1930s Crime

The Lake District Murder by John Bude

The Lake District Murder (British Library Crime Classics)

Five words from the blurb: body, garage, puzzle, 1930s, village

I used to live near Cockermouth, Cumbria so when I saw Margaret’s post on The Lake District Murder I immediately reserved a copy from the library. I’m so pleased I did as it contains some wonderful information about what it was like to live in the area in the 1930s.

The book begins with the discovery of a body in the village of Braithwaite. It initially looks like suicide, but the police soon find a number of inconsistences and launch a murder inquiry. It is a quaint, gentle story with none of the action or violence you’d find in a typical crime novel today; instead it shows the simple, methodical way in which crimes were investigated nearly a century ago. 

The slow pace of the story and the lack of any real action would normally be a big problem for me, but this book managed to capture my attention with the period detail. I loved reading about catching a train from Keswick to Cockermouth (the line closed in 1964) and it was interesting to read about the shops present on Cockermouth Main Street back then. If anything these little details weren’t enough – I’d have liked to discover more about what was present in the towns back then.

Shortly after ten he swung right off the Braithwaite road and headed for Bassenthwaite lake.. About a hundred yards beyond the turning which led to Braithwaite station, he drew up at the roadside and consulted his Bartholomew’s map. He reckoned Jenkin Hill to be a little over a mile ahead, at which point the railway line was shown as being some three hundred yards away from the road. This fact was of vital importance to Meredith, as he knew there was a Cockermouth train due in at Braithwaite station at 6.25 on Saturday evening,

I think I’d have found the book boring if I hadn’t such a strong bond with the setting – the solution to the mystery wasn’t that interesting, the characters all seemed so similar that they merged into one, and there wasn’t any real forward momentum. I’d read another of his books if it was set in the same area, but his otherwise his writing style was too gentle for me.


1930s Classics Pulitzer Prize Recommended books

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

The Yearling Winner of the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Five words from the blurb: Florida, swamp, dangerous, life, survival

The Yearling won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939. I hadn’t heard of it until I stumbled across a mention of the author in a Florida guidebook, but as I always like to read books set in the places I’m staying I ordered a copy for my holiday.  I’m not sure if it is more famous in America, but it certainly deserves more attention than it currently gets.

The Yearling is a vivid portrayal of one family struggling to survive in the wilderness in a time before the luxury of electricity or running water. They are continually at risk of starvation, but they must also battle with the elements and the local wildlife. Rattlesnakes lurk in the undergrowth, wolves try to steal their animals, and bears occasionally come too close for comfort. The story was quite simple, but the adventure of their everyday lives captivated me.

The clearing itself was pleasant if the unweeded rows of young shafts of corn were not before him. The wild bees had found the chinaberry tree by the front gate. They burrowed into the fragile clusters of lavender bloom as greedily as though there were no other flowers in the scrub; as though they had forgotten the yellow jessamine of March; the sweet bay and the magnolias ahead of them in May. It occurred to him that he might follow the swift line of the flight of the black and gold bodies, and so find a bee-tree, full of amber honey. The winter’s cane syrup was gone and most of the jellies. Finding a bee-tree was nobler work than hoeing, and the corn could wait another day.

I loved everything about this book! The descriptions were vivid, bringing the swamps of Florida to life with an incredible accuracy. I may be biased because I read the book as I was visiting places similar to those mentioned, but that is the joy of picking perfect holiday reading material!

Me and my boys canoeing in the Florida wilderness

The characters were brilliantly drawn – I felt a deep emotional connection to them all and found myself involved in a rollercoaster of emotion as I willed them to survive. I was particularly impressed by the way the different generations were given their own set of values and characteristics. The interactions between them all felt incredibly realistic and I understood why they reacted differently to the situations they were presented with.

The ending was especially good. I won’t spoil anything, but the underlying messages were impressive and I will be thinking about them for a long time to come. The coming-of-age aspects of this book make it particularly good for teenagers and I think this would make a great addition to school reading lists.

There weren’t really any negatives for this book, but some people might find the scenes of hunting and animal butchery disturbing. I found them fascinating and loved the detailed descriptions of this almost-lost way of life.

Overall I can’t fault this book. It was perfectly paced, contained some of the most realistic characters I’ve ever come across and combined these with wonderful descriptions of the natural world. It’s the best book I’ve read so far this year. Highly recommended.


