First and foremost, one must acknowledge the supremacy of Mother Nature:
[Video production courtesy of Ron's Tech Magic]
One can always address one’s piles of stuff with a view to sorting, weeding, and stacking in a neat and orderly manner:
Well, maybe later – much later….
One may escape to Ireland’s Wild River. Poetic and gorgeously photographed – I highly recommend this Nature special. (The river in question is the Shannon.)
One may obsess over one’s son, daughter-in-law (now more like a daughter, lucky me!), grandson and granddaughter. All have lately been vacationing in beautiful Jackson Hole, Wyoming:
One can listen to beautiful music. Fortunately this storm held off long enough for us to see the Met in HD performance of Alexander Borodin‘s Prince Igor. What a joy to be able to see live, world class opera in a movie theater fifteen minutes from your front door! Recently I wrote about my fixation on the Polovtsian Dances. This is the opera where that music originates.
It’s a new production, and the choreography for the familiar, well-loved dances is highly unusual. I didn’t think I’d like it, but I did. Click here to view a short segment.
Here’s the trailer for the 2013-2014 season in HD:
A recent Bolshoi Opera production of Prince Igor can be viewed on YouTube:
What gorgeous melodies! This music brings tears to my eyes.
Oh – and of course one may catch up on one’s reading. For me, this means the following:
I’m working my way in leisurely fashion through Miklos Banffy’s riveting magnum opus, The Transylvania Trilogy. Here’s an excerpt:
The young people flowed out into the great drawing-room of the castle where the supper was laid. The gypsy musicians vanished to their by now third meal of the evening, and Janos Kadar, helped by a maid, started changing the candles in the Venetian chandeliers. As he did so, young Ferko and the footmen rushed to remove spots of candle-grease from the floor and polish the parquet.
In the drawing-room the long dinner-table had been re-erected to form a buffet and on it was displayed a capercaillie, haunches of venison, all from the Laczoks’ mountain estates in Czik; and home-cured hams, hare and guinea-fowl pâtés and other specialities of Var-Siklod, the recipes of which remained Countess Ida’s closely guarded secret (all that she would ever admit, and then only to a few intimate friends, was: ‘My dear, it’s quite impossible without sweet Tokay!’).
At one end of the table were grouped all the desserts – mountainous cakes with intricate sugar decorations, compotes of fruit, fresh fruit arranged elaborately on silver dishes, and tarts of all descriptions served with bowls of snowy whipped cream. As well as champagne there were other wines, both red and white. An innovation, following the recent fashion for imitating English ways, was a large copper samovar from which the Laczok girls served tea.
As the guests were finishing their supper and beginning to leave the table replete with delicious food and many glasses of wine, the gypsy musicians filed into the room and took up their places to play the traditional interval music. On these occasions Laji Pongracz would play, in turn, all the young girls’ special tunes. At the winter serenades he had made sure that he knew exactly who had chosen which melody as their own and now, each time he started a new tune, he would look directly at the girl whose song it was and smile at her with a discreet but still knowing air.
Banffy does a magnificent job of evoking an elegant world, now utterly lost. Originally published between 1934 and 1940, these novels were only recently translated into English from the Hungarian by Patrick Thursfield and Mikos Banffy’s daughter, Katalin Banffy-Jelen. Miklos Banffy’s work here is strongly reminiscent of the Tolstoy of Anna Karenina. He is in fact sometimes referred to as the Transylvanian Tolstoy. High praise indeed, and from what I’ve read so far, deserved.
I’m also about two thirds of the way through An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris’s novelized retelling of the notorious Dreyfus Affair. I’m in awe of the gifts and versatility of this author. He’s made something of a specialty of historical thrillers, and in my view, he’s better at it than just about anyone else. Pompeii, Imperium, Conspirata – all three excellent. Harris has also penned contemporary thrillers that are equally compelling. I’ve read two: The Fear Index and The Ghost. The latter was filmed as The Ghost Writer. Harris wrote the screenplay; the director was Roman Polanski. The film more than did justice to its source.
Finally, I’d like to close by giving credit where it’s due, to that irreplaceable aid to concentration, the cat. Yes, it’s Miss Audrey Jane Marple, whose fidelity to her role as Companion Animal is unsurpassed!
…and then I am happy.
This time, the “art attack” began with this painting:
…and an accompanying article that appeared earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal.
Learning that in 1618, Van Dyck served as chief assistant to Peter Paul Rubens, I looked up the latter in Wikipedia and found this:
It does seem as though through these portraits, the painters are depicting their very souls. It’s something about that sidelong glance…
I have recently finished Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade by Rachel Cohen. Berenson was a remarkable man. Born Bernhard Valvrojenski in a village in Lithuania, he emigrated with his family to the United States in 1875. Bernhard was ten years old at the time. The family settled in the Boston area.
After graduating from the Boston Latin School, Berenson matriculated at Boston University. After his freshman hear, he transferred to Harvard. His exceptional abilities were recognized early on, and several wealthy patrons and relatives facilitated his trips to Europe, where he discovered his true vocation.
The story of Bernard Berenson’s journey from a shtetl in Lithuania to the rarefied heights of the fine art world makes for fascinating reading. He became the one of the supreme art historians and attribution experts of turn of the century American and Europe. Along the way he seems to have befriended everybody who was anybody. At Harvard, he was taught by William James; he in turn was the teacher of J. Carter Brown. He was close friends with Edith Wharton; they motored through Europe at regular intervals.
Perhaps most famously, Berenson was instrumental in securing paintings for Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose fabulous collection was ultimately gifted to the city of Boston and to the world beyond.The first old master purchased by Mrs Gardner was The Concert by Jan Vermeer. Acquired in 1892, this was Boston’s first Vermeer and America’s second:
In 1894, Berenson secured for Mrs Gardner a painting by Sandro Botticelli entitled The Tragedy of Lucretia. It was the first work by that artist to become part of an American collection:
It shows, simultaneously, three scenes from the story of the virtuous Roman maiden, who is raped and then commits suicide by dagger. Each scene is framed by carefully divided architecture, which gives the viewer something of the feeling of watching a play on a stage.
In 1896, Gardner, Berenson, and Otto Gutekunst, another expert collector, scored their greatest coup by acquiring The Rape of Europa by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli or Vecellio). According to Rachel Cohen, this work is “…still considered by many to be the greatest Italian picture in America:”
The Vermeer, alas, can no longer be seen at the Gardner Museum. Along with twelve other works of art, it was taken as part of the famous heist of March 18, 1990. The FBI has a page devoted to the theft, and a Time Magazine article features excellent pictures of the stolen paintings. (As it happened, Ron and I were in the Boston area that summer on a long planned trip. We visited the Gardner for the first time, and I still remember how, right as we entered, there were tables with the names and photos of the missing works, accompanied by a poignant plea for any helpful information that members of the museum-going public might possess.)
