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.