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: G is for Greenwood

I wasn’t sure that I needed another series of books well into double figures in my life, but as soon as I heard about her I knew that I had to meet the Honourable Phryne Fisher.

As the story opened she was a socialite, in London, in the Roaring Twenties. And, lovely though that may sound on a damp, grey evening in the twenty-first century, she was just a little bit bored.

A misjudged practical joke at a society party was the catalyst that changed her life. Phryne saw what had happened, and stepped in to save the day with a wonderful combination a charm, diplomacy and quick thinking. I couldn’t help but like her.

The next day Phryne was summoned by a Colonel and Mrs Harper. They had concerns about their daughter in Australia. They had doubts about her husband. Would Prynne consider making the long journey to find out what was going on?

Our heroine was intrigued. She had been born in Australia, and her family had been dirt poor until they received a substantial legacy from a distant relation and stepped into a brand new life.  That made her a very interesting proposition: a wealthy, independent, modern young woman with a depth of understanding that her contemporaries lacked.

No wonder she was bored with London society!

And of course she said yes!

From then on the story was a whirl.

Phrynetravelled with a pioneering lady doctor – like Prynne, a supporter of Doctor Stopes – and that brought a backstreet abortionist to her attention. She had to do something about that!

She found a young woman in a desperate situation and stepped in to help, transforming her into a lady’s maid.

And of course there was the case that sent her to Australia in the first place.  Phryne would become entangled with a handsome young ballet dancer, a drugs baron and a communist plot before she found some quite unexpected answers.

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.

Phryne was wonderfully capable in all of her dealings, always a step ahead, and on some days that would have bothered me a great deal but on the day I read this book it bothered me just a little.

Because the story was as colourful as its cover. It had plenty going on, the characters were simply but clearly drawn, the period and the settings were well realised … and the heroine is a star.

In the end I have to say that this was a charming, undemanding period piece, with just enough substance to hold it down.


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, H is for … ?