I’m in the middle of two very different books – Going Into a Dark House, a book of short stories by Jane Gardam and Messenger of Truth, a Maisie Dobbs mystery by Jacqueline Winspear. Both are giving me a lot of reader satisfaction; they take me out of myself and into their worlds, peopled by believable characters, set in realistic locations, and with plots that are detailed and complicated enough to keep me wondering how everything will turn out and hoping for a sequel.
I’ve only recently begun to appreciate short stories and still prefer the longer short stories in preference to those of just a few pages. The plus factor is reading short stories is that you can read one in just one session, making it a complete experience. Going Into a Dark House is a collection of eight short stories, all long enough to satisfy my requirements. The title story, which I haven’t read yet is the longest and is in three parts. Death figures quite a lot in these stories, in different guises and also reflections on age, youth and nostalgia. The first story is Blue Poppies which begins: “My mother died with her hand in the hand of the Duchess.” You know at the start that there is a death; the rest of the story leads up to this death and its effect on the daughter. I like the way Jane Gardam writes, conjuring such vivid images that it seems as those I’m actually witnessing the scene. For example the blue poppies are
… just like Cadbury’s chocolate papers crumpled up under the tall black trees in a sweep, the exact colour, lying about among their pale hairy leaves in the muddy earth, raindrops scattering them with a papery noise.
Zoo-Zoo is a strange little tale about a dying nun who is taken by two of her fellow nuns to a nursing home to end her days. She is not as senile as they suppose. My favourite story so far in this collection is Dead Children, which I think is absolutely brilliant. How Jane Gardam can write twelve pages about such a deceptively simple meeting of a mother and her two children and infuse them with such depth of meaning and emotion is just beyond me. The twist at the end makes an ordinary everyday event amazingly extraordinary.
Messenger of Truth is a much longer book and my reading has been spread out over a few sessions already. It is a detective story set in 1930/1 in England. The artist Nick Bassington-Hope has fallen to his death from the scaffolding whilst installing his work at an art gallery. The police believe it is an accident, but his twin sister Georgina isn’t convinced and hires Maisie Dobbs to investigate his death. Along with Nick’s death there is also the mystery of the missing piece of art work that was to be the centre of the exhibition.
I’m just over half-way through this novel and I think I’m going to have to abandon other books I have on the go in order to finish it. Maisie’s methods of investigation take her to the art gallery, to Dungeness where Nick lived in a converted railway carriage and to visit his family at their home near Tenterden. After questioning his friends and seeing Nick’s paintings she becomes convinced the mystery of his death is related to the missing painting and that this is connected to Nick’s experiences as a war artist during the First World War.
I like the way the mystery is set in the cultural and social setting of this period, between the two World Wars. England is a place where there is a great divide between the wealthy and the poor. Maisie’s assistant Billy Beale is struggling to accept that people have money to spend on artwork when others can’t afford food and medicine. The realities of life are highlighted when Billy’s family catch diphtheria and his two year old baby, Lizzie is taken into hospital. The lingering effects of the war are starkly and shockingly described in Georgina’s reminiscences about the treatment during the war of men suffering from shell-shock.
Maisie is a an independent woman living on her own, working out her relationship with Andrew Dene, who hoped to marry her. Their relationship is floundering as she is absorbed in her work and doesn’t want to give it up and conform to the accepted role of being a doctor’s wife. She is discontent and is seeking a quality out of life that she cannot quite define. She finds the thrill of investigation outweighs her desire to help others. It is the search for truth that motivates and thrills her.
Both books are immensely satisfying.