Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Post previously published on August 29, 2015

Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
First published 1855

Summary from Goodreads: ‘How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?’

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

I read this all the way back in January, and I loved it so much and I had so much to say that I never managed to say any of it. So, settle in. Because this is my favorite Victorian novel of all time. I adore Middlemarch, which comes close, but nothing by Dickens or Collins or Hardy or Trollope can approach the love that I feel for North and South. I can’t believe that I’d never read it.

If I must make full confession, I have to admit that this:

May have something to do with my love for John Thornton. Yes, I’m shallow.

But Richard Armitage isn’t the only reason that I fell in love with North and South. The reasons are numerous:

First, I love the fact that it is set in the industrial north of England, which is a change from much Victorian literature that is set in London. Added to that, the fact that some of the characters are “working class” was a tremendous treat. Nicholas Higgins was a complex character who was treated respectfully by Gaskell, which delighted me. Uneducated though he was, and a bit of a political firebrand, he was willing to humble himself in an effort to get his job back when he took on the obligation of supporting the children of a fellow mill worker who had died.

Second, Mrs. Thornton was a bad ass Victorian lady. After John Thornton’s father speculated badly and lost his money, committing suicide in despair, she was left to raise two children basically by her wits alone. Her son, hardworking and ambitious, is ultimately able to buy the mill and become the owner. He says about his mother:

“My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings regularly. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.”

When I take a moment to reflect on how difficult it would have been for a woman like Mrs. Thornton to not merely survive, but to thrive and remain unbowed and unbroken, I am even more impressed by Mrs. Gaskell. Mrs. Thornton has a backbone of steel – talk about strong female characters. In addition, though, she is complex and flawed, which makes her even more compelling.

Finally, the romance between John Thornton and Margaret Hale brings out the best in both of them – eventually. Margaret begins the book haughty, upset at being moved to Milton, missing the sophisticated society of southern England. She is out of her element in the industrial north, and looks down on the working class mill workers. Over time, however, she begins to see the value in their lack of sophistication, plain speech and work ethic.

This same transition occurs with her opinion of Mr. Thornton who proves himself to be more than worthy of Margaret. It is a reversal of the Lizzie Bennett/Mr. Darcy conflict. As Darcy must come to recognize that Lizzie is his equal in spite of her lack of fortune and crazy family, so must Margaret come to the conclusion that Mr. Thornton is her equal, even if he is in trade. He proves again and again that a gentleman is not born, but is made – including when he initially proposes to her, and she rejects summarily rejects him, rather than responding with anger, he takes a different approach:

“Miss Hale might love another — was indifferent and contemptuous to him — but he would yet do her faithful acts of service of which she should never know. He might despise her, but the woman whom he had once loved should be kept from shame; and shame it would be to pledge herself to a lie in a public court, or otherwise to stand and acknowledge her reason for desiring darkness rather than light.”

It takes many months for her to realize that she has fallen in love with him, as he has fallen in love with her.

“At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence.

At length she murmured in a broken voice: ‘Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!’ ‘Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.’”

And she’s right, really – society will think she is marrying down, but it is Thornton who has proven himself to be the more noble person. In the end, they both stand up to their families and declare their love for one another

‘How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?’ she whispered, after some time of delicious silence. ‘Let me speak to her.’ ‘Oh, no! I owe to her, — but what will she say?’

‘I can guess. Her first exclamation will be, “That man!”‘

‘Hush!’ said Margaret, ‘or I shall try and show you your mother’s indignant tones as she says, “That woman!”‘

Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of Austen or Eliot. It is a novel of manners, but tackles significant themes as well: the struggle between modernity and tradition, the plight of the working class, appearance of virtue versus appearance of vice, and other things. I predict that it will turn out to be one of those books that I reread frequently.

Freya Stark

A Winter in Arabia by Freya Stark

Previously published December 22, 2015

Title: A Winter in Arabia
Author: Freya Stark
First published in 1940

Summary from Goodreads: One of the most unconventional and courageous explorers of her time, Freya Stark chronicled her extraordinary Travels in the Near East, establishing herself as a twentieth century heroine. A Winter in Arabia recounts her 1937-8 expedition in what is now Yemen, a journey which helped secure her reputation not only as a great travel writer, but also as a first-rate geographer, historian, and archaeologist. There, in the land whose “nakedness is clothed in shreds of departed splendor,” she and two companions spent a winter in search of an ancient South Arabian city.

