some children’s books

Therapist: and what do we do when we feel a tiny bit heartbroken but also dumb because we revealed our vulnerability to someone who rejected it, and additionally feel waves of acute terror that a no-deal Brexit will threaten our actual life because we need insulin and medicine shortages will be more than a minor inconvenience?

Me: walk to the nearest bookshop and purchase £50+ worth of children’s and YA novels

Therapist: NO

And so:

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A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle: Not gonna lie, this one has aged weirdly. Not badly, exactly, but weirdly. There’s a level of sheer serene acceptance of Christian theology that would actually make me think twice before sending it to a child now—not because L’Engle ever advocates anything more controversial than the power of love, but because direct Biblical quotation in a book for eight-to-twelve-year-olds feels a bit…full on? Maybe that’s my problem, though; maybe a child would skate over whatever they didn’t need. They tend to. Also, I can’t quite shake my uncertainty about the characterisation of Meg, her genius-mystic little brother Charles Wallace, and her beautiful-genius mother Mrs. Murry, in particular, ever since reading this Paris Review article. Are they just prototypes of the Perfectly Flawed Protagonist trope in YA? I don’t know. There’s enough left in the book, even with my discomfort, to make it resonate with me very deeply: the way Meg is told that her weaknesses can also be her strengths, that what she has in her heart for her little brother is enough to save him from the cruelty that wants him for its own. And the description of the terrifying dark planet of Camazotz, with its authoritarian sameness and awful punishments for those who step out of line, retains all of its power to disturb.

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The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster: The complex delights of characterisation are not really an issue in The Phantom Tollbooth. Our protagonist, Milo, is a chronically bored little boy (one rather extraordinary feature of the book is that he appears not to have any parents; it’s not that he’s orphaned but that they simply aren’t mentioned. I guess he’s what that era might have called a latchkey kid, except that he literally never thinks about them, not once. It’s a fascinating omission. Is it that they don’t love him, or that they’re simply not necessary to the story? Or a bit of both?) Anyway, one day he finds a parcel in his room which turns out to be a flatpack toy tollbooth. He rouses himself from lassitude enough to put it together and drive through it in his little toy car, and suddenly finds himself in an entirely different world, where two brothers rule over words and numbers (respectively), the conductor Chroma directs the orchestra of the world to play every day into colour from sunrise to sunset, and Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord collects loud noises along with his lab assistant, the Terrible Dynne. Milo acquires two faithful companions, Tock the Watchdog (watch + dog, you see?) and the Humbug (stripy, pompous, likes spats), and soon finds himself on a quest to bring back the princesses Rhyme and Reason from their exile in the Castle in the Air. The delights of The Phantom Tollbooth are in the rigorous logic of its nonsense world, in which it much resembles Lewis Carroll; if you eat subtraction stew, you get hungrier and hungrier, of course—why wouldn’t you?

*a personal disclaimer: I read The Phantom Tollbooth out loud to my kid brother when he was six or seven and I was eleven or twelve. It made the most enormous impression on him; until he discovered Roald Dahl, he called it his favourite book, and he used to talk about it loads. We never found another book that did quite the same sort of thing.

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Arsenic For Tea, by Robin Stevens: The second in Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike series, and quite possibly even better than the eponymous first book. Daisy Wells (president of the Detective Society at Deepdean School) and Hazel Wong (Secretary) are at Daisy’s parents’ country house, Fallingford, for the summer holidays, but there is something rotten in the estate. Daisy’s mother (much younger than Daisy’s father) has invited a rather flashy and insincere antiques dealer named Mr Curtis to stay, and they seem entirely too chummy; Great-Aunt Saskia’s habit of pinching the silver spoons is becoming too obvious to ignore; and why does Uncle Felix (who does something top secret for the government) seem to know the girls’ holiday governess, when she’s only just been employed? When Daisy’s birthday tea ends with the unexpected demise of Mr Curtis, and flash flooding cuts off Fallingford from the surrounding countryside, it’s up to the girls to find out which of the houseguests is a killer… The reason Stevens’s books work so brilliantly is that, within this familiar framework of Christie-esque plot devices, she is absolutely committed to psychological realism. Daisy and Hazel have investigated one murder already, and they are only fourteen; where a lesser author would skip over any lingering effects of trauma, Stevens understands that the resilience of youth has limits, that Hazel is upset not just by this murder occurring but by the way murder seems to be happening all around her and her friends, that Daisy’s apparently lesser concern is not (as Hazel believes) a sign of her superiority but an indicator that something is not quite right with her. Daisy’s and Hazel’s characterisations have both developed between books one and two, and I’m very interested to see where Stevens takes them next. (She also has the extraordinary knack of dealing with topics like infidelity, lesbian relationships and pathological kleptomania in a way that feels entirely accurate to the 1930s’ schoolgirl point of view, but also entirely appropriate to her 21st-century audience, neither patronizing nor unsubtle. It is one of the hardest tricks in the world and she deserves to sell very well for it.)

