“Give me a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” (Anna Christie, (Greta Garbo) 1930)

You may remember, back in the mists of time (14-20 October), the 1930 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Although I took part, I’d hoped to do two posts, but was far too disorganised with the second one. Karen kindly said I could sneak in a late entry, so here it is, very much overdue and very much overlong!

My excuse is I’m having renovations done in my tiny flat and the whole place is in disarray to say the least. It has made me clear out 19 sacks of books to the lovely charity bookshop, but the overall effect on my shelves has been negligible. Which makes me think I should just give in and accumulate books until they take over entirely and smother me. A good way to go in my opinion.

Back to 1930! Do have a look at all the wonderful posts from people who managed to post on time – it turned out to be a great year 😊

Firstly, some cosy crime courtesy of the British Library Crime Classics series, The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton.

The titular village is a pretty place in East Anglia, but somewhat isolated and insular “with that curious half-mistrustful air not uncommon among the natives of East Anglia.” 😀

Strangers are not welcome in High Eldersham, and Samuel Whitehead, retired police officer and local publican, was one such stranger. Still, he seemed to have settled in relatively well right up until the point that someone stabbed him to death. Inspector Young is called in from Scotland Yard and immediately suspects one of the locals:

“He knew from experience that brutal murders, inspired by some entirely inadequate motive, were not uncommon. They were nearly always due to the workings of an unbalanced mind, brooding over some fancied grievance until the lust of blood was awakened. Then the hitherto harmless and peaceful individual became a criminal… He would await his opportunity and deliver the blow. And, the deed once perpetrated, he would return to normal sanity. It was not unlikely that the murder of Whitehead was due to such causes.”

It’s hardly a robust theory. Young is not an idiot though, and he quickly unearths the titular secret, although that doesn’t tell him who murdered the pub landlord, or why. He decides to call on his old friend Desmond Merrion “a living encyclopaedia upon all manner of obscure subjects which the ordinary person knew nothing about.”

And so the professional and amateur detective set about solving the mystery, which to modern readers won’t be much mystery at all – its very clear what’s going on. That’s not a criticism though. I suspect in 1930 it wasn’t quite so obvious, and it doesn’t matter now – the comfort of these plot-driven golden age stories is watching everything play out exactly as it’s supposed to, and I enjoyed following Young and Merrion as they discovered the extent of the dastardly deed.

While it’s not the most sophisticated in terms of plot or characterisation, The Secret of High Eldersham still has enough about it to pull you along. It also doesn’t fall foul of many of the prejudices of GA detective fiction either. Despite the bizarre opinion of East Anglians that I quoted at the beginning, in fact the residents aren’t made too yokely; there’s no racism/anti-Semitism that I can remember; and the loveliness of the female love interest isn’t dwelt upon and she’s actually allowed to have a personality.

Burton doesn’t hang about – there’s very little filler here. He gets on with telling the story and once that’s done, it ends. So, a quick, cosy crime read, perfect autumnal reading as the nights get longer for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

Simon also reviewed TSOHE for the 1930 Club and you can read his review here.

In my last post I looked at EM Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady which included this entry:

August 31st.—Read The Edwardians which everybody else has read months ago—and am delighted and amused. Remember that V. Sackville-West and I once attended dancing classes together at the Albert Hall, many years ago, but feel that if I do mention this, everybody will think I am boasting—which indeed I should be—so better forget about it again, and in any case, dancing never my strongest point, and performance at Albert Hall extremely mediocre and may well be left in oblivion.”

Although I don’t have much in common with the Provincial Lady’s life of ease, like her I enjoyed The Edwardians, which Sackville-West told Virginia Woolf she was writing to ‘make my fortune. Such a joke it will be, and I hope everybody will be seriously annoyed.’

Although she saw it as a joke, its not really a comic novel. It tells the story of Sebastian, heir to the country estate of Chevron, and his sister Violet. Chevron is VSW’s beloved Knole, which she couldn’t inherit due to having ovaries, and which Virginia Woolf also immortalised as the home of Orlando.

The chapters are told from the point of view of different characters, beginning with adventurer Leonard Anquetil, who is not of the same class as the rest but has been invited to Sunday dinner because they think he will be amusing.