Offering rare glimpses of life behind the veil-the subtleties of business and social conduct, the elaborate beauty rituals of the women, and the bitter animosities between rival tribes, Freya Stark conveys the “perpetual charm of Arabia … that the traveler finds his own level there simply as a human being.”

Ah, the end of the year challenge clean up! I read this one ages ago, but never got around to posting & now with the Back to the Classics challenge coming to end, I have forgotten most of what I wanted to say!

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I was looking forward to an adventure story written by a plucky Victorian lady explorer swathed in voluminous skirts. I wanted Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, but for real.

Unfortunately, it just didn’t capture my fancy as much as I had hoped. Divided into two sections: the Diary and the Journey, it was a bit dry.

The Diary section chronicles Freya Stark’s time spent in a small village called Hureidha, in South Yemen. Stark spent much of the time ill, and did get some interesting opportunities to interact with the village women, which was interesting. I was just hoping for something more.

The village itself looked something like this:

The second section covers her journey from the village to another location where she meets up with some other travellers.

I wouldn’t call this the easiest book to read, but it was very interesting. Stark is British, but approached her travels with an open soul. She was permitted to participate in much of the local native culture, and provides interesting descriptions of some of the rituals. She was also very descriptive, which provided me with really detailed mental pictures of the way the light shifted in the local wadi (which would have looked something like this):

I’m not sorry I read it, but I doubt that I’ll read Stark again, although I have tremendous respect for her adventurous spirit!

Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Title: The Voyage Out
Author: Virginia Woolf
First published in 1915

Plot summary from Goodreads: Woolf’s first novel is a haunting book, full of light and shadow. It takes Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose and their niece, Rachel, on a sea voyage from London to a resort on the South american coast. “It is a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by a boat which would not float on any sea, an american whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis”

My personal experiences with Virginia Woolf have historically been fraught. I want to love her – she is iconic, so important in the pantheon of women in literature and feminism that she very nearly stands alone. But she is also impenetrable, a cipher for which I, sadly, lack the necessary decoder ring with which to make sense of her. Her writing is achingly, heartstoppingly beautiful, and yet I find that I understand almost none of it.

It was with some delight, then, that I began reading her first, and most autobiographical, novel, The Voyage Out. Written in narrative style that makes sense to my admittedly limited brain (i.e., linear) it contains her trademark gorgeous language. There is so much in it to admire, as well. Rachel, the main character, is an interesting character – a young woman who has been sheltered from everything except music, the product of a strange upbringing in an oppressive society. One of the matronly characters says about Rachel:

This girl, though twenty-four, had never heard that men desired women, and, until I explained it, did not know how children were born. Her ignorance upon other matters as important” (here Mrs. Ambrose’s letter may not be quoted) . . . “was complete. It seems to me not merely foolish but criminal to bring people up like that. Let alone the suffering to them, it explains why women are what they are—the wonder is they’re no worse. I have taken it upon myself to enlighten her, and now, though still a good deal prejudiced and liable to exaggerate, she is more or less a reasonable human being. Keeping them ignorant, of course, defeats its own object, and when they begin to understand they take it all much too seriously.

Woolf approaches feminist ideas obliquely, through several characters. Mrs. Ambrose, above, talking about the sheltering of women. Mr. Dalloway (yes, that Mr. Dalloway), talking about suffragettes:

“Oh, I’m entirely with you there,” said Dalloway. “Nobody can condemn the utter folly and futility of such behaviour more than I do; and as for the whole agitation, well! may I be in my grave before a woman has the right to vote in England! That’s all I say.” The solemnity of her husband’s assertion made Clarissa grave. “It’s unthinkable,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’re a suffragist?”

Or, this quote, from the young man who ends up as Rachel’s love interest:

“I’ve often walked along the streets where people live all in a row, and one house is exactly like another house, and wondered what on earth the women were doing inside,” he said. “Just consider: it’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all those thousands of years, this curious silent unrepresented life.

