Category Archives: Dean Street December

This Week in Books: 12/3/23 – 12/9/23

by Susan Scarlett
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1941
Genre: fiction
Pages: 282
ReRead?: No
Project: dean street december

"I thought we were allowed to sit. I mean I thought it was the Shop Act or something that we had to have something to sit on."

Jenny laughed.

"So they say, but it doesn't work out that way. You won't get sacked for sitting, but if you sit you'll get the sack."

Lovely Beth Carson is just out of school and beginning her first job at Babbacombe's department store. She is pure as the driven snow, and knows her "place", but she can hardly be blamed for tripping over a charming young man's dog, can she? And how could she help being trapped in an elevator with the same man a few days later, and giving him a piece of her mind before learning that he just happens to be David Babbacombe, the ne'er-do-well son of the store's wealthy owner? How could she possibly have known that her careless words would inspire him to take a new lease on life? Along with vivid supporting characters, wholly believable family dynamics, and fascinating details about the inner workings of a department store, we get here a delightful frolic packed with humour, unlikely romance, and even a store detective.

Babbacombe's, first published in 1941, is the sixth of twelve charming, page-turning romances published under the pseudonym "Susan Scarlett" by none other than beloved children's author and novelist Noel Streatfeild. Out of print for decades, they were rediscovered by Greyladies Books in the early 2010s, and Dean Street Press and Furrowed Middlebrow are delighted now to make all twelve available to a wider audience.

This was already my third Dean Street December book – and it was completely delightful. It’s the first Susan Scarlett that I’ve read, although I’ve been admiring them since DSP published the whole tranche. This one had my favorite cover of the bunch.

Susan Scarlett is a pen name for Noel Streatfeild, of the children’s series that starts with Ballet Shoes. She also wrote adult fiction under the same name, and I picked up one of those books, The Winter Is Past, a few years ago. Based on my extremely small sample size of one (each), it seems like her Noel Streatfeild adult fiction is more serious than her Susan Scarlett adult fiction.

I loved everything about this book. The characters are lovely, the London department setting is fun and the chaste romance is sweet. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her reissued books.

Such Bright DisguisesSuch Bright Disguises
by Brian Flynn
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Anthony Bathurst #27
Publication Date: January 1, 1941
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 230
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime, dean street december

“Murder? Is that how you see it? Well—I don’t! Justifiable homicide more like it!”

Hubert Grant is a fairly unpleasant man. He also thinks he is happily married. Dorothy Grant despises her husband but finds consolation in the handsome Laurence Weston. In order for the lovers to be happy, however, the intolerable Hubert needs to be cut out of the picture. Permanently. Dorothy and Laurence start plotting. But the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley and by the end of the scheming, there will be more than one body. Enter detective extraordinaire Anthony Bathurst . . .

Such Bright Disguises was first published in 1941. This new edition features an introduction by Steve Barge.

I had a few of these Anthony Bathurst mysteries on my kindle. I think that this was the fourth or fifth that I’ve read. It’s an interesting plot – a bit of an inverted mystery, with a long lead-in. Anthony Bathurst shows up very late in the book, maybe at around the 75% mark, and doesn’t really do much beyond interviewing a few people and then solving the mystery.

I found it intriguing, though. There are some interesting character studies and justice is delivered in a rigorously fair, albeit somewhat shocking, way. Hoist by their own petard, they were.

The White LadyThe White Lady
by Jacqueline Winspear
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: March 21, 2023
Genre: historical mystery
Pages: 321
ReRead?: No

The White Lady introduces yet another extraordinary heroine/sleuth from Jacqueline Winspear, creator of the best-selling Maisie Dobbs series. This heart-stopping adventure follows the coming of age and maturity of former wartime operative Elinor White—veteran of two wars, trained killer, protective of her anonymity—when she is drawn back into the world of violence she has been desperate to leave behind.

I’ve read a couple of Winspear’s books from her Maisie Dobbs series. I liked them, but there was something sufficiently off-putting that I didn’t pursue it after about book 3. I was at the library last week, and this one was available in the “Lucky Day” section, so I decided to grab it.

