Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Miss by L E Usher

published 1999







I am a bookseller. I am also a book buyer and a book reader, and I have also on occasion been a book thief. The bookshop is mine, although it is not my name that swings on the sign that hangs outside the front door. That name, ‘R Hare’, is the sole remnant of the 18th century bookseller who once traded here. My bookshop is small: a long room replete with secondhand books. Three and a half days each week I open the bookshop to the public and sit behind my desk, buying and selling. On the other days I go down to the basement and wrap books to be sent in the post, layer upon layer, cushioning them against their journey to new homes around the world….

At this time of year when darkness hovers at 4.30 the bookshop is at its most beautiful. Actually that is not quite true; the bookshop is always beautiful. On grey, gloomy days it seems murky and mysterious, while in sunshine the room shimmers with the light that bounces off book spines spinning linear rainbows. The thought alone makes me smile.



observations: Miss is an oddity. It could be described as a crime story, or a literary novel. There are 3 different narratives going on: Mary – the Miss of the title, she goes by both names, it is one of the ridiculous and annoying things about the book – lives above a small bookshop in London. She has bought up a library of books about murderous women in the past, and is fascinated by the subject. The cases are all (I think) real, well-known ones, and Usher gives us short, fascinating outlines of the facts in each case. This narrative is interrupted (in a different font) by the story of her parents’ lives and of Mary’s life until she arrives in London from Australia.

Meanwhile, threaded through this we read of Miss/Mary’s attempts to murder Edward, who seems to be her only friend. It is not clear to us why she is doing this: she is poisoning his tea, trying out different brewed plant concoctions.

I loved reading this book – the combination of books, a bookshop and murder cases could have been designed for me. But I’m not sure I was much the wiser at the end: I don’t really know what it was supposed to be about. And although I liked it, I can’t imagine ever reading it again, I think it would be unsatisfying.

Mary is a frustrated writer who cannot get published. This struck me, because I do wonder how Miss got published – that sounds rude but isn’t: I did like it, but I simply cannot imagine why a major publisher (even one with a reputation for literary fiction) picked it out of all the possible books and decided to give it a home.  Especially with that title. It seems completely unknown; no-one seems to have read it. Ms Usher has written a couple of other books – one about minor characters from this one – but it’s hard to find out any more about her. 
(It was published by Quartet, quite a big name of the time.)

In its favour, it is very short, and Miss/Mary the bookseller refuses to sell her books to people she doesn’t like the look of. I think we’d all enjoy having a little bookshop like hers and doing exactly that.

The booksellers of Paris featured in a Mark Pryor murder story, on the blog here, and Linda Grant explained how she murdered her library here. The heroine of Tom Rachman’s book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, ran a similar small bookshop in Wales.

The rather wondeful picture of a bookshop ‘in Clements Inn Passage’ in London is from the LSE Library.

17 comments:

  1. Moira - Hmmm......well, right away I was drawn in by the setting and context. And the historical crime plot thread got my attention too. It does sound an odd sort of book, though. I do like books where you see the point of what's going on in the story and where things end up making sense. I may read this - not sure, to be honest...

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    1. I would recommend it for anyone who has a burning interest in true-life cases from history, she is very good and interesting on them. And I did like the bookshop. But otherwise you can probably do without....

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  2. I am semi-interested but not totally convinced, leaning towards the "not-for-me" label I think.

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    1. It has it's dark-ish moments, verging on noir-ish, but it's not as if you're short of books to read....

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  3. Moira, I absolutely enjoy reading novels or books set in and around libraries and bookshops, so I'll be keeping this one in mind. Not very long ago, I read "The Book Case," a nice little murder mystery by Nelson DeMille. You'll like this short fiction.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation Prashant - I like Nelson de Mille very much, but his books are very long! This one sounds like just the job, I'll go and look it up.

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  4. I think that as well as not selling books to those I didn't like, I'd probably also not even let my customers pick a book up. I could, I guess, like Name of the Rose, use my knowledge of poisons in that way to get my point across.

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    1. I think you need to cultivate a good Bookseller Glare, which seems to come naturally to some people with bookshops....

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  5. It does sound interesting. However did you find it? (I apologize if you covered that...)

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    1. Good question Tracy. I remember reading a reference to it somewhere, looking it up on amazon, dithering a bit and then ordering a second hand copy. But I just looked that up, an it was in 2006, so it's been sitting in my house for 8 years (Col would be proud of me) and I just can't remember what made me buy it!

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    2. Tsk........8 years - Redmond you're a lightweight!

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    3. I am of course joking and am suitably impressed! A kindred spirit!
      Though I do feel you could have let it mature for a few years longer.

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    4. I know! I mean, why was it even in the bookcase, why wasn't it at the bottom of a tub up in the loft....?

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  6. Exactly.... you've just made my point for me

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  7. I have read the book and quite liked it. I also read 'The Sudden Spoon' by the same author. She is Australian, like me. Actually, reading these books made me quite curious about the writer, I'd say she based her main characters (Miss and Eliza) on herself, and I'd like to know more about the writer. But she is as 'mysterious' and aloof as Miss and Eliza, and won't even reveal her first name. You won't find anything about her on the internet; and that's the way she likes it.

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  8. I actually found 'Miss' quite touching: the chapters describing the scenes between mother and daughter were good to read - I was moved to tears by them.

    I think a psychologist would have a field day, analysing these books.

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    1. I'm thinking both these comments are from the same reader, simply because I have never come across anyone else who has read this, so TWO other readers would be unlikely. Thank you for your helpful and perceptive comments: yes I tried to find out some information on LE Usher, and failed. And I agree about the psychologist....

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