Diary of the Ordinary Happenings of a Kolkatan Lady – January 2020

 

My January Diary

January was a month of new beginnings. On the work front I had new things to learn and new projects to embark on and they kept me very (pleasantly) busy. I was also craving good book discussions and participated in two readalongs on Instagram. One – was ‘A Winter Away’ by Elizabeth Fair. I read this with a close group of friends and the book was light and it was amusing to share excerpts and peculiarities of character, whilst reading.

The second book I read with the Elizabeth Goudge Book Club on Instagram – ‘A City of Bells’. I had this beautiful first edition sitting on my bookshelf – just crying out to be read. I enjoyed this book so much.

We had two birthdays in the family – my daughter’s and my Mum’s. I bought Amitava Ghosh’s ‘Gun Island’ for my mum because she is a huge fan.

Mid-January, the husband and I had four nights of attending Dover Lane Music Conference – an Indian classical musical soirée in Kolkata. Two nights, we stayed up all night and walked home as the sky was turning pink at dawn. There is nothing so uplifting as music and is so needed to lift one’s spirits. I’ll think of the good music I listened to and it will make me happy when I remember it throughout the remainder of the year.

The weather has been unseasonably cold in Kolkata. That, and perhaps the new flat is rather chilly! Whatever the reason – I finally caved and bought a space heater. We celebrated Republic Day with Subway Chicken Tikka sandwiches and Dutch chocolate ice-cream. There was a holiday deal. Sandwiches are the highpoint of our (Meli and my) fast-food life!

Meli spent most of January practicing for Sports Day at her school. She is reading aloud ‘Little House on the Prairie’ to her grandmother, who is visiting at the moment.

I hope you all had a good start to the New Year.

 

This is my month in review :

The Books I read in January

A City of Bells - Elizabeth Goudge

1) ‘A City of Bells’ by Elizabeth Goudge

I read ‘A City of Bells’ with the Elizabeth Goudge Book Club on Instagram. The lady who hosts the readalong accompanies the books with wonderful images taken from the scenes of the book… in this case the city of Wells, England. This definitely helps to make the book come alive.

’A City of Bells’ was such a charming book. Very well written, a nice plot that was engaging to the last and a host of very endearing characters. And the best of all! The story contained a quaint little bookshop. How can a bibliophile not love a book with a bookstore in it? More on the book later… as I hope to review it in depth.

2) ‘The Prime Minister’ by Anthony Trollope

I’ve been listening to Trollope’s ‘The Prime Minister’ on audible for a few months now. I finally managed to finish the book in January and enjoyed it overall. I think the fact that the central character had a very dislikeable personality deterred me from listening to the book. Sometimes, his vices and personality got too much for me. The book is the fourth in Trollope’s famous ‘Palliser Chronicles’. The most important themes in the book were politics and a greed to make easy money.

3) ‘A Winter Away’ by Elizabeth Fair

Elizabeth Fair - A Winter Away

 

4) ‘The New Chalet School’ by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

I read ‘The New Chalet School’ in an Armada paperback version and it is abruptly cut short at the end. I will have to search for the next Armada book ‘A United Chalet School’ where the story continues to satisfactorily resolve the story. Next month I will pick the most momentous book in the series – ‘The Chalet School in Exile’ and I have an unabridged Girls Gone By Publishing edition that contains the missing chapters of the Armada editions. As ‘Exile’ is my favourite book in the series, I am VERY excited to proceed.

 

Mixed Media in January

I didn’t watch much television at all in January but did manage to watch a few episodes of ‘The Crown’ on Netflix. Particularly haunting, was the tragedy that befalls a Welsh mining town. Meli and my Mum are re watching episodes of ‘Anne with an E’. I hope to catch up with the newly released third season soon.

I was ever so hopeful that the ‘Little Women’ movie would come to theatres in Kolkata but it hasn’t and I’m still hopeful and waiting!…

Meli and I have discovered Maroon Five’s ‘Memories’. Quite distressingly, Meli has also picked up the lyrics which might not be the most appropriate for an eight year old …

I listened to the Slightly Foxed podcast. Episodes that I enjoyed included Episode 13 (Nature and Story) and Episode 14 (The Vital Spark). The latter was a very engrossing discussion on what sparks a lifelong love of reading. This is a topic very much after my own heart as I take great efforts to encourage Meli to read.