Berenson’s expertise in attribution was highly sought after. In one particularly acrimonious case, he found himself at odds with influential dealer Joseph Duveen and other art historians over whether a painting had been done by Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco) or by Titian. The work in question is The Adoration of the Shepherds, also sometimes called The Allendale Nativity after the previous owner who resided in North Yorkshire. The painting is now generally accepted as the work of Giorgione – generally, but not universally. (See the Wikipedia entry.) A thoughtful and erudite essay on this controversy can be found on the blog Three Pipe Problem.
Here is the painting:
I kept enlarging this image until I suddenly found myself focused on the tear in the standing shepherd’s garment, just above the elbow. At that moment, my heart contracted and tears filled my eyes. Not a wealthy man, not a potentate from a great kingdom – just a man in search of pure goodness – and as entitled to partake of it as anyone else. What a moment!
It does seem to me a painting of almost otherworldly beauty.
Giorgione blazed like a comet across the firmament of the Italian Renaissance, his light all too soon extinguished. He died in 1510 when he was only just past the age of thirty, probably yet another victim of the ravages of the Plague. His influence reached for beyond his years.
From Rachel Cohen:
In Berenson’s life, the reconciliation of pricelessness and price was a continual struggle, but it allowed him to see nuances of the art he studied and the commerce he served that modern authentication procedures pass by. His own understanding of Giorgione had shades no X-ray could render. When Berenson had written his first book on the Venetian painters, sixty-three years earlier, glorying and delighting in Boston’s favorite painter and his own happy powers of perception, he had said of Giorgione that “his pictures are the perfect reflex of the Renaissance at its height” and that what was most characteristic in his work was “the lovely landscape…the effects of light and colour, and…the sweetness of human relations.”
Berenson on Raphael’s Lo Sposalizio (Marriage of the Virgin):
…you feel a poignant thrill of transfiguring sensation, as if, on a morning early, the air cool and dustless, you suddenly found yourself in presence of a fairer world, where lovely people were taking part in a gracious ceremony, while beyond them stretched harmonious distances line on line to the horizon’s edge.
A week ago Saturday, Jean, Marge, and I presented Book Bash, a program of book talks, for our colleagues in AAUW. In past years, a theme has been chosen for this program – or rather, a theme would emerge, based on recent reading by the presenters. The theme this year came from my own reading experience. I call it paired reading.
I’ve recently found myself reading in sequence books that are linked with some type of commonality. This commonality could occur in regard to characters, plot elements, setting, or any number of other factors. Most often this happens when I read a work of historical fiction. I would then find myself wanting to know more about the time and place that formed the context of the novel. The reverse frequently happens if I am reading a work of history or especially, of biography. For example, Tom Williams’s biography of Raymond Chandler sent me back to those “thrilling days of yesteryear” when Chandler was writing his gritty and cynical (yet mesmerizing) stories for the pulps.
When we present Book Bash, we always create a book list for the attendees. Here’s what this year’s list looked like:
(In which the phenomenon of ‘paired reading’ makes an intriguing appearance)
The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith
& Sons, by David Gilbert
The English Girl, by Daniel Silva
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, by Tilar J Mazzeo
What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched and Obama Tweeted: 200 years of popular culture in the White House, by Tevi
Troy (paired with some presidential reads)
(in which ‘paired reading’ appears yet again…)
The Conjuror’s Bird, by Martin Davies (paired with People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks)
Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger (paired with The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman)
The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton (paired with Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey by Emma Rowley)
The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin
Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O’Farrell
(in which the ‘paired reading’ phenomenon persists)
The Long Exile, by Melanie McGrath (paired with White Heat, by M.J. McGrath)
The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir (paired with Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel)
Murder As a Fine Art, by David Morrell (paired with ‘On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts’ by Thomas De Quincey
Out of the Black Land, by Kerry Greenwood (paired with Temples, Tombs, & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt by Barbara Mertz and Ancient Egyptian Literature, an anthology translated by John L. Foster)
The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis
A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams
We did not have time to book talk all of our selections, but we did the best we could in the time allotted to us. Jean enjoyed tantalizing our audience with the true identity of Robert Galbraith; in addition, she gave a colorful discourse on the informal cultural pursuits of various denizens of the White House. Her recommended “presidential reads” included Lucy by Ellen Feldman and Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark.
Marge enjoyed describing by Kate Morton’s novel The House at Riverton, not least because it provided a neat segue into one of the many recent nonfiction titles about Downton Abbey. Her book talk on The World Without You made many in the audience (including me) want to read it as soon as possible. And her reading from Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave produced some welcome laughter.
(I’m continually amused by the way in which Downton Abbey keeps intruding itself into discussions, even those on seemingly unrelated topics. In one book group I attended, someone pleaded for an Abbey embargo – to no avail, alas, but we got back to the book in good time.)
All of my own Book Bash selections save one are drawn from the running list I’ve been keeping of my own fairly recent paired reading experiences and possible paired reading projects for the future, to wit:
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir (whose history tours of Britain I would love to take)
Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Highet and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (full disclosure: I have not yet gotten through the latter)
Out of the Black Land by Kerry Greenwood and Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs by Barbara Mertz (I’ve not read this in its entirety either.)
White Heat by M.J. McGrath and The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath (same person, with a slightly altered name)
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selena Hastings and Mrs. Craddock, The Painted Veil, and/or the Ashenden stories by Somerset Maugham
Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland and The Last Pre-Raphaelite by Fiona MacCarthy
Portobello by Ruth Rendell and “Portobello Road,” one of my all time favorite ghost stories, by Muriel Spark
How To Live by Sarah Bakewell and Montaigne’s Essays (not yet read)
Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe and Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, and/or The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (Haven’t yet read any of these three fiction titles, with the exception of one or two stories by Mansfield.)
Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun and Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the latter being amazingly readable for a novel that came out in 1862 – I couldn’t put it down!
Murder As a Fine Art by David Morrell and “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts,” satirical essays by Thomas De Quincey
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff,, Citizens of London by Lynne Olson and/or The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel (Haven’t yet read any of the three nonfiction titles.)
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra
A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams and any of Chandler’s novels and/or short stories
I’m grateful to Kerry Greenwood for reawakening my interest in ancient Egypt – an interest which has lain largely dormant for several decades. I chose to pair her wonderful historical novel with one of Barbara Mertz‘s two nonfiction titles on Egypt because this prolific author and Egyptologist is known to many mystery readers for her Amelia Peabody series. (She also wrote romantic suspense under the name of Barbara Michaels.) For some years, Mertz was a local celebrity, living not far from here in Frederick, Maryland. Not long after I went to work at the Howard County Library in 1982, she graciously appeared at one of our programs, and was introduced by my close friend and fellow librarian Marge – that same Marge who presented with Jean and me at Book Bash. (Barbara Mertz passed away in August of last year; she was 85.)