Have you read any books written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings?

Are her others as good as this one?

1930s Books in Translation Novella

Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Southern Mail / Night Flight (Penguin Modern Classics)  Translated from the French by Curtis Cate

Five words from the blurb: adventurer, aviation, risks, airmail, courage

I have a fear of flying so was surprised to see The Novel Cure recommend a book about an air crash as a potential solution to my problem. I was dubious (and scared!) but decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and see if it would help me. Having finished the book I’m not sure it has allayed any of my fears, but it is a much better suggestion than I first thought.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a pilot in the early days of the French airmail service. He risked his life transporting mail over the Andes and the Sahara and used his experiences to write several books. He is said to have produced some of the best aviation novels in existence, but I’m afraid I don’t think “aviation-lit” is for me.

Night Flight is a short book (just 63 pages) that tells the story of Fabian, a pilot delivering mail in Argentina. His boss, Rivière, instructs Fabian to continue flying, despite the dangerous thunderstorm approaching. The book highlights the dilemma of whether or not you should follow orders that put you at risk and shows the vulnerability of those who took part in early air travel. I was worried that the book would give me more reason to fear flying, but the descriptions were so cold and technical that they didn’t elicit an emotional response.

The writing was fantastic and the descriptions were beautiful, but it was too slow for me and I became bored:

Yet the night was rising, like a dark smoke, and already filling the valleys, which could no longer be distinguished from the plains. The villages were lighting up, greeting each other across the dusk like constellations. With a flick of his finger he blinked his wing-lights in answer.

In retrospect, this is the perfect book to read on a plane – you’ll either be mesmerised by its beauty or sent to sleep by its descriptive prose.


1930s Books in Translation Classics

War with the Newts by Karel Capek

War with the Newts (Penguin Translated Texts) Translated from the Czech by M and R Weatherall

Five words from the blurb: humorous, newts, trade, exploitation, fight

War with the Newts was one of the titles that caught my eye when I was browsing 1001 Books: You Must Read Before You Die. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I love dystopian fiction and because the intelligent, talking newts sounded so different from anything I’d read before I ordered a copy from my library immediately. I’m so pleased that I discovered this Central European classic – it was original, entertaining and carried many important messages about our society.

The book begins with the discovery of a colony of newts in Sumatra and it is obvious that these animals are special. At first they are trained to bring up oysters; the humans taking the pearls, whilst the animals are rewarded with the shellfish. It seems like a good relationship, with both parties benefiting from the other, but mankind quickly realises that the newts can be exploited to a far greater extent. They are soon trained to build underwater structures and it isn’t long before they are being bred, sold and shipped around the world.

It formed a mass of black, squirming, confused and croaking flesh on which dull thuds kept falling. Then a gap opened between two oars; one Newt slipped away and was stunned with a blow on its neck; after it another and another, till about twenty were lying there. ‘Stop it,’ shouted our leader, and the gap between the oars closed up again. Bully Beach and the half-bread Dingo snatched up in each hand the leg of one of the senseless Newts and dragged them over the sand to the boats like lifeless logs. Sometimes the stupefied body stuck fast between the rocks; then the sailor would give a sharp and savage jerk, and the leg would come off. ‘that’s noting,’ murmured old Mike, who stood beside me. ‘Why, man, he’ll grow another one.’

This book was easy and entertaining to read, but contained important messages about human greed. The blurb states that it is an allegory of early twentieth-century Czech politics, but I think the message is far broader than that. I can see similarities with many other governments and I think the moral problems introduced are universal.

War with the Newts was originally published in 1936 and I found it interesting to see how a Czech viewed the different countries of the world at this time. Stereotypes were used continually and it was amusing to see Capek’s opinion of how each country would treat the arrival of newts.

Part of me wished that the book had been more realistic. I think the story might have had more impact if the newts had remained well-trained animals instead of a special species that learned to talk overnight, but this is a minor quibble and I can see that much of the newt-based humour would have been lost if they hadn’t had the ability to communicate.

My only real issue with the book was the footnotes – they increased as the book progressed and seemed to get longer all the time. At some points the story in the footnote was longer than the actual scene in the book. It was distracting and ruined the narrative flow.

Although this book isn’t perfect it is an important book that deserves a wider audience. Recommended.


