The Lighthouse – P.D.James

Having begun the year with Poe, I have come to the conclusion that he is best appreciated in small doses, and inbetween other reads.

This is partly because, while I was doing the mini-spring-clean which has provided me with an office, I picked a book off the shelf, as you do when you’re cleaning (or is that just me?), and that was the end of the cleaning. I was supposed to be doing the rest of the flat. I only did the office…

The book, well, that was The Lighthouse by P.D.James. I have no idea how I came by it, but apparently I did, and it was the book which leapt out at me.

Now, I like murder mysteries, but I have a hard time these days finding the sort I want to read: I’m not so keen on the fast-paced, conspiracy-theory-heavy thrillers, or those that provide every possible detail to prove the writer knows his/her police procedure; but I like Commander Adam Dalgliesh, and I like James’ writing. It is evident, but not in-your-face that she knows her stuff (and given her working life before writing, she probably ought to).

The Lighthouse is set on a fictional island off the Cornish coast. The sort of mystery with a limited suspect-pool and the murderer can’t get away, but everyone’s cooped up with him/her, so s/he’s likely to get desperate as the detective gets closer to the answer. This particular island is run as a very exclusive get-away for the over-stressed professionals, and they pay for the island’s privacy. And then one dies.

Dalgliesh is a sensible, robust sort of detective. If he lacks the eccentric flair I normally like in my detectives, there is a comforting solidity about him. Having found a much earlier James, from the ’70s, I’ve come to the conclusion that Dalgliesh must be a sort of Peter Pan character, since The Lighthouse is from 2005, but then, I haven’t read all the others to know what happens in his life between then and now, and nor do I know even his approximate age in either novel.

It is my intention to begin a P.D.James collection, and no higher praise can I give to an author.

Earthly Delights – Kerry Greenwood

When you prefer Golden Age detective fiction (by which I mean anything of the Christie/Sayers era of about 1900-1960), it can be tricky to find good, contemporary such novels. So many seem to think that what readers really want is a thriller, in the style of James Patterson, all fast-paced and action-movie-like.

And maybe that’s true of a lot of readers. But if the story in front of me is so very action-movie-like, I do much prefer to watch it. It doesn’t need to be a cosy Poiret-style detective novel for me to like it. Just slower, with chapters longer than three pages of wide-spaced words.
So I was quite pleased with Earthly Delights, by Kerry Greenwood, creator of Miss Phryne Fisher.
Set in Melbourne, which I will admit to not knowing, except through Miss Fisher, and I’m not sure that 20s Melbourne is the same as modern Melbourne.
Earthly Delights follows Corinna Chapman, a baker who finds a junkie in the alley behind her shop one morning and a letter accusing her of being a scarlet woman pushed through the letter-box, as she tries to work out what’s going on. Especially when her neighbour Mistress Dread also receives such a letter. Mistress Dread does not take kindly to this accusation.
I like the characters, Mistress Dread in particular, and the cats which patrol the bakery to keep out any rodents.
If you like Miss Fisher, give Corinna a try.

For Your Eyes Only – Ian Fleming

I have never been a great watcher of the James Bond films, although I don’t object much if one is on, and I hadn’t read any of Fleming’s novels until earlier this year, when I happened across Moonraker, and was enthralled by the description of the bridge-game in which Bond fleeces Drax of vast sums and Drax is shown to be the bad guy: no Englishman would cheat at cards, oh the horrors. Yes, I’m weird and nerdy like that; I like a good game of cards (my preference is whist).

So, having been won over by a thrilling game of bridge, when For Your Eyes Only happened across my path, I picked it up.

For Your Eyes Only is a collection of five short stories about James Bond, with the missions not really being matters of National Security: From a View to Kill, For Your Eyes Only, Quantum of Solace, Risico, and The Hildebrand Rarity. 

I enjoyed all of the stories, even the relatively unexciting Quantum of Solace, in which Bond hears the story of a Colonial Civil Servant and his unhappy marriage to an air hostess. Never having seen the film, I would be very surprised if it bears even the slightest resemblance to the original story.

One of the things which I like about the Bond novels is that Fleming doesn’t waste words. There’s not a lot of flummery, and yet there’s just enough to set the scenes. I like that in a writer, because otherwise I just skip the vast paragraphs of largely unnecessary description. It’s a talent which so few modern writers seem to have, probably because it’s much easier to write reams if it’s done straight onto a computer. Perhaps if first drafts were always done in longhand first, it might discourage some of the doorstoppers…

Pied Piper – Nevil Shute

Sometimes, when an author or book is recommended, one thinks I’m sure it’s good, but not today, thanks. Sometimes, you need to be in the right mood or frame of mind.

Ever since I first started moving way from Enid Blyton, and onto more grown-up books aged about 9 or 10, my mum has been trying to get me to read Nevil Shute, especially his novel entitled A Town Like Alice. I don’t know what it was, but for some reason I resisted. Maybe it was simply because it was being recommended. So I never read A Town Like Alice, or any other of the many Shute novels my mother owns.

And then, about a month ago, as I was waiting for Mark by a bookcase of charity books in his place of work, I happened upon a Nevil Shute which I picked up as something to read while I waited. It was the only vaguely interesting book on the shelves.

