Let’s rattle through some other books I read for the 1954 Club which possibly don’t warrant full reviews… they range from ok to bad, so come on a journey with me.
Doctor’s Children by Josephine Elder
Let’s start with the good-in-parts. This novel was reprinted by Greyladies, who bring back forgotten women writers in very limited print runs, so they sadly become forgotten again almost instantly. It’s both by and about a female doctor – not a new concept in the 1950s, but still not a commonplace, and Barbara (the heroine) faces quite a lot of disparagement and underestimation.
At the outset of the novel, Barbara’s artist husband has deserted her and their four children (aged between 19 and five). She needs income, she needs occupation, and she is trying not to think too much about her disastrous marriage. She manages to get a job as a GP in a job interview that is probably shamefully accurate about recruitment in the 1950s – i.e. she mentions that her uncle is renowned doctor Alderman Fisher, and that is all the panel need to hear to give her a job.
It is very interesting to see life as female doctor at the dawn of the NHS, and the subplot about her husband painting a picture that starts London gossiping is quite fun. Some of Elder’s observations on being a working single mother, and learning to deal with her children growing up and opposing her worldview, are engaging and show how little may have changed in 70 years.
The downsides… it is quite often an unsubtle polemic about aspects of the NHS, particularly about private GP practices being nationalised. A lot of the talk, inexpertly put into dialogue between various figures who exist only to discuss the topic, is focused on what this will be like for the doctors. There isn’t much about the patients’ point of view, or the inhumanity of refusing healthcare to those who can’t pay.
And – well, sadly Elder isn’t a very good writer. It’s not appalling, but it’s quite clunky and unconvincing at times. I never felt like I was reading the words of a gifted novelist, or even an averagely talented one – more that I was reading a doctor playing at being a writer.
Dishonoured Bones by John Trench
1954 is an interesting year for Golden Age crime, because the era was on its wane. Three decades had passed since the peak of detective fiction, and yet authors like John Trench seem to have stayed firmly in the mould that had been around for a long time.
This is the middle of three novels featuring archaeologist Martin Cotterill, though I’m not sure I’d have known he was the lead if it weren’t for that. When an old man is found dead at an excavation site, he is quickly identified as Lord Garnish – who, of course, is widely disliked. Murder victims in the early pages of these novels always are.
It’s not long before there’s another victim, and there are all manner of entanglements between local families that give us clues and red herrings along the way. I’ve said that this is in the mould of Golden Age crime, but in truth it oscillates between that and an adventure novel. There is an improbable scene of falling from a cliff and almost drowning, some rather silly chasing around subterranean darkness, and that sort of thing.
The eventual solution is ok, and could equally well have been almost anything else. Trench is good at drawing the more ridiculous characters, and there is one gossipy and flamboyant side character that I enjoyed and who got most of the best lines – but ultimately it was all rather flimsy. But good fun, as long as you know what you’re going in for.
The Cretan Counterfeit by Katharine Farrer
Somehow another one about archaeology! And, like Dishonoured Bones, it’s apparently the middle of three novels featuring the same detective – actually a legitimate policeman – Richard Ringwood, whose wife Claire pops up a bit and presumably plays a bigger role in other Farrer novels? Anyway, one morning they are reading the paper and see a very snarky obituary about an archaeologist, Alban Worrall, who has died. It is anonymous, but seems to be from a disgruntled colleague. The next day, a defence is written in the letter column by Janet, an unmarried woman who clearly admired him unrequitedly. And then she is attacked with a knife and left for dead.
There are some things to enjoy in this novel. The writing is fair, and I enjoyed the dynamic of Richard and Claire (albeit briefly). But overall it was difficult to care what happened, not to mention heavy doses of racism, antisemitism, and sexism. And Farrer either knows a lot about Cretan archaeological finds or went and did some research, and isn’t afraid to dump it on the page. I think any detective novel should rely on knowledge that any reader could be expected to have – it’s so much more irritating when all sorts of other knowledge is needed, or introduced in an expositionary way. There were a few Poirot-esque red herrings in the final gather-round-so-I-can-tell-you-who-did-it, though the answer is pretty offensive. One to miss. But not as bad as the last of these four…
Beside the Pearly Water by Stella Gibbons
We all know that, at her best, Stella Gibbons is wonderful. There’s a reason that nobody has reprinted Beside the Pearly Water, which is Gibbons at her absolute worst. It’s actually only the first 83 pages of this book, the rest filled with short stories of varying merit.
Throughout her writing, Gibbons is brilliant at oddballs and unlikely housing situations. She is very bad at romances, and also indefatigable at including them. In Beside the Pearly Water, the famous and beautiful Julia Lanier pays a visit to a remote part of the Scottish Highlands. She went there many years earlier, and there is a young woman (a girl, on Julia’s previous visit) who has held a grudge ever since. She devises a romance between Julia and a local man with a secret…
Somehow the two fall in love instantly, and we are meant to believe that they plan to spend the rest of their lives together on the basis of a half hour conversation. The final denouement is absurd and bad – and though tied to a 1950s concern, that I won’t spoil, is so histrionic that it a schoolgirl would be embarrassed to plot it. Gibbons really dropped the ball on this one.
The stories are a mixture of strong and weak. I think the best was ‘Listen to the magnolias’, about a nervous older lady waiting the arrival of various American soldiers who are being stationed in her house. (I am a bit confused if the fact they all turn out to be African-American is meant to be a twist or not… hopefully this story isn’t racist.) It’s thoughtfully and movingly described, and I felt like I was in her house as she waited.
The oddest opening to a story is ‘Madonna of the Crossings’, with “In the early summer of that year, the figures for road accidents soared, as usual, and as usual very many of those hurt or killed were young children.” There’s an attempt at a story in historical dialect that I skipped. And others are fine… but the aftertaste of Beside the Pearly Water lingered.
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