Friday, July 1, 2016

Book report: Mysteries and the Chalet School

Not "Mysteries at the Chalet School," mind you, which would no doubt be an exciting post (possibly more exciting than this one). This post is, in fact, to rectify my laxness in reporting on some of my recent reading. In truth, I'm not sure it can be called laxness, as it's largely the result of spending much of the past couple of months wearing my new publishing cap and getting to finally announce the titles we're releasing (see here if you missed it). 

I'm behind on writing about several books I've read lately, including one that was rather exciting, but since I focus so much on this blog on really obscure books that many of you may not have a chance to read, I decided that my next non-publishing post should be focused on books many of you may have actually read. Just for a pleasant change of pace. And most of those, lately, have been either mysteries or Chalet School books. Hence the title.

Much of the mystery reading of late was inspired by my loot from the most recent book sale. I recently finished my fourth NGAIO MARSH novel of the past few weeks, and I've made an interesting (well, to me) discovery about my biases. I think because for so long the only mystery author I really read was Agatha Christie, and because there are such differences between early Agatha, middle Agatha, and late Agatha (with the late books pretty definitively her lesser achievements, at least in my opinion), I have tended to assume, for no good reason at all, that the same differences apply to Marsh's work. (There are few mystery writers so prolific over the same decades-long periods, so there aren't many other authors I could apply such assumptions to.)

At any rate, judging from Killer Dolphin (1966) and Dead Water (1963), such assumptions should go out the window. Far from being inferior late works à la Elephants Can Remember or (ugh) Passenger to Frankfurt, these have enormously entertaining casts of characters and highly intriguing situations. I picked up Killer Dolphin just to sample the first page or two, and a couple hours later was halfway through it—Andy thought I must have fallen asleep, I was so intently silent.

Killer Dolphin flaps

In short, Dolphin centers around theatre director and manager Peregrine Jay (who reappears in Marsh's final novel, Light Thickens) salvaging and renovating an old Blitzed-out London theatre, producing a play about Shakespeare's son Hamnet, who famously died tragically young. In the process, he comes across a glove apparently made for Hamnet by Shakespeare's father, which goes on display in the renovated theatre, until a man guarding the exhibit is brutally murdered and the glove stolen. Suffice it to say that the opening, in which Jay explores the run-down theatre and tumbles into a flooded hole in the stage and nearly drowns, will tend to suck you in and make it difficult to stop reading.

Dead Water flaps

Dead Water has a similarly-intriguing situation, set on a tidal island on which a lovely woman in green appears in a vision to a young boy, instructing him to bath his hands in a spring, after which his embarrassing warts are miraculously healed. The quiet island is transformed into a tourist destination for visitors with maladies of all sorts, until the elderly owner of the island dies and her eccentric (but strangely likeable) sister decides to shut down all this rank commercialism. Resentment, infighting, murder, and mayhem follow, and it's all great entertainment.

Of course, if your taste in mysteries lies more in the puzzle and procedure than in the characters and events, then you may not think these two books are any great shakes. You might prefer Vintage Murder (1937) or Enter a Murderer (1935), which I also read recently and which are much more focused on puzzles and investigations. Both are entertaining, both also have theatre settings (one of Marsh's particular interests), but they're also more meticulously focused on the hows and whys and lots of speculation about possible scenarios, which for me is less entertaining than interesting characters. And Vintage Murder contains, for those keeping track, yet another strikingly implausible method of murder…

[I have to add here that, in doing some Google search or other to find information for this post, I came across this site, which consists of a bibliography, made by one Helene Androski, of Golden Age mystery novels, and which I know many of you will enjoy. But I mention it here because it revealed to me that there is in fact a term for the kind of puzzle- and explication-centric mystery novels that tend to put me to sleep. Apparently, Julian Symons, a prominent mystery writer himself, coined the term "humdrum school" to describe "a style where a complicated puzzle plot predominated at the expense of character development, realism, or interesting dialogue." Well, there you have it! And if such a prominent figure found such novels humdrum, I will no longer apologize for my preference of character and dialogue over clever puzzles. Though perhaps I don't prioritize realism as highly as Symons did—see next paragraph...]

