One, Two, Buckle my Shoe – Agatha Christie

ChristieOne

Hercule Poirot visits his dentist, Mr Morley, reluctantly. It’s just a check up but he’s apprehensive. The visit goes smoothly, nothing out of the ordinary happens except that as Poirot is leaving, he sees a middle-aged woman arrive at the surgery. As she steps from her taxi, she catches her shoe & the buckle is torn off. Poirot politely picks up the buckle & hands it to her. He is amazed to hear from Chief Inspector Japp that, just hours after Poirot’s visit, Mr Morley has been found shot dead & it appears to be suicide.

Poirot is suspicious. Mr Morley seemed perfectly normal & untroubled & there seems no motive for suicide until one of his patients, Mr Amberiotis, dies suddenly of an overdose of the anaesthetic drug administered by Mr Morley. Was it remorse at making such a terrible mistake that led to the dentist committing suicide? Then, another patient, Miss Sainsbury Seale (she of the buckled shoes), disappears after a visit from Poirot & Japp. Poirot’s investigations will involve everyone who was in Mr Morley’s house that day – Alfred, the page boy who can’t remember anyone’s name correctly; his assistant, Gladys Nevill, who should have been at work that day but was mysteriously called away to visit a sick aunt who is perfectly healthy; Gladys’s unsatisfactory young man, Frank Carter; Howard Raikes, a young American who left the surgery waiting room without keeping his appointment; Mr Morley’s partner, the alcoholic Irishman Reilly; Mr Morley’s sister, Georgina, & her maid, Agnes, in the flat above the surgery; financier Alistair Blunt (whose niece, Jane, is in love with Raikes) & the mysterious Mr Barnes who hints to Poirot about espionage. What could connect this disparate group of people & why was Mr Morley murdered?

This is a classic Christie plot with red herrings galore & some quite subtle misdirection. I had always thought of Christie as quite a bloodless writer (in the sense of not dwelling on the physical details of her corpses) but there’s a very gruesome scene where a decomposing body is found that was startling. There’s also humour in the reaction of people to Poirot & the way he takes advantage of their rudeness or dismissal of him as a “bloody foreigner”.

I haven’t read any Agatha Christie for years. I read all her novels when I was a teenager – like many people, her books were my introduction to detective fiction. There have been a couple of recent blog posts about audio books (on Christine Poulson’s blog & here at Bridget’s blog A New Look Through Old Eyes) the comments have been full of great recommendations. Christine mentioned Hugh Fraser’s narration of the Poirot audio books &, as I always enjoyed his portrayal of Captain Hastings in the David Suchet series, I thought I’d try a Christie again after many years.

I loved it. It was the perfect bedtime audio book & I thought Hugh Fraser did a great job. I especially liked his Inspector Japp, he did an excellent imitation of Philip Jackson who played Japp in the series. His Poirot was very subtle, the accent not too overpowering. I’ve put some more Christies into my Audible wishlist. I know that her golden period is considered to be the 1930s-1950s & I’ve avoided any where I can remember the solutions. I’ve chosen After the Funeral, The Hollow, Taken at the Flood, Dumb Witness, The ABC Murders  & Hickory Dickory Dock. Any other classic Christies I should try? I’ve just checked my Poirot DVDs & I have the Suchet version of One, Two, Buckle my Shoe so I may have to have a look & see if they made any major changes to the plot. Lovely way to spend the afternoon. By the way, does anyone have a favourite narrator for the Miss Marple books? I see that most of them are read by Joan Hickson or Stephanie Cole, both of whom I imagine would be perfect. I’ve just listened to Stephanie Cole reading the sample of Sleeping Murder & she has Gwenda’s New Zealand accent just right so that’s a good sign. Then, there’s The Moving Finger read by Richard E Grant, another favourite voice.

The Chalk Pit – Elly Griffiths

griffithschalk

Forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway is called in when bones are discovered during building works under the Guildhall in Norfolk. The bones are very white & smooth. Are they medieval, as Ruth expects, or more recent? Architect Quentin Swan just wants to get on with his project but forensic tests reveal that the bones could be less than 10 years old & they may have been boiled in a pot. Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson & his team – DS Judy Johnson, Dave Clough & Tanya Fuller – are investigating the bones but current cases take priority.

