Mystery

Plan Ahead for Summer Reading

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s almost summertime and I am pushing my “read more” agenda again! Here are some specific ideas for getting more from your reading this summer:

1) Read more – set higher personal reading goals! Summer reading is a special experience because is often takes place out of doors, on a beach or a porch swing. We can allow ourselves a large allocation of time to read during this season because our routine is changing as we welcome our children home from school and make vacation plans.

My goal: Read a minimum of an hour a day June -August.

2) Connect with others in your reading! Reading is not a solitary happening, but a satisfying conduit for building common experiences. Use your inner circle’s reading recommendations – children, spouses, parents, librarians, and friends. Target your children’s favorite book and watch their pleasure as you become familiar with the plots and characters they love.

My goal: Read The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

See! A boy is reading in this candid photo.

See! A boy is reading in this candid photo.

3) Stretch your mental muscles! All have the capacity to enjoy a classic book. Although there is no harm in seeking a “light” read; the mental challenge in reading classic literature propels you into new depths — past the shallow water of superficial plots and stereotypical characters.

My goal: Read The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

4) Re-read a childhood favorite! Go down memory lane and enjoy that classic children’s book again. Perhaps a family member might join you in this endeavor, but even when you read something independently, you can still take time to share excerpts that you felt most impacted by; whether it be humorous, serious, or touching.

My goal: Read Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne.4cd2e-the_sweetness_at_the_bottom_of_the_pie

5) Listen to an audio version of a book! On a family car trip or even during your mundane work commute, pop in an audio book and enjoy a good story as the miles roll by.  As a side effect, if your children are listening too, audio versions of books allow them to participate and experience literature above their own reading level.

My goal: Listen to the fourth book in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, I am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley (Book #1 is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – all the books are narrated splendidly by Jayne Entwhistle)

6) Be a good reading example to others! Maybe this summer is the time to read purely for enjoyment. Others watch what you do more than what you say, so if you especially want your spouse or children to pick up a book in their spare time, – to “read for pleasure” – as the phrase goes, then you must do the same.  Show them by example that reading isn’t always work!

My goal: to put up my feet in the daytime and read when the chores are not yet done.

7) Hit the library! Make use of your tax dollars and browse the local library for good ideas and free books to borrow. Library summer reading programs for kids and adults help direct our goals to increase reading with their prizes and recognition.

My goal: Sign us all up for the Dauphin County Library summer reading program on June 1st.

da69a-girl-reading1So, enjoy some special reading adventures this summer and please tell me about them!

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Categories: Autobiography, Biography, British novels, Chick lit, Children's Books, Christian Fiction, Classics, Fantasy, Girl Fiction, Historical Fiction, Humorous, Inspiration, Mystery, Read Aloud, Romantic Fiction, Uncategorized, young adult fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Death Comes to Pemberley – Pride and Prejudice has a sequel after almost 200 years

death comes to pemberley 1How is it remotely possible that a sequel published nearly tw hundred years after the original novel and by another author could reflect the style and feeling of the first story? P. D. James succeeded brilliantly with Death Comes to Pemberley, published in 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, and a sequel, of sorts, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813).

James seamlessly sewed a murder mystery plot to a beloved 19th century romance and the reader does not feel the change in fabric. It seems as though P.D. James created these characters herself, so genuinely did she spur them to speak and act. Death Comes to Pemberley picks up only six years after Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage to Fitzwilliam Darcy. They are the proud parents of two healthy sons, and manage the glorious Pemberley estate with a mixture of hard work, team effort, and grace.

A murder is needed to disrupt the placid existence of the happy family and P. D. James provided a complex one, drawing in a very disturbing murder suspect, rogue George Wickham, with whom the Darcys severed ties after his disgraceful elopement with Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia.death comes to pemberley 2

This is definitely not a gory, forensic mystery. A delightful romance softens the story – Mr. Darcy’s lovely sister, Georgiana, now of marriageable age, must contend with the attentions of two suitors.

