Monthly Archives: August 2022

Devon: scene of two crimes

The drought has turned fields yellow in Devon, so that with the dark hedge lines and trees in full leaf the landscape resembles those railway posters, and the covers of murder mysteries.

I read two such novels with A DEVON MYSTERY writ large on their covers. They have these things in common:

  • They are both set in Devon, but Devon in the past – in the 1930s and the 1950s.
  • The murder victims are both very unpleasant
  • The cases are solved by the writers’ favourite detectives.
  • They have been reprinted in the British Library Crime Classic series, with their familiar railway poster covers – one is actually from Somerset.

I’m not a great reader of crime classics and chose these because they featured Devon where I live. But as I want my friends and neighbours to live peaceably in Devon, I won’t be reading any more for a while.

Murder in the Mill-Race by ECR Lorac (1952)

The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson-Carr (1942)

Murder in the Mill-Race 

This Devon mystery is set in a village where everyone closes ranks to protect the murderer. The horrible Sister Monica who runs the local children’s home, is found dead in the village stream, but no one is saying anything helpful about it. Dr Farens and his wife are newly arrived in the village and at the start of the novel we follow their amateur explorations and discussions of the event. 

Later Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Macdonald is brought in to solve the case, together with Detective Inspector Reeves. In the process of their enquiries Sister Monica is found to be neither a religious nor a nursing sister, and that over many years she has been controlling everyone through knowing their secrets, spreading stories and extorting money. Everyone hated her, and yet the villagers will not break their silence about the identity of the culprit and are not averse to providing a false clue or two. Of course, the Scotland Yard team crack the case in the end.

The village I live in bears no resemblance to Milham on the Moor. We have no mill, no children’s home, no lady of the manor ruling over everyone, and no country doctor’s practice (but we do have a modern Health Centre). I have lived here for nine years, and as far as I know there has been no murder here in that time. The village does however have a strong connection to The Hound of the Baskervilles, but that is another matter.

ECR Lorac was the pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958) who was a prolific writer of crime fiction from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Murder in the Mill-Race by ECR Lorac, first published in 1952. British Library Crime Classics series edition published in 2019. 252pp

The Seat of the Scornful

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. [Psalm 1]

We meet a rather self-satisfied High Court judge, Mr Justice Ireton, as he sentences a man to death for the murder of his wife. He appears to enjoy a game of cat-and-mouse for he acknowledges to his chess-playing friend Dr Fell, that the man will have his sentence reduced on his recommendation at a later date. He has no sympathy for criminals. Dr Fell asks this rather unpleasant man, 

‘Can’t you ever see yourself in the position of the man in the dock?’ (32)

Drawing on the game of chess he has just won the judge explains why he behaves as he does when sentencing.

‘It consists in letting your opponent think he‘s perfectly safe, winning hands down and then catching him in a corner. You would probably call it the cat-and-mouse gambit’ (34)

He sits foursquare in the seat of the scornful. Then Judge Ireton is found in his home with a revolver and a dead man on the carpet in front of him. And on this occasion it looks like he is guilty. The dead man is a charming rogue, but one with a highly developed desire for vengeance. He is also described by a character as an Eye-talian, which is obnoxious, but in 1942, when the novel was published, Britain and the US was at war with Italy.

The setting is the coast of Devon, in easy reach of Tiverton and some fictional holiday spots. The local Assizes having finished, the judge has rented a bungalow here for the summer, which is somewhat isolated from the nearest village. It is here that the murder victim is found. The isolated road, the small town where people are known, the local resort are the backdrop to the crime.

An intricate plot involves the judge’s daughter – it is her fiancé who is found dead – the judge’s mentee a barrister called Fred Barlow, a young woman in love with him and the good doctor who is helping Inspector Graham to solve the case. There is a revolver, sand in the wrong place, a disappearing tramp, a stuffed moose’s head and a pool party. Dr Fell sets up a cat and mouse game and entraps the murderer.

The author was an American, married to an English woman and he spent much of his life in Britain. Martin Edwards, in his Introduction, suggests that this crime novel explores the moral aspects of murder: can murder ever be justified? Is weakness an excuse for crime? It is not your usual locked room mystery.

The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson-Carr first published in 1942 and reissued in the British Library Crime Classics series in 2022. 236pp

Related Post

KaggsysBookishRamblings reviewed this earlier this month. She is full of praises for the intricate plot and is particularly impressed by the well-developed characterisation, which contrasts with many crime novels.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Division of countries is seldom a permanent solution to internal conflict. I came to understand this through the study and teaching of history. Look at Ireland; and the division of the Indian Empire into India and Pakistan and later Bangladesh; and Berlin and Germany after the Second World War. And look at Cyprus, which is the island of the title of this novel.

