“You are a lost generation.” (Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway, 1920)

Miracle of miracles, I have managed to join in with the 1920 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. My reading capacity is still not great due to all that’s happening in the world and my work remains manic, so I thought I might not make it, but here we go on it’s final day: a hastily written and fairly incoherent contribution from me 😊

Firstly, Queen Lucia by EF Benson, the first in his hugely popular Mapp and Lucia series. Back when we were allowed in bookshops, I’d picked up a lovely box set of the first three novels from my favourite charity bookshop so I’m glad the 1920 Club gave me an incentive to get started.

We meet Emmeline Lucas arriving back in her home of Riseholme from London, and deciding to send her fly on ahead with her luggage, in order to cause a stir amongst her neighbours:

“dramatic instincts that formed so large a part of her mentality, and made her always take by right divine, the leading part in the histrionic entertainments with which the cultured of Riseholme beguiled, or rather strenuously occupied, such moments that could be spared from their studies of art and literature, and their social engagements.”

Immediately we know all we need to know: nothing happens in Riseholme, and Lucia is the centre of nothing happening.

“Mrs Lucas amused herself, in the intervals of her pursuit of Art for Art’s sake, with being not only an ambassador but a monarch…Mrs Lucas, busy and serene, worked harder than any of subjects, and exercised control that was both popular and autocratic.”

Lucia is an unmitigated snob with pretensions of cultured appreciation: she is called Lucia in deference to her constantly peppering her talk with Italian phrases, a language she doesn’t speak; she names the rooms in her house after Shakespeare plays; she visibly winces at what she perceives to be poorly played music, in order to demonstrate her delicate sensibilities to her audience.

Lucia is of course, completely clueless. She is bourgeois and has no appreciation of art except in using it to structure her own artifice for the other equally clueless inhabitants of Riseholme. Her neighbours are both in thrall to her and object to her unchallenged reign. Georgie is her BFF  who resents and adores Lucia (Benson can’t say he’s gay but devotes a good paragraph to explaining why there is no romantic interest between them); Mrs Daisy Quantock her frenemy and rival for being the epicentre of whatever the next Big Thing in Riseholme will be.

“the hours of the morning between breakfast and lunch were the times which the inhabitants of Riseholme chiefly devoted to spying on each other. They went about from shop to shop on household business, occasionally making purchases which they carried away with them in little paper parcels with convenient loops of string, but the real object of those excursions was to see what everybody else was doing, and learn what fresh interests had sprung up like mushrooms during the night.”

The plot is slight, as it’s meant to be, I think; Benson is showing the intrigues of an entirely ordinary, respectable English village. Daisy and Lucia jostle for the favour of a Guru, later Lucia is nearly dethroned when a genuine prima donna buys a holiday home in the village.

When the guru first made an appearance, my heart sank, expecting casual racism in spades. While there is undoubtedly some of that present, my sense on reading the novel was the portrayal was supposed to play to stereotypes. Without giving away spoilers, I think I was right, and what is being satirised is the ignorance of Riseholme residents.

Although the portrayal of Lucia and her acolytes is clear-sighted and relentless, it’s not cruel. Benson exposes their pretentions but he never leaves his characters devastated, only slightly chastened and all to quick to bounce back into their risible ways. This is gentle, genteel comedy and it’s never unkind.

I can’t say I found Queen Lucia laugh-out-loud funny, but I know fans of the series think the later books are better. It certainly raised a smile, had wonderful characterisation and provided some much-needed escapism during these troubled times.

The BBC adapted Mapp and Lucia in 2014. I’m not entirely convinced from this trailer, although Steve Pemberton looks perfectly cast as Georgie:

 

Secondly, as a big fan of Golden Age detective fiction, I have to include some as 1920 was a significant year in the genre, when Agatha Christie published Poirot’s first outing The Mysterious Affair at Styles. From the reviews I’ve read from other bloggers joining in with the 1920 Club it sounds a great read which I’ll definitely be catching up on. Another GA title from this year which I’ve chosen for this post is Freeman Wills Croft’s first novel, The Cask. You can read it in full here.

It begins with the titular cask arriving in London on a steamer. As a Londoner I enjoyed the description of the working docks, a time long gone:

“His goal was St. Katherine’s Docks, where the Bullfinch was berthed, and, passing across Tower Hill and round two sides of the grim old fortress, he pushed on till he reached the basin in which the steamer was lying. She was a long and rather low vessel of some 800 tons burden, with engines amidships, and a single black funnel ornamented with the two green bands that marked the Company’s boats. Recently out from her annual overhaul, she looked trim and clean in her new coat of black paint.”

Very different now, when it’s all massively overpriced flats and restaurants:

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The cask is discovered to hold gold sovereigns and a human hand. Broughton, the clerk from the shipping company sent to check some cargo for a fussy client, seemed to me to have rather a cavalier attitude towards the grisly contents:

“That a serious crime had been committed he felt sure, and that it was his duty to report his discovery immediately he was no less certain. But there was the question of the consignment of wines.”

All the same, it’s not long before Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard is on the trail. The first seven chapters depict a farcical chase around London after the extraordinarily well-travelled cask, before it is finally found and the murder victim therein exposed.

Burnley has to travel to France to investigate further, which I found rather glamorous considering it took a whole day, two trains and a ferry to get to Paris. There are also trips to Belgium and to Glasgow as Burnley and his French counterpart Inspector Lefarge piece together the activities of the titular container.

Despite it being an early title in the genre, there’s still some GA tropes to enjoy in this novel, including a diagram in Chapter VI of something I’m not sure really needed elucidating, but I’m very fond of maps and room plans in GA crime so I welcomed it nonetheless:

Blessedly, there aren’t too may of the prejudices often found in GA crime, despite my fears when the French setting became apparent. But Burnley likes France and is friends with Lafarge, which was a pleasant surprise. The working classes however, are somewhat colourfully portrayed:

“‘See ’ere, boss,’ the words now poured out of his mouth in a rapid stream, ‘I’ll tell you the truth, I will, swelp me Gawd. Listen to me.’”

As a lifelong Londoner I can assure you this is *exactly* how we sound, swelp me Gawd.  Thankfully Croft soon abandons attempts at depicting the lower orders loquaciousness:

“Palmer’s statement, divested of its cockney slang and picturesque embellishments was as follows:—”

The Cask is a good, solid mystery. The puzzle is set up and we follow the police as they piece together what happened, step by step. If that makes it sound boring, it really isn’t. All the clues seem to point to one suspect but like the police, we’re really not sure he did it. I enjoyed this as an undemanding read but one that sustained my interest and attention, which is praise indeed at the moment, as I have the attention span of a particularly distractible goldfish.

To end, if there’s one thing associated with the 1920s, it’s the flapper. Here’s a clip from the 1920 silent film of that name, the whole of which is available to view on YouTube, and from this trailer looks quite fun:

 

“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

“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.

(Images from Goodreads)

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!