Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Reading diary: JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON


JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON, They Died in the Spring (1960)

Anyone who read my recent post that included Josephine Pullein-Thompson's first mystery novel, Gin and Murder, will not be particularly surprised to see me following up now with my reactions to her other two mysteries. Gin and Murder (1959) was one of my favorite mysteries in a while, and I noted even then that I had already ordered copies of both They Died in the Spring (1960) and Murder Strikes Pink (1963).

All three novels feature the murders of fairly loathsome individuals in relatively rural villages or towns, among the horsey upper classes, and in all three Scotland Yard sends Detective Chief Inspector Flecker and his faithful sidekick, Detective-Sergeant Browning, to investigate. In They Died in the Spring, the murder victim is Colonel Barclay, who opens the novel in the middle of a heated parish council meeting at which he has gleefully announced that the cricket field, owned by his family though used by the town since before his father's time, will be ploughed and reserved for his personal use from now on. In fact, Barclay seems to take quite a lot of delight in making the announcement:

"Now, look here, Aubrey, these people wanted a welfare state and, having got it, they can't expect charity as well. I'm taxed practically out of existence to pay for their false teeth, the support of their aged and infirm and the education of their children and then they expect me to provide the village cricket field…"

But the morning after the announcement, Colonel Barclay tells his wife he's going out to check for rabbits in the wood, and he is found later that day in a pool of blood, apparently having had an accident with his gun. This assessment, however, is made less likely by various details, among them the fact the gun he's carrying may not be the same one he left home with. Suspects include his wife, Mary, who is none too distraught about his death, his son, Paul, his daughter, Veronica, and her husband Aubrey (who seem more concerned about their missing home help, Hilda, than with the colonel's death), the local vicar and his wife, and various other residents and neighbors.


As with Gin and Murder, the mystery here is interesting and well-done, but the main attraction is Pullein-Thompson's knack for vivid characters and situations. She's also good at highlighting the social and cultural change taking place in the background of her mysteries' locations, as in this description of the local market town:

Originally no more than a halting place on the route of the wool-bearing pack ponies that travelled south across the county to London, Crossley had been granted a charter in Elizabethan times, year, had remained a picturesque and peaceful market town until the second world war. Since the war, building on the outskirts had doubled the population, comparatively fast trains had made the town and the surrounding countryside a paradise for the more sophisticated commuter, and the traffic on the main London to Bretford road, which passed through the centre of the town, had become a continuous stream, which only slackened at night. The milling crowds had grown too large for the pavements; there was no space for the country housewives to park their cars; the long distance motorists ground their teeth as they joined the High Street's perpetual traffic jam; petrol and diesel fumes scented the air. Above the crush and the noise, the beauty of the Elizabethan and Georgian buildings went unnoticed; the shopkeepers and the house agents grew rich.

But my favorite part of They Died is the returning presence of DCI Flesher and Detective-Sergeant Browning, and this novel includes the single best description of characters' first impressions of the two:

But a moment later Flecker and Browning were ushered in. The three Bretfordshire men rose and, expecting a grizzled veteran, their eyes turned to Browning. Tall and soldierly, well-dressed, with greying hair and an Anthony Eden moustache, he looked like a man to command, but Browning, used to producing this effect, hung back. Saying "Chief-Inspector Flecker?" rather doubtfully, Dobson found himself shaking hands with a younger and much less impressive person. Stockily built and only just tall enough for police regulations, Flecker had dark hair which grew in unruly profusion. His clean-shaven face looked good-natured, his shapeless mouth affable, and only his dark blue eyes gave any hint of intelligence.

Here, as in Pullein-Thompson's other novels, Flecker makes the occasional philosophical observation that is probably more characteristic of more recent crime writers like Ruth Rendell or P. D. James than of the so-called "golden age" of mystery writing that was just wrapping up when Pullein-Thompson was writing. For example, one could hardly imagine Hercule Poirot making the following rather bleak observation about rabbits:

"What Hitler did to the Jews we do to the rabbits," remarked Flecker. "Can any policy of extermination be justifield? I don't know."

"It was them or us," said Browning. "Spreading myxomatosis wasn't a very nice idea, but gassing's humane enough."

"Life to be sure is nothing much to lose, but then it's simpler for rabbits; they don't get bogged down with ethics—and morals and guilt complexes; probably it's a greater loss to them,"  observed Flecker.

