Archive for the ‘1940s’ Category

Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski ~ 1942. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2019. (Furrowed Middlebrow – FM35). Softcover. 224 pages.

Those of us with a penchant for reading middlebrow fiction of the second to sixth decades of the 20th Century have been quietly delighted by the recent collaboration (since 2016) between Dean Street Press and book blogger extraordinaire Scott of the deliciously, dangerously eclectic Furrowed Middlebrow.

A steadily growing list of unfairly forgotten out-of-print “women’s literature” has been assembled from hither and yon, dusted off,  re-read and assessed for republication. I’ve been acquiring quite a few of these, and have found every single one of them to be interesting in some form or another, though occasionally I strike one which is not completely enthralling.

Such as this one.

Table Two starts out with considerable promise, as we are introduced to a range of characters working in a (fictional) branch of the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in the early years of World War II.

Elsie Pearne is chief among the group of female translators transcribing various documents from a wide variety of foreign languages into English. Elsie is perhaps the most intelligent and efficient of the eclectic group working away at Table Two in the Ministry Office. (We never get to know the ladies of Table One, as they exist merely to provide a vaguely antagonistic counterpoint to the Table Two-ers.)

Elsie is clever enough, but she’s also bitter and prickly, having been wronged in childhood by bullying peers and in adolescence by her family – she was made to give up a scholarship position and go out to work at the age of thirteen – and she has an extraordinarily tenacious chip on her shoulder as a result of the setbacks she has undoubtedly experienced.

Elsie’s practical talents and drive to succeed are considerable, but her equally strong tone deafness to the nuances of common social relationships means that she will never quite figure out why no one appreciates her true worth. When a junior translator joins the group, Elsie is determined to strike a blow at her co-workers (she knows full well how unpopular she is) and annex pretty, popular young Anne as her very own belle amie, triggering a cascading series of hurt feelings and convoluted misunderstandings which coincide with the onset of the London Blitz.

Unfortunately, the darkly humorous character portraits of Elsie, Anne and the rest of the Table Two staffers aren’t quite enough to carry the weaknesses of the office-drama plot, and the second half of the novel fades in interest as the author gradually loses control of her story.

Drawn from the writer’s personal experiences as detailed in the interesting Introduction by Elizabeth Crawford, Table Two is readable enough, but ultimately more for period colour than for polished literary quality.

This was Marjorie Wilenski’s one and only novel. It certainly shows initial strength of narrative and character development; it is regrettable that the author appears not to have had the opportunity to further develop her technique.

Recommended for readers looking to round out their World War II “first-hand fiction” collections, with the stated reservations.

My rating: 6.5/10

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Pastoral by Nevil Shute ~ 1944. This edition: Ballantine, 1971. Paperback. ISBN: 345-02275-0-095. 222 pages.

This understated yet powerful novel follows two young officers stationed at an Oxfordshire Royal Air Force base mid way through World War II.

Peter Marshall is a twenty-two-year-old bomber pilot, with more than fifty missions under his belt. He keeps himself sane and centered by going on country walks and fishing on his off time; he’s thoroughly pleased to be stationed in a rural area where he and his like-minded aircrew can pursue their bucolic relaxations. None of them think too hard about the chances of their not coming back next time out; time enough for that when it happens.

Then something else happens.

Peter catches sight of a new face in the radio communication unit, one Section Officer Gervase Robertson of the W.A.A.F. She notices him in turn, and the traditional courtship ritual is on: advances, retreats, pauses, moments of passionate emotion – following its normal course though sudden and violent death stands ever in the wings.

Both young people are serious-minded in their personal attitudes towards their emotional investments in each other and, also, their predictably urgent sexual desires. It becomes apparent almost immediately that a casual romantic fling isn’t even on the table, which leads to certain complications as things between them advance.

