“He lives in a house, a very big house in the country.” (Blur)

In the words of Sir Noddy of Holder, “It’s ChristmAAAAAAAs!”

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If you are already baulking at the thought of spending several days trapped together with your dearest loved ones, a selection tin of chocolates and a turkey that never seems to end despite the fact that everyone somnambulates around with its half-masticated flesh hanging from their mouths for at least twenty hours in every day, then take heart. Being trapped together in country houses has provided some wonderful material for Christmas reads, and escaping into one will prevent you killing off your relatives (which I wouldn’t recommend anyway, because you are, in crime-story parlance, part of a closed circle of suspects and you’ll definitely get found out).

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(Image from here)

Firstly, The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay (1936), a novel from the golden age of detective fiction which has been re-published by the British Library Crime Classics series.  The Melbury family, despite their inherent distaste for one another, spend Christmas together at Flaxmere, the country seat of Sir Osmond Melbury. Sir Osmond is deeply unlikeable, a controlling patriarch who manipulates his family through threats of disinheritance. His daughter Jennifer attempts a certain degree of rebellion:

“She developed some sort of life of her own by working in the Women’s Institutes, but these activities were hampered by Sir Osmond, who disapproved of what he considered the Bolshevist tendencies of the movement.”

Of course, it’s no surprise to the reader that it is Sir Osmond who meets a sticky end, shot in the head by someone clearly undertaking a Yuletide charitable act for the benefit of his family. Suspicion falls on the guest dressed in the Santa costume (definitely not the actual Santa, kids, don’t worry)who discovered the body. Colonel Halstock, Chief Constable of Haulmshire and friend of the family, is brought into investigate.  The realisation that in fact there were two people wandering around in Santa outfits is brought to the Colonel’s attention:

“there was a tap at the door and in walked Miss Portisham and George’s son, Kit. The child strutted in, very pleased with himself, and yet a little nervous. I couldn’t think for a moment what made him look so absurd. Of course, it was the eyebrows!  He had tufts of bushy white hair stuck onto his brows, rather crookedly, one of them taking a satirical tilt towards his temple.”

This being a golden age novel there are false wills, documents half-burnt and discovered in fireplaces, faithful old retainers speaking in regional accents, and a thwarted young couple. The Christmas setting is perfect for a country house murder:

 “they must be having a pretty awful time, I realized, especially as they were, most of them, not given to intellectual occupations. They were forbidden to leave the house, except to walk up and down the drive within sight. They could find nothing to do except sit about and suspect one another.”

So there you are, if you find yourself sitting around on Christmas Day gazing at your loved ones and suspecting them of murder, it’s probably best to distract yourself with an intellectual pursuit or a long walk. Besides, I guarantee they almost definitely didn’t kill anyone.

 

Secondly, Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford (1932, the lovely edition above is by Capuchin Classics, 2012), in which no murders take place despite a family being holed-up together in a country house for the season.

“’Oh what heavenly fun it will be!’ and Bobby vaulted over some fairly low railings and back, casting off for a moment his mask of elderly roué and slipping on that of a tiny-child-at-its-first-pantomime, another role greatly favoured by this unnatural boy.”

This being Mitford, the family and assorted hangers-on have names like Bobby Bobbin, Lord Leamington Spa, and my favourite, Squibby Almanack.  Christmas Pudding is just such a joy – a silly, farcical, witty, clever, well-observed joy. There’s a plot of sorts: pretentious author Paul Fotheringay wangles his way into Compton Bobbin – “one of those houses which abound in every district of rural England, and whose chief characteristic is that they cannot but give rise, on first sight, to a feeling of depression in any sensitive observer” – under false pretences of being a tutor to the mercurial Bobby, and finds himself vying with Lord Lewes for the romantic attentions of Philadelphia Bobbin. But really, who cares? The fun of this novel isn’t in what happens, it’s in Mitford’s sharp observations “a woman had either a good reputation or an international reputation” and ridiculous characters interacting with one another.

“Bobby was now seldom to be seen; he spent most of his time giggling in corners with Miss Heloise Potts, a pretty black-eyed little creature of seventeen who substituted parrot-like shrieks and screams of laughter for the more usual amenities of conversation”

“’Squibby dear,’ said the duchess, waving an empty glass at Bobby as she spoke, ‘just tell me something. Have you seen Rosemary and Laetitia latishly? Are they alright, the sweet poppets?’”

I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that Lady Bobbin never met Lord Melbury, as she also tends to blame the Bolsheviks for anything she doesn’t like (in this instance foot-and-mouth disease which prevents her hunting). But if you think these references mean Mitford’s work is politically dated, let me give you this little nugget:

“He was evidently a man of almost brutish stupidity, and Paul, who had hardly ever met any Conservative Members of Parliament before, was astounded to think that such a person could be tolerated for a moment at the seat of government.”