It goes without saying that one will never lack for books on the subject of ancient Egypt, but I do want to mention a new one that I just got from the library: A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid, by John Romer. It comes highly recommended and looks to be fascinating as well as beautifully written. For her part, Barbara Mertz can be downright poetic. Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs opens with a scene invented to make a particular point right at the book’s outset:
One bright summer afternoon in the year 5263 B.C, a man stood on the cliffs high above the Nile Valley. He was slightly built and only a few inches over five feet in height; his brown body was naked except for a kilt of tanned hide. But he held himself proudly, for he was a tall man among his people, and a leader of men.
I greatly loved Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Michel de Montaigne and was looking forward to diving into the famous Essays. Alas, I found them all but unreadable. Possibly the fault was in the translation, but I also encountered a fair amount of untranslated Latin, a language I have not seriously student since my sophomore year in high school. (Suggestions, anyone?)
I paired James Lasdun’s true story of stalking with Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love because of the latter’s extremely insightful depiction of what it’s like to be the object of someone else’s obsession. (It is very frightening in both of these narratives, I assure you.)
Uncommon Arrangements and The Love-Charm of Bombs are both books that furnish enough material for a semester length course (or a series of book discussions). Both deal with multiple authors. I’ve had Lara Feigel’s book out of the library several times but yet have yet to read it. It’s very long, but it features in its cast of characters one of my favorite authors, Graham Greene.
I’ve been enjoying a new historical mystery series by Robin Blake. It’s set in Preston, Lancashire, in the 1740′s and features Titus Cragg, a coroner, and Luke Fidelis, a doctor; the first entry in the series is A Dark Anatomy. I’m on the lookout for a good nonfiction read about that period in English history. (Suggestions welcome.) And I”m currently immersed in Robert Harris’s exciting new thriller A Gentleman and a Spy. In this novel, Harris tells the story of the notorious Dreyfus Affair. Turn of the century Paris, filled with ugliness, beauty, and above all, intrigue, springs vividly to life. I’ll want to read more on this subject, one I feel I’ve known about my whole life but never really known – if you know what I mean.
Finally, the “save one” I alluded to above is The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis. Words fail me when I seek to heap praise on this slender and magnificent work of fiction. There actually is a nonfiction counterpart to this novel: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. Davis, currently a professor of history at the University of Toronto in Canada, served as consulted for the 1983 film The Return of Martin Guerre. Her book came out at about the same time the movie was released; I recall reading it then and enjoying it very much.
The film is worth seeking out; its meticulous recreation of another time and place shows that like the English, the French possess an almost uncanny ability to channel their own past.
For me, paired reading – or in some cases tripled or even quadrupled reading – has greatly enhanced the pleasure that books continue to give me. I now realize that I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with my (seemingly) aimless jumping around from one book to the next. Now that I want to take my reading in more specific (and sometimes esoteric) directions, I’m finding it more challenging to fit in the reading assigned by no fewer than three book clubs (!). While I’m grateful for the discoveries I’ve made as a result of participating in these groups, I also reserve the right to say “no thanks,” if I feel the need to. You may well ask: Why not just drop out of one, or two, or all three of the book groups? It’s kind of a long story, but the fact is I’d rather stick with all them to the extent possible. (I may be reading myself into a stupor, but I’m happy doing it.)
At any rate, I want to conclude by heartily recommending the intellectual, sensual, and emotional pleasures afforded by paired reading.
Why does this phenomenon persist?
It could be due to my watching this over and over again:
Finally, the Polovtsian Dance sequence was the first music heard in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics:
(Will video eventually be available of this rather amazing spectacle? I certainly hope so!)
The Polovtsian Dance sequence is probably the most famous part of Alexander Borodin‘s Prince Igor. This masterpiece is currently being staged at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time since 1917. It’s being offered as part of the Metropolitan Opera in HD series and can be seen in select local theaters on Saturday March 1. (Will I be there? You bet I will!)
I first heard the music of Alexander Borodin when I saw the 1955 film Kismet. I was eleven at the time, and I was simply blown away by this movie. I thought I’d never seen or heard anything so romantic and so utterly beautiful. What does an MGM musical have to do with a Russian composer? An article on the Classic FM site explains.
In the second video above, the one depicting the grand re-opening of the Bolshoi Theater in 2011, you get a lot more than just the Polovtsian Dances. In particular, be sure to watch the excerpt from the ballet Spartacus (at 27:38). (The segment that precedes it, the ballroom scene from Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, is also worth your while – a truly opulent production.) In this same video, I’d like to note also the presence in the audience of Sergei Filin (first row second from the right, next to the empty chair, at 1:00). A former principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, Filin had become the company’s artistic director in Moscow when, in January of 2013, he was the victim of an acid attack. He has had numerous surgeries since then, but my understanding is that he has lost a great deal of his eyesight – hopefully, not all of it. (The malefactors were caught and tried and are currently serving time.)
In his prime, Sergei Filin was a wonderful dancer. A number of tributes to his artistry have been posted on YouTube. I’m especially fond of this one:
My fascination with Russian culture derives in part from my own background. All four of my grandparents immigrated to this country from the Ukraine in the early years of the twentieth century. At the time that they made this epic journey, Ukraine was still part of the Russian Empire.
When reading David Brown’s biography of Tchaikovsky, I learned that Ukraine was often referred to as “Little Russia.” Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony is nicknamed Little Russian. The final movement - an absolute joy! – makes use of “The Crane,” a Ukrainian folk song. Here is the USSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov, who was in his time a tireless champion of Russian music:
(As best as I can determine, the USSR Symphony Orchestra is now known as The Russian State Symphony Orchestra. This puts me in mind of an observation made by Neal Ascherson in his book Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland. Russia, he says, is a place “…where the past is said to be unpredictable.”)
So now, of course, I can’t get the finale of the Little Russian Symphony out of my head. No matter -I’ll gladly let it dwell there, right alongside the Polovtsian Dances.
I would like to have subtitled this book: “Turmoil, Torment, and Triumph in the Life of Raymond Chandler.” A bit florid perhaps, but accurate, as I think you’d agree if you read it.
Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888; his mother, Florence Dart Thornton, had emigrated to this country from Ireland two years earlier. Florence and her sister had left their native land largely to escape a domineering mother, but with her choice of husband, Florence went from the frying pan into the fire. Maurice Chandler, a railway engineer, was a brute – wife beater and alcoholic. The marriage crumbled; Florence took her son Raymond and fled back to Ireland. The two then settled in London. Ray matriculated in Dulwich College, a respected public school for boys, where he received a classical British education. (In addition to Raymond Chandler, Dulwich numbers P.D. Wodehouse, C.S. Forester, and Graham Swift among its literary alumni.)
Ray excelled at his studies and was highly motivated. He especially enjoyed reading the classics. He would probably have continued to do well at the college level, but there was no money to finance his higher education. After a fruitless search for work that would be both satisfying and remunerative, he decided to try his luck back in his native land. His mother came with him.