Again, it was enjoyable, but there seems to be something about Winspear’s writing that doesn’t work for me because I never really invested in the story. Once I return this to the library, I doubt that I will pursue her writing further.

Piece of My HeartPiece of My Heart
by Peter Robinson
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Inspector Banks #16
Publication Date: January 1, 2006
Genre: mystery: modern (1980-present)
Pages: 448
ReRead?: No

The year is 1969. Rock 'n' roll, psychedelic drugs, and peace-loving hippies are thriving in Britain. But in the aftermath of a rock music festival, cold reality strikes when a woman is found murdered in her sleeping bag, callously left among the debris in the concert's wake. Detective Inspector Stanley Chadwick is the hard-headed, straitlaced copper assigned to the case who must reluctantly enter a counterculture world to find a killer. When clues lead him to an up-and-coming rock band, the Mad Hatters, with whom the victim was connected, Chadwick experiences firsthand the dangers of this dark new world of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

In the present day, Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks is called to the scene of a murder victim who turns out to be a freelance journalist working on a piece for MOJO magazine about the classic rock band the Mad Hatters. Since the sixties, the band has gone through a number of tragedies, losing one member to madness and another to the shallow end of a swimming pool. Putting their checkered past behind them, the Mad Hatters have now revamped their sound and are set to celebrate their forty years in the biz by embarking on their first big concert tour in years.

Banks and Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot discover that the dead journalist was onto something big hidden in the band's past, and had stirred up some very serious trouble. As Banks and Annie dig deeper into the phenomenon of the Mad Hatters, they find more than they bargained for, and soon realize that their generation's former free-love lifestyle often comes with a deadly price.

In the course of twin narratives, Robinson expertly weaves the stories of two interconnected murders that occur decades apart. As only he can, Robinson has created a novel that is as explosive as your favorite rock album and a plot that moves at breakneck speed, traversing through the tumultuous swinging sixties to present day and back again. Piece of My Heart is an extraordinary thrill ride that uncovers the gritty and violent underbelly of the generation of peace, love, and harmony.

Still continuing with my journey through the Inspector Banks series. This was a particularly enjoyable installment for me – I really enjoyed the music connections. It’s a split narrative between 1969 and the present, and Banks is investigating a current murder with ties to a murder at a 1969 music festival. If the timelines are well done, as they are here, this can be one of my favorite book themes.

Currently reading:

I’m still plugging away at The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein. I’m about midway through the book, and there is no way that I am going to finish it before my digital hold expires. Rather than wait for the digital hold to come back up, which would be a couple of months, I put the print edition on hold and will pick it up this week.

I’m also reading Green Money by D.E. Stevenson, which is a DSP Furrowed Middlebrow reissue. I am at about the 50% mark of that one and should finish today. My current audiobook is Below Zero by C.J. Box, which is one of the audiobooks I picked up in the big Audible sale last week. It’s a reread for me. I always enjoy checking in with Joe and Marybeth Pickett.

Dean Street December: Book 2

Who Killed Dick WhittingtonWho Killed Dick Whittington
by E. & M.A. Radford
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Doctor Manson #6
Publication Date: January 1, 1947
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 226
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime, dean street december

“I think you had better telephone for the police,” he said. “This woman has been poisoned.”

Norma de Grey, the Principal in the Christmas pantomime Dick Whittington, was not popular with the rest of the Pavilion Theatre company. But was she hated enough to be killed by prussic acid, during the performance itself?

Suspicion immediately falls on the Cat, her fellow actor in the fatal scene. Until it transpires that the Cat too has been poisoned – and his understudy has a solid alibi. But someone must have donned the disguise and appeared on stage incognito. Detective-Inspector Harry Manson, analytical detective par excellence, is on the case.

I had been planning on alternating a Golden Age mystery with a Furrowed Middlebrow title, but when I saw the plot summary for this one, I had to go with it as my second DSP book of the month. This was my first by M.A. & E. Radford, and I was fairly impressed.