Gervase hadn’t thought of marrying quite yet; she’s a mere twenty-one and takes her role in the war effort very seriously indeed. Peter now thinks of nothing else, to the detriment of his hitherto-untroubled sleep and his crucial concentration, leading to the endangerment of himself, his devoted flight crew, and his plane.

1st American edition, 1944

How the two come to an eventual compromise is the strand that runs through this delicately sombre yet optimistically hope-filled tale.

It’s quietly stunning to realize how very young all of these people are. Hardly entered into their full adult lives, they deal with being caught up in a brutal war as matter-of-factly as they wrote their school essays just a few years before. And though it is never stated outright, the thought is ever-present that everyone here, on the side of “right”, is engaged not just in dodging but in dealing out death to others such as themselves, who also merely want to live.

Pastoral is tenderly handled, but never trespasses into over-sentimental. Occasionally it is heart-breaking. The descriptions of base life, bombing missions, rural relaxations and occasional Oxford and London leaves are very well portrayed. In my opinion, one of Nevil Shute’s memorable best.

My rating: 10/10

 

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Fear for Miss Betony by Dorothy Bowers ~ 1941. This edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1947. Hardcover. 310 pages.

The grand books just keep coming. What joy to discover yet another new-to-me writer, and to have another book-search rabbit trail beckoning!

This title was found at Neil Stad’s wonderful Nuggets Used Books in Chilliwack this past weekend, source of a respectable number of  vintage treasures now gracing my crowded shelves.

This time round the writer is Dorothy Bowers, who wrote a meager five mystery novels between 1938 and 1947, of which this one, Fear for Miss Betony, is the fourth. Sadly this writer died of tuberculosis at a tragically young age, leaving who knows what books unwritten.

Retired governess Emma Betony, aged sixty-one, has come to the point of reluctantly seeking refuge in a Home for Decayed Gentlewomen, but instead accepts a surprise offer from an old pupil to take on a position as a part-time tutor at an evacuated girls’ school, as cover for a nebulous investigation into strange goings-on concerning a possible poisoning of one of two elderly ladies living amongst the school girls.

Something deadly is indeed happening, but the target might not be the obvious one…

Delightful character portrait of the extremely sharp and very likeable Miss Betony – shades of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver and D.L. Sayers’ Miss Climpson. The mystery, on the other hand, seemed needlessly convoluted, incorporating as it does multiple packets of arsenic floating about, an unconcerned (!) doctor, a case of extremely coincidental hidden identity, an evil necromancer type, a rather strange pet shop, and a truly wicked conspiracy targetting our elderly virgin.

As a “fair play” mystery writer the author played just a tiny bit unfair, withholding a key detail of evidence, but all in all this was a very diverting example of Golden Age detection fiction. Two “real” detectives appear in the last few chapters, but Miss Betony does all the heavy lifting, or, rather, takes all the heavy hits.

Well written in general. I enjoyed this book.

My rating: 7.5/10

A short biography of Miss Bowers, courtesy of LibraryThing:

Dorothy Bowers was born in Herefordshire, England, the daughter of a bakery owner, and raised and educated just over the border in Monmouth, Wales. She attended the Monmouth School for Girls and went on to Oxford University, where she read modern history. She later said these years were among the happiest of her life, and she greatly missed the friends she made there.

After graduation, she returned to Monmouth to work as a history teacher, but finding full-time employment was difficult. She tutored private students and held a temporary position teaching history, English, and elocution at a school in Malvern.

She supplemented her income by compiling crossword puzzles for John O’London Weekly from 1936 to 1943 and for Country Life from 1940 to 1946. However, she had hopes of a literary career, and published her first detective novel, Postscript to Poison, in 1938. It received enthusiastic reviews and established her as among the best writers in the genre of literary thrillers.

Fear for Miss Betony (1941), now considered her masterpiece, was hailed by the Times of London as the best mystery of the year. After the outbreak of World War II, she moved to London and worked for the European News Service of the BBC. Her fifth and final book, The Bells at Old Bailey, was published in 1947.

