The Prelude to Adventure by Hugh Walpole ~ 1912. This edition: Macmillan and Co., 1925. Hardcover. 310 pages.

One of Walpole’s more obscure early works, and perhaps deservedly so, for what an odd little tale this is. The Prelude to Adventure is the fourth novel by the subsequently very prolific Hugh Walpole – a reliable book-a-year man for the next three decades – published when he was twenty-eight.

It concerns a Cambridge undergraduate, one Olva Dune, and, with Walpole himself only 6 years past his Cambridge graduation, one can assume that the college scenes at least are portrayed with accuracy.

The God angle as well stems from personal experience. Walpole, son of an Anglican clergyman, lost his own religion as a young man, and at first refused to admit it to his family; his subsequent writings frequently contain characters grappling with the “Is there a God?’ quandary.

“There is a God after all.” That was the immense conviction that faced him as he heard, slowly, softly, the leaves, the twigs, settle themselves after that first horrid crash which the clumsy body had made.

Olva accidentally kills a despised fellow student in a moment of righteous rage, all unwitnessed, except by God, wherein lies the key to the tale, as Olva Dune struggles mightily with his conscience and his newly wakened awareness of a Higher Power. Things are complicated by his confession to a religion-addled compatriot, and even more so by his falling in love.

There is much inner dialogue, and a rather odd non-resolution at the end, with Olva apparently dodging the earthly penalty for his crime of passion, and instead heading out with a rucksack to hike about and undertake whatever penance God will put upon him. The four people he confessed to seem to think this is a fine compromise, and the last chapter is paradoxically titled ‘First Chapter’:

The sun was rising, hard and red, over Sannet Wood and the white frozen flats, when Olva Dune set out…

Often referred to as a psychological drama, and that does sum it up as well as anything: Carl Jung in a letter to the author describes this as a “psychological masterpiece”. Fair enough; Jung should know.

Though Prelude concerns an unsolved death (though we of course know who the killer is, and Olva ends up confessing to four other people on separate occasions), it’s not a murder mystery in any sense of the term, though it is sometimes described that way by people who obviously haven’t actually read the thing.

Walpole himself described it as a Fantasia, and that suffices as well as anything else. I’ve happily read a fair bit of Walpole over the years, and this turned out to be a work on the lower end of my personal enjoyment scale – much too overwrought and frenetically stream-of-consciousness – and though it has its moments I can’t say that I recommend it for Walpole neophytes. More of a completest’s novel, I would say.

If you are curious, check it out for free on Project Gutenberg. Early hardcover editions start at just a few dollars on ABE, but because it is long out of copyright, most of the offerings you will find are print-on-demand.

My rating: 4/10

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley ~ 1982. This edition: Firebird (Penguin Putnam), 2002. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-130975-X. 272 pages.

Orphaned misfit tomboy rather unwillingly travels to a new home, finds herself, falls in love and is fallen in love with, saves a kingdom. There we have it in a nutshell.

Embellishments include a rather good invented world based recognizably on colonial Great Britain and one of its more troublesome hot-place colonies, wonderfully psychic horses, stellar swordplay (our heroine is a natural, of course), giant domesticated cheetah-like cats (I want one!), not-quite-human bad guys, and a fair bit of magic.

Also a strong silent type who just happens to be a king, and who does he fall for?

Yup. You guessed it.

Okay, this sounds a bit dismissive, and I don’t mean it to be, because this is a very decent example of its genre, a fast-moving bildungsroman incorporating a truly generous number of fantasy-fiction tropes, with undoubted inspiration from those who went this way before, most obviously perhaps our old friend J.R.R. Tolkien.

Here’s the back cover blurb from my Firebird edition, which hits all the high points:

Harry Crewe is an orphan girl who comes to live in Damar, the desert country shared by the Homelanders and the secretive, magical Free Hillfolk. When Corlath, the Hillfolk King, sees her for the first time, he is shaken—for he can tell that she is something more than she appears to be. He will soon realize what Harry has never guessed: She is to become Harimad-sol, King’s Rider, and carry the Blue Sword, Gonturan, which no woman has wielded since the legendary Lady Aerin, generations past…

Damar is well imagined, and I am happy to report that McKinley develops it in much more detail in another, even better novel, the prequel to The Blue Sword (though published after it, in 1984): The Hero and the Crown. Lots more girl power. And horses. And there also be dragons.

