the famous mechanical clock and its rotating figures now still. In the past, the two Quintain cousins have been invited by their aunt Zena to entertain at her political salon. Zena was meddling in affairs of state, and seems to be trying to settle the Middle East, but the talk is largely of how to prevent the coming war.
During the weekend, a number of terrible things happen, initially only mentioned obliquely in the present day, so that the reader has to act as detective, slowly revealing more and more of the picture, but the truth is only made clear in the final paragraph. This left a rather bitter taste, and I wanted to like this more. It is perhaps more of a literary novel than crime fiction, despite the crime. The author has obviously carried out extensive research into clock workings, cars of the 1930s, and croquet, amongst other things, but somehow the characters never quite spring to life. One for the “interesting but tastes have changed” pile.
Set in the early part of the year in a snow-bound Dorset, Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman sees Jonathan Royal invite a houseparty of guests who are guaranteed to get along spectacularly badly. He has chosen his poet/playwright friend, Aubrey Mandrake, to be a spectator at this “Big Brother House” set-up, which includes Mrs Compline, her face ruined by botched plastic surgery, the surgeon who had spent the last 20 years hiding from his handiwork, the two Compline brothers William and Nicholas, and the girl who was engaged to one and then the other, plus two female rivals who ran beauty parlours.
As the snow comes down, the party are trapped at Highfold Manor, and it is not long before the guests turn, first to attempted murder, then an actual killing. Each is suspicious of the other, ready to betray the other, and as the tension mounts, Mandrake catalogues the alibis of each. It all hangs on the evidence of Thomas, the footman who was dancing in the hallway to the strains of “Hands, Knees and Boomps-a-daisy.”
This was written in 1942 and is very evidently a war novel. A character opens his window after dark, then remembers the black-out. Talk of war is forbidden after dinner, as too depressing, and when the murderer is finally revealed, the detective Roderick Alleyn feels strongly how ironic it is to hang an individual when elsewhere people are being killed wholesale. Alleyn only appears towards the end, the snow having prevented anyone sending for help for several days, so we see much of the story from Mandrake’s point of view. I was surprisingly engaged, having not read Marsh for many years. There are some interesting plot twists, and a rising pitch of tension up to the end. On my “Keep and Re-Read” pile.
Just the Facts Ma’am Challenge – Gold/ What/Reference to man or woman in the title
The seasonal reading continues with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, first published in 1938, and it’s fascinating to read it in close proximity to last week’s read by Mavis Doriel Hay, published in 1936. Christie back then was the younger generation, her language much more lively than her older competitors, her pacing influenced by that of the theatre, and she could have given a masterclass in the writerly advice to “show, don’t tell”. Here, rather than the detailed listing of relatives, Christie, in a series of short scenes, introduces the members of the Lee family who make up the Christmas guests at Gorston Hall.
In HP’s Christmas, once again a patriarch has gathered his five children round him, in this case four sons and rather than a daughter, the child of his daughter who married a Spaniard and died. He sets his children against each other, talks openly of changing his will, and is then found murdered, in a locked room. It is left to Poirot and Inspector Sugden to pick their way through the alibis and motives, until the final, unguessable, unveiling of the murderer.
This is a lively read and I suspect for me will become part of the pile of comfort reading that will resurface in Christmases to come.
This week, it’s a British Library classic, Mavis Doriel Hay’s The Santa Klaus Murder. Sir Osmond Melbury has invited his entire family, all four daughters and his son, with their respective partners and children, to the ancestral home of Flaxmere for Christmas. As is the way with families, all is not sweetness and light, particularly not Sir Osmond, who is wrapped round the little finger of his secretary Grace.
It will therefore surprise no one to read that Sir Osmond is found dead in the library, shortly after the Christmas presents have been distributed. The police are called, and after a complex series of alibis are aired, the wrong-doer is revealed.
I found this heavy going. The first few pages were almost a genealogy textbook, with the explanation of the family tree, and while it was relevant to learn that Sir Osmond treated his daughters particularly poorly, the initial pace was slow. Some of the language has dated badly (“she flung herself into his arms incontinently” doesn’t mean she wet herself, but it sounds almost as if..) The ending was neatly done, but it took a lot of work to get there.