Pied Piper is the story of a retired Englishman’s journey through France from the Alps, with two children in tow, in the summer of 1940. By the time Mark was done, I was a chapter in, and hooked.

Our gentleman, one John Howard, with an absence of anything to do in this war and with faith in the Maginot line, decides to go on a fishing trip to the Jura in April 1940, intending to spend the summer there. By the end of May, with news of the Dunkirk evacuation filtering to his mountain-top inn, he changes his plans, considering his place in war to be in his home-country.

He is persuaded by fellow-visitors to the inn to escort a little boy and girl, whose father works for the League of Nations in Geneva, back to England. They set off in the first week of June 1940, expecting to be travelling for little more than two days. But life, never that simple, is complicated by the little girl contracting some fever on the first leg of the journey, and requiring bed-rest for a few days when they reach Dijon.

Those few days spent in Dijon were enough, in mid-June 1940, to completely disrupt the ordered passage through France to the Channel and thence to England. Further hindrances come in the form of several other waifs and strays, and with the German regulations put in force, throughout France in general and along the coast in particular.

Pied Piper, for all the simplicity of the plot, is a beautifully written story; a reminder that a good tale need not be complicated. And a reminder that even in times of war, good people still exist, even if they are fictional. Pied Piper, according to my 1960s edition, was first published in 1942, when WWII was still going on. Perhaps it was propaganda for morale, perhaps it was a story Shute heard (Wikipedia throws no light on the matter), but still, it is a story in which the patience and goodness of one old man fights his way through enemy territory to save unrelated children.

It is a heartwarming story, something which is quite hard to find in these days of post-apocalyptic, gritty fantasy, and psychological thrillers. I regret not reading the Shute books when I lived at home, although this does mean that I have another author to collect, and I do, heartily, recommend Pied Piper.

Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates

When it comes to my reading choices, I do like a nice, cosy murder-mystery. The thrilling, mile-a-minute, action-packed versions of James Patterson and the like, are not what I want to sit down to with a cup of tea and a biscuit. They’re just too energetic.

I much prefer the likes of Poirot, Marple, Holmes, Hannisyde and Hemingway – and now Miss Phryne Fisher.

I discovered Miss Fisher via the quite wonderful Australian TV adaptation, on Netflix, and was hooked from the first note of the theme tune. The books, though, I see have been floating around since the ’80s.

Phryne (named after the courtesan of Athens, rather than Psyche the nymph because her father was drunk at the christening) is a ’20s flapper, moving to Melbourne because, firstly, London is becoming boring, and secondly, she’s been asked to investigate the curious illness of the daughter of a neighbour, who married an Australian. Having grown up in poverty in Australia, and whose family only inherited the title and wealth because of the Great War, it feels like going home to Phryne. Her assignment is quite straight-forward: to find out if this daughter is being poisoned by her husband.

Only, of course, things are never that easy, and Phryne becomes involved in all manner of interesting things, starting with the hunt for an illegal abortionist and ending with a drugs ring.

For a cosy mystery, it is actually quite gritty, but it’s done with a light touch. I’m definitely going to find the other books, because I have to wait for season 3 to come out on Netflix and I can’t do without Phryne and Jack (I’m already near the end of season 2 for the second time), and I’d like to see where the series has deviated from the original. And I want to find out where Murdock Foyle comes into it, since he wasn’t in the first book.

Go Set a Watchman

I had a plan, a schedule, for Taking My Blog Seriously in the Grand Scheme of retiring from the Real World into my own, where I might live in peace with my threads and my pens for stitching and writing. I planned a blog-schedule for posts over a two-week period; it was all set down in black-and-white in my notebook and diary.

But I have only to write my plan down to feel that it has happened and is done, and for me to lose all interest. So I’m going to rethink the best way for Taking My Blog Seriously.

And in the meantime, today, I shall talk a little about Go Set a Watchman, the controversial novel by Harper Lee.

Let me start by saying that not even studying To Kill a Mockingbird to within an inch of its life could make me hate it. I have always adored Scout, and it is a powerful story, probably made all the more so because of Scout’s age. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings and all that.

Go Set a Watchman is, I would say, a companion novel, not a sequel. And I would probably not suggest reading them in quick succession. As Scout discovered, a little distance is needed to cope with the more unpalatable side of Atticus Finch. It is, though, quite nice to discover that he isn’t the paragon Scout thinks him in Mockingbird.

Given all the media attention and spoilers, I hope I don’t upset anyone with the revelation that Atticus was a member of the KKK. Please don’t think too harshly of him: he had his reasons. And Scout’s reaction when she learns of this is just what we might expect of her. She is, in Watchman, still the same old Scout. Older, a little sadder, maybe, but still as tomboyish and impetuous as ever. And still winding Aunt Alex up by not behaving like a Southern lady.

Watchman is not Mockingbird, though, but it’ll be interesting to reread Mockingbird in the light of Watchman’s revelations. It’s interesting to see how Mockingbird evolved, given that Watchman was written first, although the fates of some of the characters was rather upsetting.

As to Scout’s fate, I really hope she resists the hero provided in Watchman and goes off to find Dill: I’ve always thought they’d make a good couple.