Also in several short stories contained in the 1994 collect The Knot in the Grain.

Good stuff.

The Blue Sword picked up a seriously decent award early on, being designated a Newbery Honor Book in 1983 (The Hero and the Crown subsequently won the Newbery Medal in 1985), and a couple of ALA citations, one  for Notable Book, and another for Best Book for Young Adults.

This was McKinley’s second published novel, after 1978’s Beauty, and in common with a lot of her early work it is for the most part nice and tight and well-edited; sadly the same cannot be said for some of her later efforts, which suffer from over embellishment and goosey-loosey plot structure. (Sunshine, you’re the gorgeously vampirish exception. Shadows, I’m looking right at you.)

My rating: a good strong 8/10, because I’ve read it quite a number of time over the years (though I was out of the target YA age group when it was first published, and so missed reading it in my teen years) and I still like it a lot, crowded with predictable fantasy stereotype as it is.

Undemanding and engaging escape reading, as so many of the better “youth” novels are. Picking out those familiar fantasy-lit motifs and seeing how the author makes them her own can be a lot of fun.

 

Mrs. Harter by E.M. Delafield ~ 1924. This edition: Hutchinson, 1924. Hardcover. 253 pages.

It has taken me several false starts to get past the rather subfusc beginning of this sardonic novel, but once hooked it become so compelling that I stayed up well after midnight last night finishing it off, and quite some time after that lying awake and mulling over my response to it.

Narrated in the first person by Sir Miles Flower, confined to a wheelchair by his injuries during the Great War, Mrs. Harter seems at first a slightly brittle village comedy of the classes, with the arrival in the village of Cross Loman of Diamond Harter from Egypt, who sets eyes flashing and tongues clacking.

Mrs. Harter has come without her husband, and has gone into rather shabby lodgings, and no one (including herself) quite seems to know why she is back home. For Diamond is the daughter of the late village plumber, and the general consensus is that she has boosted herself up a social notch or two by her marriage.

The women in general (with one or two exceptions) greatly resent her arrival, the more so since all of the men seem to find her rather fascinating, and make all sorts of excuses for her, and in a few cases actively seek her out.

Mrs. Harter herself is a stoic character, showing little emotion, being brusque almost to rudeness at all approaches. How odd then that another new arrival, eligible bachelor Captain William (Bill) Patch, seems drawn to Mrs. Harter’s side like a moth to a flame, and it soon becomes apparent that she is in her turn silently infatuated with him.

Sir Miles speculates upon their private lives, going so far as to invent their most private conversations and to indulge in a bit of amateur psychoanalysis, depending on others for most of his information, as he doesn’t actually go out much.

Sir Miles has a complicated relationship of his own with his appalling wife Claire, an overly emotional and deeply egotistical poser of a woman, who turns every conversation to herself, and is capable of nourishing strong resentments towards anyone whom she sees as a competitor for the attention of her social circle, which means just about everyone, and in particular the ex-plumber’s daughter. Claire is decidedly affronted.

Things really get brewing during the production of an amateur theatrical piece; Mrs. Harter proves to have an unexpectedly good singing voice so is dragged into attendance by the universally popular Bill Patch. Open snubs by the snobs are constantly being averted by Sir Miles’ cousin Mary, who is pretty well the only character not to reveal herself to have unpleasant character traits. (Our narrator included.)

There is a lot of dry comedy here, in the character portraits of the villagers – one is reminded of the same sort of thing in the Delafield’s later Provincial Lady novels – but tragedy is never far away.

Mr. Harter shows up unexpectedly, and, being nothing like what anyone expected, his presence sends the simmering situation to a disastrous boil.

E.M. Delafield seems to have had an agenda of sorts in this ironically constructed novel, which seems to be that no one of us can tell what really goes on in the mind of others, and that preconceived notions and even direct observations may often be absolutely wrong. Her narrator has something of an unplanned agenda of his own, the increasing apparent revelation of his deeply buried hatred for his wife, and the disaster that is his own emotional life, brought out into the light during the destruction of the possibility of happiness for Mrs. Harter and Captain Patch.

Not a happy novel, then, but an increasingly fascinating one, well up to the standard we expect from this accomplished writer of the mid-wars period.