The voyage to America proved fateful. On board the ship, Ray made the acquaintance of Warren and Caroline (Alma to her friends) Lloyd.
The Lloyds were intelligent, cultured, glamorous, and very, very rich. Ray quickly became caught up in the young family’s life. The Lloyds, for their part, welcomed Ray— their daughter, Estelle, developed a mild crush on him— and together they talked about France and Germany, Europe and America. Warren and Alma told Ray about the city they were heading back to, their home, and a place that would forever become associated with Raymond Chandler: Los Angeles, California.
Tom Williams adds: “They were obviously proud of Los Angeles and, at one point, suggested that Ray might want to move there.” At that point in his life, Ray did not know what was in store for him or where he would end up living. But the Lloyds’ suggestion stayed with him, and after a restless sojourn through several other parts of the country, he ended up after all in the City of Angels. The Lloyds welcomed Ray and his mother with open arms, even going so far as offering to share their home with the newcomers. Ray and Florence took them up on this extremely gracious invitation.
(You’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve been referring to Raymond Chandler as ‘Ray.’ In so doing, I am following the lead of his biographer. I found this usage disconcerting at first, but I got used to it while reading this utterly absorbing book.)
The Lloyd home served as a sort of moveable salon for artists and writers. It was there that Ray met and befriended Gordon Pascal, with whom he would enlist when World War One broke out. Gordon’s father Julian was a pianist; he occasionally accompanied Alma Lloyd, who had a lovely singing voice. Julian’s wife, and Gordon’s stepmother, was also a pianist. Her given name was Pearl Eugenia, but she preferred to be called Cissy.
When Gordon and Ray returned from the service, Ray had to acknowledge that he had fallen in love with Cissy Pascal. Florence Chandler was outraged by this development; she considered Cissy to be her own friend and an entirely inappropriate love interest for her son. Ray’s mother died in 1923, and he proceeded to marry Cissy, who had divorced Julian, the following year. At the time of the ceremony, Cissy told the pastor that she was forty-three. She was actually ten years older. Ray was thirty-five.
Ever since his time in England, Ray had entertained thoughts of becoming a writer. At the time of his marriage, his output had largely consisted of poetry. In the meantime, he was also very good with numbers and held various positions having to do with bookkeeping and accountancy. He achieved a position of considerable responsibility (and excellent pay) with an oil company syndicate, but his problems with alcohol, bad behavior around female employees, and other difficulties resulted in his being fired. This happened in 1932. Money, or lack of it – always a problem – precipitated a crisis in his and Cissy’s household.
As with most aspiring writers, Ray was also a voracious reader. He was well acquainted with the ‘pulps,’ magazines printed on cheap paper and filled with fast moving action stories. He knew and admired the work of Dashiell Hammett and others who supplied those stories to magazines like Dime Detective and Black Mask. He thought that if he could produce a few of these often lurid tales and get them accepted for publication, he could make some money from the enterprise. In addition, he could hone his writing skills, with a view to eventually producing a serious work of literature.
“Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” appeared in Black Mask in 1933. The rest, in a manner of speaking, is history.
One of the things I really appreciate about Tom Williams’s highly readable biography is that he pays close attention to the evolution of Raymond Chandler as a writer. Writing did not come easily to Chandler; he agonized over every sentence he composed. Yet what comes through to the reader is not agony but artfulness – or just plain art.
There’s much more to this story than I have recounted above. The section on Chandler’s work as a Hollywood screenwriter was particularly fascinating. He hit one right out of the park with his first effort: the collaboration with Billy Wilder on the 1944 film version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Interestingly, Ray was highly critical of Cain as a writer, but that did not interfere with his turning the novel into a cinematic masterpiece. Of course it helped greatly that Wilder co-wrote the screenplay and that the leads were brilliantly played by Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff) and Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson). Here’s one of the films most famous scenes. It contains the kind of rapier sharp dialogue that Ray was becoming famous for:
In 2009, the fiftieth anniversary of Chandler’s death, a remarkable discovery was made almost simultaneously by an American crime writer and a French cineaste: near the beginning of Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler makes a cameo appearance. Sitting outside the office of Walter Neff’s boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing the good guy for once), thumbing through a magazine, he looks for all the world like someone’s filing clerk. Seeing it now, it’s easy to understand how the moment passed unnoticed for so long:
Raymond Chandler was a flawed person. The casual flashes of racial denigration that appear from time to time in both his fiction and his letters do him no credit. Although he loved Cissy, he had frequent affairs. In addition to all this, his struggle with alcoholism was lifelong. With Cissy’s death in 1954, he lost all control. Despite the efforts of friends who cared deeply for him, he entered a downward spiral of alcoholism and depression, culminating in his death five years later at the age of seventy.
Nevertheless, in the teeth of great obstacles, some – but not all – of his own making, Raymond Chandler the writer emerged triumphant.
This passage occurs near the conclusion of The Big Sleep:
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.
From Michael E. Grost, of A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection:
The best part of The Big Sleep is the ending. This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1610). Chandler’s skill with words reached new heights here, a skill that carried over into his next novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940).
And Tom Williams offers this succinct and graceful summation of Raymond Chandler’s writing life:
With each apparently futile attempt to write something other than a crime novel he managed to expand the boundaries of what it was possible to achieve within the genre and, in so doing, turned it into art.
There’s much more to be said about Chandler’s life and career. My copy of A Mysterious Something is bristling with post-it flags. I I hope I have the chance to return to this subject. Meanwhile, here are some sources you may wish to look at:
Tom Williams interviewed on The Rap Sheet
The Raymond Chandler entry on Thrilling Detective
Raymond Chandler on Detnovel.com
Chandler was honored several times over last year in a poll conducted by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain.
Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of Chandler’s works.
…for a besotted grandmother. I simply cannot resist -
Behold, my new desktop wallpaper!
It’s been a while since I read Archer Mayor’s latest, so this will be brief. Mayor upholds his own high standards and then some in this extremely enjoyable novel, the twenty-fourth (!!) entry in the Joe Gunther series. Agent Gunther is once again on the case, ably assisted by Willy Kunkel, Sammy Martens, and Lester Spinney, all working for the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Irene, a woman named Carolyn Barber has disappeared from a state residential facility. It is urgent that she be found quickly. But Gunther and his colleagues are not the only ones with deep concern as to Barber’s whereabouts.
A succinct summary such as that I just wrote fails to convey the special pleasures of this novel. As always, Joe Gunther and his team are front and center, though at the same time they are among the most hard working, self-effacing protagonists in contemporary crime fiction. Willy Kunkel, in particular, is a genuine oddity – a person endowed with almost none of the of the social graces that everyone else takes for granted. Observers marvel that Sammy Martens can actually live with him. In fact, they now have a daughter, Emma, who, to the further amazement of all and sundry, is bringing out a softer side of Willy that no one knew even existed. (The person most surprised by this development is probably Willy himself.)
