Another fun outing with Phryne! This one ends with her adopting a couple of girls and goes through a bunch of stuff — a crime on a train, hypnotism, murder for an inheritance, mad criminals, etc. I’m not a fan of stories where the criminal turns out to be insane, even though it’s a classic: most crime is carried out by sane people, or certainly people whose mental disorders are not central to the deed. In fact, in the real world, it’s more common for a mentally ill person to be a victim of violence than the perpetrator. It doesn’t help that the whole hypnotism thing is a little too convenient — the hypnotist can get away with just about anything using hypnotism, here.
Still, it’s fun, and I love the found-family stuff at the end. I did predict some turns of the plot, but that’s not really what I’m reading this for anyway.
I don’t think Phryne has had the same lover in any of these books so far, either. I love that there seems to be no drive for her to change her ways, in the story: she’s a flapper, she’s Phryne, and people have to accept that. Don’t get attached to any of her young men!
Pretty much binging on this series at the moment, I have to admit. As I write up this review, I’m already two books ahead. I find the books so readable, and since each one has clocked in under 200 pages so far, they’re not a huge time investment. Phryne is a lovely character: independent, smart, fearless, honest and true to her own principles — and non-judgemental of others.
I don’t really have much to say about the plots: these books remind me of Sayers’ mysteries, where what I care about is more the characters and how they deal with the situation. Phryne is a little too good to be true, but I want to see what she does anyway. She has a spark and a love of life that animates the novels for me. I hear Essie Davis does a great job with the character in the series, so I’m quite excited to get round to it on Netflix. Just… you know… me being me, excitement still might mean it takes me another year to get to. (Sorry, Charlie Cox-as-Daredevil.)
Aka Cocaine Blues. I did actually try to read this once before, and really didn’t get into it — I don’t think I read more than a couple of chapters. Looking at that review now, I think I must’ve been really cranky that day, because all I complained about was adjectives. Which, yes, are present… but not nearly as bad as I seemed to think back then. Perhaps a case of finding the right book at the right time, because reading this during the readathon, I loved it!
Even the first time, I was impressed by Phryne’s character: the fact that she’s a flapper, that she’s independent, clever, capable. This time through, I also noticed her kindness a lot: her treatment of Dot, her concern about other people. She’s also a shrewd judge of character. In fact, there’s very little we see by way of flaws in Phryne, which could get annoying… but for now, I just loved the amount of agency she has, the strength she has, the fact that she’s unequivocally a sexual person and nobody can take advantage of her because she owns that fact.
The mysteries were kind of secondary to that for me; they come together well, though, and give us a varied cast. Nobody is involved in everything, but each person has ties to the next. I quite liked that.
If it’s any measure of my enthusiasm, I immediately ordered the second book (in time for it to be delivered — and pounced on — the next morning by Amazon Prime, on a Sunday!) and reserved more from the library.
Ask A Policeman, John Rhode, Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers, Milward Kennedy
I think the books and stories the Detection Club did together must have been a lot of fun to do and to share around with other writers, but they come off less well for someone outside that context, and particularly given that many of the authors and detectives are no longer well-known. Sayers/Lord Peter were the only ones I knew from this bunch, so the parody and playing in other people’s sandboxes doesn’t really interest me.
Going through the same murder in however many different ways just… didn’t interest me enough. The parody of Sayers was quite fun, since I know what Wimsey is like, but other than that, I found this fairly boring. Alas.
It was a grey and drizzly day, this morning — even if it brightened up later — so I felt like turning to one of my comfort reads. Wildfire at Midnight isn’t one of my favourite Stewart novels, and indeed the sense of dread and atmosphere in the book makes it perhaps a touch darker than the others, especially with the moral conflict in the last part where Gianetta thinks she knows who did the crime.
The crime itself is pretty chillingly awful; I can’t remember if any of Stewart’s other novels features a mentally ill antagonist, but that’s how it winds up in this one. And he is pretty unsettling, when you compare his later behaviour with all the rest of the book, and think about what lay under the surface… Not a comfortable thought, certainly. It’s also not the warmest in terms of romance, since that’s barely there — there’s one or two great scenes which establish something, but not enough to really make you root for the relationship to happen.
So overall, definitely still not my favourite. But it’s Mary Stewart: the writing is atmospheric, the heroine is self-sufficient, and the ending is, for the heroine at least, a happy one.
One thing I would like to know, from other readers — there’s a scene early on where Gianetta is talking to the actress, Marcia. They’re talking about the two schoolteachers who are there together: the rather sullen older one, Marion, and the younger one, Roberta. Marcia calls them “schwärmerinen”. That seems to mean something to Gianetta, and she treats it as something scandalous/libellous — what on earth’s the implication meant to be? I have the feeling I’m too young to know context.
It’s a solidly entertaining mystery, I suppose, aware of the genre and making sly little jokes at its expense. It doesn’t really sparkle, though; I felt that the culprit was made obvious by their behaviour, and not just because they acted guilty — also because they had that whole cliché Freudian repressed sexuality going on, which seems to crop up in crime fiction of that period far too much. Gaudy Night is another example, though it does sparkle, because of the character development that’s going on too. In this one, despite his engagement, and the appearance of some regular characters, it isn’t really about Alleyn or development of him or the minor characters. In fact, the POV characters are pretty much two young lovers who we may not even see again.
