Unnatural Causes by P.D. James

unnatural causesTitle: Unnatural Causes
Author: P.D. James
Published in 1967.

Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh had been looking forward to a quiet holiday at his aunt’s cottage on Monksmere Head, one of the furthest-flung spots on the remote Suffolk coast. With nothing to do other than enjoy long wind-swept walks, tea in front of the crackling wood fire and hot buttered toast, Dalgliesh was relishing the thought of a well-earned break.

However, all hope of peace is soon shattered by murder. The mutilated body of a local crime writer, Maurice Seaton, floats ashore in a drifting dinghy to drag Adam Dalgliesh into a new and macabre investigation

This is the third Adam Dalgleish book, and was a library check out for me. I decided to revisit P.D. James this year as part of my “Century of Women” project. Unnatural Causes is the third in the series, and was published in 1967.

This is my favorite book so far because it was so cleverly plotted. The victim is a mystery writer, and is found in circumstances that feel like something out of his next planned book. Well after his death, an envelope containing the typed opening of his next book is received, and it echoes the circumstances in which his body was found, and was obviously typed on the victim’s own typewriter.

Adam Dalgleish is is involved because he has gone to Suffolk to visit his aunt, a respected amateur ornithologist, lifelong spinster, and extremely self-contained woman. The victim was one of her neighbors, and her small circle of neighbors all have a motive to murder. Dalgleish is also trying to decide what to do about his romantic relationship, which has reached a critical juncture and he must decide if he is going to ask the woman to marry him or end the relationship all together. Aunt Jane lives in an isolated cottage on the Suffolk coast, so there is a lot of discussion about remote coastal landscapes that look something like this:

suffolk

The way that the solution to the mystery is presented isn’t completely successful, in my opinion. The end of the book is basically a transcription of a long, somewhat rambling, recorded confession left behind by the murderer. This type of device has a tendency to drag on, and it does so here, but it’s a relatively small quibble. Otherwise, the book is extremely cleverly done, and the meta elements are a lot of fun.

The Touchstone by Edith Wharton

Title: The Touchstone
Author: Edith Wharton
Published in 1900

The Touchstone is Wharton’s first published novella.

Edith Wharton has long been one of my favorite authors. I first read The Age of Innocence on the heels of the Scorsese adaptation, starring Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer, which was released back in 1993, and fell in love with the rich interior lives of her characters. After a more recent reread, I added The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, Summer, and Glimpses of the Moon to my list.

One of my friends recently hosted a read-along of Wharton’s second published full-length novel, The House of Mirth. I didn’t participate in the read-along, but reading her posts, I realized that I wanted to get back to Wharton and finish off some more of her lesser works. The only major work that I haven’t already read is Ethan Frome, which has been on my TBR for years. Wharton, though, is one of those authors who can be read and reread endlessly. Her books increase in resonance and complexity on reread.

Years ago, when I was new to kindle, I bought one of those omnibus kindle editions that claims to be the “complete” works of Edith Wharton. It’s actually not – Wharton wrote far enough into the twentieth century that not all of her books are out of copyright, so some of her later novels/novellas are missing. In addition, as it turns out, I don’t really like reading omnibus editions. I like to be able to see where I am in the flow of book (beginning/middle/end) so that I can better understand where I am in the story. However, one of the benefits of the compilations is that I can access books that are otherwise fairly inaccessible. Some of Wharton’s late, forgotten novels, might be difficult to lay my hands on.

In any case, though, The Touchstone is long out of copyright, so it’s included in my compilation and that’s how I was able to read it. It was her first published novella, is around 125 pages long, and is the first of her stories set in “Old New York,” a location and era that she understood well. The book’s protagonist, Glennard, is a classic Wharton character – a young(ish) man, a bit on the fringes of the best old New York society, and a bit impoverished. He has fallen in love with Alexa Trent but doesn’t have enough money to marry. He has opportunities to invest, but lacks the money to take advantage of them.

As he’s reading a magazine one day, he sees that there has been an increasing interest in the letters of Mrs. Margaret Aubyn, an author with whom he carried on a long and very intimate correspondence. She was in love with him, he was not in love with her. Her story was a bit reminiscent of Mrs. Olenska, from The Age of Innocence – she had married unwisely, and was at least emotionally abused by her husband, whom she ultimately fled. Glennard sees an opportunity to make quite a bit of money by selling the letters for publication, and carries out a private sale. The letters are published in two volumes without an indication of who had received the letters, and are avidly read by his society circle, who are both titillated and condemnatory of the person who violated Mrs. Aubyn’s trust by publishing the letters.

