The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve resisted reading Alexander McCall Smith’s books up to now partly because I couldn’t quite believe they would live up to my expectations and partly because I don’t like the style of the book covers. This one is quite off-putting because of its colours, which is really a trivial reason not to read a book.  I am so pleased that I overcame my resistance as I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one. I’ll be looking for more.

The Careful Use of Compliments  is an Isabel Dalhousie Novel, one of the Sunday Philosophy Club series. It’s number 4 in the series, but I had no problem following it as it stands well on its own. I’ve just seen the US cover – much better. My quibble with the cover is my only criticism of this book – I loved it.

Isabel has just had a baby, Charlie, and is in a relationship with his father, Jamie (14 years her junior) who is her niece’s, ex-boyfriend. Cat (her niece)  is upset and resentful and embarrassed even though she broke up her relationship with Jamie, and despite Isabel’s best efforts to bring about a reconciliation is barely speaking to her.

Cat said nothing, and Isabel realised that she was witnessing pure envy; unspoken, inexpressible. Envy makes us hate what we ourselves want, she reminded herself. We hate it because we can’t have it. (page 4)

In addition Isabel has to deal with an attempt from Professor Dove to take over her editorship of the philosophical journal,  Review of Applied Ethics. As well as coping with these two difficult situations Isabel tries to buy a painting by Andrew McInnes at auction and fails. This is a previously unknown painting by McInnes of a scene on the isle of Jura in the Inner Hebrides, where McInnes had drowned in mysterious circumstances. She thinks there is something odd about the painting and sets out to discover more about him and his paintings, becoming convinced that this one is a forgery.

But it’s not really the mystery that captivated me. It’s the philosophical questions that are always uppermost in Isabel’s mind and conversations. It’s her way of ‘interferring’ in matters which she considers ‘helping’, and her kind hearted nature (but she suffers few qualms at getting the upperhand over Dove). It’s the little gems of wisdom scattered through the book. It’s the descriptions of Scotland and Scottishness, of Edinburgh and the islands. It’s about the nuances of understanding the use of language as expressions of general goodwill, about the meaning of money and how it should or should not be used, about late motherhood and family relationships, and about morality and justice.

There are many passages I could quote. I think this one relating to the title of the book is a good one. Here Isabel is talking to Walter, who had tried to sell her McInnes’s painting:

‘Please’, she said, impulsively reaching out to lay a hand upon his sleeve. ‘Please. That came out all wrong. I’m not suggesting that you tried to sell me a forgery.’

He seemed to be puzzling something out. Now he looked up at her. ‘I suppose you thought that because I wanted to sell it quickly.’

‘I was surprised,’ she said. ‘but I thought that there must be a perfectly reasonable explanation.’ That was a lie, she knew. I am lying as a result of having made an unfair assumption. And I lied too, when I paid a compliment to that unpleasant dog of his. But I have to lie. And what would life be like if we paid one another no compliments? (pages 222-3)

The Orange Prize for Fiction Longlist

The Orange Prize for Fiction is awarded annually for the best fiction novel written by a woman. Here is this year’s longlist:

I have just two of these books – Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which won the 2009  Man Booker Prize – will it win this one? And I’ve currently borrowed The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

Will these three be on the shortlist when it is announced on 20 April?

Sunday Salon – Reading And All That …

Today is Mother’s Day and I’ll be spending some time reading my present from my son – Amos, Amas, Amat … And All That by Harry Mount. It’s been on my wishlist for some time now! And a nice change it will make from all the crime fiction I’ve been reading recently. From the back cover:

 In this delightful guided tour of Latin, which features everything from a Monty Python grammar lesson to David Beckham’s tattoos and all the best snippets of prose and poetry from 2000 years of literary history, Harry Mount wipes the dust off those boring primers and breathes life back into the greatest language of them all …

Not that the crime fiction I’ve been reading is boring – far from it. My reading has been a real treat and is way ahead of my reviews of these books:

I finished reading A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine at the end of last week and was so pleased after not liking her book The Birthday Present to find that this book about the discovery of the bones of a young woman and a baby in an animal burial ground was very different. There is a real air of mystery surrounding the several unlikeable characters – anyone of whom could be the guilty party.

