Murder Underground – Mavis Doriel Hay

From the British Library Crime Classics series which currently stands at around ninety titles and are a highly successful attempt to bring largely forgotten mystery and crime novels, mainly from the golden age of crime writing from the 1920’s to the 1940’s back into the public view. They all have this very attractive cover style and make a lovely collection on the shelf. Mavis Doriel Hay wrote three crime novels in the 1930’s and this was her first, originally published in 1934, and the first thing you note whilst reading it is how odd it is especially around the treatment of the police and especially their interviews with witnesses. Normally such interviews form an important part of the narrative but here we never get to ‘sit in’ and hear what they have to say. Initially at the boarding hotel where most of the action takes place all the residents are gathered together in the drawing room and the unnamed inspector is in the smoking room calling each one in in turn but the narrative never leaves the drawing room, what we get instead is chit chat about what might be happening in the smoking room. After this the police literally fade into the background being reduced to figures following various characters but almost never being involved in anything until after page 200 when the inspector, now finally given a name, appears again.

The lack of police or indeed anyone who would be recognised as the classic amateur detective so beloved by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and many others of this period is very unusual instead all of the residents of the small private hotel where the victim had lived have a go at solving the mystery in a piecemeal way and the reader is slowly presented with whatever they have discovered or deduced. This lack of the ‘normal’ structure I found frustrating at first but gradually grew to enjoy the atypical format with facts seemingly popping up at random as the various characters proceed in their individual investigations. The case should really be relatively simple, The old lady victim, Miss Euphemia Pongleton (sadly Hay’s major failing is the use of ridiculous names), is found near the bottom of the stairs at Belsize Park underground station with her dog’s lead entangled round her neck although she had not taken her dog with her and a stolen brooch is in her bag. There are lifts at Belsize Park so the long flight of stairs is rarely used although Miss Pongleton was known to always take them as she disliked lifts. However it turns out that three of the Frampton Hotel’s residents, or associates of residents including Miss Pongleton’s nephew and presumed heir Basil, also used those stairs that morning despite it not even being the closest station to the hotel.

The brooch she had confiscated from one of the hotel’s staff who had received it from her boyfriend who had in turn been given it as proceeds from the robbery that he had been conned into being the getaway driver for. It was wrapped in paper with his name written on the outside and to add to the suspicion that he might be guilty of the murder itself he worked as a porter at Belsize Park and was known to be on the platform at the bottom of the stairs as Miss Pongleton descended. Add to the tangle of clues a missing string of pearls and an apparent recent will, also missing, disinheriting Basil; along with how the dog lead made it round the neck of Miss Pongleton when it should be hanging on the coat stand in the Frampton and you are certainly not short of ways of investigating the murder and several prospective dead ends. The actual murderer is revealed near the end although it was a character I had taken a dislike to right at the start so I can’t say it was much of a surprise but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless.

Hay up until the point of writing this novel had previously stuck to her speciality which was rural crafts and after WWII she went back to writing on this subject never again to produce a murder mystery. Her only two other titles in this genre ‘Death on the Cherwell’ in 1935 and ‘The Santa Klaus Murder’ from 1936 are also available in the British Library collection

Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything * Abridged – Rutherford and Fry

I received this as a Christmas present and couldn’t be more pleased. I have been a fan of Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry for several years after first hearing their Radio 4 and BBC World Service show ‘The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry’. Hannah Fry is an Associate Professor in the mathematics of cities from University College London whilst Adam Rutherford is a geneticist at the same university. Both of them have also done a significant amount of TV work and have written several books individually, this is the first time they have written together. For those not familiar with their radio programme they tackle a listener raised query each week with scientific rigour and a considerable amount of humour and this book reads like a continuation of their radio show. If you want to sample their programme, and I recommend you do so, then all the 115 episodes they have made in the five years since they started it are available here.

