Murder is Academic – Christine Poulson


I love a mystery set in academia. Even a mystery set in the town of Oxford or Cambridge will do. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Veronica Stallwood’s Kate Ivory, Jill Paton Walsh’s Imogen Quy,  Amanda Cross’ Kate Fansler &, of course, Gaudy Night, are all favourites. After reading Christine Poulson’s latest novel, Deep Water, I remembered how much I’d loved her three novels set in Cambridge featuring academic & Victorian literature specialist Cassandra James. Published in the early 2000s, I’d borrowed them from my library. No longer in print, fortunately all three (Murder is Academic (aka Dead Letters), Stage Fright & Footfall) are available as eBooks.

When Cassandra James visits the Head of her Department, Margaret Joplin, she’s shocked to find exam papers blowing around the back garden. Then, she discovers Margaret’s body in the swimming pool. What looks like a tragic accident soon becomes problematic when Cassandra discovers letters that show that Margaret had been having an affair with a student, a young woman who had died a few months earlier in a climbing accident. Could Margaret’s husband, Malcolm, have discovered the affair? Lucy’s letters to Margaret were passionate & Lucy was increasingly intent on bringing their relationship out into the open. The scandal would have ruined Margaret’s career & her marriage as well as putting the future of St Etheldreda’s College at risk. What if Lucy’s death wasn’t an accident? Could Margaret have committed suicide from grief or remorse?

Cassandra is appointed acting Head of the English Department after Margaret’s death. Master of the College, Lawrence, warns Cassandra that unless she & her colleagues can come up with an impressive research & publishing program, the future of the college itself is threatened. Cassandra’s book on Victorian poetry is almost finished & Margaret had been working on a book as well. However, the other lecturers, Merfyn, Alison & Aiden, had published little & their jobs were most definitely on the line. Cassandra’s doubts about Margaret’s death & her knowledge of her affair with Lucy, would be dynamite to the tabloids if the knowledge became public & Lawrence wants no scandal. Cassandra has quite enough to do with her increased workload & she tries to put her doubts aside. Apart from anything else, she discovers that she’s pregnant &, although she is soon happy about the baby, she’s unsure how serious she wants her relationship with her partner Stephen to become. Another student, Rebecca, hints to Cassandra that she knows about Margaret’s affair & threatens to go public unless her sub-standard work is passed. When Rebecca is attacked & left in a coma soon afterwards, Cassandra knows that someone wanted to silence her & that Margaret was murdered. All the academics have tangled personal lives & something to hide but did any of their secrets include murder?

… what if I was writing a book about this, about what’s been happening over the last eight months or so? That startling idea seemed to bring things into focus. Well, what would I do? Exactly what I did when I was researching my academic books. I wouldn’t take anything for granted, I wouldn’t rely on anything anyone told me unless there was evidence to back it up; I’d go right back to the beginning – further probably than anyone else had thought necessary – and work my way forward, casting my net as wide as I could. And all along I’d be weighing the evidence, looking for the connections and patterns, piecing together a picture…

I loved this book just as much the second time around. As the first time was nearly 15 years ago, I’d forgotten everything about the plot & suspected the wrong person almost until the end, just as I probably did back in 2002.As always, Christine Poulson’s sense of place is atmospheric. Cassandra lives in The Old Granary, a lonely house with its share of odd noises & things that go bump in the night as well as housing too many books & a cat called Bill Bailey. Cassandra’s reluctance to commit to Stephen has as much to do with her desire to keep her life in neat compartments as it does with her feeling that, after two failed marriages, she should be wary about any new relationship. I enjoyed the academic atmosphere, Cassandra’s researches in newspaper archives & libraries & a particularly spooky trip to the site of Lucy’s death. There are also some very funny moments, including a séance where one of Cassandra’s colleagues claims to be receiving literary advice from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Finally, how could I resist a heroine who loves my favourite quote?

What was it that Logan Pearsall Smith wrote? ‘People say life is the thing but I prefer reading,’ I often think that should be my motto.

I could almost think that I’d somehow remembered this when I came to start my blog but I don’t think so although I can’t remember where I did first read it. One of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems (which I posted about the other day in Sunday Poetry) is also quoted near the end of the book. If you enjoy academic mysteries, download a sample of Murder is Academic. I guarantee you won’t want to stop reading. More information about the series can be found on Christine’s website.

Christine has posted a list of books (not just mysteries) set in universities here & so has Moira from the blog Clothes in Books here. I like the sound of the Emma Lathen & have downloaded a sample as I’ve never read her books.

