10% Report: Reading the 20th Century

I’m officially more than halfway through my 20th Century Reading Project now!

First there were ten, then twenty, then thirty, then forty, then fifty, and now there are sixty books.

And the full list is here.

It’s taken me some time to get from fifty to sixty because so many new books have been calling me, but in the last few weeks something in my head had changed and I’ve been pulling books from my own shelves out to read. There are grey Persephone books, green Virago Modern Classics and a few old hardbacks on my bedside table, and I’ve checked dates and I definitely have a whole decade there.

I’m not going to name names – I did that last time and then changed direction completely – I’ll just say that I still plan to have my century done by the end of the year.

I have two books in progress – one from the sixties and one from the forties – and lost more in mind.

That’s the plan, but this is a 10% report, and so here are another ten books:

1900 – The Chase of the Ruby by Richard Marsh

We used to spend our Saturday mornings upstairs, watching high drama on the television. The names of the various serials escape me, but they were a natural progression from the Saturday cinema matinees that a slightly older generation will remember. There was action! There was drama! There was romance! There were plot twists aplenty, and a cliff-hanger at the end of every single episode. We were hooked, and I could imagine The Chase of the Ruby being dramatized and captivating us in just the same way.

1905 – The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katherine Green

By the end of the evening Mrs Fairbrother was dead, stabbed through the heart, and her diamond was missing. Things looked bad for Mr Durand. He had been seen visiting the alcove, he ‘found’ the diamond, and he had a splash of blood on his shirt. He had an explanation for everything, but his story seemed unlikely. He was arrested. I might have told Miss Van Arsdale to forget him, to try to come to terms with having been used, but she was a determined and practical woman. And she was going to prove him innocent.

1912 – Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock

The twelve sketches tell stories set in the fictional town of Mariposa. It might be based on one particular town, but it’s presented in such a way that it could be any number of towns, and there are many things that will strike a chord with anyone who has lived in a small town pretty much anywhere. It did with me.

1919 – Aleta Day by Francis Marion Benyon

Aleta Day was reared by parents who set out to “break her spirit” but she survived, and she tells the story of her childhood beautifully, and with an understanding of its consequences that is truly moving. She learned that appearances were everything, that she could be quietly subversive. And at school, when her friend Ned questioned the English version of history that they were taught, she learned to question everything. She grew up to be a journalist, a suffragist, a pacifist, an activist.

1937 – Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

Lady Rose was the only child and the heir, thanks to the good graces of Queen Victoria, of the Earl of Lochule. She was pretty, warm, bright,  and her open heart, her boundless curiosity, her love of life, charmed everyone she met. And she grew into a proud Scot and a true romantic, inspired by the writings of Walter Scott, the history of Mary Queen of Scots, and, most of all, her beloved home and lands.

1938 – Love in Our Time by Norman Collins

Gerard loved Alice, but he was caught by surprise by how different his relationship with her was from his relationship with old girlfriends. One of those girlfriends was still around, living in a flat of her own seeing one of Gerard’s friends. He still enjoyed her company …

1947 – The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Had Charles Dickens travelled forward in time, had Muriel Spark travelled back, had they met in wartime London, they might have collaborated on this book. They didn’t, but Patrick Hamilton was there, and when I picked up this book I quickly realised that he was a far more interesting author than I had expected.

1967 – My Wife Melissa by Francis Durbridge

Late in the evening he received a phone call. Melissa wanted him to come out, to meet some people who might be able to help him with his career. He arrived at a crime scene: a woman had been strangled. Guy recognised her coat. He thought he was going to identify his friend’s wife. But he wasn’t, he was identifying his own wife. Melissa was dead, and she had been dead when Guy said she had called him.

1992 – Great Meadow by Dirk Bogarde

Dirk Bogarde was undoubtedly blessed. His father was the art editor of the Sunday Times, his mother was a former actress, and the family was more than comfortably off. Their home was on the Sussex Downs, and the children seemed to live their lives out of doors, coming home only for practical necessities. That included meals and those were reported frequently, and always with loving detail.

1997 – The Baby-Snatcher by Ann Cleeves

The story began one evening, when Inspector Ramsay was at home and off duty. The quiet evening that he had planned was disturbed when a teenage girl, alone and clearly frightened, banged on his door. He hesitated, aware of the risks of having a distressed girl in his house with nobody else present, but he realised that he couldn’t turn her away. She told him that her mother was missing, and that her mother was so reliable, so involved with her family, that she knew something had to be wrong. And he was inclined to believe her because he had often seen them in the town, and he had never seen one without the other.

The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katherine Green

“I was, perhaps, the plainest girl in the room that night. I was also the happiest—up to one o’clock. Then my whole world crumbled, or, at least, suffered an eclipse. Why and how, I am about to relate.”

Could you resist an opening like that? I couldn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, because it pulled me into a fine mystery dating back to 1905.

Miss Van Arsdale was an orphan, who lived with her uncle on the lower steps of New York society. She was aware that, given her age, given her circumstances, given her appearance, her chances of becoming a wife and mother was slim. And she decided that, rather that sitting, waiting and hoping, she would do something with her life. She took up nursing.