Dorothy Bowers died at age 46 of tuberculosis the following year. She had just been inducted into the prestigious Detection Club, the society of Golden Age mystery writers that included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton.

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Turvey by Earle Birney ~ 1949. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, New Canadian Library N34, 1963. Introduction by George Woodcock. Paperback. 286 pages.

Earle Birney, Canadian master-poet of power, grace and poignant reflection, occasionally wrote off-genre.

Perhaps most notably so in 1949, just a few years after Birney’s service in the Canadian Army during World War II, when he produced this bawdy and satirical novel – “a military picaresque”, as it is sometimes subtitled – combining a farcical account of a common soldier’s adventures during his quest to get to the front lines in Europe with a critique of the absurdities of military bureaucracy (Birney served as a personnel officer so had an insider’s knowledge) and a scathing if understated depiction of the horrors and human toll of war.

We follow one Thomas Leadbeater Turvey, originally native to (fictional?) Skookum Falls, British Columbia, as he enlists in the Canadian Army and goes through an interminable saga of slow advancements and sudden setbacks on his mission to join his best friend Mac Macgillicuddy in the (fictional?) Kootenay Highlanders as they head to Europe to take on the Nazis.

First edition dust jacket.

Private Turvey is of the species amiable innocent, and though he goes through an astounding series of mild-to-dire accidents and ailments, he always manages to crawl out from under with a sheepish grin. We are ever on his side, fingers tightly crossed, especially after he does eventually achieve Europe and a reunion with the ultimately ill-fated Mac.

Hedy Lamarr snuggled tighter into Turvey’s arms. The other dancers cleared the floor to watch, entranced with their grace. Her fingers slid down and caressed his wrist. Lifting her luminous eyes she murmured:

“Come on, lug. Open up your trap ‘n lift that tongue.”

Turvey awoke in time to gag before the little icicle of a thermometer could slide down his throat. The orderly, who had been holding Turvey’s wrist with a thumb and forefinger as if it were a piece of bad meat, dropped it. The time was 0600 hrs.  Turvey began his thirteenth day in Ward Two of Number Umpteen Basic Training Centre Hospital…

Turvey takes hit after hit and comes out each time a little bit wiser; on his post-VE Day return to Canada he finally develops a righteous sense of indignance (anger is too strong a term for this sweet-natured man) at the powers that control the fates of lowly privates and hies himself off in pursuit of his left-behind English sweetheart and a well-deserved happily ever after.

I thoroughly enjoyed this engaging and deeply funny novel; its serious moments hit hard in contrast to the lightheartedness; the combination works perfectly; Earle Birney’s touch is sure and precise.

Turvey won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1950. Reviews of the book are easy to find online, and a short but interesting post on the novel appears here, at the Canus Humorous blog.

My rating: 9/10

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Colour Scheme by Ngaoi Marsh ~ 1943. This edition: Collins, 1943. Hardcover. 314 pages.

I have found myself dipping into Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries a bit this year, with mixed results. 1962’s Hand in Glove, read for the first time this summer, left me cold. At least on this my first reading.

Colour Scheme, on the other hand, pleased me quite a lot.

Being a classic mystery novel by a deservedly popular author, and sure to be on numerous reading lists, I won’t give much away. Here’s the general gist, as set out in the first edition endpaper blurb.

(M)ore a novel of character and character and atmosphere than it is a detective story. The scene is New Zealand, during World War II, the characters an ill-assorted, bizarre group of New Zealanders, Britishers and Maoris assembled in and around Wai-ata-tapu Hot Springs, a second-class thermal bath establishment belonging to Colonel Edward Claire. The Claires are a hardworking couple who have lost most of their modest inheritance in unsound investments. They have two children, Barbara, aged twenty-five, and Simon, twenty-one.

