‘Can I have brought down all this death in life on us, Brookman wondered, through my fondness for a pretty girl?’ – Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone
It had been some time since I’d read anything by Robert Stone, but I’ve never forgotten the deep impression that author’s Damascus Gate made on me when I read it in 1998, the year of its publication. Reviews were leading me to believe I should read Stone’s latest, Death of the Black-Haired Girl. I have now done so, and am glad that I did
Let’s stipulate from the outset: Maud Stack, the eponymous black-haired girl, is no angel. In fact, she is not even especially likeable. An undergraduate at an elite small college in New England, young Maud believes that she already knows the answers to life’s great questions. (The fact is, she is not alone in this conviction: “Sometimes the college could be an incredibly mean place; when the kids reflected it they had the sharp language and the intelligence but no sense and no mercy.”)
Maud also believes that she can engage in an adulterous relationship with one of her professors without endangering her claim to be living an upright life.
Steven Brookman, the professor in the case, is married and the father of a daughter, Sophia. His family life is precious to him – so precious that he decides he must end the affair with Maud. The risk of exposure is simply too great. This is especially true where Sophia is concerned: “Their bantering, fond relationship was a treasure of his life and he dreaded the loss of it.”
(As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of Breaking Bad, specifically of Walter White and his son, Walt Junior. Junior is a good-hearted child who would make any parent proud. Walt is fiercely committed to keeping his depraved criminal activities a secret from this son whom he adores, and who in turn idolizes him. It is a beautiful and inevitably doomed relationship. I’m also thinking of Blaise Gavender and his son David in Iris Murdoch’s riveting novel The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. Heaven save us from these people who assume that life’s blessings are theirs by right, even – especially? – when they transgress against those blessings in the most blatant and unforgivable way.)
The wise guys always pointed out how you had to have at least two people to have a murder. A famous person had said, “Character is fate.” This was the wise-guy version: A person had made a mistake, they liked to say, and somebody had to pay. They didn’t give a damn about justice, only about restoring their version of the natural order. The victim was always at a disadvantage, being dead and so often unsightly.
At times, God comes into the picture, though He is not always welcome. In her review of this novel in The New York Times, Claire Messud says of Robert Stone that “Graham Greene is in some ways his natural antecedent,” and I think I know what she means.
As for Steven Brookman’s idle query, quoted in the title of this post, one must of course respond in the affirmative, although he is perhaps giving himself too much credit as a master manipulator of fate – his own, and that of the people around him. Yet another form of professorial arrogance, one is tempted to opine.
As if there weren’t already a sufficient number -
But really, take a look at this:
Behold the kelpies!!
Click here for the statement by the artist Andy Scott.
“A feeling of beauty, of totality, of being one with everything else.” – The Silence of the Wave by Gianrico Carofiglio
In The Silence of the Wave, which is primarily set in Rome, we meet Roberto Marias, formerly of the Carabinieri, Italy’s national military police. I say ‘formerly’ because when this story commences, he is on extended leave and does not know if he will ever return to the force.
In the course of doing undercover work, Roberto has sustained a deeply traumatic psychic injury. As the novel opens, he is under the care of a psychiatrist. The bulk of the narrative consists of transcriptions of their therapeutic sessions. The result is that while the plot is rather inert, especially at the outset, the psychology is deep, and getting deeper all the time. There is a great deal of pain that must be suffered, anger that must be expressed, and self-disclosure that has to happen if the healing process is to be real and effective.
Meanwhile, the good doctor – I don’t recall whether his name is ever given – is a man of exceptional eloquence and wisdom. In this passage, he’s trying to explain to Roberto the erratic course one often travels while on the way to recovery:
“The backward steps derive from a fear of change. If we live with suffering for a long time, it ends up becoming somehow part of us. when we start to feel better, when we start to detach ourselves from the suffering, we experience contradictory states off mind. On the one hand we’re pleased, on the other we feel uneasy, because we’re missing something that was part of our identity and guaranteed us a kind of balance. That’s the reason for this fluctuation between euphoria and sadness.”
I am intrigued by this admixture of psychology and philosophy. It puts me in mind of the final lines of Byron’s poem “The Prisoner of Chillon:”
‘My very chains and I grew friends,So much a long communion tendsTo make us what we are:—even IRegain’d my freedom with a sigh.’
It takes a while to find out just what the precipitating events were that so incapacitated Roberto in heart and mind. As the novel progressed, I began to feel more and more invested in Roberto’s treatment, and to wish, with increasing fervor, for his recovery.
The Wave in the title refers to surfing. Roberto had grown up in California and had embraced the sport with enthusiasm. Even though he hasn’t done it in years, he can still recall what it felt like to ride the waves:
“You have a feeling of truth, I don’t know how to put this, the sense that everything is…brought into focus. A feeling of beauty, of totality, of being one with everything else. When the wave carries you, you feel you’re part of it, if you understand what I mean, you feel that everything finally has a meaning….And there’s a perfect harmony, in those seconds when you’re there, a balance between the sea and the sky, almost still, while you slide very fast between the water and the air, and the roar. You pass through the middle of the wave, exactly equidistant from those opposites.”
I love the way Giancarlo Carofiglio writes. Praise is also due to Howard Curtis, who translated this novel from the Italian.
As I’ve been sitting here working on this post, with The Silence of the Wave reposing beside the keyboard, it has occurred to me that as well as loving the contents of this book, I take delight in its physical presence as well. It measures eight and a half inches by five, and is about an inch thick. It seems downright elegant in its compactness. It’s a library book, and the mylar jacket cover enhances this effect. Finally the cover image seems appropriately muted and indistinct. I love handing this small volume and will be sorry to bid it farewell.
In this space I have also posted a brief review of Temporary Perfections. This was the first book I read by Carofiglio and the fourth in the Guido Guerrrieri series. (On Stop! You’re Killing Me, this character is described as “a jaded defense lawyer.” Don’t let that deter you; for the most part he’s a delight to spend time with.) I’ve also read Involuntary Witness, the first novel in this series. I found this one rather slow going at the outset, but I ended by liking it quite a bit. Guido Guerrrieri lives and practices in Bari, a regional capital in the south of Italy. Bari is also Gianrico Carofiglio’s birthplace.
