Six Degrees of Separation: from How To Be Both to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month (April 6, 2019), the chain begins with Ali Smith’s award-winning novel, How to be Both.

How to be both

How to be Both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a Renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real—and all life’s givens get given a second chance.’ (Goodreads)

I haven’t read this book but I’d like to sometime. I see that there are two versions: one begins with the contemporary story, the other with the 15th-century story. This reminded me of Carol Shields’ book Happenstance, two stories about the same five-day period – one from Jack Bowman’s point of view, and the other from his wife, Brenda’s. They’re printed in the same book in an unusual format of containing two books in one, either can be read first – then turn the book upside down and read the other story.

Happenstance

My next link is a bit of a jump – from the character Brenda in Happenstance I immediately thought of Brenda Blethyn, who plays Vera in Ann Cleeves’s books. One of these books is Silent Voices in which D I Vera Stanhope finds a dead body in the sauna room of her local gym. The victim, a woman had worked in social services – and was involved in a shocking case involving a young child.

Social Services also feature in Fair of Face by Christina James. Ten year old Grace is being fostered when her foster mother and her baby are found dead in their beds. Social Services are asked to work with the police, in order to question Grace and her friend Chloe, a child from a troubled family.

Another author with the name James, is P D James, also a crime writer. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is a Cordelia Gray detective story in which she takes on an assignment from Sir Ronald Callander, a famous scientist, to investigate the death of his son, Mark who had been found hanged in suspicious circumstances. Mark had left Cambridge University without completing his degree and had taken a job as a gardener.

My next link is to Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, set mainly in an exclusive and expensive girls’ school, Meadowbank, in England. Some new staff members have been appointed, including Adam Goodman, a handsome young gardener.

My final link is to another school, the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Muriel Spark’s novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Marcia Blaine is a traditional school where Miss Brodie’s ideas and methods of teaching are viewed with dislike and distrust. The Head Teacher is looking for ways to discredit and get rid of her. The girls in her ‘set’ fall under her spell, but one of them betrays her, ruining her teaching career.

Different formats, the name ‘Brenda’, Social Services, authors’ surname ‘James’, gardeners,  and girls’ schools all link How To Be Both to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Except for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie the books in my chain are all crime fiction and apart from How To Be Both I’ve read all the books in the chain – clicking on the titles takes you to my posts, where they exist.

Next month (May 4, 2019), the chain will begin with Jane Harper’s debut best-seller, The Dry.

The Murder Room by P D James

The Murder Room by P D James is one of the last of the Adam Dalgleish books, first published in 2003 . Although I’ve not read many of the books I’ve watched most (if not all) of the TV adaptations, but I don’t remember watching this one.

The Murder Room itself is in the Dupayne Museum, displaying the most notorious murder cases of the 1920s and 30s, with contemporary newspaper reports of the crimes and trials, photographs and actual exhibits from the scenes of the murders. These were actual crimes and not fictional cases made up by P D James.

The novel  begins, as Commander Adam Dalgleish visits the Dupayne in the company of his friend Conrad Ackroyd who is writing a series of articles on murder as a symbol of its age. A week later the first body is discovered at the Museum and Adam and his colleagues in Scotland Yard’s Special Investigation Squad are called in to investigate the killing, which appears to be a copycat murder of one of the 1930s’ crimes.

The Murder Room is not a quick read. It begins slowly with a detailed description of the main characters and it is only after 150 or so pages that the first murder occurs, so by that time I had a good idea of who might be killed but not of the culprit as many of the characters could all have had the motive and opportunity. There are two more killings before Dalgleish reveals the culprit.

More used to fast paced murder mysteries initially I was impatient with this slow start but soon settled into P D James’ approach and appreciated the depth of the intricate plot. The setting is fascinating and the characters are convincing, so much so that I was hoping the second victim wouldn’t be one of my favourite characters.

