Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 24

‘Four Winters’ by Jem Southam
Published in 2022 by Stanley | Barker. Buy direct here
This piece was originally published on the International Times website here, and then on and on Caught By The River here.
Follow Jem Southam on Instagram.

“In the middle of a December night a few years ago I was woken by the phone ringing downstairs. Nothing good ever comes of such a call and this time it was news that my younger brother had been admitted to hospital, and the doctor caring for him had rung to say he thought it unlikely he would live through the night. I drove to see him and sat with him through the early hours, in the eerie quiet of the emergency ward, until late in the morning when it appeared he would pull through.

When I got home that afternoon I decided to go for a walk by the river. As the dark of the dusk gradually gathered I sat on a log to sift through the thoughts and emotions of the day. Gradually I became absorbed in what was in front of me; the turbulence of the streams surface as the water raced around the bend, the waving of the reeds and the branches of the overhanging tree, and the pink of the clouds being pushed across the sky by a south-westerly breeze.

When mallard ducks pushed out from the bank to swim across the river in search of a safe haven for the night, I picked up the small digital camera I had just started to use and quickly took a picture.”
Jem Southam

There is something profoundly moving about experiencing art that is rooted in the landscapes one calls home. I felt it earlier this year when I read parts of Davina Quinlivan’s gorgeous ‘Shalimar’ and I feel it again looking at the photographs collected in Jem Southam’s ‘Four Winters’. The photographs move me most, I think, because whilst I have sat on the same log, watched the waving of the same reeds, enjoyed the sight of the same mallard ducks and the same pink kissed clouds, I have never made photographs that begin to approach the brilliance of Southam’s. Lord knows I have tried.

Some thirty years of teaching taught me that the easiest response to much art is “I could have done that”. This is especially true of photographs, and particularly so in an age when everyone thinks themselves a photographer just because they have a phone in their hand. The answer to such an assertion is, of course, “But you didn’t.” These are necessarily simplistic exchanges but they hint at the difficulty of being an artist, which is rooted in the not-so-simple act of the follow through. The challenge of actually Doing The Work. How many times have I thought of an idea and then watched it fizzle away like a damp squib on firework night? Far too many to count. Something always gets in the way. Often those somethings are pedestrian and/or irritating: Going out to work; cleaning the house; going to the store. Often too though those somethings are pleasurable: Going for a bike ride; swimming in the sea; walking on the cliffs; reading just one more book; listening to just one more new record; cuddling the cat; drinking a single malt as the sun goes down. Such things may be immensely life-affirming and enjoyable, yet they are not doing the drawing. They are not making the photograph and they are not rolling the ink and lifting the print. Life is a trade off and this is why I am not an Artist. Or a Cyclist. Or a Swimmer. Not really. Not even remotely. And this is why I could not make the photographs that Jem Southam has made. This is why Jem Southam is an Artist and I am not.

Something else I remember from early in my thirty years of teaching is spending hours watching the same Andy Goldsworthy documentary film over and over again with different classes. I was not, and am not still a huge Goldsworthy fan. His work does not seem to me to be as eloquent or elegant as Richard Long’s, for example, although I do understand why people are drawn to his sculptural interventions in the landscape. One thing I did like from that Goldsworthy film however was hearing him talk about spending time really getting to know a place. It sounds so easy yet is extraordinarily difficult to achieve with any depth of feeling.

Jem Southam clearly knows this place on the river Exe. One of his previous books, ‘The River: Winter’ explored a larger stretch of the Exe, going up as far as the bridge over troubled water at Bickleigh (yes, local legend still has it that Paul Simon was inspired to write the song after playing a show at the Fisherman’s Cot pub in 1965, even though Art Garfunkel punctured this myth back in 2003) whilst in his photographs of ‘The Painter’s Pool’ he immersed himself in Stoke Woods, a hair’s breath from the confluence of the Exe and the Culm. None of these photographs, however, fall into the well-worn trap wherein a single repeated source becomes a vehicle for exploring light, tone and ever-changing mood. They do this too, of course, yet for Southam the very essence of the place seems to be the subject as much as anything else conjured by the processes of photography itself. In these ‘Four Winters’ photographs that place is very specific, with all of the pictures being made at dusk or dawn at just a few points along the river near the village of Brampford Speke. The first winter is photographed at a bend near Burrow Lane, whilst the subsequent three shift downstream to the fields below St Peter’s church before finally focusing on the flooded pond where Southam captures the river in spate reclaiming part of its passage from more than a century past. In the summer months Swallows will nest in the rich red banks and swoop across the river catching flies, but in Southam’s winters these banks are invisible below the waters and the swallows replaced by geese, ducks and swans. The brightness of summer too is replaced by the delicious cloak of winter, and many of the photographs are suffused with the softest light imaginable, like landscape viewed through what author Malcolm Saville would have described as being that gentle rain peculiar and particular to the West Country. They are painterly pictures, glowing with the illusory spectral resonance of Constable sketches. Much remains hidden. Human presence is suggested only by the lights of the cottage near Lake Bridge, glowing like a beacon of warmth in the winter’s morning or evening chill. Mostly though the human hand is shrouded, acknowledged only through contemplation and consideration: Southam’s presence behind the lens, making decisions about what we see and what we do not, feels essentially invisible, whilst the knowledge of the changes in the river’s course come only through immersion in aged maps and the gathering of ultimately useless trivia, like the shoes and plastic toys left discarded in the layers of mud and enmeshed twigs after the floods subside.