The husband and I spent four very lovely evenings (and in two instances whole nights) at the 68th Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata. It’s an Indian classical music conference held every year in our city and I attended the event after many years. My favourites were a Double Violin recital by L Shenkar and a vocal recital from Ustad Rashid Khan.

 

What I Made in January

Noel Streatfeild - Laura Ingalls Wilder

I made a delicious chocolate banana almond bread in January. Although we enjoyed it, I still found it on the dry side and will be tweaking the recipe further.

I also baked a chocolate layer cake with coffee chocolate icing for Meli’s birthday. It was delicious and not too heavy on the icing at all, which we like. Meli loves to have Cadbury Gems (or M&M’s/ Smarties) spell out the birthday number on the cake. I’ve been doing this since she was a small child and she loves the tradition.

I’ve been making and drinking a lot of cardamom milk tea this January. I find it very soothing to drink during the colder months. Simply boil pierced cardamom pods in water, add strong black tea and gently simmer for about 5 mins on the stove top. Add milk and sugar to taste and then serve.

 

What I Bought or Received in January

January Book Haul - Laura Ingalls Wilder- Enid Blyton

I purchased books for the 8 year old’s birthday, because as she says herself – books make the best presents. The books I gave her were Noel Streatfeild’s ‘Holiday Stories’. I was a bit naughty in that I wanted this beautiful book for myself but I managed to convince my daughter that she would enjoy it too when I mentioned that one of the stories was labeled ‘Chicken for Supper’. As my daughter loves to eat chicken and food in general, she didn’t need much convincing after that! The second book we gave her for her birthday was a Full Colour Edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘By The Shores of Silver Lake’. There was also another old book find – to add to the Famous Five collection. She also received a splendid illustrated edition of ‘The Goblet of Fire’ by J.K. Rowling from a generous uncle.

Books I bought for myself included a second hand copy of E.H. Young’s ‘William’ and two Girls Gone By Publishing stories – ‘Highland Holiday’ by Jane Shaw and ‘Refuge for the Chalet School’ by Amy Fletcher.

 

Posts I Published in January

Milton Place - Elisabeth de Waal - Persephone Books

I regained my blogging mojo in January and published a few posts that I’ve listed below:

6 Tips to Overcome the Post-Christmas Blues

The Faded Glory of the Old English Country House: Milton Place by Elisabeth de Waal

Best Books of 2019

The Highpoint of the Month

Brown paper packages

I received a wondrous package from two dear Instagram friends – Kathy (kstarnes on Instagram) and Shelbi (the nobbylife on Instagram). I spent a whole afternoon opening the parcel and enjoying its contents while sipping on a cup of tea. The wrapping was so pretty that I had to take a flat-lay photograph to share. The books are highly coveted vintage editions of O. Douglas – out of print and hard to find. I love them so much. I feel very grateful to have such considerate friends.

O Douglas - The Setons - Priorsford

Favourite Book Excerpt of the Month

“I think it will last,” said Grandfather. “In my experience when people once begin to read they go on. They begin because they think they ought to and they go on because they must. Yes. They find it widens life. We’re all greedy for life, you know, and our short span of existence can’t give us all that we hunger for, the time is too short and our capacity not large enough. But in books we experience all life vicariously.”

~ ‘A City of Bells’ by Elizabeth Goudge

Top 10 Books of 2018

Happy New Year to everyone reading the blog. Thank you for all your kind comments and feedback during the past year.

2018 on the whole, was a year of comfort reading. It has been three years since we moved back to India after spending many years abroad. Slowly but surely, we are easing in to a pattern of life here. Perhaps I will be ready for darker, more complex books next year? 🙂

A major highlight of my reading year has been reading all 12 books in Miss Read’s ‘Thrush Green’ series. Though none of the books made their way into my Top 10, they provided much needed comfort and reflected a way of life that I would at least love to emulate (although not remotely possible under the circumstances).

I ended up reading a total of 45 books during the year. Although not a large number, I enjoyed my reading year at large and can’t wait to jump in to a fresh new year of enhanced reading.

 

Here, in Order of Reading Chronology, are My Top 10 Books of 2019:

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Return of the Soldier’ by Rebecca West is about a Great War veteran who has returned from the trenches suffering from shell-shock.