One of Martin Edwards’ 100 books was Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch, written in 1933, and subsequently filmed as The Spiral Staircase. It is a classic Gothic mystery, with a young woman, friendless and alone in the world, arriving at a large remote house on the Welsh Marches to look after a strange collection of people, one of whom may be trying to kill her. Of course, because this always happens to orphans. Of course there’s a mad old lady in the attic, and a garrulous servant who tells of all the other young women who went missing, and how she must never go out after dark alone…
Needless to say, our heroine, a sparky redhead, is determined to solve the mystery once and for all, despite both the ominous warnings and the ratcheting tension between the characters. Unfortunately to my mind, there was too much foreshadowing of the “little did she know” variety, and many of the author’s idioms sounded archaic or slightly odd, which detracted from the narrative flow. Perhaps it’s because I read this in a large-print version from my local library. The large-print editions are wonderful for giving the reader a sense of achievement, and I can read fifty pages in no time, but it also means that any strangeness in phrasing is magnified and harder to ignore.
Best regarded as of historical interest, but for a more modern take, Mary Stewart did this without the theatricality some forty years later.
“Murder of a Lady: a Scottish Mystery” by Anthony Wynne was published in 1931, but in many ways reads as if it were written fifty years earlier. It feels more of a contemporary piece with Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” than with Agatha Christie or other Golden Age writers. Miss Gregor, the Lady of the title, is said to have preferred candles to oil lamps, having never got the hang of modern technology, and I was left wondering if the author preferred some of the language and phrasing of his Victorian forebears, even though he has adopted the pace of his contemporaries.
The story is set in Argyllshire, on the shores of Loch Fyne. The laird of Duchlan finds his sister dead at her bedside, in a locked room. He calls the police, but Dr Hailey, staying with a friend locally, has also had some experience in these matters, and is drawn in to the mysterious events at Duchlan Castle. The old lady is far from being the saint she was trying to be, instead taking a malicious interest in the lives of others, in particular that of her nephew and his wife Oonagh, and their young son.
There are plenty of twists in the tale, and Wynne is not afraid to let the body count rack up. There are decidedly modern parallels with the current crop of psychological thrillers, in that the psychology of the victim is investigated thoroughly, for, as Dr Hailey believes, if you fully understand the victim, you fully understand the murderer. There are plenty of digs against the Lowland Scots and the perception of the Highlanders as being prone to belief in the supernatural. And why is there a fish scale at the scene of the crime?
This is an admirable and skilful work of fiction. I hadn’t expected how much enjoyment I would extract from it, and provided one is feeling up to the Victorian turns of phrase, an excellent wet-weather read.
Before Easter, I couldn’t find a suitable Easter mystery to read, but during the holiday I found a handy list from Janet Rudolph, and before you know it, I’m on Amazon and my finger has strayed towards the buy-it button. Also on her site I found a link to awards for light-hearted crime, and there were more lists of books I’m sure I’d like and I could just go and check them out on A…. Step Away From the List. Now. (I have a librarianship gene: two of my aunts were librarians, and in moments of stress I tend to acquire books. Heredity’s a powerful thing.)
Meanwhile, back at the reading pile, I found “Thirteen Guests” by J. Jefferson Farjeon waiting. I really liked this, fortunately, because he was the brother of a favourite childhood author, Eleanor Farjeon, author of (among others) “The Little Bookroom“. Her brother writes with more emotion than many of his contemporaries, and I particularly enjoyed his amateur sleuth, the journalist Bultin, who found that fame only reached his doorstep once he stopped being nice. Most of the characters are viewed through the eyes of an inadvertent guest, John Foss, who catches his foot in the train door at the local station, and is brought up to the house by a fellow guest, the femme fatale Nadine Leveridge. Foss is then conveniently put up in a room just off the front hall, where he can hear all the comings and goings in the house.
The thirteen guests at Bragley Court, seat of Lord Aveling, are well set up, with plenty of secrets and motives established early on. The detection element, and the police inspector, seem to play a secondary role to that of the house-guests, and the ending is rushed, suddenly becoming more mechanical. However, it’s worth reading for the early chapters, and it left me wanting to read more of his work.