These photographs then, capturing as they do the passage of their titular four winters, are rich in meditative reflection and elegantly capture both the impermanence of life and the eternal cycle that nature perpetuates. The recurrence of swans in this place and in these photographs is emblematic of this cultural mythology of death and renewal, as though the migrating geese have brought ancient Scandinavian lore to this corner of a Devon waterway. As Southam himself notes in the short text that accompanies the photographs, according to such mythology, the swans carry “the souls of the dead across into the afterlife” and are “depicted drawing the chariot carrying the sun across the sky, which after sunset descends into the underworld, reappearing in the morning to renew the daily cycle.” In so doing, perhaps, they invest this place with a simultaneously earthly and otherworldly energy that Southam in turn transmutes into visual form. He crafts it from the light and the shadow and allows the actors on the stage to dance their beautiful ballet. Birds fly. The whispers of ghosts settle on bare branches and the touch of what God we harbour inside pours salve on our wounds. Magic in here.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 23

‘Kidnap Fury of the Smoking Lovers’ by Peter Benson
Published in 2022 by Seren Books. Buy direct here
Originally published in a slightly different form here
More on Peter Benson and the music of The Waterboys here

There was a time when Peter Benson might have been seen to be, if not on the M4 of literary ascendency, at least on the A303. This would be back when Benson’s debut novel ‘The Levels’ was winning The Guardian fiction prize and when books like ‘Riptide’ sported cover quotes from reviews in the Daily Mail. If it’s something of a shame then to suggest that subsequent books such as ‘Two Cows and ‘a Vanful of Smoke, ‘The Shape of Clouds’, ‘The Other Occupant’, ‘A Lesser Dependency’ and ‘A Private Moon’ might have dropped him off even the A303 into the backwater lanes of the Blackdowns, then perhaps that’s been to the reader’s benefit. It’s certainly true to say that each of these books has been a treasure of intelligent, measured prose untarnished by whatever the literary fashions of the days might have been. Not that such metaphorical travelling around in the backroads, reversing up for tractors and milk tankers, will have helped pay the bills. But perhaps it’s allowed Benson to build a body of work that is impressive in its wealth of intelligent prose. And there is, in all of Benson’s work, an indulgence in the luxury of words that is immensely pleasurable but never cloying and that never outstays its welcome. A certain pragmatism is always ready to curb pretension when it threatens to get above itself. Mind how you go, poet wanker.

If there was a delicate restraint in his previous novel ‘The Stromness Dinner’ then in ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ Benson really lets it all hang out. There is a spontaneity to the language here that feeds off the narrative and vice versa. At times it feels almost out of control, a wild and wicked stream of consciousness on the road to nowhere, which might be North Wales or might be anywhere else but here today. Running away to get away. Paul Haig doing Sly Stone. Peter Benson doing David Goodis doing William Burroughs snogging Dylan Thomas whilst listening to Paul Haig doing Sly Stone. Albert Ayler wailing in the background. A psychedelic madcap race into oblivion where the pauses for breath allow the recharging of energies under the guise of philosophical reflections. Fidelity. Loneliness. Boredom. Justice. Mediated obsession with everyone else’s business. Actually not giving a fuck about anyone else’s business. Tuning out the hate and diving into love. Deep breath and on we go again. Foot to the floor and take to the backroads where no-one will find us.

Pause. Breathe. Punctuate with an asterisk like a Big Flame change of pace and direction. Just so.

‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ is a comic thriller, a dystopian modern fairy tale searching for enlightenment in the richness of words and the white light of unexpected love. ‘End of the fucking world’ meets ‘Harold and Maude’, perhaps. It also recalls something of the wickedly funny series of novels featuring Peacock Johnson that Stuart David has been writing these past ten years or so: books that simultaneously remind us that striking the right comedic balance in a novel is a tough act to pull off, yet still make it seem so effortless. Bastards.

It’s not entirely smooth running though. There are some stumbles that might be intentional nods to what’s gone before or might be examples of a writer forgetting that past and losing their place. So there’s the same perfume (the one Marie Antoinette wore) that crops up in ‘The Stromness Dinner’, and there’s a familiar anecdote about a bishop and a diplomat from the south seas discussing the inherent impossibilities of religion and belief. Perhaps an editor said “Benson, have you lost your shit here?” and Benson replied “can’t you see the signposts of connective narrative that I’m threading through the cosmos?”. Or perhaps not.

As in his previous books, ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ showcases Benson’s gift for the gab. His exchanges between characters are eminently believable, quick fire, barely broken up with ‘he said, she said’ markers. It’s easy to get carried along, sometimes forgetting the place. Who’s this? What’s that? Doesn’t matter. Onwards!

I love this about Peter Benson’s books, and about ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ in particular. They are quick and easy reads, this one more than most. A tabloid headline turned against itself, ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ is about knowing when to say fuck you and fuck off and when to shut up, shut down and lose yourself in love. It raises you up on its shoulders and carries you away. So quick and easy, but not easy easy. Simple not stupid, stupid. It’s so difficult to do that. Stripping things out to leave just what’s required. ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ then is the sound of a Modernist doing improv. Blowing wild and searching for peace.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 22

‘Jane’s Country Year’ by Malcolm Saville
Originally published in 1946. Reissued in 2021 by Handheld Books. Buy direct here.
This piece was written for the 2022 ‘Shadows and Reflections’ section of Caught By The River.

The ongoing industry of cultural archaeology has this year thrown up many treats of literature, and the majority of what has thrilled me most is rooted in the period of the late 1940s and early 1950s. What strikes me about much of it, across several genres, is the way in which a remarkable maturity seems to settle in the pages. For writers like Margaret Kennedy, or Josephine Tey (both of whom I belatedly discovered this year), the contrast with their pre-WW2 work is startling and wholly welcome. In a contemporary era where reference to The Past seems increasingly weaponised in The Culture Wars, it can be paradoxically easy to underplay the immense shock imparted by WW2. Indeed, I read recently that in records of the UK Parliament debates, ‘blitz’ was referenced almost as many times in the period 2020-21 as in 1940-41, whilst the phrase “blitz spirit”, used just twice between 1945 and 2000 (in 1972 and 1999 respectively) has been summoned six times in the last 22 years. As Dan Hancox points out in his excellent article for the Guardian, it seems that “The further away we get from the Nazi blitzkrieg, the more we are asked to revive the “spirit” of the time.”

There is little of what we have been retrospectively encouraged to think of as “the “spirit” of the time” in any of the books I’ve read this year. Even in Margaret Kennedy’s wonderful ‘Where Stands A Winged Sentry’ wartime memoir there is a marked lack of jingoistic patriotism. There is instead a poignant blend of obstinance and anxiety, as one might more realistically expect. In her magnificent novel ‘The Feast’ (originally published in 1950 and set in 1947), Kennedy weaves some of the memoir themes into her fiction as she sets out a portrait of Britain teetering on the edge between those who might wish to cling to its (in)glorious Old Ways and those who look forward to a more equitable future. Kennedy is quite blatantly partisan about which of these she hopes will prevail and the ending of the book is quite remarkably brutal in many respects. It’s a stunning novel and is perhaps the single most enjoyed piece of fiction that I have read this year.

