Ten Books for Cornish Holidays

I’ve spotted a lot of Top Ten Holiday Reads  lists lately. Fascinating reading, and they set my mind spinning in a direction that was similar but different.

Ten books to transport you to Cornwall. Or to read on holiday in Cornwall.

I’ve picked books that are in print – and I think they are all available electronically – and I’ve picked wonderfully readable books, old and new, that I can happily recommend.

And her they are …

cORNWALL

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

“The road to Manderlay lay ahead.  There was no moon.  The sky above our heads was inky black.  But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all.  It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood.  And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.”  

Daphne Du Maurier fell in love with a house named Menabilly on the north coast of Cornwall. In Rebecca she calls that house Manderlay, and she spins a wonderful tale of suspense intrigue and romance, with lovely echoes of Jane Eyre around it.

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Lucy Wood comes from Cornwall, she understands, really understands what makes it so special, and she mixes myth and real life to fine effect in this wonderful collection of short stories.

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley

“Crossing the Tamar for some reason made me feel different inside. It was only a river, yet every time I crossed it I felt I had stepped through some mystical veil that divided the world that I only existed in from the one that I was meant to be living in.”

Susanna Kearsley captures the magic of crossing the Tamar Bridge, leaving Devon and coming into Cornwall, and she captures the magic that draws so many people here in this lovely story of a house, a garden, history, time travel, and above all romance.

Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins crossed the Tamar by boat, a few years before the bridge was built, and he and his friend, the artist Henry Brandling, set out on a 214 mile walking tour.  This account of their travels holds a wealth of  material, wonderful vivid writing and extraordinary insight.

Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley

“Leo Walmsley gives the reader a true story, classic in its simplicity, of a man and a girl who possessed nothing in life but love for each other and faith in the future, and because of these things, were courageous and happy…”

So said Daphne Du Maurier, in her introduction to a story that is vividly and beautifully written. The man and the girl are utterly real, every detail rings true, and it is so easy to be pulled in, so easy to care.

Tales of Terror from the Black Ship by Chris Priestley

A visitor tells two children stories of the sea as they wait in their home, and Inn on a Cornish cliff, for the storm to abate and for their father to come home. Tales are deliciously twisted, and the final revelation – who the visitor is and why he has come – is perfect.

The Burying Beetle by Ann Kelley

This is the story of twelve year-old Gussie, who has a head full of films and books, who is fascinated by nature and the world around her home in St Ives. She is ill, waiting and hoping for a heart transplant, and that makes life all the more precious, and her story all the more life-affirming. I loved Gussie, and I loved seeing Cornwall through her eyes.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

On holiday at a Cornish hotel Poirot encounters an accident-prone heiress, and  he soon realises that her accidents are not accidents at all. A solid mystery, a very nice setting; all in all, a lovely period piece from the 1930s.

Penmarric by Susan Howatch

A wonderful family saga, spanning half a century, telling their story and the story of Penmarric, their grand Cornish home, in five voices. The house, its inhabitants, the world around them come to life in a dramatic, compelling story. I had no idea when I first read it that it was inspired by real mediaeval history ….

The First Wife by Emily Barr

The story of a girl from a Cornish village who loses her home when her grandparents die, moves to town, and finds herself caught up in a story elements of chick lit, strands of a psychological thriller, and echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. It’s wonderful fun!

I’m waiting now for Emily Barr’s new book, the story of a woman whop disappears from the train between Penzance and Paddington. A train I have travelled on so many times …

There are more books of course, by these authors and by others.

Have any of these books, or have any other books, transported you to Cornwall, I wonder … ?

What’s in a Name Challenge: Done!

Four years ago “What’s in a Name” was the very first challenge I signed up for via this blog. It was also the first challenge I completed.

It’s a lovely challenge, and of course I signed up for a second year. A third. And a fourth.

Thanks must go to Beth at Beth Fish Reads for acting as host once again.

I scanned my shelves for six books, with titles each of six categories.  And then I read them.

