Recently, I embarked on a long overdue updating of my blog roll. And oh, what a perilous undertaking! These blogs are not only wonderful in their own right – beautifully written and in many cases beautiful looking too – but these book lovers are very persuasive as well.
Do I need more ideas on what to read? Well, let’s see. I am currently immersed in the following:
1. Edmund Pearson on Lizzie Borden, written in 1937. What a gem this is – one of the many recommendations I’ve gleaned from Harold Schechter in True Crime: An American Anthology. It’s available full text online. I love Pearson’s writing. (My endlessly resourceful husband placed this document on my Kindle app. I did not even know such a thing was possible!)
2. Sparta by Roxana Robinson. I’m reading this for a book club discussion. I had my doubts about this story of a young Iraqi War veteran’s return to his family and civilian life. But actually I think it’s quite wonderful.
3. I’m continuing to work my way through the Schechter anthology. There’s some terrific material included here, perhaps none more powerful, not to mention shocking, than A Memorable Murder (the Smuttynose Murder) by Celia Thaxter.
4. The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin by Robert J. Begiebing. This is reread, and as sometimes happens, I’m not as enthralled with it as I was the first time around. Still, I’m enjoying the depiction of Puritan life in New England. This novel was inspired by an actual crime, and so it fits in well with the background research I’m doing for the true crime course I’ll be teaching next spring.
5. The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs. I’m not sure by what route this book found its way onto my Kindle app, but I’m very glad it did. It is just the change of pace I need right now. And here’s a funny thing. I was thinking to myself, when I first started reading it, that it did not fit in with my current true crime reading. And my very next thought was, oh, wait – Christopher Marlowe, the great reckoning in a little room…. I’ll be interested to see what this author has to say about the murder of the one contemporary of Shakespeare’s who might some day have rivaled the Bard himself for sheer literary genius.
This isn’t actually all, but it’s enough for now, I’d say. But oh, no, I had to go browsing in wonderful book blogs, like:
Booksplease. How could I have absented myself for so long from Margaret’s delightful site? Have a look for yourself. She has reminded me how much I like W.J. Burley’s Wycliffe mysteries; I’m getting ready to order Wycliffe and the Four Jacks as per her recommendation. And I plan to read Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare biography after I’ve finished the Marlowe book (pant, pant).
Detectives Beyond Borders. What fun! And edifying, too. There’s a thoughtful post about historical fiction, a review of Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad – already on my to-read list, though the sample I downloaded was rather scary. Blogger Peter Rozovsky is getting ready to attend Bouchercon 2014 in California.. Lucky you, Mr. Rozovsky. I went in 2008 when it was just down the road in Baltimore and loved it. And thanks for the recommendation of Kevin Starr’s work. I too am fascinated by the history of California.
Do You Write Under Your Own Name. A long time favorite this one. Martin Edwards writes lively reviews of books, television shows, and films, plus all manner of information about crime fiction scene in the UK. He’s the author of the Lake District series of mysteries, which I highly recommend. One of my favorite features on Martin’s blog is Forgotten Books. This is where I’ve gotten lots of good ideas for reading in the classics.
‘It is as if all the loathing and recrimination bottled up since the defeat of 1870 has found an outlet in a single individual.’ – A discussion of An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris
On Tuesday, I attended a book discussion to which Pauline, my fellow Usual Suspect, had invited me. The novel under consideration was An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris. (This was one of those instances in which I’d already read and very much liked the book. I love it when that happens.)
Our discussion leader had requested that we read “Under Siege,” a chapter from The Greater Journey by David McCullough; in addition, he encouraged us to view “A Leap of Faith,” an episode from Simon Schama’s documentary “The Story of the Jews.” The discussion leader wanted us to have an historical perspective from which to view the events of Robert Harris’s novel. (The ‘siege’ described by McCullough occurred during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. It brought Paris to its knees and is a horrific story.)
An Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus case. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the artillery division of the French army, was accused of passing military secrets to the Germans. Having been subjected to a mortifying defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, France’s armed services still regarded Germany as the enemy and the hated former overlord. This treasonous action would therefore be regarded with the utmost outrage, with the traitor being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Completely understandable – except for one crucial fact: Dreyfus did not do it.
He was, nevertheless, convicted. After enduring the appalling and very public humiliation of la dégradation, he was deported to Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where he was imprisoned alone, in ghastly conditions and under extreme duress, for just under five years. In 1899 Dreyfus was returned to France to be tried again. Incredibly, he was once more found guilty. But that verdict was set aside. Ultimately, Dreyfus was exonerated and declared innocent of all the charges brought against him. In 1906, he was reinstated in the army of France as a major.
Why was Alfred Dreyfus made a scapegoat in this matter? He had several factors mitigating against him. He and his family were Alsatian. The Germans had seized Alsace during the Franco-Prussian War, and as a result, most patriotic French men and women refused to go on living there. (The affect of this brusque transition is described in the most poignant way in Alphone Daudet’s story, “The Last Class.“) Dreyfus’s family stayed; they spoke German as well as French. In addition, the family possessed considerable wealth. But the single thing that told most powerfully against Alfred Dreyfus was the fact that he was Jewish.
The summary above is vastly simplified. In his review of Louis Begley’s book Why the Dreyfus Affair Still Matters, Adam Gopnik states:
The unmaking of the Dreyfus case is a very long story—so complex, and taking place at such a snail’s pace and in such wayward directions, that almost no one has ever been able to relate it simply.