And then there is Malcolm Saville. Why did no-one ever tell me about Malcolm Saville? As a writer of children’s books, I accept that the context in which his name might have cropped up during my adult life would rarely, if ever, have arisen, yet I remain perplexed as to why it is only in 2022 that I have consciously stumbled on his work. Certainly it is possible that his books may have come into my orbit as a child and that I simply ignored them. I am rather resistant to such a notion, however, partly because it might illuminate how ignorant I was as a child, and partly too because I’m rather more certain it was to do with my growing up in Scotland. In the parlance of the geographical context of my childhood, then, Malcolm Saville is very certainly An English Thing. I strongly suspect that the librarians of my day would have turned their noses up and pointed mine towards Good Scottish Authors like Stevenson and Scott. Those elderly custodians of children’s texts of my youth would surely have glanced at Saville’s books, seen references to Sussex and Shropshire and then, tutting like Miss Jean Brodie, banishing these wicked books with their English references to the murkiest corners of the building. This is wildly unkind of me, of course, but there we are.

It was actually via Margaret Kennedy that I stumbled on Malcolm Saville, and specifically her ‘Where Stands A Winged Sentry’ memoir which was published by Handheld Press in 2021. An exploration of their other titles led me in turn to Inez Holden’s terrific collected ‘Blitz Writing’ and then to Malcolm Saville’s ‘Jane’s Country Year’, delightfully illustrated by Bernard Bowerman. As an introduction to Saville’s work, I am now aware that this is a somewhat unorthodox entry point. Most would likely be more familiar with his extensive Lone Pine Club series, but I am rather pleased that I still have most of those to uncover in my future.

‘Jane’s Country Year’ then is structured, as the title suggests, in twelve chapters. Some Saville devotees have spread their (re)reading of the book across those twelve months and I admit that I am tempted to do the same in 2023. Although it was originally published in 1946, like many of the other immediate postwar pieces of fiction I’ve been reading this year, the war is barely acknowledged yet still casts a shadow over proceedings. So whilst in the book Jane in convalescing, it is difficult not to equate this with evacuation and thence to raise questions about the unapologetically positive light in which this enforced removal to the countryside is shown. We know that whilst for many children the experience of sudden urban to rural displacement was welcome, for many the experience was far from pleasant. Is Saville then guilty of retrospective propaganda? Perhaps. But it is difficult to maintain such thoughts when one is endlessly seduced by Saville’s obvious love of nature, landscape and rural folklore. So in March we learn that the budding leaves of the hawthorn were once called “bread and cheese”, though no-one seems quite sure why, or why bringing hawthorn and blackthorn into the house might be deemed unlucky. In June the scent of meadowsweet pervades the air and we see a kingfisher darting past with a silver fish in its beak, on its way to its nest of fishbones in the riverbank. In July Jane writes one of her letters to her parents and tells them of some plants she has found in the hedgerows: goosegrass and lady’s bedstraw. Perhaps understandably Jane fails to point out to her parents that goosegrass is also commonly known as sticky willy… In September Jane watches the fields being ploughed and Saville cannot resist suggesting that The Old Ways Were Best when he has the farmer remark that his tractor driving farmhand is “a good ploughman” but “not as good as old George with his horses.” Later in the month Jane experiences all the fun of the visiting Fair, whilst spiritual needs are met with the church’s harvest festival. Come November we are alerted to the presence in the hedgerows of the wild clematis known variously as ’traveller’s joy’ and ‘old man’s beard’ whilst Jane spots some redwings feasting on scarlet haws. And so it goes.

Saville’s desire to share this infatuation is admirable and, for the most part, infectious. It doesn’t always succeed though, and the inclusion of the vicar’s son, Richard Herrick, as a means of imparting knowledge to Jane is, one might argue, rather clumsy and crude. He really is rather insufferable, as ‘clever’ boys of early adolescence are apt to be at any point in history, excitedly regurgitating facts and figures memorised from non-fiction tomes, Top Trumps playing cards, television documentaries or The Internet. It is tempting to see this as comedic to a degree, but a feminist reading of the text would no doubt pick up on this insistence on patriarchal power structures and point out that Jane is shown as being passively subservient. This may be so up to a point, yet Jane is also increasingly independent of action and thought as the year progresses, so it is tempting to read this as symbolic of ‘progress’ towards gender equality. As seen by a man, admittedly.

There is something in the book too about children’s displacement from parents, about the essential process of growing up and apart from those we share biological connections to. Jane’s parents and their urbane reactions to the countryside when they (rarely) visit their daughter may be stereotypical (mother is incapable of surrendering her dedication to City fashion and style; father is moderately more willing to enter into the spirit of the thing, which all does rather make one wonder whose side of the family this farming Aunt and Uncle come from) but then it does serve to remind us that ‘Jane’s Country Year’ was written as a children’s book, and children do love a bit of stereotyping don’t they? (My tongue is firmly in my cheek as I write that).

If Margaret Kennedy is partisan in taking the side of modernity and hope for the future in ‘The Feast’ then perhaps ‘Jane’s Country Year’ is something of its counterbalance, with Malcolm Saville keen to make a fictionalised record of rural life and farming as it stared into the face of Progress, perhaps mourning that which he could see already changing irrevocably. Both as a book ‘about’ nature, farming and landscape, and ‘about’ childhood, ‘Jane’s Country Year’ then is simultaneously explicitly and consciously of its time, yet also oddly, awkwardly timeless. I’m delighted to have read it this year and to have had the world of Malcolm Saville opened to me.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 21

‘The Feast’ by Margaret Kennedy
Published in 1950. Reissued in 2022 by Faber and Faber. Buy from Hive in the UK.
This review was originally published as part of a longer piece here. More on Margaret Kennedy here.

The most recent reissue of Margaret Kennedy’s magnificent novel from 1950 really is an astonishing treasure. Set in the summer of 1947, ‘The Feast’ is a marvellous evocation of the immediate post-war period in England, filled as it is with tremendous character portraits and spare but perfectly observed period detail. Some of my very favourite reading of recent years has been from this immediate post-WW2 period, notably the crime/detective novels from the likes of E.C.R. Lorac, George Bellairs, Christianna Brand, Francis Vivian and Josephine Tey, and indeed Kennedy plays with some of the tropes of that genre in ‘The Feast’. We immediately discover, for example, that one of the characters we are about to be introduced to dies, as do several others, in a catastrophic cliff collapse that envelops a small Cornish hotel. We are told also, however, that there will be survivors, and so for the remainder of the book we are encouraged to work out who will fall into which category. Kennedy openly plays on the theme of the seven deadly sins in the book, and in many ways it’s not particularly difficult to work out which of her characters are guilty of each, and therefore will end up on the right (or wrong) side of the Act of God that we know is approaching. Despite this, ‘The Feast’ remains a riveting and thoroughly engaging read, cleverly utilising a day by day structure to build towards the denouement that we have known since page one is coming.

