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.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: E is for Elizabeth

I saw the name of Elizabeth Ferrars on the spine of a green Penguin, and it rang a distant bell. I’d read a few of her books, years ago when the only crime writer I knew was Agatha Christie and I was looking around to see who else I might like.

As I recall I’d liked her enough to pick up a few of her books from the library, but she slipped from my mind when she fell out of fashion and her books disappeared from the library shelves.

I picked up Murder in Time, not really thinking it might be a book to buy, just to place the author. But when I read the synopsis I was intrigued, I saw similarities with a very famous crime novel, but I saw differences too.

“Nothing could sound more innocently gay – or fantastically extravagant – than a flight on a specially chartered plane for a week-end in Nice. But most of the people whom Mark Auty invited suspected some sinister intention. why, then, did they accept? For accept they did, coming from such far-removed places as a pub on the edge of Dartmoor, a Bloomsbury hotel, a quiet Oxfordshire village, a Soho night-club, to gather for the journet in Mark’s Surrey home. Why Mark really asked them and why they accepted are questions that are only answered in full after murder has intervened …”

I was to discover that, fourteen years after Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then there Were None,’  Elizabeth Ferrars took the same starting point and did something entirely different with it.

First she introduced her guests, dropping in on them in their own homes as they consider whether to accept that extraordinary invitation. An elderly woman, pacing, chain-smoking, as her son offers counsel. A blustering publican, whose pretty young wife, so used to getting her own way, is having trouble persuading her husband to accept. A middle-class couple, whose comfortable morning routine has been shattered by contents of the intriguing envelope that the postman delivered.

The portraits are beautifully drawn, the characters are clearly set out, but their stories are so clearly untold. And from start to finish, the writing, the characterisation, the storytelling, are all pitch perfect.

The scene switches, sharply. A young woman sees a man mown down by a car on a London street. it looked like an accident, but she had caught sight of the driver. It was deliberate. Murder.

Sarah tells the police what she has seen and then, still deeply shocked, turns to go home. She walks straight into Mark Auty. Their paths had crossed during the war, when she was his driver. He sees her distress, listens to her story, walks her home, takes time to make sure she is alright. And then he invites her to join his house party.

She is tempted, but it seems so strange. Mark explains why he is holding the party, why he wants her there, and that tips the balance. She accepts.

A strange house-party gathers. And then there is another, audacious, murder.

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.

And in the end I don’t think Elizabeth Ferrars quite succeeded in fitting them together. I was happy with the answers to the questions about Mark Auty. there were a couple of loose ends, but by and large things made sense. But I was a little less happy with the answers to the questions about the murders. The logic worked but the psychology was a bit of a stretch.

Just one little weakness in an excellent piece of crime writing: an intriguing mix of traditional, country house mystery with something a little darker, a little more modern, all rooted in real history.

It’s very clever, there are some lovely touches, and I’d love to write more, but I can’t without giving too much away.

I wonder if Elizabeth Ferrars has written anything else as good …


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, F is for … ?