My rating: 8/10

Cabin at Singing River by Chris Czajkowski ~ 1991. This edition: Nuk Tessli Publications, 1997. Foreword by Peter Gzowski. Softcover. ISBN: 0-9681775-0-6. 149 pages.

Chris Czajkowski, born in 1947 and raised in England as the only child of a British mother and a Polish war refugee father, grew up surrounded by industrious creativity. As a young woman, Chris travelled the world, hiking in lonely places and working on farms, eventually fetching up in western Canada in 1979, milking cows near Salmon Arm, B.C.

Salmon Arm – with a population of 17,000 people not a particularly large metropolis – proved too crowded for Czajkowsky’s liking, and she headed even farther west, across the Coast Mountains and into the remote Bella Coola Valley some 250 miles out of Williams Lake, where she was invited to build a cabin on the Trudy and Jack Turner wilderness farm near Lonesome Lake, a day and a half’s hike on foot from the nearest road.

This is the story of Chris Czajkowski’s first cabin, how she built it mostly by herself with mentorship from the Turners, teaching herself to fall trees and erect log walls and finally, two years or so after her start, put on a roof. The eventual cabin was more than a modest log shack; it turned out to be a handsome and very livable house, where Chris spent the majority of her time for a number of years, occasionally going out to civilization to work and earn some much-needed cash.

Czajkowski was already an accomplished visual and textile artist, and she eventually found her writer’s voice as well, when her lyrical letters to Peter Gzowski’s Morningside CBC radio program caught the imagination of Gzowski and listeners across Canada.

Cabin at Singing River is a fascinating depiction of an adventurous life beyond the ken of most of us, but those of us familiar with the region are perhaps the most aware of the magnitude of what Czajkowski and her fellow wilderness dwellers accomplished in making themselves a viable home in the bush; this really is The Wild; one truly is alone and in charge of one’s destiny out there beyond the end of the last road.

Upstream from the Stillwater, the river splits and runs in braided skeins through dark strands of cedar, an Emily Carr landscape of green and gloom, a prime place for mosquitoes in the summer and grizzlies in the fall. Pale cottonwoods send vast, corrugated trunks into the canopy, and devil’s club writhes like a mass of spiny snakes beside the boggy creeks. The remnants of the settlers’ trail are visible in places, but it is rarely used and no longer maintained. Great windfalls cross it in hopeless tangles, and much of the original route has been obliterated by the vagaries of the river…

Chris Czajkowski is a highly individual and very opinionated person, and this comes through loud and clear in Cabin at Singing River and in subsequent books. She has little time or patience for dilly-dalliers, and visitors coming into her solitary domain had better keep themselves up to the mark or risk a keen critique in her writings; she’s not averse to publically calling out those she considers naïve, pretentious or unprepared.

To me, city people are frighteningly alike, aspiring to be carbon copies of each other. Their programmed world gives them no chance to grow as individuals; not only are they unbelievably ignorant about what goes on beyond the limits of their lives, but they also surmise that anything outside their range of experience is inferior and not worth knowing.

Yeah, there’s a strand of judgementalism running through these pages, taking away some of the shine on what is otherwise a deeply moving appreciation of the natural world, and the truly admirable exploits of the memoirist. But more often Czajkowski is deeply appreciative of her neighbours and friends, the unique individuals who make their homes way away from the easy-come amenities of the more “civilized” parts of the world.

This first beautifully written account of her life-so-far is in my opinion one of Czajkowskii’s best, though every one of her subsequent books – Diary of a Wilderness Dweller, Nuk Tessli: The Life of a Wilderness Dweller, Wildfire in the Wilderness, A Mountain Year, And the River Still Sings, among others – follows much the same pattern. All are very readable.

Full disclosure: I’ve had some brief interactions with Chris Czajkowski over the years, and several prized pieces of her artwork grace my walls. I admire her greatly but find her a bit intimidating, too. I suspect she is a stalwart friend to those she allows into her inner circle. I happily purchase each one of her books as they appear, for personal pleasure and for knowing how much she depends on her writings to put food on her table; she’s perennially struggling to make ends meets, because even the most self-sufficient of remotely lived lives require resources from elsewhere and infusions of cold hard cash.