Indeed, from beginning to end. L’Affaire Dreyfus is fiendishly complicated. From amidst a welter of information, Robert Harris admits that at first, he was stymied in his efforts to craft a coherent narrative. Only when Colonel Picquart emerged as a compelling figure in his own right did the material begin to assume a form that the author could work with.
As the newly appointed Chief of Staff of Army Intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart is tasked with keeping a close eye on the ramifications of the Dreyfus affair. Beginning in 1896, Picquart sets out to do just that. At first, he is firmly of the belief that Dreyfus was guilty of treason, a belief strongly reinforced by the concurrence of fellow service members and friends. But as he looks more closely into the matter, doubts take root and begin to grow. Ultimately, Picquart risks his career and his freedom as he seeks vindication for Alfred Dreyfus. This, despite the fact that he, Picquart, has no particular liking for the Jews and actively disliked Dreyfus himself, a man who by all reports was not possessed of an appealing personality.
One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion of this novel involved the question of Picquart’s motivation. Why would he risk everything in order to pursue this investigation? Commenting on this point, one person said that he was always intrigued by the question of motive in a situation like this. What causes one individual to act as Picquart does in this case, laying everything on the line for a cause in which he’s not directly involved, while others turn away and seek safety in inaction? In the course of a brief conversation with Dreyfus’s brother Matthieu, Picquart himself provides a direct, if rather cold and oversimplified, response:
I make my way round the dining room shaking the hand of each man in turn. Mathieu covers mine with both of his. “My family and I cannot adequately express our gratitude to you, Colonel.”
There is something proprietorial about his warmth which makes me feel awkward, even chilly. “You have no reason to thank me,” I reply. “I was simply obeying my conscience.”
The writing of this novel came about as a result of Robert Harris’s collaboration with Roman Polanski on the filming of an earlier novel The Ghost. (In the U.S., the film was entitled The Ghost Writer.) Word has it that these two are preparing to film – may already be filming? – An Officer and a Spy. Interestingly, they won’t be the first ones to tackle the Dreyfus case in this medium. French cinema pioneer Georges Méliès made this movie in 1899, before the final resolution of the case had even been decided on:
Inevitably, the subject of anti-Semitism in France was raised. Prejudice against those of the Jewish faith abates from time to time but apparently can never be completely extirpated. This is the message of the Simon Schama program referenced above. This subject is oddly current, what with the recent firebombing of a synagogue in a suburb of Paris.
In fairness to France, similar acts and demonstrations turning violent are occurring in other European countries as well. The ostensible reason at the present time is the Israeli shelling of Gaza. People in our discussion group expressed dismay that anti-Israel sentiment appears to be serving as a cloak for anti-Semitism – a rather transparent cloak. (Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway: One wishes the killing to stop; one wishes for hostilities to cease; one wishes for war to stop – STOP NOW.)
This was an extremely stimulating and worthwhile discussion. I would definitely recommend this title to other book groups.
Robert Harris has written nine novels. I’ve read six of them. I think he’s a terrific writer.
Thanks are due to Fellow Usual Suspect Carol for directing my attention to this video. (And really – what would I do without the wonderful Suspects in my life?)
I’m delighted to learn that several of my favorite authors have new books coming out in the next few months. (There’s also a debut novel that looks like a real winner for those of us who love historical fiction.)
Perhaps some of these are among your favorites as well:
Some comments on the crime fiction: The only thing better than one new Karin Fossum is two new novels by this fine author. I Can See in the Dark is a non series work, but I forgive her, because The Murder of Harriet Krohn does feature Inspector Sejer (and presumably his newly acquired canine companion, a famously wrinkly Chinese Shar Pei with the improbable name of Frank Robert).
Meanwhile, Lawrence Block introduces yer another new character, defense attorney Martin Ehrengraf. I’ll give it a try, probably, though I was hoping for more of the stellar Keller stories. And speaking of stellar, John Harvey rounds out his Charlie Resnick series with a novel that’s been garnering raves from reviewers.
The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett was a pleasant surprise: a novel that used magical realism to very good effect. In addition, it was written by someone whose passion for books and reading was obvious and genuine. And so I look forward to this author’s latest, First Impressions.
In yet another pleasant surprise, I see that Jo Bannister is following up last year’s Deadly Virtues with a sequel that once again features Constable Hazel Best. Best may be new to the job, but she’s got good instincts and lots of tenacity. In the Winter 2014 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, Norma Dancis surveyed Jo Bannister’s work. Dancis lamented the fact that Bannister is so little known and that up until now, her books have been hard to find in the U.S. At the close of her article, Dancis had this to say:
All Bannister’s books have one thing in common: quality. She offers excellent writing, suspense, and variety. Fortunately, her books are now more available (e-book, new and used). If you haven’t read her, you will be pleasantly surprised.
(I’m happy to report that the local library owns nineteen titles by Jo Bannister.)
Finally, two that I’m especially happy about: The Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey and The Girl Next Store by Ruth Rendell. Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond novels have just been getting better and better of late; Cop To Corpse and The Tooth Tattoo were both outstanding. And as for Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine), it is hard for me to refrain from heaping praise on this, my favorite author. I’m particularly partial to the Wexford novels, but I’ll take anything I can get. Actually, Baroness Rendell of Babergh could compose a shopping list and I would probably still be enthralled!
For a fairly comprehensive list of upcoming crime and suspense fiction, I’d like to direct you – once again – to Stop! You’re Killing Me.
[The first post in this series is Adventures in True Crime, Part One.]
