Death Wore a Diadem by Iona McGregor

On 17th November 1860 The Scotsman reported:

“Since hapless Mary Queen of Scots landed at Leith three hundred years ago, no Royal lady of France has visited the Scottish capital. The Empress Eugenie seeks the enjoyment of strictest privacy as aiding attainment of the main object of her visit – the renewal of her impaired health. The visit recalls ancient days of firm alliance between France and Scotland; and between the two peoples a hereditary liking yet continues, which might well, were occasion suitable, find especially warm expression towards the Empress Eugenie, seeing that she herself is of Scotch descent, and so adds to those of royalty the yet more potent and kindlier claims of kindred.”

James McLevy, a retired police detective, was walking his dog when he saw the royal train arrive on a dark, cold, winter evening. He feared trouble, and he was right.

Because at the Scottish institute for the Education of the Daughters of Gentlefolk the Lady Superintendent, Margaret Napier, was working out how she could use the visit to her advantage.

She managed to secure a promise of a visit from the Empress, to see her girls perform a tableau. And the loan of a copy of the Empress’s Grecian diadem to be used in the tableau. It was a paste copy, but it was completely indistinguishable from the real thing ….

It might have been a triumph, but the diadem disappeared.

And then Peggy, the school’s laundry maid, was found. Murdered. With the diadem in her bag.

Mrs Napier was swift to blame Peggy, and desperate to avoid any scandal around her school. But she had reckoned without Christabel.

Christabel was in her last year of school and she was ready to fly. She was headstrong and wilful; she was bright and charming. And, as a heroine, she was simply irresistible.

Christabel wanted to know the truth. And so did Eleanor, a junior teacher who so wanted to become a doctor. She was just a few years older than Christabel, and they loved each other dearly. They made a charming couple.

Neither believed that Peggy was a thief. And both believed that she should have justice.

They set out to identify the thief and the killer …

Iona McGregor has constructed a wonderfully entertaining mystery. There’s a wonderful cast, of schoolgirls, teachers, maids, parents, detectives. The period and the city come to life. And fun was poked at the snobbishness of genteel society.

There were moments when the author’s social and sexual politics threatened to overwhelm the plot. I nearly put the book down, but in the end curiosity about the characters and the mystery made me carry on.

My curiosity about the mystery was satisfied, but not my curiosity about the characters. They were set up so beautifully, but I was left at the end with not even a hint of what might happen next for Eleanor and Christabel.

Maybe there were plans for to a sequel, or even a series, But this book was published in 1989, and so  I have to assume that, if there were, they didn’t come to fruition.

That leaves me with a nice historical mystery, but a novel that feels a little incomplete.

Clearing the Decks: The Penultimate Batch of Introductions

A quick reminder of the project:

I have too many books. Books on shelves, books in boxes, books in piles on pretty much every available surface …

So I have rounded up one hundred books that I think I will be happy into pass on, once I’ve read them and written about them. They are now my home library, stacked in a corner that I will turn to whenever I think I have nothing to read.

I’m a little distracted by Orange prize longlisted titles at the moment, but the project is working, and I’ll do an update at the end of the month to prove it. Results for the first quarter!

I’ve been introducing my hundred books in batches of ten, and I’d love to know if there are any you could particularly recommend. Or if there is a book you would particularly like, and I’ll pass it on to you if I can.

And here are books 81 to 90…

My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen

“In fin-de-siecle Copenhagen, part-time prostitute Charlotte and her lumpen sidekick, Fru Schleswig, have taken on jobs as cleaning ladies of dubious talent to tide them over the harsh winter of 1897. But the home of their neurotic new employer, the widow Krak, soon reveals itself to be riddled with dark secrets – including the existence of a demonic machine rumoured to swallow people alive. Rudely catapulted into twenty-first-century London, the hapless duo discover a whole new world of glass, labour-saving devices and hectic, impossible romance.”

Liz Jensen is a real one-off and a horribly under-appreciated author. I usually wait for her books to turn up in the library but I couldn’t resist buying this one.

Death Wore a Diadem by Iona MacGregor

“Edinburgh 1860: the occasion of an unexpected visit to Scotland by the Empress Eugenie of france. The last interminable year of captivity for rebellious Christabel MacKenzie at the Scottish Institute for the Education of the dughters of Gentlefolk. The Lady Superintendent is Margaret napier; bent on using the Empress’s visit for her own personal glory. When her careful pland are disrupted first by theft and then by murder, Mrs Napier is prepared to go to any lengths to suppress the whiff of scandal. But she reckons without Christabel, her least favourite pupil.”

I didn’t know author or title, but they suggested a historical mystery. That combined with the black and white striped spine of the Womens Press was irresistable. I didn’t warm to the book when I picked it up with letter I in my Crime Fiction Alphabet in mind, and so I put it to one side to try again another day.

A History of Insects by Yvonne Roberts

“It is early 1956 and the British Empire is crumbling. But for nine-year-old Ella, living with her parents at the British High Commission in Peshawar, Pakistan, the walls of class, snobbery and racism are still intact. Growing up is a lonely, painful experience, and Ella withdraws, recording the hypocrisy of adult behaviour in her diary, A History of Insects, where she hides a secret that could shatter the lives of the people around her.”

