Posts Tagged ‘Vintage Fiction’

My vintage copy is terribly faded. The cover illustration depicts a female figure in long pink gown holding a pink parasol, against the backdrop of a white-columned mansion. (You may need to use your imagination.)

My vintage copy’s cover is terribly faded. The illustration depicts a female figure in long pink gown holding a pink parasol, against the backdrop of a white-columned mansion. (You may need to use your imagination.)

The Little Straw Wife by Margaret Belle Houston ~ 1914. This edition: The H.K. Fly Co., 1914. Illustrated by F. Graham Cootes. Hardcover. 217 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This fluffy vintage romance attracted my attention because it was the very first published novel by a writer I have been keeping an eye out for: Margaret Bell(e) Houston (the “e” of her middle name was dropped on later books), author of a number of romantic-suspense novels such as 1955’s Yonder (scroll way down, I was rather more rambling than usual that day), which I read last year and gave an enthusiastic rating to. (And, oh, look – there’s Phyllis A. Whitney again!)

Houston’s novels are still in a modest sort of circulation, with a number of them available as scanned e-books (see here for TLSW) and as print-on-demand paper books, but the originals are much more interesting to handle and read, especially when they contain illustrations, as this one does, to add to their period charm.

The Little Straw Wife was published in 1914, when the author was 37 years old; a comparatively venerable age for a first novel, it seems to me. (So many published writers seem to start so early, literally in their teens. I wonder what the average age actually is?)

Margaret Belle Houston was to write another dozen or so novels between 1914 and 1958, as well as short stories and poetry. She was something of a local celebrity in her home state of Texas, the partial setting of The Little Straw Wife and most of her other romance/drama/suspense novels.

This novel charges out of the starting gate with a lot of enthusiasm and dash, which is maintained for quite some time, though it gets a mite winded about three-quarters of the way through, and ends up gasping for breath in the final chapters.

We meet our heroine, Zoë, just as she locks herself in her room and kicks off her shoes and plumps herself down on her wedding bouquet. Obviously something is not going well!

Here, read for yourself:

littlestrawwife00housiala_0013littlestrawwife00housiala_0014littlestrawwife00housiala_0015Our heroine is writing this account in her “Honeymoon Diary” – a gift from one of the bridesmaids, a blank book intended to document the joys of the first nuptial excursion. Instead it is being used to record the reasons behind the bride’s refusal to go through with things – albeit just an hour or two later than the usual cold-feet-at-the-altar cut-and-run.

Apparently Zoë feels that she has married her groom under false pretenses, and she can see nothing for it but to call the whole thing off. The upshot of it all is that she begs her groom to go off on the honeymoon voyage all alone, while she herself attempts to establish her independence away from Aunt Emmeline, who has made no secret of the fact that Zoë is no longer welcome under the familial roof.

Then we are treated to a rather nicely done flashback, as our narrator relates her history, and how she came to be in the situation now before us.

So far, quite enjoyable stuff, and as Zoë goes off to make her way in the world, with her cast-off groom lingering benignly(?) in the shadows waiting for her to come to her senses, the tale unfolds intriguingly, as Zoë casts herself on the hospitality of an old school chum and proceeds to attempt to enter the work force.

Once our Zoë, after a number of false starts, is settled into a suitable occupation – social secretary for an ambitious nouveau riche Texas ex-ranch wife – the tale begins to shed some of its charm, as it turns into what can only be described as a mushy romance. It’s still frequently sweet and funny, and the heroine still has us on her side, keeping us smiling at her odd personal decisions and indecisive agonizings to Dear Diary, but an immense tidal wave of coincidence and Had-I-But-Known drenches this initially clever story in utter cliché. The ending made me blush deeply. It was absolutely too good to be true, all over I-love-you-darlings and happy-ever-afters. Oh dear!

Well, for a first novel it shows a decently polished style, and the woes of Zoë in her quest for financial independence are feelingly portrayed. There is a strong vein of humour throughout; some of the diary entries are a comedic joy to read. If it weren’t for those last few romance-novel chapters, this would be such a thing of joy in general.

As it is, it’s still a fun vintage read despite its almost-fatally-flawed degeneration near the end. I’m glad I went to the trouble of tracking down in the paper, as it were, but I can’t give it a terribly enthusiastic recommendation as a must-read, because it is just too much of a period piece in its ultimate clichés to be truly top notch as a modern reading experience.

