Through the Magic Door by Arthur Conan Doyle

An invitation to take a tour of the bookshelves of Arthur Conan Doyle was an invitation not to be refused, and I was smitten from the first.

188817398X_01__SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_“I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lowly the room which it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead, and then you are through the magic portal into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more. You have left all that is vulgar and all that is sordid behind you. There stand your noble, silent comrades, waiting in their ranks. Pass your eye down their files. Choose your man. And then you have but to hold up your hand to him and away you go together into dreamland. Surely there would be something eerie about a line of books were it not that familiarity has deadened our sense of it. Each is a mummified soul embalmed in cere-cloth and natron of leather and printer’s ink. Each cover of a true book enfolds the concentrated essence of a man. The personalities of the writers have faded into the thinnest shadows, as their bodies into impalpable dust, yet here are their very spirits at your command.”

I was in the company of a man who loved his books as much as I love mine. His tastes and mine were fairly different – and of course I have the advantage of choosing from an extra century of books –  but he conveyed his love for every book and author he wrote about wonderfully well.

I’ve been inspired by inspired by his words about Scott, Zola and Meredith,  I loved reading about his great interest in the Napoleonic War, and I appreciated his words about my native Cornwall:

“There is something wonderful, I think, about that land of Cornwall. That long peninsula extending out into the ocean has caught all sorts of strange floating things, and has held  them there in isolation until they have woven themselves into the texture of the Cornish race. What is this strange strain which lurks down yonder ….. ?

That’s not to say that I want to read them all . I don’t think that authors like Carlyle, Boswell and Sterne will spreak to me, but I understand now that they will speak to others.

Although this is a short book I took a while to read it, because it was book after book after book, author after author after author. And its a very masculine book with only fleeting mentions of women who wrote.

But what has stayed with me since I finished reading is a picture of a man who loved reading, and who wanted to read and build a collection of the very best books:

“It is a great thing to start life with a small number of really good books which are your very own. You may not appreciate them at first. You may pine for your novel of crude and unadulterated adventure. You may, and will, give it the preference when you can. But the dull days come, and the rainy days come, and always you are driven to fill up the chinks of your reading with the worthy books which wait so patiently for your notice. And then suddenly, on a day which marks an epoch in your life, you understand the difference. You see, like a flash, how the one stands for nothing, and the other for literature. From that day onwards you may return to your crudities, but at least you do so with some standard of comparison in your mind. You can never be the same as you were before. Then gradually the good thing becomes more dear to you; it builds itself up with your growing mind; it becomes a part of your better self, and so, at last, you can look, as I do now, at the old covers and love them for all that they have meant in the past.”

Reading sentiments like that, and reading such eloquent declarations of love for the written word was a joy.

Crime Fiction: The A to Z

When I set out on Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet I promised myself two things.

The first was that I would read nothing just for the sake of filling a slot, that I would only read books that I would have picked up sooner or later anyway.

I’ve managed that, though I did have to bend the rules a little for the difficult letter X and I had to throw in an emergency short story when the book I’d picked for letter Y let me down.

The second was that I would mix things up, and choose some familiar and some less familiar books.

And so my list is made up of:

  • Persephone books for H and X, and a classic short story by a Persephone author for G.
  •  A Virago Modern Classic, and a winner of the CWA Gold Dagger to boot,  for K.
  •  A wonderful anthology of new writers at W.
  •  Victorian crime for S and Victoriana for U. I would have liked to read more of both, but I ran out of time and letters.
  •  Crime fiction in translation at L and V.
  •  A Cornish book, set in very familiar countryside, at B.
  •  Agatha Christie re-reads at A and F. A for Agatha seemed to be the perfect place to start, and once I had re-read one book a number of others called me.
  •  Neglected woman authors, who were published in numbered green Penguins, at E, M, P and R. If I have learned one thing through the alphabet, it is always to look carefully at green Penguins as there are some real gems there.
  •  Male authors from the middle of the last century, who aren’t as lauded as some but really should be, at I, N and Q.
  •  A lovely range of contemporary crime fiction at C, D, J, O, T and Z.
  •  And that excellent, emergency short story at Y.

Mission accomplished, I think!

Here’s the A to Z in full.