My rating for this one: 8.5/10

Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1926. This edition: Tauchnitz, 1926. Hardcover. 303 pages.

What happens when an unbelievably beautiful girl is born into a modestly situated, working class, strictly God-fearing family, unable to fathom how best to protect their jewel of a child from the increasingly lecherous gaze of every man who sees her?

By marrying her off, of course, to the first man who offers for her, thereby shifting the responsibility to other shoulders. Beauty as burden is the theme of this little novel, with a dash of reluctant Eliza Doolittle-ism thrown in.

Goddess-like in appearance, strictly working class in every other way, meek and obedient shopkeeper’s daughter Salvatia (Sally for daily use) is catapulted by her desperately out-of-his-depth (and now widowed) father into an absolute mésalliance with brilliant Oxford student Jocelyn Luke.

Jocelyn is infatuated with Sally, and (at first) cares only for the perfection of her face and figure. During the whirlwind courtship which is rushed along by all parties in the interests of keeping her out of the public eye as much as possible (her beauty literally attracts crowds), Jocelyn hasn’t ever stopped to think of what marriage actually means beyond the sanctioned bedding of the loved one, but once he takes a break from the bedroom, he finds himself caught in an appalling situation. His darling Sally is utterly unable to meet him halfway in thought and in conversation; their minds are as far opposite as fire and water; what has he done?!

Optimistically thinking that he can perhaps remake his wife’s mind and manners (not to mention her speaking voice and limited vocabulary, all dropped aitches and “Pardon”s and “Don’t moind if I do”s), Jocelyn trots Sally off to his mother’s house, hoping to foist his wife off on his ladylike mother for a Pygmalion-like re-education.

It doesn’t take. Sally is unchangeable, and deeply unhappy in her new milieu, as she finds kind Mrs. Luke sadly intimidating, and her speech-and-etiquette lessons completely bemusing.

Sally runs away, all the way back home to her father, who refuses to harbour her for a moment, for he’s been enjoying his newly peaceful life. He loads her onto a train with a pound-note and firm instructions to return at once to her husband’s arms, but Sally unaccountably goes astray, only to pop up again in the company of none other than an elderly (and fortunately deaf) Duke.

I’ve left out an enormous number of Sally’s blundering and innocent adventures. She’s continually being pulled about from here to there by her caretakers and random acquaintances, allowing Elizabeth von Arnim to indulge herself in a gleeful and gently sardonic polemic on English society and its hidebound class distinctions. There’s a secondary courtship going on as well, that of the genteelly impoverished, highly cultured Mrs. Luke and her wealthy but intellectually ignorant neighbour Mr. Thorpe, which provides a delicious counterpoint to the main events, as the lives of both couples intertwine and complicate things exponentially.

This romping tale is mostly farce, but there is a kernel of sincerity present too, with the caricatured characters being allowed their moments of genuine humanity. The author is keen-eyed and sharp-tongued but ultimately kind, and she allows her buffeted heroine a certain amount of self-determination as well, by refusing to allow herself to be changed. Sally is what she is, and the sooner her champions accept that, the happier they all will be.

The ending of this story is only a beginning. It’s merely – as the title makes clear – the introduction of Sally to what will obviously become a gently triumphant progress through life. A home of her own, a kind and contented husband, and a lapful of darling babies being Sally’s stated best ambition, it is happily moved forward by her chance acceptance as a protegé by one of the highest in the land. The fickle fate which endowed Sally with her physical gifts has tried her sorely; she’s gone through her testing time; now that same random fate will smooth her way.

As you may have gathered, this is one of the gleefully ridiculous von Arnims, exceeding in its giddy plot even the deeply silly Enchanted April. To be happy in your reading, you must abandon all 21st Century notions of how Sally should behave, and how people should behave to Sally, and remind yourself that it’s just a fictitious story of a nine decades ago, a fairytale of the Twenties, a mere snippet of a gentle farce.

Elizabeth von Arnim’s writing is always a delight, and I enjoyed Introduction to Sally greatly (to the point of reading it twice in the space of a year) but if I absolutely had to choose I daresay I’d have to go with von Arnim’s slightly more serious novels – The Benefactress being the one that springs first to mind – as my “author’s best”.

My rating: 7.5/10

 

 

 

Marnie by Winston Graham ~ 1961. This edition: Fontana, 1980. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-615964-8. 253 pages.