The reader experiences the delight of renewing the acquaintance of Elizabeth Darcy’s father, Mr. Bennet, whose sustaining presence consoles the couple during the uproar of a murder on their property. Other family members enter the fray, sweet-tempered sister Jane, and her amiable husband, Charles Bingley, shallow, self-serving Lydia Wickham, and Darcy’s austere aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. P.D.

James skillfully plotted a tasteful mystery within an authentic 19th century world, introducing the reader to the judicial system of the day. With a 30 year career in the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Policy Department of Great Britain’s Home Office, P.D. James was extremely qualified to write her mystery novels, over 18 of them – many featuring Inspector Adam Dalgliesh.

P.D. James, 1920-2014, was a former governor of the BBC and a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award. She lived in London and Oxford and is survived by two daughters, five grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

death comes to pemberley

Produced by the BBC, the TV mini-series Death Comes to Pemberley aired in 2013, starring Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth Darcy, Matthew Rhys as Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Matthew Goode as George Wickham. Its lush scenery, attention to period detail, and excellent acting make it a worthwhile program.  If your stack of books to read is teetering and threatening to fall over, you may enjoy this wonderful production instead.

Author’s Note: “I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation, especially as in the final chapter of Mansfield Park Miss Austen made her views plain: ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.’ No doubt she would have replied to my apology by saying that, had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.” P.D. James, 2011

P.D. James had nothing for which to apologize; she gave us a precious parting gift – the resurrection of beloved characters and a wonderful story.  We owe her a debt of gratitude.

death comes to pemberley 4

P.D. James 1920-2014

Categories: British novels, Mystery, Romantic Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Mystery Novels – Feeding My Reading Sweet Tooth

mystery1What genre of fiction brings you the most genuine enjoyment?

I find that, although I sincerely and successfully attempt to read broadly, I possess a “default setting” in my literary taste; one that inevitably draws me back to mystery novels and  one that I give in to with periodic binges.

It all started twenty-five years ago when I stumbled upon Masterpiece Mystery airing on Sunday night television. My local public broadcasting station was showing the Brother Cadfael mysteries, wonderful productions starring British actor Derek Jacobi and based on the novels of Ellis Peters. I rushed to the library and gobbled up the series. A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) being the first novel.

Why do I love mysteries so much?

Sometimes the mystery novel is “delicious” due to its fascinating setting. In the case of the Brother Cadfael mysteries, all the action take place in 1137 A.D. Britain as a retired Crusader turned monk uses his knowledge of herbs (and poisons) to solve whodunits within the environs of Shrewsbury Abbey.

Another mystery novelist I recommend for excellent setting is Tony Hillerman who brings the reader to 20th century North America and the fantastic arid desert region of the Four Corners where the state borders of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada meet. Navaho Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and his counterpart Sergeant Jim Chee delve into the mystical current and ancient culture of the First Peoples. The Blessing Way (1990) is the first novel in the Navaho Mysteries series.

Fundamentally, mystery novelists honor the preciousness of human life.  Murder is heinous and murderers must be found out and brought to justice.  This underlying truth resonates with my worldview.  The justice system, fair law enforcement, and a belief in the sanctity of human life all join together in a worthwhile, yet arduous battle to expose and eradicate hidden evil.

mystery2Another reason mysteries can be valuable reading  are the well-drawn characters who leap off the page, enter our living room and sit down beside us as if they were real people. A prime example is Mary Russell, who matches Sherlock Holmes in wit and brains in contemporary novelist Laurie R. King’s mysteries. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (2002), the first in this series, introduces the reader to a middle-aged Sherlock who engages the impressive intellectual gifts of young Oxford student Mary Russell to help him solve intricate mysteries in a series of thirteen novels.

Another wonderful character is Lord Peter Wimsey who acts the part of shallow rich blue blood all the while figuring out impossible puzzles in both the English countryside and in urbane London. Dorothy L. Sayers adds another layer to Lord Peter’s personal complexity with the entrance of love interest Harriet Vane who is accused of murder in Strong Poison (1930). These stories are both set in and written in the 1930s and are extremely authentic.

