Behind the Lines by WF Morris

behindlines.jpg“Her eyes were shining like stars – stars in the mist.”

A moving account of a kindly, decent soldier who accidentally kills a cowardly senior officer. Instead of trying to explain, he makes a run for it, leaving behind friends and his ambulance-driving fiancee.

He ends up living among the deserters. Not unlike the military, the deserts have their own code and pecking orders. Rawley goes from a decent officer to an unkempt but decent deserter, filthy and ragged.

Between scavenging and run-ins with the military, the casual moments of horror are made all the more stark. When Rawley runs into his financee again, she wants to have the honeymoon before they are drawn apart. But Rawley is “clinging to decency” by the barest thread in refusing. She says “two weeks of happiness out of – perhaps a whole lifetime. It seems such a little to ask of life.”

But the ending, so poignant, is well worth the read.

Thanks to NetGalley for the 30-day ebook loan.
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Take Six Girls by Laura Thompson

Takesix.jpgIntriguing look at the Mitford sisters in the shadow of WWII

The Mitfords traced their heritage back to the Norman Conquest and it was only due to an accident with the eldest son that their father became a Baron. Six daughters and a son must have been incredibly worrying, a real-life Pride & Prejudice trying to get them all married off. The girls grew up in country houses, barely schooled and disciplined yet always under strict supervision.

The sisters emerge as complicated and immensely flawed humans. Take Six Girls is a great book for anyone wishing to learn more about them or the atmosphere of late 1920s through 1930s England. There are eerie shadows of current affairs; the schism of political leaders, the famous for fame scandals, the plague of racism.

As nonfiction, it pulls heavily from many sources and feels well researched. But the story itself is also enjoyable, as the Mitford sisters emerge one by one — unique, but all with a consistent strain of Mitfordism. You can argue, as the book does, that the Mitford girls are products of their time and rebelled against it in remarkable ways, again for their time. Though they are remarkable, I found them narrow minded and self-centered. (Although I can’t exactly argue with the beautiful writing of Love in a Cold Climate…)

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

The Mirror Crack’d by Agatha Christie

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side by Agatha Christie

A bold, clever murder spirals into desperate measures. 

A clever Agatha Christie that’s lamentably too short, The Mirror Crack’d is almost like two stories. One is the classic mystery and the other is a dissertation of sorts on growing old, especially after WWII.

Set closer to the 1950s, Miss Marple is far less mobile and relies on the help of the annoyingly kind Mrs. Knight. Mary St. Mead is modernising, but not always for the better, as the townhouse style development shows. Like the last Poirot case, Miss Marple is definitely struggling with the physical indignities of growing old while her mind is still razor sharp.

The mystery itself is extremely clever, a classic Christie, where golden age Hollywood meets 1950s England. An innocent woman is poisoned by mistake when a beautiful, tragic actress was the intended victim. Who tried to kill Marina – her apparently devoted husband? The cool young secretary almost certainly in love with the husband? Or one of a slew of jilted lovers, ex-husbands or cast-off children?

This wasn’t my favourite book by Christie. My main complaint is how short it is – we don’t get as much chance to really dig into motives and personalities. The stakes could’ve been raised and the characters better explored with more length.

But there’s always the brilliant puzzle, so painfully obvious in retrospect, to buoy an otherwise decent read.

Bretherton by W. F. Morris

brethA gripping account of WWI with a tragic love story and a psychological mystery. 

When officer Captain Gurney stumbles into a ruined chateau, he is mystified why anyone would be playing a familiar British tune in the middle of the war. He discovers a German officer at the piano and a beautiful woman in white beside him. Both are dead.

But even more mystifying is that the German officer is actually G.B., his old friend and British officer Gerald Bretherton. How did G.B. come to this eerie chateau and how did he die? Is he British or German?

It is impossible to tell if G.B. is German or British until the very end. An equally good case could be made for either. The story is told from many views, including other men in G.B.’s unit and the diary of G.B. himself.

This story was written by a British Major who served in WWI and his treatment of the boys on the front is touching. He captures a sense of camaraderie, exhaustion, anger and bravery. It’s permeated with a sad, typically understated humour. After receiving a medal, G.B. says “Headquarters give decorations as lightly as they give up bits of the line that have cost lives to take.”

The premise is excellent but I found the mystery’s solution wasn’t entirely credible, like Agatha Christie’s more obscure short stories where the ending is a pseduo-psychological phenomenon. It also became obvious where the story was heading, so the last few chapters of the book fell a little flat.

A worthwhile read for the account of the war and G.B.’s tragic love story, even if the ending does not hold up on the suspense angle. It would also make an excellent movie.

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

Black Plumes by Margery Allingham

black2bplumes

An exquisitely constructed post-war mystery that keeps you guessing.