Does that title sound familiar? It should. This novel was turned into the 1964 Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name, starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. I seem to recall hearing that Grace Kelly was Hitchcock’s first choice for the title role, but that she turned it down as she was already heavily involved with her arrangements to become Princess of Monaco, and it wasn’t felt quite suitable that she should play the role of a fictional thief.

For that’s what Marnie is, a thief, and a rather good one. Her modus operandi is the same each time: get a bookkeeping job in the office of some small business, plot out an opportunity for quietly absconding with the payroll or a large portion of the week’s income, then vanish, to reappear in another city with a newly invented identity.

Marnie needs money, quite a lot of it, more than she can get her hands on in the course of legitimate office worker employment, for she supports not only her crippled mother in a respectable separate establishment in Plymouth, but her secret (and possibly only) true love, an ex-racehorse, Florio, living at a boarding stable.

Marnie is a woman with twisted and tortuous personal issues, which come to a head on secret identity job number four, in which she attracts the fanatical attention of two of her employers: the recent widower Mark Rutland, and Mark’s despised playboy cousin, Terry Holbrook. Marnie lets herself get involved with these two disparate men, something utterly against her hands-off policy in the past, and things come crashing down, as Mark discovers her embezzlement, covers for her, and then uses his knowledge to blackmail her into marriage.

1st edition cover, 1961.

Terry sniffs around, knowing something off is up, and ultimately brings about a full exposure of Marnie’s wicked past, but not before a lot of psychological drama, revealing the true reasons for Marnie’s sexual frigidity and her inability to form normal relationships and so on. (Not very surprising spoiler: Mom’s involved.)

This is a decidedly convoluted novel, and it’s rather a compelling read, though at a few points I was silently shouting to the author, “Stop, already! Don’t add another twist!” It’s all rather dark, and occasionally deeply disturbing (the honeymoon spousal rape scene, the horrible death of Florio), and for quite a while there it looks like the ultimate tragedy will indeed play out, as Marnie mulls over ending it all in the most final of ways.

Winston Graham spares us that, and even offers us a glimpse of the possibility of eventual peace for our desperately damaged heroine, once she has confronted all of the repercussions of her past.

Another interesting novel. Very readable. Definitely a period piece, giving a fantastically detailed picture of a certain segment of 1950s’ British society.

My rating: 9/10. It lost a point because there was a fair bit of tell versus show, and some of the drama flourished into melodrama, but all in all “good job” to Graham for successfully putting forward such an audaciously engaging scenario.

I haven’t actually seen the Hitchcock film version (I understand that it is not particularly true to the novel except in the broader way), but I find it extremely intriguing that the story has just been reworked (again with a lot of liberties regarding the original) into an opera by Nico Muhly. It’s playing at the Met RIGHT NOW. I wish I lived closer to New York; I’d go see this in a flash.

Oh, yes. A word about the author. Winston Graham is indeed that Winston Graham. Poldark, anyone?

 

 

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

 

Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle ~ 1952. This edition: Fontana, 1968. Translated from the French by Xan Fielding. Paperback. 189 pages.

This is a spare, terse war novel, based on the French author’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war, concerning the fictionalized building of a key bridge on the infamous 250-mile-long “Death Railway” (over 100,000 POWs and local conscripts died in its construction) between Siam and Burma during World War II.

British Colonel Nicholson, a stickler of a stiff upper lipper if ever there was one, insists his men abide by the rules when they are forced to surrender to the Japanese after the fall of Malaya. No one must attempt to escape, and the formal surrender must be done just so, rather to the bemusement of the Japanese invaders, headed by Colonel Saito, himself a strong believer in saving face.

When the “savage” Japs set the Brits to building a rail bridge across the River Kwai, Nicholson’s contempt for their incompetence gets the better of him. To prove British superiority, he convinces Saito to let the prisoners redesign the edifice, and it goes ahead with astonishing speed.

Colonel Nicholson seems to have forgotten that his country is at war, and he unwittingly turns collaborator, which will have tragic consequences when a small, secret team of British saboteurs arrive to knock the bridge out of action on its gala opening day.

This short novel was made into a very successful 1957 movie starring Alec Guinness; it won Best Picture for its year at the Academy Awards, and a whole slew of other prizes.