Lucky & Phoebe


I realised that I hadn’t properly “christened”my new blog as I haven’t shared any new photos of Lucky & Phoebe. It’s been an unusually cool start to summer here (apart from two hot days last week) so I took the opportunity yesterday to steam my Christmas pudding – having the stove on for 8 hours is more appealing on a 20C day than a 38C day.My reading chair is the favourite vantage point for both girls to supervise whatever I happen to be doing in the kitchen. Phoebe prefers the back of the chair.

phoebechairsleepnov16I’m not sure how much supervising was going on because less than 5 minutes after I took the first photo, she was fast asleep (until I appeared with the camera when she opened her eyes but didn’t otherwise move). She often sleeps with her head right down among the cushions like that.

luckynov16Lucky, on the other hand, was happily sitting on my lap until I got up to add more water to the saucepan.The reproachful, slightly wary look is her usual expression when I creep up with the camera trying to take photos.

Have a good week everyone.

Sunday Poetry – Emily Dickinson


Emily Dickinson is one of my favourite poets & this is one of my favourite poems. It’s passionate & ecstatic but also warm & comforting, describing the wildness outside & the comfort within.

It’s quoted near the end of Murder is Academic by Christine Poulson, which I finished reading on Friday & will be reviewing next week.

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

Bewildering Cares – Winifred Peck


Camilla Lacely & her husband Arthur, an Anglican vicar live in Stampfield, near Manchester, a manufacturing town with an inconveniently large vicarage & a Victorian Gothic church. Bewildering Cares is the diary of a week in Camilla’s life in the first months of WWII & encapsulates the drudgery, troubles & sometimes unconscious humour of her role as a clergy wife.

The war is already impinging on Camilla’s life as her son, Dick, is training with his regiment & seems to be taking a romantic interest in Ida Weekes, daughter of her husband’s Church Warden. Mrs Weekes is one of those irritating women who loftily tells Camilla that her life would run more smoothly if only she had more Method. Dick’s happy-go-lucky, irreverent outlook on life often pops into Camilla’s mind at the most inopportune moments. The major drama of the week is caused by Arthur’s curate, Mr Strang, who gives a pacifist sermon (which Camilla unfortunately sleeps through), outraging the entire parish. Mr Strang is a highly-principled but, unfortunately, not very sympathetic man who rubs everyone up the wrong way. Arthur is put in the impossible position of having to support a colleague while also being expected to denounce him from the pulpit. Only a life-threatening illness seems likely to resolve the situation.

Camilla has domestic as well as parish problems. Her maid, Kate, is an uninspired cook who takes advantage of her boyfriend’s imminent departure to France to pop out & see him as often as she can get away with as well as inviting him in to share the Lacely’s frugal meals. Camilla knows she’s lucky to have domestic help at all & accommodates Kate in the hope of keeping her. She knows that she would be unable to carry out all the unpaid parish work she’s just expected to do without domestic help & there’s certainly enough of that, mostly endless committee meetings with the same group of elderly women now that all the younger people have joined the war effort. Camilla, as the vicar’s wife, is often called on to adjudicate in disputes among the members of rival sewing parties,

An earth-shaking schism seemed imminent, and was only prevented by the decision to adopt my casual suggestion of holding two parties weekly, Comforts for Converts on Monday, and Warmth for Warriors on Thursday. There are not really enough members to make this worth while, especially as since our unhappy division no Monday worker will knit on Thursday, and no Thursday knitter will button-hole pyjamas on Monday.

Shopping for a hat is difficult when Camilla feels she should not be seen to be extravagant but knows her old hat is about to fall to pieces. Then, amongst all the trivialities, the constant phone calls & visitors dropping in for help, Camilla feels really useful, as when she’s able to help Mrs Strang in her husband’s illness or comforts an old friend on her deathbed. However, the underlying humour & exasperation is never far away. Maybe the greatest trial of Camilla’s week is the Quiet Day, a retreat for clergy wives led by a celibate priest who no doubt finds it easy to empty his mind of trivialities & concentrate on God.

Again I pulled myself up and tried to meditate, but by this time the text on which we were to concentrate had wholly eluded me, and by fumbling in a prayer-book I only hit on the Psalm which, as a clerical correspondent to The Times so wittily pointed out, would just coincide with meat-rationing: “They run hither and thither for meat and are not satisfied.” No other woman present, I am quite sure, could have sunk to such a low level of inward debate between the respective merits of point steak and neck of mutton for a household of three, when we all rose and trooped back to the drawing-room.

