No Man’s Nightingale – Ruth Rendell

Inspector Reg Wexford is one of those fictional detectives who ages very slowly. Poirot & Adam Dalgleish also come to mind. Their authors had no idea that their series characters would prove so popular & they all began life as middle-aged (or almost middle-aged) men. The first Wexford novel, From Doon with Death, was published in 1964, & 50 years later, Reg is still solving crimes. He has retired, but he’s still able to lend a hand because of his friendship with Mike Burden, once his Sergeant, but now promoted to Detective Superintendent. Whenever I read a Wexford novel, & I’ve read them all, I always hear George Baker & Christopher Ravenscroft in my head as Wexford & Burden. The TV series from the 1980s didn’t have the glossy production values of Inspector Morse, but I was very fond of it.

Wexford’s idea of the perfect retirement project is reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He’s constantly thwarted in his attempts to settle down to his book, however, by his garrulous cleaner, Maxine. Wexford’s wife, Dora, is able to escape Maxine by going shopping or visiting, leaving Wexford to her constant stream of chat. One morning, though, Maxine tells him about the murder of local vicar, Sarah Hussein. Maxine discovered the body of the vicar, strangled in her living room. Mike Burden asks Wexford if he would like to have a look at the murder scene & he is quick to escape from Maxine. Wexford is also missing the job & is grateful to be asked to sit in on interviews & visit crime scenes. I’m not sure how believable this is, by the way. Would a retired detective be allowed to be so involved in official police work? I was willing to accept that it was possible, though, because the case is intriguing & Wexford wouldn’t be able to do much investigating without the knowledge he gains from tagging along.

Sarah Hussein wasn’t universally popular. Some of her congregation resented the fact that she was a woman; she was of mixed race, & she was a widow with a daughter who had been born some time after the death of her husband. There’s a mystery about the father of Sarah’s daughter, Clarissa. Clarissa is almost eighteen & her mother promised to tell her about the circumstances of her birth on her birthday but now, of course, this won’t happen. Sarah seems to have few close friends & no family apart from Clarissa. The motive for the murder seems obscure but Wexford soon becomes intrigued by Sarah’s past & his investigations lead him to think that the answer may lie in Sarah’s past & the circumstances of Clarissa’s birth.

Mike Burden, however, is looking at suspects in the present & much closer to home. The vicar’s Warden, Dennis Cuthbert, disliked Sarah for her sex & her race, & the fact that she converted to Christianity from Hinduism as a teenager.  She had also abandoned the Book of Common Prayer for the Alternative Service Book. Duncan Crisp is a gardener employed at the house next door to the Vicarage. He was in the garden on the day Sarah was killed but claims to have seen nothing. Burden is unconvinced by Wexford’s theories that Sarah’s past is crucial to the murder but Wexford follows his own lines of enquiry.

It’s been a few years since I read a Ruth Rendell novel & I enjoyed No Man’s Nightingale very much. Rendell is so good at building up a picture of the victim who, in this case, we never see alive. She’s dead at the beginning so we only learn about her through the memories of others. Reg Wexford is his usual, spiky, opinionated self. I hate to think how grouchy he would be if he wasn’t allowed to meddle in the odd murder. It’s the combination of a police procedural with a private investigator novel as Reg goes off on his own tack while Burden & his team follow more conventional lines as well as the chance to catch up with old friends that I found so satisfying.

Burying the Past – Judith Cutler

Detective Chief Superintendent Fran Harman is looking forward to her wedding to Mark Turner (also a high-ranking policeman. He’s the Assistant Chief Constable). Fran & Mark have bought an old rectory which needs a lot of work. During the renovations, a skeleton is discovered in the veggie patch. It turns out to be recent rather than archaeological so it becomes a murder enquiry. The rectory had been empty for over 10 years & the last owner was a headmistress, Marion Lovage. She had left the house to a charity looking after badgers on the proviso that it wasn’t sold for 10 years. The investigation into the skeleton’s identity becomes a search for the truth about Marion Lovage & the search for clues leads to secret drawers & hiding places in the antique furniture that Marion put into storage when she left her home.

