So says Harold Schechter, editor of True Crime: An American Anthology. Schechter informs us of this startling fact concerning Hawthorne’s reading preference in the course of his introduction to the essay “Jesse Strang.” Strang, it seems, murdered one John Whipple, husband of his lover Elsie Whipple. Jesse was besotted with Elsie, and she made use of that fact to goad him into eliminating her inconvenient and unwanted spouse. It’s a scenario redolent of associations with Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, though it predates that sensational case by many decades.
Nathaniel Hawthorne himself is represented in the Schechter anthology by a brief excerpt from his notebooks in which he describes a display of wax figures representing a variety of notorious murderers and their victims.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, true crime buff! As my grandmother (of blessed memory) would’ve said, “Who knew?”
In his fiction, Hawthorne returns time and again to the theme of sin, its corrosive and irreversible affect on the human spirit, and the often vain hope of redemption. This preoccupation is usually said to have its roots in his ancestry – actually in one ancestor in particular. John Hathorne was one of the examining magistrates in the Salem witch trails of 1692. Unlike other judges who also took part, Hathorne was not known ever to express remorse over the role he played in those notorious proceedings.
I love the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in part because they capture the mixture of unease and longing that dwelt in the hearts of the early settlers. Among my favorites are “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Birthmark,” and “The Gray Champion.” I especially love “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for its strange inversion of good and evil, and “The Minister’s Black Veil’ for its aura of impenetrable mystery. Nothing is explained; the reader is left to wonder and speculate.
As a youth, Hawthorne was an introvert. He almost never went out into society. Having graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825, he declined to take up a profession. Instead, he returned to his mother’s house in Salem to live in solitude and to write. His mother, being of a similar temperament, left him to it.
After he had passed some years in this manner, Hawthorne became restless. On a visit to the Peabody family, ostensibly to see Elizabeth Peabody, he encountered her sister Sophia. They fell in love, and she and Hawthorne were married in 1842.
The full story of this late blooming love is an appealing one, especially as told in Miriam Levine’s lambent prose:
On a visit to the Peabody family in Salem, [Hawthorne] met Sophia Peabody. They had much in common. Both felt shadowy, unnreal, cut off from affection and vital life. Sophia, who, like Hawthorne, was born in Salem, had lived as a recluse since she was nine. sensitive, prone to excruciating headaches, she was dosed with drugs and encouraged in her invalidism as if it would be her lifes’ work. She told Hawthorne that she had lived in a seclusion as deep as his own.
Their marriage brought the Hawthornes into vivid immediate contact with the physical world. They felt alive, newly created by love. The world was real. They could feel it. They called themselves the new Adam and Eve. Everything they wrote during their stay at the Old Manse – in letters and diaries – conveys the pleasure of well-matched lovers who luckily, and against all odds, find sex delightful from the beginning. Sophia rejoiced that she was completely his. Her headaches stopped.
from A Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
It has been my privilege and pleasure to visit Concord, Massachusetts on several occasions. Each time I go, I am moved by the rich literary and historical sites and associations encountered there. Visiting the Old Manse, where the Hawthornes spent the first three years of their married life, is a special experience.
I always seek out the window pane which bears the inscriptions made by Hawthorne and Sophia. (They used Sophia’s diamond ring as their writing tool.):
Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.
Sophia A. Hawthorne, 1843.
This is his study.
The smallest twig
leans clear against the sky.
Composed by my wife,
and written with her dia-
Inscribed by my
husband at sunset,
April 3, 1843
On the gold light. S. A. H.
How one longs to touch the words! But they are protected by an additional pane of glass (or at least, they were when I was last there.)
Should you find yourself in this lovely town one day, I highly recommend Jane Langton’s delightful mystery, God in Concord. . (Thanks to the Mysterious Press, novels in Langton’s series featuring Homer and Mary Kelly are now available on Kindle.)
Some friends and I wanted to see the Degas / Cassatt exhibit. This was enjoyable, if less than spectacular. Of course, one loves the little girl in the blue chair, the perfect picture of youthful ennu:
(This work puts me in mind of the painting of Agatha Christie as a young girl that hangs in Greenway, the writer’s country home on the Devon coast.