Ahem.

I highly recommend this, in fact I’m almost tempted to say the thing that should never be said about humourous novels, but its Christmas and I’m drunk feeling festive so I’m going to say it anyway: if you like Wodehouse, I think you’ll like this 🙂

If this has whetted your appetite for golden age country house mysteries, the BBC is screening an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None (which is admittedly an island house rather than a rural one) on Boxing Day:

Season’s Greetings to you all!

“Going underground, going underground” (The Jam)

There were a few blissful weeks over the summer when everyone took their kids on holiday and my commute to work was almost bearable, because it was done with approximately two-thirds less people than usual.  Now those halcyon days are well and truly behind us and everyone’s back at work, I thought I’d try reading about public transport to see if it fills me with new-found affection for my early morning travel.  Given that I’m reading during said commute, with my book touching my nose and my head wedged into someone’s armpit, there’s still some way to go, despite the efforts of some wonderful staff.

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Firstly,  Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. This was the first of Hay’s three crime novels, and is part of the British Library Crime Classics re-issues, which I completely adore. I love these so much I even bought one full-price the other day, rather than waiting for them to turn up in charity bookshops, which is something I never do.  This could be the start of a slippery slope….

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The wonderfully-monikered Miss Euphemia Pongleton is found strangled by her own dog leash on the stairs of Belsize Park station (for those of you who know the Misery Northern line – see, it can get worse – you could be dead).   Suspicion falls on her wastrel nephew Basil Pongleton, whom she was constantly inheriting and disinheriting:

“It’s awfully difficult to explain and I had a ghastly time with the police yesterday. Wonder they didn’t arrest me right away, but they’re keeping an eye on me. I noticed a fishy-looking fellow with police-feet lounging opposite my window in Tavistock Square this morning”

The dialogue is definitely part of the appeal of golden age detective fiction for me, it’s just wonderful. While Basil is dithering around making matters worse, his eminently more sensible cousin Beryl tries to unravel the mystery.  Miss Pongleton lodged at the Frampton Hotel, and each of the eccentric fellow boarders has their part to play.  My favourite was Mrs Daymer:

“a middle-aged lady who liked to accentuate the gaunt strangeness of her appearance by unfashionable clothes. She would explain proudly that they were of hand-woven material…perhaps their intimate connection with the sheep justified their particular unwieldiness”

Mrs Daymer, who gives off a smell of wet sheep in the rain, is unperturbed by the murder as she writes crime fiction and likes to “suck [people] dry” for her novels. Between her and Beryl, they manage to piece together what happened.  This being the golden age, there is a missing will, confusion over some pearls and an obese terrier (ok, so that last one isn’t really a trope but I had to give him a mention). Murder Underground is not the most taxing mystery (I’m useless at guessing who done it, and even I got this one quite early) but it’s a great example of this period in detective fiction, and very readable.

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If only this poster was right… unfortunately I find it the swiftest way to passive-aggressive tutting, both given and received.

Secondly, Metroland by Julian Barnes. I don’t always get on with Julian Barnes.  I can see he’s a highly accomplished writer, but I find him coldly intellectual and distancing.  However, in Metroland I think he does capture something about a certain time in late adolescence and the wish for a brave new world. Christopher and his friend Toni live in the suburbs at the tail end of the Metropolitan line, and wish they didn’t:

“Toni and I prided ourselves on being rootless. We also aspired to future condition of rootlessness, and saw no contradiction in the two states of mind; or in the fact that we each lived with our parents, who were, for that matter, the freeholders of our respective homes.”

Yes, Christopher and Toni are hugely pretentious snobs.  They desperately wish to be French, which leads them into unintentionally hilarious scenarios like trying to be flaneurs along Oxford Street.  They also talk about art with a capital A:

“Art was the most important thing in life, the constant to which one could be unfailingly devoted and which would never cease to reward; more crucially it was the stuff whose effect on those exposed to it was ameliorative.”

Oh dear.  But in case you’re wondering why on earth you would want to spend any time in this idiot’s company,  I do think it’s worth it.  As I said, I find Barnes can be cold, but actually his portrait of Christopher is quite affectionate, and although you laugh at his pretentions, he’s not contemptible, just young and striving for something different to that with which he has grown up.  Christopher gets his wish and moves to France, but of course he doesn’t quite end up living the life he imagined. Metroland is about how its not always a disaster to not achieve your dreams, and how ordinary can also equal happy.