My advice, if one is interested, is to try this one gratis in its online e-book version. This scanned edition includes all of the Cootes illustrations, and is as close to reading the original as one can get without shelling out one’s hard-earned dollars for the real thing. Probably not a keeper, unless one is intrigued enough by the progress of Margaret Belle Houston to want to have a full set of her works on the shelf.

I have several more of Houston’s later novels waiting to be read: Bride’s Island (1957) and Cottonwoods Grow Tall (1958), both of which were published after the very acceptable Yonder, and both of which appear to have received good reviews in their time.

I am anticipating some enjoyable reading from these, but am waiting for that elusive “right mood” to strike. I am saving them for a treat, I hasten to assure you, so that will tell you how I really view Margaret Bell(e) Houston’s writing from my small experience of her – full of promise and most likely to prove highly diverting.

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Tthe etruscan smile velda johnston 001he Etruscan Smile by Velda Johnston ~ 1977. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1977. Hardcover. 181 pages.

My rating: 6/10

I had read several of Velda Johnston’s mildly thrilling and sometimes simplistic “novels of suspense” before, so had tempered my expectations for The Etruscan Smile accordingly.

1975’s A Room with Dark Mirrors generally pleased me; the period detail of the heroine’s stewardess career and the doesn’t-miss-a-beat flow of the story kept me engaged enough to award it a thumbs-up and a 5.5 rating.

The Girl on the Beach, 1987, felt rather more awkward in plot and style; the author was a quite venerable 75 years old when it was published, and I theorized that perhaps she feeling rather tired of the whole writing-a-book thing. I panned the Beach Girl badly, mentioned that I was almost ready to cross Velda Johnston off my “light reading” list, and gave her a dismissive rating of 4.

Two years have passed, and the memory of my disappointing second encounter with the author has faded; enough so that when I came across this novel recently I was moved to give her another chance. And I am happy that I did; The Etruscan Smile was nicely done for its sort of thing, and reading it was no hardship at all.

A perfect sort of book for a waiting room sojourn; engaging but not challenging. It rocketed right along, and handed me a few surprises in the way of plotting that I wasn’t expecting, though I’m not quite sure that these worked out story-wise all that well. I did give the writer points for creativity; I could tell where she was going and the big picture she was attempting to embroider, even if she dropped her threads a bit here and there.

Mary Stewart this soundly second-rank writer isn’t, though there are bits here and there which remind me favourably of Stewart’s style. Our heroine is nicely independent and capable; but she does end up in the arms of a man, and one that she hasn’t known terribly long or particularly well – a favourite Mary Stewart closing scenario. Those brushes with death do tend to speed along romantic acquaintanceship, is all I can assume.

And I found this much more readable than anything I’ve experienced by Phyllis A. Whitney (see my last post, wherein I hand poor Phyllis her walking papers out of my personal book collection), though Velda Johnston was nowhere near as prolific or (apparently) as popular. Still, she (Velda) did manage to produce something like 35 romantic suspense novels, and so far out of the three I’ve read two have been acceptable; she’s now back on my list of promising minor writers, though I won’t be searching her out specially or paying more than bargain basement prices for any more of her books that I come across in my travels.

So – the actual storyline of The Etruscan Smile. Here it is, such as it is.

Samantha Develin has flown to Italy from New York, accompanied by her devoted German Shepherd, Caesar. Samantha has just learned that her older sister,  Althea, an accomplished artist who has gained a certain reputation as a painter-to-watch, has unaccountably vanished from the small rented farmhouse she has been living in for the past several years. No one seems to know where Althea has gone; the assumption is that she is off with a man; but Samantha immediately finds some clues that her beloved sister may not have planned her departure in a typical fashion.

A dashing Italian count – an old flame of Althea’s – appears out of the blue and puts himself rather unexpectedly at Samantha’s service. Another of Althea’s ex-lovers, an English archeologist, living close by, makes himself conspicuous by his continued presence, zipping in silently on his bicycle at the oddest hours of day and night.

These two men in particular and, to a lesser degree, everyone else she questions regarding Althea’s recent activities are rather cagy and evasive; everyone obviously knows something that they’re not divulging to Althea’s little sister. But what?

Samantha persists in her quest to track down her sister, and she soon comes to sense that perhaps something rather final has happened to Althea, though there is no evidence to support an act of violence or misadventure. Samantha must revisit her own past to unravel the tangled web which her sister had become bound up in; what she discovers is more bizarre than she (or we) could ever have imagined…

A hidden statue of an ancient Etruscan goddess plays an important role in the quest for Althea and the climactic scene; kudos to the author for not doing the expected with that particular clichéd suspense novel scenario. And kudos as well for not making everything all sunshine and light and picturesque Italian travelogue; there are some darkish situations in this short novel which add a certain depth to what could have been pure fluff. And the dog was a nice touch, and well portrayed. (Total super-dog; too good to be true, really. Hint: one may require a Kleenex near the end.)