From the introduction of Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything – Abridged

At first the layout of the book is a little confusing, apart from the main text there are numerous ‘boxes’ that go into more detail on a point raised however these sometimes appear half way through not just paragraphs but often midway through a sentence so you have to read on and then go back to the box if you don’t want to lose your place. The boxes can be up to three pages long so leaping then back to where the main text was up to caused me to reread a few sections to make sure I was back up to speed, there are also numerous footnotes to keep up with. Once you get to grips with the odd layout though the book is great fun and bounces around the various scientific concepts that are covered with enough detail to provide an interesting learning experience without going too deep so that you feel the need to browse the internet to follow what is being said. This is very much like their radio show which is good as I tend to listen to that at half past two in the morning on the World Service when I can’t sleep but clearly am not about to get out of bed to check something.

The topics raised are definitely varied, from how you see things (touched on in two separate chapters) to a library that contains every piece of text ever, to does your dog love you, via how to calculate the circumference of the Earth and confirmation biases, with lots more besides those. You would think that with such a vast range of subjects it would just be a hodgepodge of ideas but instead it reads more as if the two authors were having a chat with you, in a pub maybe over a couple of drinks, now that would be fun. There is even a section which attempts to define the average reader of the book and I’m sorry to disappoint Rutherford and Fry but the only bit you got right for me was that I buy more than ten books a year (more like ten books a month). I would also have liked to be a bit more of Hannah Fry’s field of mathematics, there is definitely plenty from Adam Rutherford’s genetics although I appreciate that maths is a bit of a turn off for many readers so presumably that was deliberate.

The book was published by Bantam Press in October 2021 and as I write this it is currently on the Amazon UK lists 738 in Books, 2 in History of Science (Books), 3 in Biological Evolution and 3 in Cosmology so they definitely have a hit on their hands across multiple disciplines, and quite rightly so. Go buy the book you will definitely learn something new and via the comprehensive section on references you can then head off to go deeper into bits that catch your interest. I’m definitely going to be reading more about Jonathan Basilie’s version of Borge’s total library, the distortion of astronauts eyeballs, end of the world prophesies failing and dogs and their eyebrows. I knew nothing about Borge’s library or for that matter dog eyebrows before reading this book who knows what will strike you as interesting or at least odd enough to want to know more about.

Village Christmas – Miss Read

By profession Dora Saint was a school teacher but is best known for her portrayals of English village life under the pen name of Miss Read and the work on her numerous novels and short stories largely took over her working life after WWII. Miss Read is not only the author of the books but in a lot of them she is also a character as a schoolmistress in the fictional village of Fairacre. Although this story is set in Fairacre Miss Read herself does not actually appear instead we are concerned with the ageing spinster sisters Margaret and Mary Waters and the family that had moved in over the road a few months earlier in September.

Initially the Waters sisters were somewhat wary of the new family as they lived a very quiet life and suddenly having three small children and a mother clearly pregnant with a fourth moving in so close was disconcerting. Mrs Emery’s personality was a bit too outgoing for their taste but also to the sisters eyes she was also rather badly dressed so they were unsure what to make of her, the children however were unfailingly polite so there was clearly something being done right in the new household. The story leaps on over the three months to Christmas morning when the sisters are interrupted at breakfast by one of the Emery girls coming for help as their mother is having the baby early and their father had been called away as a relative had had a stroke. Now two spinsters are not ideal midwives and the nurse or doctor couldn’t be contacted so we are taken through their rising panic as they realise that very little preparation had been done as Mrs Emery had clearly not expected to give birth on Christmas day.

One goes over to help Mrs Emery, who is easily the least concerned of everyone, whilst the other sister takes the children back over to her house to keep them entertained and fed and most importantly out of the way whilst trying to contact the nurse and also Mr Emery to let him know what is happening and get him back to Fairacre. It’s a delightful story of how the Waters sisters had a very different Christmas to the one they expected and this was the first time I had read any of Miss Read’s works. I think I’ll definitely tackle another somewhat longer book for my next go at her books, after all there are a lot to have a go at with twenty books set in Fairacre, thirteen novels set in the nearby village of Thrush Green, ten children’s books and a few other titles not set in the two main villages or of a factual nature rather than fiction.