In the course of reading and doing research in the area of true crime, I’ve become fascinated by the way in which actual crimes have served as the basis for fictional narratives. There are quite a few examples of this phenomenon in the literature of suspense and crime fiction – more than I had originally thought. So I decided to come up with some sort of schematic to help organize this information into a coherent form. Another part of my purpose here is to note instances where true crime narratives also exist.
I wanted to include two of my favorite films as well. And of course there’s plenty of relevant material on YouTube. Even an opera made it into the mix!
With the help of my computer whiz husband, I’ve created this grid. The tables were generated by Microsoft Word, and in the process of importing into the blog, I encountered a number of problems with spacing, some of which I was able to correct, but not all.
The project is not quite finished, but here’s what I’ve got so far:
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of Hannah Willix, New Hampshire, 1648||Drawn from a one-sentence entry in the journal of Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop, dated June 4, 1648. Source: http://articles.latimes.com/1991-05-21/news/vw-2453_1_strange-death-of-mistress-coffinFrom a blog entitled My Maine Ancestry – http://mymaineancestry.blogspot.com/2012/03/unsolved-murder.html :My 10th Great Grandmother was murdered in New Hampshire in May or June of 1648. Her name was Hannah (or Annah) Willix. She was traveling from Dover to Exeter when she was attacked, robbed and her body “flung” into the river. I found a document online called “New Hampshire Homicides 1630-1774″ that contains this information: Hannah “was founde in the [Piscataqua] River dead; her necke broken, her tounge black and swollen out of her mouth & the bloud settled in her face, the privy partes swolne &c as if she had been muche abused &c.”||The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin, by Robert J. Begiebing – 1991http://youtu.beRHjr7sjFvhA********************|
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|Murder by James Yates of his wife and four children in 1781 in Tomhanick, NY||“An Account of a Murder Committed by Mr. J————– Y———– Upon His Family, in December, A.D. 1781” Anonymous article appearing in The New-York Weekly Magazine, July 20, 1796*||Wieland: or The Transformation: An American Tale, By Charles Brockden Brown – 1798 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wieland_%28novel%29|
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|Murder of Anethe Christensen and Karen Christensen by Louis Wagner at Smutty Nose, in the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, in 1873||“A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter, for the Atlantic Monthly Magazine* http://seacoastnh.com/smuttynose/memo.html||The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve – 1997
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|Eight unsolved murders, primarily of African American servant girls, in Austin, Texas, in late 1884 and 1885||“Capital Murder” by Skip Hollandsworth, in Texas Monthly, July 2000: http://www.texasmonthly.com/content/capital-murder||A Twist at the End, by Steven Saylor – 2000
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of New York City resident Mary Rogers in 1841||The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the invention of murder, by Daniel Stashower – 2006||“The Mystery of Marie Roget,” short story by Edgar Allan Poe – 1842 http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/rogetb.htm|
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of John Hossack in Iowa, in 1900||“The Hossack Murder,” by Susan Glaspell, in the Des Moines Daily News, 1901*Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland, by Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf – 2005||“A Jury of Her Peers,” short story by Susan Glaspell – 1917http://www.learner.org/interactives/literature/story/fulltext.html|
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette, in Herkimer, New York (Adirondacks) -1906||Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited, by Craig Brandon – 1986||An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser – 1925 A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly – 2003*********Film: A Place in the Sun – 1951 http://youtu.be/wEuFNnJSIw8
An American Tragedy: opera by Tobias Picker – 2005 http://youtu.be/2Um_jfEpjD0
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of Albert Snyder by Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, in New York City – 1927||“The Eternal Blonde,” by Damon Runyan, from Trials and Other Tribulations – 1927*Included in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum – 2010||Double Indemnity by James M Cain – 1938****Film: Double Indemnity, from Cain’s novel, with Raymond Chandler writing the screenplay – 1944 http://youtu.be/yKrrAa2o9Eg
*Included in True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and published by Library of America in 2008
I admit that the main reason I was eager to get my hands on this book was to see if the author revealed anything of significance about her personal life, past and present. I’ve known for some time that Donna Leon has led an unconventional life, having lived in a variety of countries all over the world before at last settling in Venice. I’ve always been curious about what prompted her to lead this peripatetic existence, so alien to and remote from her native land.
So, what did I learn from this collection about this gifted, mercurial person?
1. Living in Venice is hard work, especially as you get older. There are no cars to convey you and your parcels from place to place.
2. Italians can be irreverent slobs:
….no building, regardless of its beauty, age, or condition, is safe from spray paint and mindless graffiti; the rocks of the Alberoni, the only swimmable beach here, are awash with plastic bottles and bags; rivers teem with the same detritus; and both sides of state highways would provide a fortune in bottle deposits, had Italy a policy of placing deposits on glass bottles.
(Never mind all this: she’s had a “thirty-year love affair” with the Italians and has no wish to live anywhere else.)
3. The bureaucracy will drive you crazy.
4. Italians can be very strange on the subject of food. For instance, all foodstuffs seem to be either pesante (heavy) or leggero (light). The determination as to which is which may depend on whether your mother cooked it for you.
5. Tourists are the scourge of the Earth in general and of Venice in particular:
They have, these countless millions, effectively destroyed the fabric of life known to the inhabitants of the city for a thousand years, have made life intolerable for residents for vast periods of the year, have led to the proliferation of shops that sell masks, plastic gondolas, tinted paper, sliced pizza, vulgar jester’s hats, and ice cream, all but the last of which the residents do not want and no one on the planet needs. They consume enormous amounts of drinking water and produce an endless supply of waste.
