Friday, January 24, 2020

Murder in the Mill Race

Murder in the Mill-Race / E.C.R. Lorac
Naperville, IL: Poisoned Pen Press, 2019, c1952.
247 p.

I picked this book up from the library stacks for a couple of reasons: the cover is great, it's a British cozy by a woman, and it fit the blank 1952 spot in my Century of Books project! Sometimes this kind of random reading turns out very well, though, as it did here.

It's a small-village murder mystery with the perspective of an outsider: Dr. Raymond Ferens takes on the job as the new doctor in tiny Milham in the Moor alongside his sensible, modern minded wife. On the surface it's a charming place, but it has interesting residents -- they quickly get the measure of the business minded local aristocracy, and of Sister Monica, the head of the orphan school. Everyone says she is a saint... but she is murdered by drowning in the mill-race, shortly after the Ferens move to Milham in the Moor. Who, why, and how are the questions that the local constabulary can't winkle out of the villagers, who live by the creed "Never make trouble in the village."

So Scotland Yard is called in. Lorac's detective, Chief Inspector Macdonald, appears on the scene with a phlegmatic Cockney sergeant in tow. The two of them poke around and dig down beneath what's said to uncover what is not said. Lorac's view of humanity's darkest urges is clear. Everyone has secrets and is loath to bring them to light, whether their own or those of others. 

Sister Monica was not as angelic as she liked to portray herself; she had unexpected financial resources that didn't make sense on her tiny salary. And despite everyone's glowing endorsements, in truth, nobody really liked her, and were all aware that she was a poisonous gossip who could slander someone while pretending to defend them from accusations. 

So no-one is really that interested in getting a villager, who probably had good reason for killing Sister Monica, into serious trouble on her behalf. 

This is a tricky story with many potential villains, and a victim who is far from blameless. Chief Inspector Macdonald is a serious, thoughtful officer who slowly but inexorably pries the truth from the village, while going off on some fairly purple flights of sentimentality over the landscapes of Devon. It's a little odd but entertaining. 

The mystery was satisfyingly set up, not obvious, and makes sense in the end. But the strength of this book, for me, was the characterizations of all these fairly isolated people. They seem to have real quirks and personality, and this element really enriches the story. Definitely a good read; I'll have to look into a few more from this press to see if I can find another surprise gem. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Hasty Wedding

Hasty Wedding / Mignon Eberhardt
NY: Sun Dial Press, 1943, c1938.
301 p.
Finally the review that I promised at the end of 2019! This was a vintage mystery I picked up in a thrift store on the promise of this amazing cover ;) It delivered. 

Dorcas is getting married in the morning to a family friend, Jevan. This is essentially an arranged marriage to keep up money and good society, so her last chance to do what she wants for herself is to visit her old flame Ronald before that morning comes. When she arrives at his modern and unsettling apartment they have an argument, with Ronald up to his usual jealous tantrums, and Dorcas struggles to flee from this dangerous situation. 

But in the morning, they hear about Ronald's suicide. Dorcas goes through with her wedding, after being literally forced into her dress by Jevan. In a daze she gets married, only to have Jevan whisper to her, "I know you killed him" as they leave the church. But due to the law that spouses can't testify against each other, he believes he has protected her from prosecution. 

It's a complicated story of relationships -- the mystery and the murder are key to the plot, but the heart of the book is Dorcas and her experience of both familial and marital relations. The detective solves the mystery off stage, so to speak, coming to interview them all separately but instead of following him on his rounds, the story follows Dorcas.

The bulk of the exposition of the story is all about Dorcas. She starts off as utterly passive, focused on her society rounds, and only finds her own feet after her marriage has settled in. When she begins to question why her friends and family are trying to protect her from a murder charge in the first place, things get interesting.

Jevan is a bit surprising as well. While he at first seems to be the typical overbearing rich and privileged man, some of his actions are explained later, and his motivations are quite unexpected. I found I rather liked this couple by the end. 

