Posts Tagged ‘1941 Novel’

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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shelter-marguerite-steen-1941Shelter by Marguerite Steen ~ 1941. This edition: Sun Dial Press, 1942. Originally published under the pseudonym Jane Nicholson. Hardcover. 241 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I followed my reading of Frances Faviell’s superb London Blitz memoir, A Chelsea Concerto, with this rather unusually structured novel covering the exact same time period, in the same London borough.

It’s an interesting novel, and certainly not a bad novel, but I rather wonder what I would have made of it if it hadn’t been so much related to the Faviell memoir in setting and time period. The writing itself is much more than competent; I would go so far as to call it “fine”, in the highest-praise sense of the term.

This said, I suspect I got more out of Shelter as a companion piece than I would have if it were a stand-alone read, for it is a bit of a jumble, written in what I would term a modestly “experimental” style, sections of straightforward storytelling interspersed with random vignettes, the thoughts of various unnamed characters, glimpses of newsreel dialogue, and what one must assume are the author’s own pithy comments, not directly related to her erstwhile story-plot, that of a troubled marriage which has turned into a delicately balanced ménage à trois.

Highbrow Louise is married to not-highbrow (but not quite lowbrow, either) Jos, and they are reasonably content within their 7-year-old relationship. Or so Louise thinks, until it becomes apparent that Jos has become infatuated with the fragile (and possibly hypochondriac?) Camma, who returns his interest with bells on.

Jos seems to be the kind of chap who hates fuss; he’d like to keep both wife and mistress, and the fact that the two women are well aware of each other, and carry on a brittle sort of almost-friendship, seems to indicate that his delicate balancing act may be succeeding.

But then Louise breaks the news: she’s pregnant. Now what?

Meanwhile the bombs are dropping, and emotions are being wound ever upwards to some future breaking point…

The relationship angle of the plot runs parallel to the wider story of a city, country and way of life in peril, and as dreadful thing succeeds dreadful thing one is left at a loss as to anticipate how – or if! –  the author is going to resolve, if not the major problem of surviving the war, at the very least her teetering love triangle.

By removing one of the principles, as it turns out, in a decidedly final way.

Curious?

Well, the book is readily available in the secondhand trade, and has recently been released as an e-book, so it’s not too hard to come by. My own first awareness of it was when I came across it at a small used book store I occasionally frequent and decided to gamble my $5 that it would be an interesting read.

It is all of that, but I hesitate to recommend it, because despite the writer’s sure hand, Shelter seems to me to be missing that elusive something which turns a perfectly adequate novel into something extra-special.

Forewarned, you are, fellow book hunters. (As Yoda might say.)

For further interest, here’s a look at the dramatic promotional blurb from the American-edition dust jacket, as well as a random scan of one of the vignette sections.

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Here’s the story on Marguerite Steen, courtesy Library Thing:

Marguerite Steen was adopted as a child and educated at a private school and at Kendal High School. At age 19, she became a teacher, but abandoned that career after three years and moved to London in an effort to find work in the theater. After failing at that, she became a dance teacher in the Yorkshire schools. This job enabled her to spend long periods travelling in France and Spain.

In 1921, she joined the drama company of Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, based at The Strand Theatre in London, and spent three years touring with them. She was befriended by Fred’s sister Ellen Terry, who suggested that she try to write a novel during a period of unemployment.

Marguerite’s first book, The Gilt Cage, was published in 1927. She went on to become a well-known author of some 40 books, mostly historical novels, having her greatest popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. She wrote biographies of the Terrys and of her friend Hugh Walpole, as well as that of 18th-century writer and actress Mary Robinson. Among her bestsellers were Matador (1934), for which she drew on her love of Spain, and The Sun Is My Undoing (1941). She also produced two volumes of autobiography, Looking Glass (1966) and Pier Glass (1968), which provide insights into the English creative set of the 1920s to 1950s.

She shared a home with artist Sir William Nicholson for about 15 years and wrote his biography as well. In 1951, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

 

 

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I’ve just finished something of a mini-binge of World War II-era spy thrillers, with the first two of what would turn into a handsome list of espionage and suspense thrillers by Helen MacInnes.

Above Suspicion was the first, and published in 1941 in the opening moves of what was to become the prolonged agony of the Second Great War, its urgent and foreboding tone rocketed it to bestseller heights. MacInnes followed her first novel by another even more topically urgent and dark, Assignment in Brittany, in 1942.