Technically, this is a Christmas mystery, although it is pretty sparse on the Christmas details & even sparser on Christmas cheer. It’s set in a third-rate theater company that is performing Who Killed Dick Whittington as a Christmas pantomime. I’m a U.S. reader, so the British tradition of “panto” was pretty much its own mystery for me. I had to go down a few internet rabbit trails to find out more about it, as well as about the pantomime itself. I was deeply confused when the “principal boy” was a girl.

Pretty clear that Christmas panto is not going to be allowed in Tennessee, where they have outlawed performances where individuals pretend to be other than their birth gender. Isn’t reactionary America just terrific? (No. The answer to this rhetorical question is no, it is not).

I thought that the writing in this one was quite good. One of the characteristics of the golden age mystery can be writing that is a bit turgid – this is one of the things that (in my mind at least) separates Agatha Christie from the pack. Her books are so readable. There are three interludes where the authors broke the fourth wall to address the reader directly, encouraging the reader to follow the clues. I generally don’t try to figure out whodunnit, but I if someone is looking for a fair play mystery, this one would qualify.

I also loved the fact that the sleuth, Dr. Mason is essentially forensic scientist working within a rudimentary crime lab. I had no idea that the technology for a mass spectrometer went all the way back to the 1940’s, when this was written. Science is heavily used in the solution for this mystery.

I think I may have one more Dr. Mason mystery on my kindle (Murder Jigsaw – the one with the fish). Not sure when I will get to it, but I will definitely get to it.

Next up is definitely something from the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint – Babbacombe’s by Susan Scarlett.

Dean Street December – the Main Post

I know that I’m a little bit out of order here, having published my first DSP-D review, even before I put together the main post. But this is what happens when I’m excited about something . . . read first, plan later. As a reminder, Dean Street December is the brainchild of Liz at Adventures in Reading . . . and you can find her main post here.

So, I dug around in my kindle library to see what I had all ready purchased that I can read this month. DSP publishes two distinct genres of books that I enjoy – their Furrowed Middlebrow line & their vintage mysteries. I have some of each on my account!

Vintage mysteries:

  • In addition to The Invisible Host, which I already finished, I have several of the Anthony Bathurst mysteries by Brian Flynn, including Such Bright Disguises and Exit Sir John. I have no idea how I ended up with #27 and #34, in addition to 1-7 (minus #6, which seems to have gone missing) which I had previously bought and read. If I had to guess, they probably went on sale, or were offered for free. Anyway, I’ll likely read at least one of them.
  • Who Killed Dick Whittington by E & MA Radford – this is a Christmas mystery!
  • Death Has No Tongue: A Mr. Moh Mystery by Joan Cowdroy has been in my library since 2019.
  • Death in the Grand Manor by Anne Morice. This is a later series – launching in 1970. There are a bunch of them, so if I like it, it will open up a whole new bunch of books for me to dig into.

Furrowed Middlebrow:

  • I have a lot of these waiting for me, because I am constantly buying them! To start with Babbacombe’s by Susan Scarlett (pictured in Liz’s graphic) is at the top of the list because I love the cover.
  • The Weather at Tregulla is the only Stella Gibbons that I have bought that I haven’t already read. It looks like the only one I am missing is A Pink Front Door, which I intend to snag before the end of the month.
  • I also bought 4 by Margery Sharp when they were released, and haven’t read any of them. My vague plans are for Harlequin House, again, mostly because of the cover. DSP published a total of 6 of Sharp’s books, so I will also be purchasing the remaining 2 before the end of the month.
  • Finally, I absolutely cannot resist D.E. Stevenson – I’m choosing between Green Money, The Tall Stranger and The Fair Miss Fortune. But I will eventually buy them all.

I am very sad about the future of DSP. It was (and is) one of my favorite small presses, and the fact that it has closed down as a result of some personal tragedy is such a bummer.* (See the comment on my post for a bit of additional news – and thank you to DSP for popping in to post!) There is no way for me to buy all of the vintage mysteries that they have published, but it’s likely that if it sticks around for a few years I may be able to buy up the Furrowed Middlebrow collection. And, as long as they continue to hold the copyright and make what they’ve previously published available, I will be buying & reading their books.