“And now the rest of the day must be got through somehow, but the members of the house-party, though surely spoilt by the surfeits of entertainment that life had always offered them, showed no disposition to be bored by each other’s familiar company, and no inclination to vary the programme which they must have followed on innumerable Sunday afternoons since they first emerged from the narrowness of school or schoolroom, to take their place in a world where pleasure fell like a ripened peach for the outstretching of a hand. Leonard Anquetil, watching them from outside, marvelled to see them so easily pleased. Here are a score or more of people, he thought, who by virtue of their position are accustomed to the intimate society of princes, politicians, financiers, wits, beauties, and other makers of history, yet are apparently content with desultory chatter and make-believe occupation throughout the long hours of an idle day. Nor could he pretend to himself that on other days they diverted themselves differently, or that their week-end provided a deserved relaxation from a fuller and more ardent life.”

Through Anquetil, our introduction to the lives of the privileged class is a sceptical one at the least, scathing at most. Yet VSW adored Knole, and through Sebastian’s feelings for Chevron we learn how feelings of home run deep, even when that home is a vast estate populated by many.

“Everybody, from Sebastian downwards, obtained exactly what they wanted; they had only to ask, and the request was fulfilled as though by magic. The house was really as self-contained as a little town; the carpenter’s shop, the painter’s shop, the forge, the sawmill, the hot-houses, were there to provide whatever might be needed at a moment’s notice. So the steward’s room, like the dining-room and the schoolroom, was never without its fruit and delicacies.”

Meeting Anquetil has an enduring effect on both Sebastian and Violet. Sebastian’s conflicted feelings about his class, privilege and the society he operates within are brought more to the fore.

“One half of Sebastian detested his mother’s friends; the other half was allured by their glitter. Sometimes he wanted to gallop away by himself to the world’s ends, sometimes he wanted to give himself up wholly to the flattering charm of pretty women. Sometimes he wished to see his whole acquaintance cast into a furnace, so vehemently did he deprecate them, sometimes he thought that they had mastered the problem of civilisation more truly than the Greeks or Romans. “Since one cannot have truth,” cried Sebastian, struggling into his evening shirt, “let us at least have good manners.” The thought was not original: his father had put it into his head, years ago, before he died. But this brings us to Sebastian’s private trouble: he never could make up his mind on any subject. It was most distressing. He had, apparently, no opinions but only moods,—moods whose sweeping intensity was equalled only by the rapidity of their change.” 

We follow Sebastian as he has affairs, becomes a fashionable man about town, and tries to figure out what he wants. In the background of this is his younger sister Violet, who seems a more determined and clear-sighted individual:

“She felt inclined to say, “Very well, if you want the truth, here it is. The society you live in is composed of people who are both dissolute and prudent. They want to have their fun, and they want to keep their position. They glitter on the surface, but underneath the surface they are stupid—too stupid to recognise their own motives. They know only a limited number of things about themselves: that they need plenty of money, and that they must be seen in the right places, associated with the right people. In spite of their efforts to turn themselves into painted images, they remain human somewhere, and must indulge in love-affairs, which sometimes are artificial, and sometimes inconveniently real. Whatever happens, the world must be served first. In spite of their brilliance, this creed necessarily makes them paltry and mean. Then they are envious, spiteful, and mercenary; arrogant and cold. As for us, their children, they leave us in complete ignorance of life, passing on to us only the ideas they think we should hold, and treat us with the utmost ruthlessness if we fail to conform.””

The plot is slight but I think it’s meant to be – one of VSW’s points is that nothing much happens to these people. I came away with a mixed picture of aristocratic life; on the one hand there is an unflinching portrayal of wasteful, privileged lives, but on the other hand, they are never entirely condemned. I suspect this mirrors VSW’s conflicted feelings on the issue, and it also stops the novel from being too judgemental and bitter.

I didn’t enjoy The Edwardians as much as the other Sackville-Wests I’ve read ( All Passion Spent and Family History) but maybe that’s because I didn’t find Sebastian particularly engaging. I felt Violet was off having a far more interesting time, living in her own flat, hanging out with Bohemians and falling in love. I would have liked to hear more about that, or even some more about their wonderfully bitchy mother. But that’s just personal preference and I do find VSW’s writing to be a great read.

To end, the classic musical Puttin’ on the Ritz was released in 1930. Imagine if you’d never heard that well known ‘reasonably straightforward syncopated 5/4 time signature’, you might struggle with it…

“Merry Christmas, Everyone” (Shakin’ Stevens)

After last week’s moany post, I have survived both work dos and I am in the Christmas spirit – joyeux noel!