Another classic and delightful Allingham book. Instead of her usual detective it is narrated by the very charming young Frances. She’s desperately trying to tell her regal grandmother that the family gallery is going off the rails fast. The chapter culminates with a dramatic scene featuring a slashed painting and a seemingly simple argument that will descend into murder.

Why is Frances’ brother-in-law so furious when she turns down his friend, an unctuous and slimy little man? Why is her half-sister such a miserable, terrified wreck? When a murder occurs, they all know someone in the house is a killer. Despite the police presence no one feels safe, perhaps because the police are there as much to arrest as to protect.

There are a veritable feast of suspects and Frances is hard pressed to keep her cool. Could it be her own hysterical half-sister, the victim’s unhappy wife? Or perhaps Frances’ new fiancé, the artist whose painting was slashed and who wants to marry immediately so they can’t testify against each other? Even her beloved and regal grandmother, whose mind slides in and out of focus, could be using her age as a clever cover.

The book is seen through Frances’ uncertain and troubled eyes – Allingham uses this device brilliantly. We follow along with Frances, tortured by the conflict between her conscience and her sense of loyalty. The Scottish detective Birdie keeps his own counsel, so along with Frances we wait and listen to what clues drop, hoping to uncover the truth and protect the ones we love…

Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham

traitorA brilliant mystery – how does a man with amnesia unmask a national conspiracy?

I fell in love with Albert Campion on the TV series, but years ago I really disliked The Affair at Black Dudley (the first Campion). I don’t know if it was just bad book timing, but after reading Traitor’s Purse I feel I have been missing out!

This is one of her finest books according to many and I can see why. The book plunges straight into the plot – a man wakes up in a hospital, overhears that he’s killed a policeman and will hang for it. He makes a dash for it, physically and emotionally weak, all the while desperate to remember what conspiracy he was about to unmask. His only clue is the number 15.

And if that plot weren’t enough, the writing is beautiful. Campion struggles to fake his way through situations, wondering if each person he meets is the shadowy villain. We see his newly discovered love for a woman he’s already lost and his haunting terror that he will not be in time to prevent a national tragedy.

Swinging wildly between a creature of primitive emotions and an uppercrust man of intelligence and manners, we can’t help but wonder which is the real Campion? Will the two halves of his fractured mind meet in time to save England?

I was fortunate enough to get a version by The Folio Society, a London publisher who republishes old classics in utterly gorgeous bindings and with stunning illustrations. Anyone who loves books should own at least one folio edition.

Death Mask by Ellis Peters

mystery

Amazing classic British mystery, elegant and well-written, engrossing characters. 

I opened this book yesterday afternoon intending to read a chapter but it was well past my bedtime when I put it down. The first sentence was a tad long but by the second paragraph I was hooked – the protagonist Evelyn has just run into Dorothy, a woman he hasn’t seen for sixteen years. Their last meeting was when she refused his marriage proposal.

But this is not a romantic story. It is a deeply intriguing look into the dark corners of a not fully formed human mind. What is driving Dorothy’s estranged son Crispin to get kicked out of every school and refuse every tutor? Is it something to do with the death of his father on a dig in Greece?

How Evelyn tries to win Crispin’s trust and figure that puzzle out both emotionally and logically makes for fascinating reading. But even more fascinating is how Ellis Peters captured the juxtaposition of little kid and remorseless adult in Crispin, who is spiraling ever closer to a very deadly climax…

30-day e-book loan courtesy of NetGalley.

England in the 1920s, mysteries and more

As an avid mystery reader, I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and many other excellent 1920s mysteries. The “Golden Age” of mysteries is my favorite era. They combine plot driven books that are suspenseful without being terrifying with an intellectual puzzle to be solved and character driven stories that focus on people.

Writing a book in this era requires a great deal of research if you want to create an immersive world. The 1920s is nearly a hundred years ago now. You need to preserve historical accuracy like names, landscape, clothing, social norms, technology, economy, vocabulary and even how they thought based on their age and experience. But while you want your protagonist to be utterly of their time, you also need to balance this with changing world views and norms.

England is difficult when you consider social classes, World War I (the Great War) and colonialism. There were many things changing in a good way like women’s right to vote and worker protection laws from the new Labour Party, but it was also a dark time with another war looming and many still living in abject poverty. Another challenge is that the immediate past of the protagonist (such as their parents’ upbringing or the era they lived in) also plays a part in their beliefs, so I found myself digging into the late 1800’s as well.

While I appreciate the Golden Age novels giving us a stimulating puzzle to enjoy and often a privileged world, they only sometimes explore social injustices. I’ll give examples where I feel they do call for change more than we might realize. But I still feel we owe a debt to those who suffered not to gloss over their pain even as we stay optimistic in a changing world.

I decided to share the research I’ve been doing, which books have been invaluable and thoughts about murder mystery books set in this era. Hopefully this will help anyone interested in the 1920’s in England, writing or reading mysteries, or just general interest in that period.