I have visited Cyprus twice. First in June 1967 when it was not a divided island, but a troubled one.  I had been airlifted by the RAF out of Israel (more of this adventure another time perhaps). We stayed in Nicosia and while waiting for transport back to England spent some time on the ravishing empty beach of Kyrenia. This was the landing point for 6000 Turkish troops in 1974.

I returned thirty six years later in 2003 to Nicosia to work with some teachers. While the division of the Green Line was easing slightly, the huge Turkish flag, painted onto the mountainside, was still visible from Nicosia. And evidence of the violent division was still present in the severed streets and memorials for the dead. Everyone knew someone who had property in the north, or lost family members. While in London Greek and Turkish Cypriots got on fine, as I knew from my school, it was not so easy on the island that still bears the evidence of violence and division.

The Island of Missing Trees

The island is Cyprus. The narrative is spun around a Turkish woman and Greek man and their love affair in the middle of the island’s bloody civil war. We read of events in three time zones: violent unrest in 1974, the return of Kostas in the early 2000s and the effect on their marriage and their daughter in the present time. 

The effects of the political tensions and conflict on the natural world is also captured in this innovative novel: the loss of trees, the entrapment of migrating birds, the mosquito and other life. Much of this narrative comes from the fig tree that Kostas brings to England. The fig tree is being buried for its protection at the start of the novel, but once it occupied a tavern in Nicosia, the only place where a Turkish Cypriot girl could meet her Greek Cypriot boyfriend.

The narrative in these three periods of Cypriot history is interlaced with information from the fig tree. I was not entirely convinced by the tree’s voice, however information provided by the tree is essential for the plot, and for understanding that political violence is also environmental violence.

Kosta and Defne were separated by the war, and by their families’ hostility to a Muslim-Christian marriage. But Defne agreed to return to London with Kostas, and they had a daughter, Ada. The story opens as Kostas and Ada face the first winter without Dafne, who has died. Their isolation from their Cypriot connections is made clear when Ada is asked to do some homework, over the holidays, based on her family’s history.

She had never met her relatives on either side. She knew they lived in Cyprus somewhere but that was about the extent of her knowledge. What kind of people were they? How did they spend their days? Would they recognize her if they passed her in the street or bumped into each other at the supermarket? The only close relative she had heard of was a certain aunt, Meryem, who sent cheerful postcards of sunny beaches and wildflower pastures which jarred with her complete lack of presence in their lives. (12-3)

Ada is grieving for her mother, Defne. The only light in the lives of father and daughter comes from the arrival of Meryem, visiting them in London for the first time. Ada begins to understand her family’s history, her mother’s struggles, from this vibrant character, who cooks and shops and tells stories from Cyprus with gusto.

The story of her parents’ relationship is told from the perspective of each character and of the fig tree against the backdrop of the history of the troubled island. We learn of the brutality of those times, especially as, in the second timeframe of the novel, Defne works in a team of archaeologists who are investigating mass graves. Both Kostas and Defne want to find out what happened to the gay owners of the Fig Tree Tavern, who disappeared in the war. Through this story we also learn about loss, and about the experiences of exile and migration.

Tourists who visit the island today are woefully ignorant about its history: violence, partition, the pain of separation, exile, and the natural world in danger. How quickly the world turns away. The division of the island was not a permanent solution to the issues. 

This is a powerful story, and clearly judges of big literary prizes think it is successful in its scope. I enjoyed it and recommend it to readers.

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British writer, born in 1971. She writes in Turkish and English. She has published 11 works of fiction, some in English. She lives in London, and has lived in many countries, including being brought up in Turkey. She says she carries Istanbul in her soul, and many of her books feature the city. 

This is the first of her books that I have read, and I admire her ability to tell a strong story through some well-drawn characters, including a fig tree! It is a touching story, a reminder that migration is part of the natural order of the world, and a response to the disorder created by humans. But divisiveness is always destructive, of people’s lives and of the ecological order of the world.

On her blog Heavenali tells us that she loved the book, finding it ‘a beautiful read’.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, published in 2021 by Penguin. 356pp

Shortlisted for Costa Book Award 2021 and the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Keeping up Appearances by Rose Macaulay

I have observed before on Bookword Blog that Rose Macaulay is a witty, playful and amusing writer. Keeping up Appearances has all these attributes, and brings to mind her collection of short pieces, Personal Pleasures (1935), for she takes a swipe at several cherished perceptions of her times, and of ours: sexism, the press, concern with presentation, identity, class and so on.