howl's moving castle

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones: Wynne Jones mostly bypassed me, somehow; I had friends who loved Charmed Life and Dark Lord of Derkholm, and I think I read one or two, but they didn’t really sink in. And I’ve never seen the Miyazaki film of Howl’s Moving Castle, which is presumably how most people now come to the book. But the Folio Society—of all people—made Howl’s Moving Castle the subject of their most recent illustration competition, and artists produced such stunning and intriguing work for it that I found myself picking it up and thinking I’d give it a go. Well, it’s great. Wynne Jones, like Stevens, takes familiar and even goofy genre tropes (three daughters, a supposedly evil wizard, seven-league boots, curses cast by jealous witches), throws them all together with a huge dose of irony, sarcasm and bloodymindedness, and makes something entirely sui generis. Sophie Hatter is an eldest daughter, which means her life will be comfortable and boring; everyone knows only the youngest children in a family get to have adventures. But when she inadvertently offends the Witch of the Waste, a spell is cast on her that makes her appear to be an old woman. Making her way to the castle of the feared wizard Howl in hopes that he can remove the curse, she finds that being an old woman liberates her from caring for other peoples’ opinions, and she installs herself as Howl’s cleaner. But the Witch is after Howl, too, and Sophie needs to find a way to free Howl’s indentured fire demon, Calcifer, if she’s to rescue not only herself but her employer… Extremely funny, quite unpredictable, and with some action taking place in our world in a way that Wynne Jones simply declines to explain, which (instead of being annoying) makes it all the more magical. Also, and rather unexpectedly, features one of my favourite John Donne poems.

rules for vanishing

Rules For Vanishing, by Kate Alice Marshall: Actually not part of the book haul, but a proof copy sent to the bookshop which I plucked off the shelf in anticipation of its October publication by Walker Books. It is an excellent instance of Internet-creepypasta-type horror, including an urban legend about a girl who disappeared, mysterious documents about “the road”, “the game” and “rules” that must be followed, and a fragmented, documentary-style structure. (I was forcefully reminded in the early pages of this exceptional Reddit thread.) There’s also a very impressive subtlety to the representation of deafness, bisexuality, and stammering; I often struggle with YA where the characters are DIVERSE!!1!1!!!1!, but Marshall does it brilliantly, making each character an individual with a given trait, as opposed to a walking trait. (The deaf character’s deafness, in particular, actually functions in the story: because of it, most of his friends know ASL, so they can communicate silently when they need to.) I’ll definitely be recommending this to thirteen-year-olds and up, for Halloween and beyond.

Currently reading: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, which I’m loving (more on that in another post, perhaps), and have two more from the book haul stack left: Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass, which is new to me but which Abigail Nussbaum convinced me about, and Richard Adams’s Watership Down, a childhood favourite and also one of those books that, when read as an adult, make one wonder why on earth our parents thought this was appropriate for us at the tender age of nine.

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The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware: I finished this in a day; it is SO readable. A modern take on James’s Turn of the Screw, featuring all our faves (creepy kids, mysterious footsteps, an initially rational narrator with secrets of her own who is progressively broken down by fear), but with some modern twists (the house is old, with a terrible history, but has been renovated to make it a “smart house” which can be run – and also run remotely – via app. YES, horrifying.) I’m not so sure about the ending, which makes some leaps with regards to motive and capacity, but goodness me is it gripping.