Barbara Murray, a homeless woman, has disappeared & her friend, Eddie (known unkindly as Aftershave Eddie), asks Nelson to find her. When Eddie & another homeless man, Bilbo, are murdered, stabbed while they slept, the search for Barbara takes on more urgency. Then, a young mother, Sam Foster-Jones, disappears from her home in the early evening, leaving her four children behind. When Dave Clough’s partner, Cassandra Blackstock, also disappears after a rehearsal of a play, an experimental version of Alice in Wonderland, the team begin to look for connections between the three missing women. A drop-in centre for the homeless, run by a born-again Christian & his wife, which also runs a mother’s group seems to connect all the victims & then there are rumours of an underground community, living in the tunnels under the city. Could the bones under the Guildhall, the murdered men & missing women be connected?

I love this series. Even more than the mystery plot, I love the characters. Ruth is a single mother in her 40s. Her daughter, Kate, the result of a brief affair with Nelson, is now six years old. I enjoy the detail of Ruth’s work at the University, the office politics of her slimy boss, Phil, & the wonder she feels at Kate, so confident, so different in personality from herself, as she grows up in their remote house on the Saltmarsh. Ruth still feels uncertain about her abilities as a mother, whether it’s at the school gate with the other parents or when Kate is offered a part in Cassandra’s play. There’s also a significant strand of the plot that takes Ruth back to her parents. Their evangelical beliefs alienated Ruth for years but the birth of Kate brought them closer. Ruth & Nelson’s relationship is still very tentative. His marriage survived their brief affair but his wife, Michelle, almost had an affair with one of his colleagues & their relationship has become distant & very careful. Nelson sees Kate regularly but he & Ruth try to keep a certain distance because of his marriage. Michelle knows about Kate but their daughters don’t & this is becoming difficult.

Judy Johnson’s relationship with Cathbad, lab assistant & Druid, has settled down & Cathbad is the main carer for their two children. Judy is a compassionate, strong woman & I loved her investigations into Barbara’s disappearance. Clough is as insensitive & judgmental as ever but his edges have been softened by his relationship with Cassandra & the birth of their son. Tanya is an ambitious young woman, eager to make her mark & the new boss, Superintendent Jo Archer, is the kind of career police officer that infuriates Nelson. He feels threatened by her emphasis on reports & efficiency & is offended to be sent on a speed awareness course, suspecting that Archer is looking for an excuse to push him into retirement or at least keep him chained to a desk & away from active investigating. The solution to the mystery is based on solid police work & a flash of inspiration from Ruth. The investigations into the homeless community, the stories of Barbara, Eddie & Bilbo, as well as the people who try to care for them, was fascinating. The book ends with a significant moment that hints at personal turmoil to come for Ruth & Nelson in the next book & I can hardly bear to wait another year to discover what happens!

I read The Chalk Pit thanks to a review copy from NetGalley.

The Communion of Saints – John Barlow

barlowcommunion

John Ray’s thick dark hair was just the same, a little too long and wilfully unkempt. He was dressed just as she remembered: loose black suit with a white shirt open at the neck. Yet as they emerged into the chill of the late afternoon, she detected a difference in him, something subtle but undeniable. He still looked as if he’d just walked out of a casino at six in the morning. But the easy swagger was gone; it was as if he’d walked out of the casino because he’s lost everything.

Whenever John Ray’s name is mentioned, he’s described as “son of Tony Ray, the well-known local crime boss”. A year after witnessing his father’s murder, John is still coming to terms with the grief & the guilt. He’s working as a teaching assistant in Accountancy at Leeds City University, living in an apartment that’s fast becoming a rubbish dump, drinking & gambling too much, a functional alcoholic living alone. When Detective Chief Superintendent Shirley Kirk of the West Yorkshire police asks John to informally investigate historic abuse allegations being made about St Olaf’s boys home, he’s intrigued. He’s also very attracted to Shirley & their night together leads to complications for her professional life when a gossip website features them on its front page the next morning.

The abuse allegations have surfaced on an internet forum for St Olaf’s old boys. The target of the allegations is Colin Marsden, former St Olaf’s boy who made a fortune from a chain of sports stores after famously starting off sweeping floors in a supermarket. Colin had returned to the Home after leaving, supporting Father Dardenne & organising sporting activities for the boys. Marsden’s personal life has spun out of control after an affair with a young woman & his wife is divorcing him. His business also looks to be in trouble as someone seems to be manipulating the share market. Shirley & John both have a personal connection to St Olaf’s but she wants John to investigate informally because of the potential for scandal.