“…a unique, irresistible contraption of a book” – The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer
Of late I have been avoiding long books. My heart sinks at the sight of their size – never mind their weight. Of course the e-book format rather artfully conceals these factors, but I am still doing most of my reading the old-fashioned way. (And as I write this, I cannot help thinking of my mother, who instilled in me a lifelong passion for the written word and who, were she alive, would find the locution ‘old fashioned book’ incomprehensible.)
This aversion to lengthy tomes is due to my desire to read so many books as soon as possible. Of late I’ve been reading several simultaneously, some in e-book format and others in hard copy. Can this become confusing? Indeed it can – and occasionally does. Am I reading more and enjoying it less? Well, no, I still love it – but I can’t deny that in recent years, my reading has taken on a somewhat manic aspect…
On the other hand, there are few experiences as rewarding as settling into a magisterial work of literature, one that quite literally transports you to another time, another place, another world. Most of the time, but not always, such books have considerable heft. They take some time to work their magic (and in some cases, it is a dark magic). Oh but is it ever time well spent!
I’m thinking, for example, of A Passion for Nature, Donald Worster’s biography of John Muir; Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard; The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes; Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel; The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings; People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry; Nature’s Engraver, Jenny Uglow’s biography of Thomas Bewick; and Robert K. Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great. To this august company I now gladly add The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer.
The Unwinding is very much a book of the present moment and not the sort toward which I ordinarily gravitate. But as I read the reviews, I found myself thinking, I really want to read this. I felt drawn by the description of its contents. The Unwinding more than fulfilled its promise.
That said, this is a difficult book to describe. Packer’s crowded canvas includes portraits of the famous, the infamous, and everyday people. It’s that last group that is most compelling. It’s comprised of a wide variety of individuals, some pursuing their dreams, others just trying to keep their heads above water.
Dean Price of Rockingham County, North Carolina.
The plateau of hardwood hills and red clay fields between the Appalachian range and the Atlantic coastal plain is called the Piedmont. Along the order between Virginia and North Carolina, from Dansville and Martinsville down to Greensboro and Winston-Salem, the mainstays of Piedmont life in the twentieth century were tobacco, textiles, and furniture. In the last years of the century they all started to die, more or less simultaneously, as if a mysterious and highly communicable plague swept through the region.
Packer concludes this succinct, dystopian summary by telling us that “Dean Price returned home just as the first bad signs were showing up across the landscape.”
Then there’s Jeff Connaughton of Alabama. Connaughton wanted to contribute to the betterment of America through political engagement. A self-confessed “Biden guy,” Connaughton’s odyssey through the power corridors of Washington makes for very illuminating reading.
The more familiar names come from all walks of life: Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Colin Powell, master chef Alice Waters, rapper Jay-Z – the list goes on. The celebrity chapters are short but enlightening. This holds true especially for Peter Thiel. Packer chooses the German-born Thiel to represent the phenomenon of Silicon Valley. The chapter on him might have been entitled, “Inside the Mind of a 46-year-old Billionaire.” Not unexpectedly, one finds some unusual things in that mind.
As a poster child for the ravages of the housing bust, the city of Tampa rates several chapters of its own. Starting in the seventies, numerous residential developments had sprung up, most of them miles from any kind of commerce. As long as people continued to come in ever increasing numbers, building would continue at a rapid pace, facilitated by generous allowances and perquisites for developers courtesy of the city fathers. “A few local critics pointed out the strategy’s resemblance to a Ponzi scheme. But everything kept growing and no one paid attention.”
In the fullness of time, those Cassandra’s were proven all too prescient
Packer’s description of what was happening to the land during this period is straightforward and unflinching:
The growth machine cleared out the pine trees and palmettos and orange groves along State Road 54 up in Pasco County. It cut don the mangroves on Apollo Beach and asphalt over the strawberry farms around Plant City. Farther south down Interstate 75, in Lee County, the growth machine built a university on the wetlands near Fort Myers (Senator Connie Mack put in a call to the Army Corps of Engineers),and it sold quarter-acre lots on the installment plan between the drainage canals of Cape Coral. Farmers and ranchers cashed out and suddenly, where there had been orchards or pastures or swampland, developers put up instant communities–they were called ””boomburgs”–and christened them with names that evoked the ease of English manor life: Ashton Oaks, Saddle Ridge Estates, the Hammocks at Kingsway….
And on and on. Followed of course by the inevitable implosion. And with no way to reinvigorate the fragile and destroyed ecology of the place. (As one whose childhood was mostly spent in South Florida, I am tempted to say that in that part of the country, it was ever thus.)
For some folks, life was good in Tampa. This was especially true for certain four-star generals attached to MacDill Air force Base, home of the United States Central Command: “They enjoyed the lavish hospitality of Tampa society hostesses while shaping U.S. foreign policy and the fate of nations across the most volatile region of the globe, from Egypt to Pakistan, with all the authority of Roman proconsuls.” Four blocks from this hive of weighty activity lived Danny and Ronale Hartzell, their two kids, and Danny’s younger brother Dennis. All inhabited a ground floor apartment in a complex where drugs were regularly bought and sold. It was all in the way of living quarters they could afford. All three adults were willing to do any kind of work but had trouble finding and keeping jobs.
Of Danny Hartzell:
He was in his late thirties, short, with a pot belly on him, a wispy goatee, and a nearly hairless head under his Steelers cap. He was missing a bunch of teeth and spoke in a loud hoarse voice because of deafness in one ear. He classified himself as a “blue-collar-type guy,” not a “behind -the-counter-take-your-money-can-I-help-you-find-your-dress-size-type guy,” but the only jobs left were in retail and he lacked the right look and manner.
Danny took full responsibility (more so than necessary, I think) for the family’s problems, although he honestly questioned why “…all those people out there view me as such a bad person?”