 

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Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature, by Elizabeth Hardwick: I took this to Paris, because look at that title, how could I take anything else? Much of the criticism seemed outdated, at least in terms of its gender politics, but then, it was written in the ’70s, so it’d be sort of surprising if it wasn’t. The other thing I found tricky about it is that Hardwick’s particular brand of criticism doesn’t involve a lot of textual reference: she writes about the characterisation of Ibsen’s heroines – the terrifyingly empty and amoral Hedda Gabler, for instance, or the somehow untouchably free Nora in A Doll’s House – while rarely making reference to anything they say. The same is true, to a large extent, of the Bronte sisters, who are the subject of the first essay, and of the women both real and fictional whom she discusses in the title essay (including Anna Karenina and Richardson’s Clarissa). Still worth reading for the declarative power of her sentences, and for the essay on Sylvia Plath alone.

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Girl. Boy. Sea., by Chris Vick: A brave ten-year-old could handle this, but I’d suggest it for twelve and up, on the whole. Bill, a young English boy, is on a sailing summer course off Gran Canaria when a storm separates him from his shipmates. Drifting in the Atlantic, he comes across another shipwrecked adolescent: Aya, a Berber girl, who is keeping secrets of her own. Bill and Aya’s growing ability to communicate and trust one another is beautifully rendered, as are the stories Aya tells to keep them going (as not-so-subtle but still very moving symbols of the power of narrative to provide hope). Sort of like a junior Life of Pi without all of the clever-clever religiosity. Also a genuinely scary and thrilling survival/adventure story.

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The Truants, by Kate Weinberg: Whether you enjoy The Truants or not probably depends on how well you react to familiarity. When I read the proof blurb by Scarlett Thomas that claimed this was like a mashup of Donna Tartt, Agatha Christie, and Liane Moriarty, I wasn’t prepared for how entirely accurate that was: it’s The Secret History set in Norwich with Agatha Christie texts occupying the place that classical Greek culture takes in the former. If you’re keen on genre riffs, and sexily unpredictable men, and the erotics of pedagogy, pick it up. I rather enjoyed it, but I doubt I’ll remember much in a month.

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Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather: Willa, my queen. Not much happens in Death Comes for the Archbishop, except for a whole life: that of the titular Archbishop, who’s mostly just a Bishop while we know him. He’s Jean Latour, the first Catholic bishop of New Mexico, and with him is Father Joseph Vaillant, his right-hand man. The friendship between the two men – Latour intellectual and kindly but aloof, Vaillant awkward and ungainly but easy to love – is the most beautiful part of Cather’s novel, although she’s also good on the shifting nineteenth-century politics of the West and Southwest, and describes Native American and Mexican customs with interest and respect. Her prose is like desert air: lucid, invigorating, vivid. *chef’s kiss*

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Ohio, by Stephen Markley: This. Is fucking brilliant. The best post-9/11 novel I’ve ever read: detailed, lyrical, raw, all those book review words. Four high school friends reconverge in their hometown, one night in the early 2010s. They don’t all meet, but that night illuminates the history they share and the path their country has taken since. The Iraq war, Alanis Morrisette, OxyContin, summers at the lake, your boyfriend’s truck, baby lesbians, post-industrial hellscapes, Obama’s election, white supremacists, memorial tattoos, homecoming dances, football games, small-town rumors, the mystery at the centre of existence – Ohio has them all, and all wrapped up in beautiful, headstrong, confident prose. Get it. Read it. 

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Supper Club, by Lara Williams: As excellent as I expected from the author of the short story “Treats”, which smacked me around the face when I read it in Best British Short Stories of 2017. I sort of thought this might be predictable (wild women, eating as resistance, awkward sexual interactions, all that stuff that’s rolling around the societal forebrain at the moment), but Williams’s antisocial anti-heroine is painted in shades of grey: sometimes she’s selfish, sometimes genuinely self-protective; sometimes she really is pushing boundaries, other times hiding behind them. It’s a smart piece of work.

