Saturday, March 8, 2014

After the Armistice Ball: Catriona McPherson

The best brief introduction to this book is at the author's website:
After the Armistice Ball is set among the struggling upper classes of 1920s Perthshire as, in the aftermath of the First World War, their comfortable world begins to crumble. Dandy Gilver, her husband back from the War, her children off at school and her uniform growing musty in the attic, is bored to a whimper and a little light snooping seems like harmless fun. Before long, though, the puzzle of what really happened to the Duffy diamonds after the Armistice Ball is swept aside by a sudden death in a lonely seaside cottage in Galloway.
This book did not grab me from the beginning. It wasn't slow, but the "detecting" style and the narrative style was not my favorite. It may have to do with my preference for real detectives of some type, either policemen, or PIs, or even spies. Amateur detectives are not my favorite. Putting that to one side for now, I did get grabbed by the plot about two-thirds in and I always prefer a good ending over a good start (if I can't have both).

Although Dandy is new at sleuthing, she is getting paid to detect, so she is not strictly an amateur. I noticed how much of Dandy's motivation was connected to getting paid to do the sleuthing, which I found surprising. Was this because this was her own money not controlled by her husband? Or because the family's funds are low due to economic circumstances of the times?

Dandy later acquires a partner in sleuthing, Alec, a male acquaintance who has connections to the family she is investigating. Her husband, Hugh, is involved with the care of their estate and is just as happy for her to go off and entertain herself, and she does not enlighten him as to her true intent. These are relationships I don't understand, but I accepted them and I assume they were not that unusual for the time. Dandy is still very inexperienced at detecting. She doesn't really have a plan, she and Alec endlessly discuss what they have discovered, and she sort of fumbles through the sleuthing. Nevertheless, except for the long discussions, the results are entertaining.

The depiction of the times seems accurate, although I am not knowledgeable in that area. In fact, learning more about that time is one attraction for me. I have read some books from both the Charles Todd series (Bess Crawford) and the Jaqueline Winspear series (Maisie Dobbs) and this one focuses more on the upper classes and how they were affected by World War I. That does bring a different slant to the story.

One thing that bothered me initially: Dandy makes it quite clear she is not maternally inclined and is just as happy that her sons are now away at school. That, along with her attitude toward her husband, grated on me. But this is just my personal prejudice, reflecting my times and my experiences. When her sons return from school, their relationship with Dandy seems quite fine, so maybe she just is not the smothering type. One can definitely understand how a woman of that class in those times could be bored with her life and seeking more excitement.

There is a detailed description of Dandy Gilver and her family and her household at the author's blog.

This book seems to get a divided response at Goodreads. Seems like readers either love it or hate it. So be warned, this may not be the book or the series for you. From my comments, you can see I went back and forth about this book. I have read many reviews that are very complimentary about the later books. I enjoyed the setting and the characters and I plan to seek out more of the books in the series.

This is my first read for the Read Scotland challenge, hosted by Peggy at Peggy Ann's Post.

Reviewed at: BooksPlease and Pining for the West


28 comments:

  1. I've only read one and it was a later book so I wasn't up to speed on all the relationships in the series. The mystery was good and the atmosphere too. I'll have to try an earlier book and check out those links you included. Great review, Tracy.

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    1. Thanks, Peggy. I will try more books and I am going to read them in order, at least the next two. To get a feel for the development of the characters.

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  2. I read somewhere that after the war, it was very difficult for women to confine themselves to merely the domestic sphere. Thanks for an interesting review Tracy, it makes me want to search for the book.

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    1. Thanks for that reminder, Neer. I forgot to mention that she worked as a nurse during the war (the nanny took care of her sons). So, yes, that does make sense to come back home and want something more.

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  3. TracyK: I was visualizing Downton Abbey as I was reading your post. My mental images of the upper classes of that period in English history will be drawn from the PBS series.