 The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith was a complete surprise to me as I had no idea when I borrowed it from the library just how much I was going to enjoy it. From a somewhat slow start I soon got used to the rhythm of his writing and was greatly intrigued by the character of Isabel Dalhousie.

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie is a light-hearted mystery featuring Bobby Jones and Frankie (Lady FrancesDerwent) as they investigate a murder. This is a highly fantastical tale which I read at break-neck speed and thoroughly enjoyed.

Dead in the Morning by Margaret Yorke is the first book in her Patrick Grant series, first published in 1970. Set in an English village this is about an English family upset by the death of their housekeeper. All sorts of family secrets are revealed with plenty of red herrings along the way but the ending is predictable.

I’ll be writing in more detail about each one soon.

Next week my choice of reading is between these books, which I have on the go:

  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson which I started a few weeks ago and put to one side.
  • Being Shelley by Ann Wroe – ongoing reading
  • Stratton’s War by Lorna Wilson. I’m not sure if I’ll finish this as I feel little inclination to pick it up at the moment.

I’m tempted to start a new one. Maybe another Agatha Christie or Ian Rankin, or The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, which I’ve read is very good, or Maggie’s Tree by Julie Walters – her first novel, described as “dark and very funny”, which I found at the library.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: U is for Umberto Eco

This week’s letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet series is  ‘U’.

I’ve chosen Umberto Eco, an Italian writer of post-modern fiction, full of allusions and references, using puzzles, playing with language, words and symbols.

I’ve read  The Name of the Rose twice, some years ago now.It is a fantastic historical crime mystery novel set in a Franciscan monastery in 14th century Italy. William of Baskerville and his assistant Adso are sent to the monastery to investigate a series of murders. I loved this book, which has so much of what I enjoy in reading – historical setting, the pursuit of truth behind the mystery and the meaning of words, symbols and ideas and a great detective story all combined with religious controversies and theories. William is an expert in deduction, and needs all his skills to work his way through the monastery’s labyrinthine library:

The library is a great labyrinth, sign of the labyrinth of the world. You enter and you do not know whether you will come out. … And in our midst someone has violated the ban, has broken the seals of the labyrinth … (pages 158 & 159)

I read Foucault’s Pendulum after reading The Name of the Rose, but struggled at first to read it. It’s immensely detailed, slow to get going and in parts it is boring. But I persevered and in the end I found it fascinating, although I do prefer The Name of the Rose. Again it’s a mystery thriller this time concerned with books and words, mixed in is a coded message about a Templar plan to tap a mystic source of power. It features the Knights Templar, the Crusades, the bloodline of Christ, the Rosy Cross etc, etc  so that when I read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code I immediately thought back to this book, but of course it’s nowhere near the same!

I have one other book by Eco – The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. I haven’t read it yet. From the back cover:

Yambo, a rare-book dealer, has suffered a bizarre form of memory loss. He can remember every book he has ever read but nothing about his own life.

In an effort to retrieve his past, he withdraws to his old family home and searches through boxes of old newspapers, comics, records, photo albums and diaries kept in the attic.

Flipping through it, it doesn’t look as difficult as Foucault’s Pendulum and there are colour illustrations of the books and newspapers etc that Yambo finds in the attic. As a book-lover this appeals to me.

The Warrior’s Princess by Barbara Erskine: Book Review

Recently, I wanted to read something other than crime fiction, but chose The Warrior’s Princess by Barbara Erskine, which just happens to include a couple of rapes, kidnappings and a murder. However, it’s really a time-slip book, switching between the present day and the first century AD in Rome and Britannia, a mix of historical fiction, fantasy and romance.

It starts dramatically as teacher, Jess is raped in her flat. She has only vague memories of her attacker. She then resigns from teaching and flees to her sister’s house in Wales, which is haunted by a young girl. She becomes interested in discovering more about the girl and her sister, Eigon, the daughters of Caratacus, the king of the Catuvellauni tribe who led the British in their fight against the Romans. He was captured and taken as a prisoner to Rome, together wife his wife and daughter. Actually she becomes obsessed to the point of absurdity, regardless of her own safety, so much so that the past and the present merge in her mind. She travels to Rome to continue her research into Eigon’s life.