6. Visits to America only serve to reinforce her sense that it is, for her, an alien place. She returns mainly for family reasons. There’s a short, poignant piece on her mother’s funeral in New Jersey; Leon’s talons, mercifully, are retracted. In another essay, she profiles several of the more eccentric members of her clan. They all seem to have gotten along with one another reasonably well.
7. Lately, on these infrequent sojourns to her native land, she’s been astounded at the size and slovenliness of the people she sees. From a chapter entitled “Fatties:”
Americans are fat, but in a way that is peculiar to them,as though a race of hermaphrodites had been squeezed out of pastry bag and badly smoothed into shape with a giant spatula, then stuffed into low-crotched jeans and tent-sized T-shirts before being given bad haircuts and sent on their way.
Talons back out, and how!
8. She taught in China for a year. She lived in Iran for four years and liked the country very much. She lived and taught in Saudi Arabia for a year and loathed the place, loathes it still. Why was she doing this? She needed the money, she says. But surely there are less stressful ways to get it….
9. A section “On Men” got my antennae waving, especially in one essay where she confesses to perusing the “Personals” in the New York Review of Books. But alas, she is not doing this for herself, but on behalf of a widowed friend.
10. In a section on music, Leon pours out her love of baroque opera in general and the works of George Frideric Handel in particular. In an essay on Maria Callas, she refers to Tosca as “a vulgar potboiler I wouldn’t today cross the street to hear.” I admit I laughed out loud when I read this. Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini, is my absolute favorite opera. It’s got passion, jealousy, lust, the highest of high drama, and music that is almost too gorgeous to believe. It invariably reduces me to tears. Ah well – chacun à son goût, as I’m sure Donna Leon would agree – or perhaps not. She is, after all, nothing if not a woman of strong opinions.
When all is said and done, I encountered no startling revelations of a romantic or familial nature. Donna Leon remains something of a mystery to me. She’s keeping her secrets, as she has every right to do. I’m deeply grateful to her for the Guido Brunetti novels; they’re among the most thoughtful, well written, wryly humorous, and ultimately humane works of crime fiction that I know of.
The penultimate essay in My Venice is called “Suggestions on Writing a Crime Novel.” It is, for my money, the best piece in the book, full of useful insights, clearly articulated, concerning the craft of writing crime fiction. (The term ‘craft’ neatly sums up all that I think is not quite right about much contemporary fiction. I refer to the lack of structure, indifferent writing, inconsistent characterization, and a host of other problems.) Here’s Donna Leon on the subject of narrative point of view; specifically, the issues raised by an author’s choice to write in the first person.
The practical danger resulting from the decision to use the first person should be immediately obvious: the acquisition of information. There are only o many ways a character can obtain information: he can hear it or see it or read it. (Okay, smell and taste, but let’s be serious here.) Does he hear or does he overhear?If he’s going to hear it, then he has to be a character who is sufficiently sympathetic to be trusted by many different people and thus trusted with their confidences. If he’s going to overhear, then he’s got to be lucky to be in the right place at the right time. when the wrong things are said.
I recommend this essay not only to writers, but also to readers in search of criteria to use when evaluating their reading matter. After I read it, I thought to myself, so that’s why Leon’s Guido Brunetti novels are so excellent.
“Obscurity was his nature as well as his profession” – The Usual Suspects discuss John LeCarre’s A Murder of Quality
Some twenty years ago, Graham Lord, a would-be biographer of John LeCarre, was making the rounds of publishers with a book proposal. The confidential document promised some truly salacious revelations. Lord thought he might be sitting on a gold mine!
Then came the threatening letters. Then Lord was served with a writ for libel. It became obvious that the subject of this potential blockbuster was determined that it should never see the light of day. Lord, who currently resides somewhere in the Caribbean, hastily backed off the project. When asked for further details by a Telegraph reporter, he demurred, saying, “I just don’t dare go through it again.” Apologizing for not being more helpful, he added, “Unfortunately most of the people he was close to are dead now, although I am sure there is no significance in that.” (One cannot help wondering – how sure is he?)
The basic facts of LeCarre’s early life are these: he was born David John Moore Cornwell in Poole, Dorset, in 1931. His parents were Ronnie and Olive Cornwell. He had an older brother and a younger sister. when he was five, Olive deserted the family, leaving the three children to Ronnie’s tender mercies.
Turns out that Ronnie Cornwell was a con man of epic proportions who purportedly made and lost several fortunes, was alleged to have been at one time an associate of the notorious Kray bothers, and spent four years in prison. Here’s LeCarre’s recollection of life with Father:
‘I don’t know how many times the bailiffs called…. “You have no idea how humiliating it was, as a boy, to suddenly have all your clothes, your toys, snatched by the bailiff. It made me ashamed, I felt dirty.”
Eventually David/John was sent to board at a school called Sherborne, where he experiences torments of a different sort:
Sherborne in my day had been rustic, colonialist, chauvinist, militarist, religious , patriotic and repressive. Boys beat other boys, housemasters beat boys, and even the headmaster turned his hand to beating boys when the crime was held to be sufficiently heinous or school discipline was thought to be slipping. I don’t know whether masters beat masters but, in any case, I loathed them, and I loathed their grotesque allegiances most of all. To this day, I can find no forgiveness for their terrible abuse of the charges entrusted to them.
It seems incredible now that such practices persisted well into the twentieth century. Fortunately, with regard to Sherborne and other schools like it, things have changed. Many are now co-educational and accept many more day students than was formerly the practice. Judging from its site, Sherborne itself, while still a boys only establishment, looks quite civilized.
