Friday, February 5, 2016

The Painted Veil: Review

She alone had been blind to his merit. Why? Because he loved her and she did not love him.

The Painted Veil (1925) by W. Somerset Maugham follows Kitty Garstin, a pretty but self-absorbed and superficial young woman from her debutante days through her marriage. Her mother was bitterly disappointed in her own marriage to a Liverpool solicitor who she thought would go far and help her in her social-climbing ambitions. He didn't. So, Mrs. Garstin pins all her hopes on her daughters--particularly Kitty. Kitty is much prettier and socially adept than her sister and Mrs. Garstin fully expects her to make a brilliant match (i.e. wealth or title--or both). But Kitty fritters away her seasons and turns down what proposals she gets until, at 25, she is fast losing her chance for any marriage let alone a "brilliant match." 

With her mother pressuring her, she finally agrees to marry the shy Walter Fane. Walter is a bacteriologist who's home on leave from Hong Kong and due to return there in a few months. Kitty doesn't love him, but he is a man who obviously adores and there is promise of a vibrant colony social life in Hong Kong. But life in Hong Kong isn't nearly as pleasant as anticipated and Kitty finds herself bored and stuck in a marriage with a man she doesn't understand. That's when she meets Charles Townsend and is swept off her feet into an affair with the married Assistant Colonial Secretary.  Walter discovers her infidelity and offers to divorce her if Charles will also divorce his wife and marry her right away. Otherwise, Kitty will have to accompany him to a remote rural area where he will be fighting the cholera epidemic. Kitty mistakenly thinks that her lover will leave his dowdy wife and they can run away together. She's devastated to find that Charles values his position more than her. So she winds up making a trip with Walter that changes her...and her life...radically.

Kitty isn't really a bad person--she's just self-centered and superficial. She reminds me of Scarlett O'Hara. She chases excitement and an unattainable man when she has love right under her nose. Of course Walter isn't the rogue and adventurer that Rhett Butler is, but he's a good man who loves Kitty way more than she deserves. Unfortunately for Kitty, she is like Scarlett--she recognizes what Walter means to her much too late. She does learn from her experiences and plans to make amends to the father her family always took advantage of and ignored as well as to raise her child to be better than she was. 

Maugham's book is about relationships--those that matter and those that don't. It's also about personal growth and understanding and accountability. It tells a very poignant tale of love, betrayal, and the quest for a life of meaning. 

Friday Memes: Book Beginnings & Friday 56

Book Beginnings on Friday is a bookish meme sponsored by Rose City Reader. Here's what you do: Share the first line (or two) of the book you are currently reading on your blog or in the comments section. Include the title and author so we know what you're reading. Then, if you are so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line and if you did or did not like that sentence. Link up each week at Gilion's place.

Here are the two first lines from The Clue of the Judas Tree by Leslie Ford (1933): 

It was just noon when I came out of Mr. McCrae's office and bumped smack into Fate in one of its better disguises. He was tall and large and blond, and awfully good looking, with gray eyes and a gravely humorous mouth.



The Friday 56 is a bookish meme sponsored by Freda's Voice. It is really easy to participate. Just grab a book, any book, and turn to page 56. Find a sentence that grabs you and post it.
Here is the mine from The Clue of the Judas Tree by Leslie Ford (1933): 
I hope you get some sleep. Queen Elizabeth slept in your bed. They say it's well over a hundred years old

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Clock Ticks On: Review

Trevor Dene is Valentine Williams's man from Scotland Yard in The Clock Ticks On (1933). Dene is a young detective who is just certain that his superior officer has made a grave mistake and an innocent man has been sentenced to death in the Oldham Priory Case. The public and the police alike have taken a dim view of the jewel robbers who murdered the butler in cold blood in the process of relieving his employers of their finery and it doesn't help that Gerry Cloan refuses to speak on his own behalf. When a message from an American lawyer comes to the Yard, Chief Inspector Manderton, takes little notice but Dene asks for leave to start off on his own to follow up the mysterious clue. 

After a thrilling search through the speakeasies and New York City's under world as well as the stratosphere of New York society that involves beautiful girls and notorious gangsters, he is no nearer to solving the Oldham Priory case and becomes entangled in a new murder--that of his star witness! The clock is ticking...Cloan is due for execution within 72 hours from the moment Dene sets foot in American and he will be hard-pressed to find the proof he needs now that the lawyer is out of the picture. 

Valentine Williams had me mighty confused for the first few chapters--and it had nothing to do with the mystifying nature of the story. As mentioned above, his protagonist is a young Scotland Yard man. So, quite British, right? And, not only that, Dene would seem to be an educated policeman of sorts--having been to Cambridge and all. But as he's traveling across the ocean towards the evidence in America, he and his fellow British passengers sound more like they've been raised alongside American gangsters than Cockney cabbies or British aristocrats. 

Since I didn't know much about Williams, I took to the internet to see if perhaps he were an American writing about British folks. Not so. Williams was a British journalist. My friend Curtis over at The Passing Tramp does tell me that Williams was very interested in his American audience and mentions in his post (see link) that Williams seems to have set most of his Dene novels in America. Perhaps he was trying to make the books more appealing to an American audience by including more of our slang during the '30s. After the somewhat disconcerting beginning chapters, Dene settles down to a more English demeanor and sound when mixing with the Americans.

The story is a quite exciting one--mixing a bit of good old deduction and clue-finding with a dash of gangster-filled, high-speed chases and the threat of machine-gun toting hitmen. There is also a damsel in distress and the hint of romance for our hero...if the lady is on the up and up and isn't taking him for a ride. Once the story settles down in the States, it is a fun read. Not fair play, but plenty of action and adventure.  ★★★ and a half. 