Later, observing the commuters at a train station, he throws in this upbeat tidbit:

The train was late, but Flecker waited contentedly in the station yard. He observed the thin trickle of travellers. The tense, harassed faces of the hurriers, the pessimists who took their mackintoshes despite a cloudless sky; the unsmiling faces of the bowler-hatted city types, living for the moment when they could forget their early morning frustration in The Times. What a mess we've made of life, he thought, surely it was never intended to be like this?


Some readers might find Flecker a bit of a sad sack, but for whatever reason (perhaps I'm a bit of a sad sack myself?), I find his melancholic view of humanity endlessly entertaining and am always delighted to be in his company. Plus, in They Died he begins to reveal a bit of a softer side, as he finds himself surprised by his attraction to Lesley Carlson, a local widow who comes under suspicion in the course of his investigation.



JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON, Murder Strikes Pink (1963)


And of course, having finished They Died in the Spring, I couldn't help but plunge right into my shiny new Greyladies copy of Murder Strikes Pink, Pullein-Thompson's third and (very sadly) final mystery. And once again, I found it hard to resist her largely unsavory, horsey, but quite entertaining characters.

In this one, the murder occurs right off the bat. We have just enough time to witness how loathsome Theodora Thistleton is, as she rampages around a local horse show, insulting and berating various people, before she takes a swig of a thermos full of poisoned milkshake and drops dead, to the heartbreak of no one. As one character puts it, "I'm sure there were dozens of people queuing up to murder her."

Original cover of Murder Strikes Pink

The investigation focuses on who at the horse show knew that "T.T." always kept a thermos full of milkshake at the ready, where it was stashed, and who had access to it—as well as who knew that one of her secretaries often drank the milkshake if T.T. decided she didn't want it. Because a good number of the locals of the area were at the horse show, there's no shortage of suspects, including T.T.'s two secretaries, her washed-up rider, her cook (who believes people could spy on her via her radio if she hadn't carefully covered it in newspaper), several neighbors, and the terrible Mrs. Pratt and her talented brood, who always win most of the prizes and use the money to sustain their tenuous existence.

Josephine Pullein-Thompson, left, with sister Diana

Once again, Pullein-Thompson's characters are highly entertaining if not terribly likeable, and the mystery is perfectly competent and intriguing, but it's the wonderful DCI Flecker and his Watson, Detective-Sergeant Browning, who are the stars of the show. Here, Flecker's relationship with Lesley Carlson, whom he met in They Died in the Spring, has apparently progressed, though Lesley doesn't appear in this novel, but Flecker is still feeling insecure about it, and his romantic vulnerability adds additional depth and sympathy to his somewhat cynical view of the events and people around him.

But Flecker and Browning are a bit like an old married couple already. Here, as in the earlier novels, the description of Flecker, when the two local policemen first meet him, is ironic:

Murray and Jackson had heard of Flecker, they'd read one or two of his articles in the Police Journal and they remembered seeing a photograph of him in the national press, but they were disappointed when he came into the room; they had expected him to show more signs of success, to look more imposing. Small for a policeman with a stocky figure and an untidy profusion of dark hair, his clean-shaven face looked too amiable, his rather shapeless mouth too affable, for a man of consequence and it was easy to miss the intelligent gleam of his deepset dark blue eyes.

And, much to Browning's chagrin, Flecker still isn't very concerned with order and appearances:

Jackson told his story efficiently. Browning sighed and averted his eyes as Flecker made notes with the disreputable stump of a pencil on the backs of used envelopes. He'll never learn, thought Browning, and they'd think so much more of him if he had a nice propelling pencil and a proper notebook.

And then there's this wonderful exchange from late in the novel (but no spoilers, I promise):

'Do you want to hear about it right away or shall we have dinner?'

'If it's time for dinner we'd better have it,' answered Flecker, and knowing Browning's dislike of going in late and finding all the best dishes off, he hastily put on his coat.

Browning looked at him disapprovingly. 'You can't go down like that, sir,' he said. 'Your tie's under your left ear and as for your hair—'

'Oh hell,' swore Flecker, making for the mirror.

Some of these scenes between Flecker and Browning already make clear that Pullein-Thompson has a sense of humor—though her mysteries are surprisingly hard-edged and cynical about human nature—but the real comic relief in Murder Strikes Pink is Molly Steer, one of the murdered woman's secretaries, who is neurotic and insecure to the point of idiocy, and is forever being taunted and scorned by Joy Hemming, the other secretary (though the tables are turned a bit by the end of the novel). We get a glimpse of her nature even in the opening paragraphs, as she cowers in the shadow of the as-yet-unmurdered Theodora:

As the prize winners, rosetted and applauded, cantered from the ring, Molly Steer, her nervousness increased by the knowledge that her deodorant had ceased to be effective, blundered into speech.