There is a lot of depth to this short story. Glennard is initially uncomfortable about publishing the letters, and as he makes more money off of the breach of trust, his discomfort increases until it begins to destroy his marriage and his self-conception, both of which have been tainted by his decision to sell the letters. Both Glennard and Alexa are emotionally frozen and unable to work through the issues that arise – Glennard thinks that Alexa has figured out where his money comes from, but is unable to breach the subject with her because he is so ashamed and he is convinced that she will hate him if she knows. Alexa can tell that something is wrong, but isn’t aware what it is until she figures it out. We are pretty much only in Glennard’s head, so Alexa is the literary equivalent of a marble statue, which is pretty much how Glennard thinks of her. When Alexa receives her own copy of the book and reads the letters with great interest, the walls that Glennard has put up to shield himself from his own shame fall.

“He sank into a chair, staring aimlessly at the outspread papers. How was he to work, while on the other side of the door she sat with that volume in her hand? The door did not shut her out – he saw her distinctly, felt her close to him in a contact as painful as the pressure on a bruise.

The sensation was part of the general strangeness that made him feel like a man waking from a long sleep to find himself in an unknown country among people of alien tongue. We live in our own souls as an unmapped region, a few acres of which we have cleared for habitation; while of the nature of those nearest us, we know but the boundaries that march with ours.”

As always, Wharton’s writing is utterly exquisite. I don’t think that I’ve ever read anyone who writes with such detailed lavishness about the interior emotional lives – stunted, repressed, shamed – of her characters. She is like one of those medieval monks who does illuminations of tiny corners and single letters. Her understanding of a specific type human nature is immense. She couldn’t write the stories that someone like Willa Cather writes – all huge skies and open spaces. Both writers, though, excelled at demonstrating the complexity of human beings – Cather’s outwardly simple characters were, in actuality, deeply complicated.

Which brings me to the rest of this post, where I transition to comparing Wharton and Cather, because I always think of them as counterpoints to one another. I must not be the only one to have made this connection – the well-known literary biographer Hermione Lee has written books about both women. Their bodies of work couldn’t be more different, but at the same time, I can’t help but relate them to one another.

Edith Wharton was born on 1/24/1862, Cather a little more than ten years later, on 12/7/1873. Wharton published her first novel, The Valley of Decision, in 1902, Cather published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, again approximately ten years later, in 1912. They won Pulitzers two years apart, Wharton first, for The Age of Innocence, in 1921, Cather for One of Ours in 1923. Wharton died on August 11, 1937 at age 75, Cather died ten years later, on April 24, 1947, at age 73.

I’ve intentionally decided to forgo reading challenges for next year, so that I can read whatever I want without regard to trying to check off boxes. When I first started blogging, I was a project reader, but I’ve fallen away from that in the last few years. Since I’ve got an open schedule, and a mind for a project, I’ve decided to do a Wharton/Cather project. Starting with The Touchstone, published in 1900, my general plan is to read the works of both women in the order in which they were published. Some of them will be rereads – I read a lot of Cather about four years ago, and I’ve held onto all of them. This rather front loads with Wharton, although a lot of those are quite short. It’s possible that I may jiggle the early order so that I can get to Cather’s work without reading 7 Wharton’s in a row. It also doesn’t include the short stories published by either woman, and I may just pick those up as the whim takes me.

In order:

1900: The Touchstone by Edith Wharton
1902: The Valley of Decision by Edith Wharton
1903: Sanctuary by Edith Wharton (novella)
1905: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
1907: The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton
1907: Madame de Treymes by Edith Wharton (novella)
1911: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (novella)
1912: Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather
1912: The Reef by Edith Wharton
1913: O Pioneer by Willa Cather
1913: The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
1915: The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
1916: The Triumph of the Night by Edith Wharton
1916: The Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton (novella)
1917: Summer by Edith Wharton
1918: My Antonia by Willa Cather
1918: The Marne by Edith Wharton
1920: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
1922: One of Ours by Willa Cather
1922: The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
1923: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
1923: A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1924: Old New York by Edith Wharton (4 short stories)
1925: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
1925: A Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton
1926: My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather
1927: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
1927: Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
1928: The Children by Edith Wharton
1929: Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton
1931: Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
1932: The Gods Arrive by Edith Wharton
1935: Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather
1938: The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton (unfinished)
1940: Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather

As always, my reading projects are subject to change and are completely open-ended in terms of when (if) it will ever be finished.

The Lark by E. Nesbit

Title: The Lark
Author: E. Nesbit
Published in 1922

Plot Summary from Goodreads: It’s 1919, and Jane Quested and her cousin Lucilla are pulled suddenly from school by their guardian, who sets them up in a cottage on the fringes of London and informs them (by letter, since he’s already fled) that he’s gambled away their inheritance but is leaving them the house and £500 to carry on with. Lucilla is disheartened, but Jane is certain it will be a lark.

