Friday, January 18, 2013

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I read The Moonstone as a part of my Victorian Challenge because when G. K. Chesterton called it “the best detective tale in the world,” I couldn’t resist.

I had previously enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ A Woman in White and was surprised at their difference in tone.  Woman in White is straight drama. The first fourth of Moonstone, however, is written from the tongue-in-cheek perspective of the Verinder’s trusted family servant, Gabriel Betteredge.  His commentary is so humorous that I initially had a hard time taking the book seriously.  His self-deprecating witticisms and his devotion to the book Robinson Crusoe (as a cure for every ailment) had me chuckling throughout.

The moonstone is a diamond with a troubled history.  Stolen from a hindu temple in India it has been smuggled to England where it is given to Rachel Verinder on her 18th birthday.  The uncle who willed it to her had a grudge against the family and some believed that he willed it to her out of spite because of the curse connected with it.  The diamond is stolen the night of the birthday party.  Suspicion points to the servants, those who attended the party (including Miss Verinder herself), and to the three mysterious men from India who have been snooping around the neighborhood.

Add to that a former thief who works at the house as a servant, a self-righteous old biddy who hands out tracts,  the rose-loving Sergeant Cuff, Miss Verinder’s two suitors, the ostracized Ezra Jennings and Gooseberry the messenger boy, and you have quite a cast of characters. You'll never guess who did it!

May I make a confession here?  Although I liked Moonstone, I did not think it was the best detective tale in the world.  Granted, it was one of the first detective novels ever written and Chesterton didn’t have much with which to compare it.  I thought the writing was good, but not terrific, and that the novel took way too long to reach the denouement (after which it rambled on a bit more). Having just read Josephine Tey, I was homesick for her fine, tight prose.

Still, I’m glad I got to read the “granddaddy” of all detective novels.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

In 1990 Tey’s The Daughter of Time was voted the greatest mystery novel of all time so this author has been on my radar. But it wasn’t until I picked up The Franchise Affair that I got to see what all the fuss was about.

Tey (pseudonym for Scottish novelist Elizabeth MacKintosh) wrote detective fiction from the 1930’s until her death in 1952. Jonathan Yardley, book critic for the Washington Post, writes of her six final novels, Each of the six seems as fresh today as it must have been when it first appeared: elegantly written, populated with interesting and sometimes eccentric characters, witty, but also laugh-out-loud funny, engaged with far deeper themes and ideas than one is accustomed to encounter in most mystery novels.

I have to agree with his assessment.  I loved Tey’s fine writing and excellent, believable dialogue.  I loved the Hobbit-like Mr. Blair, a country lawyer, who gives up his quiet bachelorhood to take on the case of  Marian Sharpe.

I loved the gentle humor: He longed to do something decisive and spectacular to please her, just as he longed to rescue his lady-love from burning buildings when he was fifteen.  But alas, there was no surmounting the fact that he was forty-odd and had learned that it was wiser to wait for the fire escape. (p. 117)

Tey pokes gentle fun at bleeding heart liberals (the Bishop), tabloids (The Ack-Emma), and modernity:

The London-Larborough road was a black straight ribbon in the sunshine, giving off diamond sparks as the crowded traffic caught the light and lost it again.  Pretty soon both the air and the roads would be so full that no one could move in comfort and everyone would have to go back to the railways for quick travel. Progress, that was.

There are some obscure phrases related to English culture in the 1950’s, but a quick search on google explained most of them. The book includes a very mild sprinkling of profanity.  At the same time there are references to prayer, the angel of the Lord and “the triumph of good”.  A thumping good read.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Personal Victorian Challenge

In 1913 G.K. Chesterton’s published The Victorian Age in Literature in which he expressed his opinions about several dozen writers of the Victorian period. These authors were fresh on the minds of his readers.  Therefore he assumes much and explains little.  Also, this is not a treasure trove of the theological and philosophical maxims that make Chesterton’s writings popular even today.  So I can’t heartily recommend the book.  

BUT since I am a fan of classic literature, I enjoyed his many references to beloved authors and he piqued my interest in several names with which I was unfamiliar.  

Based on Chesterton’s critiques, I’ve decided to read one Victorian author per month in 2013 (not in any particular order).  With each review I will add an applicable quote from Victorian Age.  Should be interesting.

1. George Eliot - Adam Bede - finished 9/12/13
2. Wilkie Collins - The Moonstone - finished 1/18/13
3. Robert Louis Stevenson - The Master of Ballantrae - finished 8/17/13
4. Charles Dickens - Dombey and Son switched to David Copperfield
5. Anne Brontë - Tenant of Wildfell Hall - finished 10/12/13
6. Margaret Oliphant - The Marriage of Elinor - finished 2/7/13
7. Charlotte Yonge - The Heir of Redclyffe
8. Mary Louisa Molesworth - The Carved Lions - finished 2/28/13
9. Juliana H. G. Ewing - Fairy Tales - finished 7/10/13
10. Thomas Hardy - A Pair of Blue Eyes - finished 3/29/13
11. Matthew Arnold - Sohrab and Rustum and other Poems - finished 7/15/13
12. Anthony Trollope - The Claverings - finished 5/6/13

Alternate titles: North and South, Agnes Grey

I'll continue with my Classics Club Challenge as well.

Postscript: Wrap-up is posted here.

Penny Plain by O. Douglas

This unassuming book with its unassuming title has been on my Kindle for two years.  The other day I opened it out of curiosity and was immediately pulled into the story.  

Parentless, twenty-three year old Jean Jardine lives in a little town in Scotland and is raising her three younger brothers.  They can barely make ends meet, but their home is filled with love and books.  Miss Pamela Reston is a rich, bored heiress who comes to Priorsford to escape the whirl of social activities that no longer hold any interest for her.  

Douglas quotes her as saying, “I am not going to face old age bolstered by bridge and cosmetics.  There must be other props, and I mean to find them.  I mean to possess my soul.  I’m not all froth, but, if I am, Priorsford will reveal it.” (p. 15)

This is a “happily ever after story” like most light fiction of the early 20th Century, but it's above average for several reasons. The writing is good. And the characters are extremely literate (even the children!) They are always quoting Shakespeare, the Bible or some other famous tome. Everybody worth liking has a library positively bursting with books.  

Wikipedia describes Douglas’ novels as “gentle domestic dramas,” yet this story is grounded in history too.  Written in 1920, it addresses some of the suffering caused by World War One.  

I have to agree with the reviewer over at Leaves and Pages who wrote that while the book is not earth shattering, "it is attractive in its simplicity." In the last chapter Jean tells her husband that the four nicest things in the world are “tea, a fire, a book, and a friend.”  If you agree with her, you’ll enjoy this little book.

(O. Douglas was the pen-name for Scottish author Anna Buchan, sister to novelist John Buchan.  Three of her novels are available for free on Kindle: The Setons
, Penny Plain, and Olivia in India.)