But the most revealing and hilarious performance by poor Molly comes late in the novel, as DCI Flecker is searching for clues in the dead woman's scrapbooks:

Flecker spent the afternoon happily absorbed in the pictorial records of T.T.'s one-sided life. Molly Steer, making frantic efforts not to disturb him, crept in and out at intervals to collect some forgotten paper from filing cabinet or desk; quite unaware that her elephantine creepings were far more disturbing than any normal walk. Her over-zealous efforts for quietude invariably ended by her blundering into a piece of furniture, dropping the stapler or closing the drawers of the metal cabinet with a crash, whereupon she would look anxiously round at Flecker. After the first time, when a stream of abject apologies was invoked by his asking if she had hurt herself, he kept his eyes on the scrapbooks and pretended to be completely engrossed.

Perhaps my hilarity over this scene is in part because I rather relate to poor Molly—I have certainly had my moments of being just about this awkward and clumsy, and just as with Molly, the more I think about my clumsiness and try not to be awkward, the more likely I am to leave havoc and disarray in my wake.

Back cover blurb of Greyladies edition of Murder Strikes Pink

I'm so thankful to Shirley at Greyladies for reviving these wonderful mysteries, because if it hadn't been for the fact that a publisher whose books I generally love had reprinted them, I can't imagine I would ever have picked up a mystery set among the horsey set by an author known mainly for her children's books. But I am also sad that, for whatever reason (possibly, according to blogger and mystery scholar Curtis Evans, who blogs at The Passing Tramp, in a comment on my original post, because of the discouragement of her publishers, who may have felt her mysteries were a bit old-fashioned), Pullein-Thompson stopped writing mysteries after publishing only three. I would love to have a bookcase shelf devoted entirely to 30 or 40 of her novels. And at the very least, I wish she could have written one or two more just to get DCI Flecker's romance firmly established—it's terrible not to know for sure that everything works out for him and Lesley, and if so, how love and marriage might affect his tendency to despair over humanity's weaknesses!

But in lieu of that, I will just have to have a periodic re-read of the three novels she did write.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Reading diary: DORITA FAIRLIE BRUCE, WINIFRED DARCH


DORITA FAIRLIE BRUCE, Nancy in the Sixth (1935)

The combined influence of my return to the Chalet School books (despite my glacial progression through the series) and my enjoyment of Dorita Fairlie Bruce's Colmskirk novels surely influenced my decision to grab an affordable copy of the out-of-print Girls Gone By edition of this earlier Bruce title when it popped up on Abe Books recently.

Although Bruce is one of the biggest names in the genre of girls' school stories, and although, as you all know, I've been having a lot of fun with that genre in the past year or so, I also had a bit of a resistance to Bruce's school stories. I've read that even some school story fans find Nancy a bit too much of a goody-two-shoes, and my only other experience with one of Bruce's series characters was Toby at Tibbs Cross, the wartime entry in her Toby series, which follows Toby into adulthood in the midst of the war (and is therefore likely to be rather different from the Toby school stories). I found that book just a bit too much on the Christian inspirational side for my own tastes. Perhaps the wartime setting and efforts to keep up the morale of her readers' had something to do with that as well.

But although I must admit there were times in reading Nancy in the Sixth that I could have dunked Nancy's head in a bucket of ice water for her ridiculous standards of behavior, including refusing to "sneak" (i.e. tell the truth about another student's bad behavior) even when it created chaos and inconvenience for the entire school she purports to care so much about, I still had a rollicking good time with the book overall. And it would take a gruffer reader than myself to not fall in love with the charming Bianca Jane (aka Bija), a junior whose efforts at training herself for a future as a biographer, not to mention her common sense and openness which highlight how silly Nancy's own standards are, play a pivotal role in the book's plot:

"And what's your name?"

"Bijah Allen."

"What?"

"I told you—Bijah Allen. I wasn't christened that, of course; I've got another, but Nancy Caird says it's not to be used, and if any one says it by mistake they're to be fined a halfpenny. I expect she meant me too—anyhow, I daren't risk it, because I'm rather hard-up at present, and a halfpenny's a halfpenny."

