Life, eh? Got a little busy here, so I’m going to keep this short and bookish, until I corral all my more personal thoughts into coherent little essays.
Does your heart soar when you hear there’s a new Agatha Christie adaptation coming to television? Do you lose hours on ITV 3, watching old reruns of all three telly Marples? Do you snuffle round the lesser channels like a truffle hound, seeking out Inspector Alleyn, Lord Peter Wimsey, et al?
More to the point, do you love reading the books that inspired the telly?
If so, then you will tumble headfirst for two novels I recently read. Both are variations on the locked room theme, placing a varied cast of characters in a confined environment. The first, A Dangerous Crossing, is by Tammy Cohen writing as Rachel Rhys. On a slow boat to Australia the rich, the infamous, the dastardly and the angelic drink cocktails, grate on each others’ nerves, sightsee, and flirt. Through the reactions of the English passengers to the presence of Jews and Italians, viewed with suspicion and worse by many among the English, we’re reminded that it’s 1939, and that everything’s about to change.
We see life on board through Lily’s eyes. She’s a former lady’s maid and waitress, haunted by memories of a friend’s death, and feelings of guilt about how and why the girl died. Taking advantage of a scheme offering travel in return for two years’ domestic service, she’s wide-eyed and naive, ripe for romance and none too swift when it comes to sizing people up. She’s quickly dazzled by a rich, glamorous couple so miserable in each other’s company that they cannot bear being alone together, but mysteriously unable to find playmates in their own first class lounge. On her lower deck, Lily befriends a sister and brother, and they, too, are swept up by the unhappy wealthy couple — with dramatic results.
A Dangerous Crossing is not 100% murder mystery, though there is a murder. It’s not 100% romance, though goodness knows Lily tries. But it conveys the same heady sensations as a period-set mystery drama (complete with fabulous frocks), for everyone on board is hiding a ghastly secret or twelve. The fun is in figuring out what they are, and therefore why people behave as they do. Just when you think you’ve got every bit of the puzzle in place, there’s a snappy little turn-up-for-the books that should take you by surprise.
Out now from Doubleday
368 Pages, £12.99, hardcover
The other novel is a reprint of The Crime at Noah’s Ark, by Molly Thynne, which originally came out in 1931. It’s set over the Christmas holidays, when a diverse group of travellers become trapped at a remote inn by severe snowstorms. Among those assembled are a newly successful novelist, Angus Stuart, a renowned chess master, Dr Constantine, an aristocratic family, a vile major, two old dears, and any number of maids, chauffeurs, and other retainers. In the course of the novel some extremely valuable emeralds are stolen and the vile major gets his head bashed in. People come and go with alacrity up seemingly endless flights of stairs, through windows, and in and out of adjoining doors. It’s busier than a Joe Orton farce. There are roaring fires, pots of strong coffee, tense night vigils, and McGuffins galore. Most of all, it’s good fun. (Though Dean Street Press needs some good copyeditors, for the text is littered with mistakes that ought to be rectified before the books are printed.)
Out now; £9.99 paperback Dean Street Press
Birdcage Walk, by Helen Dunmore
Out now from Hutchinson
416 Pages, £18.99 hardcover
Birdcage Walk is an historical novel set in Bristol in 1792. Lizzie Fawkes is the child of radical thinkers, but has married a stern, dangerous man who wants to control every aspect of her life. John Diner Tredevant is a property developer whose current project — a row of townhouses overlooking the Avon Gorge — is going bankrupt. The worse his financial outlook becomes, the more he takes it out on Lizzie. For her part, she’s torn between her family and her husband, her longing for independence and the powerful sexual attraction that keeps her by Diner’s side. There is a lot happening here. Dunmore plays with ideologies, evokes Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and hints at Mary Wollstonecraft, too.
As I mentioned on Twitter, I think this will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Essex Serpent and The House of Birds.
Finally, on a non-bookish note: if you’re a fan of vintage clothes, jewellery and housewares, please pay my new Etsy shop a visit.