Village Christmas was first published in 1966 although my copy of the book was published in 1995 as part of the Penguin Books 60th anniversary celebrations and it is also available with the two other Christmas tales Miss Read wrote as a single volume, these being Christmas Mouse (1973) and No Holly for Miss Quinn (1976). Confusingly this combination book appears to also be called Village Christmas.

A Winter Book – Tove Jansson

Best known for her Moomin stories, Tove was also a highly talented artist and writer away from her children’s books. This volume is a collection of twenty short pieces originally published in Swedish between 1968 and 1998 and collected here for the first time in English in 2006 by Sort of Books.The book is split into three sections; ‘Snow’, ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’ and ‘Travelling Light’ the first two of which are re-arranged chapters from Tove’s first adult work ‘The Sculptor’s Daughter’ (Bildhuggarens dotter). This re-arrangement brings the winter themed parts together into ‘Snow’ and the summer items into ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’. ‘Travelling Light’ consists of six pieces, some of which have never been translated into English before and all of them are difficult to find in English. The book is illustrated with numerous photographs from Tove’s life including some charming ones of her as a small child. You may wonder why it is called ‘A Winter Book’ when it includes works that relate to the summer but that is to contrast with the earlier work ‘The Summer Book’ (Sommarboken) which was first published in 1972 and which was a novel rather than a compendium of short stories.

‘The Sculptor’s Daughter’ was first published in Swedish in 1968 and translated into English in 1969 and provides fictional retelling of episodes in the young Tove’s life growing up with her sculptor father and artist mother and all written from the viewpoint of the little girl she was at the time. Tove Jansson was fifty four when she wrote these tales down but she is meticulous in giving life to her younger self and continuing to see the world from the eyes of a small child, albeit one with a strong sense of adventure as illustrated by the story ‘The Boat and Me’ which recounts a journey she undertook in her first boat to head off round the group of islands where the family lived in the summer before being found and towed home by her father well after dark.

Another favourite of mine from these two sections is ‘The Iceberg’ where Tove finds an iceberg just too far off the shore for her to safely get on it and separated from the shore by some quite deep and freezing cold water. In the story she debates attempting to get on the berg and ultimately just throws her torch onto it where it nestles in an indentation exactly where she most wanted to be. The story is a tale of regret that she didn’t have the courage to attempt the jump herself and ride off on the ice to who knows where.

The story that I loved most however is from the collection of random stories in ‘Travelling Light’ and that is ‘The Squirrel’ which is taken from her second collection of short stories ‘The Listener’ (Lyssnerskan) first published in 1971 and here in a new English translation. In this story we have an old woman living on and island just as Tove Jansson and her long time partner Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä did but this lady is living alone. This island has no trees so she is surprised to see a squirrel one morning on the landing stage. The interplay and ultimate relationship she feels for this lost traveller over the coming winter is great fun and beautifully written, you can really feel for her as she tries to feed the animal and look after it without letting it into her home and what happens when it gets in anyway. The ultimate resolution of the story is completely unexpected and had me laughing out loud.

There are a couple of flops, particularly ‘Messages’ which frankly I didn’t get at all, but overall the book is a joy to read and a complete contrast to the Moomin tales, I’m so glad I spotted it and picked it up earlier this year.

A Tall Ship – ‘Bartimeus’

Originally published in September 1915 by a by then well known author of naval stories I was expecting tales of daring do on the high seas so was quite surprised that with the exception of the first and last stories in this collection the actual war didn’t really impinge on the stories being told. It all starts excitingly enough with the short story ‘Crab-pots’ which begins with the torpedoing of a ship and the unusual revenge that one of the sailors manages to take some time later. This sailor will become part of a recurring group through most of the other nine stories in this collection but this isn’t clear at the start as he gains the nickname Torps by story number two ‘The Drum’ which is also one of the odder tales as it has two parts with no link between them. This story starts with a couple of Cornish fishermen repairing a boat by hammering out an old boiler to make a plate to cover worn out timbers and then jumps to Torps and Margaret (who had nursed him after the sinking of his ship) on a hillside looking out to sea and not really getting anywhere as to a relationship that he clearly wants but she is not sure about.