This fulfills the "Clock"category in the Vintage Golden Scavenger Hunt. This is also my first entry in Rich's February 2016 Crimes of Century feature. Got any 1933 mysteries on tap this month? Come join us! 


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: The Dowager Duchess

The TNB is the brain-child of Curtis at The Passing Tramp. It's a weekly gathering of like-minded folk to discuss a mystery author from the Golden Age of Detection. We began our meetings with the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie and have since worked our way to Dorothy L. Sayers and her gentleman sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. February meetings of the TNB Club are being hosted by Helen over at Conservative History Journal (and featured by her in our Facebook Group: Golden Age Detection), so feel free to join the party at her place. Noah Stewart has provided the fine logo for February (photo at right).

I want to open with a piece on one of my favorite secondary characters in Sayers work: Peter's mother, Honoria Lucasta, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. We get our first glimpse of the Dowager Duchess in Whose Body? At first glance, she seems to be one of those fluffy, elderly women who can't keep their minds on anything for long--filling her conversation with apparent non sequiturs, making leaps from topic to topic. But she soon reveals herself as witty and intelligent and a very understanding, down-to-earth mother who (though she shouldn't admit it) prefers her intelligent, tow-headed, detective son to the stolid current Duke, her first-born Gerald.

The Duchess brings Peter into his first recorded case--asking him to see what is bothering poor Mr. Thipps, the architect who has been set to work on the church at Duke's Denver. The nervous little man has found a dead body in his bathtub and Inspector Sugg has decided that Thipps is his man. Her most memorable moments in this book are her interactions with Mr. Milligan, the American tycoon, and her recital of the events of the inquest on the body in the bath. 

Peter, in his sleuthing efforts, has come across Milligan and as part of his questioning of the millionaire he manages to invite Milligan to a mythical bazaar on behalf of his mother. When the Duchess meets Milligan for the first time at a luncheon (with as yet no notice from her son of the bazaar) and it is quite a treat to watch her play verbal tennis with the man in an effort to discover what he's talking about. He opens the conversation by thanking her for her kind invitation:

"I am very pleased to meet you, Duchess," had been that financier's opening remark, "to thank you for your exceedingly kind invitation. I assure you it's a compliment I deeply appreciate."

The Duchess beamed at him, while conducting a rapid rally of all her intellectual forces.

Finally, after batting the conversational ball about for a good while, she manages to pick up enough clues to sensibly about the supposed bazaar and the various important personages (Milligan included) who are to attend.

The Duchess turned pale at the thought that any one of the illustrious persons might some time turn up in somebody's drawing-room, but by this time she had dug herself in comfortably, and was even beginning to find her range.

Previous to the luncheon she had attended the inquest in order to support the aged, near-deaf mother of Mr. Thipps, the poor architect suspected of the murder. While at table she regales the company with an impersonation of Mrs. Thipps being interrogated by the Coroner:

" 'Did you hear anything unusual in the night?' says the little man, leaning forward and screaming at her, and so crimson in the face and his ears sticking out so--just like a cherubim in that poem of Tennyson's--or is a cherub blue?--perhaps it's a seraphim I mean--anyway, you know what I mean all eyes, with little wings on its head.

And dear old Mrs. Thipps saying, 'Of course I have any time these eighty years," and such a sensation in court till they found out she thought he'd said, 'Do you sleep without a light?' and everybody laughing and then the Coroner said quite loudly, 'Damn the woman,' and she heard that, I can't think why..."

The Duchess is just so very charming in these episodes. I always enjoy when she appears with just the right touch of humor and insight.

Our next adventures with the Duchess comes in Clouds of Witness. Lady Mary Wimsey, whose fiance has been killed and her brother Gerald accused of murdering him, is having a bout of neurosis, as the doctor wants to call it with her temperature jumping all over the place and bouts of sickness. No one can really figure out what's up until the Duchess returns to Denver and catches her daughter "stimulatin' the thermometer to terrific leaps on the hot water bottle" and dosing herself with dollops of ipecacuanah. She gives the doctor and the household a piece of her mind while she's at it:

In my day we called that kind of thing hysterics and naughtiness. We didn't let girls pull the wool over our eyes like that....You might have let that silly child maker herself really ill. You are all perfectly ridiculous, and no more fit to take care of yourselves than a lot of babies--

Peter praises her powers of observation and tells Parker later that it's obvious which side of the family has the detective instinct. 

While the Dowager makes a few other appearances in Strong Poison and a mention in Gaudy Night, it is her letters and diary entries in Busman's Honeymoon that make her so endearing to me.  I chuckle over these every single time. The voices of the various characters--from Peter's insufferable sister-in-law to the irrepressible Countess of Severn and Thames--are so distinct and vibrant. And her reception of Harriet was so very like her.

Sent Franklin for sherry and biscuits, and made her--H., I mean--stay to dinner. Talked Peter till I could almost hear him saying, "Mother,dear,  you are having an orgy (or is it orgie?)...

She and Harriet talk until things get round to Bunter and Harriet is worried that he might be upset and give notice. The Duchess says it depends on her and Bunter won't go unless pushed out. And then Harriet "looked quite distressed, and we both wept a little, till it suddenly struck us as funny that we should both be crying over Bunter, who would have been shocked out of his wits if he'd known it." I love the Dowager and the way she has of putting things so much. She really adds that something extra to the scenes where she appears.