Like her husband, Ronale had bad teeth and was overweight. The couple had numerous other difficulties, but these paled when, in the spring of 2009, they learned that their daughter Danielle was suffering from bone cancer in her left leg. Up to that time, the Hartzells had not owned a vehicle, but then a stranger gave them money to purchase a 2003 Chevy Cavalier so that they could drive to Danielle’s medical appointments. Here’s the upshot:
A prosthesis that would require regular four-millimeter adjustments as she grew was sewn inside the length of Danielle’s skinny little leg. she went a whole year cancer free. They thanked God. Otherwise, nothing changed for the Hartzells.
The summing up of the people, events, and experiences depicted in The Unwinding is presented through the eyes of Peter Thiel. In his view, 1973, the year of the oil shock, was when things began to go wrong:
A lot of institutions stopped working. Science and technology stopped progressing, the growth model broke down, government no longer worked as well as in the past, middle-class life started to fray. It was pretty much a roller coaster ride until the “seismic events” of 2008. “Four decade–down,up, up, down–After forty years, you were flat.”
Thiel calls those middle decades an Indian summer of sorts. They were characterized by “a series of bubbles: the bond bubble, the tech bubble, the stock bubble, the emerging markets bubble, the housing bubble….” And all of these went the way that all bubbles inevitably go, so that the one salient remaining fact to be discerned amid the wreckage was that “things were fundamentally not working.”
Thiel sees the information age as a disappointment in that it has failed to generate anywhere near enough jobs or to raise the standard of living across the board or to improve conditions for the populace in general – for people, in other words, like the Hartzells:
The creation of virtual worlds had taken the place of advances in the physical world.
In his blurb for The Unwinding, writer David M. Kennedy says the following:
George Packer has crafted a unique, irresistible contraption of a book. Not since John Dos Passos’s celebrated U.S.A. trilogy, which The Unwinding recollects and rivals, has a writer so cunningly plumbed the seething undercurrents of American life. The result is a sad but delicious jazz-tempo requiem for the post World War II American social contract. You will often laugh through your tears at these tails of lives of ever-less-quiet desperation in a land going ever-more-noisily berserk.
The Unwinding is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction. I hope it wins.
[This post constitutes an addendum to the one I just completed on Josephine Tey.]
Carol, my fellow Usual Suspect, has reminded me that there is currently a crime fiction series being written in which Josephine Tey figures as a continuing character. The author, Nicola Upson, has done extensive research on Tey and turned up some interesting material.
There are currently five novels in Upson’s series, beginning in 2008 with An Expert in Murder. This year’s entry is The Death of Lucy Kyte. Carol has kindly provided me with several links, which I will pass along here. First, this is an essay posted on Upson’s website on the life and work of Josephine Tey. Second, here’s an interview with Nicola Upson conducted by a blogger who’s an historical fiction enthusiast. Have a look at Question 4, an inquiry into Upson’s research. First, she reveals the source of many of the names Tey gave to the characters in her novels. Even more intriguing is what follows her observation that “There’s no greater excitement than discovering something new about Josephine Tey’s life.” Steven Saylor, author of the Roma sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder, calls this “information ecstasy.” Anyone who’s ever had a momentous research breakthrough will know the feeling.
Finally, in this interview with Amanda Vale, Upson reveals that she and her partner have had considerable success gleaning information about Tey’s life from the letters and diaries of those who knew her. There may, in fact, be enough to constitute a biography – finally! That’s truly cause for rejoicing.
While preparing background material for a discussion of Brat Farrar with AAUW Readers, I found myself falling once again under the spell of the author. For Josephine Tey, possessor of not one but two pseudonyms, an almost phantom presence on the literary scene, author of eight superbly crafted crime novels, was herself something of an enigma.
In her book Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists, Martha Hailey DuBose observes:
Of all the Women of Mystery, Elizabeth MacKintosh is the most deserving of the title. She never published under her own name, hiding her identity behind first the male pseudonym Gordon Daviot and then the pen name by which she is recognized today, Josephine Tey. She never submitted to press interviews, shunned all forms of personal publicity, and was guarded even with close colleagues. No one has yet collected her letters or edited her papers, if there are any around, and she never, so far as we know, chronicled her life beyond the most basic details. She left behind only the bare outline of a mystery whose clues must be extracted from her fiction.
(DuBose’s book came out in 2000; as far as I know, this assessment remains accurate.)
Elizabeth MacKintosh/Josephine Tey was born in Inverness, Scotland. The year of her birth has been disputed in the past, but it’s now generally accepted as being 1896. The eldest of three girls, she appears to have had a happy childhood. She attended Inverness Royal Academy and later, during the years of the First World War, traveled south to matriculate in the Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham. She enjoyed athletics and was able to put this academic background to use as a teacher in secondary level schools. But all this time, ever since her girlhood, she had been writing, mainly short stories and poetry. Some of her early work was published in Scottish newspapers and in the English Review.
(At this point I’d like to interpose some intriguing information concerning the future so-called “Grande Dames’ of British crime fiction’s first Golden Age. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Josephine Tey were all four born between 1890 and 1897. Talk about an auspicious decade! Margery Allingham lagged behind somewhat, the year of her birth being 1904.)
Using the pseudonym Gordon Daviot, Josephine Tey published her first crime novel in 1929. Written as a contest entry, it was called The Man in the Queue and featured Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard.
Tey also wrote plays, also under the name Gordon Daviot. The first and most memorable of these efforts was entitled Richard of Bordeaux. Premiering on stage in 1932, this drama about King Richard II provided John Gielgud with his first starring stage role. The play was a hit, thus launching Gielgud on what eventually became one of the most illustrious acting careers of the twentieth century.
Meanwhile, under the name Josephine Tey, seven more novels of crime appeared, starting with A Shilling for Candles in 1937. Tey published nothing during the war years; then came more plays and the remaining six crime novels, starting with Miss Pym Disposes in 1946 and ending with The Singing Sands in 1952. Alan Grant appears in six of the eight novels, being entirely absent only in Brat Farrar and Miss Pym Disposes.
