Death has Deep Roots – Michael Gilbert

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Victoria Lamartine is on trial for the murder of Major Eric Thoseby. The murder was committed in a small in the Family Hotel in Pearlyman Street, run by Monsieur Sainte, who came to London after the war. Vicky is another French refugee, assisted by the Société de Lorraine, an organisation set up to help French citizens in London, to find work after suffering imprisonment & torture by the Gestapo for her role in the Resistance in the Angers region. Thoseby had been the SOE contact in the area. He knew Vicky & she had been in contact with him after the war, trying to trace Lieutenant Julian Wells, the father of her baby. Vicky gave birth in a prison camp & the baby later died of malnutrition but Vicky didn’t believe the story that Julian had been killed by the Gestapo in the same raid when she was caught. Thoseby was at the hotel that night to meet Vicky & she was discovered standing over his body. The murder weapon, a kitchen knife, has her prints on it & the very efficient method used to stab Thoseby was taught to Resistance fighters during the war.

Nap Rumbold is the junior partner in his father’s firm of solicitors. He is surprised to be contacted by Vicky’s solicitors two days before the trial commences & asked to take on the case. Vicky was dissatisfied with her counsel, who obviously believed her guilty, & she had heard of Nap through Major Thoseby (they were wartime colleagues). Nap agrees to see Vicky & is impressed by her story. The police case is that Major Thoseby was the father of Vicky’s child & that she murdered him when he refused to support her. Nap believes her innocent but realises how difficult it will be to prove her innocence & discover the true murderer. Nap enlists Major Angus McCann, a private investigator, to pursue the London end of the investigation while he goes to France to look into the wartime roots of the relationship between Vicky & Thoseby. The investigation is complicated by the other guests at the hotel, including alcoholic Colonel Alwright & Mrs Gwendolyne Roper, whose evidence seems damning until her own activities are scrutinised.

This is a great combination of courtroom drama & adventure story. The background of the war & the French Resistance is exciting & Nap’s investigations in Angers reveal many secrets that desperate men would kill to keep hidden. The chapters alternate between the trial & Nap’s investigations & this structure works very successfully. I’ve always been a fan of courtroom drama (Witness for the Prosecution is one of my favourite movies) & the sober recounting of evidence contrasts well with the chapters in France as Nap tries to break through the obstructions of people who have many secrets. The wartime background is fascinating as the motives of everyone involved are untangled & the time constraints involved ramp up the tension beautifully. It was a real treat to have the opportunity to read Death has Deep Roots for the 1951 Club.

The 1951 Club has been a wonderful excuse to read & reread some terrific books. There are lots of links to more reviews on Simon’s blog here. As well as the two books I’ve reviewed, I’ve also listened to the audio book of The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, read by Derek Jacobi. This is one of my favourite books & I must have read or listened to it over 20 times. I’ve also reviewed My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier (I’m looking forward to the new movie very much. There’s a trailer here). Other reviews on the blog – The Blessing by Nancy Mitford, Round the Bend by Nevil Shute, There are so many more that I read pre-blog, 1951 must be one of my favourite reading years! One that brought back happy memories when I saw it in the Goodreads list was Désirée by Annemarie Selinko, a romantic novel about Napoleon’s first love. I’ve also read The End of the Affair by Graham Green, They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (after seeing the TV series with John Duttine back in the 70s), Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary (a childhood favourite), Night at the Vulcan by Ngaio Marsh, Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer, A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor, An English Murder by Cyril Hare, The Lute Player by Norah Lofts & Florence Nightingale by Cecil Woodham-Smith. I’d recommend them all, even though I read many of them over 35 years ago. What a great year for publishing!