Speaking of eccentric characters taking priority over the puzzle and the investigation, my reading of GLADYS MITCHELL's The Twenty-Third Man (1957) reminded me why I love Mitchell and the glorious Dame Bradley so much (and why some mystery fans don't feel the same). It has a daft plot about a Spanish island with a famous cave containing 23 mummified bodies, which during Mrs. Bradley's stay become 24, then 23 again, but maybe 24, or something like that. It's nonsense, and no one would think of committing or concealing a murder in such a way, but Mitchell's novels make such a wonderful mockery of realistic murders (and, for that matter, realistic investigations) that I couldn't have cared less. There's a highly-entertaining example of a monster child who turns out to be quite likeable (after a bit of Mrs. Bradley's tough love), an array of other suspicious folk, a past murder still haunting the present, and the delightfully creepy cave with its sundry corpses. I've already forgotten who did it and why, but I've rarely had such fun turning pages.

I've also recently read three of the mysteries picked up at the recent book saleThe Murders of Richard III (1974) by ELIZABETH PETERS, Johnny Under Ground (1965) by PATRICIA MOYES, and Malice Domestic (1986) by MOLLIE HARDWICK. The Peters, of course, was picked up out of a yearning for something half as good as Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, also concerned with Richard III's status as a murderer or not, and it certainly was half as good (which, by comparison to a Josephine Tey, is really quite good, so perhaps I'll give some of Peters' other books a try). The Hardwick was, as a couple of you warned me, an odd one—all the hallmarks of a cozy mystery but with a surprising darkness around the edges. I picked up three books in the series at the book sale, and I liked this one enough to try a second, but I haven't felt compelled to rush onward with the series quite yet.

Rounding out the mysteries I've read recently, you may already know I'm a fan of Patricia Moyes, and Johnny Under Ground is a particularly entertaining one of her books. My favorite element of this series is really the relationship between series detective Henry Tibbetts and his wife Emmy, who are both realistic, flawed, but completely likeable characters, and a particular strength of this title is that it centers around Emmy's wartime experiences (based on Moyes' own time in the Radar Section of the British Women's Auxiliary Air Force). It's partly a retrospective mystery, dealing with the mysterious apparent suicide of Emmy's old RAF pilot flame, and I sometimes find retrospective mysteries a bit dry. Indeed, the mystery here is not particularly stunning for hardcore puzzle fans (or should I say fans of the humdrum school). But despite that, and partly because of the war interest (I've now added Moyes to my war list on the basis of this title), I found this one quite enjoyable.

Transitioning from murder mysteries to Chalet School books isn't easy (have any of the modern authors writing continuations or connectors of these stories ever thought to write a murder mystery for the Chalet girls to solve, I wonder???), but it's also been a while since I've mentioned any of my reading of school stories and I know that some of you are big fans.

Almost a year ago now (unbelievably), I wrote a post (see here) about reading the first two volumes of ELINOR M. BRENT-DYER's immortal series. You would think that in that year I would have managed to progress at least halfway through all the 60+ volumes, wouldn't you? But alas, you would be underestimating the schizophrenic nature of my reading habits. In fact, I have now progressed through exactly four more of the books, though I am enjoying them no less for averaging only one per quarter.

I have to admit one of the four was read totally out of order. When Girls Gone By reprinted The Chalet School Reunion (1963), in which many of the earliest Chalet girls, now grown-up and with widely-varied lives and adult concerns, gather at Jo's home for a weekend, I knew I could never wait to read it in its proper order. And indeed, its combination of a school connection with a group of grown women chatting and commiserating and (in Grizel's case) recovering from heartbreak and illness (not to mention a couple of harrowing experiences without which it wouldn't be a Chalet School novel) proved irresistible to me, and I gobbled it all up with pleasure. I assume that, as I think Jo continues to figure prominently in these books long after she is grown, the later volumes in the series must all have some degree of more grown-up content, right? Are there (I ask those of you who are experts on the series) other volumes that have a particular focus on Jo's or other former Chalet girls' adult lives?