An adequately engaging story to while away an hour or two on a summer afternoon; a long lunch hour today was sufficient to polish this one off. I must confess that the strongest impulse I felt upon completion was to revisit one of Mary Stewart’s Greek novels, to enjoy the next level up in this particular cozy-escape-lit genre.

 

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the sea-gull cry robert nathan 001The Sea-Gull Cry by Robert Nathan ~ 1942. This edition: Knopf, 1942. Softcover, with French flaps. First edition. 214 pages.

My rating: 3/10

A short, lightweight novella by the onetime-popular Robert Nathan. I confess that I have in the past read and quite enjoyed his most famous publication, 1940’s Portrait of Jennie (see condensed spoiler-laden précis here), but The Sea-Gull Cry is infinitely more sentimental, and, to be brutally honest, not particularly memorable, either in plot or in execution.

Nineteen-year-old Louisa and her seven-year-old brother Jeri are refugees newly in America, from war-torn Poland via England. Children of an English mother and a Polish nobleman, they are in reality a countess and count, but the family castle has been bombed, leaving their mother interned forever in its rubble, while Papa has perished defending his country against the evil German invaders.

Louisa and Jeri are bravely making a new sort of life for themselves. Desiring to get out of the crowded American city they arrived at some short time ago, they have taken their refugee relief money and are looking for a place to live along the seaside for the summer. They make it to Cape Cod, where they fall in with a gruff-mannered but hearts-of-gold older couple, the Baghots, who rent them an abandoned scow beached on an isolated stretch of sand.

Onto this strip of sand precipitously arrives one “Smith”, a jaded, middle-aged history teacher, (and a not very experienced sailor), who has just purchased an old sloop with the view to cruising up and down the coast for the summer, to escape from the stress of his unsatisfying job and the pervasive gloom of the situation in Europe. (The story is set just before American entry into World War II.)

Smith is caught up in a squall and violently beaches his boat, putting an end to his summer plans. But when he meets lovely Louisa he is immediately smitten; even more so when she pops out of her faded blue overalls to swim in a teeny tiny homemade bikini. Smith feels that maybe life isn’t so dull after all…but wait…why would Louisa look at a man old enough to be her father…?

Maybe because she is seeking something of a father-substitute, a romantically-older man?

It takes them a few chapters to get it all worked out, chapters in which small Jeri provides a side plot as he fights with the local children, makes friends with the Baghots’ young niece Meg, and has a brush with death as he sets out to sea with Meg on an old raft, seeking to sail back to Europe to rescue “the children” from the conflict.

Aw, how sweet.

Sure.

A little of that goes a very long way, and luckily this was a lightning fast read, being presented by the publisher with a large font, immense margins, and thick paper. It clocks in at 214 pages, but could probably quite happily fit onto 50 or so. (One speculates therefore that this was before any sort of wartime paper restrictions hit the American publishing market.)

That’s it; that’s the story; well whitewashed with slosh.

I don’t quite get Robert Nathan’s obvious popularity in his time, because this was pretty sub-par stuff in the great scheme of literature-of-the time, unless it was as a writer of escape-lit-light for the stressed-out housewives of the 1940s and 50s. The Sea-Gull’s Cry seems the sort of thing that would be found serialized in the Good Housekeeping type of magazine of the day.

A contemporary review by Rose Feld of The New York Times had this to say:

‘The Sea-Gull Cry’ tells a tale that will hold you until the last page is turned. It will hold you because of Nathan’s rare art of drawing you into his own mood of tender contemplation of human beings and because you cannot let them go until you know what happens to them… And you will decide that this is more than a tender little love story exquisitely written; that it is a tale of exile and valor and spiritual rebellion that has more than surface significance.

I suspect I am myself a bit too jaded and cynical to really appreciate this sort of fiction; I find myself lifting an eyebrow when I read these other quotes by the author himself regarding his authorial motivation:

What I really want is to give comfort to people in this wilderness of death and trouble. And to myself, too. So, when I can, I take the poison and hate out of my books; but I hate, just the same. I hate violence, and tyranny, and vulgarity. I hate despair and destruction, and the writers who insist that that is all there is, there isn’t anything else.

and

It seems to me that I have always wanted to say the same things in my books: that life is one, that mystery is all around us, that yesterday, today and tomorrow are all spread out in the pattern of eternity, together, and that although love may wear many faces in the incomprehensible panorama of time, in the heart that loves it is always the same.