The Mysteries of Paris – Eugène Sue

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The Mysteries of Paris was the greatest bestseller of 19th century France. Serialised in the Journal des Débats in 1842, it’s a big, sprawling novel (over 1,300 pages in this new translation) full of melodrama, sex, violence, pathos & some of the most exciting cliffhangers in 19th century fiction. It also spawned clones all over Europe – The Mysteries of London, The Mysteries of New York etc – & was hugely influential on later French novelists. If you’re read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables you’ll be able to see those influences. It fed the public’s appetite for sensational stories of Paris low-life as well as entering the salons & drawing rooms of the wealthy, showing that evil can lurk at every level of society, no matter what your family or circumstances. It’s impossible to discuss the plot without spoilers as the narrative is so plot-driven so I’ll just describe some of the main characters & try to show the complexity of the interwoven nature of the narrative.

Monsieur Rodolphe – actually the Grand Duke of Gerolstein, a German state. Rodolphe has overcome a traumatic time in his youth & now masquerades as a working man in Paris, helping good people with his wealth & connections while also searching for

Germain, a young man who has been separated from his mother (Madame Georges, who runs a farm Rodolphe has set up on charitable lines to help workers get back on their feet) by his wicked father, known as the Schoolmaster. Germain was placed in a bank with the object of becoming the inside man in a robbery planned by his father. An honest man, Germain denounced his father & is now in hiding. Rodolphe traces him to the boarding house owned by Madame & Monsieur Pipelet where he meets Germain’s neighbour, the hard-working, cheerful seamstress,

Rigolette. A young woman with a sunny personality, she is friendly with her neighbours but allows no romantic entanglements although she has a soft spot for Germain. She knows to within a sou what she must earn each week & keeps her room spotlessly clean. She has, however, spent some time in prison when she was found homeless in the streets & there she met

Songbird. Also known as Fleur-de-Marie. An orphan who is saved from a beating by Monsieur Rodolphe in the opening chapter of the novel. Songbird is good, beautiful & pure, even though she has been put on the streets by the Owl, a wicked old woman who bought Songbird as a child from Madame Seraphin, housekeeper to corrupt solicitor,

Jacques Ferrand. Ferrand has a hand in every plot in the book. The ultimate hypocrite, his outward image of pious respectability hides a truly evil, immoral man. Germain finds himself working in his office & ends up in prison as a result of trying to help the Morel family who live on the top floor of the Pipelet’s house. Louise Morel, working for Ferrand as a housemaid, is seduced by him & rejected when she falls pregnant while her father goes mad & is sent to an asylum while his family are on the point of starvation. Ferrand had bought Songbird from her mother who wanted the child gone & was then told that she was dead. He is also responsible for the ruin of the Baroness de Fermont & her daughter Claire when he embezzles the money they had entrusted to the Baroness’s brother who had unwisely invested it with Ferrand.

I could go on! Other characters include the cold adventuress Countess Sarah McGregor who will do anything for a title; the Slasher, a murderer who becomes Rodolphe’s loyal servant; Madame d’Harville, a young girl forced into marriage by an unsympathetic step-mother with a man who has a dreadful secret. She eventually becomes converted to charitable causes by Rodolphe who she has known since childhood; the Martials, a family of evil scavengers who make a living from crime, robbing & murdering their victims with impunity; the She-Wolf, lover of the Martial’s eldest son, the best of the bunch, who wants to go straight & plans to extricate his two youngest siblings & start a new family.

There are kidnappings, reconciliations, denunciations, terrible scenes of violence & depravity, narrow escapes from death but also many scenes of humour, surprise & very satisfying retribution. Sue was not only telling an exciting story, he was also concerned to expose the iniquities of life for the hard-working, honest poor as well as the corruption in every sphere of public life. The precarious existence of so many people meant that just one false step, one illness that meant you got behind with your rent or couldn’t work, could be the first step to prison or death. Every now & then he stops the narrative to rage against conditions in prison or the tangles that honest people could get into through the evil of others.

Some of the characters are types – Songbird remains pure at heart even though she is no longer innocent. She’s the original prostitute with a heart of gold, untouched by the corruption around her. Rodolphe is more than just a fairy godfather, throwing his money around. He has known real sorrow & his desire for revenge against those who have wronged him is tempered with the knowledge that he has to atone for his own actions as well.