There’s a dark and dirty secret at the heart of Carolyn Barber’s disappearance. The VBI team keeps digging and getting closer and closer to the truth of the matter. Meanwhile, the Governor of Vermont has problems of her own. She’s Gail Zigman, Joe Gunther’s former lover, and she’s faced with the mother of all public relations disasters, engineered by a ruthless power-seeking operative. She’s desperate for some inside information that Joe has access to. But when she asks him for it, he demurs on ethical grounds. As a result, their friendship suffers a blow which might be irreparable.
Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther series is one of the few that I eagerly anticipate and always read. I don’t bother about reviews; I knew each new novel will be worthy of my attention. The scrupulous attention to detail, the believable and engaging characters, the cunning plots, the excellent writing – I know all will be present to add to m enjoyment.
I cannot sing the praises of this series highly enough, and Three Can Keep a Secret is an especially fine outing for Joe Gunther and company.
“What if this present were the world’s last night?” – A discussion of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (with a Downton Abbey digression)
“The cord’s wrapped around her neck. Oh, Mary, Mother of God. She’s been strangled, the poor wee thing.” This is the anguished cry of Bridget, the Irish maid. But Sylvie Todd, the mother, struggles against this outcome. Struggles so vehemently that she manages to outwit Death. And so the infant, christened Ursula, lives. At least, for the time being.
In fact, Ursula is fated to make her way through several different lives. To an extent, these varied trajectories exemplify England’s agonized, war torn progress through the first half of the twentieth century. Yet in another sense, Ursula’s multiple life scenarios are uniquely hers. They are the result of the actions of others as they impinge on her, the circumstances in which she finds herself at a given moment, and the operations of pure chance. Life After Life is the story of individual fate interwoven with the fates of family members, of the country, of a world seemingly gone mad at one moment, entirely sane the next. Throughout all of this seemingly arbitrary chaos – chaos punctuated by calm verging on inertia – Ursula is forced, again and again, to make fateful choices, some of them hurriedly and based on scant evidence: “For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse…”
Rita began this discussion (by AAUW Readers) with a question: Who liked the book? Who did not? A show of hands revealed that the group was evenly divided. Oh, good, thought I. This should be lively! And so it proved to be.
Connie spoke on behalf of the dissenters. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I believe she mentioned that she dreaded having to pick up the book in order to read further. I volunteered to speak on behalf of those who had positive feelings about the novel. First of all, I felt it necessary to state that I’d listened to it, as opposed to reading it. The recorded book, narrated by Fenella Woolgar, is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter. You can hear some of it here:
I’d decided to begin by listening rather than reading Life After Life because of its length – just under six hundred pages in the hardback edition – and the fact that from what I’d read about it, I didn’t expect to like it. I’m a fan of the linear narrative. I like to say that if it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, et. al., it’s good enough for me.
In fact, I did find the opening sections confusing and rather off putting. The start and stop nature of the storytelling was initially exasperating. But the novel gradually took hold for me. I couldn’t wait to get back into the car – my sole venue for listening to audiobooks – and return to the many lives of Ursula Beresford Todd. (Someone in the discussion group commented that Life After Life was like five or six books in one book.)
As sometimes occurs in discussions where the participants begin by differing sharply, we drew together, at least to a degree, as our talk went forward. A section of the novel in which Ursula is living in Germany in the 1930s and becomes friendly with the Nazi elite, including Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, was judged to be the least convincing of the alternate histories – a bridge too far, as it were. (Although I shall never forget Ursula rushing to the British Embassy, desperate to get out of the country, only to find the facility shut up and deserted. I felt a strong empathetic stab of panic at her plight.)
A fairly lengthy section of the novel takes place in London at the time of the Second World War. Through Ursula’s experience in the Home Guard during the Blitz, the full awfulness of living under perpetual bombardment becomes all too real. The suffering, the terrible losses, were limned in dispassionate and compelling prose. It seemed to go on forever yet was totally absorbing. Pretty much everyone thought that this was the mot powerful part of the novel. (I described these scenes to a friend and fellow book lover at a Christmas luncheon. She went home and sent me, as a gift, this Kindle e-book: . I look forward to reading it. Thanks, Kay!)
The most tantalizing question concerned the structure of Life After Life. Was Ursula conscious of the different paths her life might take? Was she, in fact, deliberately creating and living these alternating scenarios? Or was she solely the instrument of the author’s invention, fated by the imagination of one Kate Atkinson to follow these multiple, mutually exclusive paths through life?
Atkinson’s novel is enriched by many quotations from the great poets. The line quoted in the title of this post is from one of the Holy Sonnets by John Donne. (For the complete poem, click here.) The opening lines of Keats’s “Eve of St. Agnes” also appear in the novel. And, of course, Shakespeare: “Golden lads and girls all must, / as chimney-sweepers, come to dust….” (from Cymbeline). And as I’ve mentioned, Kate Atkinson’s own prose is wonderful:
A tiny hare dangled from the hood of the carriage, twirling around, the sun glinting off its silver skin. The hare sat upright in a little basket and had once adorned the top of the infant Sylvie’s rattle, the rattle itself, like Sylvie’s childhood, long since gone.
Bare branches, buds, leaves— the world as she knew it came and went before Ursula’s eyes. She observed the turn of seasons for the first time. She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring, the fattening of the buds, the indolent heat of summer, the mold and mushroom of autumn. From within the limited frame of the pram hood she saw it all. To say nothing of the somewhat random embellishments the seasons brought with them— sun, clouds, birds, a stray cricket ball arcing silently overhead, a rainbow once or twice, rain more often than she would have liked. (There was sometimes a tardiness to rescuing her from the elements.)
Once there had even been the stars and a rising moon— astonishing and terrifying in equal measure— when she had been forgotten one autumn evening. Bridget was castigated. The pram was outside, whatever the weather, for Sylvie had inherited a fixation with fresh air from her own mother, Lottie, who when younger had spent some time in a Swiss sanatorium, spending her days wrapped in a rug, sitting on an outdoor terrace, gazing passively at snowy Alpine peaks.
One of the downsides of listening to a book as opposed to reading the printed page (or the downloaded text) is that you cannot mark favorite or important passages. So I have in fact downloaded Life After Life, and may also purchase the soft cover edition. I feel a strong need to revisit this extraordinary novel, and hopefully to write about it again.
An especially delightful moment occurred when someone – was it you, Phyllis? – plaintively asked if we could discuss Downton Abbey for just a short while. The two-hour premiere of Season Four of this British blockbuster had just aired, and people had questions to ask and opinions to express. Well, of course we did! This was a fun diversion; among other things, we cleared up the issue of who that insufferable nanny was calling a “half breed.”