His amnesia prevents him from remembering his wife of ten years, with whom he has loved and lost a small child. His cousin Jenny, who lives with them, he can recollect, but only as a young woman, fifteen years younger.

To the dismay and disgust of his wife Kitty, the one person he can remember is his sweetheart from fifteen years ago- Margaret, with whom he has a very romantic history. She was then, a young, simple girl, a poor inn-keeper’s daughter, of little sophistication.

Christopher and Margaret meet again and rekindle their relationship at Christopher’s behest but Kitty is anxious for her husband to meet a doctor and be treated for his lapse of memory.

It is left to Margaret, with her superior understanding of Christopher’s mind (in-fact the perfect soul mate) to trigger an emotion that will bring about the return of the soldier in both the physical and emotional states. This is a story about love and sacrifice and is also an exploration of the relative strengths of different human relationships.

 

Can You Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope

Trollope’s entree novel in to his ‘Palliser series’ is a novel dealing heavily with political power and personal ambition.

Political ambition, certainly seems to be one of the main motivating factors behind male actions in this book.

However, the women in this novel show a great deal of indecision in the course of the novel.

Why is Alice- the lead female protagonist, such a dithering fool? Can we forgive Alice for her lack of decisiveness. And as Alice is not the only dithering lady in the book, are we more inclined to forgive the other ladies in question (Lady Glencora and Mrs Greenow)?

As with all Trollope novels, there is much food for thought about the cause and effect of human actions.

 

Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple

‘Young Anne’ is the eighth and final Dorothy Whipple novel to be published by Persephone Books but in the grand chronology of things, is Whipple’s first and most autobiographical novel.
It is set in the years leading up to the First World War and follows the life and growth of Anne Pritchard, youngest child of a middle-class, Lancastrian family. The ‘Young’ in ‘Young Anne’ not only refers to the tender age of the female protagonist, it also helps to emphasize the extreme naïveté of Anne Pritchard, the mistakes that youth often make and the consequences of immature decision making on adult life.

 

The Lark by Edith Nesbit

This is the first time that I’ve ever read any adult literature by Nesbit and I couldn’t be more in love with this little gem of a novel.
The writing is airy and light, full of childlike whimsy and delight and the plot is delightful.
Two young women, upon coming of age discover that their inheritance has been misspent. They have no relatives to call their own, they are alone in the world – all they have been left as an endowment is a small country cottage and a trunkful of vintage clothing in the attic. Rather than get upset with this unfortunate turn of events, the two young women try their hand at a number of money-making ventures. They treat the whole situation as a ‘Lark’ and their attitude is so positive and cheery that they win a lot of friends along the way.
It is also a remarkable example of female determination and independence, much in keeping with the decision to publish this novel as part of a series dedicated to celebrating Penguin Women Writers and the centenary of women getting the vote in 1918.

 

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton

Guard Your Daughters deals with the unconventional upbringing of five daughters. Five daughters, who despite a lack of formal education, shine in different ways. This is the story of their unusual way of life, sequestered from mainstream society due to the neuroses of an over protective mother.
I must admit that ‘Guard Your Daughters’ was one of those books, where one paragraph in, I just knew that this was going to be one of my most favourite books.
One can’t but help draw a comparison between Dodie Smith’s voice in ‘I Capture the Castle’ and Diana Tutton’s in this particular novel. Highly recommend this coming of age novel that deals with important issues of mental health.

 

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

This is the rather unlikely story of a small group of children, whose parents unexpectedly travel to Europe to attend to the needs of an ailing relative. The children are left unattended, without an adult to take care of them and when their parents don’t return or send word of their whereabouts – they are left in the strange
predicament of having to fend for themselves.
The landlord of the house where the family lived suddenly decides to evict them due to a sudden whim and the children have no recourse but to live in a nearby farmer’s barn.
The entire village is up in arms against the children and want them to separate and go to different homes. The children decide to fight all odds, stick together and eke out an existence in the barn.
Though the story is an unlikely one, the determination and initiative taken by the children is truly remarkable. I think it is a fascinating read for children and adults alike.
After all, how many of us as children have dreamt of being self sufficient and resourceful enough to have a small house/tree-house of our own- a private sanctuary where we act as independently and responsibly as grown ups?