The novel was published in 1928 and republished in the British Library Women Writers series. The new version comes with a Preface by Alison Bailey and an Afterword by Simon Thomas, the series consultant.

Keeping up Appearances

Keeping up Appearances is a difficult novel to review for there is an important plot reveal about halfway through, and although I am not one to worry about spoilers, I have no wish to impair the enjoyment of readers. The revelation itself is designed to get the reader to question any assumptions they have made about the characters up to that point. 

I found it quite a difficult book to read because its structure was so uneven. It begins by featuring two women: Daisy and Daphne, and contrasting the way they appear to the world. When the story starts the two young women are staying on a Mediterranean island with the Folyots, a well-off family with three offspring. Daisy and Daphne leave the island suddenly when Daisy is unable to face a charging wild boar and is ashamed of herself. We follow these characters over the next few months as they meet again in London.

Rose Macaulay assembled an interesting cast of characters to make her points.

Daisy is illegitimate, which in 1928 was a social aberration. She had been brought up by her father’s sister and was well educated. She earns her living as a hack writer for a newspaper, producing silly pieces under her pen name Marjorie Wynne about

… those absorbing problems that beset editorial minds concerning the female sex and young persons.

The Morning Wire encourages her to write on such topics as The Best Age for a Woman, Can Women have Genius? Do Men Like a Girl to Fix her Face on the Street? After Love’s Rapture – What? She publishes a successful popular novel called Summer’s Over.

Daphne is younger than her half-sister and from a better class. She is a steadier person than Daisy, who would like to be more like her. For example, Daphne saves the youngest Folyot child from drowning.

The Folyots: Mrs Folyot rescues refugees from right wing regimes in Europe (we are in the late 1920s so there is a real issue here) and campaigns on their behalf.

What she held should be done with life was to help revolutions. (9) 

She is always organising craft sales to raise funds or writing letters the newspapers or calling meetings. Although her cause is worthy, Mrs Folyot is busy achieving nothing.

Her husband is happy to support his wife as she goes about her philanthropic activities, but more concerned with his own interest in sculpture. Their son, Raymond is interested in animal life, but not politics or sculpture.

The daughter Cary is one of the most interesting characters, for she is intelligent and perceptive, and sees through Daisy. She is very much her own person, reads, asks penetrating questions and actually listens to what the adults say.

Daisy’s mother and family live in East Sheen, although she tries to pass them off to the Folyots as inhabitants of Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Her mother is warm and generous, her stepfather has straight forward intelligence, her brother is a crime reporter for another newspaper and her sisters are growing up and have much less ambition and more sense than Daisy.

The interactions between these characters, and the plot twists as Daisy confuses everyone are the occasion for the author to make some very pointed comments about England in the late 1920s. The titles for Daisy/Marjorie Wynne’s articles are an example of this: the sexism in the press. Most of Daisy’s contortions come from her acute awareness of class divisions between her mother’s family and the Folyots. 

There are several amusing and silly plot twists. The lumping together of people by class, sex, age, or anything else is strongly criticised, and Rose Macaulay was making the case for people to be what they wanted to be, not defined by their characteristics. The title challenges the idea that an individual’s life work is to maintain the appearance they wish to project. Here is Daisy contemplating Mr Folyot’s concern that he was not the first speaker at a dinner.

She would not have guessed that Mr. Folyot, as delightful, self-controlled, and humorous, so gifted a scholar, so gentle and kind a man, had these feelings, ambitions and resentments about the order of speaking at dinners. What else had he that she had never divined? Had everyone, then, some different self, that only a few people, that sometimes only they themselves, knew? How know anyone? (131)

This is the lesson that Daisy and the reader must learn.

Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay

Born in 1881, Rose Macaulay wrote 23 novels before her death in 1958. She was a well-regarded novelist, perhaps most famous for her final novel The Towers of Trebizond (1958). She also wrote poetry, short fiction and many nonfiction works, including biographies and travelogues. Keeping up Appearances was her 16th novel. She was a woman of strong opinions and an unconventional personal life.

