The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

Poisoned Pen Press|4 December 2018 |227 pages|e-book |Review copy|5*

This edition, published in association with the British Library, has a preface by Rachel Reeves, Member of Parliament for Leeds West and an introduction by Martin Edwards. It was first published in 1932 by George G Harrap & Co.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Division Bell Mystery – it’s entertaining on several levels both from the mystery ‘locked room’ aspect and historically, socially and culturally with its insight into how Parliament worked in the 1930s and the status of women in Parliament in the inter-war years. In fact political commentary runs throughout the novel. It was a period of great social injustice, people were still struggling in the aftermath of the Great War – a period of mass unemployment with demands for both political and social change.

Ellen Wilkinson was one of the first women Labour MPs. I’ve come across her before as a fiery politician, known as ‘Red Ellen’ both for her red hair and her left-wing politics. She supported the men from Jarrow in Tyneside in 1936 as they marched from their home town to London to present a petition against the mass unemployment and extreme poverty in the north-east of England. She marched with them for part of the way and handed in their petition to the House of Commons.

She was a keen murder mystery fan and The Division Bell Mystery is her one entry into the Golden Age Detective fiction. The classic mystery was popular in the interwar years as people entertained themselves with puzzles such as the ‘locked room’ mysteries as in this book.

The main character is the Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, young Robert West. As a Parliamentary Private Secretary herself, Ellen Wilkinson portrays his role and political intrigue with convincing detail. There’s a financial crisis and the Home Secretary is negotiating with the American financier Georges Oissel for a loan. The Division Bell rings – a signal to MPs to cast their votes – and West is shocked to hear a gunshot as he is making his way down the corridor leading to Room J, where the Home Secretary and Oissel had been dining. On entering the room he finds the Home Secretary has left to vote and Oissel is slumped on the floor, his shirt front stained with blood and a revolver lying beside him. No one else was in the room, no one had been seen entering or leaving the room and there is no evidence of who had killed him. It falls to West to work with the police investigating his death.

It is a nicely complicated mystery but for me it is the setting and the characters that makes this book so interesting. West is the main character but I particularly liked Grace Richards, a young female MP, based on Ellen Wilkinson herself – in her preface Rachel Reeves points out the similarities between Ellen and Grace. Once I started to read The Division Bell Mystery I didn’t want to put it down – definitely a 5* read for me!

My thanks to the publishers, Poisoned Pen Press, for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries: The Most Complete Collection of Yuletide Whodunits Ever Assembled

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries:The Most Complete Collection of Yuletide Whodunits Ever Assembled edited by Otto Penzler is just the book to read at this time of year if, like me, you enjoy mystery fiction with a Christmas theme. It is a big book of 647 pages – so I have an e-book version and dip into into it each Christmas.

It contains stories by a variety of authors including Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Edgar Wallace, Peter Lovesey, Peter Robinson, Ed McBain, Sarah Paretsky, Mary Higgins Clark, Ngaio Marsh, Isaac Asimov, G K Chesterton, H R F Keating, Robert Louis Stevenson and more.

Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas by  John Mortimer is one of the stories in the section ‘A Funny Little Christmas’. In it Rumpole is at the Old Bailey defending Edward Timson, the youngest member of the huge south London family of criminals, charged with wilful murder. It’s Christmas and Eddie tells Rumpole his mum wants him hone for Christmas – but Rumpole wonders ‘which Christmas?

Will he make it? The evidence against him is strong. It all began when a war broke out between the Timsons and the O’Dowds when Bridget O’Dowd was chosen to play the role of Mary in the school nativity play and Eddie said she was ‘a spotty little tart unsuited to play any role of which the most notable characteristic was virginity‘. The resulting battle ended with the death of Kevin O’Dowd.

Rumpole is his usual grumpy self, getting drunk on wine in Pommeroy’s Wine Bar with the prosecuting barrister, Wrigglesworth, instead of hurrying home to his wife, Hilda (She Who Must be Obeyed) who has made him rissoles and frozen peas for his dinner. As I read it I could easily imagine the scenes, with Leo McKern playing the role of Rumpole.

Agatha Christie has two stories in the collection – the first is The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding in which Hercule Poirot investigates the theft of a priceless ruby stolen from a Far Eastern prince. The Christmas Pudding in question is a ‘large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it’  and the second A Christmas Tragedy, a little puzzle of a mystery. Miss Marple tells the story of the death of Mrs Sanders and how it it had been made to look an accident when it was really a cold-blooded murder. I can’t see any connection in this story to Christmas, but it is definitely a tragedy and for a short story it is very complicated.

There are no stories by Charles Dickens in this collection but Morse’s Greatest Mystery by Colin Dexter begins with a quotation from A Christmas Carol, when Lewis knocks on the door of Morse’s North Oxford flat and Morse greets him whilst shouting down the phone to his bank manager. Like Scrooge Morse doesn’t like Christmas! This story is about the theft of a donation of £400 pounds to a charity for Mentally Handicapped Children the patrons of the George pub. Morse has to follow a series of clues to solve the mystery – and by the end he becomes more like the Christmas Scrooge …

~~~

As this is my last post before Christmas I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy Reading! 

WWW Wednesday: 19 December 2018

IMG_1384-0

WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

It’s been over a month since I last wrote a WWW post so I thought it was time for another one.

I’m currently reading: just one book – Great Britain’s Great War by Jeremy Paxman. I began it in November because it was the 100th  anniversary of the end of the First World War and I wanted to know more about it.

Great Britain's Great War

So far I’ve read just over half the book – now just starting to read about 1916 and the situation in Ireland. It’s written chronologically, analysing the causes of the war and why people at the time believed it to be unavoidable and even necessary. Paxman writes clearly and goes into detail which means it’s not a quick read and I’m taking it slowly. He writes about the people involved – the men who enlisted and those who were conscripted, the conditions they experienced from the trenches to the French brothels they frequented. It’s also about life back in Britain and the changes the war brought about. It is fascinating.

This morning I finished:

The Division Bell Mystery

Qnother fascinating book – The The Division Bell Mystery first published in 1932 by Ellen Wilkinson, a 1930s politician, about a murder in the House of Commons.  One of the reasons I enjoyed this so much is the setting in the House of Commons and the details it gives of not only the procedures and traditions, but a look behind the scenes and what it was like for the early women MPs. It’s a good murder mystery too!

My next book could be:

It’s time to start another novel but I am torn, as usual, and am trying to decide what to read next. It will probably be The Accordionist by Fred Vargas as it is a library book dues back at the beginning of January.

The Accordionist (Three Evangelists 3)

It’s the final novel in the Three Evangelists Trilogy – I’ve read the first two. This one has the same characters – three thirty-something historians, Mathias, Marc and Lucien, all specialists in three different periods of history, who live in a rambling house in Paris.

I love Fred Vargas’s quirky crime fiction, with eccentric characters and intricate plots that I find so difficult to solve. This one is about the murder of two Parisian women killed in their homes. The police suspect young accordionist Clément Vauquer and it seems like an open-and-shut case.

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? 

Tombland by C J Sansom

Tombland (Matthew Shardlake, #7)

5*

It’s been a few weeks now since I finished reading Tombland, the seventh novel in C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. I wrote a Friday post, quoting the first paragraph and a teaser from page 56 and have been wondering what to write about the book as a whole. It is very long, is based on primary and secondary sources with notes and a bibliography. ‘Tombland‘ is an area within the city of Norwich and there’s a street plan on the endpapers of my hardback edition, showing the layout of Norwich and the position of Mousehole Heath in 1549. It is a most impressive book full of detail with a large cast of characters, and whatever I write will not do justice to it.

It’s 1549, Edward VI is king, a minor and England is ruled by the Duke of Somerset as Lord Protector. Rebellion is spreading in protest against the landowners’ enclosures of the common land. Edward’s sister, the Lady Elizabeth has asked Matthew Shardlake to make discrete investigations into the murder of Edith Boleyn, the wife of John Boleyn – a distant Norfolk relation of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. John Boleyn has been arrested and will be on trial at the Norfolk Assizes.

The murder mystery, however, is not the main focus of Tombland. Shardlake and his assistant, Nicholas Overton leave London for Norwich, begin their investigation, but as they leave Norwich they get caught up in a rebellion as thousands of peasants led by Robert Kett march on Norwich and establish a vast camp on Mousehole Heath on the land overlooking the city.