  • A book with a topographical feature (land formation) in the title:

In The Mountains by Elizabeth Von Arnim

  • A book with something you’d see in the sky in the title:

The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith

  • A book with a creepy crawly in the title:

Snake Ropes by Jess Richards

  • A book with a type of house in the title:

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

  • A book with something you’d carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack in the title:

The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall

  • A book with a something you’d find on a calendar in the title:

The Fortnight in September by R C Sheriff

It’s not the list I planned at the end of last year, but I’ve read six lovely books, and I am so pleased that I remembered to read ‘The Fortnight in September’ in September!

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

It’s unusual for me to come across an Agatha Christie novel that I can’t place. But, though I read every book she wrote in my teens, though I’ve picked up a lot of them again over the years since them, though I’ve seen any number of dramatistions, I remembered this, the third Miss Marple novel, not at all.

I wondered why. Was it me or was it the book?

It was time to find out – I’d read the first two novels, I planned to read them all – so this was top of my reading queue.

Things began promisingly.

Jerry Burton, a war-wounded pilot had taken his doctor’s advice. He’d found a quiet house in a country village and he was going to spend a few months there with his sister, Joanna. It was to be a place to rest, relax recuperate …

The time and the place were captured beautifully.

But then. Jerry received a poison pen letter. It was fortunate he knew exactly what to do with it.

“The correct procedure, I believe is to drop it into the fire with a sharp exclamation of disgust.”

He did just that. But then he learned that his was not the first letter. Nearly all of the villagers had received one. And so he was as interested to meet his new neighbours as they were to meet the incomers.

At first it was almost a game, but that soon changed. One woman received a letter and on the very same day she was found dead, poisoned, and by her side a scrap of paper bearing the words “I can’t go on”.

The police investigation intensified. And they welcomed Jerry’s interest in the
case. He was in the village but not of the village, and so he could hear and see things that the police could not.

And then there was another death, in the same house as the first. A clear case of murder. And so the question had to be asked: was that first death really suicide, or was it murder too?

The police couldn’t identify the killer, and the villager grew more and more anxious.

The vicar’s wife asked a fried to stay. A friend who might be able to shed some light on what was going on. Miss Jane Marple.

Of course she could, and of course she did …

I can’t fault The Moving Finger as a study of village life. It catches the community, the gossip, the way life spreads beautifully, and there is some lovely, gentle humour as Jerry and Joanna adapt to a rather more old-fashioned way of doing things than they are used to.

I can’t fault the main storyline either. The business of the poison pen letters interesting and, though the plot had quiet moments, the construction was clever and there was almost always something to hold the interest.

In the end it was classic Christie: it made perfect sense but I hadn’t worked it out.

What I did struggle with was the characterisation: most of the characters were very well done, but one or two almost felt like parodies of Christie characters. Just a little forced, a little overwritten.

Miss Marple didn’t seem quite herself either. She arrived very late in the corner, and she offered a few suggestions as she sat, knitting, in one of the vicarage armchairs.

I wondered if Agatha Christie hadn’t intended her to be there at all, but as she neared the end of the book she realised she lacked a character who could see things through to the end.

This is the shortest of the Miss Marple novels, and I can’t help thinking it could have gained from being a little longer. A  little more space for the characters to establish themselves, a little more space for Miss Marple herself might have made all the difference.

And maybe a little more plot, instead of a romantic subplot that didn’t really work.

So, now it’s all over, I do think the failing was with the book and not me. But I’m glad I re-read it.

It’s a good story, it’s  a very readable book, but Agatha Christie has written much better, and I want to move on to one of her books I could happily pick up again and again.

The next Miss Marple is one of them – A Murder is Announced – and it’s already off the shelf.

10% Report: Reading the 20th Century

My 20th Century Reading Project continues to roll along. First there were ten, then there were twenty, and now there are thirty books.

The plan was to complete the century over two years, sixty in year one and forty in year two, as it gets more difficult as there are fewer spots to fill.