I especially loved Degas’s Rehearsal in the Studio. There’s something about the way the light flows into the room….
After viewing the exhibit, we each went our separate ways. I decided to seek out some of my favorites from among the works in the National Gallery’s permanent collection. It had been too long since I’d seen them.
I actually saw Manet’s The Old Musician while on my way to Degas / Cassatt. It stopped me in my tracks.
I’m not sure why this painting affects me as it does. I am held by the musician’s unwavering gaze. I feel a powerful urge to enter right into the scene. In my mind, I do just that.
Everything I love about “England’s green and pleasant land” is embodied here in John Constable’s Wivenhoe Park, Essex. (Be sure to click to enlarge.)
The Danae, by Titian. We’re lucky to have this masterpiece. It was looted by the Nazis and recovered by the famous Monuments Men from inside a salt mine in Austria.
‘Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.’
I was not familiar with this moving work by Murillo, but it summoned up pictures I’ve seen of the same subject as portrayed by Rembrandt. (This painting is in Russia’s Hermitage Museum.):
It’s interesting, the power that this New Testament parable holds over the artistic imagination. (It appears only in the gospel of Saint Luke.) The Murillo canvas is certainly beautiful (and I confess that I especially appreciate the sweet presence of the small dog), but Rembrandt’s rendering is something quite apart and almost unbearably poignant.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is my husband’s favorite passage from the Bible. Ron is especially partial to the ballet, with music by Sergei Prokofiev and choreography by the great George Balanchine. This video is of a 1978 performance by the New York City Ballet, with the incomparable Mikhail Barishnikov as the Prodigal. The last few minutes are just – well, I lack the words to describe that scene. You’ll have to see for yourself:
The fact is, I’ve fallen hopelessly behind in reviewing my recent reads. This does not mean that they’ve been disappointing. On the contrary, they’ve been exceptionally good – in a couple of cases, even great. And virtually all of them merit serious consideration by book discussion groups. (In cases where I’ve previously written about a work, I’ve provided links.)
AFTER I’M GONE by Laura Lippman
Yet another gem from Lippman, a beloved local institution. Here she talks about her latest novel at Washington’s Politics and Prose, another beloved local institution. I found very interesting her insistence on the distinction between a plot that’s ‘inspired by,’ as opposed to ‘based on,’ actual events and/or persons.
THE RESISTANCE MAN by Martin Walker.
My only problem with this latest entry in the Bruno Chief of Police series is that the complexity of the plot tended to interfere with the immersion in the food and wine of France’s fabulous Dordogne region. And I simply could not get enough of Bruno’s endlessly tangled love life and the antics of his new basset hound puppy Balzac. (Said canine serves to remind Bruno that he really must get back to reading the classics, a timely reminder for this reader as well.)
BLACK LIES, RED BLOOD – Kjell Eriksson
NO MAN’S NIGHTINGALE – Ruth Rendell
I confess to possessing no objectivity concerning the works of Baroness Rendell of Babergh. She could write advertising copy (as Dorothy L Sayers did so entertainingly) and I would no doubt be enthralled. I’m partial to the Wexford procedurals, but really, anything will do. Her latest, The Girl Next Door, is due out next month.
THE INVENTION OF WINGS – Sue Monk Kidd
I would not have read this book had it not been a selection of the AAUW Readers. It’s turned out to be the classic case of reluctance turned into enthusiasm.
I’d tried to read Kidd’s first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, and I hadn’t cared for it. I thought the author was trying too hard to create a mystical aura; in addition, the characters seemed stereotypical. In my view, that is not true of The Invention of Wings. For one thing, the novel is based on the actual lives of the Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two sister from South Carolina who traveled north to become Quakers and fervent abolitionists in the early years of the nineteenth century. Their story is compelling, but even more compelling is the story of their slaves. Kidd relates their ghastly lot, and the suffering of their fellows in bondage, without pulling any punches. It is a story that is both enraging and excruciating.