This curious silent unrepresented life. This isn’t entirely true, of course, because women have been part of fiction since fiction was written, although their stories were primarily told by men. But, still, it is true, right? Women did not lead public lives, in the same sense that men did. Their lives were entirely private, lived out in the quiet, domestic domain. She talks a great deal about loneliness, about the way that people live out their lives in solitary fashion, even when surrounded by others.

The Voyage Out takes a turn late in the book, into something that, given that it was written by Woolf, I might have expected. But, I didn’t. I won’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil. But, for readers who struggle with Woolf, this book is a good place to begin.

Dorothy Sayers

Whose Body by Dorothy Sayers

Whose BodyTitle: Whose Body
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #1

Summary from Goodreads: The stark naked body was lying in the tub. Not unusual for a proper bath, but highly irregular for murder — especially with a pair of gold pince-nez deliberately perched before the sightless eyes. What’s more, the face appeared to have been shaved after death. The police assumed that the victim was a prominent financier, but Lord Peter Wimsey, who dabbled in mystery detection as a hobby, knew better. In this, his first murder case, Lord Peter untangles the ghastly mystery of the corpse in the bath.

Whose Body is the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey series, written by Dorothy Sayers. Mrs. Sayers wrote ten Lord Peter novels, as well as short stories featuring her gentleman-detective between 1923 and 1937. Lord Peter ages in real-time with her stories, and they are contemporary mysteries set during the year in which they are written.

“Why can’t you marry and settle down and live quietly, doin’ something useful?” said the Duke, unappeased.

“Because that was a wash-out as you perfectly well know,” said Peter; “besides,” he added cheerfully, “I’m bein’ no end useful. You may come to want me yourself, you never know. When anybody comes blackmailin’ you, Gerald, or your first deserted wife turns up unexpectedly from the West Indies, you’ll realize the pull of havin’ a private detective in the family. ‘Delicate private business arranged with tact and discretion. Investigations undertaken. Divorce evidence a specialty. Every guarantee!”

In 1998, Jill Paton Walsh took up Mrs. Sayers’ mantle and completed her unfinished last Lord Peter novel, called Thrones and Dominations. She has since published three more Lord Peter books, including The Attenbury Emeralds, which actually reaches back to 1921 and tells the story of Peter Wimsey’s first foray into detecting. The Attenbury Emeralds case is mentioned in Whose Body, but the story is not fully (or even partially) told.

I bought all of the original novels over the Christmas holidays this year, as they were all on sale. All of the Open Road editions of the Peter Wimsey books have similar covers, all featuring Peter’s monocle as part of the image. I find the covers both clever and appealing.

The mystery in Whose Body is quite grim, actually, although the treatment of it is lighthearted (as is so often the case with “Golden Age” mysteries). It is a classic upper crust mystery, although the murderer is quite frankly a sociopath who conveniently commits suicide at the end – this is another common feature of Golden Age mysteries. The murders often dispose of themselves to avoid the sticky and lower-class legal process that will result from their being caught-out by our amateur sleuth.

There is light satire of the British pre-WWII social conventions and the relationship between Lord Peter (aristocrat) and his valet (Bunter). In Whose Body, Lord Peter has a recurrence of “shell shock” from his experiences during WWI, and is cared for Bunter, who is obviously very close to Lord Peter. As a random aside, their relationship rather reminds me of the relationship between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings, which was taken from Tolkien’s observations of the relationship between batman and officer in WWI. One of the great strengths of this book is the touching, affectionate and convincing relationship between Wimsey and Bunter.

Also, Bunter gets some of the best lines:

“Yes, Mr. Graves, it’s a hard life, valeting by day and developing by night—morning tea at any time from 6.30 to 11, and criminal investigation at all hours.”

The next book in the series is Clouds of Witness.

Dorothy Sayers

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers

Previously published March 18, 2014

Title: Clouds of Witness
Author: Dorothy Sayer
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #2
Published in 1926

Summary from Goodreads: When blood stains his family name, Lord Peter fights to save what he holds most dear.