The repressed sexuality stuff is worthy of an eyeroll, but the machinations of the murder set-up are quite interesting to follow. It gets a bit repetitive, and does that irritating holding-back-of-details that means you can’t solve the crime for yourself (or, in this case, be sure about it), but as a murder mystery it’s alright. I just hope somebody kicks Alleyn into a higher gear…
Looking at the reviews for this book, I had to laugh at how many people compared Kearsley’s work to Mary Stewart’s. Including myself, I’m afraid, which leaves me wondering if Kearsley embraces that or is rather sick of it by now. But truly, some of the plot things here are right up Stewart’s street, too: the moment where the villain kisses the heroine, that charged moment between them. Except that there’s something more subtle here: the villain isn’t purely villainous, but motivated by love as well. There seems something genuine in his attraction to the heroine, his interest in her.
And Kearsley is much harder on my heart. As with Season of Storms, I found myself falling for a character who didn’t make it to the end of the book. Kearsley did a great job with character, much more so than Stewart: I can believe in what happens between the protagonists, I adore a lot of the characters, and all of them have an inner life. There is something dreamlike about the whole book, with these moments of clarity where you really get to know characters and see what makes them tick, even less significant ones.
The plot itself is a bit convoluted, and I could perhaps have done without the drama of Hans and Isabelle’s story, the convenient way everything comes back together at just the right time… but then, it was exactly what I expected from the genre, and worked out with sympathetic characters and a sense of place, it doesn’t come off too badly.
I expected to like this a lot. Golden Age crime fiction, I’m pretty sure my mother mentioned liking it, etc, etc. But I couldn’t get past the endless racism, and the general feeling that Josephine Tey would be a men’s rights activist now. I mean, a woman on the stage overshadows her male co-stars, and yet the whole tone is not, wow, her skill and grace and so on, but that she is secretly a conniving bitch. The whole story serves to hammer home that she’s a woman who only cares about herself — with very little actual evidence, which is funny coming from a detective story. Someone else summarised it really well, and I can only quote (warning, spoilers):
So, someone who wants to kill a woman because he can’t have her is sane. Someone who wants to kill a man to save her daughter’s life is crazy. Very, very interesting, Tey. And at the end we’re asked teasingly whether there’s a villain in the story. I strongly suspect the villain we’re meant to think of is the woman the murder victim was going to kill. If she’d been nicer, she’d have appreciated that nice young man, you see, and none of this trouble would have happened.
(From Leonie’s review on Goodreads)
The description and so on can be as clever as it likes, but I couldn’t stand one more slighting reference to “the Dago”, or commentary about the “un-English crime”, or any of that. And the mystery itself… it’s obvious from the length of the book that the inspector is after the wrong man. It’s obvious from the way the man and the people around him act, too. The only excuse for going along with the thin, motiveless explanation Grant dredges up is if you’ve got a prejudice to begin with and you’re going to stick to your theory no matter what — no matter how Tey makes a song and dance about Grant being bothered by the case.
The reason Grant is wrong, well, at least you can’t blame him there. There’s virtually no clue, and nothing tied specifically to any suspect other than the red herring one. You can’t guess it directly from the information given — not a hope.
I sound really scathing, but that’s in part because I hoped I’d really enjoy this. I read it pretty much in one go: the narration is pretty compulsive, and the narrative voice is an interesting choice too. But the pretty sentences didn’t save it from how bothered I was with the outdated stuff (reliance on reading people’s faces, reliance on “national characters”, etc). Now I’ve gone looking at reviews, I can see other people who didn’t think much of this one did like her later work, so I might still be along for the ride there if I can get it from the library.
I do like this series — and tear through the books — when I get round to reading it, but I don’t particularly feel a pressure to keep up. There’s just something too precious about Flavia, and indeed the whole portrayal of idyllic British country life after the Second World War. My usual pet peeves with this series are firmly in place, in that sense.
But it is nice to just relax into it and enjoy the family’s weirdnesses, the unusual set up for the mystery, the intrepid Famous Five feel you get from Flavia — and the fact that hey, she’s a young girl who is great at chemistry, who deserves and demands respect from the people around her for what she can do. Sometimes she overshoots (and, ah, I think I do recognise myself in that; I was quite a mature kid, but also very aware of it and keen for people to know, which then veers toward being immature again), but mostly she’s quite right that she deserves some respect. I do enjoy her little crush on the inspector, too.
The last line is clearly set up for Things To Change, and I’m quite looking forward to that. There’s a formula now to these books; I hope the next book breaks it, at least somewhat.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers
It’s fortunate for me that these books are so familiar to me by now, because I got distracted by other books in the middle of this. It’s not my favourite of the bunch, which helps to explain why; I do like the conflicts between Parker and Peter that’re brought out by the nature of the story, the awkwardness between them as Peter has to suspect one of his own friends. That’s perhaps the best part of this: the characterisations of those two as they try to balance friendship and duty; Peter’s struggle with himself and his own honesty.
The ending is one of those awfully convenient, gentlemanly ones where Peter could bring the person to trial, etc, etc, and then warns them and offers them suicide instead. I can never quite decide what I think about those endings: they give Peter a kind of out, so that he doesn’t have to do the ungentlemanly thing. Which is a bit unfair, really.