The characters are well drawn, with Kennedy being particularly adept at sketching out the two groups of children. These are suggested in necessarily broad and quick strokes: The Cove children feel like street urchins from a Joan Eardley painting whilst the Giffords might be descendants of some of Laura Knight’s girls in sun hats and green parasols enjoying the ‘Wind and Sun’ of the Cornish cliffs some forty years earlier. Indeed, there is a sense that the Gifford children, having been sequestered in the United States for the duration of the war, are to an extent marooned in the 1930s, cut-off from the new realities. Or that at least their mother would wish this to be so. Yet Kennedy is very good at suggesting that whilst children are clearly formed in some part by their parents’ (or indeed foster-parents) actions, they need not necessarily share the same particular character traits and outlook on life. This pulling away from the familial/parental hold is boldly portrayed by Kennedy and oddly feels extraordinarily powerful when read in a 21st Century context where it often feels that children are simultaneously cosseted and objectified to extreme degrees.

No surprise then to learn that it is through Lady Gifford that much of the lamentation about The New Order comes. She pours scorn on the Nationalisation and Welfare State policies of Atlee’s Labour government, even whilst confronted by the obvious needs of those less fortunate. Her continual pestering of her husband to move to Guernsey to avoid paying income tax feel depressingly familiar and if it makes for grim reading, it is balanced by the fact that the husband in question is determined to do no such thing. It’s a reminder that one key idea in the book is that the war has been a massive hinge point in history and that an understanding of the scale of the changes necessarily ushered in hinges too on one’s immediate experience of the hardships. Sometimes this comes uncomfortably close to drawing out the urban versus rural conflict that have been enjoyed in other books I have read this year by Vron Ware and E.C.R. Lorac. The idea sometimes suggested here is that you only really suffered if you were in London, or at the very least in a city. Rural existence must have been a breeze by comparison. Kennedy of course isn’t so dim as to allow this rupture to go un-balanced, but it’s fascinating nevertheless to see it creeping in.

So ‘The Feast’ is in many ways a tremendous spotlight illuminating the social, cultural and political sea changes occurring in post-war England but Kennedy also seems to enjoy making a point about human-kind’s ultimate ignorance in the face of nature and/or God. As the final, much anticipated catastrophe approaches, it is notable that the humans are almost entirely blind to the signs of impending doom. Animals, birds and insects flee but the humans carry on regardless, foolishly confident in their ultimate strength and security. Progress, eh?

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 20

‘The Death of Mr Lomas’ by Francis Vivian
Originally published in 1941, reissued by Dean Street Press. Buy from them here.

The Dean Streep Press imprint is one of my very favourite publishers, their archaeological digs into the neglected depths of ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction as gratefully welcomed as those of the perhaps more visible ‘British Library Crime Classics’ series. I say ‘perhaps’ because in truth it is a long time since I have been into a physical book shop, yet I do recall that when I did frequent them I would always see some of the BL series laid out on display whilst Dean Street Press would be lucky to have a Brian Flynn title tucked away in a gloomy corner. Of course I’d always leave those Flynn books on the shelf for he is certainly not a favourite of mine, but you could easily say the same about some of the authors given new lease of life by the BL series. I mean, if another Carter Dickson title dares to appear then I’ll be tempted to commit murder myself, the victim most likely being someone wearing a t-shirt saying ‘I’m A Locked Room Mystery’. But hey, let’s not get off on the wrong foot here. Let’s get back to Positivity. It is the season, after all.

So if Dean Street Press might have dug up a few authors who don’t do it for me, then that is to be expected for I suspect that one of the first lessons in publishing is that You Can’t Please Everyone All Of The Time. So for every Brian Flynn there is an Ianthe Jerrold; for every Annie Haynes a Robin Forsyth. And vice versa for other folks, I am sure. Even if they are wrong.

I am sure too that we could agree on Francis Vivian and his Inspector Knollis though, no? Or is he also Not Everyone’s Cup of Tea? Certainly the fact that the books dropped out of sight for such a time between the publication of the last of the series in 1957 and the DSP resuscitation project in 2018 would suggest this to be the case. This fade into invisibility is all the more baffling when one considers that, as Curtis Evans notes in one his typically erudite introductions, “according to booksellers and librarians”, “Francis Vivian was neck and neck with Ngaio Marsh in second place after Agatha Christie.” Still, there is nothing so strange as history and the foibles of the book-buying public. Or, at the very least, fashions as dictated by The Critics.

Yet even with there clearly being a new audience for all of these reissued books the reception to the Francis Vivian books appears to have been strangely muted. Aside from a couple of similarly impressed fans dotted around the globe, these books seem to have slipped out below the radar, which is an, ahem, criminal state of affairs really. Perhaps it does not help that Inspector Knollis is hardly the most dynamic of paper and ink detectives. He’s not some cartoonish toff masquerading as an amateur sleuth and nor is he a sharply dressed Scotland Yard chap bristling with intuition. Rather he is quite plain, and if that is something I personally find refreshingly attractive then perhaps too others find it simply boring. But there is appeal in boredom occasionally and Plain is too often undervalued.

What Knollis values is good honest police work. His is a world built on connection. For every action a reaction, and all that. As he is keen on pointing out, there is no such thing as coincidence. Vivian lays this out from the off in the first Knollis book, 1941’s ‘The Death Of Mr Lomas’ when the Inspector points out that “Coincidence in books is disbelieved mainly because the writer has failed to draw attention to the fact that there is a link somewhere that makes the apparent coincidence a matter of logical inevitability. Two identical happenings in real life are called coincidence for the same reason, because the link is not readily discernible.” I like the fact that in laying out this elemental part of Knollis’ approach to police work Vivian not so much breaks the fourth wall as lightly scrapes at the flaking plaster, and this deftness of touch is repeated time and again across the series.