To end, a wonderfully British reaction to an unusual happening on the tube (for those of you not of these isles, rest assured that the response from passengers at the end is actually a huge outpouring of unconditional enthusiasm, I promise you):

“Babies don’t need a vacation, but I still see them at the beach…” (Steven Wright)

The rest of that title quote is: “It pisses me off! I’ll go over to a little baby and say ‘What are you doing here? You haven’t worked a day in your life!’” Unfortunately right now I’m working every day of my life and that pisses me off no end.  Being the eternal student means any spare spondoolicks go towards debt repayment, so no holiday for me for the foreseeable future. As a bibliophile, the obvious answer to this is a vicarious holiday via the printed word.  Here I am reading in my local park:

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Just kidding – I don’t like Walt Whitman.

Firstly, I’m having a staycation with The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude. I love golden age detective novels, and this is one of the wonderful re-issues under the British Library Crime Classics series.  Set in the coastal Cornish village of Boscawen, the Reverend Dodd and his friend Dr Pendrill are avid consumers of detective fiction, meeting every Monday for dinner and to divide the spoils of their library parcels:

“heaven forbid that the shadow of any crime should ever fall across the grey-stoned cottages, the gorse dotted commons and cliff-girdled seas of his beloved parish. He preferred to get his excitement second-hand and follow the abstruse machinations of purely imaginary criminals”

Reverend Dodd doesn’t get his wish however, as someone murders the dastardly Julius Tregarthen, bringing the pragmatic Inspector Bigswell to the village, in direct contrast to the Reverend’s more idiosyncratic detective style:

“it’s always struck me that the detective in fiction is inclined to underrate the value of intuition. Now, if I had to solve a problem like this, I should first dismiss all those people who, like Caesar’s wife, were above suspicion, merely because my intuition refused to let me think otherwise. Then I should set to work on what remained and hope for the best!”

This approach seems highly dubious to me, but then even the level-headed Inspector has his own prejudices, as he records in his notebook:

“Three shots entered the room at widely scattered points. The garden is fifteen feet in length. This argues a poor shot.  Probably a woman.”

Between the two of them however, they of course manage to find the villain.  The Cornish Coast Murder is not the greatest detective story ever written, but it is entertaining and well-paced, and has a surprising sympathy for the murderer – this is not a clear-cut case of right/wrong. Bude went on to write other cases set in picturesque tourist traps  – The Lake District Murder, The Sussex Downs Murder.  He didn’t change his pseudonym to a local town each time though, disappointingly (John Ambleside? John Bexhill-on-Sea?)  I may take another holiday later in the season to Bude’s other murderous locations…

Secondly, and in direct contrast to the cosy Cornish amateur detecting, The Shore by Sara Taylor. I can’t claim this as a relaxing vacation read, despite the beautiful cover:

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The Shore tells the lives of islanders off the coast of Virginia. The chapters are told from the viewpoints of different characters and move back and forth across time from the nineteenth century to the twenty-second, showing how people, bloodlines, events and actions are all interwoven. Taylor’s writing is breathtakingly beautiful but her gaze is unflinching:

“The Shore is flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow…We take the force out of hurricanes, grow so much food that a lot of it rots on the vine because there’s too much to pick or eat, but people say the government doesn’t remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the maps.”

Life on The Shore is not easy – the people are brutal and brutalised, violent and destructive – particularly towards women. At times the unrelenting harshness of the lives depicted made this a tough read, but Taylor’s writing is so original, so tight and accomplished, that I felt myself drawn onwards, like one of her characters unable to stop themselves:

“[I] have been easing back into the landscape like putting on a favourite coat. I hate this place and I love this place and I don’t know if I want to go as far away as possible or ever leave.”

The Shore is its own place, with its own rules.  There are ‘witches’ – women bearing the scars of domestic violence who medicate those in need with traditional remedies from the land – and storm bringers, young girls with gifts inherited from their grandfathers:

“She finds a breeze, gives it a twist, and pulls the particles across the bay like teasing knots out of her sister Lilly’s hair.  It is a gradual process, and her pace slows as she waits. The ambient moisture begins to bead and grow heavy , a million pregnant bellies.  Then, she brings it down.”

The Shore is truly astonishing. It’s definitely one to read only when you’re feeling robust enough to take it, but I wholeheartedly recommend it.

 “The stars are smeared across the sky, not the pretty scatter that most people imagine, but a crush of millions in the beautiful, pure darkness”

For me, this sentence sums up The Shore.  It is striking, unsettling, the imagery is unexpected and there is a hint of violence – all from the point of view of an individual who knows how powerless they are but still carries hope.

To end, the obvious choice of Madge (who appeared in Desperately Seeking Susan, as did Steven Wright who started the post – this was, of course, complete coincidence brilliant planning on my part) in a video where the budget appears to have been maxed-out on matching bangles for all concerned…these were simpler times, people.  All together now: “Holidaaay! Celebraaaate!” :