After three months in Corsica, Lord Peter Wimsey has begun to forget that the gray, dangerous moors of England ever existed. But traveling through Paris, he receives a shock that jolts him back to reality. He sees it in the headlines splashed across every English paper—his brother Gerald has been arrested for murder. The trouble began at the family estate in Yorkshire, where Gerald was hunting with the man soon to be his brother-in-law, Captain Denis Cathcart. One night, Gerald confronts Cathcart with allegations about his unsavory past, leading the captain to call off the wedding. Just a few hours later, Cathcart is dead, with Gerald presumed to be the only person who could have fired the fatal shot. The clock is ticking, and only England’s premier sleuth can get to the bottom of this murky mystery.

” my love swears that she is made of truth
I will believe her, though I know she lies”

The second Peter Wimsey novel begins with Peter on an extended holiday in Corsica, enjoying the sights and recovering from the events of “Whose Body.” His trip is cut short when Bunter informs him that his brother, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested for murder.

You may remember the quote I put in my post about Whose Body, (and I swear that I did not know what was coming in this book), where Peter tells Gerald that someday he will be happy to have a sleuth in the family, saying cheerfully, “You may come to want me yourself, you never know.”

Now we know.

Clouds of Witness relies heavily on the coincidence, and a series of illicit nighttime encounters. I always love these English Country House murders where everyone is rambling about all night long, practically tripping over one another. That’s what we have here. Gerald literally trips over the body of Cathcart, our victim, at the same moment that Lady Mary, his now estranged fiancee, is coming out the door. Things look bad for the Duke of Denver.

Fortunately for him, Lord Peter is on the case.

There is a lot going on in this book. While the Duke awaits trial, Peter is questing about the country, the continent, and eventually, the world, looking for clues to explain who killed Denis Cathcart. He meets a miserable farmer named Grimethorpe whose long-suffering wife is indeed long-suffering. He discovers that his sister, Lady Mary, has been secretly engaged to a socialist named Goyle. An engagement that has been brutally broken-up by the Duke, who threatened to cut them both off without a shilling if the marriage went through:

“Monstrous!” said Miss Tarrant, shaking her head so angrily that she looked like shock-headed Peter. “Barbarous! Simply feudal, you know. But, after all, what’s money?”

“Nothing, of course,” said Peter. “But if you’ve been brought up to havin’ it it’s a bit awkward to drop it suddenly. Like baths, you know.”

(I love this quote. It made me laugh).

There is also a lovely courtroom scene, where Sir Impey Biggs stands for the defence:

The Dowager Duchess had once remarked: “Sir Impey Biggs is the handsomest man in England, and no woman will ever care twopence for him.” He was, in fact, thirty-eight, and a bachelor, and was celebrated for his rhetoric and his suave but pitiless dissection of hostile witnesses. The breeding of canaries was his unexpected hobby, and besides their song he could appreciate no music but revue airs.”

On the other side of the table, we have Sir Wigmore Wrinching, the Attorney-General, for the crown. That name is pure awesome.

There is a lot of humor in this book, and a bit of silliness Sir Peter, ultimately, finds the necessary witness to determine what really happened to Denis Cathcart. I am not going to tell you here, so if you want to know, you will have to read for yourself.

In the words of Sir Impey Briggs:

“Since, however, by a series of unheard-of coincidences, the threads of Denis Cathcart’s story became entangled with so many others, I will venture to tell it once again from the beginning, lest, in the confusion of so great a cloud of witnesses, any point should still remain obscure.”

Dorothy Sayers

Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers

Originally published on March 24, 2014

Title: Unnatural Death
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #3
Published in 1927

Summary from Goodreads: When a terminally ill woman dies much earlier than expected, Lord Peter suspects murder…

Though never quick-witted, Agatha Dawson had an iron constitution and a will to fight that never abated in her old age. Even after three operations failed to rid her of her cancer, she refused to give in. But as her body began to weaken, she accused lawyers, nurses, and doctors of trying to kill her and snatch her fortune. The town physician, an expert in cancer, gives her six months to live. Three days later, she is dead. Though the autopsy reveals nothing surprising, the doctor suspects that Agatha’s niece had some hand in the old woman’s death. When Lord Peter Wimsey, the dashing gentleman detective, looks into the matter, he finds that death stalks all those who might testify. How can he continue his investigation when every question marks another innocent for murder?