There is too a certain bleakness in the Knollis books which perhaps holds them back from being breakthrough crossover hits in present times where it often feels like many of those who profess a liking for unearthed ‘Golden Age’ books are interested only in some form of imagined ‘cozy’ whimsy (or, indeed, Wimsy) which never actually existed. Early on Knollis tells us that police officers “only see the worst people, and it isn’t good for one’s soul” and that he “get[s] so darned cold—emotionally, I mean—at this job.” He admits that he is “slowly losing faith in human nature and all the better values in life”, is “too much of a realist” and that he “threw [his] rose-tinted glasses away years ago.” The idea that those particular lines would have been written during the early years of WW2 is poignant, as I rather imagine that feeling of “losing faith in human nature” might have been widely felt across England, in spite of any rah-rah propaganda.

The death of Mr Lomas is in many respects quite a small crime, a grubby crime, one of those minor tragedies that take place below the radar in times of great upheaval. ‘The Death of Mr Lomas’ is itself too in many respects a small book, an existential creak of fiction, a quiet sorrow amongst the nightmare of genocide. It is none the worse for that though, and in many ways it is that smallness that most appeals. It may not, perhaps, be the best of Francis Vivian’s Inspector Knollis novels (if pressed I would likely give that nod to 1950’s ‘The Singing Masons’) but in a series where the quality seldom slips below the very best (1951’s ‘The Elusive Bowman’ might only seem to be a tiny slip in standard because it follows ‘The Singing Masons’) but it is the first of ten perfectly sculpted minor classics of the detective fiction genre that play to strengths of the carefully crafted rather than the ostentatiously clever. As such, I cannot recommend it, and the other books in the series, highly enough.

If, however you try Inspector Knollis and tell me you still prefer Dickson-Carter-Dickson-Carr and yer bluff Sir Henry Merrivale then, well, fair enough. Each to their own. You’d still be wrong though, and I’d still happily shut you up in your locked room and throw away the key.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 19

‘Clothes-Pegs’ by Susan Scarlett
Originally published in 1939, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow. Buy here.

Romance. A certain place and time. So sang Josef K over those guitars that were neither too noisy nor too crude, but instead brittle and beguiling. If ever I was going to go for Romance, then, it was going to be that kind of feeling. Something with an edge of darkness and an awkward desolation. In terms of fiction romance, a little dewy eyed Falling For The Detective is fine, as are star-crossed lovers with a chip on their shoulders. Backs against the wall, you and me against the world, kiddo. But a full blown feel good slushy Romance? Get outta here.

This is one reason I have largely avoided the titles put out by the the Furrowed Middlebrow publishing house in the past. Sure, the thought of feasting on yet more texts from the 1930s, 40s and 50s was appealing, but really they were always more than enough great crime and detective fiction titles streaming from partner imprint Dean Street Press to keep me happy. Perhaps my inclination to finally try something was influenced by my enjoyment of the many great non-detective books unearthed by Persephone books. Certainly the likes of ‘Farewell Leicester Square’ and ‘Patience’ went a great way this year to encourage me to take the plunge with a Furrowed Middlebrow and I have to admit I am ever so glad that they did.

My first foray into their sizeable catalogue was Elizabeth Fair’s ‘Bramton Wick’ and what a pleasure it was. Originally published in 1952, it’s a tremendous book, a glorious little comedy of domestic life in post-war Britain and something to file alongside the likes of those Miss Buncle books by D.E. Stevenson from two decades previously. It’s the Furrowed Brow reissues of Susan Scarlett’s novels from the midst of WW2 that have really hooked me most effectively though, Scarlett being the pseudonym of renowned children’s author and ‘straight’ novelist Noel Streatfeild. It appears that Streatfeild was somewhat sniffy about her Scarlett books, which perhaps says more about the strange contempt for ‘genre’ writing in general held by many ‘serious’ artists and critics at the time. They must certainly have helped pay the bills, however, and Streatfeild would pen a total of twelve books as Susan Scarlett in the space of as many years, and the same number again under her real name.

The first Susan Scarlett novel Clothes-Pegs’ might sit somewhat pensively in the shadow of the coming conflict, but there is just enough hope that War Might Be Avoided to lend it an optimistic tinge. It’s certainly a novel that hovers between past and future in terms of its tropes of class and wealth distinctions. To an extent it is a classic Working Class Girls Makes Good type of fairy story, the kind of ‘Cinderella’ thing that Wodehouse would have Rosie M. Banks pen in ‘Bingo and The Little Woman’, but it’s none the worse for that. Indeed, the story certainly sides with more, ah, Modern attitudes to class rather than the Traditional and makes clear that Honesty and Hard Work are to be valued a great deal more than Deviousness and Money-Grabbing Desperation.

It’s essentially a duel between those two stances that marks out the book’s central fast-paced narrative. In the one corner, Annabel, a conscientious seamstress working in a high-end dressmakers, unexpectedly promoted to the giddy heights of ‘mannequin’ in the shop downstairs. In the other, the despicable Honourable Octavia Glaye, a spoilt socialite who might, a decade or so previously, have run with the Bright Young Things and been photographed by Cecil Beaton, but who is now Living Beyond Her Means and in desperate need of a rich husband to pick up the shopping bills. Caught in the middle, the wealthy Lord David de Bett, over whom Octavia fights like a cat and Annabel shies like a mouse. It’s all comedic, cartoonish and deliciously so, and whilst the outcome may never be in doubt, Scarlett does take us on an immensely pleasurable series of fairground rides to get there.

Romance, then, in a certain time and place, but this time light and bright. A reminder that there is a place for froth and flimsy just as there is for fun’n’frenzy, after all.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 18

‘Greengates’ by R.F. Sherriff
Published in 1936. Re-issued by Persephone Books. Buy direct here.

One of my very favourite publishers in recent times is the Persephone imprint, formerly based in That London and now with its physical presence in the beautiful streets of Bath. With a focus on “neglected fiction and non-fiction, mostly by women writers and mostly mid-twentieth century”, it is assuredly a classy outfit with a keen eye for design and presentation. Each edition has a uniform grey cover and end-papers decorated in a design broadly contemporaneous with the original publication point in history. Mostly these are lifted from wallpaper and fabric designs and without exception they are terrific snapshots of the decorative tastes of the book’s period. Each year I pick up several of the books and generally save them to read in one burst of luxurious pleasure. In 2022 that meant a mid-October meander through the likes of Winnifred Watson’s ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day’ (and yes, I also enjoyed Frances McDormand in the film version, since you ask), Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s ‘The Blank Wall’, Betty Miller’s ‘Farewell Leicester Square’, John Coates’ ‘Patience’ and D.E. Stevenson’s delicious ‘Miss Buncle’s Book’. Any one of these could have been my choice as favourite, but it is ‘Greengates’ by R.C. Sherriff that ultimately gets the nod.