At some point in late 1950 or early 1951, Tey learned that she was seriously ill. She kept her condition a secret from all but those closest to her. When she died in February of 1952, probably of cancer, many who knew her were shocked. Her memorial service was attended by Sir John Gielgud and Dame Edith Evans. At the time, the papers were full of news of the passing of King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II. He had died just days earlier.
In his memoir, Sir John Gielgud hints that the playwright whom he esteemed and admired might have suffered a bereavement as a result of World War One. If so, then Tey was one of many women who suffered a similar loss.
At the time of her death, Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot, aka Josephine Tey, was 55 years of age. She willed her entire estate to England’s National Trust.
Since 1926, Josephine Tey had been keeping house for her father in Inverness, her mother having died a few years previous. Colin Mackintosh died in 1950 at the age of 86, predeceasing his gifted and intensely private daughter by a mere two years.
Thursday’s discussion of Brat Farrar was both edifying and stimulating. I’ve now read this novel four times, and yet points were brought forth and questions raised that I’d not heretofore considered. How could the young Brat have traveled so freely during the war years? When exactly are the events of the novel supposed to have occurred? It was published in 1949, so one supposes the time frame to be postwar. Yet there is barely any mention of the seismic, six year long agony that had ended so recently. One reads of the bleak impoverishment of British life during this period, yet Latchetts (the country seat of the Ashby family) and its surroundings seem bathed in fruitful prosperity. (One thinks of the novels of Jane Austen, with their sense of the wider world kept almost completely at bay while their author examines the niceties of provincial country life.) Emma observed that Tey seemed to have deliberately evoked a timeless setting in which her characters could work out their respective fates.
Rita was the most seriously critical of the novel, especially of the ending. Too much happened too quickly, she averred. Many of us agreed with her. We found ourselves having to thrash out some of the plot points, such as how Simon knew that Brat was going to try to descend that fatal cliff face where Patrick Ashby had met his end. We also tried to clarify the issue of the consanguinity of Brat and Eleanor. First cousins? Second? After all, the assumption is that they intend to marry; Eleanor declares her intention in no uncertain terms.
Finally, someone commented on the loveliness of the scene, earlier in the novel, in which Brat takes Timber out for a run. I think it’s worth quoting at some length:
Timber seemed as well acquainted with gates and their uses as a cow pony was with a rope, but never before had Brat had so delicate and so well-oiled a mechanism under him. Timber obeyed the slightest indication of hand or heel with a lack of questioning and a confidence that was new in Brat’s experience. Surprised and delighted Brat experimented with this new adaptability. And Timber, even with the turf in front of him, with the turf practically under his feet, moved sweetly and obediently under his hands.
“You wonder!” said Brat softly.
The ears flicked at him.
“You perishing marvel,” he said, and closed his knees as he turned to face the down. Timber broke into a slow canter, headed for the clumps of gorse and juniper bushes that marked the skyline.
So this was what riding a good English horse was like, he thought. This communion, this being one half of a whole. This effortlessness. This magic.
The close, fine turf slipped by under them, and it was odd to see no little spurt of dust coming up as the shoes struck. England, England, England, said the shoes as they struck. A soft drum on the English turf.
I don’t care, he thought, I don’t care. I’m a criminal, and a heel, but I’ve got what I wanted, and it’s worth it. By God, it’s worth it. If I died tomorrow, it’s worth it.
Brat is soon to find out that Timber’s docility is a sometime thing. But how beautifully Tey conveys this moment of ecstatic communion between man and horse!
I think that among those who were present at Thursday’s discussion, the general feeling was that although Brat Farrar has its flaws, these are far outweighed by the many qualities that make it shine. In his introduction to the Scribner paperback edition of 1997, Robert Barnard extolls “…Josephine Tey’s brilliant storytelling: her varied, loving characterisation; above all, her control of reader sympathies.” This last is especially evident in Brat Farrar, as the reader comes to share in Brat’s life and death struggle with his conscience, his obligations, his very soul.
Somehow I’ve managed to do a fair amount of writing about Josephine Tey without mentioning the novel for which she is most famous. In The Daughter of Time, Alan Grant finds himself laid up in hospital with a broken leg. In desperate need of mental stimulus, he takes it upon himself to investigate the case against King Richard III, a man who’d been reviled for centuries as the murderer of the Princes in the Tower. They were the true heirs to the throne, and he is supposed to have done away with them so that he might be the sole unopposed ruler of England.
I read The Daughter of Time many years ago. In fact, for a long time, it was the only work of detective fiction I’d ever read. (Hard to believe, I know! You can see, I’ve had lots of catching up to do.) In some quarters it’s considered to be Tey’s masterpiece. I really do need to reread it, but for now, in my view, that designation belongs either to Brat Farrar or The Franchise Affair – or to both, jointly.
(Colin Dexter paid homage to The Daughter of Time in his novel The Wench Is Dead. Like Alan Grant before him, Inspector Morse finds himself immobilized in a hospital and in need of diversion of an intellectual nature. He finds it by investigating the real life murder of one Christina Collins in 1839. The Wench Is Dead, long one of my favorites among Dexter’s oeuvre, won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 1989.)
The only other crime novel I’ve read by Tey is the last one, The Singing Sands. Again, it’s not fresh in my mind, although I do recall enjoying the vividness of the Scottish setting. As it has finally occurred to me that some of the best exemplars of the British police procedural, my favorite genre, have been right under my nose for quite some time, I’ve just begun reading A Shilling for Candles and am already enjoying the lucid prose and engaging characters.
The manuscript for The Singing Sands was found among Tey’s papers after her death, and was published posthumously.
As far as I can determine, the best online source of information on Josephine Tey resides on a site called Josephine Tey – A Very Private Person. Not only is the biographical article quite enlightening, but if you work your way down the buttons on the left, you’ll find video of Brat Farrar, The Franchise Affair – two versions, no less – and some delightful photos like this one taken at the Anstey Physical Training College, Elizabeth MacKintosh’s alma mater.