A is for Agatha The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
B is for Bolitho Framed in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho
C is for Crombie Where Memories Lie by Deborah Crombie
D is for Darkside Darkside by Belinda Bauer
E is for Ethel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White
F is for Five Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
G is for Glaspell A Jury of her Peers by Susan Glaspell (short story)
H is for Holding The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
I is for Innes Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes
J is for Jane The Burning by Jane Casey
K is for Kelly The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly
L is for Läckberg
The Stone-Cutter by Camilla Läckberg
M is for Mary Death and the Pleasant Voices by Mary Fitt
N is for Not Not to be Taken by Anthony Berkley
O is for Other The Other Half Lives by Sophie Hannah
P is for Potts The Man with the Cane by Jean Potts
Q is for Question A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake
R is for Roth Shadow of a Lady by Holly Roth
S is for Study A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan-Doyle
T is for Tyler The Herring in the Library (and others) by L C Tyler
U is for Unburied The Unburied by Charles Palliser
V is for Van der Vlugt Shadow Sister by Simone Van Der Vlugt
W is for Written Written in Blood: a Honno Anthology
X is for Expendable The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes
Y is for You You are a Gongedip by Sophie Hannah (short story)
Z is for Zouradi The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi

And that really is the end of the alphabet.

So where does my crime fiction reading go now? Well, I have The Quarry by Johan Theorin, A Herring on the Nile by LC Tyler, Now You See Me by S J Bolton, and two books by Erin Kelly in my library pile. My own green Penguins and my Agatha Christie collection are calling too, Plus those authors I discovered, and rediscovered, along the way and want to read again. And recommendations I picked up from others along the way ….

No end of possibilities …

Crime Fiction Alphabet: S is for A Study in Scarlet

I must confess that, though I have read a lot of detective fiction and a fair few Victorian novels over the years, I have veered away from Arthur Conan-Doyle.

I blame my English teacher for this. He was a very good teacher and a lovely man, but one particular exercise created a certain prejudice in my mind. Looking back now it was actually a very interesting exercise. We read one half of a short story – The Speckled Band – in class and then asked to write our own conclusions. I was very pleased with mine, and I seem to recall that I got a good grade. But when I rad Conan-Doyle’s ending I was unimpressed. It seemed very far-fetched, and I thought that mine was definitely superior.

Oh, the confidence of youth!

But that’s why I have always thought of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle as not my kind of writer.

Recently though Sherlock Holmes, his most famous creation seems to have been everywhere: repeats of the classic serial on ITV3, a high-profile modern reworking on BBC1, and an even more high-profile feature film. Not to mention a good few books inspired by the man.

I decided that it was time to investigate the Holmes phenomenon and that, just in case my older self decided that she liked them, I decided to start at the beginning. And so it was that I brought a very nice new Penguin edition of A Study in Scarlet home from the library.

I enjoyed Conan-Doyle’s storytelling and prose style from the very beginning. And I was very pleased that the beginning was a proper beginning. John Watson, invalided army surgeon, and Sherlock Holmes, scientist and man of mystery, were brought together by a mutual acquaintance who knew that both were seeking rooms.

I’m naming no names, but I have often felt the absence of a proper backstory when I have read certain crime series.

The rooms were, of course,  at 221b Baker Street. And it was to that address that the police came to consult with Holmes. Which reminds me of something else that I really wanted to mention. There was a professionalism and respect in the relationships in this book, between detective and police, and between detective and associate. No one-upmanship as one investigator tried to outdo the other. No foolish sidekick necessitating slow and simple explanations. Just concern that objectives were achieved and proper accounts were given. I did like that.

Now, back to the mystery. And what a mystery it was. A dead man, seemingly unscathed but with his face frozen in terror, found in a derelict house. Found lying in blood that was not his own. And a single word written in that blood on the wall.


But a little knowledge, a little observation, a little understanding of human nature swiftly lead Holmes to the solution. And it led me on an extraordinary journey through the darker side of Victorian London. My bafflement continued, as Holmes gave little away, but I was intrigued by the mystery, caught up in the journey, and so I kept the faith.

I was rewarded with the identity of the murder halfway through the book. I wondered if it was a false ending, if there was to be another twist, or maybe even another mystery. In fact though there was another story entirely. The story of the man who would become a murderer. A story of adventure, love and religion set on the other side of the Atlantic.

The change of style and pace startled me, but it worked. I understood.

And I think that I might, finally, be beginning to understand the appeal of Holmes.


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

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week T is for … ?