I loved the humour of Camilla’s efforts to keep everyone as happy as possible, especially as she fails as often as she succeeds. One of her easier tasks is making sure Arthur eats enough as he worries about the “luxury” of their frugal meals.Only by keeping him talking about some knotty parish problem or by reading at meals will Arthur become so absorbed that he forgets his scruples.

Arthur came in looking so exhausted that I went to the book-shelf and took out Mr Mulliner Speaks. I propped this against the water-jug for him, and Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell, which I have read thirty times already and will probably read thirty more, against the loaf for myself. There is nothing so good for worried people as to read at their meals, and funny books if possible; for laughter grows so rusty in war time.

Any writer who references Wodehouse & Thirkell as well as E M Delafield, Winifred Holtby & Dorothy Whipple, is going to be sympathetic to a lover of the middlebrow & is obviously why Winifred Peck is such a perfect choice for the new Furrowed Middlebrow imprint from Dean Street Press. Camilla is a kind woman, as sympathetic to the thought of a budding romance in the parish as she is alarmed by the very real prospect of Dick being posted overseas. Her irritation over the constant interruptions, Kate’s fecklessness & the petty squabbles of the various parish factions never overwhelm her knowledge that the work she & Arthur are doing is valuable. Above all, she & Arthur maintain their sense of humour through it all which makes Bewildering Cares a delight to read. Winifred Peck grew up in a clerical household & knew the life intimately. She brings all her knowledge & understanding to this charming story of the early days of WWII.

Sunday Poetry – Rudyard Kipling


A few weeks ago I listened to Karl Jenkins’ beautiful Mass, The Armed Man, for the first time. I’d heard parts of it before but never listened to the whole piece. It’s a beautiful combination of the words of the Mass, poetry by Tennyson & Kipling, among others, & Jenkins’ music. The Armed Man was written in 1999 & dedicated to the victims of the war in Kosovo. There are several performances on YouTube including this one.

The Kipling poem quoted in the work is Hymn Before Action.

The Earth is full of anger,    
  The seas are dark with wrath,    
The Nations in their harness    
  Go up against our path:    
Ere yet we loose the legions—            
  Ere yet we draw the blade,    
Jehovah of the Thunders,    
  Lord God of Battles, aid!    
High lust and forward bearing,    
  Proud heart, rebellious brow—            
Deaf ear and soul uncaring,    
  We seek Thy mercy now!    
The sinner that forswore Thee,    
  The fool that passed Thee by,    
Our times are known before Thee—            
  Lord, grant us strength to die!    
For those who kneel beside us    
  At altars not Thine own,    
Who lack the lights that guide us,    
  Lord, let their faith atone!            
If wrong we did to call them,    
  By honour bound they came;    
Let not Thy Wrath befall them,    
  But deal to us the blame.    
From panic, pride, and terror,            
  Revenge that knows no rein,    
Light haste and lawless error,    
  Protect us yet again.    
Cloke Thou our undeserving,    
  Make firm the shuddering breath,            
In silence and unswerving    
  To taste Thy lesser death!    
Ah, Mary pierced with sorrow,    
  Remember, reach and save    
The soul that comes to-morrow            
  Before the God that gave!    
Since each was born of woman,    
  For each at utter need—    
True comrade and true foeman—    
  Madonna, intercede!            
E’en now their vanguard gathers,    
  E’en now we face the fray—    
As Thou didst help our fathers,    
  Help Thou our host to-day.    
Fulfilled of signs and wonders,            
  In life, in death made clear—    
Jehovah of the Thunders,    
  Lord God of Battles, hear!