I had read Sherriff’s ‘The Fortnight In September’ over the space of a few days in, not you may not be surprised to learn, September of 2021 and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a book where not really very much happens except for the perfectly observed non-events of a lower-middle/upper-working class family holiday in the early 1930s. It is a book of simple pleasure that allows us to revel in the undramatic and the tingle of discovering tiny treasures. His 1936 novel ‘Greengates’ is similarly deceptively simple and perhaps even better.

The narrative revolves around the retirement from The City of a certain Mr Baldwin (he was, it appears, ‘in insurance’), and Sherriff is certainly adept at capturing something of the conflicting feelings of relief and frustration that retirement can bring. More than this though the book is about the modernisation of 1930s England, the encroachment of the Town on the Country through the expansion of road networks and ribbon development. In contemporary times it is very easy to look back at these largely unregulated developments with a castigating eye, bemoaning as we do the destruction of nature to feed the gluttony of commerce. For Sherriff, writing as these developments took place contemporaneously with his writing, it is not quite so simple. So whilst there is initially disappointment and anger when the Baldwin’s, on a walk in the Countryside that they used to take as a younger couple, see their once beloved vista scarred by a housing development, this quite swiftly turns to a more welcoming positivity. Sherriff does a great job of contrasting modernity with the traditional and throughout the book there is a lot of sharply observed description of design styles in architecture, furniture and fashion. As in ‘The Fortnight In September’ it is these neatly sketched out details that really give ‘Greengates’ its appeal and one wonders if this kind of eye for the visual is what made Sherriff so successful as a scriptwriter in Hollywood.

Sherriff is as adept at painting human characters as he is at recording inanimate details, however, and ‘Greengates’ is populated with a pleasing blend of individuals that grows as the book develops. From the insularity of Mr Baldwin’s initial retirement, the cast expands as he and his wife leave their traditional terrace and Move Up In The World to their newly built house. Naturally the metaphorical garden is not all roses and it is amongst the characters in the New Estate that we find at least one thoroughly unpleasant man whose Colonial views, language and behaviour will be repellent to any intelligent reader in the 21st Century. It is to Persephone Books’ great credit however that there is no attempt to edit this out, and indeed there is not even a ‘disclaimer’ of the type that the British Library have taken to printing in the frontispiece to their ‘Crime Classics’ series. It strikes me, as perhaps it does the folks at Persephone, that anyone reading these books is going to be informed enough to understand something of the original context and that if they are not then perhaps they may approach such things as Learning Opportunities. People are not as ignorant as we might wish to imagine them to be. Unless they are, in which case they might crop up as a character in a book.

So whilst it is is undoubtedly true that there are often uncomfortable viewpoints expressed and objectionable language used in some/many interwar novels (the levels of casual antisemitism, racism and sexism can certainly be off-putting at times) it is also, I think, unnecessary to be quite as hand-wringingly apologetic about it as some self-proclaimed Cancel-Cultural Warriors seem to think. Indeed, for me, one of the great pleasures of reading texts from the 1930s and 1940s is discovering just how divorced they actually are from either the levels of whateverisms assumed by the, ahem, ‘Wokerati’, and the mediated misunderstanding perpetrated by some who might peddle The Past as some bizarre mythical Utopian ideal. That odd veneration of hardship as some kind of signifier of value. Certainly reading a text like ‘Greengates’ it is clear that for many/most the opportunity to escape drudgery and hardship was welcomed with open arms, and that many/most would most assuredly agree with our contemporary views on equality and decency. Again, the silent majority are rarely as unpleasant and ill-informed as those on either extreme might like us to believe. Naturally one should not really need to read texts such as ‘Greengates’ or any of the other gems re-issued by Persephone Books to understand this, but I can certainly think of few more enjoyable routes to such enlightenment.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 17

‘Crook O’Lune’ by E.C.R. Lorac
Originally published 1953. Reissued 2022 by British Library Crime Classics. Buy direct here.
This review was originally published as part of a longer blog post here.

The 1951 Festival of Britain is rightly referenced by Vron Ware in her book ‘Return Of A Native’ (see day 12 of this advent series) as a key hinge point in the development of post-WW2 rural England, and it crops up too in E.C.R. Lorac’s tremendous ‘Crook O’Lune’. First published in 1953 and now given a new lease of life courtesy of the British Library Crime Classics series, ‘Crook O’Lune’ sees Lorac’s series detective, Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald nearing the end of his career and contemplating retirement to a small dairy farm in Lunesdale. Much like Ware, Lorac seems to take the point made in the Festival about how “in making what they HAVE of the land, the people have become divided… [into] either countrymen or townsmen” as a starting point for her novel. As with Ware’s historical analysis, there is much in this work of fiction that addresses those divisions by ultimately pointing out that they are structural rifts fashioned for greed and gain by the few over the many. Despite this, both Ware and Lorac are largely optimistic about humanity, perhaps in spite of the evidence. Certainly in Lorac’s case there is the over-riding sense of Good triumphing over Bad (the common, though by no means universal, trope of the detective novel), of ‘common’ decency prevailing over petty jealousies, religious pomposity and the insidious creep of personal greed. It’s clearly important that whilst Macdonald might represent a figure of Law and Order, in this particular circumstance he is not OFFICIALLY in such a role, thereby feeding a sense that in these rural environs it is some kind of intrinsic fairness that might eternally prevail. Ultimately too for Lorac there appears to be an acknowledgement that whilst Humans may intervene with Nature to the extent of managing and changing landscapes to their needs, the long-playing game will always ultimately be in Nature’s favour. Human’s might exploit Nature’s resources to the edges of existence, but its patience will not be endless: the bite back will always be deadly and Humans will always, ultimately, lose.

Not that ‘Crook O’Lune’ is a depressing book and more than anything Lorac uses the novel to celebrate the Lunesdale landscape in the borderlands between Lancashire and the South Riding of Yorkshire. Lorac also felt the divine pull of Devon, with as many of her books being set here as in The North, and passion for place is without doubt one of the lasting treasures of the 46 Inspector Macdonald novels that she produced. There would be another eight after ‘Crook O’Lune’ before the Yard man would bow out for good in 1959’s ‘Dishonour Among Thieves’ (aka ‘The Last Escape’), a book set once again in Lunesdale that shares a significant amount of DNA with this earlier effort.