Meanwhile, a young woman working as a prostitute confesses to stabbing a man who raped her but he ran off & can’t be found. Cynd’s description of him can’t be matched to CCTV footage of the area where she lives & Fran feels she’s hiding something but can’t gain her confidence. The only person Cynd will speak to is Rev Janie Falkirk, a friend of Fran’s, but Janie has just been diagnosed with breast cancer & is about to have surgery. When a young man with a stab wound (but not matching Cynd’s description) is found lying in waste ground, Fran finds that Cynd has disappeared.

Fran & Mark’s forthcoming wedding is causing problems with Mark’s two grown-up children. His daughter, Sammie, has taken over his house & changed the locks. She won’t speak to her father & he’s had to resort to solicitor’s letters & threatening her with the bailiffs. Mark’s son, David, arrives from the US full of hostility towards his father & Fran. Mark’s awareness of just how absent a father he was when his children were growing up makes him feel guilty & unable to deal with the problems they’re now causing. Fran tries to stay out of the way but she’s increasingly worried about Mark’s health & state of mind as the stress of the job collides with his personal problems & expensive delays on the renovations on the rectory. A new Chief Constable with very different ideas & a desire to clear out the older officers doesn’t help.

It’s been a while since I’ve read one of this series (I’ve just checked & it’s been four years since the previous book so that’s why!). I’ve enjoyed previous books in this series & it was good to catch up with Fran again. Her job has become more about meetings & budgets than investigative work but she always manages to find a way into current investigations. This time she has to tread carefully as she has so many conflicts of interest & several touchy subordinates who don’t want her interfering in their cases. I did find the personal complications taking over the story a bit too much. There was less police work & more personal angst in this book & I don’t think the balance was quite right. Two high-ranking police officers should have been able to organise their lives a little better than Fran & Mark managed to do. However, the actual investigation into the skeleton in the veggie patch was intriguing & I especially enjoyed the young antiques expert brought in to find all the hidden drawers & clues in Marion Lovage’s furniture. Her method of using her psychic abilities as well as practical knowledge of antiques clashed with Kim Thomas, the young detective heading up her first big case. I see that Judith Cutler has a new book in the series to be published next month so I’ll look forward to the next instalment in Fran & Mark’s story.

Sunday Poetry – Mabel Esther Allan

This is a wonderful anthology of women’s war poetry. It’s a combined edition of two earlier books edited by Catherine Reilly – Scars Upon My Heart (poetry of WWI ) & Chaos of the Night (poetry of WWII ). I’ve often dipped into it but I was surprised to come across this poem by Mabel Esther Allan. I knew her as a novelist – I’ve reviewed two of her books, Murder at the Flood & Margaret Finds a Future, & I have a couple more books on the tbr shelves thanks to the Greyladies reprints. I didn’t know that she wrote poetry. Immensity was written in late 1940, the time of the Battle of Britain & expresses the fears of those left behind when their loved ones are on a mission.

You go at night into immensity,
Leaving this green earth, where hawthorn flings
Pale stars on hedgerows, and our serenity
Is twisted into strange shapes; my heart never sings
Now on spring mornings, for you fly at nightfall
From this earth I know
Toward the clear stars, and over all
Those dark seas and waiting towns you go;
And when you come to me
There are fearful dreams in your eyes,
And remoteness. Oh, God! I see
How far away you are,
Who may so soon meet death beneath an alien star.

Cheerfulness Breaks In – Angela Thirkell

As most of the neighbourhood was Cathedral property, and the firm of Keith and Keith had for many years done much of their legal business, Mr Keith had been able to put gentle spokes in the way of building development, and even bully the Barsetshire County Council into building quite presentable houses for the working classes well away from the delightful village street, of which no fewer than fourteen different views, including the church, the brick and stone houses of the gentry and the remaining plaster and thatch houses of the cottagers can be got at any picture postcard shop in Barsetshire.

