Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall

Ruth Dugdall’s new book spins around one striking event.

A child plummets from the Humber Bridge. He is seen by a schoolteacher, who had been fishing on a day when he might have been – some would say should have been – at a union rally. He plunges into the water, in front of his stunned teenage daughter, in a desperate attempt to rescue the child. His cause is hopeless; the boy is lost.

CCTV footage and witness statement led the police to two young brothers, who had fled from the bridge as the boy fell. They were tried, convicted, and imprisoned; but of course that wasn’t the end.

This story begins eight years one, when the younger of the two brothers – who had been known to the media as Humber Boy B – was released. He was given a new identity, and he was expected to start a new life, leaving everything and everyone he had know behind.

Responsibility for the newly renamed ‘Ben’ fell to probation officer Cate Austin. That’s what made me eager to read this book, when the subject matter would usually make me wary. I read Ruth Dugdall’s two earlier novels that followed Cate’s life and work a few years ago, and I was very impressed.

Humber Boy BThe perspective is interesting, because this is a crime novel about not detection and investigation but the consequences of crime and what happens in the future to the accused and the convicted. It is clear that the author, a former probation officer, knows of what she writes; and I appreciate that Cate is utterly believable as a professional woman. She’s a a single mother,  who copes well with her teenage daughter, and her daughter’s relationship with her father, who lives nearby with his new family. And she is good at her job,  aware of the importance of the work of the probation service, and of the difference if makes.

Her own story is secondary, but it  has similarities with the case she has been assigned without that ever seeming contrived. There are many thoughtful touches like that in this book.

Ben’s is the highest profile case Cate has ever had to manage, and she is apprehensive. She is well aware that there are many who believe that he shouldn’t have a fresh start in life, that he hasn’t been punished enough, and there will be some who to find him. She knows that media coverage and social media pose a threat. She also knows that after eight years – from the age of ten to the age of eighteen – in an institution ‘Ben’ would have a lot of adjusting to do, that it would be difficult, that success was by no means guaranteed.

The story moves, quite naturally, between different perspectives in the past and in the present.

A picture of that day in the past is built up slowly, from the accounts of those who were close to events, or those who crossed paths with those involved. It’s very effective; making it clear that there was a chain of consequence, and that many lives were affected. It was clear that those should have cared and supported ‘Ben’ let him down badly; it was also clear, as his story in the present unfolded, that the system that had been supposed to rehabilitate him and prepare him for his new life had failed.

Cate did what she could, and she wanted to do more, but she was constrained by her superiors who felt that enough time and money had been spent on one undeserving young man, and by changes to the way the probation service was expected to operate.

Even though I knew what he had done, watching ‘Ben’ trying to deal with things was moving. He had no idea how to live in the new flat he had given; he didn’t know what things cost; he didn’t know how buses worked or where to go and what to do; he didn’t know how to be around people, or who he was supposed to be.

And then there were extracts from the Facebook page created by the mother of the dead boy, who wanted to find Humber Boy B. Not, she said, because she wished him harm but because she wanted to meet with him, to talk to him, to try to understand what had happened. There was another poster though – ‘Silent Friend’ – who wanted more for the bereaved mother, who seemed more than ready to act on her behalf.

All of these threads work together to move the story forward, with the question of what happened – and what would happen – always hovering.

The style is understated, the story of what has happened – what is still happening is clear, but it is never sensationalised. And though there is an obvious parallel between this story and Jamie Bulger case, there are enough differences and enough respect for this story not to feel exploitative. The understatement was very effective, because it made the tragedy, the horror, of what had happened all the clearer.. The ending was unexpected; it turned everything on its head, and it still has me thinking.

This is a book that works as a human drama, it works as a social study, while remaining a very good – and very readable – piece of crime fiction.

The Case is Closed by Patricia Wentworth

Miss Maud Hephzibah Silver made her first appearance in 1929, but readers who met her then had an eight year wait before they could meer her again, in 1937’s ‘The Case is Closed’.