By my reckoning there are 18 of those Macdonald novels that have been uncovered and reissued in recent years, 10 of them in the British Library series and every one of them worthy of attention. It’s my devout wish that the remaining 28 see the light of day again in affordable form before the Earth, or I, run out of steam. Then, at least, we will have something good to read whilst the world burns and/or drowns.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 16

Midsummer Murder’ by Clifford Witting
Originally published in 1937. Reissued in 2022 by Galileo books. Buy from Hive in the UK here.
This review was originally published as part of a longer blog post that can be found here.

Christianna Brand, whose ‘Green for Danger’ we looked at in yesterday’s advent entry, often enjoyed dropping humorous meta-fictional self-references in her work, and this kind of thing is there too in Clifford Witting’s ‘Midsummer Murder’. First published in 1937, this is the second book in a series featuring Inspector Charlton. Like Brand’s Cockie, Charlton is a country policeman, keen to solve the cases on his doorstep ahead of any involvement by The Yard, and Goodreads suggests there are sixteen books in the series. I do hope that the Galileo publishing house have plans to reissue more of them for I have thoroughly enjoyed ‘Murder In Blue’, ‘Measure for Murder’, ‘Dead on Time’ and ‘Midsummer Murder’ this year (I’m saving the Christmas setting of ‘Catt Out Of The Bag’ for later in this festive season).

‘Midsummer Murder’ takes place in the fictional market town of Paulsfield (a fictional version of Petersfield in Hampshire) and, as the second instalment of the series, makes several passing references to characters that crop up in ‘Murder In Blue’. In fact, published earlier in the same year, ‘Murder In Blue’ itself plays the meta card by alluding to the events that play out in the town square in this second book, so there is a dizzying amount of self-referential playfulness at work here that feels remarkably (Post) Modern. Like Brand and many other detective fiction writers, Witting is keen to play the game by puncturing the facade of the fourth wall, having his police surgeon character profess, early in the book, that “it is only your fictional medical man who can announce with certainty, after a swift glance at the wound, that the deed was done with a Mannlicher 7.63 mm. or a Webley .455 self-loader”. There are some further pronouncements later in the story about the differences between ‘revolver’, ‘automatic’ and ‘self-loading’ weapons that similarly poke fun at the devilment of detail used and abused by novelists, all of which position Witting quite clearly as a writer both fully conscious of the essential ingredients of the genre he is working within and at the same time keen to, if not exactly subvert those expectations, at least make us aware that he is not taking himself too seriously. And is it a spoiler to point out that the book concludes by admitting that “We know that the Detection Club, under the presidency of Mr. E. C. Bentley, do not like mad murderers, but there it is.”? Perhaps, but perhaps not, because certainly the entire book really does lead us towards that conclusion from the off and, anyway, it is too sweet a piece of light hearted self-awareness to pass up.

Certainly all of the Inspector Charlton series books that I have read have been spirited and light hearted but ‘Midsummer Murder’ perhaps most of all. There is no evidence to suggest that the book is in any way an inspiration for Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby books or the ‘Midsomer Murders’ television series, but it has to be admitted that a more accurate title WOULD be ‘Midsummer Murders’ because the killings do keep coming in the best spirit of such things. It is another sign that here we have a writer both celebrating the genre they are working inside whilst simultaneously acknowledging a punctuation point in the history of its development. One can’t help wonder too if Witting was writing with an eye on contemporaneous political and social changes in England and beyond, for the book both celebrates existing country ways of life whilst anticipating their decline and disappearance. With a few strokes he paints a picture as delightful as Flora Twort’s painting of Petersfield Market Square that adorns the cover of this edition: “Those who live in the never-ceasing bustle of London will hardly credit the hush that falls on a country town between the hours of one and two in the afternoon. The shops close and the whole population sits down to dinner. Some of them call it lunch, some of them even call it luncheon, but as the same butcher serves them all, that is mere pedantry.”

That aforementioned thread of mental health issues and insecurities that permeates the book also suggests a fracturing world; a world where previous certainties are dissolving to be replaced with uncertainty and the threat of death from above. It may be a stretch to suggest that Witting is anticipating bombs falling from Heinkels, but in the light of the Spanish Civil War and Guernica’s bombing early in the same year of his book’s publication, it is perhaps not so fanciful as all that. In the face of the gathering storm (literally, as a thunder storm provides the backdrop for the book’s denouement) however, Witting remains ultimately upbeat and fires his writing with a kind of grim humour that is similar to that of Christianna Brand. It is certainly fitting that both writers should be benefitting from a degree of rediscovery in our own challenging times.

Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 14

‘Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey
Originally published in 1951. Buy from Hive in the UK here.
This review was originally published as part of an even longer blog post which can be found here. An examination of Tey’s first three novels can be found here.

One of my many book related pleasures in 2022 has been discovering the brilliance of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant series of detective novels. If I have come to her books appallingly late in life, I put down largely to having first stumbled on her a number of years ago via her 1929 novel ‘The Man In The Queue’; a book whose pages so repeatedly refer to a character as “The Dago” that I had to shelve it unfinished. Now I usually have no issue with such things in their original contexts, but in this instance I have to admit I side with my computer’s autocorrect, which is so politically correct it immediately changed it to ‘Sago’ as I typed. Eventually I went back and finished the book this year, but only under suffrage and only to see how on earth Tey managed to rise from such depths to the heady heights of her later work.

In truth it really is a stunning trajectory from ‘The Man In The Queue’ to ‘Daughter of Time’, a novel the British Crime Writers’ Association deemed to be THE greatest crime novel ever written. That particular claim was made in 1990 when the book topped their list list of 100 Best Crime Novels, and whilst I know there have been many fine crime and detective novels written in the intervening three decades and that it is for future generations to assign Golden, Silver, Bronze, Tin, Plastic or whatever ages to particular genres of culture, I can’t help but doubt there might have been anything to usurp it from that position. After all, if that eminent gaggle of experts deemed Tey’s novel better than a Sayers, a Hammet or a Chandler then What Hope anyone writing after 1990?