So I’m a little behind schedule but I’m not going to worry about it – I’m going to read what I want to read, keeping an eye on the years in need of books, and it will be done when it’s done.

I already have a few books that I wish could go on but their years were already taken. The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks got the spot for 1960 and so Scenes From Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Memoirs of an Armchair couldn’t go on.

And I’m only allowing one book per author – unless there is a long period between books and much to distinguish them – because I want to my final list to be as diverse as I can make it.

But enough rambling, here are the books:

1911 – The Limit by Ada Leverson

Just one conversation brought the couple and their world completely to life, and opened the door to a lovely comedy of manners, light as air but with just enough serious underpinnings to stop it floating off into the ether.

1930 – The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

There are familiar elements: a clock, apparently knocked over and confirming the time of death; an unfinished letter, that may or may not have been tampered with; confessions that cannot possibly be true.  – but they are used well, throwing many questions into the air and creating a seemingly unsolvable puzzle..

1935 – White Ladies by Francis Brett Young

Bella was a wonderful character. She wasn’t always likeable, indeed she was often maddening, but I could see what made her the woman she became, and I never stopped loving her spirit and her determination.  And what a story!

1953 – Murder in Time by Elizabeth Ferrars

The police investigate. The guests talk about what has happened, they tell their stories – or in some cases have their stories drawn out of them. But it was difficult to know who was telling the truth, how the facts would fit together. As new facts emerged I changed my mind about what might have happened, about what was truth and what was lie. I had an idea, but I couldn’t make all the pieces fit

1959 – Mizmaze by Mary Fitt

Imagine, if you will, a country estate. A grand house with extensive grounds set on the English coast. A house named Mizmaze, because the main feature of those grounds is a maze. At the centre of the maze a man lay dead. He was the owner of the house, and his murderer had struck him down with one of his own croquet mallets.

1961 – The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

Having Mary tell the story was a wise decision. I questioned her reliability, and I wondered what she might be holding back, but now that her story is done I can’t fault her narration. I understand the reasons for everything she said and did; and for everything that she didn’t say and didn’t do.I wonder if it’s significant that the author gave her leading lady her own name …

1962 – Coronation by Paul Gallico

The Clagg family arrived at St Pancras station early in the morning, on the Coronation Special from Sheffield. It was to be the day out of a lifetime because Will Clagg, factory foreman accepted the offer of a lifetime. Five seats in a window in Wellington Place, just off Hyde Park Corner. A wonderful view. A buffet lunch. Champagne. And the price reduced from £25 to £10 – Will’s cousin Bert, a London chauffeur had some excellent contacts.

1989 – Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

The juxtaposition of serious issues – birth control and drug addiction – and frivolity – a wonderful array of frocks and dalliances with young men – is rather strange. Most of the time I liked it, but I did have moments when I was heartily sick of wardrobe details and just wanted something to happen..

1990 – Closed at Dusk by Monica Dickens

I knew that Monica Dickens was a wonderful author. I knew that she had written a marvellous range of books, works of fictions and non fiction, stories for children and stories for adults. But I didn’t know that she had written crime fiction until I spotted a tatty copy of ‘Closed at Dusk’ in a charity shop bargain box.

1993 – Pillion Riders by Elisabeth Russell Taylor

A trip to Paris highlighted the differences between the pair: he wanted to whisk her around the city, to have her experience everything that Paris had to offer, while she wanted to walk, watch, listen, and slowly absorb the city’s character.

Sixes

It was Jo’s idea – celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

Not quite as easy as it looks. I’ve tweaked the categories to suit my reading style, and because I wanted to push disappointments to one site and simply celebrate some of the books many I have loved. And I’ve done it!