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Exhalation, by Ted Chiang: A really outstanding collection of science fictional short stories from a master of the form, which you might not have been able to determine from the way I talked about this book on social media, which went as follows: “Reading Ted Chiang’s exceptional new collection and at the bottom of my 2nd G&T whilst wearing my least modest nightie, thanks, how’s your Friday night?” Anyway, he’s smart and rigorous as hell and his translucent prose serves as the foundation for explorations of how humans might think and live very differently. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”, in particular, is going to be a really important story, which you should read.

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A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather: I love, love, love Willa Cather, but I haven’t read any of her work for over a decade, and this was the perfect book to get reacquainted with her (thanks, Second Shelf!) It’s very short but a devastating, nuanced portrait of a woman whose hidden depths we (through the medium of Niel, an infatuated neighbour boy and then a young man) are always aware of but never manage to plumb. What struck me about Cather’s writing for the first time here was how clear and daring she is: about sexuality, about age gaps in relationships, about deep generosity and married love and how our truest selves can be failures as well as triumphs. She reminds me of Elizabeth Gaskell in that way: never vulgar, but often radical. Amazing.

06. Pericles, by William Shakespeare

I like Pericles. A lot of people don’t, or find its weirdness too weird, its lacunae and unreliability and dreaminess offputting. It is weird and unreliable and dreamy, but those, I think, aren’t bad things. Of all the plays Shakespeare had a hand in, surely the odd ones, the ones that don’t totally work or don’t work the way you think they should, are the ones we ought to be most interested in.

Pericles is particularly interesting for a lot of reasons, not least because Shakespeare is thought to have collaborated fairly heavily on it. His co-writer has been identified as a playwright called George Wilkins who was artistically active only for about three years, writing more or less competent comedies, and then spent most of the rest of his life as a pimp. He does not appear to have been a terribly nice man (Mark Haddon’s recent novel, The Porpoise, which takes inspiration from Pericles, deals with Wilkins in a most satisfactory manner). Most of Acts 1 and 2 are thought to be Wilkins’s, primarily because they’re the ones in which the verse (and the prose, frankly) is less impressive. Shakespeare’s influence allegedly begins in the Prologue to Act 3. If you’re paying attention, you can see it, I suppose, a difference in the quality of the verse; everything gets tighter, the scansion less limp, the rhymes more pungent. But then that might easily be confirmation bias. It doesn’t feel like crossing a Rubicon of any kind. The improvement is noticeable, but not jarring.

One of the other tricky things about Pericles is the state of the text we have, which is shocking. Publishing an edition of the play is a question of reconstructing–sometimes just guessing–what might be meant by lines that are often punctuated in a way that renders them nonsensical, have too many syllables to fit the metrical scheme (or too few), and sometimes just don’t exist. (There’s a gap of probably three or four lines at one point that no one has been able to fill.) General academic opinion is that the text was recounted from memory by one or two of the actors who’d performed the play (one of them might have been the boy who played Marina, Pericles’s daughter): they were probably trying to sell it to a publisher, somewhat unscrupulously, because theaters closed for a year, thanks to the plague, almost immediately after Pericles‘s first performance. They were hungry.

The point is that Pericles is not one of the more accessible of Shakespeare’s plays. Even if a theatrical ensemble can get past the textual problems, and can make the less impressive prosody sound convincing, it is odd. Bouncing from location to location, it follows Pericles as he 1) flees the wrath of a provincial governor who, it turns out, is sleeping with his own daughter; 2) wins the hand of another princess in a tournament; 3) marries, impregnates, and is immediately shipwrecked with said princess, who gives birth to their daughter and promptly dies; 4) leaves his newborn daughter with the governor of another city-state while he returns to Tyre to take up his throne upon the death of his father; 5) forgets to come back for her for the next fourteen years; 6) returns for her after fourteen years only to be told that she’s died [she hasn’t]; 7) after quite a lot of faff and much mourning, is reunited with her in a different city, as well as 8) being reunited with his wife, who isn’t actually dead and has been working as a priestess of Diana all this time. That is A Lot. There is also a chorus figure, who represents the medieval poet John Gower (which is something that doesn’t happen in any other Shakespeare play: a named individual functioning as a chorus between scenes). If what you want is something with a clear narrative trajectory, at least one memorable speech, some naughty jokes, and either a wholesome group marriage scene or a cathartic tableau of dead dramatis personae at the end, do not go to Pericles for it.

