A few weeks ago, I blogged about author Ursula Torday and how I had a sort of virtual not-quite-relationship with her which was like a haunting. I fell over her books on three different occasions in my life, years apart. And now, ten years on, I have just done so again.
So that makes four.
We clearly have unfinished business.
As a result, I have been reading her books and digging a bit – and reconsidering the very helpful email that her godson, Robert Torday, sent me 10 years ago. This is how it started this time…
URSULA TORDAY – THE FOURTH HAUNTING
A friend of mine has just written a fabulous book on the importance of clothes in golden age detective fiction. I am also a member of group of Georgette Heyer admirers. Some of them were talking about her murder mysteries.
Now, on the whole, I don’t care too much for Heyer’s crime fiction, so wouldn’t normally have engaged. BUT, I was still bubbling over with enthusiasm after reading Jane’s book. And someone mentioned Dewey Death. I’d heard of it, but never read it. Now the time had clearly come. I got on to BookFinder and tracked down a copy.
URSULA TORDAY AND HER DOUBLE LIFE – and MINE
And this is where another Ursula Torday frisson struck. Because as soon as I started reading it, I knew the place she was talking about. Not just the type of institution and the work, you understand. Pretty much the actual place.
For Ursula Torday worked at the National Central Library which was “a scholarly library for working people”.
And, before I went to university, I worked for a few months in the University of London Library at Senate House. We were separated by 25 years and about two streets.
And her heroine lives a double life. As Ursula Torday did herself, at that time as Paula Allardyce. As I did for many years with colleagues in the City.
“She had never told them her pen name. Miss Smith worked in the Library, was a reasonably conscientious worker, except when her imagination got the better of her, and led a calm, sedate life. But Miss Allen, Miss Barbara Allen, the creator of handsome heroes who fought duels and made love in eighteenth century moonlight, was a different creature and one whose identity she feverishly concealed.”
DEWEY DEATH BY CHARITY BLACKSTOCK
It was published in 1956 and it is a murder mystery. At least, there is a murder and detectives and the murderer is not completely unmasked until the end. Although I really don’t think that there is much mystery about it, or intended to be.
The victim is the classic body in the library. Only this is a real working library which organises major inter-library loans and is full of workplace power plays, jealousy and the borderline hysteria of a small workforce cooped up together without enough to do and too much unchannelled emotional energy. It is clear from the very first page that the bickering has become toxic.
I’d half expected it to be amusing. The title is a play on the Dewey Decimal system of library classification, witty, not to be taken entirely seriously, surely. And the body in the library? The cliché is already a joke, right there.
But this is no joke. And it’s not an Agatha Christie puzzle, either. This story is deadly serious. It shook me to the heart.
Yet her publisher fell into the trap, too. The blurb on the inside cover of the first editions says “Charity Blackstock’s thriller, with which she joins Heinemann Detective Fiction Team, blends suspense and humour in a workaday setting.”
Oh sure, Ursula Torday is witty. She’s clever and clear-sighted. She’s spot-on about those workplace tensions. But she knows that, however ridiculous they may be, ultimately they’re poison
And the thriller element is agonising, for more than one reason.
For this is a love story, a story of a terrible love.
And also a tragedy.
URSULA TORDAY GENRE-BUSTER?
If I were writing a genre definition for Dewey Death I would call it a psychological thriller. The psychology of ordinary people who let themselves get carried away by, well, passion, excitement, a search for meaning, maybe.
Because everyone in this book is passionate about something. And under pressure of propinquity, they go too far.
And one, of course, is not ordinary at all, more passionate, more impatient of constraint more wilful, more self-aware. More compelling.
The characters walk around with you for days afterwards. All have flashes of generosity and kindness – she’s very good at kindness – even understanding. Most have mean, resentful, vengeful sides too. And most are clever, in one way or another. Some fascinate you. Some repel you. And some you warm to. Just like life outside books too.
BUT – there’s no formal justice. There’s catharsis and an ending which is aesthetically satisfying and psychologically believable.
But it leaves you shaken. Not reassured that justice has been done or harmony restored. All you know is that the lives have been changed. I loved it. But some readers probably feel a little lost.
WOULD YOU ENJOY READING HER BOOKS?
Ursula Torday is one of those authors, I think, who becomes a passion for a few readers but has now fallen out of fashion. The late Sara Craven was a huge fan. Indeed she gave me two of Torday’s books, which I have re-read with extraordinary pleasure and interest..
The Ballad-Maker of Paris, her first novel, was published in 1935 when she was 25; her last, The Flag Captain, under the pen-name Charlotte Keppel, in 1982. She published 3 books under her own name, before the War. After the War she published both historically-set adventurous romance and detective fiction under three different pen names: Paula Allardyce (the more purely romantic stories), Charity [also Lee, in the USA] Blackstock (more gothic and hard-edged historical and also mystery) and, latterly, Charlotte Keppel (at least one time-slip, but also harder-edged historical romantic adventure.)