I’d forgotten that the urbane Vincent Price hosted Mystery! in the 1980s. Click here to see him introduce a Josephine Tey segment to the television audience. I love the way he casually mentions the fact that he actually saw the original 1933 production of Richard of Bordeaux, starring John Gielgud!
Finally, my heartfelt thanks go out to the seventeen or eighteen Readers – a great turnout! – for one of the most exhilarating book discussions I’ve ever been lucky enough to be part of.
Please click here for additional information on Josephine Tey.
When I finished Cop To Corpse by Peter Lovesey, I thought to myself, It doesn’t get any better than this. I was wrong; it does.
The Tooth Tattoo is the story of a highly regarded quartet of stringed instrument players. The sudden loss of their violist has for a time taken them out of the game. Now they want back in and are actively seeking a new violist. They’ve heard Mel Farran play, and they like what they’ve heard. They’re more and more certain that he’ll be a good fit for their small elite ensemble.
They call themselves The Staccati, and Peter Lovesey lays bare the inner workings of this foursome in a way both fascinating and completely believable.
Mel is deeply grateful to be part of the quartet, and he feels challenged to get his playing up to their high standard while at the same time achieving a perfect blend with the group:
He’d need to fit in more practice. In spite of the praise from the others, he knew Ivan was right. His intonation – accuracy of pitch – could be improved. With such latitude possible in their creation of sound, string players had a huge advantage over anyone else in an orchestra, yet there were phases, say in a long legato line with open strings, when the pitch should be suppressed. He’d noted a couple of passages in the Beethoven when he needed to adapt better to the violins.
The pitch should be suppressed? I admit, I don’t entirely understand what’s being said here, but I do get the point about the unique capabilities of stringed instruments.
You wouldn’t think that the lives of these intense and dedicated artists could intersect with a criminal investigation, but that’s exactly what happens. For a limited period, the Staccati take up residence at Bath Spa University. It’s an arrangement that benefits them, the university community, and local music lovers. This last is not a cohort with which Peter Diamond, head of the Bath CID, would ordinarily be associated. But he comes to a cautious appreciation of the music itself and of those who bring it so exquisitely to life.
Although Peter would be the first to admit that he’s no ‘culture vulture,’ he can nevertheless shoot the breeze with the best of them:
“Beethoven, wasn’t it?” Diamond ventured.
Anthony was supposed to get the idea that Diamond was a fellow lover of music. He didn’t show a glimmer of appreciation.
“I couldn’t place the piece,” Diamond added, which was true. He was about as capable of placing a piece of Beethoven as he was of riding a Derby winner. “Do you mind telling me what it was?”
Opus 59, Number 3,” Anthony said.
“Silly me. I’m a duffer with numbers.”
“In C major.”
“C major.” Diamond raised his thumb as if all had been made clear. “Any particular part?”
“And to me it sounded just as a fugue should.”
“It was too fast.”
“A shade quick, I’ll give you.”
Here is that piece, played by the Alban Berg Quartet:
Peter does in fact he does have a passion for certain works of art. In fact, the only way his lady friend Paloma could get him to take a vacation in one of the capitals of continental Europe was by choosing Vienna, the setting of Peter’s favorite film, The Third Man.
The Third Man is terrific. It’s hard to see how it could be anything but, with stars like Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Trevor Howard, and a screenplay by Graham Greene.
Inevitably in a Peter Diamond novel, we’re treated to a disquisition on some notable feature of the City of Bath. This time it’s Sydney Gardens, “a haven of quiet in a busy city” and, during her sojourns in Bath, one of Jane Austen’s favorite haunts:
Literate, entertaining, and wide-ranging, The Tooth Tattoo is a triumph, one of the best novels by one of the greatest procedural writers currently at work.
The Staccati also perform one of my favorite pieces: String Quartet No.14 in D minor, known as Death And the Maiden, by Franz Schubert. Her it is, performed by the Alban Berg Quartet:
‘Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession.’ A Murder of Quality, being the second George Smiley novel by John LeCarre
A couple of weeks ago, a friend and former co-worker at the library made what I thought at the time a rather peculiar recommendation. Like me, Nancy is a crime fiction buff, and she knows my taste pretty well. She assured me that unlike the espionage novels for which John LeCarre is justly famous, A Murder of Quality, published in 1962, is actually a mystery, and a fairly traditional one at that. The events of the novel take place at Carne, an exclusive boys’ school on England’s South Coast.
Now I just love crime fiction set in academia, so I decided to take Nancy up on her suggestion. And I’m very glad that I did.
For this reader, one of the primary attraction of this novel lay in the opportunity it provided to know George Smiley in his early years. LeCarre indicates, however, that his famous creation’s character was formed very early on:
Smiley himself was one of those solitaries who seem to have come into the world fully educated at the age of eighteen. Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession. The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction. A man who, like Smiley, has lived and worked for years among his country’s enemies learns only one prayer: that he may never, never be noticed. Assimilation is his highest aim, he learns to love the crowds who pass him in the street without a glance; he clings to them for his anonymity and his safety. His fear makes him servile – he could embrace the shoppers who jostle him in their impatience and force him from the pavement. He could adore the officials, the police, the bus conductors, for the terse indifference of their attitudes.
(My intention was to quote only the first part of this paragraph, but I was so struck by this vivid passage that I couldn’t stop typing.)
Then there’s this rather more succinct assessment:
A stringent critic of his own motives, he had discovered after long observation that he tended to be less a creature of intellect than his tastes and habits might suggest; once in the war he had been described by his superiors as possessing the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin, which seemed to him not wholly unjust.
A Murder of Quality is the second novel to feature George Smiley. (The first is Call for the Dead; these are also LeCarre’s first published works of fiction, respectively.) There are a number of passages in this second outing where LeCarre strives to illuminate the character and personality of Smiley. Here, he is seen through the eyes of an old friend. Miss Brimley, editor of a journal called the Christian Voice. She is anxious about Stella Rode, one of the journal’s contributors and the wife of teacher at Carne. Miss Brimley asks Smiley to have a look at a letter recently sent to her by Mrs. Rode. Its purport seems ominous.