This was a very enjoyable installment of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Peter’s relationship with Parker becomes more collegial, and we are introduced to a new character by the name of Mrs. Climpson. I hope Mrs. Climpson sticks around, because she is wonderful.

The book begins with Parker and Wimsey having dinner at a club on a pleasant April evening. They are talking of murder, of course, and a young doctor interrupts their pleasant discussion to tell them a tale of a suspected murder most foul: an elderly woman who was quite ill, but who died so suddenly that the young doctor suspects foul play.

Unnatural Death is a lot of fun. Before Lord Peter can solve the murder, he must prove that a murder has been committed.

“This is the real sleuth—my friend Detective-Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard. He’s the one who really does the work. I make imbecile suggestions and he does the work of elaborately disproving them. Then, by a process of elimination, we find the right explanation, and the world says, ‘My god, what intuition that young man has!’ Well, look here—if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a go at this. If you’ll entrust me with your name and address and the names of the parties concerned, I’d like very much to have a shot at looking into it.”

And he does, and of course, he discovers that the murderer has committed a near perfect crime, and for the basest of motives. The murderer in this book is quite a nasty piece of work, and before long, bodies are piling up like cord wood.

Lord Peter’s Daimler Twin-Six makes its first appearance in this book as well. For those of you not familiar with the Daimler, it looks something like this:

Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Overall, this is probably my favorite of the Lord Peter mysteries so far. I love the legal twist to the motive, the murderer is both clever and exceptionally cold-blooded.

Agatha Christie

When Hastings Fell in Love

Title: Murder on the Links
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #2
First published in 1923

Plot summary from Goodreads: An urgent cry for help brings Hercule Poirot to France. But he arrives too late to save his client, whose brutally stabbed body now lies facedown in a shallow grave on a golf course.

But why is the dead man wearing an overcoat that is too big for him? And for whom was the impassioned love letter in the pocket? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse.…

Oh, Hastings. You ninny.

This is the second Hercule Poirot novel – and in spite of the title has almost nothing to do with golf. This is a good thing, in my opinion, since I find golf slightly less interesting than watching paint dry, but it was almost a deal breaker. I did not want to read this mystery. Based on the cover, I assumed it would be about a British guy in knickers geting clonked on the head with a five iron on the back nine. I read it purely for completeness sake – and I am glad I did.

The only connection to golf is that the body was buried in a location that was soon to become a hazard on a new golf course. Also, it is set in France, which I found totally baffling since I have never, not even once in my entire life, considered the possibility that there might be golf courses in France. So, I learned something there.

The mystery itself is quite a clever little mystery, with lots of misdirection. There is a funny rivalry between the vain Poirot and the equally vain and condescending Gireau, who is the inspector investigating the case for the French police. Poirot is frequently piqued at being mocked by Monsieur Gireau, and is able to prove his superiority in satisfying fashion. Hastings, though, is a total dolt. He gets mixed up with an acrobat known to him only as Cinderella, and ends up in a not-even-remotely convincing romance. It is silly, although Cinderella ends up proving her courage in a rather compelling way.

One of the things about Agatha Christie is that she has no qualms about depicting her female characters as just as venal, just as sneaky, just as mean, just as smart, just as strong, just as wilful, and just as brave as her male characters. It’s refreshing, really. Her character studies aren’t terribly detailed, but she stays away from stereotyping based on gender.

On the whole, I would put this in the midrange of Christie’s work. Not dazzlingly clever, like some, but still enjoyable.

Agatha Christie

Appointment With Death by Agatha Christie

Title: Appointment With Death
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #19
First published 1937

Summary from Goodreads: Among the towering red cliffs and the ancient ruins of Petra sits the corpse of Mrs. Boynton, the cruel and tyrannizing matriarch of the Boynton family. A tiny puncture mark on her wrist is the only sign of the fatal injection that killed her. With only twenty-four hours to solve the mystery, Hercule Poirot recalls a remark he overheard back in Jerusalem: “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” Mrs. Boynton was, indeed, the most detestable woman he had ever met.

This book is about what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. It is one of my absolute favorites of the Poirot novels for both the setting – the rose red city of Petra, Jordan – and the villainy of the victim.