There was much I enjoyed in this book – the suspense as Jess gradually begins to remember who her attacker was and the danger she finds herself in both in Wales and Rome were initially gripping.  I also liked the historical references, such as the persecutions of the Christians by Nero, and the Roman and Welsh locations. I remember walking around the Roman Forum imagining what it must have been like so I could identify the picture of ancient Rome that Jess is able to construct.

However, I thought it was too drawn out, and would have been better if the plotting had been tighter. I was also sceptical about the way Jess and Eigon “communicated” through Jess’s dreams and trances. It seemed an artificial way of telling the story. The mix of supernatural and historical however, was quite intriguing even though I had to suspend my disbelief a little too much for my liking and there were too many coincidences and contrivances. Although I thought the ending was rushed and kaleidascoped in comparison with the rest of the book, it did hold my attention to the end.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: T is for The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

I’ve read two books by Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time and now The Franchise Affair. Josephine Tey was a pseudonym for Elizabeth Mackintosh(1896 – 1952). She was a Scottish author who wrote mainly mystery novels.

I read The Daughter of Time a few years ago and thought it was an excellent book, a mix of historical research and detective work. Inspector Alan Grant is in hospital and to keep his mind occupied he decides to discover whether Richard III really did murder his nephews – the Princes in the Tower.

Franchise Affair001When I saw this hardback secondhand copy of The Franchise Affair on sale last year (on a hospital book sale trolley, for £1) I had to buy it and have been going to read it ever since. So as Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet series has reached the letter T I thought now was the right time to read it.

It is also an excellent book, one I devoured and enjoyed immensely. It was first published in 1948 and it’s set in a post Second World War England reflecting the social attitudes of its time. It’s actually based on a real case from the 18th century of a girl who went missing and later claimed she had been kidnapped.

The Franchise is a “flat white house“, isolated on a road out of the town of Milford, surrounded by a “high solid wall of brick, with a large double gate, of wall height” – “the iron lace of the original gates had been lined, in some Victorian desire for privacy, by flat sheets of iron, and the wall was too high for anything inside to be visible”, except for a distant view of roof and chimneys“. It’s where Marion Sharpe and her mother live.

DI Grant is just a minor character in this story, the main investigator is local solicitor, Robert Blair, of Blair, Hayward and Bennet. He doesn’t normally deal with criminal cases but Marion appeals to him for help because she and her mother are accused of kidnapping Betty Kane, a girl of fifteen, of holding her prisoner for a month in their attic, and of beating her unless she agreed to work for them.  She’d escaped one night and arrived back home, covered in bruises.

Even though Betty Kane is able to describe them,  their house and its contents accurately the Sharpes completely deny her story. Reluctantly Robert agrees to give legal advice and is then drawn into investigating what had happened to Betty during the time she claimed she had been held captive, becoming convinced of their innocence. His life is completely changed. The problem is that it is possible to believe Betty’s story and also to find it a complete invention from beginning to end.

Betty is described as an innocent with baby blue eyes, intelligent and truthful – how could she have invented such a story? Marion and Mrs Sharpe on the other hand are a bit odd, a bit eccentric, keeping themselves to themselves and distrusted by the locals. Mrs Sharpe is intimidating – Robert thinks  she is “capable of beating seven different people between breakfast and lunch any day of the week“, but he rather likes Marion’s “habit of mockery“. In fact he is rather smitten by Marion.

Then the press get hold of the story and public opinion is outraged at the tale of Betty’s ordeal. The case goes to trial as the Sharpes are vilified and their house attacked. The letters to the newspaper shock Robert with their contents:

… he marvelled all over again at the venom that these unknown women had aroused in the writers’ minds. Rage and hatred spilled over on to the paper; malice ran unchecked through the largely illiterate sentences. It was an amazing exhibition. And one of the oddities of it was that the dearest wish of so many of these indignant protestors against violence was to flog the said women within an inch of their lives. (page 103)

But worse is to come as the trial comes to an end and hatred results in actions. I found it an irresistable book. I just had to know what happens, all the time convinced of the Sharpes’ innocence but somehow wondering if they really were guilty. I liked Tey’s style of writing, straight forward, with touches of irony. Her characters are believable, well developed and unforgettable. The locations are well described, although as I used to live near some of them I may be biased there.