John’s investigations are complicated by his notoriety. When Father Dardenne is found dead, poisoned, after John had visited him, the local police are only too happy to take him in for questioning. Another suspect is Warren Clegg, a former St Olaf’s boy who has been active on the internet forum & was also seen at Father Dardenne’s home on the day of his death. A second suspicious death sends the investigation in yet another direction & John must navigate through a tangle of blackmail & lies to get to the truth.

The Communion of Saints is the third book in the LS9 series. I really enjoyed the first two books, Hope Road & Father and Son, & have been waiting impatiently for the third book. I love a crime series which is based on compelling characters & John Ray is one of the most compelling, ambiguous characters in crime fiction. The ambiguity of his character & his actions is always intriguing. He takes Shirley out for a very expensive meal but how does he afford that on a teaching assistant’s salary? John had handed over his family’s second hand car business to a distant cousin, Connie Garcia, spends a lot of money at the casino & buys very expensive alcohol. Where does his money come from? Shirley instigates an investigation into this as she’s not sure how far she can trust John. He trained as an accountant, trying to escape his family’s criminal empire, but could he be using those skills to fund his lifestyle?

I also loved Shirley Kirk. A woman in her fifties who has risen in the ranks of a chauvinistic profession. Close to retirement but not sure she wants to make that decision. The exposure of her relationship with John does her no favours & the office politics are fascinating. Who tipped off the gossip website? The timing could hardly be worse with the job of Assistant Chief Constable about to become available – a job that Shirley is well-qualified for. Shirley’s past & her links to St Olaf’s have an influence on the investigation & she’s not afraid to play both sides of the game – using her relationship with John (& investigating his finances) as well as calling in favours from her colleagues when necessary. She’s a confident woman & her attraction to John doesn’t get too much in the way of her duty. The minor characters are also fully formed, from the sympathetic Father Dardenne to Connie (loved catching up with her again. There’s a great scene between Connie & Shirley that was so tense as the two women sized each other up) & Warren who becomes entangled in something much too complicated for him to grasp.

The Communion of Saints is a page-turner. I’m sure I missed some of the clues because I was reading so fast. I certainly didn’t put it all together until the very end. The series is a little more hardboiled than most of the mysteries I read but the descriptions of violence are never gratuitous & easy to skip if you’re as squeamish as I am. I love character-driven stories & John Ray is definitely the driver of these books. Attractive, vulnerable but exuding a confidence that is attractive to women even as it irritates those who would love to see him take a fall. I’m really looking forward to the next novel in this compelling series.

Thank you to John for sending me a review copy. More information about John & the series can be found on his website.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case – Anthony Berkeley

berkeleypoisoned

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.

berkeleypoisonedchocolates

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.

Footfall – Christine Poulson

poulsonfootfall

Cassandra James is shocked when her friend, retired academic Una Carwardine, is found dead in her home. She’s horrified to discover that Una had been thrown down a staircase by an intruder. When Cassandra is told that the strange, silent phone call she received on a chaotic evening was Una’s last call, she is determined to find out why Una rang her & what she wanted her to do.She also feels guilty that her increasingly busy life – head of the English Department at St Etheldreda’s, life with Stephen & their daughter, Grace, & work on her book – had meant that she saw Una much less often than she had in the past.

Una & her husband were academics specialising in 19th century literature, Cassandra’s own field. Cassandra is spending her study leave writing a book, using the collection of the Cambridge Literary & Philosophical Institute (usually known as the Lit & Phil). She’s surprised & honoured to be invited to join the Institute’s Board by head librarian, Giles Brayfield. Una had planned to leave her vast & valuable collection of 19th century literature to the Institute along with a bequest that would enable the Board to buy back the lease on a prominently sited building that they desperately need for storage & as a way of raising the Institute’s profile. Giles is determined to drag the Institute & its collection into the modern age – putting the catalogue online is just the beginning – but there’s a shock in store when Una’s will is read & the bequest is instead left to St Ethedreda’s. Then, as the lawyers delve into Una’s estate, the money to store the collection is missing. Una seems to have spent over half a million pounds in the last months of her life. How could she have spent so much money & what did she buy?