There are a few instances of awkward writing in this novel, but not enough to spoil the reading experience. Altogether, I’d say it’s a triumph of historical fiction and a timely reminder – for such reminders are always needed – of the specific horrors suffered by innocent people at the hands of those who “owned” them, who professed themselves good Christians, and who were happy to delude themselves and their fellows with false bromides and senseless justifications concerning their “peculiar institution.”
THE CHILDREN ACT – Ian McEwan
I read no reviews. My anticipation was great. I wanted this consummately gifted writer to astonish me once again.
And he did.
In a recent New Yorker review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, James Wood makes the claim that in our time, the novel has lost its cultural relevance and in consequence has forsaken the search for meaning, aiming instead to deliver nothing deeper than an engrossing tale:
Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more. The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Madox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”
Soon after reading this piece by Woods, I was riveted by a passage filled with almost unbearable tension in The Children Act. The stakes could not have been higher nor the dilemma more profound, and the resolution depended on the judgment of a single individual.
At that moment, I could think of no more powerful refutation of Woods’s contention. In the masterful hands of Ian McEwan, meaning could not be less of a bore. It is, in fact, everything.
SPARTA – Roxana Robinson
Yet another book I probably wouldn’t have read had it not been a book club ‘assignment.’ This story of a young Iraq war veteran’s difficult return to civilian life is both poignant and hard hitting. Robinson’s writing is exquisite.
AN OFFICER AND A SPY – Thomas Harris
THE WEIGHT OF WATER – Anita Shreve
Somehow I’d never gotten around to reading anything by Shreve, an extremely well liked author among readers of contemporary fiction. I chose The Weight of Water because the plot involves the revisiting of an appalling double murder that took place in 1873 on the Isles of Shoals, a group of islands off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. The crime is usually referred to by the name Smuttynose, the name of the actual island on which the murders occurred.
I’d never heard of the killings on Smuttynose – never heard of the Isles of Shoals, for that matter – before encountering the story in Harold Schechter’s true crime anthology. Having read almost all of the selections in that book, I have to say that this is the crime that I have found most haunting. This is no doubt due in part to Celia Thaxter’s powerful retelling of events. Her piece is entitled “A Memorable Murder;” it was first published in 1875 in the Atlantic Monthly, as the magazine was then called. I’d never before heard of Celia Thaxter. She turns out to have been an exceptional person, one well worth knowing about.She was a native of the Isles of Shoals, and was living on Appledore, one of the other islands, when the crime took place on Smuttynose.
Past and present kept colliding with each other in The Weight of Water. The material was well handled; I very much enjoyed the novel.
STONER – John Williams
Last June, my friend Cristina returned from several weeks touring Europe with the news: “Everyone’s reading Stoner over there!”
William Stoner is a college professor of modest means and even more modest aspirations. In some ways fate is cruel to him, but perhaps not more than it is to any man or woman striving for a modicum of happiness and success in this life. Stoner reminds me in some ways of The Wife of Martin Guerre: in both novels, the narrative commences with great restraint, only to become increasingly powerful as the story progresses. In both books, the ending comes close to being shattering.
I remember being at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s celebrated American Wing several years ago and feeling distinctly intrigued by this painting:
The subject seemed to be worn down by some unnamed burden of sorrow. As it turns out, Mr. Kenton himself is something of an enigma. I thought it an apt choice for the cover of the reissue of Stoner from New York Review Books.
John Williams’s novel is intensely moving; at times, almost devastating. The writing is marvelous.
Like Stoner, this is the story of a man’s life, from youth to old age. Harry Sanders works for the U.S. Foreign Service. As the novel opens, he’s a young attache in Southeast Asia – probably Vietnam, though Just does not specify. While on duty there, he meets a German aid worker based on a nearby hospital ship. Harry and Sieglinde fall passionately in love. Then chance and circumstance separate them.
The remainder of Harry’s work life and his ever evolving personal life both makes for an absorbing story, but as so often happens, the intense drama of his first assignment and his first love affair is never quite duplicated.