Clemency looked at her hard. "I wonder," she mused, "if you're a little mental—not quite right in your head, you know."

Bijah's keen sense of humour accepted this as an excellent joke.

"It's just my newness," she explained cheerfully. "I've never been to school before, and at first the Lower Third thought I must be a bit dotty too, but they soon saw that was a mistake."

As for the central conflict, the bitter conflict between Nancy and the Clemency, it's patently clear from page 1 that Nancy will come out on top, but that doesn't make the various twists and Clemency's deviousness any less enjoyable.

I have to confess that I've already placed an order for another of Girls Gone By's Nancy titles, and while I was at it came across an earlier Toby title as well and with an "in for a penny, in for a pound" kind of resignedness, ordered that one too. So it looks like I'll be learning more about Bruce's school stories in the near future.




WINIFRED DARCH, The New School and Hilary (1926) & Alison Temple—Prefect (1938)


I'm not sure that I really have the credentials to claim that a girls' school story author is criminally neglected. I've probably read a grand total of 25 or 30 school stories so far, out of many hundreds (or even thousands?) that true experts in the field would be familiar with. But I feel a bit inclined to make just such a claim of Winifred Darch.

I seem to get some support for such a claim from Sue Sims & Hilary Clare, who note in their Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories that:

Darch forges compelling and utterly credible plots with attractive characters; these, mixed with an English teacher's eye for precisely the right phrase, and a delightful sense of irony, make Darch's books among the best school stories ever written.

Despite this, however, only one of Darch's novels has been reprinted in recent decades, by (of course) Girls Gone By, and that edition—of The New School and Hilary—is now long out-of-print again, though fortunately not terribly difficult to track down. This lack of attention is hard to understand, though in a short intro to the GGB edition of Hilary Mary Cadogan suggests that her decision to write only stand-alone novels, instead of focusing on the same schools and characters for a series of novels, might be to blame. But it's certainly unfortunate, since The New School and Hilary, at least, is a very strikingly realistic portrayal of school life that almost warrants being included on my grownup school story list. Although it certainly was written for girls and not primarily for grownups, it nevertheless reminded me of Mary Bell's Summer's Day at times, which as you all must surely know by now is, for me, a sort of high-water mark in the genre.


In part, this is because the novel's focus shifts occasionally from the traditional perspective of a schoolgirl—in this case the titular Hilary, who at the novel's beginning makes the move from a posh boarding school to a local high school which has only just been opened—to the perspective of a young teacher, Judith Wingfield, who also attended Hilary's old school and is remembered by Hilary as a much-admired senior when she herself was only 12 years old. This lends the novel a very nearly adult perspective when it comes, for example, to the confrontation between Judith's idealism about negotiating class differences and the harsher realities of her new position:

The landlady no doubt meant to be very kind and Judith had come to Uffington with a firm resolve that she was going to help to break down the foolish barriers which still divided class from class. Still, mixing with all sorts of children and helping to raise their ideals was different from taking a bath in your landlady's kitchen!

Undoubtedly, as discussed in another introductory article, this one by Sue Sims, the vivid attention to detail of the scenes from Judith's perspective undoubtedly stems in part from the fact that Darch used her own teaching experiences as a model. Darch apparently continued to base many of the events of her stories on real events in her teaching career, and Sims quotes a former student of Darch who says, "We all enjoyed the stories and were great fans of the author. I remember well attempts to divert end-of-term English lessons from the set syllabus to a recounting of the plot of the story then in the press. We were usually successful!"

Illustration by Gilbert Dunlop,
from Alison Temple--Prefect

This basis in the realities of school life also makes The New School and Hilary quite interesting from a more historical or sociological perspective. Hilary's new high school brings together girls from very different classes and backgrounds, and the novel attempts to explore those differences a bit, with the result that the story feels grounded by comparison with the unquestioned affluence and zanily unrealistic perils and rescues of many school stories. Darch doesn't offer up any major life-threatening events here, and in fact might even in one scene be making a joke at the expense of such madcap stories:

"You don't mean you like her, Hilary?" demanded Marigold.

"No, I don't. But I've felt so horrid myself this week-end that I've got a sort of fellow feeling for her. I think if we go on being beastly to her she'll naturally be horrid, but if we don't—"

Marigold shrugged her pretty shoulders. "You'd better go and save her life or something, Hilary!"

But her story is no less entertaining for the absence of fires and floods and plagues of locusts (okay, I don't know of any school stories featuring plagues of locusts, but I wouldn't be that surprised if there were some).