Fair enough; Nathan’s readers obviously responded to his style.

As you can see from my brutal rating, I didn’t.

 

 

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the eyes around me gavin black 001The Eyes Around Me by Gavin Black ~ 1964. This edition: Harper & Row, 1964. Hardcover. 216 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Okay, why have I never come across this writer before? This murder mystery novel set in Red-era Hong Kong was pretty darned fabulous. Instant fan, I am. Now I must track down more…

From his obituary notice in The Independent, August 6, 1998:

Oswald Wynd was a modest man who had little to be modest about. As Gavin Black he wrote superior and literate thrillers – school of Stevenson and Buchan – which were at the same time witty and clever, and moved at a by no means gentlemanly pace…

A “superior and literate thriller” describes this fast-paced novel exceedingly well.

Middle-aged, recently divorced, lush living Scottish shortbread heiress Ella Bain lives in Hong Kong, in a lavish seaside mansion. An outside staircase to her bedroom allows her to receive gentleman callers without offending the sensibilities of old family retainer Kirsty, and by all reports it is a well-used piece of domestic architecture.

Ella is loud, she drinks too much, and though she has proven herself an astute businesswoman, enlarging her already substantial fortune by her occasional managerial visits back to the family factory in Scotland, she occasionally raises eyebrows by her larger than life actions. Long-time platonic friend Paul Harris views Ella with sometimes-exasperated affection; he has turned down her marriage proposal, but remains in Ella’s will as her chief beneficiary, cutting out Ella’s only brother Angus, who enjoys a fortune of his own.

So when Ella is found dead in her bed on New Year’s Day morning by Paul, who squired Ella about town the night before and stayed over at her house, both the police and the intimately entwined Hong Kong society crowd look at Paul with more than a little speculation.

Paul Harris, wealthy in his own right through a series of past speculations and questionably legal activities which I shan’t reveal to you here, resents the assumption that he murdered his friend, and sets out on a quest to clear his name.

This is a vividly atmospheric mystery novel, with a finely detailed setting and memorable (if occasionally rather unlikely) characters. One forgives the over-the-topness because the thing is so gloriously well written for this type of light fiction; Oswald Wynd/Gavin Black spins an exceedingly readable tale.

Paul Harris comes across as a greatly  improved version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Paul is suave, fast on his feet, good in a fight, exceedingly attractive and attracted to gorgeous women, and (one feels) truly a good guy at heart, despite his somewhat shady backstory. The arrogance which emanates from his fictional counterpart Bond is completely missing; one likes Paul Harris, despite our doubt that he is now a purely lily-white boy, gone all straight and narrow.

I guessed the murderer with surprising ease; I foretold the romantic clinch at the end; as a mystery the thing is decidedly clichéd and predictable, but despite these drawbacks I greatly liked this book.

The author wrote a rather respectable number of novels and thrillers, most set in Asia. I am keen to follow up on my introduction to Paul Harris, who apparently features in all of the Gavin Black-authored thrillers; the Oswald Wynd novels sound intriguing, too, if perhaps a bit “deeper” in theme.

1977’s The Ginger Tree was made into a well-received Masterpiece Theatre 4-part miniseries, and Wynd’s depiction of cross-cultural and mixed race relationships is spoken of very highly in reviews.

For future investigation:

As Oswald Wynd:

  • Black Fountains (1947) (1st novel, winner of $20,000 Doubleday prize for fiction)
  • Red Sun South (1948)
  • Friend of the Family (1949)
  • The Stubborn Flower (1949)
  • When Ape is King (1949) (Wynd’s lone speculative fiction, very rare )
  • The Gentle Pirate (1951)
  • Stars in the Heather (1956)
  • Moon of the Tiger (1958)
  • Summer Can’t Last (1960)
  • Death, the Red Flower (1965)
  • Walk Softly, Men Praying (1967)
  • Sumatra Seven Zero (1968)
  • The Hawser Pirates (1970)
  • The Forty Days (1972)
  • The Ginger Tree (1977)

As Gavin Black:

  • Suddenly at Singapore (1961)
  • The Devil Came on Sunday (1961)
  • Dead Man Calling (1962)
  • A Walk in the Long Dark Night (1962)
  • A Dragon for Christmas (1963)
  • The Eyes around Me (1964)
  • You Want to Die, Johnny? (1966)
  • A Wind of Death (1967)
  • The Cold Jungle (1969)
  • A Time for Pirates (1971)
  • The Bitter Tea (1972)
  • The Golden Cockatrice (1974)
  • A Big Wind for Summer (aka Gale Force) (1975)
  • A Moon for Killers (aka Killer Moon) (1976)
  • Night Run from Java (1979)
  • The Blazing Air (1981)
  • The Fatal Shadow (1983)
  • A Path for Serpents (1991)

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lady molly of scotland yard baroness orczyLady Molly of Scotland Yard by The Baroness Orczy ~ 1910. This edition: Facsimile of the 1912 edition, The Akadine Press, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 1-888173-97-1. 344 pages.