I knew about the early enclosures of common land, but hadn’t heard of Kett’s Rebellion before. A large part of the book follows the sequence of events that made up the Rebellion (with more detail given in the Historical Essay at the end of the book). Shardlake is forced to join the rebels. He then has little control over events in the rebel camp and has to search his conscience to decide whether to help them and where his loyalties actually lie. His sympathies lie with the common people ousted from the land they had previously used and so, when Robert Kett asks for his advice at the trials held at the ancient oak, they called the ‘Oak of Reformation’ to ensure that the proper legal procedures are followed he agrees.

Meanwhile Shardlake has not forgotten about Edith’s murder and as the rebels take over the city of Norwich for a while he is allowed to visit John Boleyn, held a prisoner in Norwich Castle, and convinced of John’s innocence he is determined to discover who really had murdered her. Surprisingly, he finds the key to the mystery back at the rebel camp.

Of course, it is far more complicated than I have outlined. Sansom’s research is thorough, so much so that reading his book takes you back in time evoking the sights, smells and atmosphere of the mid 16th century. The characters become real people, with their place in society clearly defined, and the changes in their economic conditions explained as a new ‘rural’ gentry class came into existence and the enclosures deprived the common people of the land they had traditionally used. It’s not just economic changes but also religious changes as the new Book of Common Prayer has been introduced and people are upset by the changes and religious intolerance. It’s a time of great unrest:

Our misery is a laughing stock to those proud insolent men! We are like slaves, and farm our land only at the pleasure and will of the lords. For as soon as any man offends any of these gentlemen he is put out! The common pastures which have been our predecessors’ time out of mind are taken away; they are ditched and hedged in, the pastures enclosed …

We can no longer bear such great and cruel injury! We will rather take up arms than endure it! (page 394)

There is so much more to this book, skilfully written combining the historical facts and fiction. But it works well as a standalone book as enough information is given to understand the relationships of the characters from the earlier books. I was rather sad to see that Guy Malton (previously a monk and now licensed as a doctor), one of my favourite characters is now old and ill, but I was pleased to learn more about Jack Barak, Shardlake’s former assistant, and his on-off relationship with his wife Tamsin. Shardlake’s former servant, Josephine lives in Norwich and he is pleased to meet  up with her, her husband and young baby.

Tombland is a book with an emphasis on the people of the Tudor period – not just about royalty and national events. Protector Somerset is waging war against Scotland but that is only mentioned, Edward VI doesn’t appear, Mary, his sister is referred to, and Elizabeth, his other sister has a cameo role at her household in Hatfield Palace in Hertfordshire. With so much detail it has a slower pace than other books I’ve read recently but I loved the attention to detail and the descriptive writing which placed me precisely at the scenes.

  • Hardcover: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Mantle; Main Market edition (18 Oct. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1447284488
  • ISBN-13: 978-1447284482
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My rating: 5*

 

Foreign Bodies (British Library Crime Classics) edited by Martin Edwards

Poisoned Pen Press|6 March  2018 |288 pages|e-book |Review copy|3*

This edition, published in association with the British Library, has an introduction by Martin Edwards.

There are fifteen stories in this collection of vintage crime fiction in translation,  written by authors from Hungary, Japan, Denmark, India, Germany, Mexico, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia and France. Some are detective stories in the same tradition of  Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, or in the same style as Agatha Christie; there are ‘locked room’ mysteries and stories mixing mystery and horror. Martin Edwards has prefaced each one with a brief biographical note, which I found useful as, unsurprisingly, the authors were all new to me, with the exception of Anton Chekhov (although I haven’t read any of his works).

Edwards presents the stories in approximately the chronological order of their publication from 1883 to 1960 and notes that these authors were writing in the same styles at much the same time as Agatha Christie and other Golden Age crime fiction writers.

When I began reading I was disappointed as I didn’t enjoy the first few stories. Short story collections are often a mixed bag and some stories are better than others, so after putting the book aside for a while I carried on reading. Some are very short and are predictable and really easy to see where they will end, but others are much more satisfying.