With the help of a handsome man, a classic example of a “capable woman”, and a war veteran with a green thumb, the two unflappable young women set up a market garden, which develops into a guest house, which develops into—well, you’ll have to read and see. It’s true they have some difficulties as businesswomen, not to mention with housekeeping, but this is ultimately a tale fully living up to its title.

Forgotten for decades, despite Nesbit’s fame as a children’s author, her final novel for adults, first published in 1922, is a delight that’s ripe for rediscovery. This new edition includes an introduction by Charlotte Moore.

Apparently E. Nesbit, of the Psammead, the Bastables and the Railway Children, also wrote at least a few books for adults (although this felt more YA, or even, shudder, NA, than anything else). Who knew?

This book is adorable. It had a distinct Anne of the Island vibe, which is my favorite of all of the Anne Shirley books, with the two main characters, Lucilla and Jane (cousins) being pulled out of school by their guardian because he has done a bunk with basically all of their money. All they have left is a house left to them by an aunt, and 500 pounds in the bank. As it’s 1919, and immediately post-WWI, this is actually a significant sum, but it’s still not the fortune they believed they had inherited.

“Everything that’s happening to us—yes, everything—is to be regarded as a lark. See? This is my last word. This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.”

says Jane, & Lucilla falls in with Jane’s plans. The two young women move into the cottage, start a market garden, take in Pigs, or Paying Guests, meet a couple of young men, there are high jinks and failures and successes. It is unrealistic in the extreme – a riff on the “plucky orphan” fiction that is so popular with British authors, but it’s so charming that I just didn’t care. This is my last word. I. Just. Didn’t. Care.

There are hints of reality that intrude. Of the two young men, one, Mr. Dix, is a former POW who can’t find a job because England was doing a really terrible job of supporting it’s returning soldiers. Jane and Lucilla are confronted with the shocking reality of the prospects for these young men when they, on a whim, hire him as their gardener. And, there are references to the unconventionality of their behavior.

Interestingly, the book doesn’t actually end with Jane and Lucilla married, or even engaged. Jane is definitely coupled up, but isn’t ready to marry, and Lucilla’s prospects are even more obscure.

This is one of the Furrowed Middlebrow titles that has been dug up and republished by Dean Street Press, and it’s available in both print and on kindle. Their kindle prices, in particular, are extremely reasonable. I think I paid $2.99 for my ebook copy. I’ve liked everything I’ve read from this imprint, and have several others available on my kindle. If you enjoy early-twentieth century British women writers who wrote light fiction, in the vein of D.E. Stevenson or Angela Thirkell, you might enjoy this.

Classics Spin #22

This will be my first spin from my second Classics Club list. The Rules for Classics Spin:

The rules for Spin #22:

* List any twenty books I have left to read from my Classics Club list.
* Number them from 1 to 20.
* On Sunday 22nd December the Classics Club will announce a number.
* This is the book I need to read by 31st January 2020.

So, my list:

1. Possession by A.S. Byatt
2. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
3. The Semi-Attached Couple by Emily Eden
4. Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
5. Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer
6. The Rising Tide by Molly Keane
7. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamund Lehmann
8. The Towers of Trezibond by Rose Macauley
9. Beloved by Toni Morrison
10. The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
11. Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
12. The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
13. The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
14. Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
15. Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
16. At Mrs. Lippincotes by Elizabeth Taylor
17. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
18. Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim
19. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
20. The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

Dead Men Don’t Ski by Patricia Moyes

Title: Dead Men Don’t Ski
Author: Patricia Moyes
Published in 1959

Plot Summary from Goodreads: “If you’re as hungry as I am for a really good whodunit, you will welcome the debut of Patricia Moyes,” wrote Anthony Boucher in The NewYork Times Book Review on the publication of this first Inspector Henry Tibbett mystery more than twenty years ago. The setting is the Italian Alps, where Henry Tibbett, on vacation from Scotland Yard, and his wife, Emmy, have settled in for some skiing. But their hopes for a holiday die when Henry uncovers an international smuggling ring involving some of the hotel guests. Then, a fellow guest who is alive when the ski lift leaves the top of the mountain is found dead when the lift touches bottom.

Henry Tibbett, Chief Superintendent of Scotland Yard, has for years delighted those who love a classic British detective story. A modest, self-effacing man, Tibbett possesses an almost uncanny “nose” for crime, and those who know him well realize that his gentlemanly demeanor masks a shrewd mind and a fearless spirit. When he teams up with his wife, Emmy, a cheerful but formidable woman, there isn’t a criminal anywhere who can rest secure.

I’ve been intending to try out the Inspector Henry Tibbett series by Patricia Moyes for years. I picked up a different one – The Coconut Crime – at my local UBS and read it earlier this year and never posted about it over here. I enjoyed Henry and his delightful wife, Emmy, but wasn’t in love with the book’s tropical setting. I decided to order the first book in the series – this one – from Abe Books and give it a second try.