The family has a genius for collecting impossible people, and at the opening of the novel are burdened with two: a seedy individual named Herbert Smith, who is seldom completely sober; and Mr. Maurice Questing, an unscrupulous business man to whom the Colonel is under heavy financial obligations. The final member of the household is Mrs. Claire’s brother, Dr. James Ackrington, an irascible physician living with the Claires as a paying guest and therefore completely free to criticize and complain. Before long there are two more additions to the establishment, Geoffrey Gaunt, the famous Shakespearean actor, and his secretary, Dikon Bell.

Almost immediately Barbara is fascinated by Gaunt but at the same time Dikon Bell finds himself falling in love with her and Mr. Questing continues forcing his unwelcome attentions on her. The household are united in their dislike of Questing but at odds in practically everything else.

With the first chapter one senses something queer and something very wrong, and the tension mounts as irritations and hatreds grow and as strange signals go out from the cliff above the sea.

Throw in possible German agents, definite Nazi submarines prowling New Zealand shores, seething pools of fatally boiling volcanic mud, priceless Maori artifacts, an Eliza Doolittle scenario, an idealistic young Marxist immersed in the study of Morse Code, and oodles of artistic temperament. Result: a pleasantly nasty sort of Golden Age murder mystery.

My rating: 8/10

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Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker ~ 1940. This edition: Bloomsbury, 2010. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-60819-051-5. 317 pages.

This one has been on the want-to-read list for many years. I’ve seen so many enthusiastic recommendations by like-minded readers, and I am pleased to report that my own experience is the same. This is a grand – and more than slightly unusual – novel.

I’m parachuting in here in the briefest of ways this desperately busy Sunday morning, because this one is just too good not to mention, and luckily a lot of others have said a lot of things about it; it’s no longer quite the hidden gem it was before Bloomsbury dusted it off and sent it back into the world.

Here’s the set-up, courtesy the publisher’s blurb:

When, on the spur of a moment, Norman Huntley and his friend Henry invent an eighty-three year-old woman called Miss Hargreaves, they are inspired to post a letter to their new fictional friend. It is only meant to be a silly, harmless game – until Miss Hargreaves arrives on their doorstep, complete with her cockatoo, her harp and – last but not least – her bath. She is, to Norman’s utter disbelief, exactly as he had imagined her: enchanting, eccentric and endlessly astounding. He hadn’t imagined, however, how much havoc an imaginary octogenarian could wreak in his sleepy Buckinghamshire home town, Cornford.

Norman has some explaining to do, but how will he begin to explain to his friends, family and girlfriend where Miss Hargreaves came from when he hasn’t the faintest clue himself? Will his once-ordinary, once-peaceful life ever be the same again? And, what’s more, does he want it to?

And here, because anything I say would be merely a repeat – he even includes one of the quotes I marked in my own book! – is Simon at Stuck in a Book. Thank you, Simon. For this, and for so much more. You keep pointing me in the direction of intriguing things!

“I abominate fuss…” Miss Hargreaves and Me

This is a delicious creation indeed, a close to perfect novel, with its combination of intelligent ridiculousness and things much deeper and darker. It stands alone; I can think of nothing to compare it to.

Very highly recommended. 10/10.

 

 

 

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Home Port by Olive Higgins Prouty ~ 1947. This edition: Houghton Mifflin, 1947. Hardcover. 284 pages.

Time for a quick post this morning before I’m off into the snowy world to further the progress of the performing arts in our community: the vocal and choral portion of our regional version of what in other parts of the world could be called an Eisteddfod begins tomorrow, and today I collect the vocal adjudicator from his flight in and then brief him on the finer points of what his duties shall be.  It will be a peaceful and pleasant meeting, but it puts a gaping hole in my otherwise home-focussed Sunday. Ah, well, it’s all for a good cause. Encouraging musicians is always a good thing, and I get to sit and listen in as my reward!

So. Olive Higgins Prouty. A name I had heard bandied about in the past, though I had not until now bumped into one of her books.

