16 12 2014

Murder OffstageAnother young woman sleuthing in London in the aftermath of the Great War. Posie Potter inevitably invites comparison with Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs and Gillian Winscott’s Nell Bray, and it has to be said that though this is a competently written cosy detective story in the classic early-Agatha-Christie tradition, it is not in the same class as those others I mentioned. Although Posie has been a nurse on the battle field and experienced the horrors of trench warfare at first hand, there is none of the trauma and nightmares here that seemed so right in the Maise Dobbs novels. Nor is the plot comparable to that of, say, the superficially similar Stage Fright by Gillian Winscott. A priceless diamond with a curse on it stolen from a rajah is hardly original.

On the other hand, it was the first in the series, it is very promising, I do like Posie, and I suppose “cosy” should mean just that, “cosy” – so, yes, I will definitely be reading the next Posie Parker Mystery.

AVIGNON by Marianne Calmann

23 11 2014

Avignon coverThis is a strange book. There are so many different characters and so many different things going on that it reads more like a soap opera than a novel. But then the same might be said for that greatest of all historical novels “War and Peace”. We jump from Cardinal le Gor with his page and his moral problem (his relationship with his page) to Pope Clement with his sister and his health problems and his moral problem (he had feelings of guilt about what others called “his spendthrift ways”; for instance he had spent billions trying to make Avignon and the Palais des Papes more beautiful and impressive than anything in Rome); to Thoros Bonivassin, the Jewish physician who is summoned one night to the Pope’s bedside then disappears; to Blanchette, Thoros’ beautiful sister-in-law, who is in love with him, not Astruc, her husband, Thoros’ brother; to the high official in the Pope’s household who is obsessed with a Jewish woman (that same femme fatale, Blanchette) and fathers a son on her, then undergoes a terrible penance for this “sin”. And many, many more.

The scene switches from one to the other and back again as we follow their lives and get to know them all and to feel at home in Avignon (and especially in the Papal Palace and the Jewish ghetto known as the Street) during 1347-8, the year leading up to the arrival via Marseilles of the Black Death. The last third of the book shows how they respond in their various different ways to this catastrophe. Should Thoros, the physician, go into Avignon or remain in the Street (which will be sealed off). Should they flee the Street and Avignon?

Great history if not great art (though I’m not too sure about that distinction), well written and, as I say, full of people. Highly recommended to those who feel curious about medieval Avignon, and life (especially life for Jews) under the French popes. After reading this, you would feel at home there.

STAGE FRIGHT by Gillian Linscott

18 10 2014

Stage Fright coverBack with Nell Bray, the suffragette who continues to be one of my favourite sleuths.

It is 1909 still (as it was during Sister Beneath the Sheet – see also Dead Man Riding) and Nell is in London, having recently completed her second prison term that year for “suffragetting” – taking Direct Action against the all-male government elected by the all-male voters.

At a meeting of the “suffrage prisoners support committee” she is collared by Bernard Shaw and talked into sticking close to, and doing her best to protect, Isabella Flanagan, Lady Penwarden, whom he believes to be in danger from her husband, Lord Penwarden.

What is Shaw’s interest? Bella – Isabella Flanagan, her own name, the name she performs under – is the leading lady in Shaw’s new play, Cinderella, which takes up the tale of Cinderella five years after her marriage to prince Charming, by which time she has had more than enough of him and is desperate for a dovorce. It was written specially for her, because she is in that same position, desperate for a divorce from Lord Penwarden, but owing to the archaic divorce laws quite unable to obtain one. This is airing the aristicracy’s dirty linen in public, which is just up Shaw’s street; it also brings him once again into a head-on collision with the Lord Chamberlain and the theatrical performace licensing laws, something Shaw always enjoys.

Lord Penwarden is, predictably, not amused.

I am not going to spoil it by telling you what happens, but I must say that having Shaw as a character in a story was an ambitious undertaking, and a less gifted author might have put words in his mouth that would have him rising up out of his grave and coming to haunt her. However, Gillian Linscott does him – and us – proud. He could – he would, I am sure – have said almost exactly what she has him say were he to find himself in the situations she places him in. (Ah, the god-like power an author has!)