In closing, I’d like to express my admiration for the intellectual rigor that characterized this discussion. Yes I do mean that – Downton Abbey and all! It took me back to the heady days of my favorite college classes. Well done, Readers!
Ever since I’ve been a regular member, the Usual Suspects Mystery Discussion Group has held an end of year summit of sorts in which we evaluate various aspects of the past year’s discussions.We vote on our favorite discussion selections and bring one title to recommend to our fellow book lovers – two, if there’s time. This year, that meeting was held on Tuesday December 10.
The results of the voting were as follows: White Heat by M.J. McGrath placed first, with Tana French’s Broken Harbor and Boundary Waters by William Kent Krueger placing second and third respectively. Anne M. was unable to attend, but via email, she named her favorite discussion title as Midnight in Peking. I agree with her assessment; this is a riveting true crime narrative. (I confess to being somewhat surprised that Peter Lovesey’s stellar Peter Diamond novel Cop To Corpse did not place, but this group is all about respecting differences in outlook, opinion, and values, and so one must accept these outcomes philosophically – sigh….)
The December meeting is also the deadline for choosing the title you plan to present to the group in the coming months, and it already looks as though 2014 will be an excellent year. Marge has chosen Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, a book I absolutely love; next month, Ann R. will be leading us in discussing China Trade by S.J Rozan; Gone Baby Gone by the reliably good Dennis Lehane is in the mix, as is Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood and The Haunted Monastery, one of Robert Van Gulik’s beguiling Judge Dee stories. Carol has Chosen The Blackhouse by Peter May, an impressive novel that I’ve reviewed in this space. Mike has made a wonderful choice: Bones and Silence, Reginald Hill’s Gold Dagger winner. We’ll be discussing Carved in Bone by Jefferson Bass, an author whose acquaintance I look forward to making. I was pleased to see another true crime on the list: The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, by Charles Graeber. As for me, after much gnashing of teeth and vacillating among three or four contenders, I selected A Murder of Quality by John LeCarre.
Each year, Pauline prepares a comprehensive handout for this session. It contains information about the ten books we’ve read this year: whether each title was part of a series, year of publication, awards won, and who led thee discussion. Pauline also provides a recap of the previous year’s reading, for the purpose of comparison.
Here’s how 2013 looks:
January 8: Boundary Waters, by William Kent Krueger, 1999. A series set in present day Minnesota and featuring former sheriff Cork O’Connor and estranged wife, lawyer Jo as the investigators Anthony and Barry Awards for Best 1st novel Iron Lake, 1999; Anthony Awards for Blood Hollow, 2005, and Mercy Falls, 2006. This discussion was led by Marge.
February 12: The Blooding, by Joseph Wambaugh, 1991. A work of nonfiction set in 1980s Midlands, England. Story of the 1st use of DNA to solve a criminal case. The awards were numerous:
Edgar, Special Award for Nonfiction, The Onion Field, 1974
Edgar Award for Best Screenplay, The Black Marble, 1981
Rodolfo Walsh Prize, Investigative Journalism, Lines & Shadows, International Association of Crime Writers, 1989
Edgar, Best Fact Crime, Fire Lover, 2002
Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award, 2004
Strand Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award, 2012
The discussion was led by Chris. (As I knew I’d be out of town for this one, I skipped reading the book. It’s worth mentioning, though, that Suspects often do read titles scheduled for discussions thy know they won’t be able to attend. To my mind, this is testimony to the level of commitment of members of the Suspects.)
March 12: White Heat, by M. J. (Melanie) McGrath, 2011. This is a series set on present day Ellesmere Island, Arctic Canada. Protagonists are Edie Kiglatuk, a tourist guide, and Derek Palliser, police sergeant. Awards: John Llewelyn-Rhys Award for Best New British and Commonwealth Writer under 35, 1995. Finalist for 2011 Gold Dagger Award. Discussion led by Carol.
April 9: Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L. Sayers, 1933. This series, set in London and its suburbs in the 1930s, features Lord Peter Wimsey, an amateur sleuth. In this novel he is asked to investigate a suspicious death. Written before mystery awards were instituted. Other awards: Music (2005), Actors (2006), Young Ringers (2009) named in her honor. Discussion led by Mike.
On May 18, the group celebrated its fourteenth anniversary with lunch at my favorite local restaurant, Tersiguel’s.
June 11: Breakheart Hill, by Thomas H. Cook, 1995. Stand-alone, first person narrator but no designated investigator, takes place in Alabama 1962, 1992. Cook has been nominated for 7 Edgars – he won for The Chatham School Affair. Martin Beck Award, Herodotus Prize, Barry for Red Leaves. Discussion led by Frances.
Cook is a highly respected author; nevertheless, there’s something about his writing that does not work for me. I do want to mention, though, that in the most recent issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery magazine (Fall 2013), critics and reviewers paid him extremely gracious tribute.
July 9: Cop to Corpse, Peter Lovesey, 2012. This entry in the Peter Diamond series of police procedurals takes place primarily in the stories city of Bath, with excursions to nearby localities and also to Vienna, Austria. Gold and Silver Daggers of CWA, Barry and Macavity Awards. Cartier Dagger Award for Lifetime Achievement , 2000. Many more awards—too numerous to list. Led – and loved! – by Yours Truly.
August 13: Pardonable Lies, by Jacqueline Winspear. This novel, third in the series, takes place in London and surrounding area in UK; and in France, 1930. Maisie Dobbs, psychologist/investigator, is the protagonist.. Agatha Awards for 1st Novel, Maisie Dobbs and 2nd novel Birds of a Feather; Agatha nomination for Pardonable Lies. Led by Reed.
September 10: Midnight in Peking, by Paul French, 2011. This true crime narrative takes place in Peking, China, 1937. Police investigators and father of victim, (E.T.C. Werner) and his private investigators. Awards: CWA Non-fiction Dagger, and Edgar Best Fact Crime Award, 2013. Led by Pauline. A terrific story, an exotic locale – this book had everything, although I do wish that People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, a true crime narrative set in present day Japan, had received equal recognition.
October 8: Broken Harbor, by Tana French, 2012. Series set in a present day Dublin suburb. Police detective Kennedy and partner. Part of Dublin Murder Squad series. L.A. Times Book Prize 2012. 2008 Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Barry Awards for best 1st novel, Into the Woods. Led by Susan.
November 12: Christmas Stalkings: Tales of Yuletide Murder, Charlotte MacLeod, editor, 1991. Thirteen short stories by well-known writers. MacLeod was co-founder of American Crime Writers League. Awards: Boucheron Lifetime Achievement Award; 1 Nero; 5 American Mystery Awards; 1986 Anthony Award; Malice Domestic Lifetime Achievement Award. Nominations: 2 for Edgar Award; 1992 for Best Short Story Collection.