She’s the author of the widely known Stella Dallas, 1923, and her 1941 book Now, Voyager was made into the 1942 film starring Bette Davis which has attained film classic status. Olive Higgins Prouty also famously mentored a young Sylvia Plath, which seems to be a whole other complex story which I shan’t get into here.

Olive Higgins Prouty was deeply interested in psychology and psychotherapy, and her books are reportedly very much about the emotional lives of her characters, and their rehabilitation from various states of mental imbalance through various therapeutic experiences, not necessarily involving “professional” intervention, but rather organically through positive life experiences and such. Or that is my understanding, in particular from my reading of Home Port, which is all about the emotional trauma and healing of its key character, Murray Vale.

Murray is a young man in his early twenties; he is in the process of studying for his law degree, though it’s not his dream job by a far stretch; he’d rather be out rambling in the woods and studying flora and fauna. Luckily he has a summer job as a camp counsellor at his old camp, so he gets to indulge in woodsmanship and mentoring all the younger boys in his personal passion.

But disaster is about to strike.

Murray is asked to take another counsellor along on a short canoe trip to scout out a camping location; he’s specifically asked to keep an eye on his partner and not allow him to over-exert himself; seems the chap has a ticky heart. All is well until a sudden storm blows up; the men end up in the water, and despite heroic attempts on Murray’s part, the other counsellor slips away and is lost.

Murray makes it to shore, passes out, and regains consciousness to a horrifying realization: he has let everybody down! (Murray has serious self-esteem issues, being the younger, more bookish, less athletic brother to super-athlete and all-around good guy Windy, who even after being crippled by a bout with polio is active in the local sport and social scene – everybody loves Windy!)

What to do, what to do? Murray considers suicide, but can’t quite figure out the “how”; after much inner anguish he decides instead to disappear from his old life and go to ground under an assumed name, which he pulls off with a little luck, becoming a successful camp guide for a small Maine fishing outfit. (I’m condensing madly here.)

Murray also has sex issues, in that he thinks he is impotent, because all of his previous relations with women have been so stressful that he can’t fulfill their requirements, as it were, but luckily there is this one young woman client of his who is utterly non-threatening and sweet and interested in all the same things…

Long story short, Murray is rehabilitated in both his own eyes and those of the world, as he finds true love and then goes off to be a brave soldier in World War II, vindicating his moment of physical weakness out there on that long-ago lake.

All’s well that ends well; Murray has found his “home port”.

Not a bad effort as far as these sorts of sentimental stories go; I was happy to go along for the ride, though I often felt like giving wishy-washy Murray a good hard shake. Which was the whole point, I suppose.

Home Port is the fourth installment in a series of five novels regarding the fictional Vale family; it was interesting enough that I may indeed by seeking out the other four novels at some point. (The sequence is: The White Fawn (1931), Lisa Vale (1938), Now, Voyager (1941), Home Port (1947), and Fabia (1951).

I’m really curious now about getting my hands on the even earlier Stella Dallas; Olive Higgins Prouty intrigues me; I want to read a bit more of her work.

It appears from a cursory visit to ABE that none of Prouty’s books are terribly rare; she was a bestseller in her time, and Stella Dallas for one has been in print fairly continuously since its publication in 1923, due to its (apparently unauthorized) adaptation as a long-running radio soap opera and its subsequent high public profile.

So there we go. Another new-to-me vintage author discovered, another sequence of books to chase down at my leisure.

On that note – must run! Happy Sunday, fellow readers.

Oh – that obligatory rating: 6.5/10, let’s say. It got a bit soggy towards the end – very über-heartwarming and neatly tied up – but getting there was reasonably diverting.

 

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The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute ~ 1947. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1947. Hardcover. 380 pages.

‘Tis all a Chequer board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitzgerald

Nevil Shute was a writer of a certain dedicated earnestness, and in none of his many books is he as earnest as he is here, tackling the thorny question of skin colour and mixed race relationships, from the everyday associations of people-at-large to the intimacy of marriage.