 

The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith

This brilliant Victorian epistolary novel – ‘Diary of a Nobody’ comes highly recommended if in need of comic relief on topics related to the absurdities of daily life.
If you loved ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ you will certainly enjoy this novel.
The difference is that the tone of the provincial lady is self deprecating, whereas is this case Mr Pooter is bursting with self importance and a sad need of demanding respect from society.
The term ‘pooterish’ – is winsomely derived from the character of the lead protagonist in this book.

 

Fair Stood the Wind for France by HE Bates

Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H E Bates is a war time work of fiction that deals with the story of a group of British airmen, who are compelled to make a forced landing in occupied France and have to take refuge in the home of a kind French family, who risk all they hold dear to help the men.
In particular it is the beautiful story of the love and trust that grows between the injured head flight pilot and the daughter of the French family.
Fair Stood the Wind for France was poignant, a World War Two story about love and trust and loss on an epic scale.

 

The Lark in the Morn by Elfrida Vipont

This lesser known but critically acclaimed children’s book author (winner of the Carnegie Medal in 1950) penned a series of books about the lives of a Quaker family living in England.
At times the mode of writing can seem a bit archaic but the beautiful plot of this, the first book, will have you grabbing the second book (Lark on the Wing) in no time at all.
A young, rather forlorn, motherless child realises her vocation in life – that of being a singer. Lark in the Morn charters her realisation of this process and Lark on the Wing – outlines her struggle to establish herself as a singer.
The storytelling in both books is very compelling. If you enjoy music and the arts, this is a particularly uplifting read.

Village Christmas by Miss Read

I spent the entire year reading all 12-13 books in Miss Read’s ‘Thrush Green’ series but ultimately it was Village Christmas, from the ‘Fairacre Series’ that stole my heart.
The book, in my opinion, can be read as a stand-alone.
It chronicles a day in the life of two elderly sisters, who are called upon quite suddenly, to help a needy neighbour on Christmas Day.
The story has all the wonderful light touches and beautiful details that make Miss Read’s books so endearing and comforting. I think I will be reading this book as part of an annual tradition.
Which was your favourite book of 2018? If I had to pick just one – I would say ‘Guard Your Daughters’.

 

 

Fair Stood the Wind for France by H.E. Bates

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I am reviewing this book as part of the #1944club, initiated by Simon David Thomas of ‘Stuck in a Book’and Karen of ‘Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling’.

To take a look at other books published in the same year, reviewed by other bloggers, please take a look at the round up posts that should be up on the previously mentioned blogs.

‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H E Bates is a war time work of fiction that deals with the story of a group of British airmen, who are compelled to make a forced landing in occupied France and have to take refuge in the home of a kind French family, who risk all they hold dear to help the men. In particular it is the beautiful story of the love and trust that grows between the injured head flight pilot and the daughter of the French family.

HE Bates’ ‘Darling Buds’ series is one that I read in my early teens and it has always been very dear to me. Apart from the obvious humour in the stories of the inimitable Larkin family, there is a beauty in Bates’ writing that brings out the best in all natural things. Moreover his writing has a sensual quality. With a keen eye for observing small details, one gets the idea, that here is a writer who knows how to live life to the lees and appreciates the small things.

The beautiful nature writing, descriptions of food, sensuality in describing human interactions and emotions is rendered just as beautifully in ‘Fair Stood the Wind France’. To add to that you have a moving love story and an epic struggle where the protagonists strive to find freedom.

The story starts with the British plane hovering over the French Alps during the night. There are some wonderful descriptions of the snow glistening on the mountains beneath the aircraft.

Sometimes the Alps lying below in the moonlight had the appearance of crisp folds of crumpled cloth. The glacial valleys were alternately shadowy and white as starch in the blank glare of the full moon; and then in the distances, in all directions, as far as it was possible to see, the high snow peaks were fluid and glistening as crests of misty water.

The man in charge of the aircraft, one John Franklin, feels a deep sense of responsibility for his crew of four sergeants, a responsibility that has grown over the year that they have flown together. It is the third summer of the War, tempers are rising, impatience is growing, a sense of uncertainty prevails.

When the engine of the aircraft fails, Franklin is forced to make an abrupt landing, in the dead of the night, in marshy terrain, in what they hope is Occupied France. I’m still confused why landing in this part of France was preferable.

