First up, A Christmas Journey by Anne Perry.
Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould is at a weekend house party, their host, Omegus Jones, is a man greatly respected by Vespasia. There are sundry other guests, including attractive young widow, Gwendolen Kilmuir, who is hoping soon to become engaged to another of the guests, Bertie Rosythe. But Vespasia's friend, Isobel, another widow, is jelaous of Gwendolen and doesn't mince her words. She makes a cruel remark to Gwendolen, resulting in the woman's suicide later that night.
Omegus and Vespasia decide to find out what happened and the assembled group agree that if Isobel is culpable then she should seek 'forgiveness and expiation' by delivering the news, along with Gwendolen's last letter, to her mother in Scotland. Vespasia offers to go with her and thus a long and arduous journey to, and around, Scotland begins... just a week or so before Christmas.
This would make a really good Christmas crime read for anyone that way inclined. There is a crime involved obviously, but also there is a bit of a travel journal of Scotland (I believe Anne Perry lives there), lots of snow and mountains and so on. There is also quite bit of social commentary on the times. The manner in which a Victorian widow became surplus to requirements for instance, and the only way she could re-establish her place in society was to marry again. Also the way in which people were ostracised if they broke the very strict codes of conduct - women especially - men were often forgiven or somehow managed to blame someone else for their misdemeanour. As I'm sure everyone knows, life was hard for women back then, even for those in the more privileged classes.
I liked this slim little volume a lot. It was writen in 2003 and was the first of Perry's Christmas crime novellas, which I think she's now quite well known for. I'll certainly be reading more of her work if I spot it in the library and this is in fact my 21st. book for the library challenge I'm doing.
Next, The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill
'Oliver' is staying in rooms at his old university in Cambridge, during school holidays, so that he can visit and spend time with his old professor, Theo Parmitter. Theo is very elderly now and retired but used to dabble a bit in the buying and selling of works of art. He points out a particular piece he has to Oliver, a piece that Theo has hung in a corner out of the way. It's a depiction of a carnival scene in Venice and Oliver is strangely drawn to the painting but repelled by it at the same time. Over the space of a couple of evenings, ensconced by the fire, Theo recounts the manner in which he came across the painting and the sinister effect it has had on life ever since.
To my mind Susan Hill writes her ghost stories very much in the style of M.R. James. They tend to be written in that same old-fashioned 'academic' style which is such a pleasure to read - her The Woman in Black is one of my all-time favourite supernatural tales for instance. Thus I had expectations of this book and I was not at all disappointed. Hill sets a very cosy scene to start off with but an air of menace quickly builds. There are stories within stories too - Theo describing how he went to Yorkshire to meet a previous owner of the painting for instance - that chapter so reminded me of a recently read book, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. For me this is a classic little ghost story. I liked everything about it, the setting, the atmosphere, the nice twist at the end. Great stuff - and even better... I picked this hardback up in a charity shop for 80p!
And lastly, Good Behaviour by Molly Keane.
Aroon is the product of Irish/British aristocracy from just before WW1. She, her parents, and brother, Hubert, once lived at Temple Alice, a crumbling mansion somewhere in Ireland. They lived the high life, hunting, shooting, fishing, money no object. But the story begins with Aroon, her sick mother, and Rose, a sort of house-keeper living in a small house and fighting over whether the invalid should be given rabbit to eat. It's clear they are in very straightened circumstances. The narrator, Aroon, goes right back to the beginning to tell us all about her life...
I didn't realise this was a Virago Modern Classic until I had finished it, as of course the old green covers are no more. I probably would have had more of an idea what to expect if I'd known. This is not a cheerful story. Aroon's history is one of real sadness. She's tall and ungainly - on the big side as grows into womanhood. She doesn't realise it but from everything she says it's quite clear the rest of the family regard her as a bit of a joke. They keep things from her on a tragic scale - the family finances, her brother's sexuality, even her own sexuality is a complete mystery to her. At the same time they fill her head with that sense of upper-class superiority that will make her totally incapable of coping with the realities of life once the inevitable happens. The whole thing is quite appalling.
This is a brilliantly written novel. I know very little about Molly Keane other than this was one of her later books, written after she'd given up writing for many years. The sadness of the story is almost overwhelming - a couple of times I had to set it aside as I didn't want to read what was coming next. It's an odd kind of story where the narrator is completely decieved as to events but the reader is as privy to them as the other characters. I don't know much about it but this seems to me to be very clever writing indeed. At some stage I would like to read more of Molly Keane's work, but perhaps not just yet.
Book 22 for the library challenge.