Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
An Unlikely Agent
Jane Menczer (Polygon: £8.99; e-book £4.31)
The year is 1905, the location London. Margaret Trant works as a secretary for Plimpson & Co. When the firm suffers hard times and has to relocate to Deptford, Margaret is unable to move with it because of her frail and irascible mother. At the age of 25 she is seriously concerned that no employer will want to take her on. All changes when a mysterious stranger (there are quite a few of them within the covers of this book) presents her with a newspaper advertisement offering a life changing post. Soon she finds herself working for the mysterious Bureau 8, and no one can accuse the author of the advertisement of a breach of trading standards.
As you may have guessed, Margaret becomes the unlikely agent of the title in the fight against the Scorpions, as ubiquitous as they are rank bad 'uns. The adventures whizz around Edwardian London (beautifully evoked) and the south coast of England. The pace doesn’t let up for a moment. There are many surprises, though for me the greatest of these was that we failed to encounter any of Holmes or Watson, Lestrade or Hannay. Fast moving and great fun, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
The Pinocchio Brief
Abi Silver (Lightning Books: £8.99; e-book £3.79)
Raymond Maynard is a 15 year old pupil at a minor public school. He is also astonishingly intelligent. When he is discovered covered in blood beside the corpse of one of his teachers, his fingerprints on the murder weapon, one might suspect that his prospects are less than sparkling. Enter keen young solicitor Constance, who persuades veteran barrister Judith Burton to come out of retirement to represent our man. Any such defence would be tricky, but difficulties are compounded when Raymond refuses to speak. Things get worse when Judith discovers that the prosecution intends to employ its truth-recognising software, Pinocchio. Worse not just because of its excellent record, but because of Judith’s past involvement with Pinocchio.
The vast majority of this first novel is pretty good on a page turner level. I suppose we have to forgive Ms Silver, even if she is herself a lawyer, for turning her main characters into detectives. (For her role in interviewing witnesses, our Judith would be disbarred pretty quickly.) The addition of the technical stuff is fascinating, and the trial comes to a fascinating denouement. I suspect that the waspish portrayals of the trial judge and of counsel for the prosecution may come from some slightly sour past experiences. Sadly, the book could have done with a more ruthless editor. What probably seemed to the author as tying up of loose ends resulted in a rather unsatisfactory ending. But much more to enjoy than to decry. With her next effort perhaps Ms Silver will strike gold.
1588: A Calendar of Crime
A Novel in Five Books
Shirley McKay (Polygon: £14.99; e-book £5.03)
This is in fact a series of short stories, set in St Andrews in the turbulent year of 1588, each event in a different season. There is a fear of a Spanish invasion and, in the early years of the Reformation, religious tensions are omnipresent. The hero is Hew Cullan, Professor of Law at the university. Ms McKay has previously written four full length novels with him as the central character. His horoscope prepared for him on his birthday, describes him as “a scholar and a true philosopher, subtle and ingenious, tending to a fault to recklessness and stubbornness, but always and essentially a searcher after truth”. Lawyers in fiction tend to be portrayed as amateur sleuths, and it is the case here. Thus Dalrymple is on hand to solve the death of a candlemaker at Candlemas and the mysterious disappearance at Whitsun of university commissioner Lord Sempill.
We have another murder that never was at Lammas, along with a maiden wronged. Martinmas sees the solution of the riddle of various ghostly appearances, and Yule brings the saving of an innocent man. Enough research has been done for the background of the times to seem authentic – fear of witchcraft and ghosts was then rife. The last 30 pages of the book comprise historical notes and a short glossary of Scots words. The characters’ dialogue, on the other hand, has quite a modern feel to it, and the occasional peppering of Scots words, usually just one to a sentence, feels a little incongruous. The stories themselves proceed at a fair pace, and the book would be a good companion on a train or plane journey; however, I ended with a feeling of having eaten a carefully prepared but not terribly inspiring meal, and having left the table unsatisfied.
The Gastronomical Me
M F K Fisher (Daunt Books: £9.99; e-book £6.47)
I have often seen food writers quote from the works of Mary Fisher, but I had never come across any of her works. Finding myself for the first time ever in West Linton, I stumbled into the nicely eccentric premises of Linton Books and came on this jewel. Daunt Books is a small chain of independent book stores founded in London about 30 years ago. In 2010 they diversified into publishing, specialising in reviving lost classics. Over a period of 60 years Mrs Fisher produced 27 books, a blend of memoir, travel and food.
In the foreword to this edition, Bee Wilson perceptively writes: “The problem with most food writing is that it is too much about ingredients and not enough about appetite.” No one could level that charge against Fisher. This book covers a period of extreme turmoil in her life, including the breakup of her first marriage and the ending of the second by the suicide of her partner, unable to bear the extreme pain of a crippling illness. Yet the mood is universally upbeat. We feel we are at her side at meals both grand and simple in Dijon, in Switzerland, in Mexico. We can savour the aromas and luxuriate in the textures. We can smell the flowers and see the panoramas. W H Auden went on record to say: “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.” Based on this wonderful book, I for one am not going to demur. If you love food, don’t miss it.
Richard T Kelly (Faber & Faber: £14.99; e-book £4.31)
David Blaycock is a soldier turned Tory Home Secretary in the run-up to the referendum on the UK's withdrawal from the EU, played out against a background of a Government determined to get on the front foot on immigration, although not necessarily focused on those from our fellow member states. Blaycock is quick tempered, quick to use his fists in crime reduction and content to put himself front and centre of this political saga. He is a flawed character, struggling to come to terms with the separation from his barrister wife, who does not hesitate raising actions against the Home Secretary. It is clear that extensive research has been undertaken with the life of the civil service and ministers' special advisers, particularly well observed, although whether a permanent secretary would be quite as open to a minister about the perception of those around him concerning his temper is debatable. The story moves on apace with cabinet conflict over departmental budgets and policy objectives. The relentless cut and thrust of politics laid bare; the press intrusion, as well as the press following the story, in this case a suggestion that the Government has sought to manipulate and downplay immigration figures in an independent report, are all well observed and described. Whether by design or coincidence, the author has produced a book which closely describes political times, albeit with some licence. Enjoyable.