If, on the other hand, you are willing to take it for whatever it is, there’s a lot to be had. Most notably, it’s a play obsessively concerned about incest: it’s the opening impetus for Pericles’s flight when he uncovers it in a rival court, it’s a tension when he first meets his wife (whose father is, to everyone’s relief, a doting and appropriate parent keen to settle her in marriage), there’s the constant threat of it when he first meets his daughter, whom he doesn’t recognize. The whole play is overshadowed by the representation of deviant, non-generative sexuality, sexuality that, instead of allowing for growth and forward movement, curls back in on itself like a snake eating its tail. Fathers and daughters must be parted; even as Shakespeare and Wilkins bring Pericles and Marina back together at the end, their reunion is only possible because Marina has caught the eye of a handsome and wealthy young man outside of the family grouping, a socially appropriate match. There’s more to this–the father/daughter relationship and controlling interest in adolescent female sexuality is reminiscent of The Tempest; the lost/not lost wife subplot appears again in The Winter’s Tale–and if you’re at all interested in Shakespeare, or even (especially) if you think that he’s overtaught and overpraised and has nothing more to surprise you with, give Pericles a go.


Pericles was probably written in 1607 or 1608. My copy is the Arden Shakespeare 2nd edition, edited and introduced by Suzanne Gossett and published in 2004.

05. Dressed, by Shahidha Bari

Reader, I DNFd it.

Most likely it’s a problem with me, not with Dressed itself. You can hardly fault a book just for not being the thing you wanted it to be. Still, I was really hoping for some fairly specific, example-grounded analysis of garments and styles, and what I got—at least for the first thirty pages or so—was a series of rather superficial, if lyrical, pronouncements. The back cover quote is (for once) illustrative: “Clothes tell our stories, some that we would rather not tell, others that we hardly know ourselves.” As an introduction to a section that delves into specific instances of garments that reveal more than they’re intended to about the person wearing them, that sentence would be okay; still a little dull, but it’d do. As the precursor to several other sentences that are, substantively, exactly like it, it doesn’t convince. Perhaps Bari is more amenable to citing evidence that backs up her statements later on in the book, but life is short, books are many, and I’m never going to get that far.


I don’t intend to replace this in my official 20 Books of Summer list; it’s okay not to finish things. Dressed was published by Jonathan Cape on 13 June.

Son of Reading Diary round-up

Again–more for me than you. Enjoy ’em, though.

Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon: Apparently Stapledon was genuinely surprised when people started telling him he’d written a “science fiction novel”, which actually makes perfect sense once you’ve read it because it’s not really a novel at all. Star Maker‘s closest generic ancestor is the medieval dream vision; like Chaucer’s narrators, Stapledon’s (never named) is vouchsafed a long journey into the heart of cosmic truth. There’s not much in the way of plot or character development, which hampers a reader’s ability to care, although Stapledon’s theology and conception of universal history (and obsession with “community”) is intellectually interesting. Worth reading, though, mostly because he anticipates huge numbers of science fictional tropes, including the Prime Directive.

Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts: A combination of Golden Age of SF and Golden Age of Crime elements into one occasionally frustrating, though generally satisfying, whole. Written in three parts–one a prison breakout mystery, one a whodunnit, and one a locked-room case–the novel’s overarching plot doesn’t quite come together (and by the book’s end I still didn’t feel convinced, as the jacket assured me I would, of the righteousness of the murders). The solutions are ingenious, if also fairly bonkers. This is my first Roberts novel and I’m not totally sold, but I’ll pick up more.