Ward Just is a veteran fiction writer and newspaper reporter. His accomplishments in both fields have been recognized. (He was the Washington Post’s Vietnam correspondent.) This high praise for American Romantic from Kirkus Reviews is entirely justified (no pun intended, but hey, why not?).
At lunch this past Monday, my friend Angie was praising the opening chapter of The Children Act. I agree with her that it sets the tone beautifully for what comes next. But I think the so-called Prelude to the first chapter of American Romantic is even more striking. Traveling by boat, Harry Sanders penetrates deep into the jungle. His purpose is to inspect some projects that have been initiated in certain villages. He’s particularly interested in a clinic established in one of them. But when he gets there, he’s greeted by a sight that poignant, tragic, and terrible all at once. It’s an amazing scene, perfectly rendered.
A SPY AMONG FRIENDS: KIM PHILBY AND THE GREAT BETRAYAL – Ben Macintyre
THE FAMILY ROMANOV: MURDER, REBELLION, AND THE FALL OF IMPERIAL RUSSIA – Candace Fleming
The book’s full title is The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder. Once again, I was reading for a discussion group, the Usual Suspects this time. I confess I was somewhat dismayed by the first few pages, as the writing struck me as awkward, even clumsy. But it doesn’t take Charles Graeber long to hit his stride, and once he does… Let’s put it this way: I did nothing for three days but read The Good Nurse, all the while exclaiming over and over again, Oh no, not again, oh my God…. Nurse Charlie Cullen began committing his depredations in the 1980’s while employed at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, New Jersey. My father was almost certainly a patient there at that time, so this tale gained an extra creepy dimension for me as a result.
The Good Nurse is a different kind of true crime book. Cullen’s crimes were accomplished through stealth and trickery. Many times the authorities and medical experts had trouble determining whether a crime had actually been committed. Cullen’s callous abuse of his position of trust in life-or-death situations makes for horrific reading. I admire Charles Graeber for being able to penetrate the thicket of this medical mystery and by doing so, exposing it to the light of day. A number of hospitals and health care facilities do not come off well in Graeber’s telling. But in fairness there are some heroes in this narrative as well. If they hadn’t pushed for the truth, Cullen’s crime spree might have lasted even longer than the sixteen years that it did go on.
TRUE CRIME: AN AMERICAN ANTHOLOGY – Harold Schechter, editor
I’ve already written about this terrific anthology; there will be more to come, as I continue preparing for the True Crime course I’ll be teaching next February and March.
A photograph that haunts, taken in 1913.
The Romanov dynasty requires a male heir. Alas for the Tsarina Alexandra, one pregnancy after another produces daughters. She becomes worn out with the effort. Then on the fifth try- triumph! Alexei Nikolaevich is born on August 12, 1904. Finally, the birth of a male heir insures an orderly succession.
But it was not to be.
Through his mother, Alexei had inherited a terrible affliction. Hemophilia is a disorder of the blood in which little or no clotting factor is present. Wounds take longer to heal, and worse, victims suffer internal bleeding that is difficult to stanch and liable to harm internal organs, tissues, and joints. In Alexei’s case, bleeding into his knee joints caused him excruciating pain and made him, from time to time, unable to walk.
While his parents obsessed over his health they kept up appearances, so that the outside world in general and their subjects in particular would never doubt their divine right to absolute sovereignty over the people of Russia. Yet they were curiously blind to the turbulence, anger, and desperation that were rife among those same people.
How the Romanovs could be so oblivious to what was going on right in front of them is certainly a mystery. What is not a a mystery – at least, not any longer – is the terrible price paid by the entire family for this willed ignorance.
The Family Romanov is being reviewed as a book for young readers. I’d be delighted if middle school or high school students became acquainted with this fascinating and chilling episode of history. The story of the Romanovs is full of passion, romance, and tragedy. Above all, as you read this book, you sense the hand of fate hovering over this family, almost from the beginning of Nicholas’s disastrous reign.