Not to be ignored in this genre, is the importance of a complex plot. I mined the riches of British mystery authors for years because of their ability to fool me every time. Sometimes, after I read the denouement, I flipped backwards through the pages to find those hidden clues in conversation or description and saw how skillfully authors had planted the trail of breadcrumbs. Masterful creators of intricate plots are Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, P.D. James, and Bruce Alexander.

Inevitably the criminal mind and the depths of human depravity weave themselves throughout all mysteries. I must admit the dark alleys down which certain authors go can be too haunting for me. I have backed away from certain stories when I felt the cold breath of evil curl around me too chillingly.

Patricia Cornwell’s suspense thrillers starring brilliant Virginia medical examiner and FBI consultant, Kay Scarpetta finally scared me away with their depiction of evil. These mystery novels are full of well-researched forensic detail and psychological suspense for readers who dare. Postmortem (1990) is the first of this series.

More wholesome mysteries abound; one such author is Patricia Sprinkle who introduces Katharine Murray, a Georgia homemaker who is in the midst of a mid-life crisis and discovers her talent for unraveling family secrets in Death on the Family Tree (2006). The Family Tree series also includes Sins of the Fathers (2007) and Daughter of Deceit (2008).mystery3

Of course, I must give a most honorable mention to the best sleuth of all – eleven year old Flavia de Luce.  See my blog post on Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009).  I hope to write again and in more detail about this wonderful mystery series by Alan Bradley.

I truly don’t mind being fooled by the mystery author, as long as I am captivated by the characters, the setting, or the plot.

If you are a mystery novel aficionado, please leave a comment with your favorite.

Categories: British novels, Mystery | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Courage to Change: Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

Brat Farrar 2

“If a book leaves you exactly where it found you, thinking and feeling nothing you hadn’t felt or thought before, you are no different for having read it. The criterion for a memorable book is the hope of rereading it some day and a passion to share the book with someone else.” Glady Hunt, Honey for a Woman’s Heart

So many wonderful books would be hidden from our knowledge without the enthusiastic recommendation of a dear friend or relative. A novel that has remained on my personal “Top Ten” list for over twenty years came from just that source. Years ago, Margaret Turner, in her eighties and legally blind, passed on to me a tattered anthology of mystery novels by Josephine Tey. Brat Farrar was my favorite. First published in 1949 and set in rural England, it is a mystery without the standard corpse on the hearthrug and polite police inspector. Instead, it is a masterpiece of deep themes, clearly defined characters, and building suspense.

The main character, Brat Farrar, is a young man with many flaws and a “checkered” past. As the story starts, Brat agrees to pose as the heir to a fortune for personal financial gain. Clearly, this is an immoral choice. Yet, all through the story, I felt a kinship with him. His motivation gets challenged early on in his deception. He experiences “a faint queasiness, a sort of spiritual indigestion” (p. 121) that leads to profound change during the course of the novel. This is definitely not one of those books with static characters who never learn or grow. Instead, I find inspiration that we, too, are able to be transformed.

Also, Tey interweaves a beautiful theme about our need to belong throughout the story. Brat, an orphan, is motivated by this visceral human impulse: “No one else had taken his hand in just that way. Casual — no, not possessive… Belonging. It had something to do with belonging. The hand had taken him for granted because he belonged. It was the unthinking friendliness of a woman to one of her family. Was it because he had never ‘belonged’ before that made that commonplace gesture into a benediction?” (p. 158)

This mystery novel is chock-full of charming, intricate characters: the rector, George Peck, is described as being ugly, but possessing great kindness and wisdom: “One of George Peck’s charms was that he listened to what was said to him.” (p. 202), Aunt Bee holds the family together and shows Brat undeserved kindness. Then there is Simon, Brat’s rival for the family fortune and Eleanor, the “sister” who is Brat’s dream girl . The plot twists, turns and culminates in a riveting denouement.