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I even gifted to myself, in the shape of Karl Ove Knausgaard (if only) by going to see him interviewed for World Book Club, in the rather formal surrounds of the council chamber at the BBC (free wine! and crisps! so that’s where my licence fee goes – I approve). He was every bit as good-looking charming and erudite as I’d hoped so if you get a chance to listen to the show at some point (on in early January) I recommend it. And it warmed my post-Brexit heart to be part of such an international audience, so thank you BBC 🙂

Back to Christmas. At this time of seasonal over-indulgence, I’ve decided to exercise uncharacteristic restraint. Two Christmas stories, but both of them short stories, wee amuse-bouches that can easily be consumed by a brain threatening to slip into a vegetative state from the over-consumption of, well, everything really…

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OK, I can probably manage one more Ferrero Rocher…

Firstly, the titular story from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a selection of entrees by Agatha Christie (1960). Things begin in fine Golden Age form: Poirot is asked by a mysterious government-type to find a missing ruby that a foreign prince has mislaid on Blightly’s shores, in order to avoid an international incident. Poirot is hard to persuade and the government-type is close to losing his cool:

“Mr Jesmond made a peculiar noise rather like a hen who has decided to lay an egg and then thought better of it.”

Poirot decides to leave his lovely art deco flat (I want it! I want it!) once he knows his accommodation for Christmas has oil-fired central heating:

“Again Poirot shivered. The thought of a fourteenth-century English manor house filled him with apprehension. He had suffered too often in the historic country houses of England.”

I did enjoy that little swipe at the trope of country house mysteries.  Christie’s clearly having a great time writing this, evoking a traditional country house Christmas and then throwing everything at it, from faked murders to mysterious strangers to anonymous notes left for Poirot:

“Don’t eat none of the plum pudding. One as wishes you well.”

I think I’ve eaten that plum pudding. Of course, Poirot is on top of everything and speedily resolves murder, mystery, missing jewels and that most pressing of seasonal considerations: is the plum pudding safe?

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Secondly, again the titular story of a collection, this time Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1940), set in the time before her famous comic novel, and so the Starkadder family are in full disarray.

“The Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm had never got the hang of Christmas, somehow, and on Boxing Day there was always a run on Howling pharmacy for lint, bandages, and boracic powder.”

In this short story we are treated to a portrait of Christmas at the farm, a Christmas no-one in their right mind would want. Nothing particularly happens, it is more a series of events over the course of the day to display the Starkadders in all their colourful, brutal, hilarious glory.  If you’re not familiar with the family from Cold Comfort Farm, well, firstly, away with you and read the comic treat! But if you decide to read the Christmas story first, all you need to know about the family can be gleaned from the idiosyncratic and truly disgusting charms which grace the Christmas pudding:

“Him as gets the sticking plaster’ll break a limb; the menthol cone means as you’ll be blind wi’ headache, the bad coins means as you’ll lose all yer mony, and him as gets the coffin-nail will die afore the New Year. The mirror’s seven years’ bad luck for someone, Aie! In ye go, curse ye!”

Gibbon’s driest humour is saved not for the family but for those around them, such as the vicar who has been guided to pay a Christmas Eve visit by the crate of British Port-type wine he saw being delivered to the farm (surely there’s not enough port wine in the world to get you through a festive visit with the Starkadders?) If you enjoyed Cold Comfort Farm there’s much to relish in this brief visit to the family.  A treat.

Another treat - Rufus Sewell as Seth Starkadder in the 1996 BBC adaptation. Apparently Kate Beckinsale and a bull are in this photo too - I can't see them anywhere...

Another treat – Rufus Sewell as Seth Starkadder in the 1996 BBC adaptation. Apparently Kate Beckinsale and a bull are in this photo too – I can’t see them anywhere…

Image from here

To end, proof if proof were needed, that my ‘taste’ in Christmas tunes is very much of an era.  The post began with the double-denim Welsh Elvis that is Shaky, and now ends with the greatest Christmas video ever (non-debateable). There will never come a day when I’ve seen this too many times, I love everything about it. The snow, the ski lodge, the mullets, the meaningful looks over the tinsel, the death stare down the dining table… enjoy 😀

UPDATE: It was announced on Christmas Day that George Michael had died. Rest in Peace George, and thank you for all the tunes xx

“I don’t like to be out of my comfort zone, which is about a half an inch wide.” (Larry David)

Last week I wrote about dystopian novels, and Kaggsy commented that when things are bad, comfort reading is the thing, particularly golden age crime. A sage suggestion – it offers the escape of another time, and the reassurance of puzzles being solved, things being put right. So this week’s post is all about comfort. The comfort of people being stabbed in the back with knives, and left to freeze to death in the snow.