One thing that Candace Fleming does that I found very effective was to show, by means of photographs and various writings from the era, the stark contrast between the privileged existence of the Russian aristocracy and the terrible grinding poverty in which the masses were forced to live. This is a complex story but I was in thrall to its relentless trajectory. The end is inevitable, almost preordained. I’ve read this story many times, and I’m stunned every time by the pity and the horror of it.
I had The Family Romanov out from the library, but because of its terrific bibliography I decided to download the e-book. Fleming cites a number of primary sources of which I’d not previously been aware.
Here is a sampling:
Alexander, Grand Duke of Russia. Once a Grand Duke. Garden City, NY: Garden City, 1932.
Alexandra, Empress of Russia. The Letters of the Tsaritsa to the Tsar, 1914–16. London: Duckworth, 1923.
Botkin, Gleb. The Real Romanovs. New York: Revell, 1931.
Buchanan, Meriel. The Dissolution of an Empire. London: John Murray, 1932.
Buchanan, Sir George. My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories. 2 volumes. Boston: Little, Brown, 1923. Bulygin, Paul, and Alexander Kerensky. The Murder of the Romanovs. London: Hutchinson, 1935.
In his book Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland, Neal Ascherson says of Russia that it’s a place “…where the past is said to be unpredictable.” Here is the first segment of a 1994 National Geographic special called The Last Tsar. It opens with a description of the post-Soviet reemergence- indeed one might almost say, resurrection – of Tsar Nicholas II:
Over a period of years, starting in the 19970s, bones belonging to the bodies of royal family members were uncovered, removed from the earth, and positively identified. Finally, in 1998, the Romanovs and several others who’d been executed along with them were buried with all due solemnity in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, in Saint Petersburg. Present at the interment were numerous dignitaries as well as living decendants of the House of Romanov.
Russia’s history is a turbulent mixture of cruelty, catastrophe, and exaltation. It can exert a powerful pull on those who have fled from it. Sergei Rachmaninoff experienced great success as a musician and composer during his life in America and Western Europe. Yet he never stopped feeling like an exile. It is why Tony Palmers’ wonderful film biography of him is entitled The Harvest of Sorrow:
“…I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a novel.” – A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre
When devouring this thriller about Kim Philby, the high-level British spymaster who turned out to be a Russian mole, I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a novel. It reads like a story by Graham Greene, Ian Fleming or John le Carré, all of whom make appearances, leavened by a dollop of P. G. Wodehouse. But, in fact, “A Spy Among Friends” is a solidly researched true story. The London journalist Ben Macintyre, who has written nine previous histories chronicling intrigue and skulduggery, takes a fresh look at the grandest espionage drama of our era. And like one of his raffish characters relaxing around the bar at White’s, that venerable clubhouse of England’s old boys’ network, he is able to play the role of an amusing raconteur who can cloak psychological and sociological insights with dry humor.
Well, that pretty much says it all about this riveting story. One of Ben Macintyre’s biggest challenges is to penetrate Philby’s disguise and get to the truth about the complex psyche of a man who fooled just about everyone he met. Underneath the guise of the bon viveur, party going heavy drinker, empathetic friend and confidante, husband to four different women (!), was a man who betrayed those same friends, wives, and colleagues in M16 and other intelligence agencies (including the newly formed CIA) – not once, but over and over again.
Beneath Philby’s golden charm lay a thick substratum of conceit; the charmer invites you into his world, though never too far and only on his terms. The English love their secrets, the knowledge that they know a little more than the man standing next to them; when that man is also a secret keeper, it redoubles what Trevor-Roper called “the exquisite relish of ruthless, treacherous private power.” Philby tasted the drug of deception as a youth and remained addicted to infidelity for the rest of his life.
One of the pleasures of A Spy Among Friends is encountering the famous, and infamous, in its pages. Of course Donald McLean, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt – the other members of the so-called Cambridge spy ring – are present and accounted for. And there’s James Jesus Angleton of the CIA, whose unshakeable belief in Philby’s loyalty resulted in plenty of missteps and damage. But there are many more: not only the distinguished Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper but Graham Greene, Ian Fleming – even German journalist Jona von Ustinov, father of actor and writer Peter Ustinov, and Miles and Lorraine Copeland, parents of Stewart Copeland, drummer for the rock group known as the Police – all appear in these pages.