The story is engaging from the start: Hilary has stepped on to a train, after an argument with her fiancé, Henry, and because she had wanted to make a dramatic exit she had got on to the wrong train. As she watched for the next stop an elderly woman approached her, eager to speak to her quickly, while her husband was out of earshot. Hilary was inclined to think she was mad, but when she asked for news of the friend Hilary was staying with, with real concern, she realised that maybe the woman had a genuine interest. And very real fears.

Hilary was staying with her friend, Marion; because Marion was finding it difficult to cope with the aftermath of her husband’s conviction for murder. His was the case that was closed  When Hilary described  the woman and the incident on the train Marion was able to tell her she was. The woman who had wept in court as she reluctantly gave the evidence that made it inevitable that her husband, Geoff, would be found guilty.

Marion had bowed to the inevitable – the loss of her marriage, the loss of the possibility of children, the loss of her position in society – and she slipped away quietly to her job in a dress shop where she was known by a name that was not her own. While she was away Hilary began to examine all of the paperwork about Geoff’s trial, because she was quite that he was innocent.

985385The story played out beautifully, and though I guessed how the mystery would play out the characters and their relationships were engaging and believable. I was involved, and I wanted to be there as events played out.

I understood why Marion was very nearly broken, and just wanted to be left alone to drift through what was left of her life. I felt for her. I also understood what Hilary, who was lovely and more than a little headstrong, had to find out more and desperately wanted to do something. I liked her, I loved her spirit and energy, but  I worried that she would run in to trouble when she began to make enquiries of her own.

Hilary had a very bad scare, and that made her realise that she needed help. She turned to Henry, her sensible, practical estranged fiancé, and he turned to the detective that his good friend – Charles Moray, of ‘Grey Mask’ fame – had recommended. Miss Silver.

I was delighted that Miss Silver was just as I had remembered her. She presented herself as a ‘professional aunt, she knitted at a rate of knots, but she was also a very capable detective. She had followed the case, and she had ideas about how to proceed. Her presence was very low-key though, and it almost seemed that she was steering Hilary and Henry to the solution of the mystery.

And sure enough, a couple of chapters from the end, Hilary had the same thought that I had a couple of chapters from the beginning!

The real strength of this book was the relationship between Hilary and Henry. They had opposite temperaments,  but though  they  squabbled they complemented each other beautifully. I hoped that they’d realise that. And that they’d realise that they loved each other.

So this is a mystery that works because the human story is so good, and because the Patricia Wentworth wrote very well, with warmth and with wit. She picked out exactly the right details, there were some lovely touches, and I particularly liked Hilary’s habit of turning her thoughts into rhyming couplets.

I’d call this a lovely period piece. And maybe issue a warning that some of the attitudes to relationships between classes and sexes are quite dated.

My only disappointment was that the story was a little muddled at the end and that it was wrapped up rather quickly. I would have loved to have seen more of everyone’s reactions to the revelations and to what happened afterwards.

I’d have liked to have spent a little more time with Miss Silver too; but I see that there are thirty more books in the series. I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Broken Harbour by Tana French

Though Broken Harbour is a classic police procedural, the quality of Tania French’s writing and her depth of understanding of her characters make it much more than that. I might call it a state of the nation novel. I might call it a wide-ranging human drama. I might call it a psychological study.

But maybe I should just call it a very, very good book.

And say that I’m very pleased that I began Reading Ireland Month.with such a good contemporary novel, set in a very definite time and place.

“I remember this country back when I was growing up. We went to church, we ate family suppers around the table, and it would never even have crossed a kid’s mind to tell an adult to fuck off. There was plenty of bad there, I don’t forget that, but we all knew exactly where we stood and we didn’t break the rules lightly. If that sounds like small stuff to you, if it sounds boring or old-fashioned or uncool, think about this: people smiled at strangers, people said hello to neighbors, people left their doors unlocked and helped old women with their shopping bags, and the murder rate was scraping zero.

