Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Short Story Wednesday – Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories

Recently Cath at Read-Warbler read The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie. This is a book of thirteen short stories featuring Miss Marple; almost all of them were published before The Murder at the Vicarage, the first full-length novel with Miss Marple. I had never read the book, but finally I realized that I had all the stories in Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories. So last night I started reading them.

I have only read four stories so far, all from The Thirteen Problems. An alternate title for that book was The Tuesday Club Murders.

"The Tuesday Night Club"

This story sets up the premise for the rest of the stories in the book (I presume). Five people meet at Miss Marple's house: her nephew Raymond West, a well-known author; Joyce Lemprière, an artist; Dr. Pender, a clergyman; Mr. Petherick, a solicitor; and my favorite, Sir Henry Clithering, a retired Commissioner of Scotland Yard. They decide to form a club to discuss unsolved mysteries, and plan to meet every Tuesday, and proceed to discuss a case described by Sir Henry, about the poisoning of a man's wife. I had no clue who the culprit was, but I learned from reading that one that I needed to pay attention to the information about every person involved with the case to even have a chance.

One very interesting thing about this first story was the description of Miss Marple:

"Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair. She was knitting – something white and soft and fleecy."

Except for the knitting, that is not at all how I picture Miss Marple and I don't think that later books describe her that way. So possibly Christie's vision of Miss Marple changed over time?

"The Idol House of Astarte"

The second story is set at a country house in Dartmoor, and centers around a house party, complete with a fancy dress party. This story is spooky and creepy. The clergyman, Mr. Pender, tells the story. I did guess the solution to that one.

"Ingots of Gold"

The third story is told by Raymond West, Miss Marple's nephew. He once visited a man who lived in a town on the western coast of Cornwall. The coastal area was known for shipwrecks and lost treasures to be salvaged, and this man was planning to recover some bullion. I guessed the solution to this one too, but Miss Marple's solution explained it better than I could. The story was a bit too complex to be a fun read.

"The Bloodstained Pavement"

The fourth story, told by the artist, Joyce Lemprière, was the most fun, possibly because I could not figure it out. It is set in a different town along the coast of Cornwall, and was another spooky one with a lot of atmosphere.

So, I have read four interesting stories that were first published in book form in The Thirteens Problems. I will be reading all the stories in Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories throughout the summer, spacing them out between some of my 20 Books of Summer.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Optimist's Daughter: Eudora Welty

I read The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty for a Classics Club Spin and I am a bit late reviewing it. The book is very short, 180 pages in the edition I read. It was published in 1972 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1973. Welty was a well-known author of Southern fiction but she only wrote five novels, between 1946 and 1972.

Laurel McKelva Hand goes to New Orleans with her father, Judge McKelva, and his second wife, Fay, to visit the Judge's eye doctor. The judge is in his early seventies and the retina in one eye has slipped.  As a result of surgery, he is required to lie in bed for weeks and not move his head. As he lies there his condition degenerates. When he dies, Laurel returns to her hometown for the funeral.

This book was divided into four sections. The first section describes Judge McKelva's illness and death in a hospital in New Orleans, and the support that is provided by Laurel, his daughter, and Fay, his second wife, who is younger than Laurel. Fay is shallow and self-centered; she doesn't even attempt to hide her irritation because her first visit to New Orleans with the Judge has to be spent sitting in a hospital, when she could be going to Mardi Gras activities. 

The second section recounts the return to Laurel's hometown: meetings with her old friends; the visitation at the house; the funeral. Fay's family comes to support her, but she is furious when they show up. She had told Laurel that she had no family; maybe she was ashamed of them, or thought she had risen above them.

Probably the best thing about this book is the depiction of the visitation in the home, with dishes brought in from neighbors, and remembrances of the judge, although I found it painful rather than humorous. 

Fay inherits the Judge's estate, and she will now own the family home that Laurel grew up in. Fay returns to her hometown in Texas for a few days and Laurel agrees to be out of her former home before Fay returns.  Even though Laurel tries, they can find no common ground between them. Fay knows that Laurel looks down on her and resents her relationship with the Judge. 

In the third section, Laurel goes through the house, looking for mementos, things that belonged to her mother. She looks backs on trips she took to visit her mother's family in West Virginia. The fourth section is very brief. It focuses on her memories of losing her husband during World War II, not very long after they were married. 