I enjoyed The New School and Hilary so much that I promptly spent far too much money buying several more of Darch's novels. I've only read one so far, and that one, Alison Temple—Prefect (1938, reprinted in 1961 as Alison in a Fix), comes from considerably later in Darch's writing career. The GGB intro to New School suggests that Darch's later work suffered as a result of her decision to take early retirement from teaching in order to care for her sick parents. Because the great strength of her earlier works was the inspiration they took from Darch's actual experiences and those of her students, her 1935 retirement may have deprived her work of some of its former immediacy and attention to detail. In fact, Darch published only two more titles after Alison, despite living on into her mid-70s.

1961 reprint of Alison Temple--Prefect

Two books isn't enough to judge the career trajectory of an author who published nearly two dozen books in all. I can certainly say that Alison Temple—Prefect is neither as tightly plotted nor as realistic and well-developed from a character standpoint as New School, but I can also say that I had a great time reading it. The main plot here centers around the familiar theme of a much-loved headmistress going on leave and being replaced with a difficult new head who makes life a misery for the school. Darch offers the somewhat unusual twist of having the loved head be a fairly strict disciplinarian who is replaced by a expert on psychology who has newfangled ideas about not repressing girls with rules (but who instead tortures them by passive-aggressive measures far crueler than the rules they replace). The new headmistress, who happens to be Alison's Aunt Lucilla, also causes problems for Alison's sisters, including one who is in her first term as an art mistress at the school. And of course there's a subplot of a bitter rivalry between Alison and another girl, which is worked out tidily in the end.

Naturally, a healthy portion of the book's humor comes from Aunt Lucilla's theories of child psychology. She has considerably more theories than she has sense, as quickly becomes clear. There is humor in the girls' attempting to figure out her ideas:

'Isn't this awful, Clare? And exactly what is it all about? My sister Pamela was right; I ought to have read that book of Aunt—of Miss Bidgood's. I expect it's all in there.'

'W-What?' whispered Eve.

'All about not repressing children,' replied Alison briefly. 'That's chiefly what it comes to, doesn't it, Clare?'

'Yes,' said Clare. 'If children are repressed they either break out or they don't.'

'I should have thought that obvious,' murmured Alison.

'But if they don't they suffer from inferiority complexes, and it leads them to show off or else to—Oh, I can't remember—probably to die of broken hearts,' said Clare.

And then, a few pages later, Alison hilariously uses Aunt Lucilla's own theories against her:

'Would you mind reading a dozen lines from Paradise Lost or any other poem which has moved you deeply?'

Alison had turned very red.

'I couldn't possibly,' she said gruffly and finally.

Miss Bidgood looked disappointed.

'You should try to get over your shyness,' she said.

'Probably I was too much repressed when I was young.'


It's all great good fun, even if it's not up to New School's standards. And I still have two more Darch novels on my TBR shelves, so perhaps you'll hear more about those here in the future.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Book sale loot


It has taken me even longer than usual to get round to writing about the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library Big Book Sale, which was held from last Tuesday until yesterday. However, this year we actually made two trips to the sale, so that will have to serve as some sort of excuse for my sluggishness.


I don't know if I've ever mentioned before that the opening night of the sale is a preview night that is "for members only". To be a member you only have to donate a certain amount to the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, and your two tickets to the preview night appear in your mailbox as if placed there by elves a week or so before the sale. Now, the "members only" part makes it sound like the preview night is a really special and exclusive event for a select few, but in fact every book geek and every bookseller, amateur or professional, from miles around apparently make their annual donations and attend the preview night.


This is the night when I've always gone, and it's truly an adventure and a madhouse. The amateur booksellers are an ongoing peril much loathed by actual readers, as they frantically scan the barcodes of every single book with their cell phones to see what the going rate is and whether they could make a buck or two by snatching it up. (At least I assume these are all amateurs, as I would like to believe that professional booksellers still have some actual knowledge of books and know at a glance whether a book is saleable or not, without their iPhone telling them so, but perhaps I'm naive and that kind of bookseller no longer exists.) At any rate, these folks are often oblivious to other people in their path, leading occasionally to the exchange of harsh words and dirty looks.