The ones that appealed to me the most are (in the order I read them):

The Spider (1930) by Koga Saburo who founded the Mystery Writers of Japan in 1947. His work was very popular in Japan and he wrote in the traditionalist style, favouring the puzzle element of a mystery. Edwards writes that it ‘is a pleasing fusion of macabre fiction and the classic detective puzzle‘, which explains why I like it. It’s set in a bizarre laboratory in a nine metre high round tower in which a professor is carrying out research on spiders. One night another professor visited him and fell to his death from the tower having been bitten by a poisonous spider. The circumstances of his death, however are not at all straightforward and are most ingenious. Probably my favourite story.

Murder a la Carte (1931) by Jean-Toussaint Samat, born in the Camargue, a journalist and writer of crime and adventure novels. This story is about a case of poisoning, but poisoning with a difference. A guest at a dinner party explains how to get away with murder – by using a non-poisonous substance. It’s one of the shorter stories that I did find satisfying.

The Venom of the Tarantula (1933) by Sharadindu Bandyopadhya from Bengal, educated in Calcutta, whose crime writing is similar to that of Arthur Conan Doyle. A writer called Ajit  and detective Byomkesh Bakshi join forces to investigate what is an apparently ‘impossible crime’ featuring an ingenious poisoning.  Nandadulalbabu is a hypochondriac who is writing fiction using black and red ink. He is addicted to venomous ‘spider juice’, extracted from tarantulas. His family have prevented him from getting the juice but somehow he is able to trick them and is still  getting his fix. Although I was able to work out the solution it’s still a satisfying and interesting story.

The Mystery of the Green Room (1936) by Pierre Véry from France. This story is dedicated to the memory of Gaston Leroux, and plays on the events in his story, The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907), which I haven’t readanother ‘locked room’ whodunnit.  I enjoyed this one , particularly where the private investigator points out to the detective the similarities between the yellow room mystery to this one, the green room mystery – this is an ‘open-room’ mystery as opposed to a ‘locked-room’ puzzle.

John Flanders, born in Ghent was one of the pen-names of Jean-Raymond-Marie De Kremer. He wrote imaginative and fantastical stories and Kippers, originally written in Flemish is one of his many short stories. It’s one of the shortest stories in the book and entertained me in a very different way – it is not a puzzle or even really a mystery story, but is focused on one of Flanders’ fictional preoccupations with food and drink and as the title indicates it is a story about

Kippers, delectable, salmony kippers, smoky as a chimney, dripping with fat, one for each of us, of course, the real thing.

Even Bertie the cabin boy got one.

A sinister tale about a shipwrecked crew on a desert island that ends in horror.

My thanks to the publishers, Poisoned Pen Press, for my review copy via NetGalley.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Three Men in a Boat

4*

I’ve wondered about reading Three Men in a Boat: (to say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K Jerome for many years  – I first heard about it when I was at school when one of my friends read it and said she thought it was very good. And since I’ve been blogging I’ve seen that people love this book and think it’s very funny. So, I decided that it was about time that I read it.

three men map

When Jerome began writing this book he intended it to be a serious travel book about the Thames, its scenery and history, but, as he wrote it turned into a funny book.  The Thames remains at the centre of the book but it is also full of anecdotes about the events that happened to him and his friends whilst out on the river, interspersed with passages about the scenery and history. The main characters were real people, Jerome’s friends – ‘George‘ is George Wingrave who was the best man at his wedding, and ‘Harris‘ is Carl Hentschel, a photographer. Only the dog ‘Montmorency‘ is fictional.

This book was first published in 1889, which means that the descriptions of the places they passed through or stayed the night, are like a snapshot in time of what life was like in the Thames Valley, showing the how use of the river had changed with the coming of the railways for transporting goods. Cheap excursion tickets to stations along the river also meant that people could reach places like Henley, Hampton Court and Windsor as the river became the place for picnics, and regattas and hiring skiffs and punts. As time went on the river became more and more popular for fishing, boating and photography as well as a fashionable venue for young ladies to parade their elegant dresses.

It’s a story of a journey, comparing their trip to Stanley’s expedition to Africa searching for Dr Livingstone. It’s satirical, ironic and farcical.The book is composed of amusing mishaps and situations as the three friends decide what to take with them and what not to take, come across the problems of packing and unpacking the boat, where to stop the night, what food to take, and showing how they entertained themselves, for example singing comic songs, accompanied by George’s banjo, and ending in sentiment as they break down in tears singing ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’. George’s tale of getting lost in the Hampton Court Maze made me chuckle as time after time whichever route he took he couldn’t find the way out.