I have a much more significant affinity to mysteries set in cold, snowy climates, so this was a hit with me. I really enjoyed everything about it. We’re introduced to Henry & Emmy in England, as they are getting ready to leave for a skiing holiday in Santa Chiara, a small town in the Italian Alps, and Henry’s boss at Scotland Yard asks him to do a little bit of sleuthing around for an international smuggling ring. The side characters are likable and well-drawn, both the international jet setters who spend their days in Santa Chiara skiing and their nights drinking, and the staff of the hotel, all of whom are more than they appear at first glance.

Things really get going when a corpse shows up on the downward side of the chair lift that operates between the luxury hotel where Henry and Emmy are staying and the town of Santa Chiara. The victim has been shot, and no one is upset that he’s dead because he’s a drug-running, smuggling, abusive criminal. Henry duly sleuthes around, Emmy does what Emmy does best, which is pay attention and get people talking, and everyone works on their ski technique.

It seems like no one really writes mysteries like this anymore. It’s not a cozy, and lacks the sometimes overly twee elements that I don’t like in a typical coffee shop/bookstore/cat cozy. It’s not a police procedure or gritty modern drama. The puzzle is at the forefront, but, also character development and interactions are important. I really enjoy the classic mystery format and am always on the lookout for this type of series.

A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer

Title: A Christmas Party
Author: Georgette Heyer
Published in 1941:

Plot Summary from Goodreads: It is no ordinary Christmas at Lexham Manor.

Six holiday guests find themselves the suspects in a murder inquiry when the old Scrooge who owns the substantial estate is found stabbed in the back.

Whilst the delicate matter of inheritance could be the key to this crime, the real conundrum is how any of the suspects could have entered the locked room where the victim was found, to commit this foul deed.

For Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard, the investigation is also complicated by the fact that every guest at Lexham Manor is hiding something – casting suspicion far and wide…

Previously titled Envious Casca

This is not the first time that I’ve read Envious Casca, as it was originally titled. I think I’ve read it through a full three times – the first and second times I couldn’t quite remember the solution to the mystery. This time, I knew the ending and was able to see the clues as they were embedded in the story.

This is a classic English mystery – closed circle, locked room, country-house, Christmas mystery. I’ve read other Heyer mysteries, and will complete the list at some point, but, right now, I think this is her best.

The book opens with the gathering of the Herriard family for Christmas at the behest of Uncle Joseph, who lives with his brother, Nat Herriard. Nat is the patriarch of the family, and the one with all of the family money.

“Joseph, having lived for so many years abroad, hankered wistfully after a real English Christmas. Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical persons bound to one another only by the accident of relationship, and thrown together by a worn-out convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather.”

Nat has no children, but his nephew, Stephen, has been acknowledged as his heir. Stephen is the child of his other brother, who died many years ago. Stephen’s mother lives in Canada with her 3rd husband and isn’t in the picture at all. Paula, Stephen’s sister, is also a guest for Christmas. Paula has brought along her latest squeeze, a playwright named Royden, and Stephen’s vacuous but pretty fiancee, Valerie, is also there for the holiday. There’s also a random cousin, Mathilda, Nat’s business partner, Mottisfont and Joseph’s wife, Maud, to round out the guest list.

The Herriard family is an obstreperous and argumentative bunch. Nat is not so awful as Simeon Lee from Christie’s holiday classic, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, but he enjoys a wrangle as much as the next guy. Some families get together for a game of Pictionary during the holidays, the Herriard’s get together for their own version of Festivus, which primarily relies on the airing of grievances.

‘Miss Herriard,’ responded Mathilda coolly, ‘treated the assembled company to a dramatic scene – she’s an actress, good in emotional rôles. I wasn’t present, but I’m told that she and Mr Herriard had a really splendid quarrel, and enjoyed themselves hugely.’

‘Seems a funny way to enjoy yourself, miss.’

‘It would seem funny to you or to me, Inspector, but not, believe me, to a Herriard.’

When Uncle Nat ends up dead in his locked bedroom, having been stabbed in the back, everyone is a suspect and everyone, almost, has a motive. This is an exceptionally clever mystery, relying on misdirection, and some legal and medical intricacies for the solution.

Reading Plans for 2020

For the first time in ages, I’ve decided that I am not going to participate in any yearly challenges, and I’m just going to read what I want, when I want. I wasn’t particularly successful with last year’s challenges – and I haven’t posted to this blog in more than six months.

I still generally love the kinds of books that are the subject of All The Vintage Ladies, though, and I’m going to move forward with my existing reading projects, so long as they fit into what I want to read! I will keep plugging away at the Century of Women project, and I’ve whittled down my new Classics Club list to 75 women authors. I will start the clock ticking on 1/1/2020, and aim to finish by 12/31/2024.