My Thoughts:

In this review I have covered more of the plot than I usually do, and that is partially because I cannot really explain what I don't like about the book. For me, it did not have depth and it did not seem to go anywhere in the first two-thirds of the book. I had too many unanswered questions, and I did not want to fill in the blanks. 

The last sections were the best part of the book. I preferred Laurel's memories of her past and her attempts to come to terms with the loss of her parents and her husband to the first two sections. Others have had the opposite reaction to the book. They enjoyed the contentious relationship between Laurel and Fay, but found Laurel's musings over her past and coming to terms with her loss less interesting. 

The Optimist's Daughter was first published as a long story in The New Yorker in March 1969. Later it was revised and published in book form. Possibly that was why the book seemed to have a split personality, funny at times, sad at times, but not doing either very well. I haven't read the first version.

Many readers have loved this book. Many reviewers include their own experiences with losing their parents and other family members in their reviews. I think it is a book well worth reading, especially since it is a brief read. Some of the writing is beautiful. I just did not care for the book as a whole.


Publisher:   Vintage International, 1990 (orig. pub. 1972)
Length:       180 pages
Format:       Trade paperback
Setting:       USA; New Orleans; Mount Salus, Mississippi
Genre:        Fiction
Source:      On my TBR since May 2019.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Classics Club Spin #34, June 2023


The latest Classics Club Spin has been announced. To join in, I choose twenty books from my classics list. On Sunday, 18th June, the Classics Club will post a number from 1 through 20. The goal is to read whatever book falls under that number on my Spin List by Sunday, 6th August 2023.

So, here is my list of 20 books for the spin...

  1. Show Boat (1926) by Edna Ferber [299 pages]
  2. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury
  3. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James Cain
  4. My Ántonia (1918) by Willa Cather
  5. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) by Roald Dahl
  6. Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood
  7. The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame 
  8. The Quiet American (1958) by Graham Greene   [180 pages]
  9. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith
  10. Flush (1933) by Virginia Woolf
  11. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson
  12. A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L'Engle
  13. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers
  14. Cannery Row (1945) by John Steinbeck 
  15. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  16. Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker    [420 pages]
  17. The 13 Clocks (1950) by James Thurber
  18. The Warden (1855) by Anthony Trollope
  19. Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe   [209 pages]
  20. The Nebuly Coat (1903) by John Meade Falkner

This list has no surprises, it is identical to my last list with one addition to replace the one I read last time. I am hoping for a shorter book since I am reading from my 20 Books of Summer list now. 

Are there any of these you recommend?

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: The Allingham Casebook

I saw The Allingham Casebook offered as an ebook, and decided to read the sample to see if I was interested. The sample consisted of one and a half stories, so once I got halfway through the second story I decided I had to purchase the book (it was a reasonable price) to finish the story. 

So here are my thoughts on the first three stories in the book.

"Tall Story"

This was a brief story, seven or eight pages. It stars Charlie Luke, Divisional Detective Chief Inspector of the London Metropolitan Police. He tells the story of how he joined the CID years before. Albert Campion was involved but only as part of the audience. 

"Three is a Lucky Number"

This is the story of a man planning the murder of his third wife. This one was very clever, and amusing, and I loved the ending.

"The Villa Marie Celeste"

Both Charlie Luke and Albert Campion feature in this story. It was my favorite of the three. 

Luke brings in Albert Campion when he cannot solve the mystery of a missing couple. The couple has been missing for days and the police are no closer to a solution than when they were first notified. Apparently the couple just walked out of the house with breakfast and warm tea on the table. The newspapers had been comparing the incident to the mystery of the Marie Celeste, a ship found deserted at sea. 

I hope I like the rest of the stories as well as these, they certainly were quick and entertaining reads.

A list of stories in the book follows. I think some of them have also been published under other names.


1. Tall Story

2. Three is a Lucky Number

3. The Villa Marie Celeste

4. The Psychologist

5. Little Miss Know-All

6. One Morning They'll Hang Him

7. The Lieabout

8. Face Value

9. Evidence in Camera

10. Joke Over

11. The Lying-in-State

12. The Pro and the Con

13. Is There a Doctor in the House?

14. The Border-Line Case

15. They Never Get Caught

16. The Mind's Eye Mystery

17. Mum Knows Best

18. The Snapdragon and the CID

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Mitford Murders: Jessica Fellowes

The Mitford Murders was my first read for 20 Books of Summer. I have been looking forward to this book because I am interested in both the Mitford family and the time setting. I recently read two biographies of the Mitford sisters and I am currently reading a book of their letters. This story starts after the end of World War I, and includes a lot of references to the effects of the war on those who participated and their families. I found this book to a very good read and it lived up to my expectations.