Christie draws on her experience travelling with her archeologist husband, Max Mallowan, as she did in Murder in Mesopotamia and Death on the Nile. In my opinion, this mystery is loads better than Murder in Mesopotamia, and is every bit as good as Death on the Nile.

The book begins with Poirot overhearing two people speaking in the hotel room next to his, through an open window. The voice of a man says “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” The first section of the book occurs at the hotel, where the reader is introduced to the Boynton family, including Mrs. Boynton, who is a simply unredeemable, petty domestic tyrant. She has exercised total psychological control over the four children who travel with her: Lennox Boynton, Raymond Boynton, Carol Boynton and Ginevra Boynton. She is manipulative and extremely cruel to her family, and she has them so cowed that they have simply collapsed under her tyranny.

The book is partially narrated by a young doctor named Sarah King, because once the Boynton family leaves Jerusalem for Petra, Poirot is not present until the end. The murder occurs with him off-stage. Sarah King is also an interesting character – one of Christie’s bright young women – and she is more than capable of seeing clearly that Mrs. Boynton is mostly pathetic, in spite of her ability to terrorize her family.

Mrs. Boynton is the sort of person who doesn’t understand that everyone has a breaking point, so by the time we get to Petra, it becomes clear that she is going to come to an unhappy end. This is essentially a closed circle mystery, with an ingenious solution. The first time I read it, I was a bit blindsided by the identity of the murderer. In subsequent readings, I’ve been astounded at how cleverly Christie drops clues into the book that, with exquisite subtlety, point the reader to whodunnit.

Patricia Wentworth

#1944 Club: The Clock Strikes Twelve by Patricia Wentworth

Title: The Clock Strikes Twelve
Author: Patricia Wentworth
First published in 1944

Plot Summary from Goodreads: New Year’s Eve, 1940, is unusual for the Paradine family. Departing from tradition, James Paradine makes a speech that changes the course of many lives. Valuable documents have disappeared. A member of the family has taken them. The culprit has until midnight to confess and return the papers. A few minutes after twelve James Paradine is dead. It is left to Miss Silver to disentangle the threads that bind the Paradine family in a strange web of dislike, hatred and fear.

This is the 7th of the Miss Silver mysteries, which I read for the #1944 club – I had planned to read The Key, but when I went to acquire it, this one was $1.99 and The Key was $10.99. Both were published in 1944, so it was an easy decision which to buy! It is my favorite of the Miss Silver mysteries to date, better even than Latter End, which I also really liked. In fact, this is my sixth Patricia Wentworth – I’ve read fiveof the Miss Silvers (Grey Mask, Latter End, Poison in the Pen, The Eternity Ring, this one) and one stand-alone (The Dower House Mystery) – and it’s my favorite of all of them. Grey Mask is still the weakest, and I wonder how many people have been put off Patricia Wentworth forever by reading that one first. Tragic, really.

For me, this was a near perfect Golden Age mystery. It had the closed circle, and the country house feel. The entire mystery takes place over a couple of days, from New Years Eve, where it all begins, to a few days later, when the mystery is solved and the murderer is revealed. We start with a brief interaction between James Paradine, patriarch of the family, and Elliot Wray, when James summons Elliot to the Paradine house over some stolen aircraft plans. He informs Elliot that one of the family has taken them, he knows who it is, and requires that Elliot remain in the home for the evening so he can put his plan into motion.

The plan is to announce at News Year Eve dinner that he knows that someone in the family has been disloyal, he is not going to expose them at dinner, but he will be in his study until midnight, and the guilty party must come and confess their misdeed to him or suffer the consequences. At the dinner we have all of the members of the Paradine family: Aunt Grace, the spinster sister, Phyllida, Grace’s adopted daughter and Elliot’s estranged wife, Elliot, Frank & Irene Ambrose (son of James’s first wife & his spouse), Mark Paradine, the heir, Richard, a cousin, Lydia, Irene’s sister and Andrew, the odd man out, who is a shirt-tail relative of some sort and is also James’s secretary. The characterizations were really well-done. James himself is a bit of a Simeon Lee/Penhallow type patriarch, but he was much nicer than either of them.