These tales were light but for the most part pleasing and fun to read. I was reminded of two authors whose books I had enjoyed in the past but hadn’t thought about for some time. The first is Eric Wright, author of the Charlie Salter procedurals set in Toronto. The second was John Malcolm, whose series featuring Tim Simpson is set in London and revolves around the two worlds of art and finance. I learned a great deal about twentieth century British art from Malcolm’s novels. Howard County Library no longer owns them, but Felony & Mayhem Press has reissued the first, A Back Room in Somerstown. I hope they do the same for the other books in this extremely appealing series. (John Malcolm is the pen name of John Malcolm Andrews.)
This collection, originally published in 1992, provided some unexpectedly poignant moments by reminding us of some of the authors of note whom we’ve lost fairly recently: Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels/Barbara Mertz (1927-2013), Robert Barnard (1936-2013), Reginald Hill (1936-1012), Patricia Moyes (1923-2000),and Charlotte MacLeod (1922-2005) all wrote stories for inclusion in this anthology. This discussion was led by Louise.
(December 10 was the end of year summary which is the subject matter of this post: bring-a-book session, favorite book vote, and annual review.)
We then moved on to a comparison of this year and last year with regard to various criteria. This also was prepared by Pauline and interspersed with occasional questions to stimulate discussion:
CATEGORIES FOR 2012 BOOKS AND COMPARISON WITH 2013 BOOKS:
Male authors: Charles Dickens, Harlan Coben, Per Wahloo (3)
Female authors: Laura Lippman, Elizabeth Peters, Dana Stabenow, Deborah Blum, Agatha Christie, Maj Sjowall, EllyGriffiths, Rebecca Pawel (8)
Authors’ Nationalities: 6 American, 3 English, 2 Swedish
Series vs. Stand-alones: 5 series, 5 stand-alones
Investigators: No investigator, TV investigative reporter, 2 archaeologists, amateur investigators, police procedurals, medical examiners. What other categories do the investigators in the 2012 books fall into?
Period: Contemporary, historic. How would you divide the 10 books we read in 2012 into these periods?
1. USA: Md, and W.Va; Alaska; NJ; NYC;
2. Europe: UK—Kent, Norfolk; Sweden—Stockholm; Spain— Madrid;
3. Africa: Egypt
Categories: Psychological suspense, police procedurals, historic, nonfiction, an unfinished serialized novel, any others?
Male authors: Wiliam Kent Krueger, Joseph Wambaugh, Peter French, Peter Lovesey, Thomas Cook (5)
Female authors: MJ (Melanie) McGrath, Dorothy L Sayers, Jacqueline Winspear, Tana French, Charlotte MacLeod (5)
Authors’ Nationalities: American, British, Irish
Series vs. Stand-alones: 6 series, 3 stand-alones + anthology (short stories)
Investigators: ex-sheriff/lawyer, police officers, tourist guide/investigator, amateur sleuth, psychologist/investigator, author/private investigator, no investigator
Period: Contemporary, period: 1930s, 1962-1992, 1980s
1. North America: USA—Minnesota, Alabama; Canada: Arctic North (wilderness)
2. Europe: UK—Midlands, Bath, London; Eire—Dublin;
3. Asia: China—Peking;
Categories: Police procedurals, nonfiction, fiction, other categories?
It was generally agreed upon that there was more geographical diversity in 2012 than 2013. Carol suggested that we consider making it a goal to increase the diversity in our reading choices in the future. I immediately thought of Giancarlo Carofiglio, whose Temporary Perfections I came very close to choosing for my 2014 discussion title. As I’ve previously indicated, I chose A Murder of Quality by John LeCarre instead, but Carofiglio is definitely in the running for 2015.
I think we all agreed in general with Carol’s idea. Marge voiced the caveat that while seeking out diversity is all well and good, we should also continue to insist on quality. I shared that sentiment, as, I think, did everyone else.
Questions on 2013 Books
It’s now one week since this meeting, and I confess I haven’t got detailed recall of this part of the discussion, only that it was both lively and substantive:
1. What was the best book for discussion? Why do you think so?
2. Which book had the most compelling plot? Which was the best page turner? Which book had the most plausible/implausible plot?
3. Which was the most surprising book—your expectations, either good or bad, were not realized? For instance, on re-reading a book for a discussion, did you change your mind about it—either positively or negatively? Which was the most disappointing book (e.g. well-reviewed but didn’t live up to its press, or disappointing for other reasons)?
4. Which books did you learn from? Why do you feel this way? What did you learn? Would you have preferred not to have learned it?
5. Which authors would you like to read again? Which authors don’t you want to read again?
6. Which character(s) was/were the most memorable? Which were the most likable/unlikable characters?
7. Which was the best written book? Worst written book? Were any books too gory?
8. Which book had the most memorable setting? Was there enough geographical diversity in the books we read this year with only American, British, Irish and French locations? Which locations should we include in 2014? How does 2013 compare with 2012 in terms of the variety of locations?
9. Were there any books that could only have been written by a male writer? Female writer? Why do you think so? There was an equal distribution of male and female writers—5 of either gender. Does that matter?
10. Were there any books you couldn’t finish? If so, why was that the case?
11. Which writer do you wish we had read in 2013? Which writers would you like to read in 2014?
12. Your turn—what other questions should be listed here? Which questions should not have been listed here? (I’m serious—in order to improve the questions next year).
I seem to recall that the third question elicited several spirited responses. Marge confessed that she’ had a great deal of trouble with Murder Must Advertise and found herself pretty much immune to the charm of Lord Peter Wimsey. In addition to reading the book, she also viewed the BBC version featuring Ian Carmichael. In other words, she strove mightily to “get it,” but had to admit that honestly she did not. (This well nigh Herculean effort by Marge exemplifies the degree of commitment often demonstrated by the Suspects.)
On the other hand, Marge did like Tana French’s Broken Harbor, which I most decidedly did not. French has won numerous accolades for her series of novels set in Ireland, and I was eager to find out what all the fuss was about. Alas, I emerged from the arduous experience of reading Broken Harbor dismayed and unconvinced. The novel has its good points, but in my view it was way too long. This was mainly due to the witness and suspect interviews, which were recounted in excruciating detail and seemed interminable.
As for the novel’s protagonist, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, scourge of the Dublin Murder Squad, I found his arrogance and smugness rather hard to put up with. Mick has a Sister, Dina, who has a good heart and genuinely cares about Mick. But Dina has some serious psychiatric problems, and her screaming matches with her brother got old fast – at least, they did for this reader. I will say this: Broken Harbor‘s setting amidst Ireland’s recent real estate crisis rang absolutely true and certainly added to the novel’s overarching sense of social desolation. (A very interesting article on this subject appeared recently in The New York Times.)