Sometime since then, we started turning feral. Wild got into the air like a virus, and it’s spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train, using their 4x4s to force smaller cars out of their way, purple-faced and outraged when the world dares to contradict them. Watch the teenagers throw screaming stamping tantrums when, for once, they can’t have it the second they want it. Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.”  

I have to say that there are times when this book feels very dark and very bleak, but it isn’t ever gratuitous; everything is there for a reason, and this is a story of real lives where terrible things can happen when

Broken Harbour was meant to become Brianstown, an estate of houses by the sea, just outside the city, with all of its own amenities. Building began when the economy was booming, but when the recession began to bite the developers abandoned their project, leaving the handful of buyers who had been enticed by expensive advertising trapped in substandard homes with no way out and without recourse.

Broken Harbour
The Spains were one of those families, and they were viciously attacked in their new home. The two young children, Emma and Jack, were found dead in their beds. Their parents, Pat and Jenny, were found in the kitchen, in puddles of blood, after being stabbed viciously and repeatedly. Pat was dead, but Jenny was clinging to life by the thinnest of threads.

Mick ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy is the Murder Squad Detective assigned to the case, alongside a new partner, Richie Curran, who was new to the squad.
Kennedy seemed to be the perfect man unravel the story of this seemingly inexplicable crime: his crime solve rate was exceptionally high, he was a model professional, and he took a pride in his work and placed it at the centre of his life.

“One of the reasons I love Murder is that victims are, as a general rule, dead… I don’t make a habit of sharing this, in case people take me fore a sicko or- worse-a wimp, but give me a dead child, any day, over a child sobbing his heart out while you make him tell you what the bad man did next. Dead victims don’t show up outside HQ to beg for answers, you never have to nudge them into reliving every hideous moment, and you never have to worry, and you never have to worry about what it’ll do to their lives if you fuck up. They stay put in the morgue, light-years beyond anything I can do right or wrong, and leave me free to focus on the people who sent them there.”  

His narrative voice is perfectly realised, he became a very real man, with just enough foibles to balance his obvious strengths. I was intrigued as I saw the crime scene through his eyes. And it was clear that there was something strange going on in the Spain household: holes carved carefully out of the walls, baby monitors deployed where you would never expect them to be, barbed wire over the loft hatch and a trap in the loft ….

This would be a difficult case for Scorcher:  he was trying to support a sister with serious mental issues, he had an inexperienced partner to train guide, and it was at Broken Harbour his family had been scarred by a terrible tragedy, years earlier.

The story moves slowly, because details of people and places, observations of the world, are as important as the painstaking police work that will uncover details of the Spain family’s lives, past and present, and identify suspects.

The characters and the intrigue held me. Though the field of suspects was small I really had no idea who was guilty and what had happened on one terrible night. I really couldn’t see how all of the pieces would fit together, but they did. The resolution was horrifying, but it made a terrible sense.

The balance of all of the elements in this book is close to perfect; there were just a few moments when my interest dipped, when I wished things would move along a little.

My fears that the detective’s backstory would be too prominent, that there would be something too far-fetched in the premise – both of which have problems for me with Tana French’s work in the past – proved to be unfounded.

I read quickly, because I had to keep turning the pages to find out more, and I know that I will go on thinking about what I found out for quite some time

And I definitely think that this is her best book to date

Set in Stone by Linda Newberry

A pastiche of a Victorian sensation novel, written for younger reader, and wrapped in a lovely cover was such an enticing proposition. I raced through the opening chapter, part of a framing story, set in an art gallery some years after the events at the heart of the book, eager to reach the story proper.

I was drawn into that story by gorgeous writing, and I saw echoes of wonderful writers of the gothic, the sensational, the romantic. Wilkie Collins, the Bronte sisters, Mrs Radcliffe ….


In 1898, aspiring young artist Samuel Godwin is hired by a Mr Farrow as tutor for his daughters, Juliana and Marianne, at their country house home, Fourwinds.

He found the two sisters to be very different: Marianne was a passionate free spirit while Juliana was quiet, demure, and clearing clinging to secrets that troubled her. And he found that Juliana had reasons to be unhappy. The girls’ mother had died in a tragic accident, their father was cold and remote, and their beloved governess had been taken away from them. But he believed that there was something else.