I liked the way Jerome breaks up his account of their journey with recording historical events, such as his imaginative description of the signing of Magna Carta when they reach Runnymede and his account of Henry VIII’s wooing of Anne Boleyn at the priory in the grounds of Ankerwyke House, describing him as ‘that foolish boy‘ and imagining that people would have come upon them ‘when they were mooning round Windsor and Wraysbury, and have exclaimed, “Oh! you here!” and Henry would have blushed’, and Anne would have said ‘isn’t it funny? I’ve just met Mr Henry VIII in the lane, and he’s going the same way I am.’

It’s  a gentle witty book that kept me entertained all the way through – and I can’t say that for every book I read. It’s been on my Classics Club list from the first time I complied my list in 2013 and it’s also a book I’ve owned for over 11 years.

Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell

Italian Shoes

I decided to read Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell, translated by Laurie Thompson, after reading After the Fire his second book about Frederick Welin.  The events in Italian Shoes take place eight years earlier and explains in more detail Welin’s background and why he lives in self-imposed exile on an island in the Swedish archipelago. The two books can be read as standalones, but I think it would be better to read them in order to make a complete whole. These books are not Kurt Wallender mysteries but are character studies of a man living on his own, trying to come to terms with his past and reflecting on ageing and death. He cuts a hole in the ice every morning and lowers himself into the freezing water to remind himself that he is alive.

If this description makes Welin sound cold that is because he is a loner and finds it difficult to open himself up to others. He is sixty six, lives alone, apart from his cat and his dog, both of them old and dying, and he has no real friends. There is Jansson, a hypochondriac, the  postman who visits daily, but Welin doesn’t like him. He has come to a point in his life when he can’t decide what to do but suspects that his life would continue in the same way and nothing would change.

How wrong he was! That January after a snowstorm he saw a figure standing out on the ice motionless leaning on a Zimmer frame three nautical miles from the mainland. It was Harriet, the woman he had loved and abandoned nearly 40 years earlier, leaving her without any explanation. From that point onwards his life changes dramatically, for Harriet is terminally ill and wants him to take her to a small lake in northern Sweden, hidden deep in the forest; a place Welin’s father took him to once as a boy. But there are more revelations and he is forced to face the mistakes he made in the past.

The book is written in four parts, or Movements – Ice, the winter in which Welin is frozen both in his emotions and feelings, The Forest, the spring as his life and feelings begin to emerge, The Sea as his life begins to change and finally, Winter Solstice as the days start to lengthen and Welin’s new life actually begins.

I was puzzled at first by two things – the title, Italian Shoes, which seemed to be at odds with the book’s description about a man living on his own in the Swedish archipelago. the first clue comes with the quotation at the beginning of the book from Chuang Chou:

When the shoe fits, you don’t think about the feet.

Feet and shoes are mention several times throughout the book – Welin wears cut-off wellington boots most of the time – Harriet used to work in a shoe shop – and an Italian shoemaker who lives in the forest promises to make him a pair of shoes.

The second thing that made me wonder is the presence of a gigantic anthill in Welin’s living room. I do not like ants at all and the thought of an anthill next to a table in the middle of the room, almost as high as the table, swallowing up the cloth hanging down over the edge is horrific. It has been there for eleven years, containing maybe a million or more ants and Welin does not want to part with it – until the end of the book. I decided it symbolised his  inertia during the time it had been growing and he watched the ants at work. Its removal signified the change that takes place in his life.

Although this is a dark and melancholy book, as it progresses Welin begins to come to life again and to interact with others, taking responsibility for his past actions. It’s a beautifully written book, with vivid descriptions of the settings and the weather and I found it absolutely fascinating.

This book slots into the only reading challenge I’m doing this year – What’s in a Name 2018. It fits into the category of a book with a nationality in the title. It’s also one of my TBRs.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 783 KB
  • Print Length: 370 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0099548364
  • Publisher: Vintage Digital (2 April 2009)
  • Source: I bought it
  • My Rating: 4*