Nevil Shute was also a man of deep personal decency, so it won’t be any surprise to those who know his work to hear that this is a deeply decent novel, a nice novel. In it people are given the opportunity to redeem themselves, to take the high road, and for the most part they do.

In 1943, during World War II, four men find themselves sharing a ward in a British military hospital after the plane three of them are in crash lands after being damaged by enemy fire on the way home to England from Algiers. Two of the plane crash casualties are under military arrest: Captain John Turner, for black market activities, and paratrooper Duggie Brent, for killing a man during a bar brawl. The pilot of the crashed plane, Flying Officer Phillip Morgan, is in the guarded ward because he has a badly broken thigh bone, and there is no other place for him to be cared for.

This annoys Morgan, because in the bed next to him is an American soldier, David Lesurier, under arrest on a charge of attempted rape, and in hospital because he cut his own throat while hiding from pursuing police. The reason for Phillip Morgan’s annoyance is not so much that David is a possible rapist, but that he is black. A “dirty n*gger”, in fact, and he goes on about this at great length, which proves to be deeply ironic due to events which occur later in the tale.

Oh, yes. I should mention here that the book was written in the 1940s, so the various common words used to refer to people of colour back then – now deemed highly derogatory – are used freely and abundantly. Bear with Nevil Shute; he’s got a little moral to expound on; the archaic terminology is being bandied about partly because that was the norm, but also for future dramatic effect.

So Captain Turner has a serious head injury; he’s swathed in bandages and can’t see his wardmates. They are set to keep him from going absolutely stir crazy by reading to him and conversing with him; in the weeks they share the space they become deeply intimate, though when each departs there is no thought of ever seeing each other again; it is wartime, after all, and people go where they’re sent, plus there are those three trials looming.

Forward four years, and here we find John Turner out of jail, back in civilian life, and doing not too badly, except for these fainting spells and dizziness. Seems that there are a few metal fragments lodged in his brain, inoperably so, and the long-term prognosis is not good at all.

Yup, John is dying, and he comes to terms with that in a most admirable way, but before he goes, he sets himself to find his old wardmates and see how they’re doing, to help them out if need be. (Seems John still has some of that illicit black market money tucked away, and since he’s not going to be around to spend it…)

One by one John tracks down his old companions, and what he finds is most surprising.

Despite the main character being under sentence of death, this is an optimistic tale, all about people overcoming personal challenges and going on to make the world a better place for them having been in it.

There’s a rather well-worked-out theme in this tale involving Buddhism.

And that whole interracial relationship thing.

That’s all I’m going to divulge, for if you are a Shute fan already you’ll believe me when I assert that this is up to par, a steady good read, and if you’re new to him you’ll hopefully find something to please you in this even-tempered saga of the not-too-perfect common man.

Here’s another teaser of sorts  from the back dust jacket of the first American edition of The Chequer Board.

Oh, and my rating. 8/10.

One last note. Yes, Nevil Shute pounds home his points in this one, doggedly pursuing his plot to each tidy end of each diverging thread, and yes, it does get a bit preachy here and there. I forgave him, because his heart is so obviously in the right place. Bear with the man; he did his best, too!

 

 

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Panthers’ Moon by Victor Canning ~ 1948. This edition: M.S. Mill Co. and William Morrow & Co., 1948. Hardcover. 246 pages.

Quite a decent thriller by a writer I’d first become acquainted with way back in grade school with his 1971 “juvenile delinquent meets escaped cheetah” novel, The Runaways, and much more recently his 1974 espionage novel, The Mask of Memory.

Both of these were more than readable, and left me curious about the rest of Canning’s books – he was a steady sort of writer, producing an average book-a-year from 1935 till the mid-1980s.

Travel books, action and spy novels, an Arthurian trilogy, a few books-for-younger-readers, stage plays, radio and television scripts – Canning worked hard at his writer’s job and enjoyed a steady success.