Elizabeth MacIntosh

Elizabeth MacIntosh aka Josephine Tey

My proof that I love this novel is that I have read it four times! Josephine Tey, is one of the pen names for Elizabeth MacKintosh who, sadly, died at an early age. Thankfully, most of her novels are still in print, though, alas, sometimes not available at the local library.  The following are the novels written under the name Josephine Tey, some starring Inspector Grant:  Brat Farrar, A Shilling for Candles, To Love and Be Wise, The Man in the Queue, A Daughter of Time, The Singing Sands, Miss Pym Disposes, and The Franchise Affair.  The author also wrote plays under the nom de plume Gordon Daviot.

Categories: British novels, Mystery | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Free Man of Color: A Historical Mystery

free man of color - pineneedles

I often blog on a series of novels because I fall in love with the protagonist and want to follow him or her for as many books as the author produces which is the case with Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January mysteries. However, the atmospheric and accurately researched setting grabbed my attention just as powerfully and has not let go, even after thirteen novels.

Barbara Hambly, a contemporary American author living in California, effectively brings the reader into antebellum New Orleans.  (I had to look up the definition of antebellum: “occurring in the southern U.S. during the time before the American Civil War”.  My study of history was limited in my student days, so I enjoy being educated by A Free Man of Color.)

Benjamin January, a young widower, makes his way home from Paris after the death from cholera of his Moroccan wife, Ayasha.  1833 in New Orleans offers very different opportunities for a free man of color; January’s medical training in Paris is discounted in his hometown and he resorts to earning a living solely from his piano performances and music lessons. His options narrow to playing for society occasions and the first mystery begins with the violent death of an octoroon mistress at an opulent Mardi Gras ball where January has been hired to perform. (octoroon: term of the time period that referred to a person with one-eighth African ancestry).

The city of New Orleans in this time period is exotic and decadent, a strange world, alien and fascinating. The nuanced social order, like a caste system, ranges from black slaves at the low end up to free colored. Benjamin January was not born free; instead he was the offspring of slaves on a Louisiana cane plantation who, when still a child, received his freedom in conjunction with his mother’s purchase and freedom. She became a placée (a status at the time somewhere between wife and mistress with legal obligations between a white man and a woman of color). January’s mother’s new status included the boon of her child receiving a classical education in Paris, and training as a surgeon and a musician.

Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, c.1764-1796.

Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, c.1764-1796.

January may be free, but his situation remains extremely precarious; he carries his free papers in his shoe when he lives his own home, and leaves another set in a safe deposit box.  He faces daily terror that he will be “sold down the river” with no one to vouch for him. This horrifying reality is depicted graphically in the 2014 movie Twelve Years a Slave based on Solomon Northrup’s biography of the same name.  “In New Orleans he was a man of color, an uneasy sojourner in a world increasingly American, hostile, and white. But he was what he was.” (A Free Man of Color)

In this first Benjamin January story, the entrenched and complex Creole social order of 1830’s New Orleans has been upset by the flood of uncultured Americans who, after the Louisiana Purchase, arrive to stake their claim to what they see as “new lands”. In A Free Man of Color, January discovers an unlikely ally in his elusive search for justice for the murdered courtesan, in the form a sympathetic (and unwashed) American – Lieutenant Abishag Shaw of the New Orleans Guards -whose keen sense of fairness matches January’s and pits them against both societal forces and pure evil.

The Benjamin January mysteries in order of publication: A Free Man of Color (1998), Fever Season (1999), Graveyard Dust (2000), Sold Down the River (2001), Die Upon a Kiss (2002), Wet Grave (2003), Days of the Dead (2004), Dead Water (2005), Dead and Buried (2010), The Shirt on His Back (2011), Ran Away (2011), Good Man Friday (2013), Crimson Angel (2014). Settings in later books include the worlds of Mexico, the American Frontier, Washington, D.C., and Haiti.

Barbara Hambly’s novels give us a refreshingly intricate and evocative set of American mystery stories crafted by a contemporary author. Although I am an avid mystery novel fan, I do not like them indiscriminately and acknowledge that my tastes run more toward British mysteries written in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s by such authors as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Ellis Peters. These British mysteries offer rich English language and complex plots and are set in England in places and times that are foreign to me.