Maybe that something was the young sculptor who Mr Farrow had commissioned to create statues of the four winds, one for each side of his house. There were just thee glorious statues, somehow both pagan and classical, because the sculptor had been sent away before his work was complete.

Or maybe there was an even darker secret at Fourwinds.

The story is told, in alternate chapters, but Samuel and by Charlotte, who has been hired as governess/companion to the two sisters. She is attentive to her charges, she is clearly fond of them, but she will say nothing at all of her family or her history.

The storytelling is effective and evocative, the plotting is intricate and clever, and the suspense is lovely.

But that falls away as the story advances. I saw where the story was going, and it became a little too predictable.

Of course I could say that this story is written for younger readers, and that I worked things out because I have read a great many gothic romances over the years. But that brings me to another concern. The dark secret concerns incest. It isn’t explicit, and it happens ‘off stage’ before this story begins. But it is clear what happened, and of course the consequences can be seen.

It doesn’t sit well on a book written for young adults; there were other paths that the author could have – I think should have – taken.

I loved the art, and the artists fascination with and hunt for the sculptor. But when he is found suspense is lost, the story loses its impetus, there was a very obvious and unlikely contrivance, and it takes far too long to play out to its conclusion.

There are some really lovely and clever touches, there are moments of high drama, but it wasn’t quite enough.

An overlong – and improbable, maybe even fantastical – conclusion to the framing story was the final straw.

It was such a pity, because Linda Newbery writes very well, and there were any good things on this book.

If only it had been a little leaner, a little less obviously written for young readers, it could have been so special.

As it stands I’m sorry to say that it was a disappointment, and I think I must be much more selective when I pick up literary pastiches in the future.

Crooked Herring by L C Tyler

It seemed such a long time since hapless crime writer Ethelred Tressider and his chocolate loving literary agent Elsie Thirkettle found themselves entangled in criminal doings, and I had begun to think that I might never see them again.

I was delight when I found that they had returned, in Crooked Herring, but when I opened the book the very first page told me that things had changed, and that this might be a last farewell.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but if it is it’s a fabulous final act.

Crooked_HerringEthelred was sceptical when another – rather more successful – crime writer told him that he feared that he might have murdered someone on New Year’s Eve.

Henry Holiday explained that he couldn’t remember exactly what had happened on New Year’s Eve, because he had partied rather too hard. But he was sure that he had killed another crime writer – Crispin Vynall.

He couldn’t – or wouldn’t – explain how, why or where. He wanted Ethelred to apply his understanding of crime and his investigative skills to find out. Ethelred was flattered to have been chosen from so many other possible candidates in the CWA, and so he didn’t stop to think why Henry had chosen him.

After all, Elsie pointed out, solving the case would win him such kudos, and some great reviews.

She wasn’t at his side for this investigation – and it wasn’t entirely clear whether that was her decision or his – but she did offer advice in numerous phone calls and an occasional lunch meeting.

Her actions and her input were documented in extracts from her diary. That was a significant change. Elsie was a little more ruthless that I remembered, and Ethelred a little more his own man.

As Ethelred investigated he became entangled with the wife of the supposed victim, he learned about sock-puppets and the manipulation of Amazon reviews,  he learned even more about certain members of the CWA. And then he found himself in serious trouble.

Could – or would – Elsie save him?

Or could this really be the end?

It’s definitely the end of something – and there’s a jaw-dropping surprise at the end of this book –  but it may not the end of everything.

Time will tell.

The plotting is very, very clever. There were times when I thought I knew – and sometimes I did but there were as many times when I was wonderfully surprised. The way that Amazon Reviews and the CWA were used was fabulous. And the balance of plot, wit and character was very well done.

The details are lovely, and the whole is a wonderful entertainment. Clever crime writing and wonderful wit!

This book stands alone, it’s my favourite to date; but if you like the sound of this one you really should read all five Ethelred and Elsie books.

I can recommend them all.

