Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Book report: holiday reading (pre-, mid-, and post-) (part 2)

Can I keep my comments on the books in this post as concise as in my last post? What's more, can I actually get more or less caught up on telling you about what I've reading before I've already read ten more books? We shall see.

I think I can make fairly short work of some mysteries I read before and during the holidays. I started off by going back to the beginning of the wonderful Mrs. Malory series, by HAZEL HOLT, in honor of her passing in late November. I suspect I'll work my way gradually through the entire series again, and it was interesting to recall that in the first book, Mrs. Malory Investigates (1989, published in the UK as Gone Away?), Sheila is described as being in her 50s and still relatively fresh from the dual loss of her husband and mother. Holt seems to have allowed her creation to age gracefully along with her.

I sampled one of MABEL ESTHER ALLAN's late novels written under the pseudonym Priscilla Hagon. I came across a copy of Cruising to Danger (1966) and was imagining that perhaps its tale of a young heroine uncovering a dastardly plot on a Mediterranean cruise while acting as companion to a family with small children just might evoke some of Allan's best works about girls coming to maturity. It did, just a little, and was perfectly enjoyable, but it's certainly not on a par with Margaret Finds a Future or Swiss Holiday/The Vine-Clad Hill. Interesting to see Allan working in "thriller" mode, though, however mildly.

When I'm feeling really lazy, of course, I often turn to AGATHA CHRISTIE, and the holidays brought a re-reading of Sleeping Murder (1976, but probably written in the 1940s), the final Miss Marple mystery. It's one of my favorites, and as it happens probably one of the first books I remember buying. The battered old paperbackwhich I still have, though it's been supplemented by a lovely hardcover first edition as wellis from only a year or two after the book first appeared.

As I recall, my 9 or 10-year-old self had a wee bit of difficulty following the story, but that didn't stop me from finishing it and reading it a second time soon after. There's something very seductive about its themes of past experiences long forgotten that come back to haunt one in the present. This is one of the Christies whose murderer I always remember at once, but I can never recall the details, and the book is so well-written, and Miss Marple so charmingly and enjoyably present, that knowing whodunnit makes little difference.

I already mentioned that Andy and I spent a couple of days in Monterey after Christmas, and I visited a favorite bookstore there (one of the only surviving bookshops in town), Old Capitol Books. The shop leans a bit more on the American side than the British side in its selection of beautiful old books, but I managed to do quite enough damage anyway. I actually purchased a second copy of Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness, purely because this copy had a lovely dustjacket that my other one lacked (which of course I will share with you here). 

I also had Andy scrambling to look up Hilary March, whose 1966 novel, A Question of Love, was unknown to me but tantalizingly available. As it turns out, March was a pseudonym used (presumably) because of the novel's lesbian themes, but the author, Isobel Lalage Pulvertaft (and that's the real name, not a pseudonym!), had already published three earlier novels that qualify her for my Overwhelming List.

And while I was in a buying mood, I also picked up two mysteries—an Ian Rankin, the setting of which may be relevant to an upcoming trip (more on that later), and one by a favorite author, Patricia Moyes. Although I had (of course!) brought other books on our trip to read, I found myself diving into Moyes' Night Ferry to Death (1985) before falling asleep that night, and I had finished it by the time we left Monterey. I don’t know that it's a particularly outstanding mystery in terms of its plot, though Moyes is always quite good, but I loved it for the fact that Henry Tibbett, her protagonist, and his wife Emmy do some traveling in the novel (in this case to the Netherlands) and their holidays together are usually entertaining, plus their personal dynamic is always charming and enjoyable.

Finally, I mentioned previously my happy acquisition, at the last Friends of the San Francisco Public Library book sale, of an obscure little mystery called Murder at Calamity House (1947), by an author named Ann Cardwell, which turned out to be the pseudonym of Jean Makins Pawley, a Canadian author. Calamity is the second of only two books she published, both of them mysteries, and even within their own realm of fairly deep obscurity, Calamity is the lesser-known of the two (which makes me happy that it's the one I happened across).