I love all these books, but for a Shaw fan (and sometime Shaw-scholar) like myself this was a special treat.

CHAINS OF FOLLY by Roberta Gellis

4 10 2014

Chains of FollyBack in the days when King Stephen still ruled a troubled and divided kingdom, and Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine were still buried deep in the tarot pack, one small part of London had its own queen, the beautiful  Magdalene la Bâtarde. She was all that Eleanor was to be, and more so, but the paths of their lives were utterly different and Magdalene ended up as a whore, a madam with her own up-market whorehouse, and the proud mistress of William of Ypres, King Stephen’s right-hand man. She also often acted as Lord William’s agent, for she was well placed to hear of men’s doings and learn their secrets. As she observes somewhere in this book, much is revealed in pillow-talk.

Chains of Folly is the fourth in the Magdalene la Bâtarde series … I remember reading of Magdalene for the first time in Chapter One of A Mortal Bane:

Magdalene la Bâtarde, whoremistress, she who had been Arabel de St. Foi until her husband died of a knife in the heart and she had fled before she could be accused of his murder …

I was hooked. I read Bone of Contention and A Personal Devil  – then waited – and waited – for the paperback edition of Chains of Folly. I don’t think there ever was one. I now have in my hand an ex-library hardback I came across in a charity shop.

I think I understand the problem. For Magdalene addicts like me it is essential reading, and I loved it. But I have to say that it is a bit slow compared with the others, a bit of a filler in the ongoing story of Magdalene and her circle; I wouldn’t recommend it unless, as I say, you are already hooked. (And after a filler, Roberta, should come another great story. We are waiting!)

A dead prostitute is found in the Bishop of Winchester’s bed-chamber. We know already, from the Prologue, that she was already dead when she was placed there to embarrass him and be a source of scandal about him and that the Bishop knows nothing of her. Telling the reader this is probably a mistake. If we hadn’t been sure, and Magdalene and her friend, the Bishop’s Knight, Sir Bellamy of Itchen, hadn’t been sure, that might have added to the mystery.

It turns out that the woman was also a thief, and concealed on her body is a treasonous letter from the King’s enemy, Gloucester, to the Bishop, obviously intended to incriminate him. How did she come by this letter? Who killed her and put her in the Bishop’s room? And more to the point, will Magdalene and Bell (Sir Bellamy) who have quarrelled (he adores her, but can’t cope with her being a whore and Lord William’s mistress) ever get together again? Not just working together to solve the mystery, but in bed together.

As I say, I wouldn’t have missed it. If you are already a Magdalene la Bâtarde fan, try to get hold of a copy. If not, yet, go for A Mortal Bane – that and the second in the series, Bone of Contention, are now available as Kindle downloads, and are as good as it gets in the Medieval Mystery genre.


20 09 2014

Sister Beneath the SheetI have a second-hand copy of the hardback first edition here (published in 1991) and on the back of the dustcover are the usual adulatory snippets from The Guardian, The TLS, etc. One from the Daily Express caught my eye before I ever bought the book.

Excellent … a witty and original story set in the fashionable London of 1874.

Now I had already read and reviewed Dead Man Riding which is chronologically the first Nell Bray story and is set in the year 1900, so while reading I kept an eye open for internal evidence, and in fact it is set in 1909, not 1874. And in Biarritz, not London.

However, to give the Daily Express critic his due, the story is “excellent … witty and original.”

When it opens, Nell, a suffragette, has just been released from Holloway (a notorious prison for women in central London) after serving three months for hurling a brick through a window at Number Ten. (The Prime Minister’s residence. These days the whole of Downing Street is sealed off!) But there is no peace for the wicked. Emmeline Pankhurst, the grande dame of the wonderful suffragette movement, informs Nell that a prostitute (whisper the word!) has left the suffragettes £50,000 in her will. Should they refuse it on principle? Of course not! is Nell’s response. So because she doesn’t find it shocking, and because she speaks French, Nell is the one chosen to go off to Biarritz, where the “highly successful prostitute” Topaz Brown lived, worked and finally committed suicide, and organise everything.