As Smiley studies the document, Miss Brimley studies Smiley:
Watching him, Miss Brimley wondered what impression he made on those who did not know him well. She used to think of him as the most forgettable man she had ever met; short and plump, with heavy spectacles and thinning hair, he was at first sight the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation.
Call for the Dead opens with a description of Smiley that’s if anything, even less complimentary than Miss Brimley’s: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” That’s pretty blunt, I’d say – even to the point of being brutal.
One of the strangest aspects of George Smiley’s back story concerns his virtually inexplicable marriage to Lady Ann Sercomb, a lofty, high born beauty who stayed with him for two years before running away with a Cuban racing car driver. I’m getting ready to read Call for the Dead, and I confess I’m curious as to whether I’ll be further enlightened as to how this odd and patently doomed pairing came about.
Quite apart from Smiley himself, A Murder of Quality contains some memorable description:
The village of Pylle lies to the south of the North Fields, upon a high spur which rises steeply from the damp pastures of the Carne valley. It consists of a handful of stone cottages and a small inn where you may drink beer in the landlord’s parlour. Seen from Carne playing fields, the village could easily be mistaken for an outcrop of rock upon a tor, for the hill on which it stands appears conical from the northern side. Local historians claim that Pylle is the oldest settlement in Dorset, that its name is Anglo-Saxon for harbour, and that it served the Romans as a port when all the lowlands around were covered by the sea. They will tell you, too, that King Arthur rested there after seven months at sea, and paid homage to Saint Andrew, the patron saint of sailors, on the site of Pylle Church, where he burned a candle for each month he had spent afloat; and that in the church, built to commemorate his visit and standing to this day lonely and untended on the hillside, there is a bronzee coin as witness to his visit – the very one King Arthur gave to the verger before he set sail again for the Isle of Avalon.
I love the way LeCarre takes you back to ancient times, and even further back, to myth and legend. This is something that British writers are skilled at doing. In On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan mentions in an almost casual aside “the pretty village of Ewelme, where Chaucer’s granddaughter was interred.” A single phrase catapults you from the mid-twentieth century back to the Middle Ages!
I am not well read in John LeCarre’s oeuvre, nor do I make any claim for myself as a scholar of his work. But I found someone who is: Prof. Myron J. Aronoff of Rutgers University. He’s written a book, in fact, entitled The Spy Novels of John LeCarre: Balancing Ethics and Politics. Here is how the introduction to the first chapter begins:
Le Carré relates how he came to create George Smiley, by “putting him together from various components–either real or imagined–of my own situation, and adding the solvent of my own filial affection and admiration” (JHM, 1986:14). He suggests that he and Smiley were alike in more ways than the differences in their age and appearance might suggest. Among the qualities that he shares with Smiley are shyness, a desire for anonymity, and the fact that they were both intelligence officers and German scholars. Although le Carré had a turbulent childhood, Smiley had none. “You do not have to be a genius to guess that Smiley as a father-figure in my imagination was the very antithesis of everything that my own erratic father had been in reality” (JHM:14).2
(Click here to read further.)
I was fascinated by the insight into George Smiley’s character, but even aside from that factor, I found A Murder of Quality to be an absorbing read and a well plotted mystery. The seeds of the later LeCarre – the cynicism about people’s true motives, the characters’ bitterness at how their lives have turned out, the incisive and startlingly lyrical writing - are present in this novel.
George Smiley is the main protagonist in four novels besides Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality; in addition, he makes cameo appearances in several others. A complete list of LeCarre’s works can be found – where else? – on Stop! You’re Killing Me.
A Murder of Quality was filmed for television in 1991, with Denholm Elliott in the role of George Smiley. I’ve not yet had the chance to view this production. Neither have I seen the 2011 film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in which Gary Oldman plays Smiley. But I think that for those of us who came of age during the Cold War, there can be only one actor who was very embodiment of LeCarre’s singular creation:
“That night,” she said slowly, “Lina saw the Furious Army.”
“The Furious Army,” the woman repeated, in a whisper. “And Herbier was with them. And he was screaming. And three others with him.”
“Is it a club? Something to do with hunting?”
Madame Vendremot was staring at Adamsberg in disbelief.
“The Furious Army,” she whispered again. “The Great Hunt. The Ghost Riders. Haven’t you heard of them?”
“No,” said Adamsberg, staring back at her stupefied gaze. “Come back some other time and you can tell me all about it.”
“But you don’t even recognize the name? Hellequin’s Horde,” she whispered.
Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is baffled by this exchange. So was I. A tiny, nervous woman from Ordebec in Normandy has come to Paris expressly to see the Commissaire and warn him of the threat of sudden death for certain citizens of the town. Because of her sighting, Madame Vendremot’s daughter Lina knows who they are – all except one, that is. For his part, Adamsberg finds the purport of her message almost incomprehensible. Nevertheless, he decides to travel to Ordebec himself, to see the how the land lies.
I’ve known about the Commissaire Adamsberg series for quite some time. I knew they were highly thought of by crime fiction cognoscenti. I tried several, but I couldn’t get into them. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, though, was getting such enthusiastic reviews, I decided to try again. And this one worked for me – worked, in fact, extremely well.
Adamsberg is an unusual, rather enigmatic character. “I like the way his mind works,” Frances of Usual Suspects told me when she recommended the series. I do too. Flashes of insight can be succeeded – or preceded – with profound inertia. The Commissaire is a master of lateral thinking. Or rather, of thinking about anything but the crime he’s attempting to solve. The Ordebec investigation provides scope for his strangeness. He likes to sit outside beneath a tree munching on an apple, even when it’s raining. He uses up a fair amount of mental energy trying to figure out why the cows in a distant field seem never to move.