My rating: Hmmm. Though doubtless a good example of period fiction and an early precursor to the detective-story genre which so abundantly flourished in the decades after Lady Molly’s publication, for actual reading experience the book was not quite as fabulous as I had hoped.

A perhaps overly generous 5/10 is all I can bring myself to award it right now, though it is the sort of thing one might well become fond of on a re-read for reasons quite unrelated to literary (or detective puzzle) merit. (Or then again, maybe not!)

We meet Lady Molly, in The Ninescore Mystery, first chapter of Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, courtesy Project Gutenberg:

Well, you know, some say she is the daughter of a duke, others that she was born in the gutter, and that the handle has been soldered on to her name in order to give her style and influence.

I could say a lot, of course, but “my lips are sealed,” as the poets say. All through her successful career at the Yard she honoured me with her friendship and confidence, but when she took me in partnership, as it were, she made me promise that I would never breathe a word of her private life, and this I swore on my Bible oath–“wish I may die,” and all the rest of it.

Yes, we always called her “my lady,” from the moment that she was put at the head of our section; and the chief called her “Lady Molly” in our presence. We of the Female Department are dreadfully snubbed by the men, though don’t tell me that women have not ten times as much intuition as the blundering and sterner sex; my firm belief is that we shouldn’t have half so many undetected crimes if some of the so-called mysteries were put to the test of feminine investigation.

Do you suppose for a moment, for instance, that the truth about that extraordinary case at Ninescore would ever have come to light if the men alone had had the handling of it? Would any man have taken so bold a risk as Lady Molly did when–But I am anticipating.

Let me go back to that memorable morning when she came into my room in a wild state of agitation.

“The chief says I may go down to Ninescore if I like, Mary,” she said in a voice all a-quiver with excitement.

“You!” I ejaculated. “What for?”

“What for–what for?” she repeated eagerly. “Mary, don’t you understand? It is the chance I have been waiting for–the chance of a lifetime? They are all desperate about the case up at the Yard; the public is furious, and columns of sarcastic letters appear in the daily press. None of our men know what to do; they are at their wits’ end, and so this morning I went to the chief–”

“Yes?” I queried eagerly, for she had suddenly ceased speaking.

“Well, never mind now how I did it–I will tell you all about it on the way, for we have just got time to catch the 11 a.m. down to Canterbury. The chief says I may go, and that I may take whom I like with me. He suggested one of the men, but somehow I feel that this is woman’s work, and I’d rather have you, Mary, than anyone. We will go over the preliminaries of the case together in the train, as I don’t suppose that you have got them at your fingers’ ends yet, and you have only just got time to put a few things together and meet me at Charing Cross booking-office in time for that 11.0 sharp.”

She was off before I could ask her any more questions, and anyhow I was too flabbergasted to say much. A murder case in the hands of the Female Department! Such a thing had been unheard of until now. But I was all excitement, too, and you may be sure I was at the station in good time.

Holmes to Lady Molly’s Watson (the comparison is inevitable and apt) is our narrator Mary, who started out as Lady Molly’s maid in the days-gone-by continually referred to with much innuendo and mysterious “But I mustn’t talk about that!”

Now Mary and Lady Molly are members of the female division of Scotland Yard’s investigative force, though Mary still seems to be fulfilling many of her old duties in regard to her mistress, as well as some new ones. Messy and boring (and possibly dangerous) investigation to be done – well, let’s send Mary! Though to be fair Lady Molly puts herself in discomfort occasionally. (Very occasionally.) Most of her detecting seems to be done Hercule Poirot/Nero Wolfe style, from the comfort of an armchair while exercising her own Great Big Brain.

My biggest beef: the class distinctions so blatantly demonstrated throughout. Lady Molly is exceedingly high handed with her inferiors (that would be just about everyone she meets, works with and “investigates”) and meek Mary obviously feels that this is just the way it should be. And Lady Molly never explains; she merely orders, and her “partners” (usually Mary, but on occasion fawning members of The Force) scuttle off, sure in their belief that Lady Molly’s womanly (and aristocratic) intuition will bring a solution to the problem of the moment.