But I also still love the early books, and I very much enjoyed The Princess of the Chalet School (1927), The Head Girl of the Chalet School (1928), and The Rivals of the Chalet School (1929). Perhaps I'm just particularly fond of Grizel, because my clear favorite of these was Head Girl, which also focuses much of its attention on her. There's also a lot of travel in that book, and I always love vicarious tourism (almost as much as the real thing, and more so when getting lost in a cave is part of the itinerary). I have a feeling that some of those sections were the ones that were cut or edited in the original paperback versions, so I'm glad I managed to get hold of a Girls Gone By edition of it.

In Head Girl, too, we get a glimpse of Jo's beginnings as an author, which is always entertaining for what it suggests about Brent-Dyer's own ideas about fiction-writing:

'I say, Jem, I've nearly finished my story! The only thing I can't decide is what to do about marrying them.'

'Aren't you going to marry them?' asked Madge, who had been privileged to read the first part of this tale. 'Oh, I think I should, Joey. What else do you want to do with them?'

'I could kill "Raymonde" off,' said Jo. 'Then "Adelaide" could—could—'

'Well? Could—what?' demanded Jem.

'Go into a convent?' suggested Grizel.

'Of course not, idiot! She's not a Catholic!'

'Marry them, of course,' said Madge. 'Don't make them unhappy, Jo! Even if it's only a story, let them end up all right.'

'Lots of stories don't,' argued Jo as well as she could for a mouthful of cake. 'Look at A Tale of Two Cities, and The Old Curiosity Shop, and The Mill on the Floss.'

'It requires genius to write a tragedy, Jo,' said her brother-in-law. 'I grant you that Dickens and George Eliot got away with it; but nothing is worse than the mawkish rot that some people write.'

And finally, I don't usually think of the Chalet School books as being particularly uproariously funny, though they may often bring a smile to one's face. But I can't resist sharing this giggle-worthy passage from early in Princess, when Elizaveta is falling asleep while fantasizing about finally getting to go to the Chalet School:

Elisaveta lay very still and watched [Nurse], turning over in her mind all that she had been told and all the splendid time that was coming to her. It seemed too wonderful to be true.

Then she knew that it was; for she was there already, and was assuring a quite serious headmistress that she never went on a lake with other girls unless they had an elephant in the boat.

A great mental image, the elephant seated cheerfully, in an impeccable school uniform, in the boat with Jo and Elizaveta and perhaps the Robin.

So that's all the Chalet School reading I've done for now, but I'm pretty certain there will be more before long. I've been keeping my eyes peeled for affordable copies of the out-of-print Girls Gone By editions of later series titles—especially those that were most egregiously slashed and abridged in the original paperbacks. And I've had a bit of luck…

Plenty to keep me busy for a while!


  1. WHAT a shift from the beginning to the end of this day's blog! Well, happy July! Oh, Scott, I remember lolling on the beach in Honolulu in 1992 (!) reading Killer Dolphin - my paperback had a darker cover, I remember, whilst on my last (and so far it has been the LAST!) honeymoon. You brought it all back - gee, so do I thank you or not? Anyway, I do recall enjoying it - the novel, I mean! I have been sort of dipping back into her novels every os often - I want to read all the Troy ones again in order, but it seems too hard after the first couple to figure out which ones they are - AND in order. I know someday this blog will make it all clear! Tom

    1. Well, Tom, I'm glad to have brought back happy memories of the book at least! I would have thought there must be a list of the best Marsh books featuring Troy, but I can't easily locate one. It occurs to me that neither Killer Dolphin nor Dead Water feature her very much, but they're very good anyway!

  2. I went to a talk at a Book Festival about British Library crime Classics and why/which/how they are republishing. very interesting.
    Just picked up copies of A Will and a Way by Doris A Pocock and Life in Little Eden by Constance Goddard at a Car Boot sale for pennies, I know you have them in your lists but do you have them on your shelves?

    1. Sounds like an interesting talk, Sue. I'm looking forward to their rumored release of a Lois Austen-Leigh mystery, but I don't see anything about it on Amazon yet.

