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: F is for 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.

‘The Maze was at the south-west end of the garden; it covered over a quarter of an acre, and seemed even bigger to those who walked in it. The entrance, cut in the splendid yew hedge, was six feet high and three feet wide; on the top of a topiaried archway stood two topiaried birds with long spreading tails.’

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.

This looked very promising.

Augustine Hatley left two daughters. Alethea, his favoured child, was a divorcee and Angela, his less favoured child was a spinster. His former son-in law, Ben, was also present. he was married again, to Angela, an actress significantly older than him, but he still carried a torch for the wife had acquiesed to her father’s wish that she leave him. And his neighbour, the widowed Lady Lanson who maybe had ideas of marrying again had been visiting. Accompanied by Horick, her feckless, aimless son, who was loved by Angela who he loathed and loathed by Alathea who he loved.

A houseful of suspects, and a tangled web of relationships to unravel.

Inspector Mallet set off to examine the scene and the physical evidence, leaving Doctor Fitzbrown to speak with all of those present.

I’m afraid it was all a little lacklustre. The characters were dislikeable and very nearly grotesques. Once I had worked out their personalities and their relationships I had little interest in their exchanges.

I began to wish that I could find someone to care about. Or, alternatively, that Molly Keane had written a murder mystery, she would have given things that extra push towards the dark side …

And then there was a second, very different murder. More investigations, more dialogue. I hoped that this was the spark the book needed, and it very nearly was. But then characters began to crumble, logic was lost, and I began to see little inconsistencies.

I wasn’t sorry when the murderer was unveiled and I could put the book down.

Such a pity, because the set-up was so promising, the characters had possibilities, and I know how good Mary Fitt can be.

I was so impressed with Death and the Pleasant Voices, which came early in her career, but unimpressed by this book, which came much later.

It felt like a first draft. Idea was there, the style was there. I can’t help feeling that with just a little more work, a little more direction, this could have been a triumph.

But, sadly, it wasn’t.


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, G is for … ?

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: M is for Mary

The title attracted me first. One unfamiliar and intriguing title on a shelf with other, better known, green Penguins.

“Death and the Pleasant Voices”

Now what did that mean?

I picked the book up and turned to the back cover. The words below the author’s photograph were wonderful.

“It is, I think, the writer of fiction who is of interest to the public, not the person of whom the writer is a part. Therefore I do not propose to give details of where I was born, where educated, and so forth. In my character as Author, I was born some years later than Myself, in that part of the world which lies between classical Greece and Elizabethan England.”

A lovely place to be born, an interesting perspective, and a fine opportunity to enter a story without any preconceptions.

I had to find out more. An interesting synopsis spoke of a young man caught up in strange events at a country house and the opening paragraph made me absolutely certain that I had uncovered a gem.

“I have never seen such lightning or such rain in all my life. As I drove, the rain swept towards me in great grey sheets so that the macadamed road was awash, and the lightning danced in quivering perpendicular lines just ahead of me. I cowered behind my low windscreen as if to avoid a blow; and over the sound of the engine I could hear crash after crash of almost continuous thunder. The sky behind, before, above, closed down over me; it was far darker than the surface of the road. Unable to think, and scarcely able to see, I steered along, doggedly and slowly, wondering what it would feel like when the inevitable happened and the car was struck; is there, or is there not, a moment of awareness before death and oblivion, even when the manner of death is so complacently said to be instantaneous? I wonder then , and I wonder now …”

The young man abroad was Jake Seabourne, medical student and only son of a country doctor; clearly a young man destined to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He took a wrong turning and it lead him to a large country house, and the very welcome prospect of shelter from the storm. A manservant admitted him and lead him into a room full of people. Conversation stopped. All eyes turned towards Jake. Silence. And then an effusive greeting from a young woman, and others following her lead.

But they called him Hugo. Who was Hugo?

Fortunately one person present recognised Jake. Sir Frederick Lawton, an eminent surgeon, sees what has happened, sets thing to rights, and smooths Jake’s path.

He draws Jake to one side to explain. The owner of the house has died, and he has not left his house to his twin son and daughter. He has named his illegitimate son as his heir. A young man who he provided for but kept at arm’s length and never met. Hugo.