Only it soon becomes evident that Topaz would never have committed suicide, she enjoyed life too much. That in fact she was murdered.

And so begins what was, at least until Dead Man Riding was written, Nell’s first investigation, and our introduction to one of my favourite characters from crime fiction.


20 08 2014

Murderers Prefer BlondesIn the 1950s, when Tiffany Cage (see my review of Diamonds are Forever) was working in New York, you weren’t a woman, you were a “broad”, a “doll”, a “skirt” – or if your father or your husband was rich, a “lady”. Life for the single working girl and widows (lots of those after WW2 and Korea) and unmarried mums (but were they allowed to keep the kid?) was no fun at all unless you were some kind of blonde bombshell, and even then the party was soon over.

This though? “How could one nice, single, pretty, polite, young blonde have had so many male acquaintances with so many possible motives to murder her?

Murderers Prefer Blondes is the story of an overworked and underpaid Girl Friday in an office full of underworked, overpaid and arrogant men. The office of Daring Detective magazine. Paige Turner – yes, that’s her name, and she wants to be a writer, and in fact this is it, her first book …It’s well written, you enjoy it and you can’t help loving her. She’s twenty-seven, a widow whose husband was killed in the war in Korea, and she’s busy looking for the right crime for her story. The crime she comes across? The rape and murder of a blonde waitress and part-time photographic model and call-girl whom she met when she came to Daring Detective once about being the model for a front cover.

Paige is clever, sexy and streetwise. She is also sensitive and kind. Most of the “dolls” seem to have been sensitive and kind in those days. Perhaps it came from the way they were treated: the “Cinderella syndrome”. Anyway, she needs all these different qualities and more as she meets and mixes with the bar owners and waitresses, pimps and photographers, models and prostitutes that the victim herself used to mix with, and who, Paige hopes, will have information leading to the murderer. Then the murderer (another very arrogant and very spoilt man) decides he wants her dead, too, before her investigation goes any further …

PETER ABELARD by Helen Waddell

15 08 2014

Peter Abelard coverThis is a love story – one of the greatest (“Abelard and Heloise” rings all the bells, like Tristan and Isolde, Dante and Beatrice, Antony and Cleopatra)  and Peter Abelard, Helen Waddell’s wonderful novel, is probably the best retelling of it. 

But her novel is more than that, for it is also the story of Peter Abelard himself, the leading philosopher and theologian of his age and one of the great tragic figures of all the ages.

“It is the strong who have enemies: it is on the mountain peaks that the thunderbolts fall,” says Gilles de Vannes, Canon of Notre Dame, quoting St Jerome. Fat old Gilles, with his razor-sharp mind, is the confidant of both Abelard and Heloise and provides the anchor that holds the story down. He knew them both in the beginning, before they met -

‘He [Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert] is ambitious for her, as you have yourself perceived. He bade me say that she will be at your disposal at any hour you choose.’ Gilles’ voice rasped like a saw.

Abelard sat grimly silent. Suddenly he rose, and coming down the room, stood square in front of Gilles. ‘Is the man right in his wits?’ 

- and is still there weeping over their fate at the end:

She [Heloise] got up quickly and crossed the room to the window, that he [Gilles] might not see her agony. And standing there, struggling to control herself, she heard behind her a small stifled sound. She turned round. He had his face to the wall, but she could see the old Silenus mask distorted with soundless weeping, the hands opening and closing in impotent despair. 

Abelard agrees to teach Heloise at home, privately. Indeed, he moves into their house, board and lodging being one of the blandishments that induce him to go along with the idea. And of course they grow close. Heloise is very beautiful, very sweet and very intelligent; Abelard is a youing man still, charming and charismatic.

Then Heloise panics and runs. Abelard goes after her, searching the countryside around Paris  and returns home that night in despair only to find her waiting for him in his room.