It’s a tale of daunting complexity, but if you stick with it, the rewards are great. The book eventually becomes unputdownable. I ended by pushing everything else to one side so I could race to the conclusion. Macintyre knows how to tell a story so that you’re kept on the edge of your seat. And all the while, his sense of irony is alive and well. Here’s his description of M15’s surveillance unit, known as the Watchers:
They were expected to dress in trilby hats and raincoats and communicated with one another by hand signals. They stood on street corners, watching and trying to appear inconspicuous. They looked, in short, exactly like surveillance agents.
Sometimes fact really does outdo fiction….
In 2006, William Boyd, whose novel Restless I very much enjoyed, wrote an extremely perceptive article on Kim Philby for The Guardian. And below is a documentary feature from BBC Four entitled “The Spy Who Went Into the Cold:”
I highly recommend A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre.
Recently I’ve written in praise of favorite blogs and bloggers. I can think of no better way to mark my nine hundredth posting on Books to the Ceiling than by doing more of the same.
A Commonplace Blog is written by D.G. Myers, a man of uncommonly rigorous intellect and great courage as well. Whether he is writing about books, Judaism, current affairs, philosophy, or any other topic, Professor Myers displays the same fluency and erudition. In particular, I owe him a debt of gratitude for his recommendation of The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis. He calls it “the perfect historical novel.” I agree.
Two blogs that take full and rich advantage of the visual component of blogging are In So Many Words and Letters from a Hill Farm. Yvette blogs at the first; Nan, at the second. In both cases, one feels the full force of their love of books, of life and general – and of grandchildren in particular!
Two blogs that I truly cherish are My Porch and The Argumentative Old Git. At My Porch, Thomas chronicles his love of books and the arts with flair and exuberance. Likewise his unabashed affection for his dog Lucy, as delightfully documented in a series of photos. Oh, and Thomas – thanks for writing in praise of Eric Ambler. I had the great good fortune to be reading A Coffin for Demetrios when I was in Paris in 1995.
As for the The Argumentative Old Git – well, he most certainly is not that! Concerning the name chosen for his blog, Himadri explains that “it’s best to be self-deprecating before someone else deprecates you.” So: sense of humor – check! Also deep erudition and love of books and music – in other words, the Things That Matter. I first found this blog when I was writing- -yet again – about reading – yet again – The Turn of the Screw. Himadri had written a wonderful post on Henry James’s infuriating, fascinating novel and on the terrific 1961 film, called The Innocents and starring Deborah Kerr. I then became aware that he’d also written about Wagner’s Parsifal. It seems we’d both seen the HD broadcast of the Met’s production of this opera in March of last year. Himadri described himself as “somewhat shaken by the experience.” I felt the same. I’ve seen this opera three times, and every time it perplexes me and moves me profoundly. About a week later, I wrote a post on The Turn of the Screw; in that post I wrote yet again about Parsifal. I linked to Himadri’s blog, and we had a most pleasing exchange in the Comments section of that post.
Anyway, Himadri is unfailingly gracious and learned; I recommend The Argumentative Old Git to all those who value literate discourse (which I fear is becoming increasingly rare).
Before leaving the subject of blogs, I’d like to mention that Martin Edwards of Do You Write Under Your Own Name recently shared the great news that he has written a book about the history of crime fiction. Called The Golden Age of Murder and focusing in particular on the Detection Club, it is to be published in May of next year by HarperCollins. You can pre-order this book on Amazon – I’ve already done it.
Finally, I’d like to conclude with some things of beauty:
Svetlana Zakharova and Andrei Uvarov:
And finally…’Beauty too rich for use; For earth, too dear!’