I don’t want to work my way through all the tales but there is one which just consists of recounting the morning work of a naval captain, doing his paperwork and dealing with requests from the sailors under his command. Another has the ships officers arranging a children’s party on board which has one of the funniest lines in the entire book which takes place between two of the children on the harbour side waiting to be picked up on a small boat in what looked like choppy conditions

“My daddy’s a Captain” continued Cornelius James “and I’m never sick – Are you?”
She nodded her fair head. “Yeth” she lisped sadly.
“P’raps your daddy isn’t a Captain” conceded Cornelius James magnificently.
The maiden shook her head. “My daddy’s an Admiral” was the slightly disconcerting reply.

All in all though the book was remarkably dull and it’s no surprise to see that it and the other works by Bartimeus are long out of print. He was definitely popular in his time though but it’s hard to see why, this is the second book by him in the first 110 Penguin books a feat only matched by Agatha Christie and Andre Maurois (excluding two part books) but none of his other works have ever appeared in Penguin unlike the two other authors so it is clear he was waning in popularity even in the mid 1930’s.

As can be seen from the rear flap of the dust wrapper there are quite a lot of clues as to who the pseudonymous Bartimeus actually was. A little digging finds that the author was born Lewis Anselm da Costa Ricci in 1886; although he anglicised his name to Ritchie by deed pole in 1941. Joining the Royal Navy in 1901 he trained to become a naval officer, however while still young, he contracted Malta Fever (brucellosis); this cost him the sight of one eye and damaged the other. Unable now to pursue a career at sea, he remained in the Navy, initially in the accounting branch, but began writing stories about naval life. He finally left the Navy at the start of the Second World War retiring as captain of the Royal Yacht and became press secretary to King George VI from 1944 to 1947. He took his pen-name from the Bible, ironically hinting at his reason for leaving the career he loved by naming himself after Bartimeus, the blind beggar of Mark 10, 46-52.

Shackleton – Ranulph Fiennes

This fascinating biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton is written by Sir Ranulph Fiennes both knighted for their services to exploration and it is particularly interesting that Fiennes is able to add his own experiences of polar expeditions to accounts of Shackleton’s. He has previously written a biography of Sir Robert Scott, Shackleton’s original polar commander and then major rival in attempts to reach the South Pole and he treats each man fairly unlike the earlier biographies of Scott and Shackleton by Roland Huntford who was very much against Scott and pro Shackleton.

At 375 pages plus extensive index, appendix and bibliography this book could well be seen as the definitive biography of one of the foremost polar explorers of the so called ‘Heroic Age’, i.e. the early 20th century even though he never actually made it to the South Pole. The closest he got was one hundred miles away from it, setting at the time the record for furthest south on 6th January 1909 along with Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Marshall and Frank Wild. This record would not be beaten until Roald Amundsen actually reached the pole on 14th December 1911. Fiennes makes the point that if he had been on his own Shackleton would probably have risked another 6 to 10 days march to the actual pole but concern for his men made him turn back due to the low level of rations still available to them. This for me is one of the defining differences between Scott and Shackleton, the disappointment on not achieving his goal was considerably offset by the fact that they all made it home safely, unlike Scott who two years later chose to press on and ultimately this cost not only his own life but that of his team members. Fiennes at this point is able, through his own experiences, to give an excellent account of just what happens to the body in the extreme cold pulling sledges as the daily rations have to be reduced in order to complete a goal. He never got as extreme as Shackleton but the explanations as to just how tough the going must have been are given extra colour by having this happen to himself and his team mate Mike Stroud.