There is also a secret reason Lady Molly took up her profession at Scotland Yard; the big reveal happens in the last chapter, with Mary at last spilling all the beans she was forbidden to display previously.

Well, this allows me to tick off 1910 in the Century of Books, and also to satisfy my curiosity as to what Lady Molly was all about; I’ve occasionally seen her referenced in discussions of Golden Age women’s detective fiction; I need wonder no more.

Tasha Brandstatter’s Review echoes my feelings.

As does Stewartry – grand review.

The Wikipedia entry discusses the plot of the first few chapters in vivid, spoiler-laden detail.

And here’s the whole thing on Project Gutenberg.

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I need to get some of this towering stack of books-to-be-discussed thinned out; my desk is way too crowded; no place to park the teacup! (And my spouse, coming in last night to “borrow” the computer, made comment on the situation and then graciously offered to shelve them for me – which though a sweet gesture is not necessarily a good thing, as he puts things in strange places. Our filing systems differ. 😉 )Time for a few round-up posts, I think.

Where to start? How to group these? Let’s see…

How about this trio of not necessarily bad books, but ones which could have been better. Definitely readable, but not top notch. (My personal responses only, dependent entirely on my mood at the reading moment – yours could be so much different, so please forgive me if I cold-shoulder one of your favourites.)

station wagon in spain frances parkinson keyesStation Wagon in Spain by Frances Parkinson Keyes ~ 1959. This edition: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1959. Hardcover. 224 pages.

My rating: 5/10

I’ve occasionally flirted with Keyes, because her books have such potentially interesting premises, but I invariably come away sighing. And sadly this concoction is no exception. The very best thing about it was the nine-page author’s foreword, in which she relates her own experiences travelling with her friend Kitty in immediately post-war Italy, France and Spain in 1946, with a rickety American station wagon loaded with relief supplies for an evacuated convent of Bendictine nuns.

Utterly fascinating – “Tell me more!” was my response – but no, Keyes blithely dismisses her own experiences and instead embarks on this rather creatively imagined fictional tale, which starts off reasonably well but soon bogs down in a morass of excessive detail and complicated plotting.

In brief(ish):

A young university professor unexpectedly inherits a large fortune, and, while mulling over his sudden change in situation and his deeply elemental boredom with his life to this point, receives a version of the infamous “Spanish Prisoner” letter in the mail. This one is purportedly from a real Spanish prisoner, and – how handy! – Lambert just happens to be a fluent Spanish speaker himself. Knowing full well that the letter is a scam, he feels that a diversion is in order, so he takes a sabbatical year from his teaching job, packs up his newly purchased big red convertible station wagon, says a dismissive good-bye to the young woman who has been scheming (well beknownst to Lambert) to marry him, and heads off to Spain.

The plot thickens, as Lambert immediately falls in with a luscious adventuress and carries on an intense shipboard flirtation. “Coincidences” start to fall together thick and fast. There does, to Lambert’s great glee, appear to be a genuine prisoner of sorts associated with the fabricated scenario – an impoverished Duke incarcerated in a private sanatorium. Who happens to have a lovely, virginal daughter who could not possibly be involved in any nefarious dealings…

The whole thing is rather bogged down in too much detail. There are long pages of explanation on all sorts of side-issues, as if the author is dead keen on the education of her readers as much as on their entertainment. The plottings of the wicked conspirators get rather see-through and slightly ridiculous early on, and the inevitable romance is just too predictable to be satisfying. (A pox on “love at first sight”, I emphatically say. At least in this situation.)

Moments of excellence; chapters of blah blah blah. Rated at 5/10 because I did willingly carry through to the end, despite my ever-increasing feelings of annoyance that the author would make such a messy job of such a promising plot, and turn her quite likeable protagonist into a bit of a blustering egoist. Points off, too, for the sweetly yielding female love interest (the new one in Spain, not the abandoned American, though she also pops up in Europe to add some more kinks to the tale) and the “unspoken communion of two passionate souls.” Ick!

neither five nor three helen macinnes paperback fawcettNeither Five nor Three by Helen MacInnes ~ 1951. This edition: Fawcett Crest, circa late 1960s. Paperback. 320 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Set in post-World War II New York.