And he takes slow, solitary walks along the Chemin de Bonnival, in the forest of Alance. This is the place where Lina claims to have seen the Furious Army. Just what is this strange, threatening entity?
Adamsberg’s second in command is Adrien Danglard, a close friend as well as a valued colleague. At Adamsberg’s house one evening, Danglard, who takes a passionate interest in all things medieval, seeks to enlighten his boss on the subject of the Ghost Riders.
….this ancient cavalcade causing havoc in the countryside is damaged. The horses and their riders have no flesh and many of their limbs are missing. It’s an army of the dead, of the putrefied dead, an army of ghostly riders, wild-eyed and screaming, unable to get to heaven.
Danglard concludes this vivid description with two words: “Imagine that.”
The Commissaire struggles to do just that:
Adamsberg approached the fireplace again, curious to hear a little more, and leaned against the brick hearth. The fact that the Riders singled out unpunished villains interested him…. You can tell yourself you don’t believe this kind of thing, but it’s difficult not to believe it. The pernicious idea digs a deep channel. It silently infiltrates the the unavowed corridors of the mind, penetrates, and trickles through. You suppress the idea, it lies dormant for a while, then it returns.
The Furious Army, Hellequin’s Horde, the Ghost Riders, the Wild Hunt – it’s a legend of many names, with many manifestations. Most likely it originated in Scandinavia.
Even in Winter, you are not safe. Stay indoors, attend your hearths. Try to keep the night at bay by the telling of your tongue. Remember your kin, honor your ancestors. For at this time the dead begin to stir, riding upon hallowed and familiar roads, galloping through villages and wastes, flying through the forests of the mind. Such raids are reminders that the past is not a dead thing, but may return, like a hunter, to follow us for a time.
(The above excerpt is from an essay entitled “Penance, Power, and Pursuit – On the Trail of the Wild Hunt,” by Ari Berk and William Spytma.)
Adamsberg is strongly attracted to Lina – he claims that she “irradiated” him – but he makes no move toward her, and nothing comes of it. This is of a piece with the general tenor of a novel in which things seem to progress – if you can call it progress – in a halting, dreamy way, punctuated by episodes of high drama. It’s an extremely effective narrative style, especially with the author’s sly wit, reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, interspersed throughout.
And what of this author? Fred Vargas was born in Paris in 1957. She has trained as an historian and an archeologist. (Her real name is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.) And she has won the CWA International Dagger Award four times, in 2006 for The Three Evangelists, in 2007 for Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, in 2009 for The Chalk Circle Man, and this year for The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, an honor given jointly to her and to Pierre Lemaitre for his novel Alex. (One is tempted to exclaim: “The French are coming, the French are coming; watch out, Scandinavians!”) A complete list pf Vargas’s novels can be found at Stop! You’re Killing Me.
While the Ordebec story moves forward – or sideways, depending on any number of things – other things are happening. Adamsberg’s twenty-eight year old son Armel, nicknamed Zerk, is currently living with him. This is a progeny whose existence was unknown to the Commissaire until a short while ago. Zerk is helping to care for a wounded pigeon. The bird’s misfortune was caused by a deliberate, cruel trick; father and son are determined to nurse it back to health. (And Adamsberg would dearly love to apprehend the responsible party.) Zerk also helps the Commissaire to shield a hapless young man who is about to be framed for a murder he did not commit.
It’s desirable in a police procedural that the author include believable and interesting people in the protagonist’s team of investigators. Team members can be characterized by their strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies. Vargas is especially good at this (as is Peter Turnbull).
To sum up, I liked this novel very much. Vargas writes beautifully, and credit must also go to the translator Sian Reynolds. I look forward to the further adventures of Commissaire Adamsberg, the singular detective with an equally singular team.
Someone in our group mentioned that a friend of hers had recently expressed surprised that we had never discussed a novel by Tana French. Tuesday night we remedied the omission by tackling Broken Harbor, this author’s latest magnum opus.
Tana French has won several awards and even more nominations since she burst onto the crime fiction scene in 2007 with Into the Woods. I’ve not read that novel; in fact, Broken Harbor is the first work by Tana French that I’ve read all the way through (although I almost didn’t – get all the way through, I mean). I had dipped my toe into both The Likeness and Faithful Place but was not enthralled by either. Rather, I was so put off by their length that I decided to bail early. I could tell French was a gifted writer, but I simply was not drawn in by her narratives. So I looked upon this Usual Suspects choice as a chance to stick with one of French’s titles and see if I could discern the magic that was clearly present for her many devoted readers, some of whom are in our group.
Susan, our group leader, started us off with some background on Tana French’s life and career. The author was born here in the U.S. but lived all over the world as a child. She attended Trinity College, Dublin, and trained as an actress. Ultimately she decided to make her home in Ireland, where she now lives with her husband and daughter. (There was the inevitable question of how French’s fist name should be pronounced. Your say ‘Tayna,’ I say ‘Tahna’….)
Susan then solicited the impressions of group members, and I confess, I couldn’t – and didn’t – wait to get my two cents in. When I took up Broken Harbor, I was hoping for an epiphany, a revelation as to why French is so widely praised. As you’ve probably already guessed, that did not happen. Instead, I found myself exasperated by this novel for a whole host of reasons.
First, let me stipulate that I began with the audiobook. The reader, Stephen Hogan, was excellent, putting in the right amount of Irish lilt without going over the top. And I was genuinely engaged, at least, at the beginning. The novel begins with the description of a horrific crime: the Spains, Patrick, Jenny, and their two children, have been savagely attacked in their home. By the time the police arrive, summoned by Jenny’s hysterical sister Fiona, all are deceased except for Jenny, who is clinging to life by a very slender thread.
By this time, we’ve met the detectives in charge of the investigation: Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy and Richie Curran. “Scorcher” is a hotshot on the Dublin Murder Squad who boasts a high solve rate. Richie is young and new, but Mick decides to partner with him anyway on this high profile case. He believes that Richie has potential, and that he, Mick, can help him to realize it.