Shackleton is however probably most famous for his third expedition, which turned into his biggest disaster as his ship, Endurance, was torn apart by the ice and he was forced to lead a completely different expedition to that intended as he rescued all his men from what seemed like certain death including the amazing crossing of the Weddell Sea in a tiny boat, less than 23 feet long. Here Fiennes’s descriptive powers really come into their own giving a fuller understanding of just what Shackleton and his five compatriots went through, including Tom Crean who I wrote about back in March 2019. Fiennes has also crossed the ocean in a small boat as part of his five year Trans Globe expedition which visited both poles travelling over land and sea although not the extremely hazardous 800 mile trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia undertaken by Shackleton and his men to get help for those left behind.

Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, to give him his full name, has written twenty five books mainly about his expeditions or biographies of fellow explorers and is an excellent story teller, really involving the reader in the hardships and triumphs of global exploration whilst seeking to rediscover the men behind the stories. He is frank about Shackleton’s appalling business sense which left him always short of funds and never as fully equipped as he should have been for any of his expeditions whilst making the point that the Royal Geographic Society, which could have been a potential major backer was very much committed to Scott so were positively against any support for Shackleton. His dalliances with other women outside of his marriage are also conjectured, along with the never ending support of his long suffering wife with a husband who was rarely even in the same country never mind at home. This is not a painted over all goody goody biography and is all the better for show all aspects of Shackleton’s character. The book was published by Michael Joseph at the beginning of the month and I have a signed copy.

I’d like to finish this review exactly as Fiennes does with a quote from another polar explorer and geologist from the ‘heroic age’ Sir Raymond Priestley who was part of expeditions by both Shackleton and Scott which I think perfectly sums up why I have a lifelong admiration for Shackleton.

For scientific leadership, give me Scott. For swift and efficient travel, Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.

The Book of Tea – Kakuzo Okakura

From the second series of Penguin Books little black classics this charming book was first published in 1906 and seems to have been in print for most of the time since with a succession of publishers bringing out editions over the years all over the world, this edition was published in 2016. Kakuzo Okakura was born in Yokohama in 1862 and lived his whole life in Japan although travelled extensively promoting Japanese arts and working to preserve traditional techniques at home. Unusually for a Japanese writer of the time he mainly wrote in English and this, his most famous work outside of Japan, is no exception thus helping to spread his insights into Japanese life and arts to a wider audience. This short (109 pages) book is ostensibly about tea but it is in reality so much more.

The opening chapter pulls no punches in his description of the misunderstandings between East and West and his conclusion that both sides see themselves as the height of enlightenment and the other as little better than barbarians

The beginning of the twentieth century would have been spared the spectacle of sanguinary warfare if Russia had condescended to know Japan better. What dire consequences to humanity lie in the contemptuous ignoring of Eastern problems? European imperialism, which does not disdain to raise the absurd cry of the Yellow Peril, fails to realise that Asia may also awaken to the cruel sense of the White Disaster.

Japan was unknown to the West until the sixteenth century and was therefore influenced by its neighbours, specifically China, where it got tea from originally, and its own cultural norms surrounding Taoism and Zen. Early in the seventeenth century and for two and a half centuries after that during the Edo period Japan had cut itself off from the rest of the world and only regained a place amongst other countries when forced to open up by the United States navy in 1854. This enforced isolationist policy meant that Japan had developed very differently from the West especially in aesthetic traditions and the importance of tea and the ceremonial around drinking it is one of these art forms unique to Japan and which goes back millennia. Okakura refers to Teaism which he sees as developing from Taoism but wrapped in the sacred nature of the tea ceremony and more specifically the tea house where the ceremony takes place. The dimensions and layout of the tea house is vitally important as is the simplicity of its construction and decoration. The separate entrance for the guests and the tea master leading to a room where the only decoration is in the tokonoma, an alcove where items can be displayed, and the choice of decoration is normally minimalist to western eyes, maybe a single flowering branch or a finely produced scroll or hanging. The idea of a matching tea service as seen in the west is anathema to the Japanese ceremony where if the kettle is round the jug for the water will be angular, contrast is important.