 

Categories: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Mrs. Pollifax: An Unexpected Heroine

The first novel in this quirky mystery series, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, introduces us to sixty-three year old Emily Pollifax who is suffering from a mixture of depression and ennui. She sits with her doctor in his office after a routine check-up and reflects on her life: she is not just bored; she is deeply disillusioned with her widowed, empty-nest, superficial life to the point of entertaining suicidal thoughts.  Mrs. Pollifax needs something more, so she approaches the CIA, showing up unexpectedly to their offices in Langley, Virginia in her flowered hat to offer her services as a spy.

I love the unlikely scenario – only the beginning of many more hilariously ridiculous situations in which Mrs. Pollifax lands.  She is never silly, however.  As she travels the globe, her innate goodness, resourcefulness, and bravery inspire the reader in every one of the fourteen Mrs. Pollifax adventures.
Mrs. PollifaxThe Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, published in 1966, is set mostly in Mexico and gives the modern-day reader a fascinating look back at Cold War espionage.

Surprisingly, the best review I found on this series was by a young man in his mid-thirties who claims to love the first book “immensely”:

“What I love most of all is the character of Mrs. Pollifax. Adventure stories – especially those of the time period in which this book was written – are usually the domain of the strong, dapper young male adventurer… sometimes there’s a young female heroine as well (though she’s usually more of a damsel in distress than anything else). But there are very few – VERY few – decent, strong roles for an older woman in an adventure story, and every few sentences I wanted to pump my fist in the air, or hug Dorothy Gilman, for writing not only an unforgettable story but a totally AWESOME role for an older female adventurer…The world needs more characters like Mrs. Pollifax – but at the same time, she is so special and endearing that there could never be anybody else like her.” Jesse Miller–Riley https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/194976170?book_show_action=true&page=1

This mystery series offers an unexpected turn of events in a budding romance introduced in book five, Mrs. Pollifax on Safari. Widower Cyrus Reed meets Emily Pollifax while he is on safari in Africa and finds himself putting himself in danger for her sake; although she is the one who knows karate and frees them from their captors:
“Oh, if only there were some way to free our hands!“

”What then?“ he asked, looking at her with amusement.

”Well, you see I’m rather good at karate.“

This startled him but there was no overlooking his gleeful appreciation of this. ‘Damned astonishing woman,’ he said.”

This series offers surprises, no doubt. Thank you, Dorothy Gilman for Mrs. Pollifax who shows me that dreams never die.

To date, two movies have been made from the series: the feature film “Mrs. Pollifax – Spy” (1971) starring Rosalind Russell, and the telefilm “The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax” (1999), starring Angela Lansbury.

The series in order of publication: The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966),The Amazing Mrs. Pollifax (1970), The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax (1971), A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax (1973), Mrs. Pollifax on Safari (1976), Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station (1983), Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha (1985), Mrs. Pollifax and the Golden Triangle (1988), Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish (1990), Mrs. Pollifax and the Second Thief (1993), Mrs. Pollifax Pursued (1995), Mrs. Pollifax and the Lion Killer (1996), Mrs. Pollifax, Innocent Tourist (1997), Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled (2000). The Audiobooks voiced by Barbara Rosenblat are recommended by others, though I have yet to try them.
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According to the author’s obituary in The New York Times, Dorothy Edith Gilman was born in New Brunswick, N.J., in June, 1923 and died in February, 2012 at the age of 88. She decided on a writing career when she was still a child. Planning to write and illustrate books for children, she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  Her writing career spanned many decades. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/04/books/dorothy-gilman-spy-novelist-dies-at-88.html?_r=0
www.mrspollifax.com

Categories: Humorous, Mystery, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Crossing Cultures: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

“The quality of the idea, the skill of the plot, the depth of the characterization, the distinctive style of the author – that’s the best I can do by way of defining a good book.  When you find one, you recognize it.” Gladys Hunt, Honey for A Child’s Heart

One of the primary reasons I read fiction and go to the movies is so that I can travel.  Vicariously of course.  I used to actually go to foreign places: Brasil, Honduras, Israel, to name a few.  Now I am bound to American soil with many responsibilities so I “go places” through books and film.  Recently, one of my favorite literary trips has been to Botswana, Africa.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is a series set in this southern African country and first published in 2007.  The first book in the series, entitled The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency starts a wonderful journey into the fascinating world of memorable and humorous characters.