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Six Books that took me on extraordinary journeys

The Harbour by Francesca Brill
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to the Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh
The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston
The House on Paradise Street by Sofka Zinovieff

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Six books that took me by the hand and led me into the past

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn
The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon
Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd
The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

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Six books from the past that drew me back there

The One I Knew the Best of All by Frances Hodgson-Burnett
A Burglary by Amy Dillwyn
The Frailty of Nature by Angela Du Maurier
Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
The New Moon With the Old by Dodie Smith
As It Was & World Without End by Helen Thomas

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Six books from authors I know will never let me down

The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
Closed at Dusk by Monica Dickens
Monogram by G B Stern
Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor
In the Mountains by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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Six books I must mention that don’t fit nicely into any category

Shelter by Frances Greenslade
Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon
When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones
Alys, Always by Harriet Lane
The Roundabout Man by Clare Morrall
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

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Six Books I started in the first six months of the year and was still caught up with in July

The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone
The Deamstress by Maria Dueñas
Greenery Street by Denis MacKail
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
White Ladies by Francis Brett Young

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Do think about putting your own sixes – it’s a great way of perusing your reading, and I’d love to read more lists.

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

So taken was I with the idea of reading Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels in sequence that I had the second book down off the shelf before I had finished the first. I hadn’t read the book for years, but I’d seen a television adaptation not so long ago and I could remember the characters, and pretty much all of the plot. But I was still eager to press on, and to see what reading the original novel might show me.

The first thing I noticed was that ‘The Body in the Library’ was quite thin – this was a much shorter novel than ‘The Murder at the Vicarage’. And that there was quite an interval between the two books – twelve years and twenty more novels. I wonder why? Did she not suit the ideas her creator had? Did she not see  potential in the character? I wonder …

The story was very quickly off and running. Mrs Bantry woke thinking that she had dreamt of her maid crying, ” … there’s a body in the library.” She hadn’t. And there was. An unknown young woman, wrapped in an unknown rug.

Colonel Bantry called the proper authorities and Mrs Bantry called her good friend Miss Marple.

“You want me to come up?”

“Yes, I’m sending the car down for you.”

“Of course dear, if you think I can be of any comfort to you …”

“Oh, I don’t want comfort. But you’re so good at bodies.”

“Oh no, indeed. My little successes have been mostly theoretical.”

“But you’re very good at murders. She’s been murdered you see, strangled. What I feel is that if one has got to have a murder actually happening in one’s house, one might as well enjoy it, if you know what I mean. That’s why I want you to come and help me find out who did it and unravel the mystery and all that. It really is rather thrilling, isn’t it?”

“Well. of course, my dear, if I can be of any help to you.”

This was the same world but a rather different Miss Marple. A gentler character, with a wider social circle and an enhanced reputation. I wondered if I should go back and check what had happened in the short stories that Miss Marple had appeared in between her first two novels. And I wondered where a lady as curious and practical as Mrs Bantry had been when a body was found in the vicarage next door to her good friend Miss Marple.

But on with the story.

Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack had another murder to investigate. The made enquiries about missing persons, and swiftly identified the murder victim as eighteen-year old Ruby Keene, who had been working as a dancer at the Majestic Hotel in the seaside resort of Danemouth, eighteen miles away.

The first suspect was Basil Blake. He lived near the Bantrys. He worked in the film industry. He had a vibrant, party-going lifestyle. He had been seen with a blonde young woman …

Mrs Bantry promptly decided that she and Miss Marple should take a holiday in Dartmouth.

Ruby had been reported missing by Conway Jefferson. He had been a successful industrialist, but he had lost his legs in a terrible accident that also claimed the lives of his wife, son and daughter. He was a rich, elderly invalid, his household made up of Mark Gaskell, his daughter’s widower, Adelaide Jefferson, his son’s widow, and Peter Carmody, Adelaide’s nine-year old son from an earlier marriage.

A strange household, and Ruby had nearly become part of it. Mr Jefferson had taken a shine to Ruby, and she had played up to him. He planned to adopt her, to settle some money on her.

Interesting characters. Strange relationships. And motives for murder.

Mr Jefferson was determined that the truth should be uncovered and so he called in his good friend Sir Henry Clithering, a retired police commissioner. Now Sir Henry was already acquainted with Miss Marple and Mr Jefferson was an old friend of the Bantrys. That made it very easy for Miss Marple to meet and talk with all of the concerned parties.