Alessandra Ferri and Angel Corella
Lately I’ve been so immersed in True Crime: An American Anthology that I’ve neglected to write about the other reading I’ve been doing. So here goes:
The two nonfiction titles I’ve recently read are both works of historical true crime, a subgenre of which I’ve become increasingly enamored. Little Demon in the City of Light poses the question: To what degree was the petite, outwardly demure Gabrielle Bompard, responsible for the death of a wealthy widower who was more than happy to pay in order to enjoy her favors? This fascinating story of deception, manipulation, and murder takes place against the backdrop of Paris in the late 1880s, proving once again that at least for some folks, the époque was not quite so belle after all.
In contrast, most of us have few illusions as to what life was like in Depression era New York City. Deborah Blum brought that time to vivid, if gruesome life in The Poisoner’s Handbook. Now Harold Schechter, editor of the above mentioned anthology, weighs in with the story of Robert George Irwin – artist, madman, and heartless killer.
Now, on to crime fiction:
Martin Walker, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, and Archer Mayor all write series of which I’m inordinately fond. Mayor and Harrod-Eagles in particular are among the few writers whose latest novels I always plan to read regardless of what the reviewers may say. (The reviews are usually good anyway.) I cherish the Bill Slider mysteries for Harrod-Eagles’s delightful sense of humor and unapologetic love of punning. As for the Joe Gunther novels, I am full of admiration for Mayor’s meticulous description of police procedure; also, I’m very caught up in the lives of his main characters. I always root for Joe, who’s taken some hard knocks in his personal life, and for Willie Kunkel, whose famously dour demeanor has mellowed nicely, if not completely, since he’s become a husband (to fellow officer Sammi Martens) and father to their baby girl.
The chief attraction of Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police novels is the setting. Bruno Courrèges, an affable, conscientious fellow, is a one man police force in the tiny town of St. Denis, in the Périgord region of southwestern France. One look at pictures of this magical place and I wanted to pack my bags and take off.
Bruno is one lucky guy to live and work here, and he knows it.
Dark Waters is the second of Robin Blake’s novels set in Preston, Lancashire, in the eighteenth century. The protagonists are coroner Titus Cragg and his physician friend and colleague Luke Fidelis. These are wonderfully realized characters, alive in a time and place that Blake has rendered in vivid and meticulous detail. This is the only historical mystery series that I’m totally committed to, at the moment. (I’m already looking forward to the third in the series The Hidden Man, due out in March of next year.)
Now off to Scandinavia….
I got tired of being the only sentient being who hadn’t read anything by Norway’s Jo Nesbø, so I downloaded The Snowman and took the plunge. And – well, gosh! Sex, violence, and a story that hits the ground running and never lets up. I get what readers see in his crime fiction; it was a wild ride and fun, but I don’t know if I’ll be back for seconds.
As for Kjell Eriksson, I don’t understand why his work is not more widely known here. I’d read two previous novels by him, The Princess of Burundi and The Demon of Dakar. The latter I remember especially for its compassionate depiction of the immigrant experience.That same compassion is present in Black Lies, Red Blood. Set mainly in Uppsala Sweden, the book begins with an explicit description of a very intense love affair involving Ann Lindell, a commanding officer in the Violent Crime Division, and journalist Anders Brant. Your Faithful Blogger was in equal parts intrigued and disconcerted by this unexpected opener. But Ann has a rude shock coming: she thought she knew Anders, but in fact she does not – not at all. Suddenly he is gone. She does not know if she will ever see him again.
This novel is made up of equal parts eroticism, anguish, and almost unbearable tension. When, after a lengthy search, the body of a young murder victim is found by a search team in an open field near a wood, time seems to stop. Police, criminalists, the prosecutor – all those present are afflicted with an almost unbearable sadness. It is one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever encountered in crime fiction.
From the deep forest birdsong was heard. The wind was filtered between the tree trunks, made the branches of the sallow bounce, pleasantly turned a few leaves, brought with it aromas of summer.
Life, unnervingly and with a perverse insistence, goes on. But Ann Lindell has made a solemn vow to this victim; she will not desist until justice has been secured.