The series is fairly slow-paced, avoids gruesome descriptions of murders, and does not thrill with conspiracies and thwarting “take-over-the-world” type villains.  However, it is appealing because it takes the reader deep into the world of cultural Botswana.

Bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith, born in Zimbabwe and a law professor in Scotland,  worked for a time in the setting where he helped set up a law school at the University of Botswana.

Though not necessarily a series only for women, the main character, Precious Ramotswe, is a middle-aged woman who opens a detective agency because “a woman sees more than a man sees”.  In her own words, Mma Ramotswe claims: “It is my duty to help…. my brothers and sisters…solve the mysteries in their lives.  That is what I am called to do.” (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, p. 4)

One of the cultural treasures I received from these stories is how Mma Ramotswe and her rich cast of supporting characters show the universal need for kindness and courtesy in human relationships.  My teenage daughters and I greet each other in the morning now with the customary Batswanan words: “Have you slept well, Mma?” a greeting that is used whatever time of day a stranger, acquaintance or friend is encountered.

To my delight book #13 was published in April 2012, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection. It was just as wonderful as the previous twelve. Now I am on the library waiting list for the most recent titles in the series The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (2013) and The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe (2014).

A film adaptation, directed by Anthony Minghella, and produced by the Weinstein Company, premiered on HBO in March 2009.  I am frustrated that nothing more has been produced, since this first effort was excellent!

Jill Scott as Mma Ramotse

A quick disclaimer: It is undeniable that we have different tastes in fiction.  That means some of my readers will not like what I like.  The books recommended today address some weightier social ills and unlovely personal life choices, but all within a context of characters who, I believe, leave us with a true residue of goodness and inspiration.

For more information about Alexander McCall Smith

Categories: British novels, Chick lit, Humorous, Inspiration, Mystery, Romantic Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Tasteful Mystery: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

“Unless some sweetness at the bottom lie, who cares for all the crinkling of the pie?” William King, The Art of Cookery (1708)

Yet again I am a latecomer to the party.  I am just now tasting the delights of the mystery series by Canadian author Alan Bradley starring Flavia de Luce – an 11-year prodigy who solves crimes ahead of highly intelligent Inspector Hewitt. 

But I am getting ahead of myself.  I want to indulge in a personal comment before telling you about this series: I have entered my fifth decade and want to say that I now firmly believe the old adage: “It’s never too late”.  So arriving late to the party is just fine, as long as I enjoy it when I get there!  (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the first in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, was first published in 2009, so I am just four years late).  

Immediately acclaimed, book one won a long string of awards, including the Debut Dagger Award of the British Crimewriter’s Association and the Agatha Award for Best First Novel.       

“Character is king” and Alan Bradley has created royalty in Flavia de Luce, who is a wonderful, charming, uncannily intelligent, motherless child.  Her influence has just begun and I must thank Uncle Mike Stanley for telling me about her, and Phyllis at my local library for insisting that I listen to the audio version of the book narrated splendidly by Jayne Entwistle.

An excerpt from the series website sets the scene: “Alan Bradley plants the story deep into the setting of 1950s England, with a portrait of an eccentric home life that is all too wickedly familiar. The story’s twists are supported by the time and place as well as the unusual interests of the characters which range from stamp-collecting to making poisons all of which are highly researched and ingeniously incorporated.” http://www.flaviadeluce.com/the-sweetness-at-the-bottom-of-the-pie/

Alan Bradley

I would rather not divulge the book’s plot, but, instead, rave about its characterization, turns of phrase, and wonderful conclusion.  I thoroughly enjoyed the unlikely pairing of a precocious eleven-year-old and a middle-aged British police inspector.  Author Alan Bradley has a masterful grasp of the English language and uses it to both amuse and draw in the reader to his time and place:

 “Except for a handkerchief-sized scrap of grass at one side, Miss Mountjoy’s willow filled the fenced-in yard.  Even on the doorstep I could feel the dampness of the place: the tree’s languid branches formed a green bell jar through which little light seemed to penetrate, giving me the odd sensation of being under water.” (p. 136)

 Also, the ending is incredibly satisfying – resolving the mystery and stirring the heart.