It was very quick moving, suspenseful, and very much of its time. The social understandings that the mystery depends on are clear and obvious, and though some of the characters' actions seem unexpected or well, stupid, to readers today, they make sense in that context. (to a point -- this is a genre mystery so it does stretch believability a little).

But one of the things I love about old mysteries is the way they illuminate social norms of the past - for good or ill. I was glad that this one held up and was an enjoyable, entertaining read. 

Monday, January 13, 2020

A Golden Grave

A Golden Grave / Erin Lindsey
NY: Minotaur, c2019
400 p.

This is the second book in the Rose Gallagher mysteries by Canadian Erin Lindsey. I read the first one, Murder on Millionaires' Row, last year and really enjoyed it, so when this one arrived in my library I grabbed it. 

Like many second novels, it is not *quite* as good as the first. In the first book we are meeting Rose and her friend Clara for the first time, and there is lots of new and fresh detail to take in. There was also the surprise (for me) appearance of the paranormal in this mystery! Getting to know Rose and learning about her new skills and her crush on her employer Thomas was fun and engaging. 

In this book, Rose has learned the truth about most of what Thomas actually does as a paranormal Pinkerton. She's even been hired to work with him as a fellow Pinkerton. Much of the tension of Rose's ignorance of the truth that powered the first book is gone in this one. There is the excitement of the plot (a good one) and the growing yet still denied attraction between Rose and Thomas. And a few more developments about the world that Lindsey has created add to the complexity of her storylines. 

Rose's first official case as a new Pinkerton is to track down the would-be assassin of the candidate for governor of New York - none other than Theodore Roosevelt. When she meets him, she finds that he also has some of the charismatic charm that those gifted in magic carry with them. So who wants to get rid of him, and why?

More intrigue, more kicking ass, and a bit of romance make this into another winner. A fun, quick and campy read that I enjoyed immensely as a spot of relaxing reading. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

Woolf's The Years

The Years / Virginia Woolf
London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1974, c1937.
349 p.

I was on a bit of a Virginia Woolf reading blitz at the end of 2019. This is another I finished recently, and I really liked it. It's the story of the Pargiter family over 3 generations, although the middle generation is the one that most comes to life for me. Their stories range from the 1880s to the "current day" of the 1930s, but they don't move completely chronologically -- this is Virginia Woolf after all!

The characters live within a whole family structure; their thoughts refer back to earlier family members and experiences in the same moment that they are immersed in daily life, in the way that we experience real life. The plot is negligible; this is really about a glimpse into everyday life over fifty years, and the way it plays out in this particular family. There is discussion of longings and barriers to happiness; love, relationships, marriages; friends, enemies, family; work, domesticity, struggle -- just about every small thing that looms large in a life. Some of the larger questions are only tangentially discussed, sexual ones in particular, and women's roles in the home and the world are part of the whole picture.

This was her last novel, and was intended to be a longer and deeper one but she reworked and reworked, so that some people feel this isn't a good novel. I disagree; I liked it, liked the glimpses into family dynamics and thoughts and feelings and impressions. It's a series of perceptions shared -- but then I like this sort of thing. 

Colonel Pargiter is a brusque man; he has 7 children and a sickly wife. His wife dies early in the novel, and his seven children go on to be the main focus of the novel. Some fade away and are only mentioned now and again, but the elder sisters become the crux of the stories. 

I enjoyed the imagery, and the way that Woolf ties the vagaries of human chronology and memory to the fixed, set timeline that comes from the seasons and the natural world. She describes the weather and atmosphere each time the book jumps to a new section (always headed by the year). And the finale is a large family party with all characters in evidence -- the aged Edwardian aunts, uncles and parents and the slick, busy younger generation who are getting tired of hearing the same old stories. 

I felt a bit overwhelmed by the final scenes at this party. It did feel a bit crowded and confusing; just like being there! And the way they are all tired and contentious but still won't go home til dawn...tiring just reading about it. But as a whole, I found this one beautiful and structurally interesting. So many lovely phrases and images, and a lovely way to examine existence and time. It's a shorter version of the experiment Proust was trying out in his giant A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, even set around the same time, though in this case, Woolf was looking more at a middle class family than the counts and dukes and so forth who fascinated Proust. 