Okakura also gives a history of the three ways tea has been prepared, two of which had fallen out of fashion by the time the west discovered tea so we only have the third method using the steeping of leaves as our means of producing tea. Initially back in the fourth of fifth centuries there was a sort of pressed cake of powdered tea

the method of drinking tea at this stage was primitive in the extreme. The leaves were steamed, crushed in a mortar, made into a cake, and boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and sometimes with onions! The custom obtains at the present day among the Tibetans and various Mongolian tribes, who make a curious syrup of these ingredients.

Later on we have Luwuh in the middle of the eighth century who first wrote down and formalised the making of tea and this is the second method using finely powdered tea which was whisked with a bamboo whisk and Okakura extracts from ‘The Chaking’ his three volume book on tea

In the fifth chapter Luwuh describes the method of making tea. He eliminates all ingredients except salt. He dwells also on the much discussed question of the choice of water and the degree of boiling it. According to him, the mountain spring is the best, the river water and the spring water come next in the order of excellence. There are three stages of boiling: the first boil is when the little bubbles like the eye of fishes swim on the surface; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle. The Cake-tea is roasted before the fire until it becomes soft like a baby’s arm and is shredded into powder between pieces of fine paper. Salt is put in the first boil, the tea in the second. At the third boil, a dipperful of cold water is poured into the kettle to settle the tea and revive the “youth of the water.” Then the beverage was poured into cups and drunk. O nectar!

There is also a chapter on flowers in Okakura’s little book which given the significance of the decoration in the tokonoma and also in the garden approach to the tea house is not surprising however he turns it into almost a diatribe against the cruelty of people to flowers by picking them and watching them die in their homes. The book finishes with a chapter on tea masters of which the greatest of all is Sen no Rikyū (Rikiu in the book) from the sixteenth century who refined the tea ceremony and the tea room to how it is seen now and at the very end we have his final ever tea ceremony at the end of which he commits ritual suicide on the orders of his lord and master.

I’ve no idea what I expected from this book but it is much, much more than I could have thought. There is great insight into the Japanese traditions and the development over centuries of a culture so different to our own, it’s definitely worth seeking out.

Second Foundation – Isaac Asimov

Concluding the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov, the review of part one can be found here and part two here.

This book is in two sections ‘Search by The Mule’ which is sixty pages long and ‘Search by the Foundation’ which is almost twice the length at 117 pages. After the events in Foundation and Empire both The Mule and The Foundation come to the conclusion that the mysterious Second Foundation hinted at by Hari Seldon three hundred years ago when he created the First Foundation on Terminus is a danger to their continued existence although for very different reasons, but where is it? Seldon had stated that the Second Foundation would be created at the other end of the Galaxy to the First but where exactly was that?

Search by The Mule (Originally published in January 1948 as ‘Now You See It’). This story continues immediately after the ending of the previous book and looks at the five years The Mule spent looking for the Second Foundation using both his mentally controlled subjects and a man who wasn’t under his direct control in case the control itself was what was stopping the leaps of imagination needed to locate it. After five years he gave up determined that the Second Foundation didn’t exist and concentrated on his empire, this story explains why.

Search by The Foundation (Originally published in three parts from November 1949 to January 1950 as ‘Now You Don’t’). Another fifty or so years have passed and during that time the First Foundation has been studying the brain as never before, partly in an attempt to understand the almost mythical Second Foundation especially since The Mule had decided it wasn’t there to be found. But they were convinced that Seldon’s plan had to be true and that the Second Foundation had helped, in secretive ways, to defeat their enemies over the last 3½ centuries. At the start of the novella five men gather at a family home to start an audacious attempt to find the Second Foundation, this story is probably the most fun of all the ones making up the trilogy especially with the final unexpected twist right at the end.