The Mysteries of Paris is a great read. Once I started, I could barely put the book down. I read it with my 19th century bookgroup over the last ten weeks. It divides conveniently into ten books of around 130pp & an Epilogue. I must say that the Epilogue was completely superfluous & added nothing to the story. The ending of Book Ten was just perfect & the Epilogue just seemed unnecessary although it did complete the story of a few characters. Honest piety became sickly & moralistic &, after the frankness of the storytelling, this seemed cowardly & conventional. I would almost recommend skipping it. I could have imagined a much better ending for the characters than the one Sue gave us. Although, in a sense, there are no surprises in the way the plot works out (as Oscar Wilde wrote, “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”), it’s the journey that is surprising & very involving. If you’re looking for a big novel to lose yourself in where plot is everything & subtle characterisation is less important, The Mysteries of Paris will not disappoint.

Because of the Lockwoods – Dorothy Whipple

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Harriet Evans, in her Preface to this edition of Because of the Lockwoods, writes of the “readability factor” in Dorothy Whipple’s work & speculates that she is not better known & valued as a novelist because her books are just so satisfying to read that critics think she can’t be writing “real literature“. Well, I can testify to the unputdownability of her work. It was a very hot day last Saturday & I sat down at about 11am with a glass of iced tea & Because of the Lockwoods . I was at about p130 & I finished the book that evening. Apart from necessary breaks for more iced tea, lunch & opening the door to the cats & trying to convince them that they should stay inside, I read over 300pp in a day. I can’t remember the last time I did that. I kept planning to stop but then “I’ll read just one more chapter. I must find out how Thea gets on at the Pensionnat or whether Martin will accept the dress clothes from Mr Lockwood or will Oliver’s plans for Molly work out?”. In the end I just forgot about the heat & anything else I should have been doing & raced on to the end of a very satisfying novel.

The Hunters & the Lockwoods are neighbours. Richard Hunter’s early death leaves his widow at a loss, emotionally & financially, & she eagerly clutches at the idea that William Lockwood will step in & help her with her finances even though he does this with a very bad grace. Money is going to be tight & Mrs Hunter has three children to bring up so they must sell their house on the pleasant outskirts of Aldworth, a Northern manufacturing town. The house they buy in Byron Place is cramped & inconvenient. The neighbourhood is not what the Hunters have been used to & Mrs Hunter struggles on, trying to make ends meet, keeping her distance from the neighbours. The Hunters are patronised by the Lockwoods, expected to be grateful for invitations to Christmas parties. Mrs Hunter is an ineffectual woman, pathetically grateful for Mrs Lockwood’s cast-off clothing & completely unable to reassess her circumstances & pull herself out of the slump she went into at her husband’s death.

Molly & Martin Hunter are forced to leave school early. Mrs Lockwood finds work for Molly as a governess & Martin, who longs to be a doctor, ends up as a bank clerk. Neither are suited for these jobs but they seem unable to change their circumstances. Thea, the youngest of the Hunter children is a different proposition altogether. Thea resents the Lockwoods & their unwilling patronage. She endured humiliating visits to Mr Lockwood’s office as a child, watched his contemptuous dismissal of her mother & suffered through the torments of social occasions with the monstrously self-satisfied twins Bea & Muriel Lockwood. She manages to stay on at school, convinces her mother to allow her to go to France as an au pair for a year (unfortunately to the same pensionnat as the Lockwoods) &, when that ends disastrously, is the catalyst for the turn around in the family fortunes that comes after much heartache & misery.