Anne – Constance Fenimore Woolson

woolsonAnne (cover picture from here) is a first novel that suffers from the curse of many first novels – cramming in enough plot for several full-length books. It begins as a regional novel about a girl growing up in a remote part of the United States. She then goes to New York to complete her education & enters society with the reluctant help of a miserly great aunt, falls unsuitably in love, nurses during the Civil War & the book ends as a mystery novel. For all that, I enjoyed it very much. It’s beautifully written, the rural scenes are very evocative & Anne is an engaging character whose moral & ethical struggles are very involving.
Anne Douglas lives on Mackinac Island in Michigan with her father, William, & four half-siblings, the children of her father’s second marriage to a young Frenchwoman. William Douglas had been an Army surgeon who married Alida Clanssen to the disapproval of her wealthy family. After her death, he began to doubt his abilities as a doctor & left the Army, refusing to practice at all. He was made Postmaster to the small island community, dominated by the regiment at the Fort, until his many mistakes led to his appointment as Superintendent of roads, a post where nothing was expected of him. His second marriage to Angélique Lafontaine, a mixed race French girl caused consternation, especially in the heart of Miss Lois Hinsdale, who had cared for Anne since she was a baby & cherished hopes concerning William.
Angélique’s death left Anne to care for her family with the help of Miss Lois & the Catholic priest, Pére Michaux, who takes care of the religious education of the younger children. Only a child herself, Anne struggled to make ends meet in the face of her father’s indifference. Her only friend was Erastus Pronando, a young man whose father had also fallen out with his family & spent years on expeditions with fur hunters. Rast is an orphan, brought up by the chaplain, Dr Gaston, at the Fort, & will have to make his own way in the world.
William Douglas’s death brings the financial fortunes of his family to a crisis point. Rast & Anne become engaged, & he leaves to make his fortune. Anne writes to her great-aunt, Katherine Vanhorn, in New York, asking if she will help her complete her education so that she may become a teacher & support her siblings. Miss Vanhorn agrees under very strict conditions. Anne must expect no notice from her great aunt & have no expectations. She has never forgiven her niece, Alida, for her marriage & is determined to allow Anne no favours. At the school where she is learning a few accomplishments, Anne meets Helen Lorrington, a young, rich widow, who becomes a friend. Helen soon convinces Miss Vanhorn to allow Anne to go to Caryl’s, a resort town, for the summer, where she meets a new circle of wealthy, idle people. There, over a summer of dances, walks & botanizing expeditions with her great aunt, she falls in love with Ward Heathcote. However, Helen is also in love with Ward & they have been informally engaged for a long time. Miss Vanhorn favours another suitor for Anne, Gregory Dexter, a rich man who is allowed to believe by the gossips of the party that Anne will be Miss Vanhorn’s heir.
When Anne realises that she has fallen in love with Ward & he declares he is in love with her, she realises she must leave. She is engaged to Rast & Helen is in love with Ward & considers herself engaged to him.  Her great aunt has disowned her after she refused Dexter’s proposal so Anne goes to stay with Mademoiselle Pitre, the teacher Anne had gone to when her grand aunt cut off her allowance. Mademoiselle goes West every year to teach & agrees to take Anne with her.  Anne has no idea that Ward Heathcote is desperately trying to find her & the complications of their story are exacerbated by her flight & later, by the beginning of the Civil War as Ward joins the Union Army & Anne finds herself nursing.
I’m not going to reveal any more of the plot. I found the book unputdownable at this point & the twists & turns of the plot are worthy of a thriller. Anne is Constance Fenimore Woolson’s first novel & she was determined to write a book as unlike the popular novels of the day as she could imagine. She had been known for short stories, often with a regional background, & wanted her first novel to be full of incident & strong, memorable characters. In this, she succeeded. Anne’s journey to adulthood is full of challenges which she meets with courage & imagination. There are some coincidences in the plot (maybe too many) but few clichés & many genuine surprises for the reader. The early sections, set on the island, are a tribute to Woolson’s own youth on Mackinac Island & I was surprised when the scene shifted to New York & the island faded from the story until the very end. In Anne Boyd Rioux’s recent biography of Woolson, she describes the writing of the novel & Woolson’s intention  to create a heroine that readers would care about. She certainly succeeds in that. Some parts of the plot are a little melodramatic & some characters leave the scene, never to return or only through the medium of letters or newspaper announcements. However, she handles a large cast with skill &, as well as the melodrama & high emotion, there is a lot of humour in the story & the tension in the final section leaves the reader truly anxious about the denouement. Anne was a success, serialized in Harper’s Magazine simultaneously in the United States & England (following Henry James’ Washington Square). Her publishers doubled her fee & offered her a contract to publish Anne in book form.
I’m looking forward to reading more of Woolson’s work. I have a volume of her short stories & the biography on the tbr shelves & hope to get to them soon. It would be wonderful to have a new edition of Anne. I hope the resurrection of Woolson’s reputation continues & more of her work finds its way back into print.

Literary Ramblings


I’ve started a ridiculous number of books in the last few days. Usually I have two or maybe three books on the go at once – a hardback at home, a paperback or e-Book for my lunchtime walk & coffee & an audio book. I’m about to begin The Mysteries of Paris by Eugene Sue with my 19th Century Bookgroup. This is a massive tome (almost 1400 pages in the new Penguin translation) that is going to take us two months to read.