As a meditation on time passing, and the experience of aging and thus feeling like you are out of your own time, I think this is a compelling success. And as usual, London comes to life as a setting that is almost its own character. I enjoyed this one and was able to both follow the ideas and recall characters easily; I liked it more than To The Lighthouse

Still hoping to finish a few more of Woolf's books this year, so I'll be able to judge my reactions to her books in the context of her oeuvre.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

My Career Goes Bung

My Career Goes Bung / Miles Franklin
London: Virago, 1981, c1946.
234 p.
I just finished this book, after reading My Brilliant Career,the first one in this set, nearly three years ago. This second book was finally published in 1946, but it was written in 1902, shortly after the first book had made such a splash. I am counting it for 1902 in my Century of Books reading, as the theme and context is so much of its written era -- in the intro, Franklin says that she has not altered or updated her original manuscript but has left it in its original state. 

She also says that the reason it was not published in 1902 was because the publisher balked at the feminist and irreligious nature of the text. And those threads run throughout the whole book, in what was to me the most delightful part of this story. As she notes:
I hung on secretly to my faith that the greatest nations would always be those where women were freest.
This book is a fairly complicated piece of metafiction, too -- after the first book was published, there was a furor, with many readers thinking that the novel was autobiography. Franklin eventually withdrew publication, so bothered by this assumption she didn't want any more notoriety. But this second book, written hard on that experience, relates the character Sybylla's career after her first book: Sybylla withdraws publication and tells the 'truth' about her life and what this sudden literary success meant for her. It's a marvellous mix of biography and a fictional character's standing in for it, very postmodern indeed. 

While the plot is a little meandering and the ending quite unsatisfying in some respects, the writing is as lively and amusing as ever. Sybylla is a little less naive but she still has a clear eye on Australian society. She goes into wider society in Sydney for a while so has a bigger scope for her commentary as well. A lot of her asides deal with the way that men assume they are better than women, or the way in which religion has created an old man god to supplement these feelings of male superiority. She has no time for all that. 
I can never understand why men are so terrified of women having special talents. They have no consistency in argument. They are as sure as the Rock of Gibraltar that they have all the mental superiority and that women are weak-minded, feeble conies; then why do they get in such a mad-bull panic at any attempt on the part of women to express themselves? Men strut and blow about themselves all the time without shame. In the matter of women's brain power they organise conditions comparable to a foot race in which they have all the training and the proper shoes and little running pants, while women are taken out of the plough, so to speak, with harness and winkers still on them, and are lucky if they are allowed to start at scratch. Then men bellow that they have won the race, that women never could, it would be against NATURE if they did.
This book is fascinating in form, powerful in statement, and enjoyable as an entertaining read that is still terrifyingly relevant in its social commentary even today, after more than 100 years. 

Monday, January 06, 2020

Night and Day

Night & Day / Virginia Woolf
London: Penguin Classics, 2006, c1919.
496 p.
This is an earlier novel by Woolf, and as such it follows more traditional structures. There is a plot - actually a narrative to follow. And the characters are interesting and involved in the world in various ways, political and academic. 

We meet the beautiful, rich Katharine Hilbery at the beginning; she's there to prop up her parents and carry on the reputation of her scholar grandfather. Her mother, in particular, depends upon her to help sift through all the documents of her grandfather's life in a never-ending quest to write a biography.

Into their salon comes Ralph Denham, a young man from a different class. He is full of life and spirit, and feels both repulsed and attracted by Katharine. He is also connected with a group of activists, including Mary Datchet, a busy and competent woman who is a supporter of women's rights and is very involved in the world in every way. Katharine eventually meets her and feels quite ineffective and powerless by comparison. 

Mary is in love with Ralph, who doesn't notice as he's fallen in love with Katharine, who doesn't notice because she's supposed to become engaged to poet William Rodney who is in their circle. It's a classic love triangle, or perhaps quadrangle. Unlike many of Woolf's later books, this is a love story and a social commentary on a certain class, and women's roles in many aspects in the 1910s, leading to the 20s. 