1930s Classics Other

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms

Five words from the blurb: WWI, horrors, nurse, loyalty, lovers

I hadn’t read any Hemingway so when I was offered the opportunity to review the new special edition of A Farewell to Arms I jumped at the chance. Fans of the book will love this new edition – it is beautifully produced, includes photographs of Hemingway’s revisions, and for the first time it brings together all 39 different endings considered by the author.

Unfortunately I discovered that I’m not a Hemingway fan. Some people describe his writing as “sparse”, but I think “wooden” is a more fitting description. It reads more like a poor quality translation than the work of an American Nobel laureate.

She was carrying a thin rattan stick like a toy riding-crop, bound in leather.
“It belonged to a boy who was killed last year.”
“I’m awfully sorry.”
“He was a very nice boy. He was going to marry me and he was killed in the Somme.”
“It was a ghastly show.”
“Were you there?”
“I’ve heard about it,” she said. “There’s not really any war of that sort down here. They sent me the little stick. His mother sent it to me. They returned it with his things.”

The central characters were flat and lacked emotion, a problem made worse by the fact this book is about World War I and contained many scenes that should have been disturbing.

Another problem was that the romance was unconvincing. I became so frustrated that I decided to abandon the book, but intrigued as to why it is an enduring classic I decided to read the Wikipedia plot summary. This revealed that the praise seems to revolve around the ending; so I picked up the book again and read the final section. I’ll admit that the ending was poignant and slightly more emotional than the earlier sections, but the writing quality was so poor that I failed to be moved.

This special edition contained 39 different endings, most just a paragraph long. It was interesting to read all the alternate endings and to see Hemmingway’s thought process as he changed things. It was also good to see photographs of the original manuscripts.

But despite all these wonderful extra features I’m afraid I can’t see why  A Farewell to Arms is an enduring classic. If you’re a fan, please enlighten me!


1930s Classics Crime

Before the Fact – Francis Iles

I first saw Before the Fact mentioned on Shelf Love, but was persuaded to read it when Teresa selected it as a ‘book that deserves a wider audience’ at Reading Matters.

Francis Iles is an important author in the crime fiction world as he progressed the genre from simple “whodunnits” into books where the murderer is known to the reader and the joy is in understanding their motives and finding out if they get caught.

I loved the first paragraph of Before the Fact:

Some women give birth to murderers, some go to bed with them, and some marry them. Lina Aysgarth had lived with her husband for nearly eight years before she realized that she was married to a murderer.

Before the Fact was easy to read, with a light, almost humorous tone. We watch Lina’s relationship with her husband grow and then falter, as she slowly discovers his flaws and finally realises that he is a murderer. The narrative darkened slightly towards the end, but I’m sure that even the most nervous reader could cope with this book.

It is hard to imagine how 1930s readers reacted to discovering the name of the murderer on the first page, but despite the fact that this frequently happens in modern books I was impressed by the way the plot developed. The book was packed with 1930s charm, but the issues of trust in a relationship are still relevant today.

I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the development of the crime novel, or if you are after a lighter, enjoyable read.

I also watched the DVD as part of C.B. James’ Read The Book, See the Movie Challenge

The Hitchcock classic, Suspicion, is based upon Before the Fact. I hadn’t seen any Hitchcock films before and so thought this was the perfect place to start.

I was really disappointed by Suspicion. The book opens with you knowing that the husband is a murderer, but the film starts off really slowly. You have absolutely no idea where it is going – all you see is a happy couple getting together and setting up their own home. Little things slowly start happening to indicate that everything might not be quite right, but it was too little too late for me. I’m not used to watching these older films, so perhaps it is just a sign of my addiction to the faster paced ones created today, but I can’t help feeling that Frances Iles had the right idea by letting us in on the secret from the start.

The film also looks at things from a slightly different angle – you don’t know whether or not he is a murderer until the very end. This is he/isn’t he? question really irritated me, but perhaps that was because I’d just read the book!

My husband started watching the film with me, but gave up after 40 minutes. At that point I told him that Cary Grant was a murderer. He almost decided to continue watching, but in the end decided he couldn’t take any more of their slow relationship building!

I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend Suspicion – read the book instead!

Have you read any books written by Frances Iles?

Have you seen Suspicion?