LeCarre eventually went to Lincoln College, Oxford, graduating in 1956 with a first class Honors Degree degree in modern languages. He also studied abroad for a time in Switzerland. During all of this, he became involved in intelligence work, variously with the military, with MI5 and eventually MI6.
Of his childhood and its influence on his later life, LeCarre has this to say:
‘I was by nature a defector, a bolter. I come from bolting stock. My mother bolted in order to marry my father, bolted again when I was five, and stayed bolted for the rest of my childhood. My father bolted from his orthodox but repressive upbringing and kept bolting of necessity for most of his life – often from the arm of the law, and sometimes unsuccessfully…I myself bolted from an English public school at 16; from the burdens of bachelorhood at 23; from the twilight world of British intelligence at 33; and from a first marriage at 36.’
(That first marriage, to Alison Ann Veronica Sharp, ended in 1971. They’d had three sons together. The following year he married Valerie Jane Eustace, a book editor; that marriage, which produced another son, still endures.)
In 1986, LeCarre gave an in depth interview to Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times. This was timed to coincide with the publication of A Perfect Spy. In that novel, whose main character is Magnus Pym, LeCarre drew heavily on his recollections of Ronnie Cornwell in creating the character of Rick Pym, Magnus’s father. (Thanks to Pauline for pointing me to this article.)
As for his life at present, LeCarre claims it’s not all that interesting. His succinct summing up: “I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities. I write and walk and swim and drink.” Even so, there is a biography in the works, authorized this time, written by Adam Sisman and due out early next year:
John LeCarre has written twenty-two novels, six of which feature George Smiley as the protagonist. (Smiley has a supporting role in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The main character in that book is Alec Leamas, memorably portrayed in the 1965 film by Richard Burton.) A Murder of Quality (1962) comes second in LeCarre’s oeuvre. It is preceded by Call for the Dead (1961). For the complete list of LeCarre’s works, and awards and nominations, see the entry on Stop!You’re Killing Me.
I read A Murder of Quality because it was recommended to me by a library friend whose judgment I trust. When I at first demurred, saying that I always found LeCarre’s plots difficult to untangle, she reassured me that this was in fact a straight up murder mystery rather than a novel of espionage and was therefore easier to follow. (She was partly right.) Moreover, the chief investigator is none other than the redoubtable George Smiley himself.
Up until this time, I had read only two LeCarre novels: Smiley’s People, when it came out in 1980, and The Constant Gardner (2000). But like many thriller fans, I’m intrigued by George Smiley: his origins, his characteristics, and above all, his strangely incongruous marriage to the beautiful and inconstant aristocrat, Lady Ann Sercomb.
LeCarre himself has named two individuals as inspiraton for his creation. One is John Bingham, a fellow novelist and his mentor at MI5, and the Reverend Vivian Green, sub-Rector of Lincoln College Oxford, while LeCarre was a student there.
In his 1992 introduction to a re-issue of Call for the Dead, LeCarre has warm praise for Bingham:
John Bingham started me off, there is no doubt of it. John looked a bit like Smiley and wrote his thrillers in the lunch hour. Later he became, through no fault of his own , an Earl, a transition I can never quite forgive in anybody with a sense of humour . He was one of the good ones, all the same, Earl or spy: a kindly, gracious, astute man, ex-journalist, ex– Control Commission, intelligence professional to his fingertips.
Bingham, however, was more reserved in his assessment of his former protege. In a letter that has come to light as part of a trove of recently released documents, he expressed the belief that in portraying intelligence officers as fools and bumblers in his fiction, LeCarre was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. In a letter to the Telegraph dated last March 5, LeCarre fired back this riposte:
Where Bingham believed that uncritical love of the Secret Services was synonymous with love of country, I came to believe that such love should be examined. And that, without such vigilance, our Secret Services could in certain circumstances become as much of a peril to our democracy as their supposed enemies.
John Bingham may indeed have detested this notion. I equally detest the notion that our spies are uniformly immaculate, omniscient and beyond the vulgar criticism of those who not only pay for their existence, but on occasion are taken to war on the strength of concocted intelligence.
(Yet another person has been identified as possibly providing source material for LeCarre’s depiction of George Smiley. He is Sir Maurice Oldfield, former chief of MI6, Sir Maurice died in 1981 at age 65.)
Call for the Dead opens with a chapter entitled “A Brief History of George Smiley.” Portions of it seem almost gleefully nasty, at least to this reader (The Sawley here referred to is Viscount Sawley, a relation of Lady Ann’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. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that “Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou’wester.” And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.
“Waddled?” Really? At any rate, two years after these highly unusual nuptials, the bride runs off with a Cuban racing car driver, leaving poor Smiley bereft. Never fear, Smiley; you have not seen the last of Lady Ann! (Click here to read the full text of this chapter.)
“Black Candles,” the first chapter of A Murder of Quality, serves as an introduction to Carne School. We then meet two students, Caley and Perkins. Perkins plays a key role in the story; Caley disappears without a trace. We next find ourselves at a dinner party hosted by one Terence Fielding, a senior house master at the school. His guests are Charles Hecht and his wife Shane. All is amicable on the surface – but only on the surface. Fielding obviously hasn’t much use for Charles Hecht, and he positively loathes his wife: “Shane was so hideous. Massive and enveloping, like a faded Valkyrie. All that black hair.” Fielding also can’t help feeling revulsion as he thinks “…of Hecht pasturing in that thick body.” (I have to comment: there’s something about the use of the word ‘pasturing’ in this context that positively made my stomach churn.)