Well, that’s the working classes put in their place, then. Behind the clergy, gentry & presentable cottagers. Angela Thirkell’s breathtaking snobbery is well-illustrated in this quote from Cheerfulness Breaks In. This is the first of her novels I’ve read but I already know that it’s the reason why I will never love her novels as I love the novels of Barbara Pym or Elizabeth Von Arnim (though they may be just as snobbish). Her writing is also maliciously witty & sometimes laugh out loud funny & she’s so good at dissecting the levels of village society. I feel I’ll learn a lot about the English class system by reading Thirkell so I’ll continue to read her books because she captures a moment in time that I love to read about – the 1930s & 1940s in England.

Cheerfulness Breaks In was published in 1940 & explores the effects of the beginning of the War on the Barsetshire families that Thirkell wrote about for over 30 years. The story begins with the marriage of Rose Birkett. Rose has been engaged many times & has cut a swathe through the masters at her father’s school, Southbridge. She’s a very silly, self-absorbed girl & her parents despair of ever getting her off their hands so they are relieved & grateful when Lieutenant John Fairweather comes along, marries Rose & takes her off to South America.

Southbridge is preparing to accommodate a London school, the Hosiers’ Boys Foundation School, which is being evacuated. The Principal of this London school, Mr Bissell (admirer of the Soviet Union & very disapproving of ‘Capittleists’), comes down to sort out the arrangements & much care is needed to avoid any dudgeon being taken. Mr Bissell & his wife rent Maria Cottage in the village & become friends with the writers, Miss Hampton & Miss Bent, who share Adelina Cottage in the same row. Both ladies spend an extraordinary amount of time drinking in the Red Lion & Miss Hampton writes racy novels that are routinely banned by the Book of the Month Club.

Rose’s sister Geraldine, along with her friends Delia & Octavia, are with the Red Cross & are looking forward to nursing the most terribly wounded soldiers they can get their hands on. So far they’ve had nothing more interesting than German measles & stubbed toes.  Geraldine is in love with Fritz Warbury, a film director & all-round cad. He’s definitely a coward & maybe even a spy. His mother is pushing & vulgar & the Birkett & Keith ladies spend a lot of time trying to avoid her invitations while suspecting mother & son of being spies or worse. 

Lydia Keith would love to be nursing but is tied to home, looking after her invalid mother, helping her father on his estate & involving herself in village war work such as her regular shifts at the local Canteen that provides meals to the many evacuee children billeted in the area. The novel gives a fascinating look at these early months of the War with the dubious delights of smelly evacuee children trading swear words with the village children & returning from weekend visits to their parents with lice.

My favourite character is the novelist, Laura Morland. Mrs Morland comes to stay with the Birketts while her house is loaned to London friends. She writes popular novels that have enabled her to put her four sons through school after she was widowed.  She cheerfully admits that her books are pretty much interchangeable & her conversation has a disconcerting habit of going off at tangents. She is friendly with Miss Hampton even though neither has read the other’s books. I loved her explanation of why she sometimes likes the books & not the author or vice versa. As Miss Hampton says, “You and I needn’t read each other’s books. We write for Our Public, not for our friends. Mercenaries, you and I. Must say though we work for our pay.”

As always in a Thirkell novel, there are at least a couple of engagements. The most touching story is that of Lydia Grant & Noel Merton, an older solicitor who has joined up & is doing something secretive in an office somewhere. Their relationship is a classic one of lost opportunities, diffidence & overheard snatches of conversation leading to misunderstandings. Lydia & Noel’s marriage leads to the poignant cliffhanger ending of the novel & I desperately want to read Northbridge Rectory, the next book in the series, so I can find out what happens.

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of Cheerfulness Breaks In, and many other books by Angela Thirkell, available at Anglophile Books.