Franklin seriously injures his arm during the impact of an abrupt landing. The crew take recourse to the medical help provided by a local French family. The family, consisting of a mill owner, his beautiful French daughter and aged mother provide the airmen with shelter at the risk of being shot and discovered.

Moreover, papers are procured for the British airmen- false papers that will take them across the border to unoccupied France and further to England. The path to safety is a long one and one that holds considerable risk. Even when the airmen reach the relative safety of unoccupied France, there is the risk from the French people themselves, who are impoverished and in need of food and money themselves.

The world that Bates paints is fraught with much strife, pain, suffering and uncertainty.

In fact this sense of uncertainty and helplessness pervades the entirety of the novel. From a year of publication perspective, the fact that the novel was published in 1944, when the outcome of the war effort was still uncertain, surely contributes to set the tone of the novel. Moreover, there is an overwhelming sense of sorrow, a deep sense of grief for the war and everything that it stands for, and the monstrous face of what it has turned the world and it’s people into.

He felt she was crying for something that he could never have understood without her and now did understand because of her. Deep and complete within himself, all these things were part of the same thing, and he knew that what she was crying for was the agony of all that was happening in the world.

’Fair Stood the Wind for France’ may  have become one of my most beloved wartime novels. The story is full of heartache and poignancy. I wonder how much of it was based on what Bates himself saw first hand, as a writer, commissioned by the RAF to write short stories?

Top 10 Books of 2017

 

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Looking back on 2017, I see a wonderful list of books and honestly I can’t say that I regret reading a single one of them. In this particularly good year of reading (52 books in the year) a few stood out to me.

 

These are the ten books that left the most indelible impression on me in 2017:

1. Mariana by Monica Dickens

A coming of age novel dealing with a young girl’s quest to find the perfect love. Though the body of the novel is well written and engaging, it is the beginning and ending of the novel that elevate the quality of the story in my opinion, making it truly memorable. There are echoes of Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana’ in this book.

2. Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

What a delight of a novel. The characters are excellent, the plot immaculately constructed and the writing is very funny.

A young woman, Miss Barbara Buncle opts to become a novel writer when her annual dividends are not as lucrative as usual. As the young lady has no imagination whatsoever, she writes completely from experience, portraying the people and incidents occurring in her rural corner of England. When the village people read the book and discover themselves (in an unflattering light) in the pages of the story, they determinedly set out to uncover the identity of the perpetrator of the village crime.

3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

This might be my new favourite du Maurier novel alongside Rebecca. It kept our book club continually guessing (we are still unsure to this day). Apart from the suspenseful aspect of the novel, I enjoyed the Cornish setting and the gothic feel of the story.

4. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

This was such a quiet, wistful novel, spanning the events of one particular day. It deals with the struggles of the post-WW2 upper-middle class, coming to terms with the loss of their glorious past and changing domestic situations.

5. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

A suspenseful, fast-paced Victorian novel and a pre-decessor of the modern day thriller, although in my opinion, much better written than most of the modern-day bestsellers.

6. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Hard to describe Mrs Dalloway. Perhaps to me- it strikes as a poem of a novel talking about deep-seated issues – some of them related to mental health. The descriptions of  London in the novel are glorious.

7. Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham

Set in Toronto during World War 2, Earth and High Heaven deals with the then frowned upon love affair between a Canadian English woman and a Canadian Jewish man. The book is an elaborate social commentary on racial prejudice. It shows how people born into a fixed social pattern can overcome centuries of difference, in an overwhelming desire to embrace the most unifying emotion of all- love.

8. The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

The last book in the Barsetshire Chronicles and Trollope’s most soul searching, heart-rending book about a man’s quest to preserve his integrity in the face of extreme adversity.

9. My Grandmothers and I by Diana Holman-Hunt

A memoir written by the grand daughter of the eminent pre-raphaelite painter William Holman-Hunt. It tells of her unusual upbringing, alternating in the homes of her paternal and maternal grandmothers. It is a wonderful chance to glimpse into the eccentric lifestyle of Holman-Hunt. It’s also a rather poignant memoir written in a cheerful way, from the viewpoint of a young girl, who was essentially an orphan and who never knew the comfort of a stable home.

10. Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

The subject of this Victorian novel had quite a modern tone. It dealt with illegitimacy and the strictures of Victorian society and religion. However, what I appreciated the most about this novel was the fact that the pain and suffering, the vulnerability of a young orphan girl was highlighted, thus painting her plight in a very sympathetic way.