As is the nature of such things, the list itself is a contentious one, not least for the inclusion of books that one might argue belong in the Spy Thriller genre rather than Crime. Defining the boundaries of a genre is always a humorous exercise of course. Personally I’d probably let Le Carré sneak into Crime, but only with his early books, whilst drawing the line at Fleming and Buchan. And much as I love Eric Ambler’s books, I still file him distinctly in my Espionage Thriller shelves. As for Alistair MacLean? Terrific populist thriller writer, but ‘Guns Of Navarone’ as a Crime Novel? I’ll take a lot of convincing. Still, looking on the bright side, if including espionage and war thrillers into the list allows Geoffrey Household’s peerless ‘Rogue Male’ to make it into the top 15 then perhaps it is a blurring of boundaries that is worth those arguments; fleetingly enjoyable and ultimately pointless as they might be.

There would inevitably be arguments over those titles ‘legitimately’ in the list too. Me, I’m not much keen on anything written prior to 1914, which means that whilst I appreciate the importance of Wilkie Collins as a foundation layer for the genre, the books themselves leave me colder than a February night lost in a Cornish mizzle. Similarly, the overworked tedium of Erskine Childers’ 1903 effort ‘Riddle Of The Sands’ is lucky to have only just crept into the list at 93, whilst E.C. Bentley’s ‘Trent’s Last Case’ from a decade later features only at 34, appearing to have lost, by 1990, some of the appeal it once held for Crime novelists in the Golden Age when it was very much seen as the defining moment in kicking off the party, as it were. I remember feeling distinctly underwhelmed when I read it myself some years ago, the more so as it came after gleefully devouring Sayers and Allingham. Naturally, as with Collins, I grant ‘Trent’s Last Case’ a degree of appreciation as being Of Historical Significance, but whilst it’s a diverting enough read, there are many, many more books that have brought me more pleasure.

All of which is a prolonged means of arriving back to the top of the list and wondering if ‘The Daughter Of Time’ really does deserve its place ahead of Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’. The obvious answer is yes and/or no. This is a cop out of course, predicated largely on the fact that I find it very difficult to compare British and American crime/detective novels. It has always felt to me that they are very different beasts, each fired through with unique flavours (or, indeed, flavors) lent by different ingredients. Similarities exist, of course, but it’s like comparing a cask strength sour mash bourbon with a 41% Speyside dram finished in Pedro Ximenez casks. Or, to extend the analogy, what about throwing in some delicious Calvados, for the lack of any Simenon in the list is surely the biggest travesty of all? I’d have something by Léo Malet in there too, for what it’s worth, and incidentally, it’s a travesty too that his Nestor Burma books have not been reissued in English translations since the early 1990s.

Regardless of arguments about what is and who isn’t featured on that 1990 list, however, it is fair to say that ‘The Daughter Of Time’ should be at, or near the top, for it really is an astonishing novel that effortlessly blends experimentation with entertaining readability. Tey notably saw her detective novels as being less intellectually worthy than her other writing (a dozen one-act plays, another dozen full-length plays and three non-genre novels under the name of Gordon Daviot), famously calling the Grant novels her ‘knitting’. There is certainly a sense that perhaps Tey used her experience as a playwright to structure ‘The Daughter Of Time’ around a static setting, for it is easy to visualise the book as a stage set with Inspector Grant alone in his hospital bed. Occasional visitors drift in and out, but the majority of the ‘action’ is Grant’s interrogation of texts to determine ‘truth’ from ‘fiction’. This interest in mediated information is a common thread to a greater or lesser degree in all of Tey’s novels, but it feels as though it reaches its ultimate and perhaps purest form here, as there is literally no other centre of narrative action other than the hospital room and Grant’s thought processes. This central theme that circles around the deceit of historical accuracy is naturally what gives ‘The Daughter of Time’ its ageless quality. Reading the book in 2022 whilst war rages in Europe is unnerving, although Grant’s observation that “A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved. A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy” is perhaps slightly less accurate than in a period of ‘peace’. Whether this says more about human nature or the power of media, however, I’m not sure. Then there is another startlingly modern moment where Inspector Grant notes that “As far as he, Alan Grant, was concerned Thomas More was washed out, cancelled, deleted”. To see such words used specifically in such a context back in 1950 is quite startling. There is Nothing New and all that.

There are solid arguments to be made for ‘The Daughter Of Time’ being the prototype for the Historical Crime Novel and the Cold Case sub-genre, but of course the key pleasure to be derived from the book is that whilst it may anticipate both of these it is deliciously free of any preconceptions of what those kinds of texts should look like. Most critically, whilst Tey elegantly conjures The Past, she does so without any clumsy reliance on Brand Names and tedious description of details that show how carefully she might have Done Her Research. Instead, the conjuring of place and time occurs almost as a series of glancing touches, momentary exposures that reveal the ghosts of impermanence. There is a glorious moment where Grant notes, whilst meditating on the/his past that “He had forgotten the excitement of transfers. That wonderfully satisfying moment when you began the peeling-off and saw that it was coming perfectly. The adult world held few such gratifications.” Quite apart from the shared memory of a childhood delight in the things themselves, it’s the metaphor of the transfer as a process of unveiling The Picture that resonates so strongly. Elements of narrative coalesce into the unveiling of The Moment, whose immediate clarity is so exciting and yet immediately begins to fade just as knowledge and memory erase themselves in our consciousness.

Certainly Inspector Grant gets an enormous amount of enjoyment unearthing the ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ behind Richard III and the case of the Princes In The Tower and Tey expertly avoids the potential for a somewhat dry expose by introducing a few marvellously sketched supporting characters, all of whom appear to be referred to solely as either surnames or nicknames. These characters allow Tey to playfully engage in a range of observations, not least an extended rant about the Covenanters from Tey’s Scottish past. Unfavourably compared to the I.R.A., they are described as “A small irreconcilable minority, and as bloodthirsty a crowd as ever disgraced a Christian nation.” It’s harsh stuff, but it does neatly puncture any romantic notions of them as oppressed outsiders. Then there is a great take on how “‘Cromwell started that inverted snobbery from which we are all suffering today. “I’m a plain man, I am; no nonsense about me.” And no manners, grace, or generosity, either.’” Classic. Best of all though is the throwaway line where Grant is told he is “about as much use to a girl as a last year’s Vogue.” Ouch.

So yes, ‘The Daughter Of Time’ is a book about challenging preconceptions and accepted truth, but it is far too self-aware to be either preachy or abstruse. It is instead humorous, illuminating, erudite and endlessly entertaining; as marvellously rewarding in 2022 as it must have felt in 1950 or will at any point in the future.