It's very readable, slightly reminiscent of some of Henry James' works. It has action and characters and zest, even while showing her interest in the interiority of her characters. I really enjoyed both the dreamy reflections of Katharine and the more prosaic and practical actions of Mary. I liked both of them though they were so different. 

As usual with Woolf, the men don't come off as well. Even the 'hero' of the piece is not fully charming, it's more that the women decide to put up with his lesser flaws. And although it's a romance of sorts, she still gets in her thoughts on tradition:
“Well, I really don't advise a woman who wants to have things her own way to get married.”
Many of Woolf's books are like poetry, the language stands out for itself and the imagery and beauty is key. In this book, the story propels itself in a more straightforward style, but the poetic side does come out with Katharine. She expresses things that Woolf later expresses directly without the need for a character as intermediary. Her later books embody the struggle for truthful expression that Katharine reaches for in this novel. 

I really enjoyed this one, though. I like the set of younger characters who are the focus, and their view to the future (as opposed to the really Victorian attitudes of the elder characters). Their different personalities and life circumstances give us a broad picture of life at the time, and allow for various comments on different topics, via a character's eyes. All the way from little things, like should Katharine owe her time primarily to her disorganized mother's projects, or should she be allowed to do as she wishes -- to whether Mary's dedication to the cause of woman's suffrage at the expense of her own interests is noble or not.

There is talk of literature, poetry, tradition vs the new, mathematics vs fiction, women's abilities and desires, well, almost everything here. If you are looking for an easier way in to Woolf's works, this is a good route. The characters are memorable and the setting very clearly London. 

Recommended, even with Katharine's bookish preferences, which are completely antithetical to blogging: 
“She liked getting hold of some book... and keeping it to herself, and gnawing its contents in privacy, and pondering the meaning without sharing her thoughts with any one, or having to decide whether the book was a good one or a bad one.”

Saturday, January 04, 2020

To The Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse / Virginia Woolf
Peterborough ON: Broadview Press, 2000, c1927.
310 p.
Another read from the 1920s for the first week of 2020 -- this time it's Virginia Woolf's classic To The Lighthouse. I read this book many years ago, but had forgotten most of it. So time to reread!

I realize why I didn't remember that much about it, now, though. It's a bit of an impressionistic book, characters who are not well defined, a vague plot, time that passes in a blur -- it's really all about the writing and the concept. 

Mrs. Ramsay and her large family are living in a summer house on the Isle of Skye; the youngest son wants to go across to the lighthouse in a boat. It doesn't happen until the end of the book, many years later. But in between -- well, life itself happens. Marriages, births, deaths, absences, changes, with a few constants that seem to stay themselves without cease. 

It's a book that is coloured by Woolf's own life, and her recollections of her own parents and childhood. And also by her adult desire to capture life still for a moment, and how to do so, and what that might look like in art. For example, Lily Briscoe when painting illuminates the question: 

"...she took her hand and raised her brush. For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air. Where to begin?--that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still the risk must run; the mark made.”

It's a beautifully written book, delving into the way people, landscapes and history are seen by others. The central section, in which years pass over the span of ten pages, is particularly brilliant. 

Mrs. Ramsay as a beautiful and ungraspable character, Lily Briscoe as an artistic spinster with her own views on everything and everyone, the stable of children - each of them has a part in the book and the investigations of interior thought are the most fascinating parts of the story, for me.

Nonetheless, although I usually love her novels, I found this one has been so far my least favourite of her works. More 'difficult' novels have been more satisfying to me. There is just something about the diaphanous nature of this story that I can't grasp. I can't recall much about the characters and their relationships (and usually I can tell you more about fictional people than real ones) and my mental images of the varied scenes are all jumbled up together. I find this novel hard to sort out. 

It's definitely worth reading, especially for the language, but I don't feel it measures up in character, or even setting, though that's still stronger than some of the characters, and all of that is stronger than plot (this is not about plot). If I am going to love a book, though, it has to have more than just good writing. So while I do appreciate this book, it's unlikely I'll ever read it again. On to the next!