As a sometime romance reader, I’ve become convinced that Wentworth actually walks that line between romance and mystery better than any of the other golden age women – better, even, than Christie. She creates convincing romantic subplots that work with the mystery but don’t subvert it. Heyer loses the mystery for the romance and Christie loses the romance for the mystery, but Wentworth balances them almost perfectly. The only issue with this is that it does make her mysteries a bit easier to solve, because the primary romantic coupling is pretty well removed from suspicion – part of the solution always involves moving the obstacle out of the way for their happiness.

I’ve definitely concluded at this point that it isn’t necessary to read Miss Silver in order, and I would advocate for skipping Grey Mask altogether. I’m just pleased as punch that, since I’ve read about 90% of Christie’s full length mysteries, and all of Sayers, that I have at least 50 more Wentworths before I’ve read them all.

Agatha Christie

#1944 Club: Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

Title: Sparkling Cyanide
Author: Agatha Christie
First published in 1944
Series: Colonel Race #4

Plot Summary: Six people reunite to remember beautiful Rosemary Barton, who died nearly a year before. The loving sister, the long-suffering husband, the devoted secretary, the lovers, the betrayed wife – none of them can forget Rosemary.

But did one of them murder her?

This was my first book for the 1944 club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

1944 was quite a year for Agatha Christie. She published Towards Zero and Sparkling Cyanide, as well as Death Comes As The End and Absent in the Spring under her romance nom de plume, Mary Westamacott. Interestingly, none of these books involved either of her main two sleuths, Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple. Towards Zero is a Superintendent Battle book, Death Comes as the End is her sole foray into historical fiction, and Absent in the Spring is one of six romance novels that have been mostly lost to the sands of time – by which I mean they are available, but largely ignored.

Sparkling Cyanide was a reread for me – my first experience with the book was an audiobook on a trip with my family, which everyone enjoyed. This time around, I read the Pocket Book edition which I picked up for $3.00 at a bookstore in Newport, Oregon, which has, sadly, permanently closed. It was one of those lovely bookstores which has a cat, a fireplace, and teetering piles of books in which treasures are often buried.

While I do love both Poirot, with his leetle grey cells, and Jane Marple in her fuzzy cardigans, I am also a huge fan of both Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race, as I have probably mentioned before. Sparkling Cyanide is a fantastic example of Agatha Christie’s skills in plotting and misdirection, and is the fourth in the Colonel Race series.

The plot begins with Rosemary, the empty-headed, pretty and very, very rich, young woman who has died of cyanide poisoning at a birthday party at the Luxembourg in London, surrounded by her husband, George Barton, her sister, Iris, her husband’s terrifyingly efficient secretary Ruth, Stephen and Alexandra Farraday, a Member of Parliament who is also her secret lover and his wife,and Anthony Browne, another of Rosemary’s erstwhile lovers. The death is ruled a suicide due to depression after influenza. About six months later, however, George begins to receive poison pen letters claiming that Rosemary’s death was no suicide.

It was murder.

The middle, longest section of the book deals with the six suspects. Each of them is given his/her own chapter and narrative where Christie lays out their motives. Rosemary was one of those careless, beautiful women who’ve long profited from being lovely, who breaks things and people simply because she can’t conceive that they might have needs that are different from her own. Everyone had motive to murder her, and her death almost universally profited her friends and family. Iris inherited her wealth, George was the cuckolded husband, Alexandra the cuckolded and devoted wife to Stephen, Stephen fears the truth of the affair being revealed, Ruth is in love with George, and Anthony is a cipher.

Colonel Race makes a brief appearance in the book as a friend of George’s father, who has known George since boyhood. He has been off in exotic places, far away, staving off threats to the British empire and arrives back in London to learn that George, on the heels of the letters, has scheduled a reenactment of Rosemary’s birthday party on the anniversary of her death, a spectacularly dangerous and terrible idea.

The solution to Sparkling Cyanide, or Remembered Death as it was called in America, is ingenious. All of the clues are there, but they are nearly impossible to put together until the end, when the answer comes together. It’s Agatha at her most brilliant, and I highly recommend it for fans of golden age/classic mysteries as well as fans of Agatha Christie.