Please leave me a comment sharing your favourite book of the year.

Here’s to many more books in 2018.

The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff

 

  • Title: The Story of Babar
  • Author and Illustrator: Jean de Brunhoff
  • Published: 1933
  • Main Characters: Babar (a little elephant),

Short Synopsis of the Story: A little elephant called Babar grew up under the care of his mother in a big forest. One day, some cruel hunters killed Babar’s mother before his very eyes. In a wild panic, Babar fled and ran and ran until he came upon a large town. Once in the town, he met an Old Lady who was kind enough to be Babar’s benefactress. Babar went to a large clothing store and bought himself fine clothes. With the help of a learned professor, Babar received a good education and together, he and the Old Lady spent a happy few years in polite, civilized, social circles in the big city. Despite the comfort and security in his town life, Babar missed his life in the forest. One day, Babar came upon two of his cousins, Celeste and Arthur, who had mischievously escaped from the forest. He spent a few happy days with his cousins, showing them about town and his way of life. When Celeste and Arthur’s mothers come from the forest and find their children it is time to go back. Babar decided that he would go back to the forest with his cousins. Despite feeling sad at leaving the Old Lady, Babar was ready to embrace his old life. When Babar, Celeste and Hector, arrived back in the forest they found that the King of the Elephants had suddenly died from eating a poisonous mushroom. All the elephants proposed that Babar should be their King. Babar accepted their proposal on the grounds that they accept Celeste as their queen. There was a grand marriage ceremony with much celebration and enjoyment and all the animals of the forest attended it. King Babar and Queen Celeste leave on their honeymoon on a big hot-air balloon, eager for new adventures.

Notes: This is a wonderful story with a subtle moral. Babar returns to his old life in the forest, thus relinquishing his life of comfort in the big town. His experiences in the city, placate him in the elephant society and he is deemed worthy of being their King. Babar and his Queen, seek further adventures. Adventure and experience, bring worldliness and hence wisdom.

Apart from having a lovely storyline that will capture the imagination of little children, the illustrations by de Brunhoff are exceptional. Particularly those of Babar dressed in his fine clothes, partaking of amusements that are popular in genteel society. This is deemed to be one of the first graphic novels of it’s kind and de Brunhoff is often referred to as being the father of the contemporary picture book.

I did find the references to Babar’s mother being killed a little shocking though and my three year old daughter was clearly affected by the incident and kept asking about it. Perhaps, death is a fact that needs to be dealt with, however, young we may be. It is a point that I am still pondering.

Martha in Paris by Margery Sharp

Martha in Paris is the second book in Margery Sharp’s trilogy based on the character of Martha. Find the review for the first book in the series, The Eye of Love here.

  • Title: Martha in Paris
  • Author: Margery Sharp
  • Published: 1962 by Little, Brown and Company Toronto
  • Location of the story: Paris
  • Main Characters: Martha (an art student), Eric Taylor (an English bank employee in Paris), Eric’s Mother, Madame Dubois(Martha’s guardian in Paris).

Martha in Paris picks up the story of Martha nearly a decade after where the The Eye of Love left us. At that juncture, Martha (an orphaned child living with her aunt Dolores) and her artistic talent had been discovered by a rich patron, Mr Joyce, a friend of the family. In the subsequent years Martha’s talent has been nurtured with special art training.

Martha in Paris recounts Martha’s student years in Paris. Here, for two years she studies art under the guidance of one of France’s most eminent art instructors. Her tuition and expenses are met by the kind aegis of Mr Joyce, Martha’s wealthy benefactor.

Mr Joyce aptly observes:

“These next two years will show,” thought Mr. Joyce. “Sink or swim!”

Whilst in Paris, Martha meets an Englishman by the name of Eric Taylor. They meet each other regularly under the tromp l’ oeil’ statue of Tragedy and Comedy in Tuileries Garden where Martha sits on the exact same bench everyday to enjoy her half-French loaf stuffed with delicious charcuterie. Eric, hungry for companionship with a fellow English person tries to engage Martha in lively discourse. He mistakes her lack of conversation for reticence, little knowing that Martha would rather shun any kind of interaction whatsoever.