He fumbled at the latch, the door fell open: he came in a step or two, bewildered by the light: she saw his eyes seeking, not yet comprehending, suddenly wild with hope. She was there at the window: he saw the small white oval of her face, the black pools of her eyes. With a little stifled cry, she held out her arms to him: he was on his knees at her feet, his head buried in her lap, his whole body shaking with a terrible tearless sobbing. […] She stooped and took his head and carried it to her breast.

They have passed the point of no return. At one point, they journey back from Britanny together, Heloise disguised as a boy, and of course make love in the forest. What was there in love that taught a man all the mysteries of the ancient faiths? He looked at the young creature riding ahead of him, with a kind of awe. Was that the Heloise he knew, or had Psyche become Eros …?

The only person in Paris who is not aware of what is happening is Fulbert, Heloise’s uncle (Or was he really her father? – which would be ironical considering his attitude to Abelard, who was willing to sacrifice his career in the Church to marriage.) And when he does find out, it is Heloise who is against the idea of marriage. Eventually, she becomes pregnant, they compromise, get married in secret, and she bears him a son. But this is not enough for Fulbert, who has swung from guileless and doting to remorselessly vindictive: he has Abelard castrated.

The end of the story, in a sense.

Abelard joins a monastery, Heloise a convent (at his insistence).

However, Helen Waddell’s account of the rest of Abelard’s life, the accusations of heresy, the trial, and so on, is a masterpiece:

‘Have you read the “De Trinitate”, Gilles?’

Gilles nodded. ‘It is more than his accusers have, I’ll be bound.’

‘And is it heretical?’

‘Of course it is heretical. Every book that ever was written about the Trinity is heretical, barring the Athanasian Creed. And even that only saves itself by contradicting everything it says as fast as it says it.’ 

But he is tried at the Council of Soissons, where, in a complete travesty of justice even by the standards of the medieval Church, Abelard is sentenced after being found not guilty: his book is to be burnt and he is to be incarcerated for life. By the time his friends arrange his release, he is a broken man. He retreats with one young disciple to a hermitage in the forest, and there, as a result of a mystical insight into the nature of the Incarnation, formulates the doctrine known as the Moral Atonement, condemnned by the Church as patripassianism. [In his own words:] “How cruel and unjust it appears that anyone should have demanded the blood of the innocent as any kind of ransom. Or have been in any way delighted with the death of the innocent, let alone that God should have found the death of His Son so acceptable, that through it he should have been reconciled to the whole world ” In brief: God suffers when man or any passible creature suffers, and it is by identifying with Christ on the Cross that man becomes God.

This is what places him among the ranks of the great heresiarchs.

Reprinted nine times in its year of publication (1933) and in print continuously ever since, this is a book that must be read (and read again) by anyone interested in medieval Paris and/or the medieval Church, but especially by those who appreciate a marvellous and very moving love-story that has now established itself as one of the classics of the genre.

H and A LettersBut for what happens to him and Heloise later, when they reestablish contact after ten years, it is necessary to turn to another book: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Here we meet the new Heloise, “famed for her learning and administrative genius as an abbess,” who addresses Abelard in the opening paragraph of the first letter as “my beloved” and “my only love” and who beneath the surface is clearly still the old Heloise: in that same first letter she says “God is my witness that Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore“. Her love had not changed one iota.

“Where is the learned Heloise?” asked Francois Villon, the Paris ‘gutter-poet’, sometime in the 1450s. “Where is he who for her sake was castrated and forced to live the life of a monk – Peter Abelard, who for love of her suffered so much misfortune, shed so many a tear? But then, where are the snows of yesteryear?”

The Penguin Classics edition of the letters that I have in my hand also contains Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum, Abelard’s own account of his misfortunes, on which of course much of the novel is based. Abelard’s own words again: “But success always puffs up fools with pride  I began to think myself the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to fear from anyone, and so I yielded to the lusts of the flesh  There was in Paris at the time a young girl named Heloise, the niece of one of the canons …’ 

Heloise on Abelard


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