The three covers from this Panther edition make a complete image and it’s a great one from Chris Foss who I’m glad to say is still designing spaceships, including for the film Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the 1980’s Asimov returned to the Foundation series in an effort to integrate them with the other novels he had written, specifically the Robot series. One of the most striking aspects of the Foundation series when considered amongst Asimov’s other works is the lack of robots particularly from an author famous for his ‘three laws of robotics’ and numerous books about man and robots living together. The additional books comprise two prequels ‘Prelude to Foundation’ (1988) and ‘Forward the Foundation’ (1993) along with two sequels ‘Foundation’s Edge’ (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986). ‘Forward the Foundation’ was published posthumously as Asimov died in April 1992. Of these books I only have a copy of ‘Prelude to Foundation’ but maybe I should get copies of the other three and give them a read, I have after all enjoyed rereading the original trilogy after decades of the books sat on my shelves unopened.

Hangman’s Holiday – Dorothy L Sayers

By way of a complete contrast to last weeks religious poetry I’ve gone for this lovely Folio Society edition of Hangman’s Holiday by Dorothy L Sayers which I bought in the recent Folio Society autumn sale. I thought I’d read all the Lord Peter Wimsey tales but this includes four Wimsey short stories which I didn’t know, along with six Montague Egg shorts and a couple of other mysteries not featuring either of her long running characters. It has forty four illustrations along with the cover by Paul Cox who has worked on all the Dorothy L Sayers and P G Wodehouse editions for the Folio Society for more than three decades along with many other titles providing a lovely consistent feel to these series. I bought the book mainly for the Montague Egg tales as I’d not read any of those before and he is a definite contrast to Lord Peter, but let’s start with the Wimsey stories. All four of these are Wimsey alone without his trusty batman and collector of evidence Bunter and frankly I missed the interaction between the two of them. Two of the stories are quite disappointing, especially ‘The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey’ where Wimsey takes on the character of a magician in rural Spain and you are left wondering why Sayers decided to have Wimsey do this as he is completely out of character throughout most of the tale. The other one I didn’t enjoy much was ‘The Queen’s Square’ which was just too convoluted to be much fun to read. The remaining two Wimsey tales are ‘The Image in the Mirror’ and ‘The Necklace of Pearls’ both of which are fine as far as they go, but are definitely not in the first rank of Wimsey stories.

Moving on to Montague Egg, he is less of a detective like Wimsey than ‘a noticer of details’ which can be used by the police to solve a crime. His six stories are all quite short varying between nine and twelve pages when the space for illustrations is discounted but they each have quite a lot going for them despite their relative brevity.’The Poisoned Dow 08′ is an excellent introduction to Monty Egg as he is a commercial traveller selling wines and spirits and this is entirely within his area of expertise. Whilst on a return visit to a customer he arrives to find the police in attendance and his client dead, presumably by a poisoned bottle of port. Egg proves that there was nothing wrong with the port, that his firm had supplied, and that there was evidence of murder. Both ‘Murder in the Morning’ and ‘One Too Many’ have Monty Egg in the position of witness to a crime or rather the aftermath of a crime and the little details that he spotted at the time are critical to finding the solution whilst the remaining three stories have him operating much more as the archetypal amateur detective much loved by Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and the other Queens of Crime from the 1920’s and 30’s.

I quite warmed to Montague Egg, the shortness of the stories meant that I could read one whilst waiting for my evening meal to cook and there was sufficient complexity to make the mystery worthwhile.

The two final stories are quite good fun and I’m sure I’ve read both of these before. ‘The Man Who Knew How’ has a character on a train talking to a fellow passenger and claiming that he knew a foolproof way to kill people and get away with it as it would be assumed that they died due to the temperature shock of getting in a bath that was too hot. His fellow passenger then starts noticing a pattern in news reports of people dying in hot baths and is convinced he was talking to a serial killer. ‘The Fountain Plays’ is a story of blackmail and murder with an excellent twist at the end and rounded off the book perfectly.