My teen daughters and I listened to the book on our car rides this fall and found that Flavia appealed to all of us, although some of the gruesome aspects of the murder and the creepy murderer made it a definite PG-13/TV 14 rating in our opinion.  (That, and Flavia’s propensity to exclaim: “Damnation!” “Damn it to hell” , etc. throughout the story) This book series is found in the adult mystery section of my library.

I declare our plan to catch up with the Flavia fan club by reading the other five novels in the series: The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, A Red Herring Without Mustard, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Speaking From Among the Bones, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches.

If you are already a fan of the series, I would love to hear from you, just don’t spoil anything I have yet to experience! Flavia Fan club website: http://flaviafanclub.ning.com

Also, I discovered that great discussion questions are available on

http://www.litlovers.com/reading-guides/13-fiction/1008-sweetness-at-the-bottom-of-the-pie-bradley?start=3

My friend Wendy has this to say about this series: “I knew you would love it! This is one of the only series that we pre-order instead of waiting for the library to have. That is the advantage of being late to the party, you don’t have to wait for the next book! Isn’t Flavia fun?! I love all the church, hymn and history references, I love the way she talks to and treats her bike, Gladys, like a horse. “I put my feet up on the handlebars and gave Gladys her head. As we shot down the hill…” and “Leaving Gladys to graze in a bicycle stand…” (I had a green schwinn before I got my own horse, I remember…). And through all her thrilling fantastic adventures, there is something about her motherless childhood that rings so true.”
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Categories: Humorous, Mystery, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Strong Poison – Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery

First novel of the four Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries with Harriet Vane

Dorothy L. Sayers, (1893-1957), an Oxford-educated British woman rose to be one of the most celebrated minds of her time, counting among her friends, T.S. Eliot, Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis.  Sayers introduced her blue-blooded sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey in 1923 with the publication of Whose Body.

“He became her hero for fourteen volumes of novels and short stories. She also wrote four other novels in collaboration and two serial stories for broadcasting. Writing full time she rose to be the doyen of crime writers and in due course president of the Detection Club. Her work, carefully researched and widely varied, included poetry, the editing of collections with her erudite introductions on the genre, and the translating of the Tristan of Thomas from mediaeval French. “ Excerpted from the author’s biography Dorothy L. Sayers Society website: http://www.sayers.org.uk/dorothy.html

Sayers brings to her Lord Peter mysteries a level of logic, articulation, and distinction that is almost unknown in the current genre. Yet, these novels contain humorous and personable main characters which demand an ongoing loyalty among readers. (Witness the yahoo book discussion club organized in 1998 and still discussing the mysteries online today.)

Strong Poison, the sixth Lord Peter novel introduces readers to Harriet Vane, our detective’s love interest for four of the novels (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon).  The novel opens in an English courtroom, Harriet Vane is in the dock, accused of murdering her fiancé and the judge is summing up the case for the jury.  Our sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey is only a spectator of the sensational murder trial.  In a charming twist on “love at first sight”, Lord Peter falls for the prisoner in the dock and determines, not only to prove Harriet’s innocence, but to marry her afterward.

Providentially, one of the jurors who is an elderly spinster, possesses an iron backbone and won’t be bullied into giving a guilty verdict. A fresh trial is ordered and Lord Peter now has the opportunity to do the impossible, find out who actually “done it” with no evidence of means, motive or opportunity.

“Wimsey darted off and rushed round to the side-door, from which the jury was emerging.  Last of them all, her hat askew and her  dragged awkwardly round her shoulders came the elderly spinster.  Wimsey dashed up to her and seized her hand…”You’re absolutely right.  She didn’t do it, and thank God you stood up to them and gave her another chance!” (p. 37-38)

During the complex investigative process, Lord Peter uses unorthodox methods to uncover the truth, including the services of a member his undercover secretaries bureau, the innocuous Miss Murchison, who is planted to detect in the law office run by the main suspect.