Her writing is wonderful. But brace yourself: she doesn’t give you an unalloyed HEA, ever.
WHO WAS URSULA TORDAY?
Georgette Heyer said you could find her in her books. I’m pretty sure the same is true of Ursula Torday. If she was not published between 1938 and 1954, what was she doing? From Robert Torday’s account, during the Blitz she volunteered as a social worker, in spite of her mobility difficulties, caused by childhood polio.
After the War, he says, she “worked in a French chateau with traumatised Jewish children who had survived the concentration camps.” (Her profile as Charlotte Keppel lists only two of her many non-writing jobs:, teaching English to adults and “running a refugee scheme for children.”) She drew on that experience when writing The Children, published in 1966 under her Charity Blackstock pen name. She dedicated that book to Robert and his sister.
Robert Torday recalls her account of working in publisher Naim Attallah’s lively enterprise (Quartet Books, The Women’s Press). That would have been much later, of course. One wonders what she made of the charming fantasist publisher and his stable of the poshest totty.
“She sat at a desk opposite Quentin Crisp and they used to exchange tips on the latest nail varnishes (he always sported scarlet nails).” Now there was the stuff of pure farce, if she really wanted to write comedy. I don’t think she did. Her books, romantic, gothic, mystery, or crime, are serious, serious about people, especially children, and very serious about kindness.
I think she’s wonderful.
Well, you have whetted my appetite. I shall go hunting, I think. Though rather iffy about that Dewey library book from what you say.
She is a truly extraordinary writer. Dewey Death is a turbulent sort of book and certainly not for everyone. But I actually think that you might be one of the people who would really get it, Liz. The evocation of passion is breathtaking. And there is catharsis, honest.
If you ask nicely I might even lend you my copy, now that I have one of my own! Though not for too long.
Thanks for the offer but I mostly do kindle these days, space in my bookshelves being at a premium. Shall find it out as you recommend it!
Thank you, Sophie, what an interesting woman she was. I am now going to have to search out UT’s books, even though I suspect some of them will not make comfortable reading!
I find I need to take them one at a time – and savour them. She’s unique – and certainly gives you a lot to think about.
Following this post, I sought out a copy of Dewey Death and have just finished reading it – Thank you, Sophie, for pointing out this author to me. It was certainly a jolly good read, if not always comfortable. I worked for many years in offices, can remember making stencils for the Gestetner as well as the petty rivalries that can grow in a confined environment. Today captures that perfectly. But she is also a master at characterisation, her creatures are not two dimensional cartoons, they are to be admired and pitied, one can laugh at or sympathise with them because they are so real. And I felt the shadow of two world wars hanging over everything. It is a masterpiece – an entertaining read but with very real darkness at its heart, but for all that the message I took (and that I think possibly sums up those bleak post-war years), is that life goes on. I am so glad I read it and I shall look out more of Torday’s work.
I think that’s a terrific assessment of the book, Sarah.
I know what you mean about the shadow of both wars – and the darkness, in spite of much that was amusing, both satirical and social comedy almost to the point of farce.
Relly glad that it hit the spot with you.
I bought Dewey Death after your last post. I thought it was remarkably modern – certainly in its denouement. It sort of quietly folds its wings and creeps away; while the girls sunned themselves on the roof in lunchtime, and Miss Cullen, neat and censorious, corseted and refrigerated, sat in her office. I love that description. However, I think it made me slightly uncomfortable. (I’m not a fan of Heyer’s detective fiction either, although I’ve got them all. Well, you have to, don’t you?)
I know what you mean about feeling slightly uncomfortable, Lesley. And I’m not really sure why.
With Heyer, I DO know – it’s the snobbish dismissal of people who don’t share her habits of thought or speech. And the brittle determination of the main characters to stay cool, witty and careless at all times. It makes me impatient and, hence, out of sympathy with whole damn thing.
But with Torday, somehow, it’s exactly the reverse. I agree, it feels very modern – and strong meat modern at that. Yet it is so clearly set in its time, with the war still a force acting on people. And the contemporary reporting – or, as it seems to us, period detail- is meticulous. Yet the characters are as fierce and psychologically comprehensible as if they had just walked into us in the street. The feelings seem to bypass habit and convention and leap straight from the author’s brain to the reader’s. With a wallop, too.
Maybe that’s the root of the discomfort. We’re not used to anything quite this raw these days. (That might also be true of Heyer’s Penhallow, by the way, which she thought was her masterpiece and I’ve never been able to re-read. It’s too painful.)
Torday is not TOO painful and she does bring you to a place of rest at the end. And I agree, that is very skilfully drawn. There is life after the end, even for the most seriously damaged. People are wounded but they will recover. Maybe that is also true for the readers.