I’m not sure that is I had known how weak the Lord Peter Wimsey stories were I would have paid the full £39.95 for this book but at half price in the sale I’m glad to have added it to my Dorothy L Sayers collection. Now to find and read the other five Montague Egg stories.

Poems – St John of the Cross

For this, the 200th post in this blog, I have chosen a Penguin Classic translation of the poetry of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic christian and follower of Teresa of Ávila whose writings have also appeared in the Penguin Classics catalogue. The book is actually rather more than a translation as it is a parallel text edition with the original Spanish text on the left hand pages and the English on the right. Saint John (Juan de la Cruz in Spanish) was a Catholic priest and Carmelite friar involved in setting up religious houses in northern Spain but was also the greatest of the mystic poets in Spanish literature and indeed one of the giants of Spanish literature regardless of style or theme.

However, before discussing the poems, I would like to take a little time over the translator, much as the book does with a preface by his widow Mary Campbell. Roy Campbell was born in South Africa in 1901 and first came to England in 1919 where he met and married Mary in 1922 and they moved back to South Africa in 1925. He worked as an editor on a literary magazine whilst writing poetry but disagreed with the apartheid regime so moved back to London in 1927. On their return to England they fell in with the Bloomsbury Group and Mary started a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West at the same time as Virginia Woolf was also having an affair with Vita. Roy strongly, and reasonably, disapproved of his wife’s affair and to separate Mary and Vita the Campbell’s moved first to Provence and then to Toledo in Spain where Roy Campbell discovered the works of St John of the Cross and the couple converted to Roman Catholicism. It was in Toledo that St John had been imprisoned by rival Carmelite monks opposed to the very strict variant of the calling espoused by Teresa and John, he wrote most of his poems during his confinement. Roy Campbell, by the 1930’s, was becoming a well known poet in his own right and was fascinated by the poems of St John and whats more his heroic poetic style seemed ideally suited to the extant works of St John so he began work on a translation that was finally published by Harvill in 1951 and won the 1952 Foyle Prize. It is this verse translation that is reprinted in the 1960 Penguin first edition that I have, Roy Campbell having died in 1957 hence his widow penning the preface where she completely fails to mention the lesbian affair that took them to Spain in the first place.

The Spanish text is by Padre Silverio de Santa Teresa CD, and first appeared in an UK book in 1933 published by the Liverpool Institute of Hispanic Studies.Roy Campbell has done an excellent job of translating the poems as not only has he translated the text but found English words which allow the lines to largely scan and always rhyme as the originals do. A moments thought would tell you how difficult this is and why many poetry translations don’t attempt this.The longest work is ‘Songs between the soul and the bridegroom’ where the poem is in the form of a conversation between the two parts where God is gradually revealed to be the bridegroom that the soul or bride is conversing with. I really enjoyed this one as there is more time for development of the story within the poem as it goes on for seven pages, most are less than a page and a half and some are simply one verse.

Several of the poems use repetition of the last line of each verse such as ‘Song of the Soul that is Glad to Know God by Faith’ where each verse, apart from the eleventh, ends “Aunque es de noche” (Although it is night) although with this particular poem Campbell varies the last line between “Although by night” and “Though it be night” and I’m not sure why he made the change as reading it with “Although by night” seems to scan perfectly well with each verse. My favourite poem of the collection though is ‘Verses about the soul that suffers with impatience to see God’ and this is another where repetition of the last line of each verse is utilised although this time it is the sense of the last line that is repeated as the words vary between “Am dying that I do not die”, “And die because I do not die”, “The more I live the more must die” etc. culminating in the more hopeful “I live because I’ve ceased to die”.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this volume of poetry as I’m not remotely religious, let alone Catholic, so am clearly not the target audience. I suspect this is partly down to the way religion is handled in English schools where is is taught as a ‘normal’ subject and after all nobody asks you to believe in geography.