Louisa Cannon, a very young woman living in poverty with her mother in London, wants to improve her life, but even more important she wants to escape her abusive uncle. A friend helps her get an interview for the job of nursemaid for the Mitford family; at the time they have five children, with one on the way. Louisa soon settles into her new position with the Mitfords under the guidance of Nanny Blor.

Later, Louisa learns that Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of the original Florence Nightingale, was killed on a train on the same night that Louisa was traveling to Asthall Manor. The murdered woman was a good friend of Nanny Blor's sister, and 16-year-old Nancy, the eldest Mitford daughter, takes a great interest in the case.


The story has a lot of characters from real life; I think the author did a good job of portraying those characters and creating a fictional story around them. On the other hand, it took me a while to warm up to the main characters, Louisa and Guy Sullivan. On her railroad trip to Asthall Manor, Louisa had met Guy Sullivan of the Brighton and South Coast Railway Police. He was involved with the initial investigation of Florence Shore's murder. Louisa learns more of Florence's background via friends of the Mitford family. The story goes back and forth between Louisa's experiences with the Mitford family and Guy's investigation of Florence Shore's death. Guy does not think her death is due to a robbery but his superiors give up on the case for lack of evidence. He continues to investigate, against his boss's wishes. Together Louisa and Guy discover more about the murdered woman and her friends and relatives, but their search for evidence goes on for over two years, which is unusual in a mystery novel. During that time we get to know them better and share their trials and tribulations. 

I enjoyed reading this book from beginning to end. The characters and the story were all good, and I thought the depiction of the time period was excellent. Towards the end there are big surprises and a good bit of tension.


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2018 (orig. pub. 2017)
Length:      415 pages
Format:      Trade Paper
Series:       Mitford Murders #1
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Historical Mystery
Source:     Purchased in December 2022.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Mask of Memory: Victor Canning

I read The Mask of Memory by Victor Canning in March of this year. Published in 1974, it is the 3rd book in a loose series called the Birdcage books. They all revolve around a covert security group in the UK, a branch of the Ministry of Defense. The agents are generally amoral, although they believe that their mission is important to the welfare of the country. 

In this book, there are two plotlines. One deals with an effort to expose nefarious activities of a left wing trade union movement before an election; the most experienced operative in the security group, Bernard Tucker, investigates this situation. 

The second narrative revolves around Bernard's wife, Margaret, who has been neglected by her husband and is growing more and more unhappy in the marriage. Margaret walks on the beach near her home frequently; she meets Maxie Dougall on one of her walks. Maxie had engineered the meeting, and has plans to ensnare her in a relationship. The reader discovers that Bernard has kept his wife and his home in North Devon from his boss and coworkers in the security group, and will probably lose his job if this is discovered. 

My Thoughts:

The story is very complex and there are twists and revelations throughout the book. Canning does a beautiful job of developing interesting characters. Margaret was the most sympathetic character, but all were interesting and I wanted the best ending for all of them. Thus the book was much more upbeat than the first two books in the series.

Another plus for me is that this novel had beautiful descriptions of the countryside and the birds in North Devon. Maxie is an artist, although not very good, and he supports himself selling his drawings of birds. 

I enjoyed the first two books in the series, Firecrest and The Rainbird Pattern,  but this one was my favorite so far. I will be moving on to the fourth book in the series, The Doomsday Carrier, soon. It is on my 20 Books of Summer list.

The blogger (Nick Jones at Existential Ennui) who introduced me to this series questioned whether the books were really a series after reading the first three books and not recognizing any connecting characters in the books. I had the same experience. The description of the series at the Spy Guys and Gals web site notes that there are some characters that occur in multiple books, and some of those show up in this book. Nevertheless, I think these books can be read as standalone books. 


Publisher:   Collier Books, 1990 (orig. pub. 1974)
Length:       260 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Birdcage books #3
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Espionage fiction
Source:      Purchased at Planned Parenthood book sale, 2019.