Then, my new-found interest in ancient history led me to a reprint of Dilys Powell’s book, The Villa Ariadne, about Crete, the discovery by Arthur Evans of the site of Knossos & the WWII history of the island. Thinking about Crete reminded me of The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart, which I haven’t read for years.


I enjoyed Christine Poulson’s new book, Deep Water, so much that I’ve downloaded the eBook of her first Cassandra James novel, Murder is Academic which I read when it was first published. I’ve only read the first chapter but already I’m surprised by the differences between life then & now. Cassandra discovers the body of colleague Margaret Joplin in her swimming pool with the papers she was marking strewn around the garden & in the water. I was surprised that the college is so horrified by the destruction of the papers as they seem to be the only copies & the students won’t get their degrees if they’re destroyed. Nowadays everything’s on a USB if not in the Cloud. The book was only published in 2002 so hardly decades ago but how life has changed.


I also read a sample of Conclave by Robert Harris, after reading an enthusiastic review by Mrs Miniver’s Daughter. I haven’t read any Robert Harris for years – Enigma was probably the last one – & I was drawn in immediately so I downloaded the eBook as I couldn’t wait to borrow a copy from work.


I’m also reading & enjoying Winifred Peck’s Bewildering Cares, one of the Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press.


I’m between audio books at the moment, having just finished listening to An Autobiography by Agatha Christie, a book I read over 30 years ago & enjoyed again. I was a little unsure about Judith Boyd’s decision to narrate the book in the voice of an old lady. Christie was in her 70s when she wrote the book but I found the choice a little off-putting. However, I got used to it & enjoyed all 28-odd hours of it. Since then, I’ve been listening to podcasts (mostly political ones after the events of last week) but one of the non-political ones was this Book Club program on Kidnapped that inspired me to pick up a Stevenson novel, Weir of Hermiston. I read The Master of Ballantrae a few years ago but I’ve never read this final novel.


Speaking of podcasts, here is a fascinating discussion with Helen Rappaport & Catherine Merridale on their new books about the Russian Revolution.

I was also very excited to discover that the Dorothy L Sayers Society have allowed access to The Lord Peter Wimsey Companion. I’ve just reread the four Harriet Vane novels & it was wonderful to be able to look up all those quotes & obscure references that Sayers took such delight in. The Companion has been out of print for some time so it’s very kind of the Society to make it available to everyone. You do need to register but it’s free. The details are on the Society’s homepage.

A few other bits & pieces I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks. For fans of L M Montgomery, are you an Anne Shirley or an Emily Starr?


An article on cats in bookstores.

A new T-shirt from Out of Print which I just had to have.

Mimi Matthews – a blog I’ve just discovered with the most beautiful images, mostly Victorian fashion & painting.

Finally, Open Road Media are making Rumer Godden’s novels available as eBooks. She’s one of my favourite authors so it’s good to have her books available.

Sunday Poetry


I’m still thinking about the poets of WWI this week so this is one of Siegfried Sassoon’s most famous poems, Counter-Attack.

We’d gained our first objective hours before
While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes,
Pallid, unshaven and thirsty, blind with smoke.
Things seemed all right at first. We held their line,
With bombers posted, Lewis guns well placed,
And clink of shovels deepening the shallow trench.
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began,—the jolly old rain!
A yawning soldier knelt against the bank,
Staring across the morning blear with fog;
He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;
And then, of course, they started with five-nines
Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud.
Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst
Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell,
While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke.
He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,
Sick for escape,—loathing the strangled horror
And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.
An officer came blundering down the trench:
“Stand-to and man the fire step!” On he went …
Gasping and bawling, “Fire-step … counter-attack!”
Then the haze lifted. Bombing on the right
Down the old sap: machine-guns on the left;
And stumbling figures looming out in front.
“O Christ, they’re coming at us!” Bullets spat,
And he remembered his rifle … rapid fire …
And started blazing wildly … then a bang
Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out
To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked
And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans …
Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.

Sunday Poetry – Wilfred Owen

With Armistice Day only a few days away, I’ve been reading my favourite war poets. This is a less familiar poem by Wilfred Owen with the poignant title The Next War. Unfortunately there’s always a next war. “The war to end all wars” was a phrase that was nonsense almost as soon as it was coined.

War’s a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true.
– Siegfried Sassoon

Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,-
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,-
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,-
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, -knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.