Dean Street December kick-off

The Invisible HostThe Invisible Host
by Bruce Manning, Gwen Bristow
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1930
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 129
ReRead?: No
Project: dean street december

Guests at a New Orleans party face a mysterious and deadly host in the widely suspected inspiration for Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

When eight guests arrive for a party at a luxurious New Orleans penthouse, their unknown host is nowhere to be found. Then, speaking to them through radio broadcast, he informs them of the evening’s chilling theme: every hour, one of them will die. As the host’s prophecy comes horribly true, the dwindling band of survivors grows desperate to escape their fate. To discover their tormentor’s identity, they must each reveal their darkest secrets and find the common thread—but confessions may not be enough when they realize that one of them may be the killer.

First published in 1930, this classic mystery was adapted into the Hollywood film, The Ninth Guest. It bears a striking resemblance to Agatha Christie’s bestseller And Then There Were None—which appeared nearly a decade later.

To kick off Dean Street Press December, I decided to go with a book that I acquired in December, 2021. I am pretty sure that I heard about from reading this post at Classic Mystery Blog. I also recognized Gwen Bristow’s name – I’ve been planning to read Jubilee Trail for years, since it was reissued by Open Road Media. So, I bought the book and then promptly failed to read it. For two years.

Liz at Adventures in Reading’s decision to reprise Dean Street December gave me the perfect opportunity to dive in – you can find her main post here.

It’s a treat of a vintage mystery. The setting – a penthouse high above New Orleans – is a treat, and it was published in 1930, dead center (no pun intended) of the Golden Age of Mystery, and 9 years prior to Christie’s masterpiece. The plot is convoluted and, ultimately, deeply implausible but who cares. It kept me guessing and I didn’t even remotely begin to guess the culprit.

It is, in fact, a lot like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which is the superior book in every respect, but then again, of course it is, given that ATTWN has claim to being the greatest mystery novel ever written. Invisible Host relies far too heavily on weird technological devices, while ATTWN is more straight up misdirection.

None of that mattered, though, while I was reading it. It moves swiftly, at only 129 pages, it’s probably technically a novella. There are some loose ends left, but when I finished, I was satisfied.

November wrap-up

As is often the case, my posting petered out towards the end of the month. We had a family vacation to Disneyland planned for the 13th through the 18th, and that completely blew up my reading & blogging. When I travel I stay off the internet as much as possible, to focus on my family and on the experience itself. In addition, theme parks are a physically demanding experience – I walked between 8 & 10 miles a day all 5 days we were there.

Then, of course, once we got back, it was Thanksgiving week, so I spent a lot of time catching up on my work contract and cooking for the holiday.

I ended up finishing 7 non-fiction books:

  1. Hell’s Half-Acre by Susan Jonusas
  2. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
  3. Homegrown: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism by Jeffrey Toobin
  4. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
  5. Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken
  6. The Great Dechurching by Jim Davis & Michael Graham (with Ryan P. Burge)
  7. Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova

I am also currently reading The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein. It’s a long one, and I only have 12 more days on my loan, so I’m trying to read 100 pages a day, because if I don’t finish it, I will have to put it on hold again, and wait for a copy.

I also read a number of novellas this month, for #NovNov23:

  1. Foster by Claire Keegan
  2. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (I’m not sure that this one actually counts, since it’s technically non-fiction, but the page length is right)
  3. Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
  4. Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
  5. A New York Christmas by Anne Perry (all of Anne Perry’s Christmas stories are novella length)
  6. A Christmas Escape by Anne Perry
  7. A Christmas Hope by Anne Perry

I’m still not going to claim to be the biggest fan of the novella, but in terms of technical virtuosity, Claire Keegan is an amazing writer. Both of her novellas are beautifully written, without a word out of place.

December is going to be noteworthy for two things: Dean Street December – because the lovely blogger Liz Dexter at Adventures in Reading . . . is reprising her wonderful event from last year – and Christmas mysteries! This is a favorite time of my reading year.