I’ve been watching out for his titles these past few years, and haven’t had a whole lot of luck until just recently, when three came into my hands in the space of a few weeks.

Mr. Finchley Goes to Paris, 1938, is apparently a picaresque sort of rambling adventure-travel novel featuring a middle-aged British clerk; I am holding off reading it until I can get my hands on its 1934 prequel, Mr. Finchley Discovers His England, which was Canning’s first published work, and such a successful one that it set in motion his long writing career.

Along with Mr. Finchley, found by its side in the vintage mystery section at the delectable Nuggets Used Books in Chilliwack, B.C., I acquired The Chasm, 1947, which is reviewed with glowing praise on the back cover of this book, Panthers’ Moon. (I wanted to read The Chasm first, but I’ve temporarily misplaced it; a maddening situation. Can’t be far away, but where? Likely hiding in plain sight, as searched-for books so often are!)

Before I go any further, warm thanks must go out to John Higgins, who has created and maintained a linked series of web pages featuring Victor Canning and his works; a treasure trove indeed and one I intend to go to for guidance in my future Victor Canning explorations, which I am looking forward to with great anticipation.

So, Panthers’ Moon.

If you think the dust jacket illustration looks like it could be something found on a Helen MacInnes book of the same era, you’d be absolutely correct, though Canning wanders into rather more fanciful territory than MacInnes ever did, what with his inclusion of two domesticated-yet-dangerous panthers – one jet black – as major characters in this slightly unlikely spy thriller.

The larger plot points are telegraphed well in advance of their coming off, but Canning achieves a few surprises, too, and his action sequences are stellar, worth the occasional slogging through clichéd scenarios, and the inclusion of what turns into an almost too cute love story, between our action hero protagonist and an emotionally damaged British spy.

Down below you can see what the fly leaves have to say, as I am in full meander mode tonight and can’t quite settle to a tidy précis of my own, other than that secret documents are given to good guy hero to transport across international borders, and he thinks he’s found the perfect hiding place, but the bad guys are on to him and a long and tricksy chase ensues. Oh, yes. The female spy (a good guy spy, even though she’s not a guy) is absolutely beautiful. Too bad about her tragically deceased lover, victim of the Nazis. Ah, well. Broken hearts are ripe for mending, at least in these sorts of spy-versus-spy inventions, which quite often contain a dash of romantic entanglement.

I will leave you here, with my nod of general approval to this likeable period piece, and with my assurance that I will be delving ever deeper into the works of Victor Canning, for John Higgins has kindly put together a list of the best, as it were, and I intend to take the bait and seek these out with more focus in the future, versus waiting on random book-finding luck.

Panthers’ Moon gets a warm 7/10 from me, mostly because of those vivid action sections, and because I’m a total sucker for a vintage novel man-of-many-manly-skills, as the extremely competent hero of Panthers’ Moon happily turned out to be.

A proper review is here, and another is here, with another good overview of Canning’s work here.

 

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The Foolish Gentlewoman by Margery Sharp ~ 1948. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1948. Hardcover. 330 pages.

One of my absolute favourite writers is, as many of you know by now, Margery Sharp, 1905-1991, and today, January 25, is (or was) her birthday.

Which calls for celebration in the way of reading one (or more) of her books, and sharing some thoughts on that reading with fellow like-minded readers. And those who we hope will become like-minded Margery Sharp aficionados, of course!

I didn’t think I would manage a post tonight, having just now finished reading the book in question, but my daughter has made me a restorative cup of tea and I have found a breath of a second wind, so let’s see what I can do. It may be a bit of a muddle, but I hope it communicates my high regard for the novel and its creator.

Isabel Brocken, a comfortably well-off widow of fifty-five, has something on her mind.