Then there's the fact that the sale organizers kindly provide full-size grocery carts for the convenience of the attendees. A lovely gesture, except that when you have at least a few hundred people frantically scrambling for books, traffic jams, collisions, and the occasional trampling of less aggressive and more diminutive shoppers are inevitable. (Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but I wouldn't be entirely surprised to see a dazed shopper being helped to his or her feet with shopping cart wheel tracks across his or her chest. The fact that it hasn't happened yet is a testament to the good luck that piles of old books bring with them.) Of course, I should hasten to add that my worn out granny cart (sorry, no picture this year, but trust me, it's even more ramshackle than it was at the last sale) couldn't possibly count as a hazard or an annoyance to anyone, and I avow that I've never done more than graze another shopper (though I confess I hope that the victims of any such grazings were fiendishly scanning bar codes at the time).

All of these factors were exacerbated on this occasion by the fact that the sale was moved to a different building at the Fort Mason Center—a nicer building, admittedly, but also a smaller one. So the amount of chaos experienced increased in direct proportion to the decrease in square footage.

Sadly however, the chaos really didn't pay off very well this year. Only a small portion of the tower of books you see at the top of this post was acquired on Tuesday evening. But I am a glutton for punishment, and something made me decide that we should return on Saturday morning and see if any other exciting books had appeared on the tables. With the result that I fully intend, when the next sale rolls around in April, to skip the Greek tragedy of preview night altogether and simply go when the other quiet, civilized, cheerful book geeks go.

For on Saturday morning there was nary a barcode scanner in sight, and indeed only about a fifth as many people overall as on preview night. And imagine my surprise when, right off the bat, I began to unearth some excellent additions to my library. Indeed, at least two-thirds of my finds (and most of the best ones) resulted from our Saturday visit. So, no more barcode scanners for me (though I will somewhat regret no longer having the opportunity of grazing their shins with my cart...).

But now, on to the books themselves:



I've had luck before with finding E. M. Delafield books at the sale, but I was surprised to find an American edition of her 1933 novel, Gay Life, still resting on a table four days after the preview night. According to the Bookman, in this novel Delafield "deserts her provinces and takes to the Cote d'Azur, where her story reveals a fortnight's goings-on in a Grand Hotel." This doesn't seem to be one of Delafield's best-known books, and perhaps there's a reason for that, but it's going to look just fine on my shelves. I also always enjoy an inscription that gives a feel for a book's past owners, and this one was apparently inscribed in no less impressive a place than Omaha, Nebraska.


I've also had some good luck in the past with Margery Sharp books at the sale, and despite the fact that I already have a copy of The Nutmeg Tree (1937), I couldn't resist this  movie tie-in edition.


It's complete with dustjacket, albeit a slightly bedraggled one:


It was apparently published to coincide with the feature film version of the book, Julia Misbehaves (1948), which starred Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon (not to mention Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Lawson). Has anyone seen the movie?


Another fun find was a cute copy of Jan Struther's  A Pocketful of Pebbles (1946). 


Apparently this is an American release which followed the success of the film version of Mrs. Miniver, and it includes the complete text of Struther's only other major book, Try Anything Twice, plus additional poetry and articles.


It also had an inscription from just after World War II:


The mystery section of the sale was a bit disappointing this year, but on Tuesday night one of my only exciting finds was a copy of A Fine and Private Place (1947) by Mary Fitt (better known to her friends as classical scholar Kathleen Freeman.


I don't know anything much about Fitt yet, but here is the publisher's description from the jacket flaps:



I also nabbed a copy of E. C. R. Lorac's Shepherd's Crook (1953) in an ex-library copy that is very much the worse for wear, but still has (most of) its interesting dustjacket. (It also looks considerably better after I carefully sliced off its old mylar cover and replaced it with a new one.) 


This is an American edition of the mystery that appeard in the U.K. as Crook o'Lune: 


I've yet to read anything by Lorac (pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett), but even if it's not to my taste the cover alone is worth the $1 I paid for it. And the back flap and back cover have lists of other books and authors which I'll have to look at more closely:



I've also never read anything by Sheila Kaye-Smith, so I picked up her postwar novel The Lardners and the Laurelwoods (1948). 


From the description on the flaps, it's hard to know when the book is set and whether it will make much use of postwar themes, but I'll keep you posted.


Now, time for a bit of a confession. I'm sure many of you are fans of Nancy Mitford for her classic duo of novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949). I hate to admit it, but I've failed in both of my attempts to navigate the first of those. It just seemed like too much to me. But regardless, I found myself unable to resist a more or less pristine (though naked) American edition of the novel Mitford wrote next, The Blessing (1951). Part of the reason was that it came complete with its original Book-of-the-Month Club insert (which of course I will show you here—how could I not?). So I shall try to navigate one of her less famous novels and see how I get on with that—perhaps I just perversely dislike the most acclaimed and loved novels of the time?