Sibilant Fricative: Essays and Reviews, by Adam Roberts: One thing I am sold on is Roberts’s criticism, though, which is funny and incisive. The best thing in this collection is probably his critical read-through of the entire Wheel of Time sequence, which, if you don’t remember it, absolutely dominated bookshelves of a certain ilk in the ’90s and consists mostly of painful attempts to recreate a Tolkien-esque atmosphere which fail because they’re not grounded in anything like intellectual coherence. Roberts’s increasing despair is articulated with precision and force. He’s also good on Philip K Dick, Neal Stephenson, Ursula K LeGuin and Tolkien himself.

The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke: A pivot to a different genre thanks to my library expedition. This is the first of Burke’s New Orleans-set detective novels featuring Dave Robicheaux; it starts with a warning from a death row inmate due to be executed in three hours, proceeds through a series of frequently violet set pieces exposing gang violence and US government complicity in selling weapons to oppressive regimes in Central America, and concludes with our hero vindicated, though wiser, and having picked up a hottie along the way. It’s magnificent: southern Gothic meets urban noir. Clearly written in the ’80s (the love interest’s eyes are “childlike” a little too often), but I have high hopes for the rest of Burke’s canon and plan to read The Tin Roof Blowdown, set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, next.


That was a lot of male authors (and the forthcoming entry in 20 Books of Summer happens to be William Shakespeare, which doesn’t help). I’m currently reading Kate Atkinson’s new novel, though–Big Sky–and can confirm that a) she’s at the top of her game right now, and b) no previous Jackson Brodie experience is necessary.

If you like what I write (and I freely concede that this particular reading diary entry may have been of no use to you at all, but maybe it diverted you from spreadsheets for a minute or two), why not buy me a coffee?

04. The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, by Susannah Stapleton

This rather marvelous book is a mashup of biography, social history, and what for a lack of a better phrase I might call “research thriller”. Susannah Stapleton comes across the figure of Maud West by chance, while idly pondering whether lady detectives had existed during the Golden Age of crime fiction; she’s only thinking about this at all because of a historical missing-persons case that regular historical research had led her to. When she finds Maud West, her interest is piqued by the dearth of information. “The game”, as she winningly puts it, “was afoot.”

Maud West did exist, although she wasn’t born under that name. She opened a private investigation agency in London in 1905 and ran it until just before the Second World War, employing a small staff of hand-selected and rigorously trained men and women as well as undertaking large amounts of field work herself. She wrote “case study” pieces for a variety of tabloids, and filled them with tales of derring-do, often involving white slavers, cocaine smugglers, last-minute ocean liner voyages, and fisticuffs (or, just as often, the well-timed production of a small revolver). Stapleton concludes that West mostly made these stories up–but why? Her business flourished; she tracked cheating spouses, fraudulent salesmen, dishonest cardsharps and country-house jewel thieves. In other advertising venues, she made much of her work amongst the “best sort”; the aristocracy and upper middle classes, in other words. West’s psychology–what she felt she had to prove; the characters she enjoyed playing; her love of disguise (this is borne out by many, many contemporary news features including photographs of West disguised as an old woman, a businessman, a vicar, and so on)–fascinates Stapleton, and the more she digs, the clearer it becomes that the life of this particular private investigator was at least as interesting as any of the cases she worked over the course of her career. Amongst other revelations, and without wishing to spoil anything, West’s life story includes a name change, illegitimacy, and someone who spends forty years masquerading as his own uncle.

Stapleton structures her book brilliantly: excerpts from sensationalist articles written by West are reprinted between chapters. Each chapter is named for a classic crime novel and deals (roughly) with some relevant social issue of the time, like the introduction of women to the Metropolitan police force or the “nightclub panic” of the interwar years, spliced with details of Stapleton’s sleuthing. Quite apart from being an excellent introduction to the Golden Age of crime outside of the pages of fiction, The Adventures of Maud West also functions as a window into the life of a working researcher. Stapleton takes trains from her home in Shropshire to the British Library to read archival clippings; she tracks down out-of-print books to get a sense of how West might have trained herself in investigation techniques; she scans international print databases and calls up descendants. The thrill of the academic chase is a huge part of the book’s appeal–which is really saying something, given that its subject is a woman with such immense willpower, fortitude, and peculiarity of character. A more engaging and intellectually stimulating biography you won’t read this summer.


The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective was published by Picador on 13 June.

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