Almost from the beginning of the novel, the character of Mick Kennedy was a problem for me. I found him arrogant and preening. He’s condescending to Richie, who seemed to me almost from the beginning to have a better interviewing technique than his supposed mentor – more intuitive, more empathetic. I think part of the problem was that the novel is told in the first person by Mick. His trumpeting of his own virtues is oddly at variance with what the reader experiences in the course of the interviews with suspects and witnesses, where he comes across as very unsubtle and something of a bully. (Now I was assured that in Broken Harbor, he was considerably toned down from how he was depicted in French’s previous novel Faithful Place. I confess this rather amazed me.)
It was definitely time for me to stop ranting and let others have their say. Someone suggested that Mick was a very insecure person who compensated for his feelings of inadequacy by adopting a kind of swaggering hubris as part of his public persona. When he was still a child (or possibly a teenager, I don’t exactly recall), his mother committed suicide. This traumatic event happened while the family were on a seaside holiday – Mick, his parents, and his sisters Dina and Geri. While Geri and Mick grew to adulthood with their respective psyches more or less intact, Dina was not so lucky. When we first encounter her in Broken Harbor, she is a woman with fairly severe psychiatric issues, a diagnosed schizophrenic with occasional psychotic manifestations. When she descends on Mick, who’s in the midst of the high stakes, high pressure investigation into the attack on the Spains, she is unrelenting – completely focused on her own needs, alternately wheedling and raging at her brother.
Mick’s scenes with his unfortunate sister seemed to drag on forever. One sympathizes with her plight; nevertheless, she’ s a very unpleasant character to be around. Under the circumstances, Mick shows admirable forbearance in dealing with her. He is far more patient than I could ever have been, in a similar situation. (And I speak, to some degree, from my own experience.)
The events of Broken Harbor take place against the backdrop of the demise of the so-called Celtic Tiger. This is the term used to describe the Ireland’s economy from roughly the 1990s up to 2007. An economic boom, fueled by real estate speculation, heavy foreign investment, and questionable banking practices was followed inevitably by the bust. (Sound familiar?)
Pat and Jenny have recently moved into a new development called Ocean View. It’s far enough from Dublin that they can’t reach friends and family easily. Meanwhile the amenities promised by the developers fail to materialize; homes languish in a partially completed state; neighbors are few and far between and not particularly disposed to be neighborly. And why should they be? They have no common history, no long established ‘local’ where they can go any time and be sure to encounter a friendly face or two.
All of this might have been tolerable if Pat hadn’t lost his job. But he did. And as time drags on and he remains unemployed, it seems that he’s in danger of losing more – much more….
We all agreed that French made effective use of this backdrop. It’s a poignant scenario. Ireland seemed finally to have become a place that could provide jobs and quality of life for its young people. Perhaps they could stop the perpetual outward migration that had characterized the country for so much of its history. But it was not to be, after all. And in a way, what happens to the Spains is a microcosm of what’s happening in the whole of Ireland. Jenny and Pat bought into the dream, but it proved to be an illusion made up of empty promises that would never be fulfilled.
Here’s the first impression gleaned by Detectives Kennedy and Curran:
At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money, trim strips of green, quaint signposts pointing you towards LITTLE GEMS CHILDCARE and DIAMONDCUT LEISURE CENTER. Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were gaps in the footpaths. Third glance, something was wrong.
The houses were too much alike. … [M]ost of the driveways were empty, and not in a way that said everyone was out powering the economy. You could look straight through three out of four houses, to bare rear windows and gray patches of sky …
‘Jaysus,’ Richie said … ‘The village of the damned.’”
This was one of the best book discussions I’ve ever attended. The Suspects made many illuminating observations of various aspects of the novel. In my initial litany of complaints, I said that the interviews of witnesses and suspects went on way too long and were tedious and repetitious. In my view, they slowed the plot down to a crawl. (By now, Dear Reader of this blog, you know that I am certainly NOT a person with strong opinions!) But Frances felt that these dialog-intensive passages served to open up the characters’ respective psyches – to allow the reader to, as it were, peer into their very souls.
Marge, for her part, felt that for a police procedural, some of the procedures followed by the officers seemed faulty. She was thinking in particular of the initial scenes inside the Spain residence. I think I agree with her, but I feel as though I read – or rather, listened to – the beginning of the book a long time ago and so cannot be more specific.
We all agreed that there’s some powerful writing in Broken Harbor. I just wish it had been in the service of a more tightly controlled narrative. The hardback clocks in at 450 pages, and I think even those who liked the book better than I did felt that it was too long.
What I’ve written here is at best a partial recap of Tuesday night’s session. What I meant when I said that it was such an outstanding discussion is that the comments were so thoughtful and perceptive that I was argued, at least to a degree, out of my wholly negative view of the novel. Part of my problem may have been all the accolades that have been heaped on this author. That always causes me to view that person’s work with a degree of skepticism – as in, “Okay, you’re supposed to be so wonderful? Show me!”
Someone voiced the opinion Tuesday night that some authors win too many awards too early in their writing careers. This put me in mind of Louise Penny. I loved her first novel, Still Life, and I thought Bury Your Dead was simply terrific. Trick of the Light I liked a bit less. And A Beautiful Mystery, which I expected to love, I found so inert and turgid that half way through, I had to give up. Like Tana French, Louse Penny is the darling of reviewers. And like Tana French, she writes beautifully. I have every intention of reading her latest Inspector Gamache novel, How the Light Gets In; it has received such glowing notices. I trust I will not be disappointed. Will I read another novel by Tana French? Possibly – but not definitely.
A final word about our leader, Susan. This was a long and involved novel. In fact, at the start of our meeting, Susan remarked that she hadn’t remembered it being as long as it was. Well, there’s nothing like having to lead a discussion to remind you of the length and complexity of your chosen novel. I experienced the same sinking sensation when I first set about preparing for the Cop To Corpse discussion that I led in July. We had a good laugh over Susan’s wry observation, but the fact is, she did an outstanding job, demonstrating impressive mastery of this complex material.