I added that for my part, I was pleasantly surprised by Jacqueline Winspear’s Pardonable Lies. I read the first Maisie Dobbs novel when it came out in 2003, and while I found it enjoyable, I was not motivated to read any further in the series. Meanwhile, Maisie Dobbs garnered numerous awards and nominations, and the series went on to win more accolades. (See the entry in Stop! You’re Killing Me.) I did not have high hopes for Pardonable Lies, the third in the series, but I actually liked it quite a bit. The protagonist seemed more appealing and sympathetic than she had in the first book, and I thought that Winspear’s evocation of the era between the two World Wars, both in England and France, to be quite compelling.
We all agreed that both White Heat and Midnight in Peking featured settings that for us, were quite exotic. But a locale does not have to be distant and remote in order to be memorable. I love the vivid depiction of Minnesota’s Iron Range in the novels of William Kent Krueger and the colorful evocation of Bath and the surrounding areas in Somerset that Peter Lovesey treats his readers to in his Peter Diamond series. And the precise depiction of London advertising agency in the 1930s would be hard to find anywhere except in Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers. (One could possibly find such material in a biography of Sayers; she worked in just such a place.)
Question 9 elicited a lively response. The group as a whole did not feel that any of the books we read this year were characterized by an exclusively male or female sensibility. This is an interesting question in general, though. I was put in mind of a novel I recently read: Crimes of Privilege, a legal thriller by Walter Walker. In my view, this book actually did reflect a male sensibility at work. Why do I have that feeling? Because of the way Walker describes women’s appearance and demeanor – and oh well let’s just come out and say it – women’s bodies. I don’t mean anything crude or disrespectful. It had more to do with choice of words and certain observations. In this particular case, I did not consider this to be a sexist manifestation – it’s more subtle than that. One encounters something similar, but in my recollection more blatant, in the Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald.
I must apologize for not remembering more, and for leaning so heavily on my own contributions to the proceedings. It really was a great discussion. And I certainly commend Pauline’s questions, or some version of them, to other book groups.
The bring a book (or books, if you have trouble controlling yourself on this subject) part of this meeting is always fun. Here’s the list. Most, but not all, of the books were mysteries. Here’s the list:
Villa Triste by Lucretia Grindle (Carol)
A Wrinkle inTime
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
An Acceptable Time — All by Madeline L’Engle (Frances)
Dark Road To Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn (Louise)
The Crypt Thief by Mark Pryor (Ann R)
No Time for Goodbye (a stand-alone) by Linwood Barclay (Pauline)
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Mary Edna)
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (Susan)
There Was an Old Woman by Hallie Ephron (Marge)
A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller (Marge)
Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell (Roberta)
On Murder by Thomas de Quincey (Roberta)
A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake (Roberta)
Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane (Reed)
Rotten Lies by Aaron and Charlotte Elkins (Anne M.)
Shining Through by Susan Isaacs (Hilda)
This is a great group of book talkers, and by the time we’d gone the rounds for this part of the evening, all of us had substantially enlarged our already substantial to-read lists.
I had an interesting experience talking about the David Morrell title. I recounted how I’d been skeptical about this novel. How could the man who created Rambo possibly pull off an historical novel of this degree of complexity? Well!! I was immediately told a thing or two by people who knew better than I. (Trust me; their number is legion.) Pauline had read at least one and possibly more – I don’t recall – of the Rambo books and said that they were actually very good, far better than the films made from them. And Marge recalled reading a Christmas themed title by Morrell that was set in Santa Fe and that she very much liked. At the time she couldn’t recall the title; subsequent research leads me to think it’s The Spy Who Came for Christmas. I was appropriately chastened by this new information. David Morrell currently resides in Santa Fe – lucky, lucky man. I would definitely read another of his books.
After this extremely bracing meeting, a contingent of us adjourned to a nearby restaurant, where we enjoyed a hearty meal. The Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group grew out of a program on mystery fiction that Marge and I presented at the library. Since then, it has grown in stature and substance, greatly aided by the careful stewardship of Carol and Pauline. I feel fortunate indeed to be part of this very special gathering of book lovers.
Oline Codgill of the Florida Sun-Sentinel picked her favorites for this year. I’ve only read one title on her list: Crime of Privilege by Walter Walker. This is an excellent legal thriller, which I’d recommend to fans of John Grisham and Scott Turow.
January Magazine had some well known crime fiction aficionados name their favorites. Bill Ott, Booklist’s long time mystery reviewer, has posted his favorites. (This particular list contains three books that I was not able to finish: The Beautiful Mystery, Gone Girl, and The Twenty-Year Death. Ah well – chacun à son goût…)
Jessica Mann, a crime fiction author who also critiques crime fiction for the British magazine Literary Review, has chosen her favorite titles for this year. They are as follows: Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton, The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson, Ostland by David Thomas, and The Riot by Laura Wilson. (I recommend A Private Inquiry by Jessica Mann. Her latest novel is Dead Woman Walking.)
I was delighted by NPR’s somewhat idiosyncratic list, not least because Somerset Maugham’s marvelous Ashenden stories share pride of place with other terrific titles, not the least of which is Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, a book I absolutely loved and which I’ve been waiting in vain – until now – to see on one of these lists.
I’m similarly pleased with the selections made by Seattle Times Critic Adam Woog. He also picked a book that I thought nobody noticed this year but me: Jo Bannister’s excellent Deadly Virtues. In addition, he includes Play Dead by the wildly original Bill James and The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas, also highly original but in a completely different way. Among the honorable mentions, Woog mentions Hit Me, the latest entry in Lawrence Block’s hugely entertaining series featuring Keller the hit man. (Adam Woog is obviously a person of exceptionally good taste!)
Finally, Carol of Usual Suspects put me on to a nice aggregation at The Rap Sheet. I was particularly pleased to see Sarah Weinman’s name. Her blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind was one of the first crime fiction sites I used to visit regularly. (She’s not blogging there anymore, but she does post from time to time on her Tumblr site, Off on a Tangent.)
In honor of its sixtieth anniversary, Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association decided to name the all time best crime novel, best series, and best writer of crime fiction. Here are the short lists for each category, with the winner clearly designated:
CWA best ever crime novel
WINNER: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
CWA best ever author
WINNER: Agatha Christie
Arthur Conan Doyle
Dorothy L Sayers
CWA best ever series
WINNER Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle
Adam Dalgleish by PD James
Dalziel & Pascoe by Reginald Hill
Hercule Poirot by Agatha Christie
Morse by Colin Dexter
Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler
Rebus by Ian Rankin
Peter Wimsey by Dorothy L Sayers
Campion by Margery Allingham
The winners represent rather predictable and not particularly adventurous choices. Nevertheless, I was pleased with some of the names and titles that were included on the shortlists. That holds especially true for Reginald Hill, whose On Beulah Height, a bravura piece of work in any genre, will always have pride of place on any “best list” of mine. (And yes, I’m a huge fan of the entire Dalziel and Pascoe series.)
Jake Kerridge of the Daily Telegraph makes some interesting observations on the CWA’s selections. He concludes his article with a list of his own devising.