When I picked it up at the book sale, I figured it would be more or less a throwaway. I even imagined just scanning the rather seductive cover and then donating it back (such things are possible when you're paying only $1 per book). But it turned out to be surprisingly interesting. It may not be as polished and smooth as some of my other favorite mystery writers, and it’s a fairly dark little tale, but I found it hard to put down. There's a surreal quality about the dysfunctional family residing at "Calamity House" and their cold, casual cruelty to one another, but the bizarreness of it all certainly held my interest.

1989 reprint of Crazy to Kill

In fact, I immediately did an Abe Books search to see if I could find Cardwell's one other, slightly better-known novel, Crazy to Kill (1941). I could (in a reprint edition from 1989, which seems to be pretty readily available) and I did. I have to say that it really is more enjoyable—and even more odd—than Calamity House. A mystery novel, gruesomely loaded with multiple corpses and methods of murder, set in a mental institution and narrated by a sixty-ish inmate named Agatha Lawson, who has been a resident for ten years now but is expecting to be released soon, is certainly not your run-of-the-mill whodunnit. At times, its humor and Agatha's charming voice make it seem like a cozy mystery that could almost have been written today. At other times, it seems just a bit too dark for that.

I found the solution not altogether surprising, but I had great fun getting to it, and it was reviewed at Mystery File back in 2011, where the reviewer also had positive things to say (I am also shamelessly swiping the cover art used for that review—hopefully without offending anyone). Since the 1989 reprint is not impossible to find, you might want to consider it if you're open to a rather offbeat, morbid read.

Obviously, I'll need a Part 3 of this catch-up post, but I am getting there!


  1. I'm very happy you got around to Murder at Calamity House, a book I've been hoping to come across at our own Friends of the Library sales (we live a mere twenty minutes from the author's hometown). I wasn't much impressed by Crazy to Kill, but you've encouraged me to go back and give it a second go. I may have been unfair. Going by your description, Murder at Calamity House sounds more to my liking.

    Fingers crossed for the April book sale!

    1. I'm still sort of amazed that I got Calamity House for $1, Brian, though as I mentioned I had no idea what I was getting. Good luck that you may find it the same way!

  2. Yes, I love the way that Hazel Holt's books follow a real life. Shelia ages naturally, as do her family and friends and even pets. Agatha Christie and Rex Stout each have a mystery when their detective acquires a dog at the end of a case. But the dog never shows up again. But when Shelia gets an additional dog at the end of a case, that dog becomes a part of the family and shows up in the later books. I enjoy the Hazel Holt books a lot.


    1. Yes, the books are great for animal lovers too--I feel like Sheila's dog and cat are almost characters as well!

  3. "When I'm feeling really lazy, of course, I often turn to AGATHA CHRISTIE"

    Words after my own heart, Scott. I have huge TBR piles and even TBR shelves, but sometimes I just want to avoid deep thought and revisit an old friend. I think rereading Christie is like having a bowl of popcorn for supper.

    1. And somehow Dame Agatha seems to help be regroup and refresh myself to go back to other reading. Some other authors have a similar effect, but undoubtedly Christie is my all-time go-to for re-reading.

  4. Now, interesting to rad different takes on Sheila Mallory and her best friend Rosemary (?) because I have always felt that SOMEWHERE along in the series, she has dropped several decades. The children grow older and even marry, and the grandchildren certainly do, but somehow Sheila has miraculously become much younger. BUT - doesn't matter - I have enjoyed all the books so much, and am so sad to learn of Holt's death and that there is only the one left for me to read. Sigh.

    1. I'll have to pay attention as I gradually re-read the books. I remember that Sheila starts having more trouble with soreness after unaccustomed activity or with injuries in the later books (ugh, I can relate to the former and I'm still younger than her age in the first book!). But the demands of the plot may have meant that Holt wasn't totally consistent.


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