      I am certainly envious of your boot sale finds! I know of both authors, but know little about their books, so if you read them do be sure to drop me a line and tell me a bit about them!

  3. I like Elizabeth Peters very much. Comparing her with Josephine Tey is an interesting idea - they both have a terrific intelligence and dryness but Tey is darker and Peters is out to enjoy herself. My favourite Peters novels by far are those in the Vicki Bliss series. Now for the Chalet School - when I first borrowed Reunion from my local library, I spent hours looking at that cover and trying to work out who was who and even looking at the Freudesheim saal (is that the right word? I'm too settled on the sofa to check). To answer your question, well, yes, most if not all of the later books deal with the adult characters, if not quite as much as the girls, then at least enough to satisfy. Some (like Craig and Cadogan?) think that EBD's unwillingness to give up Joey is a fault but I suspect that if you grew up with Joey, you forgive this.

    1. I happen to have found Peters' Silhouette in Scarlet for a dollar at a library sale, so I'll get to sample a Vicky Bliss mystery soon!

      I may have to start alternating my Chalet School reading between the early and late works, perhaps following Em's recommendations below. I do love that cover of Reunion too--the GGB edition has a convenient guide to who is who in the picture, which made things easier!

  4. Is Rivals at the Chalet School the book where the Chalet School students decide to act like the KKK to deal with their rivals? I came across a version of this book in New Zealand, in the laundry room of a hotel and read it with pleasure, except for the strange pit of the stomach feeling provided by the KKK references. I can buy the idea that European children of that day didn't understand the KKK, but shouldn't Brent-Dyer have known better?


    1. Yes, sadly, this is the one, Jerri. I read the paperback of that book, which is supposed to be only slightly edited, but it may have played down the KKK references a bit. To be fair, the girls' understanding of it is obviously quite vague, so it's possible Brent-Dyer didn't fully understand it either, but I'm not sure that's an adequate explanation. Fortunately, it's a very minor part of the book.

  5. There aren't many other Chalet School books like 'Reunion' - various adult characters pop up in the series from time to time and Jo is always a constant, but I can't really think of any other books in the series that are similar in terms of bringing back so many characters (and I have a soft spot for Grizel too, although I was a little disappointed when she settles down). There are some 'out of school' stories which do include some of the old girls - 'Jo to the Rescue', which is set in the early years of Jo's marriage and has Jo and her friends spending time in Yorkshire, 'Joey goes to the Oberland' which sees Jo and her family moving out to Switzerland when the school moves back, and 'Joey and Co in Tirol' which sees Joey and her family going back to the Tirol for a summer holiday.

    You might like Merryn Williams' 'The Chalet Girls Grow Up'. This caused a bit of a furor when it was published as the Chalet School fan club weren't very happy with how modern it was (there's everything from spousal abuse to affairs in it), but it's an interesting continuation of the story and a clever look at Chalet Girls in the 'real world'.

    1. Thank you for this, Em! Now I'm going to be hot on the trail of the three CS books you recommend. I think Tirol has just been reprinted by GGB, and I really want to read Rescue now, before we go to Yorkshire ourselves in a few months! Thanks for letting me know about those.

      I can imagine the uproar the Williams book must have caused. A brave author indeed to tamper with such a beloved series! But it does sound intriguing.

  6. Can we know exactly where you are going in the UK?

    1. I've been planning to do a new post about how our plans have fallen into place (for the most part), Joanna, so thanks for reminding me I need to get to work on that!

  7. This comment may appear twice because I am having internet problems; if so, apologies...

    I threw the Williams book across the room after reading about a quarter of it. Enough said....

    Jo to the Rescue is one of my absolute favourites, along with Joey goes to the Oberland. In fact they are both comfort reading for me. Joey and Co in Tyrol is slightly silly, but good fun.

    Another which brings in some of the former pupils is Coming of Age of the CS when the school takes it in turns to go back to the Tiernsee and Joey goes with Simone, Frieda, Marie and the current prefects.

    1. Sadly, Rescue doesn't seem to be affordable at the moment, but I'm making a note to keep my eyes open for it, Gil. It sounds like one I would love too. Maybe GGB will do that one soon?


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