I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.
Why did I want to read it?
In The Children’s Bookshop in Edinburgh, I discovered a wall of yellow books with purple pinstripes: rediscovered, republished books by women. There were all kinds of stories, but the fact that Death on Tiptoe was set in a castle, and combined the Gothic with a traditional ‘country houseparty whodunnit’ meant it took my fancy.
When was it published?
1931, originally. Now published by Greyladies (2009). You can order books from their website.
What’s it about?
A bunch of characters come together in a castle bought by Lady and Harry Stacey. They bring all sorts of baggage: intrigues, unrequited loves, losses, jealousies, prejudices, debts. They are shown around the castle (and having been to so many lately I can smell that dusty old tapestry, the uncovered ‘Priest’s Hole’, the old Norman keep). There is a game of Hide & Seek, in the dark. The governess, pining after the Major, is left out. Someone hides somewhere that is extremely difficult to find…
RC Ashby is also known as Ruby Ferguson. She is apparently best known for her series of ‘Jill’ pony books for children. She was born in 1899 in West Yorkshire, went to Oxford, was a publisher’s reader and book reviewer before becoming an author. Her first book was Moorland Man in 1926. RC Ashby is how she signed her detective novels (often with a supernatural element). She used her married name, Ruby Ferguson, for her romantic novels. According to the Greyladies bio, the romantic novel Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary (1937) was a favourite of the Queen Mother. Another good one is apparently Apricot Sky, ‘a charming comedy of manners set in the Western Highlands’. She died in 1966.
So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?
I read this book very quickly, in two sittings, and was completely absorbed. I’ll admit that there’s an environmental factor. I’ve been reading ‘lighter’ things, for the most part, while travelling [NB. I wrote this while still overseas], as the brain fills up quickly with all the history, newness, sights, smells, people. Also, I’ve been visiting castles throughout the UK, and thus the setting was an immediate, palpable one. So it was perfect for my current state. The writing is admittedly flowery, but, if you can run with it, adds to the gothic element of the novel. Crumbling stone, old costumes, stormy weather.
Lady Stacey aims for an element of ‘authenticity’ and recovering the past in her castle: ‘The long table was six hundred years old, of pale old wood to correspond with the benches upon which the guests sat. Electric lights were cunningly hidden in the iron sconces in the walls; but Lady Stacey disliked such imitations, and had caused a single line of yellow wax candles in brass candlesticks to be placed the length of the table for its illumination.’ The book is really great fun, especially if you enjoy an old-fashioned murder mystery. I never guessed who could be behind the death – a rather gruesome one – as there were plenty of good clues and red herrings thrown up. It was suitably spooky in parts, too. And I’ve always enjoyed books with contained settings: a stage where all manner of dramas and intrigues can be played out in micro.
I’m getting a bit behind, aren’t I? Yikes. I’m currently reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and I think I’ll soon pick up Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
Pictured: Chepstow Castle, in Wales.