After a week of one-sided discourse on Eric’s part, he invites her to dinner to meet his mother on Friday night. Nothing can persuade her to accept his invitation until she hears of the bathroom renovations the Taylor’s have installed in their apartment. Martha in desperate need of a comforting, hot bath quickly changes her mind and accepts Eric’s invitation with great alacrity.

“Is the bath vitreous?” asked Martha.

“If you mean is it a sort of china, yes,” said Eric.”Pale green.”

Her defences pierced at last-

“What time on Friday?” asked Martha.

Martha arrives at the Taylor’s apartment at the appointed time on Friday, with a mysterious paper packet. Eric mistakes the packet as a thoughtful hostess gift but notices that Martha fails to bestow the gift to Mrs Taylor. Promptly upon arrival Mrs Taylor shows Martha around, based upon the understanding that Martha has a keen interest in viewing the apartment.

As soon as they enter the bathroom and Martha has admired the facilities she laments that she has not had a proper hot bath in months! One thing leads to another and before very long, in fact the ten minutes remaining before dinner, Martha  decides to take a hot bath much to Mrs Taylor’s astonishment.

“I’ll have it now,” said Martha, swiftly opening her packet, which in fact contained one clean vest and a pair of clean knickers.”

Despite Martha’s unconventional behaviour, Mrs Taylor tolerates and indeed welcomes Martha’s weekly visits. This is because Mrs Taylor does not find Martha’s appearance or personality intimidating.

The weekly Friday visits and baths become a ritual and Martha and Eric find themselves in a situation which is too close for Martha’s comfort. How Martha deals with the resultant circumstances of her relationship with Eric forms the theme of the remainder of this novel.

Sharp’s writing is at her wittiest best in this novel. The stolid, determined and somewhat selfish artistic temperament of Martha is fully manipulated to render moments of extreme comedic humour in the novel.

Quite disconcertingly, however, Martha’s  ‘artistic temperament’ fills us with dismay as we notice a complete absence of love and compassion.

I enjoyed the quirky book and the unusual ending made me immediately put in a library requisition for the third book in the trilogy- Martha, Eric and George.

Inspector French’s Greatest Case by Freeman Wills Crofts

1924-Club

This review is for The 1924 Book Club. To discover more about this effort and to read additional reviews of books published in 1924 do visit Simon from Stuck in a Book’s hub post or Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling’s hub page.

The first time I came across a reference to Freeman Wills Croft’s writing was when I was reading James Hilton’s classic story ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’. I am always pleased to find bookish references within books and I read that Mr. Chips’s bottom bookshelf  was said to comprise of cheap editions of detective novels. His reading habits were thus described:

Sometimes he took down Vergil or Xenophon and read for a few moments, but he was soon back again with Doctor Thorndyke or Inspector French.

I had noted down Inspector French’s name for my ‘to be read’ list and thought no more of him until I was searching for a suitable book to review for The 1924 Book Club. ‘Inspector French’s Greatest Case’ was published in that year and to my delight I discovered this was the first entrée into the mystery series. Moreover, the book was available at my local library.

While I was researching alternative mystery story writers from this period I was surprised to find that the only writers of my acquaintance who were writing at that time were Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Agatha Christie published ‘The Man in the Brown Suit’ in the same year along with ‘Poirot Investigates’. Dorothy L. Sayers had published the first in her Lord Peter Wimsey crime series ‘Whose Body’ in 1923, after which there was a three year hiatus before ‘Clouds of Witness’ was published in 1926. In 1924 neither Margery Allingham (Crime at Black Dudley, 1929), Ngaio Marsh (A Man Lay Dead, 1934), Josephine Tey (The Man in the Queue, 1929)  or Edmund Crispin (Case of the Gilded Fly, 1944) had started publishing their work.

As a result of this discovery I went into reading this novel with the pre-conceived notion that the writing might be somewhat archaic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Freeman Wills Croft’s  writing is surprisingly modern, his language easy to read and his flow of thought fluent and comprehensible.

In ‘Inspector French’s Greatest Case‘ we are introduced to a case of murder that occurs at the offices of Duke and Peabody, a diamond merchant located at Hatton Garden in London. On a cold night in the middle of November, the body of an employee, by the name of Mr. Charles Gething is discovered prostrate on the floor in the inner office of Mr. Duke. Mr. Duke’s large Milner safe has been ransacked with the loss of thirty-three thousand pounds worth of diamonds and a thousand pounds in bank notes. Mr. Gething has undoubtedly been murdered as evidenced from the ugly wound made to the back of the skull by a blunt instrument.