Black Lies, Red Blood works especially well as a procedural. The banter and varied exchanges among the members of Ann’s division is witty and real. I kept thinking that it reminded me of something – or someone. And then I realized: I was sensing the presence of Martin Beck and company, brought to such vivid life by the great creative team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I can give a crime writer of any nationality no higher praise. By all means, read Kjell Eriksson!
I have two other favorite works by Bizet. One is L’Arlesienne, in particular the Farandole from Suite No.2. I love this spirited performance, by the Deutsch-Niederländische KammerPhilharmonie (German-Dutch Chamber Orchestra) conducted by Otis Klöber.
Bizet has incorporated a medieval French Christmas carol into this music. It is called ” La marche des rois mages” (March of the Kings). Here it is, sung by the Robert Shaw Chorale:
Finally, here is the famous “Au fond du temple saint” from the opera Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers). I don’t really know the opera, but this duet I have long known and loved. I’ve trawled YouTube listening to various performances and have not found one that comes close to this magnificent offering by baritone Alan Titus and the great tenor Jerry Hadley:
Harking back to our nation’s beginnings, Harold Schechter commences his survey of true crime literature in America
Let’s just stipulate this up front: the Library of America could not have chosen a better person to edit their true crime anthology. Harold Schechter‘ s deep knowledge of the literature of true crime and his distinguished contributions to the genre are well known, especially to aficionado’s of the genre. His selections for this volume have the power to disturb and to fascinate.
Not to mention, surprise. True Crime opens with an excerpt from William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation. In that famed document, completed in 1651, Bradford relates the story of one John Billington. Although he was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact, Billington was no earnest Puritan, but rather a ne’er-do-well who fled London with his creditors in hot pursuit. He seems to have been a thoroughly disreputable character. As he took up life in the New World, his continued bad behavior seemed to presage worse to come. And so it proved: in 1630, in the heat of a quarrel, he shot and killed a man. For this crime, he was executed. His fellow colonists took no pleasure in carrying out the sentence.
William Bradford writes:
This, as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a mater of great sadnes unto them. They used all due means about his triall, and tooke the advice of Mr. Winthrop and other the ablest gentle-men in the Bay of Massachusets, that were then new-ly come over, who concured with them that he ought to dye, and the land to be purged from blood.
It turns out that numbered among the descendants of John Billington is James A. Garfield, twentieth President of the United States. What an irony that from the line of such a rough character eventually issued a man of great courage and nobility of spirit – in every way a supremely admirable human being. I recommend – very highly – Candace Millard’s biography, Destiny of the Republic.
Here’s how Harold Schechter describes the next author to appear in the anthology; “Unfairly or not, Cotton Mather (1663-1728) has come to epitomize many of the least attractive traits of the colonial Puritan, from excessive self-righteousness to persecutive zeal.” Well, that about sums it up, except that there is more to Mather than meets the eye (or was presented to us in those long ago interminable high school history classes ). It turns out that he was something of a polymath, and an industrious one at that:
….he published as many as 17 books and pamphlets a year – an estimated 4,444 bound volumes all told – while turning out five sermons a week, conducting countless fasts, devoting himself to causes ranging from penal reform to the education of slaves, and raising 15 children by three wives.
Among the sermons Mather preached was one of particular type. The so-called execution sermon was preached on that very occasion, to provide a vivid illustration of the wages off sin. Mather’s execution sermons were published under the rubric Pillars of Salt.
Before the sentence was carried out, the malefactor was expected to express remorse and repentance, in his or her own words . These utterances would be incorporated into the sermon, to give it added power.This happened frequently, but not invariably. One who refused to follow the script was Margaret Gaulacher, condemned to hang in the 1715 for the crime of infanticide. The fact that she was bitter rather than penitent demonstrated to Mather that she had not made her peace with God.
Be that as it may, Pillars of Salt stands as a founding document of the literature of true crime in America. Cotton Mather’s signal contribution is commented on in this rather piquantly entitled essay, Cotton Mather…Pulp Writer?
There’s more to come, in subsequent posts.