I found myself rather taken aback by this story. While many of Helen MacInnes’ books demonstrate her strong stance on capital-C Communism (it’s 100% bad) this one takes that fixation to a whole new level. Instead of clean-cut English/American heroes and heroines flitting about the shadows of war-torn European cities, it’s all about the insidious influence of underground Commies on the home front (in this case America) after World War II, and it comes across as being deeply paranoid, viewed from half a century in the future.

The love story is utterly predicable and really rather sweet; the two lovers are likeable enough and I found myself in general wishing them well; but the anti-Red plotline pushed me past my comfort level into the “Really? Really?” territory. Even taking era-appropriateness into account. So black; so white. Shades of grey are evidence of weakness, on both sides.

MacInnes’ Commies are supremely well organized; they have infiltrated the American publishing industry and are placing their pawns very cleverly in order to slant the perceptions of readers in favour of the political left. Head honchos from the main office (as it were) in Europe undertake clandestine inspirational (and disciplinary) visits to American “party cells”; new recruits are jollied along until they are too deeply enmeshed to easily escape; then the gloves come off and any attempt to back away from participation or to “inform” is punishable by carefully engineered public disgrace, or, just possibly, sudden death. (Cue foreboding music…)

Definitely a Cold War period piece, which was received with warm approval by readers and reviewers of its time.

Excerpted from the March, 1951 Kirkus Review:

This is the most important book Helen MacInnes has done … absorbing and challenging from first page to last, as the devious methods of Communist penetration into the fields of public relations are revealed, and the terrifying network of Communist affiliation is convincingly recorded. Rona Metford is engaged to Scott Ettley, a journalist whose loyalties are torn between his mounting commitment to “the party” and his yearning for a normal course of love and marriage. Into this situation comes Paul Haydn, just returned to New York from a very hush-hush assignment in Europe and finding that his love for Rona, which he thought was a thing of the past, is still very much alive. The checkered course of love is traced against the background of gradually unfolding ramifications of the violence and falsity of Communist activities in the heart of the world they think they know…

I personally found the political bits verging on hysteria, and while there was an occasional authorial attempt made to balance the viewpoints by pondering why Clean Young Americans might be seduced to the Red Side, once they went too far they were brutally written off and became completely expendable, in the most ultimate way.

A precursor to MacInnes’ more “traditional” (i.e., European-set and action-packed) espionage stories which were to follow, blending an ideological plotline with a stereotypical together/torn asunder/together again romantic tale, with vaguely unsatisfying results.

my heart shall not fear josephine lawrenceMy Heart Shall Not Fear by Josephine Lawrence ~ 1949. This edition: Peoples Book Club, 1950. Hardcover. 285 pages.

 
My rating: 5/10

Now on to this much more obscure book, also set, as is Neither Five Nor Three, in immediately post World War II America.

Touted as “inspirational” and a “wholesome depiction of family life” in its back-cover promotional blurbs, this earnest novel left me unsatisfied and vaguely uneasy, mostly because of its troubling (to a reader of today) depiction of women’s societal roles in its era.

If I could pin down one thing which bothered me the most, it would be the author’s apparent insistence that female martyrdom is by and large a good thing, as long as it is carried out in a modest manner. The woman who takes a hit for her family, quietly and uncomplainingly, is to be greatly admired. To be fair, this also applies in a lesser degree to men, but is more strongly expected of the “weaker” sex, the men not being subjected to such ironclad standards of societal behaviour.

There is an ambitious cast of characters, including an older couple who sacrifice their much-deserved peaceful retirement to share their home with three not-long-married sons recently discharged from the armed forces, a young married woman who has recently had a baby and who is eager to leave the hospital and settle into a new apartment (which she can’t really afford, seeing that her husband has borrowed a vast sum of money in order to bail out his own ne’er-do-well father), another new mother who is not married and who resists the good-intentioned bullying of a social aid worker to give her child up for adoption, and a young childless woman who is obviously dying of an unspecified ailment – most likely cancer – but is surrounded by a cloud of silence as no one in her circle dares to put into words the obvious, as well as numerous others.

One of the odder and most troubling scenarios is that of one of the young couples separating. The husband has decided that he has tied himself down to his childhood sweetheart mistakenly, and he announces that he is leaving to “enjoy his freedom” while he is still young. The heartbroken wife refuses to argue or present herself as unfairly forsaken, gives her departing spouse the car that she has worked for and purchased with her own money, and even runs out to purchase new underclothes for her deserter as a gesture of undying wifely devotion.

