“Death of an Avid Reader” by Frances Brody

I came across Frances Brody on Tales from the Reading Room a couple of weeks’ ago, and had an inkling she might offer a welcome spot of light relief. I’ve raced through Death of an Avid Reader over the past few days – it was just what I hoped it would be; a cosy, pleasurable whodunnit with some splendid characters.

This is one of the most recent novels in an established series, but Brody gets you up to speed quickly, and with ease. Kate Shackleton is our heroine: a former VAD Nurse who lost her husband during the First World War, she now works as a private detective in Leeds with her stalwart friend Mr Sykes. As the novel opens, Kate is asked by one Lady Coulton to track down her daughter, Sophia, born out of wedlock many years ago and raised by the younger sister of Lady Coulton’s nanny. Lady Coulton had received sporadic updates about her child, until they stopped in 1911 – all she knows is that Sophia was raised in Scarborough, and that her adoptive parents were fishmongers.

The plot thickens when Kate is then asked to attend a blessing at Leeds Library, where she is a respected member of the board – apparently the basement has been the victim of hauntings for many years, and the deputy librarian has summoned a local priest to rid the place of any evil spirits. When Kate heads to the library to meet the the chosen priest on a cold, miserable night, she stumbles across the body of her friend, Dr. Horatio Potter, sprawled in the basement beneath a pile of books. Her search for Sophia becomes embroiled in the ensuing murder investigation, and the story swiftly becomes populated with thieves, lawyers, academics, missing girls, and, naturally, a monkey.

The novel gallops along at an enjoyable pace, and the characterisations and visual details are excellent – “She bustled towards me, being a person who walks like a crowd, dangerously swinging her string bag full of borrowed books into the thigh of a passing businessman.” It doesn’t quite have the nail-biting denouement of an Agatha Christie, or the wonderful, period madness of Gladys Mitchell, but still, I found myself returning to Kate’s quest eagerly at the end of each day. It is, essentially, a very comfortable book – the novel equivalent of sitting by a roaring fire with a buttered crumpet. And that’s not to detract from the skilful plotting – Brody links the two mysteries superbly. The true test, I suppose, is that I’ve just ordered the next book in the series: I very much look forward to following Kate on another adventure soon.  Death of an Avid Reader

“The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop” by Gladys Mitchell

I read about The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop on this excellent blog (https://bookssnob.wordpress.com/), and decided that I had to give it a go; after all, anything that is described as being “Superbly odd” on the dust-cover must be worth investigating.

As it happens, the Independent were right on the money here – this is a delightfully loopy novel, which somehow (bearing in mind that it was first published in 1930) manages to combine an Agatha Christie-style mystery with the sinister nuttiness of the League of Gentlemen. The premise is a simple one – a caddish young man called Rupert Sethleigh disappears from his home in the excellently-named Wandles Parva, shortly after which a dismembered body is found in the local butcher’s shop, sans head. The body, the police assume, must belong to the dissolute Rupert, and a roll-call of likely murderers is drawn up. The highly unusual and aged local psychoanalyst Mrs Bradley soon enters the fray, cackling her way through a series of cryptic interviews with her neighbours as she pieces together the extraordinary clues – which include a sacrificial stone; a boiled skull; a stuffed trout; a bloody suitcase; and a note saying ‘a present from Grimsby.’

In essence it is a mad romp through a very English village – so mad that by the end I must confess that I had slightly lost my grip on the slippery eel of a plot. Not that it mattered in the least – unlike a Miss Marple novel, which winches up the tension with a masterly story-line, I’d say the fun here lies more with the colourful language and kooky characters. I became extremely fond of Aubrey Harringay, for example, the precocious school-boy who deploys excellent phrases such as, “Cheese it, you stiff!” and “Stafford Major called me a bug-hunting stinker last term!” His mother, Mrs Bryce Harringay, a free-loading battle-axe who is dead set on her son having an illustrious career in politics, uses capitalisations in a way E.M. Delafield would surely be proud of – there are “Various Lies”; “Untruthful Explanations”; “Sheer Barbarity”; and “Terrible Things” – you can hear the operatic emphases whenever she opens her mouth. There is also a kleptomaniac vicar, a libidinous doctor, and one theatrical character who stalks through the novel dressed variously as a clergyman or Robin Hood. Mad as a bag of cats.

Adding to the fun is the fact that Gladys Mitchell was clearly a very fine writer – known to Philip Larkin as “The Great Gladys”, her bio in this edition explains that, ‘She studied the works of Sigmund Freud and attributed her interest in witchcraft to the influence of her friend, the detective novelist Helen Simpson.’ What an introduction. She has a fine line in Oscar Wilde-ish one-liners (‘“Father hasn’t any morals. He’s a clergyman.”’), dead-pan narration (‘“Then you et un up,” he replied pithily.’), and exquisite description (‘The leg, shapely, well gaitered, neat, and infinitely episcopal, satisfied his anxious scrutiny.’) In her more serious moments, she is extremely good at putting her finger on a particular sensation – ‘The place looked lonely, not with the loneliness and charm of quiet solitude, not even with the loneliness of death, but awesome with the loneliness of living things whose thoughts were not as hers.’). It also has one of the best openings I can remember having read in a while – managing to incorporate both the universal loathing of the beginning of the week, and my favourite of A.A. Milne’s poems:

‘It was Monday. Little requires to be said about such a day.
Charles James Sinclair Redsey, who, like Mr Milne’s Master Morrison, was commonly known as Jim, sat on the arm of one of the stout, handsome, leather-covered armchairs in the library of the Manor House at Wandles Parva, and kicked the edge of the sheepskin rug.’

If you are looking for a fun, eccentric, highly entertaining read to dip into this summer whilst you are watching cricket or drinking Pimm’s, this will do the job admirably. I could spend a very happy few weeks skipping between Mrs Bradley and Gervase Fen – what a fine Oxford vintage.

Gladys Mitchell