In Chapter Two, entitled “The Thursday Feeling,” we find ourselves in London, in the company of Miss Ailsa Brimley, editor of a small but persistent journal called Christian Voice. She has just completed preparations for the forthcoming issue and is feeling quite satisfied with life in general and her work in particular.
Miss Brimley, alone in the Voice office, is getting ready to shut up shop for the day when a letter comes inadvertently to her attention. It is from Stella Rode, a long time subscriber and supporter of Christian Voice. She is now the wife of a faculty member at Carne School. The purport of this letter is startling and deeply disturbing: Stella fears that her husband intends to kill her. She does not want to involve the police in this matter, at least not yet. Can Miss Brimley help her?
Miss Brimley can. She knows just who to call. She and George Smiley had worked together in the intelligence service during the war. And in fact, they had both worked with Adrian Fielding, brother of Terence Fielding, currently at Carne School. Within minutes, Miss Brimley is in George Smiley’s flat. Smiley puts through a call to Terence Fielding at Carne and receives some shocking news. He, Smiley, must proceed to Carne without delay. The game is already afoot.
Several further points about this chapter, which sets the scene so dramatically for all that is to come. There’s a striking descriptive passage that occurs as Miss Brimley struggles to come to grips with Stella Rode’s desperate plea:
Abruptly she stood up, the letter still in her hand, and walked to the uncurtained window. Just in front of her was a contemporary window-box of woven white metal. It was odd, she reflected, how she could never get anything to grow in that window-box. She looked down into the street, a slight, sensible figure leaning forward a little and framed by the incandescent fog outside; fog made yellow from the stolen light of London’s streets. She could just distinguish the street lamps far below, pale and sullen. She suddenly felt the need for fresh air, and on an impulse quite alien to her usual calm, she opened the window wide . The quick cold and the angry surge of noise burst in on her, and the insidious fog followed. The sound of traffic was constant, so that for a moment she thought it was the turning of some great machine . Then above its steady growl she heard the newsboys. Their cries were like the cries of gulls against a gathering storm. She could see them now, sentinels among the hastening shadows.
Ailsa Brimley is of a type: the brisk, no-nonsense, competent, dutiful spinster upon whom others know they can rely. It is a trope that appears not infrequently in British fiction. In Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison, another such is Miss Climpson, who is given useful employment by Lord Peter Wimsey. Without her cunning and resourcefulness, he might not have been able to save his innamorata, Harriet Vane, from the gallows. (We of the Suspects agreed that Miss Brimley was a wonderful character and quite possibly the only likeable female in the novel.)
Upon arriving at Carne, Smiley finds himself in an enclosed, almost claustrophobic atmosphere, rife with cynicism, suspicion and dislike. LeCarre has denied that his own alma mater Sherborne, served as the model for Carne, but that seems rather disingenuous on his part. Our group had the benefit of Pauline’s familiarity with British educational practices during this time. She herself briefly attended a girls’ boarding school – she even had a pen pal at Sherborne! And she made an interesting observation; namely, that often when children and youths find themselves living in a trying situation such as boarding school can be, with no parents nearby to advise and encourage them, they’re forced to fall back on their own resources. For some, that can be a strengthening experience.
In A Murder of Quality, we find more intriguing clues to George Smiley’s true character:
It was a peculiarity of Smiley’s character that throughout the whole of his clandestine work he had never managed to reconcile the means to the end . 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 bit later, in the same chapter, we’re told of Smiley that “Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession.” LeCarre goes on to make a general observation that “The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction.” As Ian Fleming had already sprung James Bond on a delighted reading public – the first, Casino Royale, came out in 1954 – we can guess what probably prompted this comment.
And of course we still have the conundrum of Smiley’s wayward wife. The venomous Shane Hecht manages to get a dig in at Smiley on the subject:
“There was a fellow called Smiley married Ann Sercomb, Lord Sawley’s cousin. Damned pretty girl, Ann was, and went and married this fellow. Some funny little beggar in the Civil Service with an OBE and a gold watch. Sawley was damned annoyed.”
Smiley, apparently accustomed to this sort of mockery, does not respond.
Frances had an interesting theory about Lady Ann. Perhaps she recognized the fact that Smiley had an extraordinary mind and might be a fascinating person to live with. Unfortunately, she did not have the bottle to stick around and see if the idea bore fruit.
Someone – sorry, I forgot who – observed that for a book written in the early 1960s, A Murder of Quality reflected almost no awareness of the seismic social and political changes engulfing the world. In fact, Britain was just on the cusp of those changes: decimalization of their currency, decriminalization of homosexual acts in private, between consenting adults, and abolition of the death penalty for murder – all were shortly to come. So, in the sense, this novel reflects old mores and antiquated prejudices, about to be swept away (Although this is doesn’t quite produce the wholesale change in hearts and minds that people assume it will, at least not at the beginning). At any rate, when Fielding cries out, “They’ll hang me,” he has good reason to fear.
Pauline had with her an edition of Call for the Dead which included a foreword by Otto Penzler. Penzler was of the opinion that LeCarre’s characters shared certain traits with those of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. When Pauline first mentioned this, I thought it bizarre, but after the discussion had gotten under way, I think we were more able to grasp his point. I’ve already said that Ailsa Brimley was of a type; the same might be said of Felix D’Arcy and his sister Dorothy, Jane Lyn, or “mad Janie,” Stanley Rode, Shane Hecht, and even Terence Fielding himself. They’re real people, yet they are also exaggerated portrayals. For his part, Inspector Rigby was the world weary yet stalwart and conscientious law officer so often encountered in detective fiction, from Sergeant Cuff and Inspector Bucket down to the present day. What one misses in this novel and so readily finds in the works of Dickens and Austen is the occasional lightening of tone, if not downright comic relief. The atmosphere in A Murder of Quality is almost unremittingly grim, almost Gothic.