The Crooked House by Christobel Kent

When Esme Grace was thirteen years old something catastrophic happened to her family. She had to change her name, cut herself off from the past and start a new life as a new person.

She chose the name Alison, because she had gone to school with four girls named Alison, and she believed her choice would help her to remain anonymous. She created a fiction that was close – but not to close – to the past, she chose a career path that would allow her to stay, unnoticed, in the back office, and she lived a quiet life, with no involvements and no entanglements.

She was wary when Paul, a successful older man, took an interest in her, but he didn’t talk about his past and he didn’t ask about hers. A relationship – of sorts – developed.

Crooked HouseA wedding invitation arrived. Paul was invited to the wedding of his closest childhood friend; of course he wanted to go, of course he wanted Alison to go with him. Her problem was that the wedding would be in the same small town where Esme had been living with her family when that family was destroyed.

Alison didn’t want to explain why she didn’t want to go, she didn’t want Paul to go without her and have things said, and so she decided that she had to be brave. She told herself that she could cope, that the past would have been forgotten, that nobody would recognise her.

She was wrong, on all three counts.

This is a story with many familiar elements – a family destroyed, a lone survivor, an uncovering of what really happened – but Christobel Kent tells this particular story so well; with intelligence and insight, with emotional intensity, that it feels entirely natural to care and to keep turning pages.

The setting is evocative: a small town where everyone knows everyone else and where locals would close ranks against outsiders.

Maybe that was what had happened to Esme’s parents when they moved to the town with their young family, full of plans to restore the dilapidated house on the outskirts of town, the house that was known locally as ‘The Crooked House.’

Maybe there was somebody in the town who had been involved in what had happened, somebody who knew what had happened, somebody who was keeping secrets.

Alison wondered about that as she slipped away to try to see places and people she hadn’t seen since she was a child, sometimes hoping and sometimes fearing that she could work out what had happened on that terrible night.

She really didn’t know how much she had lost – or supressed – as a result of the trauma. She realised that there may have been things that she hadn’t understood as a child that she would understand as an adult. And though she feared that she would have to face painful truths, that she might be happier not knowing, she knew that she had to press on.

I felt for her and I feared for her, I really did. And that says much about the skill with which Christobel Kent drew her character, her situation and her story.

I must also praise the atmosphere she created, rich with intrigue and menace, and clever way she suggested possibilities as the story moved forward.

There were elements of the story that lacked credibility – unlikely coincidences, unwarranted assumptions, obvious unasked questions – but I’m not going to point out details because the story that plays out – Alison’s story and Esme’s story – worked, and it held me to the very end.

The Curiosity Cabinet by Catherine Czerkawska

On a cold, dark winter evening, it was lovely to be swept away, to a Hebridean island that Catherine Czerkawska named Garve:

“The island is full of flowers. Ashore, Alys knows that honeysuckle will clutter the hedgerows like clotted cream, weaving a dense tapestry with marching lines of purple foxgloves. Earlier in the year there would have been clumps of thrift, a wild rock garden defining all the bays. Later, meadowsweet will fill the hedges and ditches. But now there will be pink roses and yellow irises. There will be nut-brown boats drawn up on the pale sand, and dress-suited oystercatchers patrolling among the seaweed. As the ferry comes to shore, she notices that the sea around Garve is still that shade of turquoise that she has seen nowhere else. The light is different here; the colours are brighter and more luminous. None of that has changed. It is the same as it always was.”

Alys Miller came to visit Garve while her eight year-old son was away with his father and new stepmother in Italy. She had so many memories of childhood holidays on island, but the holiday when Alys had invited a friend who didn’t enjoy the island and the outdoor life, when a delicate balance had been disturbed, was the last family holiday on Garve. She hadn’t been back since then.

Alys  fell in love with her island all over again, and then she met Donal McNeill, the island boy who had been a good friend to her and her brother. She was so pleased that he remembered her, he appreciated her love of his island, and they had many memories to share.

11850918This was the beginning of a very real love story, complicated because each had their own history and complications in different parts of the country.