The theft of the diamonds and money previously secured in the safe are the motive behind the murder. To investigate the case, Inspector French of the Criminal Investigation Department of New Scotland Yard is called in.

In our first introduction to Inspector French he is described as follows:

…The third was a stout man in tweeds, rather under middle height, with a clean shaven, good-humoured face and dark blue eyes, which, though keen, twinkled as if at some perennially fresh private joke. His air was easy-going and leisurely, and he looked the type of man who could enjoy a good dinner and a good smoke room story to follow.

Inspector French investigates the circumstantial evidence in a  methodical and systematic way. A paper trail led by the stolen bank notes leads him on a wild-goose chase across the beautiful Swiss Alps and later on to Barcelona and Amsterdam. There are a number of false clues and likely suspects. Inspector French leaves no stone unturned in his effort to grasp at the truth. He works tirelessly. We find that he becomes depressed when he has no immediate line of investigation to pursue.

It was only when he did not see his way clear that he became depressed and then he grew surly as a bear with a sore head, and his subordinates kept at as great a distance from him as their several activities would permit

Freeman Wills Crofts, the author of the novel worked as a railway engineer before turning to writing detective fiction. This background information surfaces in the plot line. There are many descriptions of train travel in the book. These train journeys and the places Inspector French passes on his travels through Europe are described in great detail and add an extra layer of appeal to the story. We travel with him to Interlaken, along the shores of the Lake of Thun, along the narrow gauge line that passes into the hearts of the giants of the Bernese Oberland; past the towering peaks of the Matterhorn, Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau. The scenery unfolds in our imagination as we follow Wills Croft’s travelogue. Later we scramble across Channel crossing ferries at a moment’s notice along with French and travel the breath and depth of the continent to Havre, to Bordeaux by the Paris-Orleans line, then on the Midi to the Spanish frontier at Irun, and then via Medina and Salamanca to Oporto. Freeman Wills Croft’s fascination for train timetables is evident in the construction of the plot.

Wills Crofts builds up the story layer after layer in intricate detail. Multiple times the trail runs cold and much to French’s chagrin there is no immediate course of action . More than halfway into the story French observes:

It was a confoundedly exasperating case- just bristling with promising clues which one after another petered out as he came to follow them up

What do we learn about the personal nature of Inspector French? Has he the calculative obsessive temperament of a Poirot-like detective or does he share the amazing deductive powers of a genius like Sherlock Holmes? The answer is neither. Freeman Wills Croft’s detective Inspector French is the most ordinary of detectives, a hard-working humane person shunning cruel subversive techniques of interrogation in favour of a caring, kindly approach.

…He was not only a man of natural kindliness of heart, but he had the gift of imagination. He saw himself in the girl’s place; and was glad he had not added to her trouble.

Inspector French’s Greatest Case is not devoid of humour and charming domestic detail. Freeman Wills Croft describes an aspect of French’s home life that made me smile. Whenever Inspector French is perplexed with his case he returns home to his wife and describes in great detail aspects of the case that are troubling him. The poor lady, prevented from tacking the household chore she was engaged in is forced to take up her sewing and sit on the large Chesterfield armchair while French recounts the evidence.

Sometimes she interjected a remark, sometimes she didn’t; usually she warned him to be careful not to knock over the small table beside the piano, and invariably she wished he would walk on the less worn parts of the carpet

Usually Mrs. French ‘took a notion’ or asked unusual questions that shed light on the case in a different way.

We do not get to know very much more about Inspector French’s personal life in this book. We do learn that he has lost a son in the Great War but he appears to be intensely private about this tragedy.

Inspector French’s Greatest Case is a fantastic first novel in a series. I am curious to learn more about Inspector French, his dogged determination and his persistence.

Freeman Wills Crofts  has provided us with a refreshing ‘new detective’ (at least new to me). He delivers a carefully grafted, meticulously detailed plot. At every stage of the investigation we are privy to French’s thoughts and ideas so we do not feel cheated or left out. In the finale we are treated to a delightful twist in the plot which is done quite masterfully.

A big thank you to Simon for encouraging me to read a wonderful book from 1924.