The tale itself is fictional, though it is based on a number of real scenarios. There was a wartime-built bridge over the River Kwai; it’s still there and very much in use, and apparently quite a tourist attraction. The British Colonel Nicholson was modelled by Boulle upon several of his French superiors during his own time in a Japanese POW camp; the composite portrait is not particularly flattering and led to some rather touchy Anglo-French relations when the book and then the movie achieved their astonishing success.

I found this novel to be a slightly uneven read. Due perhaps to its translation from the original French it was rather stilted at times, but the story was compelling and it was no hardship to follow it through to its rather shocking ending. (Having never seen the movie, I was unprepared for the violent dénouement.)

Heads up to modern readers: this tale is chock full of racial slurs directed mostly at the Japanese. (Not particularly unexpected in a book of this era and of its wartime subject.)

I was also interested to discover that this was not Pierre Boulle’s only bestseller. He also wrote a 1963 sci-fi novel titled La Planète des singes, or, in English, The Planet of the Apes. Anyone heard of that one?!

My rating: 6.5/10

An interesting read.

 

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.

Frontispiece showing Peter, Bobbie and Phyllis waving away at a passing train. The Charles Edmund Brock drawings of the original Edwardian edition are utterly charming, and if seeking out an edition for yourself or for gift-giving, I highly recommend finding one of the numerous “deluxe replica” versions.

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit ~ 1906. This edition:  Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., exact date unknown. Illustrated by C.E. Brock. Hardcover. 184 pages.

They were not railway children to begin with. I don’t suppose they had ever thought about railways except as a means of getting to Maskelyne and Cook’s, the Pantomime, Zoological Gardens, and Madame Tussaud’s. They were just ordinary suburban children, and they lived with their Father and Mother in an ordinary red-brick-fronted villa, with coloured glass in the front door, a tiled passage that was called a hall, a bath-room with hot and cold water, electric bells, French windows, and a good deal of white paint, and ‘every modern convenience’, as the house-agents say.

There were three of them. Roberta was the eldest. Of course, Mothers never have favourites, but if their Mother HAD had a favourite, it might have been Roberta. Next came Peter, who wished to be an Engineer when he grew up; and the youngest was Phyllis, who meant extremely well.

When Father mysteriously disappears one evening after a loudly uncomfortable meeting in the drawing-room with two mysterious men, the tamely predictable lives of Roberta (aka Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis are stood upside down. All sorts of dreadful changes take place, culminating in a removal to a country cottage situated close to a busy rail line, “for the time being”, leaving all of the nicest things back in their city house.

Adventures immediately ensue, as the children learn their new surroundings, figure out how best to help Mother with making do, and eventually endear themselves to pretty well everyone they meet, including an elderly and distinguished Gentleman-on-the-Train, which turns out to be a very good development indeed.

I am of two minds regarding this well-beloved tale. On one hand it is dreadfully sentimental, with everything working out much too good to be true. On the other hand, it’s utterly adorable and even reasonably relatable, as our three young protagonists get into all sorts of difficult situations and muddle around quite realistically before getting things sorted out.

Every time I read it – and I find this has happened quite a number of times, which tells you something right there, doesn’t it? – I start out by telling myself it’s all a little too good to be true, and then I abandon myself to the charm and end up at the end all sniffly with emotion.

Because of course there is an absolutely soppy happy ending.

My rating: hmmm…how about a nice 7.5/10?

Because while it’s perhaps one of the best known, subject of who knows how many adaptations and film versions and such, it’s not my absolute favourite E. Nesbit novel. That one is probably Five Children and It, because I do enjoy a nice time travel tale, especially if incorporating a cranky mythical creature. Or possibly The Treasure-Seekers? Well, any of the Bastable family stories, really.

Or?

An expanded E. Nesbit re-read might well be in order. Maybe after Christmas. We’ll see. Or perhaps during the spring busy-season, when the lightest of fares is in order for those few bedtime minutes of reading time before the eyelids drop down.

P.S. This is a post regarding a book read way back in July, so you don’t need to think that I’m reading-reading-reading morning through night lately. Just playing catch-up for the Century project, and working on condensing my posts (somewhat), because so often I do tend to ramble on, and self-editing is a goal which tends to elude me… 🙂