That story was told beautifully, with sensitivity and understanding. These people and their lives were real; they were fallible and they were fragile.

I was so very taken with that story that I was disappointed when I realised that it was going to be told with another story, set on Garve many years earlier. But I was soon every bit as interested in that story.

Towards the end of the 17th century Henrietta Dalrymple, a wealthy young widow, was kidnapped and brought to Garve, the prisoner of island chieftain Manus McNeill . She was distraught,  and she was grief-stricken at being parted from her infant son. Manus regrets what he did, but he knows that he had his reasons, and that what had been done cannot be undone.

In time Henrietta learns that she must accept her fate and that she has to live a different life. Manus admires that, and he does what he can to support her in her new life. at first they are wary of each other, but slowly another love story begins to unfold.

It’s a more unlikely story that the first, but I believed that these people lived and breathed, and their emotions and their actions were so very real.

The two stories are linked by a curiosity cabinet.  It was a lovely thing:  a casket, lined with fabric embroidered with images of island birds and flowers, and full of small treasures.

“Here is a miniature shuttle, prettily embroidered with gold, and with a few discoloured threads still attached. Here is  needlelace collar, very fine and floral. Here is a tiny pincushion, a painted silk fan and a coral teether. On another shelf is a hand mirror, intricately decorated with semi-precious stones in the shape of flowers: forget-me-nots and pansies. Alongside these precious keepsakes, she is puzzled to see a little collection of pebbles and shells and swansdown. Finally there is a scrap of yellowed paper, with a few words of incomprehensible writing: a letter? A poem?”

I thought for a moment of the cabinet of treasures in Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘The Scent of Water’ but I was too involved with the stories told in this book to think for long.

The ties between past and present are loose, and completely uncontrived. It’s simply that the same object is present in both periods, that there are some things that don’t change in time, and that there are gentle likenesses in the two stories.

The island Garve, is at the centre of both stories and it is captured perfectly. It is so easy to see the landscape, to feel the weather, to understand the difference in the air, in the way of life. The perceptions of two women, centuries apart, who came to the island, who formed relationships with island men,  and with the island itself, who feel the pull of an absent child, are lovely to read.

The writing is lovely too, catching the magic and the reality of life, with both small and bold brushstrokes.

“The island reminds her of those magic painting books. The shop here used to sell them. You would dip your brush in water and pale, clear colours would emerge from the page, as this green and blue landscape is emerging from the mist.”

The storytelling lives up into all of this; I was captivated, and I wasn’t entirely sure how the story would play out until the very last page.

It was the right ending but I was sorry to leave, and I would so love to go back to Garve and to the people I met there ….

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I’ve read a lot of Trollope this year; indeed I think I’ve fallen in love with his writing this year. But after four big books, the first four Palliser novels, I realised that I needed a change, that I needed to read a big Victorian novel written by someone entirely different.

There were lots of reasons why I picked up ‘Bleak House.’ It was on my Classics Club list, I try to read one Dickens novel a year, it’s a book that any people seem to love ….

Now it’s the book that made me love Dickens, and the book that made me understand why he is held in such high esteem.

You see, reading Dickens after Trollope led me to compare the two – very different – authors and to appreciate what each man did.

Trollope took me by the hand and pulled me into his world, introducing me to people, telling me about them, so that I came to know all of them, all of their lives, all of their entanglements.

Dickens, on the other hand, took me into the most wonderful art gallery and he showed me glorious pictures; paintings of people and places that told me a story in a very different way.

I can’t quite find the right paintings to explain what I mean, but I know that they’re out there.

“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.”

Don’t those words paint such a wonderful picture?

The voice of the omniscient narrator continues to paint pictures like that. He sees everything, moving through the streets and the wastelands, looking through doors and windows, to tell  a story that is both a wonderful human drama and a clever satire of  laws and  institutions that are so caught up with themselves that the people they protect are often forgotten.

