Wednesday 19 September 2018

Catching up - two reviews

Two 'catching up' reviews today. First up, Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crimes edited by Martin Edwards.

This collection of crimes stories is exactly what it says on the tin (to quote a well-known advert): an anthology depicting heinous misdeeds, murder and mayhem, which all take place in the countryside. In his introduction Martin Edwards provides an appropriate Sherlock Holmes quote:

"You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there. They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."

And these stories, naturally, prove his point. The collection includes stories by some well known authors, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Margery Allingham, Gladys Mitchell and some not so famous ones. Glancing at the notes I made as I read each one (otherwise by the time I get to the end I've forgotten what I read at the start) it seems, in general, that I liked the lesser known authors better. E.C Bentley's The Genuine Tabard told of an American couple visiting a quaint English village and buying an ancient herald's tabard off the vicar. But is it genuine? I liked The Long Barrow by H.C. Bailey for its archaeological bent and rather creepy atmosphere, R. Austin Freeman's The Naturalist at Lew was a clever story about a man being found dead in a ditch and how something as simple as duckweed is not actually simple at all! A Proper Mystery by Margery Allingham was not a murder story, it was about rivalry in village shows and I loved it. Inquest by Leonora Wodehouse (P.G.'s neice) was a story about a big house and will changing and had an excellent twist at the end, and The Scarecrow by Ethel Lina White about an ex-boyfriend who tries to strangle his girlfriend, is locked up in an asylum, escapes, and is coming to get her, was genuinely scary.

All in all, this was an excellent anthology. A well chosen selection, each one beautifully written, which is what I love about these vintage crime short stories or novels: although it does spoil you a bit for some of the modern stuff which is not as well crafted in my opinion.

Lastly, Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott (a pseudonym of Agatha Christie's). This is my fourth book for the What's In A Name? reading challenge which is being hosted by The Worm Hole. It covers the category, 'A Season'.

Joan Scudamore is crossing Iraq by train after a lengthy visit to her daughter in Baghdad. She's married to a lawyer, Rodney, and they have three adult children, all left home and living independently. They're a typical middle-class English family of the 1930s. The train is held up because of flooding and Joan finds herself stranded at a rest house not far from the Turkish border. It seems she'll be there for several days, what will she do with herself when the few books she has run out?

It turns out that the only thing Joan can do to while away the time is to think. Not just vague thoughts but serious, introspective thinking about her life. She's one of these people who're able to ignore realities or simply don't see what's happening in front of them. She thinks she has the perfect life, the perfect family, but we all know nothing is ever as it seems and so it turns out to be. It might sound like a quite a boring plot for a book, a woman stranded in the desert 'thinking'... but it's not at all. Slowly but surely Joan's personality is revealed and the way in which her husband and children have learned to deal with her and keep things hidden. The writing is quite masterful to be honest, the reader starts out thinking that this is just rather a smug woman but we're drip fed information and eventually realise that there's a real story to be told here, sad and tragic in its own quiet way. And one that really makes you think about your own life and things you might have done or said... or ignored because it's too difficult to think about. I read this because I saw Margaret's review here and like her I feel I really must find more of the six books Agatha Christie wrote as Mary Westmacott.



Simon T - StuckinaBook said...

I have Serpents in Eden and haven't been drawn to it, as I have to be in the right mood for short stories, but you've made it sound so wonderful! And I've never tried Christie's Westmacott novels - but, again, so tempting.

DesLily said...

So many books so little time! .. that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it! I love that you seem to find so many books that you enjoy!

Kay said...

I read Margaret's review of the Westmacott book too and I meant to hunt up all those books. Thanks for the reminder. Off to see if my library carries them. They may not. Sadly, a bunch of older books have been 'weeded' from the shelves and I have to look elsewhere - like at used bookstores. Of course, being 'forced' to visit used bookstores is quite a chore for me. Sigh. Ha!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I love the beautiful covers and unique stories on the British Crimes books. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these 2 books.

Cath said...

Simon: Serpents in Eden was good but I know exactly what you mean about short stories. I must be in the mood for them at the moment though as I've been reading three volumes at once! I hadn't tried AC's Westmacott novels before this either but will definitely be keeping an eye out for more.

Pat: To be honest I've reached an age where if I'm not enjoying a book after about 50 pages, I give up. Life's too short for wasting time on books that aren't for me.

Kay: These older, less well known AC books are not that easy to find. I got this one from AM but will do as you're doing for the rest and check the library. Suspect they have them somewhere in Devon and will have to reserve. I hope your library hasn't thrown them out... but if they have you'll have to force yourself to go to a secondhand bookstore. What a chore...

Diane: The covers are lovely aren't they? I'm quite smitten with anything that features railway posters on the cover.

TracyK said...

I need to try more of the British Library short story books. I only tried the book of Christmas stories (Silent Nights, I think) and most of those stories I only sort of liked. I also want to try one of Christie's Westmacott novels, but where to find the time with all the other books I own. Oh well, that hasn't stopped me yet.

Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

We have quite a collection of restored steam railway lines around this area and when we visit, I must admit that I enjoy looking at all the vintage railway posters - some of them are actually worth quite a lot of money now!

I must remember to keep a bag of read books in the back of the car when we go out, as the stations all seem to have used book shops as a way of raising funds and they are always on the lookout for donated books - I always have to stop and take a look of course, just to make sure I am not missing out on a great new find that I can't possibly live without reading!

Since you introduced me to Martin Edwards books, I have seen them around on quite a few blogs and I really do want to try one or two, as I think he is an author very much like Agatha Christie, that I could become addicted to reading.

I don't know how good your library is, but Martin has just published a new anthology of stories for Christmas - 'The Christmas Card Crime' and he has also just started work on a new series for 1930s detective, Jacob Flint. 'Gallows Court' is the title of the first book and the Blog Tour is now in full swing (my spot is Monday 23rd September).

Terrible weather this weekend, although next week looks good. We are off to my Great Nephew's third birthday party in Swindon this afternoon - Enjoy your Sunday :)


Nan said...

I read Absent in the Spring in 2001, and wrote about it in my little journal for 3 pages! I was so taken with it. Because then I was writing just for myself, I told much of the plot. I did say, "excellent, riveting, fascinating." 17 years ago this month, and I can still feel the feelings I had when I read it. What a book. I've never read anything like it.

Cath said...

Tracy: Lots of short story collections do seem to be exceedingly varied in the quality of the stories. I always think I'm lucky if I only dislike several.

Yvonne: I wish we had some restored railway lines close to us, we have one, in Minehead, but I don't think they have books.

I saw your post on Martin Edwards's new book, it looks very good indeed.

I hope you enjoyed the birthday party. We were off to Swansea on Friday to take our grand-daughter to uni. That went very well but the journey back was horrendous with constant rain and spray. We were relieved to arrive home intact.

Nan: I don't think I've read anything like Absent in the Spring either. How a book about thinking can be quite so rivetting I'm not sure. And so very well written.