She didn’t uncover new facts, or use her little grey cells, but she added observation of the characters and their relationships to her observations of the corpse.

The psychology and the conversations were wonderful . I was struck by Mr Jefferson’s account of his relationship with the dead girl, by his understanding of why he had acted as he had. And by Adelaide Jefferson’s apparent honesty about her relationship with her father, how it had changed, how she saw the future. I hoped that she was being honest, that she wasn’t involved with the murder.

The police also took an interest in Ruby’s cousin, Josie Turner, who had brought her to work in the hotel, and in her dance partner, tennis professional Raymond Starr.

And then there was another body. It seemed that another missing young woman.

That allowed Miss Marple to see what had happened.

The action moved back to St Mary Mead, and it was lovely to see Len and Griselda Clement, and one of two more of Miss Marple’s neighbours again.

Miss Marple demonstrated that the police were thinking along the wrong lines, and saved that day. The police sprang a trap, the truth was revealed and justice was served.

This wasn’t Agatha Christie’s most elegant mystery, but it was serviceable the logic worked. I found the degree of unbelievability acceptable – though there was one little cheat, something that Miss Marple found out that wasn’t mentioned until much later.

But I was satisfied as I turned the pages, and satisfied when I reached the ending.

Now I just have to decide whether I should move on to the next novel – The Moving Finger, which I remember not at all – or go back to read the short stories that make up The Thirteen Problems ..

Crime Fiction Alphabet: C is for Christie

For a long time now I watched the band of readers who have been reading their way through all of Agatha Christie’s works in order. I’ve thought about joining them, but I knew that I couldn’t do it. I’m much to easily distracted, and I’d feel the call of a book out of order as soon as I signed up.

But a little while ago my fiance picked up an account of the life of Miss Jane Marple in a book sale. And I realised that it was a long time since I had reacquainted myself with any of her cases, and that reading twelve novels in order might be interesting. And there’s nothing to say I can’t take a little detour into any of Agatha Christie’s other books along the way.

Miss Marple’s crime solving career began with The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930.

It was clear from the start that Colonel Protheroe would be the victim. He was self-important, he was intolerant, and he had no time for tact or diplomacy.

He was found, shot in the head at the vicar’s writing desk.

There were many suspects.

The most obvious were an unhappy wife, an aggrieved daughter, an entangled artist.

And  there was  a mysterious newcomer, an unsettled curate, an eccentric archaeologist.

Even the vicar had expressed the view that anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.

The types were familiar, but the characters were nicely drawn.

And it was the same with the mystery. There are familiar elements: a clock, apparently knocked over and confirming the time of death; an unfinished letter, that may or may not have been tampered with; confessions that cannot possibly be true.  – but they are used well, throwing many questions into the air and creating a seemingly unsolvable puzzle.

Inspector Slack was confounded, but the lady who lived next door to the vicarage understood human nature, she watched, she listened, and she worked everything out. She was, of course, Miss Jane Marple.

An older, more gossipy, less charming Miss Marple than would appear in later novels and adaptations. And she remained on the fringes of the story: an interested neighbour who was not yet the person to be turned to when there was a mystery to be solved, the person whose name police would recognise.

For much of the book that worked well. The vicar told the story,  he and his family were charming, and his view was clear and unjudgemental.

But later on, when everything had been thrown up into the air, I missed the guidance of a detective or a more engaged protagonist.

This isn’t Agatha Christie’s finest mystery. There’s nothing wrong with the logic, but a few elements were predictable, and there isn’t the ingenuity that makes many of her mysteries really sing.

But it is a solid mystery, built on traditional lines. A nice period piece, a solid human story, and a very readable book.

There are some lovely touches too. Echoes of Poirot’s first mystery in the plotting. Echoes of Roger Ackroyd in the narration. I wonder if that was deliberate.

I found much to enjoy, much to ponder, and now I’m looking forward to Miss Marple’s next case.

*****

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 21 May 2012, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, Dis for … ?