I picked this up purely out of curiosity, to see what kind of novel would have such a title. I was intrigued, and so the book came home.

The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst

“‘Whenever I smell salt water, I know that I am not far from one of the works of my ancestors,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in 1880. ‘When the lights come out at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think they burn more brightly for the genius of my father!’ Robert Louis Stevenson was the most famous of the Stevensons, but not by any means the most productive. The Lighthouse Stevensons, all four generations of them, built every lighthouse round Scotland, were responsible for a slew of inventions in both construction and optics, and achieved feats of engineering in conditions that would be forbidding even today. The same driven energy which Robert Louis Stevenson put into writing, his ancestors put into lighting the darkness of the seas.”

Lighthouses fascinate me, and with a classic author in the mix too this was irresistable.

The Blackest Bird by Joel Rose

“In the sweltering New York City summer of 1841, Mary Rogers, a popular counter girl at a tobacco shop in Manhattan, is found brutally ravaged in the shallows of the Hudson River. John Colt, scion of the firearm fortune, beats his publisher to death with a hatchet. And young Irish gang leader Tommy Coleman is accused of killing his daughter, his wife, and his wife’s former lover. Charged with solving it all is High Constable Jacob Hays, the city’s first detective. At the end of a long and distinguished career, Hays’s investigation will ultimately span a decade, involving gang wars, grave robbers, and clues hidden in poems by the hopeless romantic and minstrel of the night: Edgar Allan Poe.”

This came from LibraryThing early reviewers. I did start to read but I was underwhelmed, and so I stopped. But I did hang on to the book to give it another try.

Crossed Wires by Rosy Thornton

“This is the story of Mina, a girl at a Sheffield call centre whose next customer in the queue is Peter, a Cambridge geography don who has crashed his car into a tree stump when swerving to avoid a cat. Despite their obvious differences, they’ve got a lot in common — both single, both parents, both looking for love. Could it be that they’ve just found it?”

I feel bad about this one, because the author sent it to me and then my mother swiped it. I got it back in the end, and my mother says that it’s very good.

The Rebels by Sandor Märai

“It is the summer of 1918. As graduation approaches at a boys’ academy in provincial Hungary, the senior class finds itself in a ghost town. Fathers, uncles, older brothers—all have been called to the front. Surrounded only by old men, mothers, aunts, and sisters, the boys are keenly aware that graduation will propel them into the army and imminently toward likely death on the battlefield. In the final weeks of the academic year, four of these young men—and the war-wounded older brother of one of them—are drawn tightly together, sensing in one another a mutual alienation from their bleak, death-mapped future. Soon they are acting out their frustrations and fears in a series of increasingly serious, strange, and subversive games and petty thefts. But when they attract the attention of a stranger in town—an actor with a traveling theater company—their games, and their lives, begin to move in a direction they could not have predicted and cannot control.”

 A couple of years ago my fiance and I took part in a book drop to promote the library. This was one of our books, and I was so tempted to keep it, but I was good and left it for somebody to find in Newlyn Art Gallery. In this case it seems that virtue was rewarded, because a copy turned up in a charity shop the following weekend.

The Shakespeare Secret by J J Carrell

“A modern serial killer – hunting an ancient secret. A woman is left to die as the rebuilt Globe theatre burns. Another woman is drowned like Ophelia, skirts swirling in the water. A professor has his throat slashed open on the steps of Washington’s Capitol building. A deadly serial killer is on the loose, modelling his murders on Shakespeare’s plays. But why is he killing? And how can he be stopped?”

One of my aunts loves thrillers, and so I bought this one for her birthday a couple of years ago. She said it was very good and so I picked up a charity copy for myself.

Pilate’s Wife by Antoinette May

“A daughter of privilege in the most powerful empire the world has ever known, Claudia has a unique and disturbing “gift”: her dreams have an uncanny way of coming true. As a rebellious child seated beside the tyrannical Roman Emperor Tiberius, she first spies the powerful gladiator who will ultimately be her one true passion. Yet it is the ambitious magistrate Pontius Pilate who intrigues the impressionable young woman she becomes, and Claudia finds her way into his arms by means of a mysterious ancient magic. Pilate is her grand destiny, leading her to Judaea and plunging her into a seething cauldron of open rebellion. But following her friend Miriam of Magdala’s confession of her ecstatic love for a charismatic religious radical, Claudia begins to experience terrifying visions—horrific premonitions of war, injustice, untold devastation and damnation . . . and the crucifixion of a divine martyr whom she must do everything in her power to save.”

I read a lot of good reports about this one, so I added it to my BookMooch wishlist, and eventually a copy turned up.

The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

“In his monthly accounts of what he’s read – along with what he may one day read – Nick Hornby brilliantly explores everything from the classic to the graphic novel, as well as poems, plays, sports books and other kinds of non-fiction. If he occasionally implores a biographer for brevity, or abandons a literary work in favour of an Arsenal match, then all is not lost. His writing, full of all the joy and surprise and despair that books bring him, reveals why we still read, even when there’s football on TV, a pram in the hall or a good band playing at our local pub.”

I bought this for last year’s Bibliophilic Books Challenge but I didn’t get to it in time. This will be the year!

… and that’s the end of this batch … Any thoughts?