Literary Ramblings


I thought about calling this post The Search for Mindfulness but realised it would be false advertising. I read an article about mindfulness in the Age at the weekend & realised I have a long way to go, especially when it comes to concentrating on one thing at a time! These are the books currently sitting on the table next to my reading chair. From the top – A Writing Life : Helen Garner and her work by Bernadette Brennan (I especially want to read the chapters on Garner’s non-fiction writing. I know there are holds on this at work so I have to read it soon); Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy (beautiful Folio Society edition with lovely woodcut illustrations. I’m trying to come up with a novel that I can lead discussion on for my 19th century bookgroup. The group has been going for over 10 years so we’ve read all the usual suspects. I thought Sybil might be the one, but no. This is Hardy’s first published novel & apparently has elements of the sensation novel in the plot so I hope I’m enthusiastic about it); Come In Spinner by Dymphna Cusack & Florence James. I considered this for the 1951 Club but didn’t read it. Then, I read a great review on a blog I’ve just discovered – Words and Leaves – & I’ve already made a start. It’s ANZAC Day today & the novel is set in a posh Sydney hotel during WWII so it’s appropriate reading. Words and Leaves has also pointed me in the direction of a great local tea company, McIver’s. I love tea & have already bought two varieties to try, Miner’s & Tramtracker. The Miner’s tea is already a firm favourite, I will be buying more. I realise I shouldn’t have explored the website further but I do covet the Dancing Wombat mug

The House of the Dead by Daniel Beer is a study of Siberian exile under the Tsarist regime. I’ve been fascinated by the Decembrist rebels ever since I first read Mara Kay’s novel The Youngest Lady-in-Waiting when I was a teenager. This is a fascinating look at Siberia, the system of exile, the punishments & the way that the exiles & prisoners influenced radical thought in 19th century Russia; Clarissa, you already know about; Venetia by Georgette Heyer is there because I want to read it before listening to this podcast; The Necklace and other stories by Guy de Maupassant is a new translation by Sandra Smith & I was tempted by the gorgeous cover. I’ve read two of the stories so far, which is a start…


Then, if that wasn’t enough, on the other side of the table are these journals & magazines that I was going to read the minute they entered the house (please don’t look at the publication dates on some of the spines & I haven’t taken a photo of the coffee table where the rest of the magazines are lurking). That’s not Pride and Prejudice on the top, that’s my Kindle cover. I’m reading Clarissa on the Kindle when the book is too heavy. Of course, the only magazine I want to read right now is the latest edition of History Today on my iPad (I’m not telling you how many unread magazines are on the iPad) with articles on the Oracle at Delphi & Ethelred the Unready.


I probably shouldn’t be thinking about pre-ordering books but here are two which I just have to mention. I may have ordered them already but I couldn’t possibly comment. In 2009, Susan Hill wrote Howards End is on the Landing, a book about a year spent reading the books already in her house. Even though I obviously didn’t take any lessons from it, I’m very pleased that Jacob’s Room has Too Many Books will be published in October. From what I can gather, JRHTMB will be a kind of companion volume to HEIOTL, a meditation on books & life.

Martin Edwards, crime writer, critic, anthologist & consultant to the wonderful British Library Crime Classics series, has announced his next book, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, published in August. There are also another half-dozen new titles in the series due out by the end of the year including Continental Crimes, an anthology of mystery stories set in Europe & farther afield, Foreign Bodies (great title!), an anthology of translated crime stories & another Christmas mystery, Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith.


The new Persephone books for the (UK) Spring have just been published. Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane & Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham. I’m looking forward to reading both of them & also to the new Biannually which will hopefully arrive within the next week or so & be read immediately.


