Ian and Felicity by Denis Mackail

Ian and FelicityFans of Greenery Street – one of the loveliest of Persephone Book’s novels, about a young married couple being happy – may not know that there were a couple of sequels. One is a collection of short stories that I haven’t read, and I have an inkling that not all of them feature Ian and Felicity Foster; one of them features them SO much that they’re right there in the title. Ian and Felicity was published in 1932, seven years after Greenery Street. That doesn’t sound that long, but prolific Mr Mackail had published eight books (!!) in between – and so it is with a sense of nostalgia that we head back to the young couple to find out how they’re getting on down the line.

I should add at this point that Ian and Felicity is extremely difficult to track down, and the copy I read belongs to my friend Kirsty (who somehow managed to find a copy on ebay). I borrowed it approximately a zillion years ago, but finally got around to reading it a little while ago.

In America, the novel was called Peninsula Place – and that gives you a clue that the setting has changed a little. Ian and Felicity have outgrown their Greenery Street flat, and now have two children and a bigger town house a little way away from their first marital home and another step up the property ladder. They look back fondly (as the reader must) on that happy place – but this replacement is no less happy. Mackail (thank goodness!) has not started writing a gritty novel or a miserable one. Things continue in much the same tone – though with added parental anxieties, and the occasional wondering (often quickly quashed in slightly over the top internal self-reflection) whether life wasn’t all a bit simpler back in the Greenery Street days.

I loved reading Ian and Felicity. It was light and fun and an antidote to the unhappy marriages that populate so many novels – even those that are otherwise not unhappy books. My main qualm with it was the complete and utter lack of plot. I don’t need a lot to happen, but I would have liked more structure to the novel – it’s so episodic that it feels more like a series of notes, or loosely linked vignettes, than a novel. It wasn’t a big obstacle, but I don’t think it would have taken much to give this more of an overarching structure, and it would have lifted the novel into a whole new territory. (My only other qualm was how much Ian seems to loathe spending even a moment with his children, and how normal and admirable we’re supposed to think this; different times, of course, but this is not a model of every 1930s fictional father.)

But, as I say, it was still a lot of fun. Here’s a bit of the opening, to give you a taste:

“Dinner!” said Felicity, as she passed the open drawing-room door. “Come along, darling!”

“What’s that?” said her husband’s voice.

“Dinner, darling.”

“Supper, you mean,” said Ian’s voice; but he was coming. “Don’t exaggerate,” he said, actually appearing. “I’ve been in to look once, and I know just what we’ve got. Blancmange, again.”

“Well, darling, you know it’s Sunday.”

“As if I could forget it,” said Mr. Foster. But he smiled as he pulled down the front of his waistcoat, and he would certainly have pinched his wife’s arm with his other hand, if she hadn’t dodged him and gone through into the dining-room.

Harmless fun, isn’t it? Impossible to find a copy, but if you badger your local library, they might find one in the stacks. Or you might strike it lucky like Kirsty – keep an eye out on ebay!

 

The Majestic Mystery by Denis Mackail

This review is part of The 1924 Club. To discover more, and see all the reviews so far from across the blogosphere, visit my hub post or Karen’s hub page. Do keep new and old 1924 review links coming, and thanks for all the contributions so far!

Denis MackailWhen I was thinking about which obscurer authors I could sample for The 1924 Club, Denis Mackail came to mind. He is best known now as the author of the Persephone title Greenery Street and as Angela Thirkell’s brother. My housemate Kirsty had recently been reading and enjoying his books, and I had been intending to read more ever since I read Greenery Street in 2004. Despite a few of his titles on my shelves, I still hadn’t got around to it – but I didn’t own his 1924 novel The Majestic Mystery. Indeed, looking at the prices online for the very few available copies, I was surprised that anybody owned it. And then I discovered, somewhat surprisingly, that it had been released as an unabridged audiobook. I signed up for  free trial at Audible and was able to hear it.

The difficulty with blogging about an audiobook, of course, is that it’s much harder to check back for details – and much harder to give quotations. So this will necessary be a sketchier post than if I’d read the hard copy – forgive me! And there will also be some spoilers, though I shan’t say whodunnit.

The Majestic Mystery was Mackail’s only detective novel, if such it can be called – it belongs to the ‘amateur sleuth’ realm, and few sleuths come more amateur than this. Peter is our man; he has been on holiday to The Majestic Hotel with his friend James; they are both journalists on a newspaper, keen to rise above the literary pages and start covering front page news. And front page news takes place in front of them – in the form of the murder, by shooting, of a theatre manager who is staying at the hotel. Peter happened to be in the corridor at the time – so why didn’t he hear a gunshot, and should he be protecting the pretty young woman who ran out of the room just before he entered?

The hallmarks of a brilliant detective story are many and various, but – in the best – characters behave logically, and blind alleyways take place despite (rather than because of) the characters’ actions. Well, in The Majestic Mystery nobody seems to follow much logic. Peter decides to protect a woman solely because she is pretty – he has just met her, and has no idea whether or not she is innocent, and it causes all manner of delays and confusions. He sees somebody hide something down the back of the sofa, but can’t be bothered to cross the room to find out what it is. He tells all manner of lies for no obvious reasons.

And yet he is extremely affable, as is James – indeed, they are extremely similar. They come from the same school as a lot of A.A. Milne’s characters – witty, well-meaning, whimsical. They are incapable of being particularly serious, even in the face of murder, and do seem unusually stupid at times. The plot may be littered with unlikelihoods, but the writing is a delight. I wish I could quote it, but it’s the sort of light-hearted, insouciant, and extremely amusing prose that I love reading so much. Mackail does have an extremely light touch, and it more than makes up for a flimsy plot.

So, what sort of detecting does take place? As with seemingly all non-Christie practitioners of the genre, coincidence plays a large part. People also can never be at a scene without leaving some object behind them. And then, to cap it all, the only reason the mystery gets solved is because the culprit decides – apropos of nothing – to confess all to Peter about a year after the event.

Perhaps you can see why Mackail didn’t return to whodunnits. His is far from the weakest I have read, and there is a neat and almost plausible twist, but his strengths lie in prose rather than plot. A great detective novel can have good prose, of course, but what it really requires is a brilliant use of plot.

I should put in a word for the narrator Steven Crossley, who does a brilliant job both with the narrative and with the different voices. I’d definitely listen to him again, and he is pretty prolific. If you fancy joining in the 1924 Club and can listen to eight hours before the end of the week (!) then I certainly recommend The Majestic Mystery as being great fun, if not great genius.