Keeping up Appearances by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1928 and reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2022. 261pp

Related Posts

Potterism by Rose Macaulay (August 2020)

Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war by Rose Macaulay (September 2020)

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (October 2020)

Some books to help you through the night, including Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay (January 2022)

Heavenali’s review refers to Keeping up Appearances as clever and entertaining and notes that it is still relevant today. (April 2021)

Stuck in a Book blog also reviewed it favourably in February 2010. Simon, the blogger, is the consultant for British Library Women Writers

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

Kindred by Octavia E Butler

Every now and again someone I respect recommends this novel. It has a reputation of being a sci-fi story, and indeed Kindred is based on time-travel. Dana, the main character is a Black writer living in Los Angeles in 1976, who finds herself pulled back into Maryland in the years before the US Civil War. The story is narrated by Dana, and the reader follows her story as she tries to negotiate her way back to 1976 from the experiences of the Weyland Plantation on which she finds herself. Her colour determines her fate.

I delayed reading it because it was labelled as sci-fi, but I should not have delayed. It is a convincing and fearsome exploration of the practices and tools of enslavement and racial inequality.

Kindred

When Dana finds herself thrown back into Maryland in the years before the US Civil War, she takes with her the experience of racially integrated California in the ‘70s. Much of the novel, therefore, is a contrast between Dana’s contemporary life and the experience on the Maryland plantation in the early part of the 19th Century. One of the first contrasts is the language, for she is routinely described using the N word. The Black people she meets are mostly enslaved, and even the free Blacks are in danger of being forced into slavery one way or another.

I found the first few chapters rather wooden as the scenario was set up. She is at home when goes dizzy and comes round to find herself rescuing a small redheaded boy from the river. She gives him artificial respiration so that he is saved from drowning. She returns to 1976 when the boy’s father is about to shoot her. Not long after, she returns to find the same boy, but older, in mortal danger from a fire. And so it goes on. Dana – and on one occasion her husband – spend longer and longer in the past saving Rufus. As a Black woman with no papers she is assumed to be a slave as she repeatedly visits the Weyland plantation and treated as such. 

No explanation or mechanism is ever revealed to explain this time travel, but the first few chapters must convince the reader that Dana is going back in time. As the story progresses, we get more caught up in Dana’s experiences and her time on the plantation. After a few visits to the Weyland Plantation, Dana realises that her visits are arranged to keep Rufus Weyland from death. Dana realises that one of Rufus’s slaves, Alice, may be her ancestor. She also must keep Alice alive to ensure that she will be born. The mechanics of her travel became less important than seeing slavery through the eyes and experiences of a woman from the ‘70s. 

Her contact with the Black Power Movement led Octavia E Butler to investigate why the black people of the past apparently acquiesced to their enslavement. One of the strands of the novel is to show how different characters made choices which meant adapting to the conditions to avoid whipping, sexual assault, their family being ripped apart, or being sold to passing traders: choices for their survival. 

Kindred is a searing explanation of how the slave economy was maintained, highlighting the violence, dehumanising violence, and for Black women there was the added threat of sexual violence. Slaveholders were not required to pay any attention to family ties, and children and partners could be sold away from the plantation to coerce or to punish or for economic benefit. 

Another form of control was to keep enslaved people in ignorance, prohibited from learning to read or write. Dana, as an educated woman, in ante-bellum South posed a great threat to the white masters. In secret she taught some of the children to read.

Octavia E Butler’s sources for Dana’s experiences were the many accounts by enslaved people who escaped. She felt she had to tone down these narratives to make it more believable to her readers.

Eventually Rufus is killed, and Dana loses an arm in her final return to 1976, which reminds us of the physical danger that reaches out from the past. Today’s readers have to add their own present day to their understanding of Dana’s time travel. How much have things changed for Black people in the half-century since 1976? The past continues to provide a legacy of physical damage and social and economic inequality. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a testament to that. What this novel said to me so bitterly was that those instruments of enslavement and repression were still employed in the US in the ‘70s are still used today. The violence, the sexualisation of black women (and men in a different way), the economic differences (starkly revealed by the Coronavirus epidemic) still exist. Poorer housing, poorer health care, poorer education and violence. 

Octavia E Butler

Born in California in 1947, Octavia E Butler was raised in Pasadena, Ca which was racially integrated, although the lives of the inhabitants were very different based on race. Her mother worked as a maid, and her father died when she was eight. She was a shy child and took to writing and visiting the library. She had early success as a writer and met both encouragement and challenge. 

One of her achievements was to widen the scope of sci-fi stories to include the experiences of woman and people of colour.  She claimed, ‘I began writing about power because I had so little’. She won Hugo and Nebula awards for her novels and short stories, and Kindred, in particular, is regarded as a classic.

First edition cover of Kindred 1979

Kindred by Octavia E Butler, first published in 1979. I read the paperback edition from Headline, published in 2018. 295pp

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour