Serpents, pineapples, and Capability Brown

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Serpent in the Garden’ by Janet Gleeson, a historical (hysterical?) detective novel involving missing necklaces and the cultivation of pineapples, at the third attempt. Here’s what I thought of it:

I’m not sure what to make of this book. I’d tried reading it twice before and given up each time at the exact same spot – the start of the second chapter, where there’s a sudden and rather unhappy change in point of view. I’m not a big fan of changing points of view in a book, especially not so early on when readers are just starting to get to grips with a main character, to sympathise with them and, well, like them. All that hard work in the first chapter building up feeling for a character who’s going to take us through the rest of the book is suddenly lost, in a switch to a much more unsympathetic character who isn’t. The fact that we never go back to the second character’s point of view suggests strongly that this is simply an authorial device – a way to get the discovery of the first body across when it’s someone other than the main character making the discovery. It isn’t altogether successful.

This time, I forced myself to get past the ‘sticking point’ and keep reading, and overall I’m glad I did. The plot, a madcap romp involving dead bodies, missing gold necklaces and the growing of pineapples, is intriguing and fast-paced enough to keep the pages turning, and the main character Joshua Pope, a society portrait painter who takes on the case of a missing necklace for his latest clients, is likeable and engaging. The author has clearly done heaps of research on Georgian society in general and Georgian garden design in particular (Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown even makes a couple of brief appearances); and weaves those elements mostly successfully into the narrative.

However, you do have to suspend an awful lot of disbelief. Not only that Pope would agree to become an amateur detective in the first place, but also that he would keep on beavering away at the case in the face of hostility, a lack of evidence, and even a direct order from his clients to stop. Given that most artists were wholly dependent on the income from their painting, I can’t help thinking that in real life Pope would not have had the leisure to give up his work and go off on some wild goose chase for people he barely knew and liked even less. An additional spur of clearing his name feels bolted on and the circumstances surrounding that are never investigated.

It’s at this level of character motivations that the book really falls down. People do the silliest things, just for the sake of the plot, or for no reason at all. Characters act out of character or do things that are physically beyond them; their wounds and/or illnesses have a habit of disappearing whenever they become too inconvenient; and their personalities are so mercurial that you have a hard time working out who’s who because none of them show any consistency in their behaviour. Fair enough, people have mood swings but if an entire household acted so bizarrely for so long I think I’d be tempted to reach for the Evening Primrose Oil. Possibly for this reason, the characters never develop; I got no sense that any of them (with the possible exception of Pope himself) were real people in a real world.

And the pineapples that appear to be so important at the beginning of the book (so much so that entire passages are given up to describing their horticulture) turn out to be yet another device for getting a character into the right place at the right time. Rather a disappointment, that, as I liked the pineapples, dammit. They’re unusual enough to be a character in their own right!

Overall, it’s an enjoyable enough read, but you’re probably best taking it away on holiday – and leaving your disbelief firmly parked in a drawer back home.

Peacocks and paintings

On the final day of our London stay we set off on foot for an area somewhere between Earls Court and Kensington High Street.  I can’t be any more specific than that because after walking at least two miles and getting lost twice, my sense of direction had headed in the general direction of no man’s land and I hadn’t a clue where we were.  However, we eventually fell over what we were looking for, which was Leighton House Museum, otherwise known as the home of Victorian painter Lord (Frederick) Leighton.

Rather like the Old Operating Theatre I mentioned the other day, this is a privately owned/run business, but affiliated to the National Trust on a ‘partner’ basis so NT members get in for half price.  I’d seen some pictures in the NT handbook and thought the place looked impressive, and sure enough it was.  Leighton himself appears to have been a somewhat eccentric type with a love of Middle Eastern culture that bordered on obsession.  Rather than living in a typical Victorian suburban house, he had his converted into a mock Arabic palace with a pool, fountain, stunning Islamic wall tiles, a fake divan, and (apparently, since it’s there now) a stuffed peacock.

The end result is rather bizarre.  The only conventional rooms in the house are Leighton’s study and his remarkably austere bedroom.  Everything else appears to be there for show, rather than comfort or general living.  I was left with the distinct impression that there was a lot of showing-off going on, and I’m not convinced that Leighton’s interest in Arabic art extended to any real understanding of the culture.  In one balconied area overlooking the pool, for instance, the pierced wooden screening looks very much like that used to close off the harem in a medieval sheikh’s palace – yet Leighton had no women living with him.

As well as all the Arabic stuff, the house was littered with Leighton’s paintings and sculpture, and would be absolutely fascinating for anyone with a love of his work.  Sadly, it’s also being run as something of a money-making enterprise, with even the most basic information leaflets costing 50p and the custodian behind the desk informing us with almost her first breath that “we were welcome to purchase any additional information we might need”.  Photography is forbidden (as I found out, entirely accidentally, the hard way) and the prices in the small gift shop were astronomical.

By way of a complete contrast, in the afternoon we walked another couple of miles to the world-famous V&A Museum, where we discovered vast murals painted by none other than Lord Leighton were available on public view, completely free.  It makes you wonder why the museum at his home needs to be quite so commercialised.

Harpsichords in Hampstead

Day two of our London trip found us in Hampstead, a suburb neither of us had visited before. And if we’d thought Kensington where we were staying was posh, then Hampstead was another world again. We emerged blinking into the sunlight to find a beautiful ‘village’ centre filled with boutiques, French bakeries, antiques centres and the like, and when we glanced into a couple of estate agents’ windows we almost had apoplexy. Prices in Kensington seem to hover around the £1.5 million mark; here they were closer to £4 million, for nothing larger than a two-bed apartment. It all felt quite… rarified, somehow, if very leafy and prosperous.

We’d gone because of a couple of National Trust properties nearby – Fenton House and 2, Willow Road. The former is a pleasant 17th century merchants’ house with a walled garden, set near the top of a steep hill, presumably so the residents would have the benefit of purer air. (That isn’t me being sarcastic, by the way – it really happened. Pollution tended to settle at the lower levels.) The house itself was sweet rather than stately, with rooms that weren’t so far removed from what would be considered a ‘good size’ these days. It had a comfortable feel, and you could really imagine the occupants living there, going about their daily business, pottering in the garden, writing letters at a desk in the window.

More unusual was the vast collection of keyboard instruments, mostly harpsichords, which littered every corner of every room. There was even one stuffed into the original, um, water closet off one of the bedrooms. I’ve heard of going for a tinkle but that does seem a mite ridiculous. The virginals in the attic were more impressive, complete with beautiful painted scenes inside and out. And the view from the ‘roof terrace’, across vast swathes of central London, was amazing. The 17th century residents would no doubt have been startled to see buildings like the Gherkin, the Cheese-grater, and the Shard, from their bedroom windows.

After lunch in one of the aforementioned French bakeries we headed for the other property, 2 Willow Road. This is a complete contrast – a 1930s modernist building designed and furnished by Erno Goldfinger and apparently filled to bursting with all sorts of contemporary furniture and art works. I say apparently because we couldn’t get in. There was a problem with volunteers, and the place was closed for most of the afternoon which was very disappointing. We did manage a brief foray onto Hampstead Heath, and then tripped over Burgh House, a small but fascinating (and free!) museum about the local area, which was hidden away on a back street in the area once known as Hampstead Wells. Ten minutes browsing in there taught us everything we’d ever wanted to know about Hampstead, its origins, its famous residents, its fate during the war and a whole lot else besides. It more than made up for the annoyance of the National Trust.

Storybundle – last day

storybundleA hasty reminder that the international crime storybundle including Exiles: An Outsider Anthology is only available for one more day.  So if you want to take advantage of this great offer (nine crime-related books from a variety of authors for a price of your own choosing) then hurry along to the Storybundle site now and place your order.  After tomorrow it’ll be too late!

Shards and scalpels

We’ve just returned from a few days away on a city break in London, and great fun it was too. As usual we seemed to cram in far more than is possible in just three days (hmm, that sounds like the opening to a new tv series – “Visit as many London museums as possible: you have just three days to do it…”) and saw some truly wacky things in the process. I’ll try to post details, day by day, on here, as there’s too much to put in one post. So, here goes.

The first day we were a bit shattered after travelling all the way from the Far North of England, so we only managed a quick scoot into the Natural History Museum (always a favourite in spite of the crowds) to look at an exhibit of bugs and creepy crawlies.

The next morning, though, we set off bright and early and caught the tube across the city to London Bridge.  Stepping out of the tube station into daylight, we made the mistake of looking up and promptly nearly fell over because we were right in the shadow of The Shard, London’s (and I think Europe’s) tallest building.  Compared to the skyscrapers of America and the Far East it’s probably nothing special, but here it towers over everything else and is truly awe-inspiring, even if looking up that far does make you feel dizzy.  We’d have liked to go to the top to see the view for ourselves, until we found out the price – a whopping £30 “per unit”, whatever that means, just for the privilege of travelling in a lift.  I don’t think so.

Our main purpose in any case lay further down the street at the old church of St Thomas.  Here, back in the early nineteenth century, the surgeons of St Thomas Hospital next door took over the attic to form, of all things, an operating theatre to carry out surgery on women.  In those days the church backed onto the main women’s ward of the hospital, and the attic was considered far enough away not to disturb the other patients with screams from those being operated on.  The garret next door had already been used for storing medicinal herbs for the hospital, so perhaps this was a natural progression and not quite as bonkers as it sounds – although quite what effect it had on the congregation busy praying and singing hymns in the church below, I’m not sure.

The old St Thomas Hospital has long since moved to a new and larger site in Lambeth and the building that would have given access to the attic has been demolished.  The operating theatre was abandoned, closed up, and forgotten about entirely until the 1950s, when a researcher stumbled across it having clambered up a spiral staircase inside the church tower and broken through a wall.  The Old Operating Theatre Museum was duly founded, equipment and displays moved back in (up that same spiral staircase, in a superhuman feat of strength and ingenuity), and you can now visit and see the theatre and herb garret for yourself.

And absolutely fascinating it is too, if a little gruesome.  I preferred the displays on medicinal herbs and their preparation to the rows of specimen jars, scalpels and other instruments of torture used for surgery in those days, but even the latter had its own morbid fascination.  For anyone studying medicine or the history of surgery, I’d say this museum is an absolute must.  For anyone else, it’s a bizarre, unique and fascinating foray into a world I’m quite glad we’ve left behind.


I overhead an absolute gem over the weekend. We were visiting Wray Castle, a vast fairy-tale pile on the western shore of Windermere complete with turrets, arrow-slit windows and quite possibly dungeons, even though it was only built in Victorian times. In the courtyard, a small child headed with great determination for a locked door in the basement, until its Mum called it back with the following:

“No, dear, I don’t think there’s a dragon down there. He wouldn’t have a key card.”

Ten out of ten for sheer parental inventiveness… and I’m very tempted to turn it into a story.

Marfan syndrome in the news

Yesterday I was reading an article in the latest issue of New Scientist when I did a double-take.  The article was reporting on the use of computer software to spot rare genetic diseases from facial features, and very interesting it was too.  However, the bit that really made me sit up and take notice was the following paragraph:

The team has since trained the software to recognise 90 disorders, and turned its beady eye on a photo of former US president Abraham Lincoln.  It ranked Marfan syndrome – a disorder resulting in unusually large features that some believe Lincoln had – as the seventh most likely diagnosis…

I must admit American history isn’t something I’ve studied so I wasn’t aware of this.  Until I submitted a story to Exiles: An Outsider Anthology (which is published in aid of the Marfan Foundation) I’d never even heard of the disorder.  Now I find one of the most famous US presidents of all time could well have suffered from it.

The team behind the new research explain that it won’t give a foolproof diagnosis for Marfan syndrome or any of the other disorders it’s been trained to spot, but it will help.  Good news all round for sufferers of this unpleasant condition.

If you want to read more about this fascinating development (and the research on whether Lincoln had Marfan syndrome or not) then head over to the New Scientist website.  The article goes into much more detail than I have space for here!

Which new tv detectives?

There’s a fun article in next week’s (5-11 July) issue of Radio Times, in which Alison Graham takes the shortlist for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award and wonders which would translate best to television.

The shortlist is as follows:

‘Dying Fall’ by Elly Griffiths (about forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, who sounds rather like a Vera Stanhope clone);

‘The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter’ by Malcolm Mackay (hardboiled novel about a gangland hit);

‘The Red Road’ by Denise Mina (Glasgow-set tale of murder and child abuse);

‘Eleven Days’ by Stav Sherez (chalk-and-cheese cops solve a murder in a convent);

‘The Chessmen’ by Peter May (the third in his Isle of Lewis based crime series); and

‘Rubbernecker’ by Belinda Bauer (psychological thriller involving Asperger’s syndrome medical student).

Ms Graham’s vote for the best translation to Sunday night telly is for either May’s Fin Macleod or Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway. My own favourite would also be Peter May, both because the first book in the series was an absolute cracker, and because the Isle of Lewis would be an amazing place to film a tv series. Think Ann Cleeves’ Shetland only bleaker!

As for the books, I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read any of them, but I hope to put that right during the year.

Hidden places

On Saturday we headed for the Curzon Street Station building in Birmingham to see the Hidden Spaces exhibition, which we’d seen advertised on tv and which looked fascinating.

It was.

There were photos of some of Birmingham’s most amazing forgotten corners: abandoned buildings, secret passages, follies; ranging in size from a signal box (at New Street Station) to the Grand Hotel, and even the vast network of underground tunnels used by BT as a telephone exchange during the Cold War. Apparently nobody knows their full extent to this day.

My own favourites were probably the glass corridor in the Council House, and the inside of Perrott’s Folly, a strange structure in Edgbaston which was almost certainly the inspiration, together with the nearby waterworks tower, for Tolkien’s The Two Towers. Unlike the rather rugged exterior, the inside was pure Gothic fantasy and rather pretty, underneath the peeling plaster.

Sadly the exhibition was only on for a week and yesterday was the last day, but if it’s ever repeated I can thoroughly recommend catching it as it’s an amazing insight into the places Birmingham’s population walk or drive past on a daily basis, but never get to see. An added bonus was getting inside Curzon Street Station itself, an impressive Grade I listed edifice built in the 1830s when the railway first came to the city. Apparently, it’s the oldest remaining example of “monumental railway architecture” (whatever that means) in the world. And just as impressive inside as out. It’s been empty and shut-up for years, but when (if) the HS2 rail project ever makes it as far as Birmingham, it will be the new terminus. The local authority already seem to have started tarting up the area in readiness, with a smart new park (Eastside City Park) on the doorstep. For the sake of the building, which deserves better, I hope they keep the momentum going.  The area felt safer and livelier than it has for years, and the exhibition was pulling in the crowds.

Exiles in crime Storybundle

“Pay what you like and get nine great crime books!”

exiles-cover-small-2What’s not to like about that statement?  For the next 20 days, the digital version of Exiles: An Outsider Anthology will be available as part of the ‘international crime storybundle’ alongside eight other crime books from an award-winning selection of authors including Vincent Zandri, Jake Needham, Declan Burke and Robert B Lowe.  Even better, you quite simply pay what you think the bundle is worth.

Storybundle splits profits 70/30 with authors, so by buying via Storybundle you’re supporting indie authors, as well as setting your own price to whatever you can afford or think is fair.  As a bonus you get the chance to read books by authors you may not have come across before, along with the ones you already know and love.  The offer is only on for the next 20 days, though, so to avoid disappointment why not pop along to the Storybundle website for more information or to place your order.

It’s official – Simon’s Cat rules!

“Carpe diem, my friends, and sod the fruit bowl.”

There’s a hilarious article about the phenomenon that is Simon’s Cat in The Guardian at the moment, taking a distinctly tongue in cheek (or paw in cheek) look at philosophy through the eyes of a cat. A cartoon cat, to be precise, since this is what Simon’s Cat is. The first cartoons hit YouTube a few years back and promptly went viral, not just because they’re brilliant studies of the struggle between feline and human, but also because they’re extremely funny.

You can see for yourself if you visit the article because it comes complete with its own exclusive video, Pawtrait, involving an ultra-cute kitten and an attack of the green-eyed monster.

I still think one of the earliest, Let Me In, is the funniest of the lot, though, with its tale (tail?) of a cat permanently on the wrong side of a door. I really did ‘laugh out loud’.