Saturday, September 30, 2017

QUIET AS A NUN by Antonia Fraser

I'd read this many, many years ago, and recently I felt an urge to revsiit Fraser's series ,so here we are.

Quiet as a Nun is Antonia Fraser's first mystery; she was already noted for historical biographies so this was something of a departure for her. Her character (and narrator, for this book only) is Jemima Shore, an investigative TV reporter who stumbles into murder and mystery and uses her investigative talents to bring a solution.

In this, Jemima is dealing with a fizzling love affair (with a married MP) and receives word of an old friend's death. Rosabelle Powerstock had been a wealthy heiress, but she had become Sister Miriam at the Convent of the Blessed Eleanor, and had been behaving erratically before she locked herself in a ruined tower and starved to death. Jemima had attended the convent school for a time, and Mother Ancilla, the Reverend Mother, contacts her to come investigate; something is very wrong with Sister Miriam's death, and one of the girls at the school may know something...

For a contemporary setting (published in 1977), it's actually quite Gothic in its atmosphere, with an ancient convent, a ruined tower that may or may not have shielded a scandal in the past, secret passages, disputed wills, and a ghostly nun haunting the convent whose presence presages death. It made for fun reading as a teen, and I enjoyed it again. It's also very visual and dramatic, which made it a natural for a TV adaptation. Britain's ITV adapted it for their "Armchair Thriller" in 1978 and it aired on PBS' "Mystery!" in its 1982-83 season, which was when I saw it.

In fact, the series is still notorious for having what is judged to be one of the most frightening TV moments in British TV history, when Jemima sneaks into the ruined tower and meets the ghostly Black Nun...

It's a tiny bit dated, but still a good fun read, and Fraser handles the Gothic chills well.

There was an entire Jemima Shore series of novels, which I think I'll reread. ITV also aired a 12-episode series, "Jemima Shore Investigates," in 1983 and somewhere I picked up an anthology of stories from the show, so that will be included as well.

Check it out if you happen on it at the library or the used book store; it's good fun.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A September Afternoon at the Cinema!

Taking advantage of a lull in our schedules, we meet for brunch on a sultry September Sunday. Why is it so hot when the first day of autumn has just passed? We lament our busy lives, the state of the world, and the fact that Halloween falls on a Tuesday this year.

Then it's up the street to our favorite movie theater! Thankfully the AC is working, the drinks at the counter are cold, and the ticket-taker is showing us a welcoming smile along with his usual biceps and tattoos.

Today's show is a 1936 thriller, The Mandarin Mystery!

Despite the Yellow Peril inferences of the title, this is actually an adaptation of Ellery Queen's The Chinese Orange Mystery, published just two years earlier. And despite the bait-and-switch, it's actually a good film.

The show over, we bid goodbye to the staff and wander out for a cold drink before going our ways to prepare for the week ahead...

Sunday, September 17, 2017

THE BISHOP OF HELL by Marjorie Bowen

Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952, real name: Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long) is someone who has fascinated me for a long time. She was a writer by necessity, supporting her increasingly ungrateful and demanding family (although her children adored her; her youngest son, who wrote the charming introduction, speaks of her was a wonderful, loving mother). She wrote under numerous pen names....historical novels as George Preedy, crime novels as Joseph Shearing (really romans-a-clef, based on notorious real crimes), assorted novels and stories as Margaret Campbell, John Winch, and Robert Paye, but she's best remembered for her supernatural tales written under the Bowen moniker.

But even with all that, which would lead one to assume she was a hack....she was a damned good storyteller, often quite daring, and with undeniable grace as a stylist. She made good money writing, so she was capable of grasping the public imagination. She is slowly being rediscovered by the literati for her style and grace. And she could be transgressive...her first novel, The Viper of Milan, had trouble finding a publisher as it was deemed too violent, especially for something written by a young lady. (She was only in her teens when she wrote it.) But later works could delve into taboo subjects...Black Magic, for instance, deals with a sorcerer who engineers to be elected Pope, and although never explicitly stated, it's pretty clear the character is a woman passing as a man (and is a version of the Pope Joan legend), with homosexuality and trans issues lurking in the wings at every turn.

This collection in particular, one of Wordsworth's excellent series of supernatural reprints, is a superb sampler of Bowen's work. To run down...

Some tales are contemporary. "The Fair Hair of Ambrosine," set in France, is a tale of love, murder, and destiny via a prophetic dream. "The Crown Derby Plate," one of Bowen's more popular works, is a simple ghost story given a twist by the fact that the manifestation of the ghost hints that the original person may have been a cross-dresser or trans.

 A group of tales are set in the Regency, which I think is an overlooked time for supernatural fiction. "The Housekeeper" deals with a dissolute Regency beau who finds himself benevolently haunted by a seemingly forgiving shade of someone he once deeply wronged. "Florence Flannery" is a strange tale, dealing with a possible case of reincarnation, and revenge committed by a watery specter.

"Elsie's Lonely Afternoon" is an interesting tale with some trappings of the supernatural but really a tale of crime. It deals with a young girl who's browbeaten and convinced she's an unwanted nuisance by all around her, and how she falls victim to a crime by dint of her own trusting nature and innocence. The depiction of an innocent who is beaten down and taken advantage of by a grasping family sounds a lot like Bowen's own home life; I wonder if it was deliberate.

"The Bishop of Hell" is another Regency tale, this time a rather straightforward tale of a bad man who dies, but returns to give a warning of sorts....but he seems to relish his punishment. "The Grey Chamber" purports to be an anonymous French tale that Bowen translated, but I think it's an original work. And it's a great sort of penny-dreadful tale of a night spent in a haunted chamber; rather standard in its plot, but well done for what it is. "The Extraordinary Adventure of Mr. John Proudie" is another penny-dreadful sort of story, but again, well done. In it, a good doctor is called on to give aid under mysterious circumstances, but finds himself caught in a web of intrigue. It's not very supernatural but full of thrills and weird atmosphere.

"The Scoured Silk" is a nasty conte cruel of a man's brutal treatment of his wife, and Bowen might have been making a feminist comment with it. In other works, she did express sympathy for women caught in bad marriages and mistreated by the men in their lives, so I can't help but wonder. "The Avenging of Ann Leete," a tale set in Georgian times, is a tale of murder and a unique sort of justice, involving a sort of confession by astral projection!

"Kecksies," another Regency tale, is also notably famous. It's full of dire, macabre atmosphere, but also gives us spectral revenge in the form of what is clearly indicated to be a ghostly rape and murder. This is sharp stuff for the time! The collection concludes with "Ann Mellor's Lover," a tale of a clairvoyant antique dealer putting together the clues to solve a decades-old murder. It's not a bad tale, and I wonder if it was meant to become a series. Bowen writing a supernatural detective would have been wonderful.

This is a great collection of eerie tales by a neglected master. Look for Bowen's works when you browse the used book racks, or try your local library system. Anything by her is worth checking out, and I hope more of her work is reprinted or at least made available as ebooks.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Phantom Serenade for September

September has arrived, bringing what feels like an early autumn. Temperatures have been cool, sometimes downright chilly, and we go about our rounds bringing along light sweaters and jackets, and pausing for warm drinks in the afternoon.

A pause for a snack brings a rare opportunity for a serenade by an accomplished violinist...

Lovely, eh? This is part of Hope's album "For Seasons," which has the familiar Vivaldi Four Seasons along with 12 pieces, one themed to each month of the year. It's a charming album that I discovered recently and recommend.

Hope everyone's doing as well as can be expected, and that any readers who are dealing with Harvey's aftermath or the onslaught of Irma are hanging in there...