Finally, I may have mentioned the word tsundoku before. It’s a Japanese word that describes someone who collects books without reading them (me, in other words, & probably quite a few of you reading this post). Anne Boyd Rioux mentioned the word on Facebook the other day & it reminded me of my friend Erika who writes a blog called Tsundoku Reader. I love Erika’s blog for many reasons, not least because most of the books she so enticingly reviews are in Japanese & not available in English translation. I have enough temptations as it is & no time to learn Japanese. Reading Erika’s reviews gives me such a flavour of Japanese life & the photos she uses to illustrate the blog are lovely. This post about comfort reads is typical. I would love to read Satoshi Yagisawa’s  novels about Morisaki Books. After reading The Tale of Genji last year, I plan to read more about Japan. Maybe when I’ve polished off everything on my reading table.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley


At a meeting of the Crimes Circle, convenor Roger Sheringham has a surprise for his fellow club members. He has invited Chief Inspector Moresby to outline the circumstances of an unsolved murder to the Circle with the idea that the members of the Circle do some investigating of their own. Scotland Yard have run out of ideas & are left with the unsatisfying theory that the murder was committed by a lunatic. Sheringham believes that, with the facts laid out as known by the police, the solution can be found & who better to put their minds to the task than the members of the Crimes Circle, six people who have passed the stringent conditions of membership.

Joan Bendix has been poisoned by liqueur chocolates laced with benzadrine, handed to her by her husband, Graham, who also fell ill after eating some of the sweets. However, it seems that Joan was not the intended victim. Graham had been given the chocolates at his club by Sir Eustace Pennefather. The box arrived in the post as a publicity stunt & Sir Eustace had been only too pleased to hand them on to Bendix who needed a box of chocolates for his wife in settlement of a bet they had made at the theatre the previous night. Sir Eustace is an unpleasant man with many enemies & it seems that Joan has been the victim of a tragic accident. The police have followed up the clues – the chocolates; the letter, written on the letterhead of the Mason’s, the confectioners; the wrapping paper – but every lead has become a dead end.

The members of the Circle – novelists Sheringham, Morton Harrogate Bradley & Alicia Dammers, QC Sir Charles Wildman, playwright Mrs Fielder-Flemming & Mr Ambrose Chitterick – take up the investigation with varying degrees of enthusiasm & confidence. Several of the group know the Bendixs & Sir Eustace. They sympathise with the Bendixs who seemed to be a very happy, prosperous couple. On the other hand, Sir Eustace was widely disliked, particularly for his predatory relationships with women. His wife was in the process of divorcing him & the circle of potential suspects for his murder would have been wide. The Circle have a week to formulate their theories & then they will reconvene to outline them & do their best to convince their fellows & Scotland Yard that they have cracked the case.


This is an immensely enjoyable & inventive story, rightly called one of the standout novels of the Golden Age of detective fiction. It began life as a short story & I may have read that at some stage as one of the theories sounded very familiar to me. Then again, it became such a famous book that I could have read another mystery using one of these ideas. Berkeley was certainly profligate with his ideas to use so many terrific plots in just one book because all the theories, as I was reading them, sounded more or less convincing. Even the outlining of the case so many times as each theory is explained didn’t pall because each person came to the case from a different angle & with such a range of motives from jealousy to gain to a lust for killing. The range of accused murderers also held some surprises with a final, satisfying twist as the murderer is revealed. I also enjoyed reading about the real-life cases that each member uses to reinforce his or her idea. This book really is a master class in writing sparkling fiction with humour & ingenuity.

This edition of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, reprinted as part of the immensely successful British Library Crime Classics series, also includes two additional solutions to the mystery. In the 1970s, Christianna Brand (best known for Green for Danger, one of my favourite mystery novels) wrote a new solution for a US edition of the novel. This is reprinted here for the first time along with yet another solution by Martin Edwards, consultant for the series & author of The Golden Age of Murder. Anthony Berkeley, who also published as Francis Iles, is probably the least well-known of the great Golden Age writers. He was a complicated man & Martin’s book is invaluable reading if you want to know more about him. Interestingly he had the idea for the Detection Club, a dining club for mystery writers that survives to this day, based on the Crimes Circle in this novel.

If you’re a fan of Golden Age mysteries, & haven’t yet read The Poisoned Chocolates Case, you’ve missed out on a treat. On a purely aesthetic level, the British Library have produced an attractive book with beautiful cover art based on a travel poster of the day. No wonder the Golden Age is popular again.