Spring reads in brief

Predictably, having dared to enjoy just a smudge of the lovely weather we had before everything turned to rain, my lupus is flaring and my brain is therefore fried. So rather than write pages on each book I have enjoyed lately, I will just crib together my notes into something hopefully coherent.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
or the Murder at Road Hill House

by Kate Summerscale

So when I first heard about this title somehow I didn’t realise it was non-fiction – and it reads like it. My own fault, I know, but even as historical non-fiction goes it is not stylishly written. It is however, very very interesting and absorbing. It recounts the case of the murder of an infant son at an English country home in 1860 and the ensuing investigation by Detective Inspector Whicher, one of the original police detectives when Scotland Yard was founded. Although the style was dry, I couldn’t forget that it was the story of a real-life murder and therefore found it very eerie and unsettling – I couldn’t read it last thing at night after having difficulty sleeping the first night I did that! What I really liked was the background of detective fiction versus real police detectives – I found it fascinating that they emerged together, each learning from other, and could happily have had more of that. It was, however, a bit repetitive – a character might have been introduced just a few pages before and at their next mention would again get a full explanation of who they are. But for all its faults, this was a compelling read. I didn’t want to put it down and easily got into the habit of reading after work rather than watching TV.

“The family story that Whicher pieced together at Road Hill House suggested that Saville’s death was part of a mesh of deception and concealment. The detective stories that the case engendered, beginning with The Moonstone in 1868, took this lesson. All the suspects in a classic murder mystery have secrets, and to keep them they lie, dissemble, evade the interrogations of the investigator. Everyone seems guilty because everyone has something to hide. For most of them, though, the secret is not murder. This is the trick on which detective fiction turns.”

Published 2008 by Bloomsbury.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

The Books of Magic
story by Neil Gaiman
art by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson

Tim has spent years recommending this to me and I finally gave in. This trade paperback is a compilation of the mini series of comics that Gaiman wrote that turned into an ongoing series with other writers at the helm. I think we have the first few of those as single issues in the library. But I digress. In the mini series we meet teenage boy Timothy Hunter who is told by a group of strange men that he has the potential to become the world’s most powerful wizard, and does he want to know more? The four strangers take it in turn to introduce Tim to the various forms that magic takes, from performance artists in San Francisco to faerieland and even time travel. It is a beautiful book with fantastic characters but it left me with a similar feeling to the first volume of Sandman – where was the story? I suppose because it’s the set-up for a longer project, nothing is really resolved, everything is just introduced, but the longer series isn’t Gaiman so I am torn now as to whether I want to carry on.

“[We must] show him what magic truly is, and what it was, and what it may become. It is up to the four of us to ensure that he chooses his path correctly. Are we all in agreement? Doctor Occult?”
“I agree. I will show him the Far Lands.”
“Mister E?”
“If you are too soft to dispose of him, then I suppose you must educate him. If he gets that far then I will take him to the end.”
“Yeah, fair enough. I’ll give him the grand tour, introduce him to the runners, give him an idea of the starting price…Just what the world’s been waiting for. The charge of the trenchcoat brigade.
“I heard that, John Constantine.”

First published as single issues 1990–1991 by DC Comics. This compilation published 2001.

Source: I bought it from Excelsior! comic bookshop in Bristol.

Claudine and Annie
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

This is the last in the series about Claudine and, oddly, not only is it the first to not be narrated by Claudine, but she’s not even the main character. This book is narrated by new character Annie, a young, closeted Parisian woman whose husband has left on a long voyage and who gradually starts to disobey her husband’s orders as she makes the most of Parisian society, including strengthening her friendship with a certain Claudine. Though Annie is interesting enough, I was disappointed to find that this is barely even a Claudine book at all. Claudine is now so happy and settled in her life that the most interesting thing about her is her effect on other people, so it does make sense, but it still wasn’t the same, and in some ways seemed a blatant method of depicting another fall from innocence. This novel doesn’t veer into soft porn like the previous ones but it would certainly have been risque for its time in the descriptions of relationships. The characters are all wonderful, I just would have liked more Claudine.

“He has gone! He has gone! I keep saying these words to myself; now I am writing them down on paper to find out if they are true and if they are going to hurt me…I am afraid to move, to breathe, to live. A husband ought not to leave his wife – not when it is this particular husband and this particular wife.”

Claudine s’en va first published 1903.
This translation first published 1962 by Secker & Warburg. Reissued by Penguin.

Source: I bought it from a secondhand bookshop.

See also: my reviews of Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris and Claudine Married.