He had asked Sir Frederick, and old friend, to contrive to be present when Hugo arrived, to smooth his path. But Sir Frederick has urgent business calling him away, and he asks Jake to take his place. Jake, curious, and eager to associate himself with the great man, agrees.

It’s a wonderful scenario, and Mary Fitt manages it beautifully. 

She paints wonderful pictures of the house, and of its occupants.

Ursula and Jim, daughter and son of the house; their cousin, Evelyn, who had come to nurse their dying father; and elderly  Aunt and Uncle; and Hilary Parmoor, Ursula’s suitor. All complex characters, that would be slowly revealed as the plot advanced.

It was a very clever plot, psychologically true and built upon that fine collection of characters.

Hugo arrived and he was not at all what had been expected, did not at all what had been expected.

And then a very, very well judged twist and a murder.

Jake finds himself in an invidious position, as both confidante and resented outsider.

Another, very clever, twist makes him a suspect, caught in a very tangled web.

Everything, a fine mystery, a wonderful study of English society, and a picture of a way of life recently past and yet long gone, comes out of the characters. No details of the investigation, no set-pieces, just utterly believable and fascinating characters living through, dealing with, a situation.

The resolution works beautifully. It came naturally out of the story and, though I had worked out who the perpetrator had to be, I was still fascinated to learn just what had happened, and just what would happen next.

And a final little twist, a sting in the tail, revealed the meaning of that title.

A fitting end.

Death and the Pleasant Voices is a fine example of the classic country house mystery, and now when I scan the shelves of green Penguins I shall definitely be hoping to find more of Mary Fitt’s work.


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 …”

So next week, N is for … ?

I didn’t mean to go book shopping …

… but we happened to be walking past our local second-hand book shop. We hadn’t expected it to be open on a Bank Holiday, but it was. The door was open even though the weather was cold, and so we went it. It would have been rude not to go in!

And there was new stock!

A title by E F Benson that I had never seen before in a lovely edition nearly 100 years old: The Book of Months.

I read the first paragraph and fell in love:

“Thick yellow fog and, in consequence electric light to dress by and breakfast by was the opening day of the year. Never, to anyone who looks at this fact in the right spirit, did a year dawn more characteristically …”

The book came home!

I looked closely at the Penguin shelves. I’ve always loved Penguins, but my interest has been heightened since I met Karyn at A Penguin a Week and perused her lists of the three thousand books published in numbered editions.

There were so many book that I loved on those lists. I noticed many books from my Virago collection. And sprinkling of Persephone authors. And Angela Thirkell!

I suspected that there might be gems among the titles and authors that I didn’t know too.

And so I pulled out a quite a few books, and I think I may have found some gems among them.

Death and The Pleasant Voices by Mary Fitt 

The title attracted me. An interesting synopsis spoke of a young man caught up in strange events at a country house and that appealed. But, strangely, it was the first paragraph of the author biography that hooked me:

“It is, I think, the writer of fiction who is of interest to the public, not the person of whom the writer is a part. Therefore I  do not propose to give details of where i was born, where educated, and so forth. In my character as Author, I was born some years later than Myself, in that part of the world which lies between classical Greece and Elizabethan England.”

That set me to wondering where the reader in me was born. Here in Cornwall I think, some years before Myself.

Where was the reader in you born?

A Well Full of Leaves by Elizabeth Myers

Another lovely title, and the author’s name rang a distant bell. The opening paragraphs, beautifully describing a visit to the park sold another book.

The Ladies’ Road by Pamela Hinkson

Another intriguing title, and the synopsis drew me in:

“Here is a novel firmly planned, a story of England and Ireland during the war, in which beauty is made out of bitterness and agony, in which all the great issues of those tremendous years are seen, as most of us remember them, as they affected the private lives of men and women.”

The Green Lacquer Pavilion by Helen Beauclerk

Another irresistible title. This time I was hooked by the table of contents:


My hopes are high.

Barnham Rectory by Doreen Wallace

I could never resist a book with a vicarage or a rectory in the title, and so this one came home too.

… it’s wonderful what you can find when you’re not really looking!