The husband sneaks into the house to pack when his wife is out, and scorns his mother’s pleas to reconsider his actions. (This is one of the couples living with the elderly parents.) The young wife is left dependent for a home upon her in-laws, who are deeply shamed by their son’s behaviour. The deserted wife, by meekly accepting her bleak fate, is gently pitied and openly admired by the other characters for her forbearance. She herself quietly says that she hopes her man will eventually return. All I could think was, “Hey, sister, take back those car keys and tell that lout you married in good faith to find his own transport to ‘finding himself.’ And don’t you dare be here waiting for him when and if he crawls back home!”

Josephine Lawrence was a highly prolific writer of both children’s books (100-ish)  and adult novels (30+) who was well known and dependably popular in her time. Born in 1889, her work was published from the 1920s through the 1960s. She no doubt struck a chord with woman readers looking for a fictional validation of their own sometimes difficult lives, but if this novel is typical, her work is tremendously dated. Josephine Lawrence seems to be almost forgotten today.

I did enjoy the period detail in this story, and the ease with which the author kept her multiple strands interweaving without tangling. I disliked the pedestrian aspects of her style – it is very workaday prose – and the droning overtone of “womanly nobility is achieved through silent suffering/womanly strength is measured by her fortitude in the face of adversity.” I suppose there is some general merit to this idea as broadly applied to both sexes, but in this case I found it something of a downer when applied so strongly to my particular gender.

I’d gladly read another of Lawrence’s books if it came to me easily, but she is not a writer I will be deliberately seeking out.

A sampling of readers' comments.

A sampling of readers’ comments, My Heart Shall Not Fear.

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the houses in between reprint society howard spring 1951 001The Houses in Between by Howard Spring ~ 1951. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1954. Hardcover. 568 pages.

My rating: After some deliberation, I cannot honestly give this less than a 10/10. This ambitious novel certainly has some flaws, but the overall reading experience, to me at this point in my life, was utterly satisfying.

A week or so ago I posted a quick teaser about this novel, and I am happy to report that it more than fulfilled its promise. It took me quite a long time to work my way through it, both because of general busy-ness in my real life, and my reluctance to rush through the book. Fine print, thin pages, and rather intense content made it crucial to be able to really concentrate; it was not a particularly “easy” read, though I did find it completely engaging.

On her third birthday, May 1, 1851, young Sarah Rainborough visits the newly-opened Crystal Palace in London, and the experience so impresses her that it becomes her earliest vivid memory, to be referenced throughout the rest of her long life.

I am not going to share many more plot details than this, as the story was most rewarding to me as I read with no prior knowledge as to where it was all going to go, and there were some surprising developments.

Written in the first person as an autobiography, with Sarah starting to record her life in her later years and the tone very much one of “looking back”, there are of course many references to future events, interweaving Sarah’s past and present and going off into short tangents here and there. Sarah’s fictional life covers ninety-nine years of a history-rich century, and though as a member of the upper middle class our narrator is cushioned from the harshest realities of her time, she is fully aware – at least in retrospect – of what is going on all around her.

The strongest part of the book to my mind was the portion regarding the Great War. The author, using his character’s voice, is bitterly sincere in condemnation of the brutal destruction of an entire generation of the best and brightest of England’s –  and Europe’s – young men, and the impact of their loss on the structure of society as a whole, and on the families and individuals left behind.

Part social commentary and part good old-fashioned family drama – Sarah’s personal life and the lives of her family members are chock full of incident, some spilling over into positive melodrama – the book is by and large very well paced and beautifully balanced between fiction and history.

Here is the author’s foreword, which tells of his intentions. I must say that I thought he pulled it off rather well.

the houses in between howard spring author's foreword 001

Howard Spring made a commendably good job of voicing his narrator; occasionally it felt a tiny bit forced, but in general he drew me in and kept me engaged. The latter chapters, covering Sarah’s extreme old age, were particularly believable, as the narrator is shown to be letting herself go a bit, both in her recording of the current phase of her life, and in her relationships to the people around her, as she deliberately eliminates strong emotional feelings regarding her descendants and looks more and more inward, preserving her energies for herself.

An author whom I shall be exploring in the future. I very much liked what he did here, though no doubt some of the appeal of this book is in that it describes the long life of a rather ordinary woman, and I am myself in a reflective mood regarding the life of my own mother, who died just over a month ago at the venerable age of eighty-nine, a decade less than our fictional Sarah’s, but still impressive, when one considers the societal changes that occurred in her (my mother’s) life as well.

Well done.

For more reviews:

The Goodreads page has several succinct and accurate reviews by readers.

Reading 1900-1950 has a detailed review, with excerpts, as well as links to reviews of several other of the author’s novels.

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