Now there was a heroine to cherish!

Attending a grand party, she was swept off her feet by the charming Anson Durand. He even spoke of marriage …

The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green - A perfect mystery!-732471But, of course, it was not seemly for them to spend all of the evening together. And while they were apart Miss Van Arsdale noticed an unusual amount of activity about a certain alcove. It was the alcove where Mrs Fairbrother was seated, wearing her extraordinary diamond, the like of which had never been seen before in New York.

By the end of the evening Mrs Fairbrother was dead, stabbed through the heart, and her diamond was missing. Things looked bad for Mr Durand. He had been seen visiting the alcove, he ‘found’ the diamond, and he had a splash of blood on his shirt. He had an explanation for everything, but his story seemed unlikely. He was arrested.

I might have told Miss Van Arsdale to forget him, to try to come to terms with having been used, but she was a determined and practical woman. And she was going to prove him innocent.

There were other suspects:

  • Mrs Fairbrother’s estranged husband was said to be away travelling, but maybe he had wanted the diamond that he had given his wife in happier times back.
  • Mr Grey, an English jewel collector had been at the party, and it was strange that he had come to New York with his very sick daughter in tow.

Miss Van Arnsdale persuaded Inspector Dalzell, who was quite convinced that Mr Durand was guilty, that he really should investigate further. He sent an investigator to track down Mr Fairbrother, and he was so impressed by Miss Van Arsdale that he found her a place in the Grey household, as a nurse to Miss Grey, to see what she might find out …

This is a nicely plotted mystery, heavy on dialogue and light on action. Some would call it dated, but I’d call at a period piece.

The small cast, and the narrow field of suspects, meant that it wasn’t hard to predict how events would play out, but I enjoyed the journey. It might have been predictable, but there were one or two surprises along the way, and it was certainly never boring.

I just could have done without the ‘love at first sight’ romance on the night of the party. It felt contrived, and the story would have worked just as well with a colleague, a brother, or a family friend accused of the crime.

But the combination of a fine heroine,intriguing mystery, and an otherwise credible story, worked beautifully.

The ending rounded things off nicely.

And I can quite believe what I read, that the young Agatha Christie read and enjoyed the books of Anna Katherine Green.

I’d certainly be tempted to pick up another one …

The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green

And so to the book that the Classics Club Spin spun to me, and that I read the very next day on a six-hour train journey.


The beginning was exceedingly promising:

“I had been a junior partner in the firm of Veeley, Carr & Raymond, attorneys and counselors at law, for about a year, when one morning, in the temporary absence of both Mr. Veeley and Mr. Carr, there came into our office a young man whose whole appearance was so indicative of haste and agitation that I voluntarily rose as he approached, and advanced to meet him.”

Mr. Raymond was told that Mr. Horatio Leavenworth, a long-standing client of his firm, had been shot and killed  in his library. That the door was found locked. That there were no signs of forced entry, no signs of any disturbance at all. And that no-one had been in the house, save Mr Leavenworth’s two nieces and his household staff.

In the absence of his senior partners, Mr Raymond was in attendance as the coroner carried out his investigation. As the secretary, the valet, the cook, gave evidence suspicion fell upon Mary and Eleanore Leavenworth. Their own evidence did little to improve their situation, indeed it suggested that one or both were hiding something or sheltering someone.

But Mr Raymond was charmed, and he was sure that they were innocent, so he undertook to support them and to make further investigations.

Now at this point I was intrigued by the story, and by the many features of the story, published in 1878, that had been taken up by other mystery writers in later years. A body discovered in a locked room. A missing key. Fragments of a burnt letter discovered in a grate. A missing maid …

But I also saw echoes of a book published twenty years earlier, and that led me to make comparisons to an earlier book that were less flattering to this book.

Two young women in peril, with differing natures and differing prospects, and a young man who stepped forward as their protector. I had to think of The Woman in White, but neither Mary or Eleanore could stand comparison with Marion Halcombe, and while I could accept Walter Hartwright, a drawing master, following his heart and putting himself in jeopardy, I found it rather more difficult to accept Everett Raymond, a drawing master, doing the same.

But, as a complex plot unfolded, the story held my attention, and my sympathies and my perceptions of the main players shifted. The characters grew. And I saw themes and situations that were very familiar – a society that restricted women, secret marriages, disfunctional families – and were all handled very well.

I was very taken with the detective, Ebeneezer Gryce, who I am quite sure would have held his own against Inspector Bucket and Inspector Cuff, and I would have liked to spend a little more time with him. But he was bright enough to sit back and let the oh so willing Mr Raymond do the leg work.

Anna Katherine Green created a wonderful mystery but I do wish she had written it a little differently. It was wordy, melodramatic, and often the characters would declaim rather than talk. And I didn’t need to be told that the Leavenworth girls were beautiful and charming quite so many times.

The ending was a little disappointing. Not the logic – that worked – but the full confession that came with just a little push. If only there had been a bit more of a push and a bit less of an explanation it would have worked so much better.

But I did like The Leavenworth Case: as a mystery, as a period piece, and as a significant book in the evolution of crime fiction.