Footfall is a terrifically twisty murder mystery & I’m only sorry that it’s the last in the Cassandra James series. As always, I loved the setting – academic Cambridge with its libraries, bookshops & impoverished students trying to make ends meet. Bookselling, especially the rare book trade, is brought into the story by Cassandra’s meeting with Giles Brayfield’s friend, Eileen Burnham. Eileen tempts Cassandra with copies of the 19th century sensation novels she loves & also gives her some vital clues about what Una was up to at the end of her life. Cassandra’s personal life is also as complicated as ever. Stephen catches chicken pox & takes Grace off to visit his sister in Devon while he recuperates, leaving Cassandra at a loose end, revelling in the freedom of being on her own but also anxious & a little bereft. There’s more than enough to make Cassandra anxious. Apart from Una’s death & the mystery of her estate, odd things have been happening at Grace’s nursery – objects appearing & disappearing. Then, there’s a woman posing as Cassandra, copying her hairstyle & even sitting at her desk at the Lit & Phil. What could her motive be & could she have any connection with Una’s death? Then, there are Cassandra’s unresolved feelings for Superintendent Jim Ferguson. Jim is investigating Una’s death & Cassandra is drawn into the investigation not only because of her relationship with Una but because of her knowledge of books.

The many subplots keep the action moving along & Cassandra’s frantic juggling of work, motherhood & marriage rings true. Even the infrequent moments of calm when she can concentrate on her book are haunted by a looming deadline & the thought of the work waiting for her at St Etheldreda’s at the end of her study leave. All in all, this is a very enjoyable series. I definitely won’t be waiting another 15 years to reread it. I now have them all safely on my Kindle so I can revisit Cambridge & Cassandra whenever I need a dose of academic mystery.

Stage Fright – Christine Poulson

poulsonstage

After the events of Murder is Academic, & the birth of her daughter Grace, academic Cassandra James is on maternity leave from St Ethedreda’s College. She’s helping a local theatre group put on a production of East Lynne, an adaptation of one of the most popular sensation novels of the Victorian era. Cassandra is still unsure about the future of her relationship with Stephen & she’s relieved when he’s sent to the US on a business trip. Cassandra’s work on the script of the play has given her a focus & she’s also reunited with Melissa Meadow, the leading lady of the production who she’d first met in the maternity ward as they coped with their premature babies.

Melissa is married to Kevin Kingleigh, the director & leading actor of East Lynne. They’re renting Journey’s End, not far from Cassandra’s home, The Old Granary, in the Fen country outside Cambridge. Cassandra & Melissa had bonded over their shared experiences & when Melissa confides that she’s received an anonymous letter, Cassandra is surprised that she hasn’t told Kevin or the police. The letter is a poem by Byron & signed The King of Cups although the signature has been printed upside down. Melissa seems concerned & a bit fragile but the stress of combining motherhood with a demanding role as Lady Isabel in the play could explain that. Cassandra is shocked then when Melissa disappears, leaving her daughter, Agnes, behind.

The police can find no evidence of foul play or that Melissa may have left voluntarily but Cassandra can’t believe that Melissa would leave Agnes or Kevin as they’d seemed so happy. More practically, the show must go on & Melissa’s disappearance causes problems for the theatre group. Two documentary makers filming the rehearsals are finding that their project could prove more exciting than they could have hoped; the search for a new leading lady becomes urgent & then there’s the sightings of the theatre ghost lurking in the auditorium when young actress Belinda Roy is frightened by a shadowy figure sitting in the dress circle. Stan, the deputy stage manager, efficiently keeps the production on track as well as taking Cassandra in hand & organising her outfit for the first night but even she feels the tension as time goes on & Melissa doesn’t return. Cassandra is also disconcerted by the reappearance in her life of her first husband, Joe. Now a professor at an American university, he wants to catch up with Cassandra on a visit to Cambridge but he revives memories of their brief marriage that Cassandra finds difficult to resist.

Stage Fright is a very exciting mystery with the added attraction of the theatre background & Cassandra who is an engaging heroine. I’m also a fan of Victorian sensation fiction so the East Lynne discussions were also fun & relevant to the plot. Cassandra’s friendship with Melissa is grounded in their shared experiences in the maternity ward & Cassandra is glad to be working on the script for the play, to have something to keep her mind occupied while she gets used to motherhood. The closed circle of the theatre company can be friendly but also claustrophobic & Cassandra is soon questioning everyone’s motives & relationships. Kevin seems devastated by Melissa’s disappearance & a bit lost at being left to care for Agnes alone but is there something he’s hiding? While Cassandra worries about Melissa, she’s also helping Kevin to care for Agnes & getting used to being a mother herself. Joe’s reappearance while Stephen is away confuses Cassandra but eventually leads her to a decision about her future as she tries to work out the motive behind Melissa’s disappearance. I really enjoyed reading this again after nearly 15 years & I’m looking forward to reading Footfall, the third Cassandra James mystery.

Murder is Academic – Christine Poulson

poulsonmurder

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.

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.