He introduces an extraordinary range of characters: from Lady Dedlock, bored to death; to Jo the crossing sweeper, trapped in poverty; to Mr Tulkinghorn, the capable and enigmatic solicitor; to Miss Flite who tends birds in her rented room as she follows events in chancery; to Mr Bucket, the detective who says little but understands much ….

437135It is said sometimes that Dickens’ characters can be flat. I can understand that because I know that there were sides to these people that I didn’t see, but in ‘Bleak House’ that didn’t matter. I was shown the aspects of their characters and their behaviour that I needed to be shown as the stories unfolded, and I found it easy to believe in these people and their lives.

I say stories, because there is another story twisted together with the story that that unnamed narrator tells.

But there’s another narrator too: Esther Summerson’s voice is quite different. It’s clear, straightforward and dutiful. I couldn’t quite like Esther but there were ties when I felt for her, times when I admired her, and in the end I realised that the Esther who told her story, some time after the events she described, was the product of everything that she had learned and everything that had happened to her.

Esther was an orphan and she had been raised not knowing who her parents were, only being told that she was her mother’s disgrace; but when her guardian died, a lawyer sent her, with two other orphans, who were wards in the unending case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, to live with John Jarndyce, who might also be a beneficiary of the disputed wills at the centre of that case.

And there were more characters: Mr Guppy, a law clerk who became infatuated with Esther and took it upon himself to investigate her past; Mrs Jellaby who neglects her own family as she tries to help others; Mr Skimpole, who presented himself as an innocent, but who probably wasn’t ….

There were times when I found some of these characters maddening, their foibles overplayed, but there were reasons for them to be there over and above comic relief.

The stories told by the two narrator overlap and characters move between them. The story of the consequences of the chancery suit and the story of the illegitimate child, a story that had been buried but will be disinterred, work together beautifully, although they are linked only by a small number of characters who are involved in both.

I loved the diverse elements, I loved the wealth of detail; and although I can’t sum up the plot and the relationship I had no problem at all understanding all of the implications, and I was always intrigued.

There is so much more her than I can write about – including a murder mystery – but there are synopses and summaries out there, there are people who have studied this book, there are other who have written about it and pulled out quite different thoughts.

I suspect that I need to read it again – I’d love to read it again.

So, for now, just know that I loved it.

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland

Oh, what a recipe for a book to read on a dark winter night!

A setting in Mediaeval England!
The Peasants Revolt of 1381 as a backdrop!
Witches  – and a ghost!
A touch of the Gothic!
And a very strong thread of suspense!

I have loved Karen Maitland’s novels in the past and, after being rather disappointed in the one before this one, I am so pleased to be able to say that this is a return to form.

The setting is city of Lincoln, where the wool trade is in decline and  rich and poor are feeling the consequences. The city and the period are wonderfully evoked, but at the heart of the story are the people. Because this is a very human story; a story of a family and community, jealousy and ambition, bitterness and retribution ….

Robert of Bassingham is a prosperous wool merchant and a pillar of the community. His dour wife, Edith, runs his home well; their elder son, Jan, is his father’s steward; and their younger son, 12-year-old Adam, shows great promise.

Caitlin, a widow newly arrived in Lincoln, asks him to advise how she should invest her savings.  She charms him, and very soon he is utterly smitten. He finds Leonia, her precocious 13-year-old daughter, just as charming, but he is wary of Edward, her arrogant and indolent adult son.

When Edith falls ill Caitlin is quick to offer support and practical help.

Is she acting from the goodness of her heart, or does she have some other motive?

untitledThere are new alliances formed and there are fallings out as the two families move closer together. There are also consequences that nobody could have foreseen.

Loyal servants, Beata and Tenney, are pulled into the situation.

Gunter, a poor boatman, fears for his son, Hankin, who has run away to join the revolt is involved too.

A stranger to the city is trying to reach Robert, trying to warn him, but there is always something in his way.

And there is a ghost, whose identity, whose purpose, will not be revealed until the story ends.

The characters are well drawn and defined, and the story twists and turns so cleverly as the narration moves between them. I had ideas, but I was never quite sure where the story was going to go, I never quite knew who was reliable and who was unreliable.