I was a little bit reluctant to add Elizabeth von Arnim's The Caravaners (1909) to my collection, only because so many of her works are available as ebooks and believe me, there is a limited amount of space in our apartment. However, in the end I couldn't resist, and so this tale of a German couple caravaning through England—told, apparently, by the cantankerous husband—is now on my TBR shelf.


It's also illustrated throughout by Arthur Litle:


Those are the main old old old books I came across by British women. My other finds were either newer editions or by non-Brits.


In the former category, I picked up two of the old black Viragos which don't turn up very often these days. They are Antonia White's two final novels, The Sugar House (1952) and Beyond the Glass (1954). I looked carefully in case there was a copy of The Lost Traveller (1950), which, together with the two I found, forms a sort of trilogy of sequels to her most famous work, Frost in May (1933), but it was not to be found. White is not, shall we say, the most cheerful of authors, but I found Frost in May interesting, so I'm game.


Rumer Godden is one of my favorite authors (though I realize with horror that I've never reviewed one of her books here), but the only works from late in her career that I've read are her two wonderful memoirs. Now that Coromandel Sea Change (1991), one of her final novels for adults, has a place on my TBR shelves, I will have a chance to do that.

And the last book by an author on my list is also by far the most recent. I've never read anything by mystery writer Gwendoline Butler, who only died in 2013, but I'll sample her work with Coffin Knows the Answer (2002).

I mentioned Elizabeth Lemarchand on my Grown-Up School Story List, for her debut, Death of an Old Girl (1967), which appeared several years too late for her to make my Overwhelming List. Sadly, Old Girl was nowhere to be found at the book sale, but I picked up the blandest possible book sale edition of a later book, Unhappy Returns (1977). Another confession: I actually recently read Lemarchand's Buried in the Past (1974) and enjoyed it, but I never quite got round to writing about it here.


Of course, there are a fair number of authors who feel like they belong on my Overwhelming List, even if they don't. Ngaio Marsh is a favorite of mine, and she's so closely associated with the great British women mystery authors that it seems a shame to leave her off, but she is in fact from New Zealand. I had to add a nice hardcover of her third from final novel, Grave Mistake (1978), to my collection.


And on the back cover is a charming photo of Marsh:


Jill Paton Walsh is far too recent to qualify for my list, though she is likely known to many of you because she completed Dorothy Sayers' unfinished Peter Wimsey novel, Thrones, Dominations (1998), and has since written several more books of her own featuring Sayers' famous detective. But the book that I found is The Bad Quarto (2007), apparently the last of four novels featuring Imogen Quy, a part-time college nurse at the fictitious St. Agatha's College at Cambridge. It sounds intriguing.


And the last of my finds from the mystery tables (which don't seem so disappointing now that I'm writing about them) was literally a complete mystery to me when I came across it, but the cover was irresistible. Murder at Calamity House (1947) is apparently the second and final novel by Canadian Ann Cardwell (pseudonym of Jean Makins Powley). Her first novel, Crazy to Kill (1941), set (you guessed it) in a mental institution, seems to be more famous than Calamity House, and there's a bit about it here. Whether I'll like the book or not remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the cover alone was worth the hefty $1 price I paid!


There's also another author list on the back flap to explore (albeit one with very few women):


Although I haven't mentioned him here yet, of course Andy was doing his usual perusals of the tables, with his (also as usual) hopeless list of authors I'd like to find. But after giving up on my list, he kept poking around and eventually brought me three books that he thought might be interesting to me. Among other things, I had had him looking in the children's section for any Girls Gone By titles that might have slipped in between old copies of Charlotte's Web and Pippi Longstocking. Naturally, there was nary a GGB title to be found, but from the children's table, he brought me two books that, though American, I couldn't resist.


Margaret Sutton, as some of you undoubtedly know better than I, wrote dozens of children's books, most famously the Judy Bolton series of mysteries (I knew about Nancy Drew, but have never met Judy). The Clue in the Patchwork Quilt (1941) was written in the early years of WWII (any bets as to whether it mentions the war at all or not?) and is at least worth a perusal.