Though definitely dated, these suspense novels are decidedly still very readable today, made even more enthralling by the fact that we know what happened in the years after, while MacInnes and her heroic characters are facing a tremendous and forbidding Great Unknown. I’m going to give brief sketches of both in two hundred word snapshots, if I can condense them so tightly – with the strong recommendation that you discover these for yourself if you feel that these might be your thing. These two novels are excellent examples of their genre, though highly dramatized and relying upon those inevitable unlikely coincidences and lucky breaks in order to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion. Though neither has an ending that is neatly rounded off; the settings and times don’t allow it.

I have read Above Suspicion numerous times through the years, but Assignment in Brittany was new to me, and I was pleased at how engaging both of these were, even though in the first I knew the plot inside and out, and the second I guessed at rather successfully all of the way through, except for the rather heartrending (but ultimately optimistic) twist at the very end.

Both books were immediate bestsellers, and remain very readable – and continually in print –  almost seventy-five years after their first publication.

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“Because of the acute shortage of regular book cloth under war-time rationing, this book is bound in ‘leatherette,’ a sturdy paper fabric especially designed for this purpose.”

Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes ~ 1941. This edition: Triangle Books, 1944. Hardcover. 333 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Young Oxford University don Richard Myles and his wife Frances are recruited to travel to Europe during summer break in order to discover what has happened to a possibly-compromised chain of British secret service agents. The premise being that the two are so innocent-seeming as to be able to wander at will, from agent to agent, following the links as identified at each contact. In their travels they run in and out of numerous sinister encounters; the Nazis are very much on the ascendant and their evil shadow looms over the lands the Myles visit on their journeyings.

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This dramatic vintage dust jacket illustration illustrates one of the peak moments of this suspense thriller, as the heroine is attacked by the Head Evil Nazi’s killer dog and is rescued by quick deployment of her husband’s handy-dandy sword-stick. Imminently distressing dispatch of the hound aside, isn’t this a gorgeous bit of graphic design?

A novel made most poignant by the time of writing; the last months of peacetime shadowed by foreboding clouds of war. The author draws upon personal experience in telling her tale, and it is an interesting combination of travelogue and suspense thriller, full of asides describing the scenes in which the action is set, and philosophical musings regarding the whys and wherefores of the imminent conflict. The German psyche is searchingly probed by a very British analyst – MacInnes in the guise of her heroic (and autobiographical) married couple – and found to be both blustering and chillingly focussed on military dominion.

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I am fortunate enough to be the possessor of this handsomely dust-jacketed first American edition. An absolutely stellar example of vintage cover art. Wouldn’t this make an amazing wall poster?

Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes ~ 1942. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1942. Hardcover. 373 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Martin Hearne is parachuted into Brittany, into the very forefront of the Nazi occupation, in the guise of  his French body double, Bertrand Corlay. Many surprises await Hearne, not least of which is the discovery that his predecessor was less than forthcoming about some of his own activities before his evacuation to England via the Dunkirk debacle. For instance, his pre-marital arrangement with the neighbouring farmer’s daughter, Anne, and his estrangement from his invalid mother, who keeps strictly to her own rooms in the shared household. Who is beautiful and passionately forthcoming Elise? Why do the Nazi occupiers greet “Bertrand Corlay” with warm enthusiasm, while his fellow villagers hiss in cold disgust?

An escaping American journalist sheltering in the Corlay home sets off a string of complications, most notably a dramatic trip to the medieval monastic stronghold of Mont St. Michel, situated at the end of a causeway above tidal flats of quicksand. A return to the Corlay home finds Hearne confronted by steely-eyed Teutons who have discovered their collaborator is not what he seems, in so very many ways. Will Hearne make it back to England with his meticulously written notes and maps, as well as his new-found love?

Good dramatic stuff, rather nicely plotted for its type of thing, though with an exceedingly strong reliance on Hand of Coincidence. The evil Boche are given no ground, and the resident Bretons are depicted as cunning and stubborn survivors, insular to an astounding degree, but in the main resistant to their unwelcome occupiers by a combination of sullen non-cooperation and occasional acts of secret sabotage.

An engaging period thriller, written at the time it depicts, and so a valuable snapshot of the mood and details of its moment in time as well as a very readable diversion.

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Author biography from the back cover of “Assignment in Brittany.” Check out the casual cigarette! No doubt the other hidden hand is nonchalantly holding a martini glass…

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