Now I want to read more of Josephine Tey’s books. She didn’t write many, but I hope to read at least some of these (list copied from Wikipedia):

  • The Man in the Queue also known as Killer in the Crowd (1929)
  •  A Shilling for Candles (1936) (the basis of Hitchcock’s 1937 movie Young and Innocent)
  • Miss Pym Disposes (1946)
  • Brat Farrar [or Come and Kill Me] (1949)
  • To Love and Be Wise (1950)
  • The Singing Sands (1952)
  • Kif: An Unvarnished History (1929) (writing as Gordon Daviot)
  • The Expensive Halo (1931)
  • The Privateer (1952)
  • Claverhouse (1937) (writing as Gordon Daviot) (a life of the 17th-century cavalry leader John Graham, 1st Viscount of Dundee)

The Hollow by Agatha Christie: Book Review

The Hollow by Agatha Christie is a country house mystery in which Hercule Poirot comes across what he decribes as “A set scene. A stage scene”; a murder scene specifically staged, he thinks at first, to deceive him.

Gerda and her husband John Christow, a Harley Street doctor were visiting Sir Henry and Lucy, Lady Angkatell at their house, The Hollow. John is an agressive dominant personality. Also down for the weekend were Lucy’s cousins Midge, who works in a London dress shop, Henrietta, a sculptress, Edward, a rather pale character and David, a student.

Lucy is sure it will be a difficult weekend – Gerda always appears vacant and lost, completely dominated by John, who is having an affair with Henrietta. Edward is in love with Henrietta and Midge is in turn in love with Edward. David is too intellectual  and Lucy herself is vague, charming and completely eccentric. As a distraction she has invited the “Crime man“, Poirot, whose weekend cottage is next door, to lunch on the Sunday. She describes Poirot’s house disparagingly as

… one of those funny new cottages – you know, beams that bump your head and a lot of new plumbing and quite the wrong kind of garden. London people like that sort of thing. (page 13)

As Poirot arrives and is taken through the garden to the swimming pool all the characters are there, with Gerda, revolver in hand, standing over the dying body of her husband, as his blood drips gently over the edge of the concrete into the pool. Poirot hears his final word “Henrietta”.

I found Lucy’s reaction amusing. It’s typical of her vague, almost detached nature. She says:

Of course, say what you like, a murder is an awkward thing – it upsets the servants and puts the general routine out – we were having ducks for lunch – fortunately they are quite nice eaten cold. (page 102)

Later she observes:

There would be something very gross, just after the death of a friend, in eating one’s favourite pudding. But caramel custard is so easy – slippery if you know what I mean – and then one leaves a little on one’s plate. (page 113)

This is now one of my favourite Agatha Christie books. She herself described it in her autobiography as “in some ways rather more of a novel than a detective story.” I agree, the characters are well drawn and the setting of both The Hollow and Ainswick, the larger country house Edward has inherited from his uncle, Lucy’s father are described with nostalgia. Agatha Christie also revealed that she thought she had ruined the book by the introduction of Poirot:

I had got used to having Poirot in my books and so naturally he had to come into this one, but he was all wrong there. He did his stuff all right, but how much better, I kept thinking, would the book have been without him. So when I came to sketch out the play, out went Poirot.(page 489-490)

Poirot has a small role, the investigation into John’s death is headed by Inspector Grange and it is a comment he makes that leads Poirot to discover the culprit. I’m used to having Poirot in her books too, so I didn’t find too much wrong with him being there.

It seems that everyone could have committed the murder and I swung from one to the other as I read, no doubt as Agatha Christie intended, but I did work it out before Poirot unveiled the killer.  As Poirot  says:

That is why every clue looked promising and then petered out and ended in nothing. (page 249)