Her mother, Molly and Martin wrote every week, mostly to say they really had no news. Their letters seemed to be both wistful and flat. Now that she was at a distance from her family, with only their letters to represent them, she noticed a factor common to all three: a lack of interest in what they were doing, in the way they had to spend their lives. Her mother wasn’t interested in housework, Molly wasn’t interested in governessing, Martin wasn’t interested in the bank. Thea was shocked to make this discovery. Not only was it a waste of life, but she wondered, too, if it was a fault inherent in the family. With anxiety, she examined herself to see if it was in her as well. But though she had to admit to frequent dissatisfaction, resentment, indignation, she didn’t think she could be accused of lack of interest.

Thea is the life force in the Hunter family but it’s Oliver Reade who really makes change a reality through sheer energy & will. When the Reades move into Byron Place they see it as a step up from Gas Street where they had lived in poverty. Oliver’s hard work has taken his mother & sister to a respectable home. The difference in the two families is as simple as their attitude to Byron Place. For the Hunters, it’s a humiliating drop in social status & Mrs Hunter’s pretensions to gentility prevent her from becoming part of the neighbourhood. She’s lonely & her children are unhappy in their uncongenial jobs. For the Reades, it’s an upward move. Oliver pursues Thea & is undeterred by her cold indifference. His attempts to become friends are rejected but he gradually becomes a friend of the family, helping Molly & Martin to eventually break free of the inertia they seem unable to overcome. His attempts to better himself, attending night school & taking elocution lessons are endearing rather than comic & his steadfast love for Thea is very touching. Oliver is successful despite his origins & the Hunter’s superior social class is no help to them without the money to keep up the lifestyle they once had. Eventually Oliver is the catalyst for the tremendous & very satisfying conclusion to the novel when the Lockwoods & the Hunters get their just desserts.

I loved everything about this book. The first sentences set the tone for the relationship between the two families. “Mrs Lockwood decided to invite Mrs Hunter and her children to Oakfield for New Year’s Eve. It would be one way of getting the food eaten up. There was always so much of it during Christmas week, thought Mrs Lockwood with a sense of repletion.” Mrs Lockwood is skewered in those few sentences – her condescension, her canny thrift, her self-satisfaction in her own charity. Who are these Hunters who are to be condescended to? Immediately the reader wants to know & the New Year’s Eve party is so awful that we can’t wait to discover how the Hunters (whose side we’re immediately on) found themselves in such a position. We know from the beginning that Mr Lockwood has indulged in a shady bit of subterfuge to get hold of a paddock adjoining the Hunter’s house that he has always coveted. Part of the reason why we race through the novel is to see just how that dishonesty will be revealed & in what circumstances. Along the way though, we lose sight of it because we’re so involved in Thea’s romance with a young man in Villeneuve, a provincial French town where manners haven’t changed since the 19th century; Martin being taken up by the Lockwoods as a presentable young man to squire the girls around & then secretly falling in love with the youngest daughter, Clare; Molly blossoming when she finds work that suits her; Angela Harvey, a friend of the Lockwoods, defying convention by planning a career on the stage.

Thank goodness Persephone Books have reprinted nearly all Whipple’s novels & short stories. The rediscovery of Dorothy Whipple is emblematic of everything that Nicola Beauman has tried to do since Persephone was founded in 1999. Whipple’s Someone at a Distance was one of the first three Persephones & I can still remember the sheer joy I felt when I realised that there were authors like Whipple, Susan Glaspell, Dorothy Canfield Fisher & Marghanita Laski that I had never heard of but could now read. The beauty of the books as objects just added to my excitement. Harriet Evans’ Preface to this edition of Because of the Lockwoods is a passionate rallying cry for Dorothy Whipple & her place in 20th century fiction. Evans wants Whipple to be up there with Barbara Pym & Georgette Heyer as rediscovered & reclaimed authors now taken seriously by critics as well as fans. The same Preface could be written for all the authors I mentioned above & many others who have been reprinted by Persephone to the delight of lovers of absorbing novels, short stories, memoirs & diaries. I’m so pleased that this was the first book I finished this year. It’s a wonderful start to my year of reading from my tbr shelves & getting back to the books, the authors & the imprints that I’ve neglected over the past few years.