Each chapter begins a spell or a charm, taken from medieval texts and folklore; they’re fascinating, and they echo and emphasise the thread of fear and superstition that runs through the story.

I found much to enjoy: I loved Beata and the dramatic twist her story took; I was fascinated – and horrified – at the way Leonina’s character grew; I loved the atmosphere that Karen Maitland conjured up; and I really loved the way my perceptions shifted as different characters took their turn to tell the tale.

But there were things I found disappointing. The story around the Peasants Revolt was less effective than the story around Robert of Bassingham’s family; some revelations came too soon, and some of them weren’t as startling – or as convincing – as they might have been; and I couldn’t help the story could have been tightened up a little, that this book didn’t need to be quite as hefty.

But, that said, it was engaging from start to finish and utterly readable; a dark historical mystery, underpinned by solid research, that moves like a thriller.

It starts slowly but as the seemingly disparate strands are drawn together, it picks up pace and builds to an dramatic and incendiary final act.

This isn’t Karen Maitland’s best book, but I’m glad that she does what she does, and I know I’ll be picking up her next book next year.

The Man Who Lost Himself by Henry de Vere Stacpoole

Henry de Vere Stacpoole was a doctor, a traveller, a poet, a dramatist, a biographer and – on the evidence of this book from 1918 – a very capable novelist.

You may know his name from ‘The Blue Lagoon’ – which I hope is a better book that its most recent film adaptations suggest – but this is a very different story.

It opens in London, where a young American businessman, named  Vincent Jones, has not been having the best of times. The business deal that had everything riding on it had not come off, his trip to London had been far more expensive than he had expected, and he wasn’t at all sure what he would say to his business partner when he got home.

Jones saw a face he recognised but couldn’t quite place in the lounge of his hotel, and when he offered a greeting the an in question steered him towards a mirror. The two could have been identical twins. Jones’ new friend swept him off for a night on the town,, he plied him with far more alcohol than he was accustomed to. When Jones woke the next morning he was wearing the finest of clothes, he was  in the grandest of bedrooms, but he had no idea at all of how he got there.

And then a manservant entered the room and took him to be the Earl of Rochester.


At first Jones played along, thinking that he was part of a fine practical joke. But the morning paper brought news that made him realise that the real Earl of Rochester wouldn’t be coming back, and that he was trapped in the role he had assumed.

At this point you may be thinking that this sounds rather like ‘The Scapegoat’ by Daphne Du Maurier. You’d be right, and I don’t know if Du Maurier was influenced by Stacpoole, if they were both influenced by an earlier story, or if the resemblance is as coincidental as the resemblances in the two stories. But I can say that the style, the tone and the way the story plays out in the two books is quite different.

And I can say that I liked Vincent Jones: he proved himself to be practical, capable, and fundamentally honest and decent.

The Earl had fallen out with his family, so that was one problem deferred as Jones picked his way through Rochester’s life, trying to sort out the problems that had led him to leave his life behind.

He had the sensible idea of presenting himself as a man who had seen the error of his ways and was trying to change his life to account for changes in ‘his’ demeanour, and he found Debretts invaluable in establishing just who his friends and associates were.

Meanwhile, he considered the consequences of staying in his new role, or of trying to re-establish the truth. He knew that becoming Jones again present practical problems, he knew that the truth would be distressing for the Earl’s family; but what he didn’t realise was that the family’s paramount concern would be avoiding a scandal; or that he would fall in love with the lovely young wife who had  been driven very close to the end of her tether by the real Earl.

The story is well written and judged, it’s engaging from start to finish, and there is always something happening and something to think about.

It visits a  variety of places in London – a city that I could see the author knew and loved – and there’s a lovely diversion into the country.

There were moments when I had to suspend disbelief – of course there were – but they were few and far between, and they really didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all.

I saw one or two possible twists, and I really couldn’t predict how the story play out or how it  would end until it did. I was sorry that it was over, but the ending was just right.

It was a grand adventure,  and I’d happily read more by by Henry de Vere Stacpoole.