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    1. You are right, Bill, other reviewers did mention Downton Abbey also, regarding the time period. We have only watched two seasons of that, still have the 3rd to watch.

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  4. Mmm..This one has caught my eye, but after reading your review, I am having second thoughts.

    Kimberlee
    girllostinabook@hotmail.com
    www.girllostinabook.com

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    1. Kimberlee, maybe it is better to begin with a later book. I have read good reviews of Proper Treatment of Blood Stains, and Bothersome Number of Corpses, for example. And I liked this one well enough to check out the next one to see how Alec and Dandy continue working together.

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  5. Interesting era for a mystery

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    1. It is, Scott, and I actually preferred this one to the other two series set at that time that I mentioned in the post.

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  6. Tracy - Thanks as ever for your thoughtful review and critique. I have to say I'm one of those who like this series. I agree it may not be for everyone, but I like the wit, I love the era as McPherson depicts it, and I like the writing style. But as you point out, mileage may vary as the saying goes.

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    1. Like you say, Margot, it may not be to everyone's tastes. I see it as like the Flavia de Luce series, you have to enjoy the heroine to get into the story. I hope I will grow to like her more.

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  7. I love these books, but I can see they may be an acquired taste. I think perhaps Catriona McPherson wanted to play with some of the standard tropes of motherhood, money, women's roles and so on - I found Dandy a refreshing change from some historical heroines. And it's a lot more subversive than Downton! I think also the relationship with Alec, and with her own husband, is meant to be unclear, so you are left wondering. Anyway, I think they get better as the series goes on - as you imply - so perhaps you will try another one later.

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    1. I definitely will try more of them, Moira. May wait until this year's book sale. Even with the slower parts in the middle, I liked these better than the two other WWI series with female heroines I have read (parts of). Found Dandy much more believable.

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  8. In the latest book Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone - Dandy's husband has a much bigger part and their relationship is seen to be much closer than you would think from the previous books. I think the author wrote it like that because a lot of people thought Dandy was cold and sort of callous towards him. It turns out that she's just not a smotherer!

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    1. That is good to know, Katrina. I see him as understanding but kind of clueless in this one. Looking forward to trying more books in this series.

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  9. Tracy, thanks for the review - I don't think I will be adding it to my lists - a good thing really!

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    1. I sympathize, Col. I try not to add new authors to my want lists, because I have so many unread books by new authors already. Doesn't work very often though; I am very open to suggestion when it comes to reading.

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  10. Tracy, this looks very unusual to me—an amateur female sleuth and married too. Now there's a possible occupation for bored housewives.

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    1. Prashant, I am sure many bored housewives would be great sleuths (assuming they had access to some resources ...). However, I don't know that many women who can afford to be housewives these days, so it is more realistic to go back to earlier times.

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  11. I'm not sure how I feel about amateur sleuths. I love Miss Marple, but in many other cases, I think amateurs can be portrayed as unbelievably competent, which can be annoying.

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    1. For the most part, I agree, Katie. I have a prejudice against amateur sleuths. But I do find it depends mostly on the author's ability to make me believe in it. Or to keep me entertained enough to suspend disbelief.

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  12. Thanks TracyK - I would probably want to read this just to challenge my own prejudices because frankly ... even the cover irritates me!

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    1. Sergio, I definitely let my prejudices get in the way of enjoying some of the book, and that is why I plan to try more of the series.

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  13. Hmmm this sounds interesting to me and I realize this is a divisive book. Thanks for for bringing to our attention, Tracy. I'll look more into it.

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    1. Keishon, If you do give it a try, or another one in the series, I would love to know your opinion.

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  14. I love Catriona McPherson and it's fascinating how different the covers are in the UK. It reminds to catch up with some others in the series.

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    1. I did know that both you and Moira really enjoy this series and that is a motivator to continue it. I often like UK covers much more than US covers but only in the case of a few authors do I go to the trouble of getting the UK versions. The later Dandy Gilver covers (that I have seen) are nice than the earlier ones.

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