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Firstly, the golden age classic A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh (1934), the first of her novels featuring Chief Inspector Alleyn. I did enjoy this: a country house murder, a closed circle of suspects, class snobbery, unfounded paranoia about Bolsheviks; it was a perfect example of the genre 😀

Sir Hubert Handesley throws a party at his country house, to include a game of ‘Murder’ – you can probably guess what happens. During the time allotted to the game, a man who disappointingly, is never referred to as a cad or bounder though he is clearly both those things, is found stabbed in back, bleeding out next to the cocktail tray and the  dinner gong (love the incidental details of golden age mysteries!)  What’s more, the knife is Russian:

“‘Rum coincidence that the knife, your butler, and your guest should all be of the same nationality.’”

Enter Inspector Alleyn – dry of wit, Oxford of education, mysterious of background but suspiciously posh, not a man to be carried away by xenophobic paranoia, who sets about investigating the murder through an appealing mix of dogged attention to detail and flashes of flamboyance fuelled by his prodigious intelligence:

“‘As a rule,’ he observed, ‘there is much less to be gleaned from the clothes of a man with a valet  than from those of the poorer classes. “Highly recommended by successful homicide” would be a telling reference for any man-servant.’”

Ngaio Marsh’s authorial voice is similarly witty, making this novel a funny, entertaining puzzle.

“Mr Benningden was one of those small, desiccated gentleman so like the accepted traditional figure of a lawyer that they lose their individuality in their perfect conformation to type.”

A Man Lay Dead is perfectly paced (only 176 pages in my edition) and of course Alleyn gets his murderer, with a few red herrings along the way. I bought this as part of the perennially tempting collected sets from Book People, and I’m looking forward to working my way through the rest…

Patrick Malahide as Inspector Alleyn in the BBC adaptation

Patrick Malahide as Inspector Alleyn in the BBC adaptation

Image from here

Secondly, a novel I’m including as part of Women in Translation month – head over to Meytal’s blog to read all about WITmonth. Under the Snow by Kerstin Ekman (1961, trans. Joan Tate 1996) is not a golden age novel, but it offers much of the same appeal, being a straightforward, non-gory whodunit. Reading in the midst of a UK summer (such as it is) it also offered me an escape into a wintry Lapland landscape, far away from real life and the daily news which currently evokes this reaction in me:

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One winter’s night in a remote northern village in Lapland, a mah jong party gets out of hand (as they so frequently do, those crazy mah jong players) and the art teacher of the local school, Matti, is found frozen to death in the snow. Police officer Torsson is called into this small community:

“just like Torsson, the chief of police of this mining town had originally come from the south. Having carried out his duties for thirty-five years among a taciturn breed in a country where the winter is five thousand and sixty-four hours long, he had lost some of the animation in his speech and the cheerfulness he associated with brightly lit shopping streets and apple blossom. He did not like to be disturbed.”

Torsson feels something is not right with Matti’s death, but can’t prove it. The story then jumps forward to the summer, when Matti’s friend David arrives in the area:

“Occasionally the road seemed to be leading up to heaven, the car climbing in growling second-gear up kilometre-long hills towards the empty sky…this July day was clear, the sky blue. The mountains seemed to him to be the most immobile and largest objects he had ever seen. Top marks to you, old chap, he thought, for David Malm travels round the world, painting, and he’s seen a thing or two”

David and Torsson form an unlikely partnership as they start exploring the events of the winter night in the midst of the relentless daylight of summer within the Arctic Circle. The overweight, steady, unemotional Torsson has been underestimated by the villagers but alongside the more flamboyant David progress is made. The mystery itself is straightforward (the novel is only just over 200 pages) but the atmosphere evoked by the extremes of light in the different seasons is fully utilised by Ekman to create an eerie, unsettling atmosphere.

“there is infinite patience up here. This is due to time, which thanks to the sun’s strange behaviour exists here in different proportions. A year is one long cycle of cold night and blistering light day. The celestial clock turns rather majestically when you live right underneath the pendulum.”

To end, a cornucopia of comfort 🙂

Bagpuss, Michael Palin and ponies images from here, here, here