Readers are drawn into the author’s time period -the Golden Age of the 1920’s and 30’s.  Wonderful characters abound in these mysteries,  Peter’s mum – the Dowager Duchess of Denver, Scotland Yard Chief-Inspector Parker, aristocratic business man and friend, Freddy Arbuthnot, Lord Peter’s brother, Gerald, the Duke of Denver and of course, mystery novelist and prisoner, Harriet Vane.

I never guess “whodunit” or even “How – done – it” and that makes these mysteries a puzzle and a worthwhile challenge.

Complete List of Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries with publication dates:

Whose Body? (1923), Clouds of Witnesses (1926), Unnatural Death (1927), Lord Peter Views the Body (short stories) (1928), The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1929), The Documents in the Case (1930), Strong Poison (1930), Five Red Herrings (1931), Have His Carcase (1932), Hangman’s Holiday (short stories) (1933), Murder Must Advertise (1933), The Nine Tailors (1934), Gaudy Night (1935), Busman’s Honeymoon – written and performed originally as a play (1936).

  “The only Christian work is good work, well done” 

Dorothy Leigh Sayers

 

 

Categories: British novels, Classics, Mystery, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Courage to Change: Brat Farrar by Josphine Tey

If a book leaves you exactly where it found you, thinking and feeling nothing you hadn’t felt or thought before, you are no different for having read it.  The criterion for a memorable book is the hope of rereading it some day and a passion to share the book with someone else.” Glady Hunt, Honey for a Woman’s Heart

So many wonderful books would be hidden from our knowledge without the enthusiastic recommendation of a dear friend or relative.  A novel that has remained on my personal “Top Ten” list for over twenty years came from just that source.  Years ago, Margaret Turner, in her eighties and legally blind, passed on to me a tattered anthology of mystery novels by Josephine Tey.  Brat Farrar was my favorite. First published in 1949 and set in rural England, it is a mystery without the standard corpse on the hearthrug and polite police inspector.  Instead, it is a masterpiece of deep themes, clearly defined characters, and building suspense.

The main character, Brat Farrar, is a young man with many flaws and a “checkered” past.  As the story starts, Brat agrees to pose as the heir to a fortune for personal financial gain.  Clearly, this is an immoral choice.  Yet, all through the story, I felt a kinship with him.  His motivation gets challenged early on in his deception.  He experiences “a faint queasiness, a sort of spiritual indigestion” (p. 121) that leads to profound change during the course of the novel.  This is definitely not one of those books with static characters who never learn or grow.  Instead, I find inspiration that we, too, are able to be transformed.

Also, Tey interweaves a beautiful theme about our need to belong throughout the story.  Brat, an orphan, is motivated by this visceral human impulse: “No one else had taken his hand in just that way.  Casual — no, not possessive… Belonging.  It had something to do with belonging.  The hand had taken him for granted because he belonged.  It was the unthinking friendliness of a woman to one of her family. Was it because he had never ‘belonged’ before that made that commonplace gesture into a benediction?” (p. 158)

This mystery novel is chock-full of charming, intricate characters: the rector, George Peck, is described as being ugly, but possessing great kindness and wisdom: “One of George Peck’s charms was that he listened to what was said to him.” (p.202),  Aunt Bee holds the family together and shows Brat undeserved kindness.  Then there is Simon, Brat’s rival for the family fortune! The plot twists, turns and culminates in a riveting denouement.

My proof that I love this novel is that I have read it four times!  Josephine Tey, is one of the pen names for Elizabeth MacKintosh who died at an early age and only published seven novels.  Thankfully, all of them are still in print.

My disclaimer: Early in the novel, Brat’s past is mentioned which includes allusions to sexual encounters.

Categories: British novels, Classics, Inspiration, Mystery, Romantic Fiction, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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