The book is rather cheaply done, with the result that its illustrations, by Pelagie Doane, don't come through very well, but the endpapers are rather nice:


Andy also found Sally Found Out (1930), by Lilian Garis, who apparently wrote hundreds of books for children. 


A description of the book on Goodreads (presumably from the book's jacket flap?) is a little high on perkiness for my taste, but also piques my interest: "Sally was determined to leave school and try earning money on her own account. And that experience furnished her with enough adventures literally to pack a book full of the very kind of material that girls like Sally delight in reading about." Hmmmmm. And there are illustrations by Thelma Gooch:


Finally, Andy picked up a charming Pocket Books edition of a book and author I'd never heard of—The Walsh Girls (1943), by Elizabeth Janeway. 


I admit I bought the book purely for its cover, but Janeway actually sounds more interesting than I had expected. According to her Guardian obituary, she published seven novels, and by the 1960s had become a prominent feminist, forming friendships with the likes of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Kate Millett. The Guardian describes her novels as "focused on the family situation, with occasional glimpses at the struggles of women in modern society," so there may be more to the book than just its cover...


I did relatively well in finding some interesting books by American writers. I've mentioned Mary Lasswell here before, as one of my favorite American humorists, and on Saturday morning I snatched up a copy of her final "Suds" novel, Let's Go for Broke (1962), featuring the same trio of boozy women from San Diego who grazed her earlier novels Suds in Your Eye (1942), High Time (1944), One on the House (1949), Wait for the Wagon (1951), and Tooner Schooner (1953).


The complete series is now available as ebooks, but of course the ebooks won't have this delightful dustjacket...


I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I've never read Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), which is considered a classic of American humor and has been a perennial bestseller since it first appeared. 


It was also, of course, the basis for the classic 1953 film with Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. This copy isn't a proper "first" in that it is from the tenth printing in March of 1926, though the book must have been a smash right off the bat, since the first printing had been only four months earlier. At any rate, it's a cute little book with delightful illustrations:


And I'm intrigued by its inscription...


I've been meaning to place a new Persephone order for quite a while, but now I won't need to order Helen Hull's Heat Lightning (1932). Persephone reprinted it a couple of years back, and it was also a Book-of-the-Month Club selection when it first appeared. Persephone's description of the book notes: "It is the summer after the Great Crash of 1929 and, as in so many Persephone books, everything happens and nothing happens." Sounds perfect.


And here is an inscription that I found particularly touching. I think it's because of the shakiness of the writing, suggesting perhaps an older man giving a gift to his literary wife?


And finally, the last of the truly old books I acquired: I was rather astonished to find (while crawling around under a table, rifling through the boxes of books for which there was not yet room on the tops of the tables) what appears to be a true first edition of the second novel, The Blind Bow-Boy (1923), by one of my favorite male obscurities. Carl Van Vechten was a controversial but fascinating figure—a relatively openly gay man at a time when such openness was rare (he was married, but it seems to have been a matter of friendship and convenience, as his wife was aware of his relationships with men), and also a promoter and publicizer of Harlem Renaissance authors, with all of the complexities that went with being a white patron of black artists. He published seven novels from 1922 to 1930, and although I've read numerous blasé and condescending dismissals of these by scholars who (supposedly) know, I find them endlessly entertaining and interesting. Sadly, the most famous of his novels is a Harlem-focused novel with what is now an incendiary title, N****r Heaven (a slang term that in the 1920s denoted the upper balcony seats in theatres where African-Americans were allowed to sit), and is also by far his weakest and least entertaining. The others are funny and campy, all permeated by a gay sensibility, and the best of the bunch, his last, Parties (1930), is a perverse, dark farce about Jazz Age depravity, in which the main character is happily bisexual (a terrible drunk, like most of the other characters, but at least not tormented by his sexuality, like most other such characters of the time). Oddly, Van Vechten gave up fiction after 1930, but went on to became a famous portrait photographer, with clients ranging from Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to Marlon Brando and Gertrude Stein (the last of whom was a close friend).


This book also has by far the most eccentric frontispiece of the books I acquired:


The photo of my loot also shows three other books with little relevance to my blog. As odd as it might seem for me to be a Hemingway fan, I have been ever since high school, and I decided it might be time to re-read True at First Light (1999), one of several posthumous publications making use of a massive unfinished project he worked on over the course of decades. Then, I've always meant to read more of Isaac Bashevis Singer and of Henry Green, so I grabbed up nice copies of two of their books as well.

So that's that for another six months or so. How do you think I did?
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