I had a problem with Stella Rode. The different facets of her character – reported to us, of necessity, by others – did not seem to cohere. Others in the group, however, disagreed with me, believing that she was sufficiently cunning to encompass contradictory traits and to deceive the unsuspecting in the process of exercising her wiles.
So, who was the most genuinely interesting, even appealing, character in the novel? One whose actions and reactionstended to be both unexpected and unpredictable? For me, that person was George Smiley.
I haven’t said much about the actual plot of this murder mystery. That’s because I thought it at several key junctures to be quite confusing. (The other Suspects present largely agreed with me.) Also a great deal of explication and explanation was piled on at the very end of the book. This happens not infrequently in crime novels, and I always find it to some degree unsatisfactory.
I think the over all verdict of our group was that A Murder of Quality was an interesting novel in many ways, but something of a period piece as well as a journeyman work for LeCarre. The novel that followed, his third, took the literary world by storm. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold signaled the end of LeCarre’s apprenticeship and his emergence into the world of spy fiction as a true master.
Suspects, I hope you enjoyed this discussion as much as I did!
I loved this description of the village of Pylle, which lies adjacent to Carne:
The village of Pylle lies to the south of North Fields, upon a high spur which rises steeply from the flat, 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 low-lands 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 bronze 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.
Why are we drawn to true crime narratives? The ready-to-hand answer to this question might be that we are by nature prurient creatures whose morbid curiosity can only be slaked by the rich helpings of horror and misfortune served up by these stories. While there may be some truth to this explanation, I don’t believe that it is the whole truth.
I was recently asked by my friend and fellow Usual Suspect Pauline if I might be interested in teaching a course in the literature of true crime. The course would be offered at a lifelong learning institute that has a local campus. (Pauline herself has been teaching there for a number years.) As soon as this proposition was put before me, my mind started to race: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher! Fatal Vision! The Executioner’s Song! The Devil in the White City! Midnight in Peking! The Poisoner’s Handbook! And, inevitably, In Cold Blood.
In addition to these, in the past several months I’ve read three notable true crime titles: Little Demon in the City of Light by Steven Levingston, The Mad Sculptor by Harold Schechter, and Blood Royal by Eric Jager. All three belong to the subgenre of historical true crime and though all were in varying degrees engrossing. I’d have to say that my favorite was Blood Royal, a book that combines elements of medieval history, crime, and detection to create a riveting narrative. It will rank as one of my best reads of this year, for certain.
So my mind is racing, filled with the myriad possibilities and approaches to such an undertaking, not to mention the sheer number of books to consider. For the first time, the vastness of the field became apparent to me. Where to begin? How to place limits?
With this decision made, everything else began to fall more or less neatly into place.
to begin with, I decided to highlight several of the 20th century’s more notorious crimes, as referenced in this collection.. There’s “The Black Dahlia,” subject of an essay written by Jack Webb. Yes, that Jack Webb, the man who created Dragnet and became a pioneer of realism in television police dramas.
In “Eternal Blonde,” Damon Runyon describes the murder trial of former lovers Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray. In the heat of their affair, Snyder convinced Gray to help kill her husband for the insurance money. They had to make it look like an accident, so that they could get twice the amount in the payout. In insurance speak, that’s called double indemnity.
Sound familiar? It should:
Double Indemnity , a classic noir novel, was inspired by the Snyder-Gray case. In 1944, it became one of the greatest noir films ever made. The following clip, featuring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, is one of the movie’s most memorable scenes. The screenwriter was Raymond Chandler, and the rapid fire one liners were written by him, not Cain:
In the fifties and sixties, Dorothy Kilgallen was a panelist on a popular television quiz show called What’s My Line. Most of us who watched the show back then knew her only in that capacity. She was in fact an accomplished journalist who write about show business as well as politics and crime. Her piece in the True Crime anthology is called “Sex and the All-American Boy,” and all I can say is, read it for yourself. Tone, style, content – she absolutely nails it!
The eponymous all-American boy is one Robert Allen Edwards. In 1934 Robert found himself embroiled in a classic love triangle. The competing love interests were Freda McKechnie, the girl next door in Edwardsville, Pennsylvania, and Margaret Crain, who resided with her parents in Aurora, New York. Freda became pregnant. Robert said he’d marry her, but he desperately did not want to.
One evening, Freda suggested that Robert take her to a lake for a swim….
A young man with two girlfriends. One of them becomes pregnant and insists that they marry. They go down to a nearby lake….
Once again, I ask: Sound familiar? It is almost the exact same scenario that describes the death of Grace Brown at the hands of Chester Gillette in upstate New York in 1906. One of the journalists present at the murder trial of Robert Allen Edwards was Theodore Dreiser. In 1925, Dreiser had written his magnum opus An American Tragedy, a fictional treatment of the Brown/Gillette story. How strange it must have seemed to him, sitting in that courtroom some twenty years later. He probably experienced a powerful sense of déja vu.
An American Tragedy provided the plot line for yet another terrific film. Made in 1951, A Place in the Sun starred Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters and a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor.
More on this subject will appear in a subsequent post. Now I’d like to address the way in which this subject has hijacked my personal reading program! Having promised myself that in future, I’d be buying as few hard copy books as possible, I’ve just purchased a slew of them. Several of the items I’ve become interested in as a result of my recent research on true crime are not owned by the local library; nor are they available for Kindle download.