The lease on the Museum is up for renewal and not everyone wants it to continue – as one of the characters says:

It’s the past … it’s about dead people and dead years … we’re too obsessed with our past, with hoarding and collecting for the sake of it.

There is the Dupayne family – Marcus and Caroline both actively involved in running the Museum, and their brother Nigel, who is a psychiatrist, and his daughter Sarah; the Museum staff – Muriel Godby in charge of the Museum’s day to day running, Tally Clutton the housekeeper, James Calder-Hale, the curator who used to work for MI5; Marie Strickland, a volunteer calligraphist; and Ryan Archer, the handyman and gardener.

I liked the interaction between Dalgleish and D I Kate Miskin, and between Dalgleish and Emma Lavenham who is finding their relationship increasingly frustrating. I enjoyed the book and found it absorbing and testing of both my powers of deduction and vocabulary.

Looking forward to …

… P D James’s new book – Death Comes to Pemberley, which is due out on 3 November.

I don’t usually like sequels to books written by a different author, but I think I’ll have to make an exception for this one. It’s set six years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s tale of romance and social advancement and sees Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage thrown into disarray when Lydia Wickham arrives unannounced and declares her husband has been murdered.

For more information see this BBC page after P D James’s talk on Radio 4 the other day, although she declined to give any further details saying, “It’s rather secret at the moment, because it’s something entirely new.”

Crime Fiction Alphabet: P is for P D James

Letter PThis week’s letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet is the letter P. My choice is The Private Patient by P D James. I like the fact that not only does the author’s name begin with P (for Phyllis) but the title also has a double ‘P’.

Description from the back cover

When the notorious investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn books into Mr Chandler-Powell’s private clinic in Dorset for the removal of a disfiguring and long-standing scar, she has every prospect of a successful operation by a distinguished surgeon, a week’s peaceful convalescence in one of Dorset’s most beautiful manor houses, and the beginning of a new life. She was never to leave Cheverell Manor alive. Dalgliesh and his team, called in to investigate the murder, and later a second death, are confronted with problems even more complicated than the question of innocence or guilt.

My view

This book is not a quick, easy read. It took me several days of slow, careful reading to absorb the details of this complex book. All the characters are described in detail. Rhoda is described as a private person as well as being the private patient. She has a painstakingly probing personality – ideal for an investigative journalist:

Neither dislike nor respect worried her. She had her own private life, an interest in finding out what others kept hidden, in making discoveries. Probing into other people’s secrets became a lifelong obsession, the substratum and direction of her whole career. She became a stalker of minds. (page 8 )

The novel is built up very slowly and methodically and it is only after nearly 100 pages that Rhoda is murdered and Commander Adam Dalgleish and his team are called to the Manor to investigate her death. Dalgleish is preparing for his marriage to Emma Lavenham and his  first thoughts are that maybe he’d had enough of murder. Although it wasn’t the most horrific corpse he’d seen he thought it

… seemed to hold a career’s accumulation of pity, anger and impotence. (page 138)

There are many suspects – a group of seven people in the Manor any of whom could have killed Rhoda – Chandler-Powell, Sister Holland, Helena Cressett, whose family had previously owned the Manor for more than 400 years, Letitia Frensham, Helena’s old governess now working at the Manor as book keeper, the cook and his wife, Dean and Kimberley Bostock and the domestic helper, Sharon Bateman. Marcus Westhall, the surgical assistant and his sister Candace, although they lived in the nearby Stone Cottage, also had access to the Manor and then there was Robin Boyton (the Westhall’s cousin) who was staying at Rose Cottage. He had recommended the Manor to Rhoda.

Dalgleish and his team interview all the suspects and discover many secrets and connections, delving into their lives. The clues are all there, but despite paying close attention as I read, it was only near the end of the book that I worked out who was responsible for the murders. This is a thoughtful book, with precise descriptions of people and places and yet it is tense and dramatic. I enjoyed it.

The Private Patient

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (24 Sep 2009)
  • ISBN-10: 014103923X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141039237
  • Source: I bought it