Blithe by nature – so blithe as to be thought of as something of a fool by her staunchly bachelor brother-in-law Simon, who manages her affairs – Isabel has been a cheerful sort of person no matter what life has brought her way. She has taken in stride the upsets of and volunteered as a VAD in two wars, has accepted quietly the disappointment of not having any children, and has gently mourned the death of her husband, not to mention the loss of her beloved marital home to a German bomb.

Luckily Isabel has held on to her own old family home all of these years, much against Simon’s advice, so she is perhaps the tiniest bit smug to be able to offer a bed to Simon after his own house is badly damaged in one of the last bombing raids of the war.

Also in residence are Isabel’s recently de-mobbed nephew Humphrey from New Zealand, and an ex-Seargent in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, Jacqueline Brown, who is acting as a housekeeper-companion to Isabel. A quiet mother and her devoted teenage daughter reside in a separate set of rooms and share cooking facilities with Isabel and her menage; hired as caretakers during the war, they are staying on to help with housework and such.

Everyone is getting along peacefully; the groove is well set; but, as I mentioned just now, Isabel has something on her mind, something which will disturb the peace of her home and everyone in it.

It seems that Isabel has, on one of her infrequent visits to church, caught a line of a sermon to the effect that it was a common error to suppose that the passage of time made a base action any less bad. Now, this line had struck like an arrow straight to the tender heart of Isabel, and in doing so had triggered the memory of a very base act which she had performed against another young woman many years ago.

Almost forty years ago, orphaned Tilly Cuff had been invited into Isabel’s family home in the capacity of a low-key sort of companion. She is treated as one of the family, but all sorts of little tasks fall to her lot; she is expected to make herself useful in return for her room and board, as it were, and this she does in a subdued sort of way. Tilly is a thin, pale shadow of the much more vivacious Isabel and her sister Ruth, and they patronize her without really realizing it, keeping her well in her place, just a step back.

When a visiting young man falls in love with the unprepossessing Tilly, Isabel by a a random chance finds herself possessed of a letter proposing marriage to Tilly. Deeply piqued, for she thought the young man was falling in love with her, Isabel suppresses the letter, politely taunts Tilly with an accusation of being over-flirtatious to warn her away from her potential lover, and the budding love affair withers on the vine.

Soon after this Tilly accepts a paid position as a companion to an invalid heading to Switzerland, and she and Isabel part ways, never to meet again, though they correspond occasionally through the years.

Now, four decades later, Isabel is visited by an attack of conscience triggered by that sermon, and she proposes to make amends for Tilly’s lost chance at marital happiness by rescuing her from her dreary round of temporary homes and tedious duties by bringing Tilly into her home.

Not only that, Isabel resolves to make over to Tilly the majority of her fortune, keeping just enough to eke out a humble existence, to prevent herself from becoming a burden to friends and relations.

Needless to say Simon is appalled by the very thought of this proposal, as are Humphrey and Jacqueline, but Isabel is not to be dissuaded.

Tilly is invited, she accepts the invitation, and moves in bag and baggage, cherishing in her heart a deep suspicion of Isabel’s motives in inviting her, for Isabel has not yet divulged her intention of reparations for that long ago bad deed.

Tilly turns out to be a true viper in the nest; she is openly meddlesome and secretly vicious by nature, and she immediately stirs up trouble among every member of the household. Even the forgiving Isabel starts to have qualms as to carrying through with her intention to give over her assets to the bitter Tilly. While Isabel tries to retain her idea that Tilly is, deep inside, a truly good person, evidence is much to the contrary.

What should Isabel do, then? The right thing for the once-wronged Tilly, or the thing that is the best for the most people?

Isabel’s decision and the ramifications of it bring this richly charactered novel to an unexpected conclusion. No one escapes unaltered, though the changes are not as we might in some cases expect.

The Foolish Gentlewoman is satisfyingly good the first time round, but as with all of Margery Sharp’s books, it greatly rewards re-reading.

My rating: an easy 9/10.

I am scanning in two pages from early in the book, so you can have a sample of the tone and mood in this gently sardonic and rather moving novel.

 

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