A number are out of print. This is true of Murder One, the collection of pieces by Dorothy Kilgallen that includes “Sex and the All-American Boy.” I did not get this Dell paperback (75 cents!); rather, I got a used hardback. Rather ill-used, judging from the condition of its cover.
Blood and Ink: An International Guide to Fact Based Crime Literature, by Albert Borowitz. In print, published by Kent Stat University Press. A terrific but dangerous reference work. I was only in the A’s when I encountered Richard Altick, an author I remembered from my graduate school days. At that time, we’d been assigned to read The Scholar Adventurers. I recall finding Altick’s tales of literary sleuthing quite fascinating. What I don’t recall, and perhaps never knew, is that he had a special interest in Victorian Britain, specifically in crimes that occurred in that era. Hence, my ordering of Deadly Encounters: Two Victorian Sensations (available for Kindle download, thank goodness). No more poking around in Blood and Ink for me – at least, for the present! (“The Medea of Kew Gardens Hills” by Albert Borowitz is included in the True Crime anthology.)
And today I look forward to the arrival of two more items related to my true crime investigations. The first is The Badge by Jack Webb. Webb’s essay on the Black Dahlia murder case is included in this volume. I’m especially interested in reading James Ellroy’s introduction to the 2005 reissue of this book. In 1958, when he was ten years old, Ellroy’s mother was murdered. He then went to live with his father, something he was glad to do, as that feckless person pretty much left him alone to raise himself and later, to run wild. One thing his father did do for him was to give him the Jack Webb book for his eleventh birthday. On the face of it, this would seem an odd gift to give to a boy whose mother had recently met with violent death. And yet the book had a life changing effect on him, particularly the piece on the Black Dahlia:
The Badge got me hooked. I just followed Jack Webb’s lead.
He credits the book with motivating him to become, in his own words, the “Demon Dog of American literature.”
Ellroy’s essay “My Mother’s Killer” is included in the True Crime anthology. Originally published in GQ in 1994, the piece was later enlarged to become the memoir My Dark Places, published in 1996.
Jean Hilliker Ellroy’s killer. most probably the “swarthy man” with whom she’d gone out on a date the night of her death, has never been found.
I’ll keep you posted on further developments.
Tuesday night I had the privilege of representing AAUW Readers at a gathering of our members. Each committee and/or affinity group selects a table on which to display relevant items. I of course schlepped many books, thereby getting my day’s exercise (more like my week’s exercise!). In the course of gathering the books for display, I began a list to go with them. It’s an annotated list, something I’m usually too lazy to do, but I made it a bit easier for myself this time by cribbing shamelessly from my own previous posts in this space and, in several cases, quoting other reviewers.
Herewith, in a somewhat altered and enlarged format, are the results of my efforts, which I hope you enjoy:
The Round House by Louise Erdrich. A Native American teenager is determined to find out the truth about an unprovoked attack on his mother. By turns funny and poignant, the novel illustrates, with grace and subtlety, the process by which a boy becomes a man.
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley. “Although this novel has its share of unanticipated twists and turns, it is not by and large highly dramatic. Hadley’s writing is not showy, but in her choice of words, she has an almost pointillist gift for precision.”
They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy, first volume in The Transylvanian Trilogy. “At 1,454 pages, ‘The Transylvanian Trilogy’ is worth every penny. Set during the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Europe as a whole is slipping toward a cataclysmic war, it’s a saga of shortsighted politics and illicit love, of progressivism at loggerheads with entrenched interests, of servants outfoxing their masters — all kept in breathtaking balance by the power of the author’s artistry.” Dennis Drabelle in the Washington Post
The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France; and Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris, both by Eric Jager. I thought that the history of the Middle Ages could not be made more riveting than it was in The Last Duel. And then I read Blood Royal, the story of the murder of the king of France’s brother and the ensuing investigation, and it was even better!
Glittering Images: A Journey Though Art from Egypt to Star Wars by Camille Paglia. This author is well known for stoking controversy in other fields, but art history is her vocation as well as her passion, and she writes about it with the same articulate intensity that she brings to her writing about social and political hot button issues.
The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstol. “This is a beautiful book. The characters are memorable and intriguing, but what has really stayed with me is Sundstøl’s remarkable evocation of a place I previously knew nothing about. In writing that is intensely lyrical, he has made Minnesota’s North Shore come alive.”
Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook. This is a thoroughly engrossing and terrifically well written courtroom drama, but “….the greatest strength of the novel lies in its exploration of one person’s mind and heart, in its depiction of what the truth really consists of, and how, once that truth stands revealed, it has the power to alter a person’s most basic assumptions about the world, about other people, and most of all, about him- or herself.”
A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell. “The theme of expulsion from the garden of Eden resonates from time to time in this novel. But in the Bible, a right to be present in that blessed place is premised on the possession of an innocent and unsullied nature. Alas, none of these protagonists were possessed of such a nature. They were deeply flawed human beings, before the terrible unraveling ever began.” This bids fair to be the best novel of psychological suspense I’ve ever read.
A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake. Set in Preston, Lancashire, in the year 1740, this novel’s chief protagonist is Titus Cragg, who serves as the town’s coroner. He is greatly helped in his endeavors by Luke Fidelis, a young physician and also a close friend. (Titus is married; Luke is not.) A Dark Anatomy is distinguished by a meticulous re-creation of a very specific time and place as well as a fully realized cast of characters. For my money, it’s the best historical mystery series debut to come along in quite some time.
Cop To Corpse by Peter Lovesey. This time, for Peter Diamond, it’s personal: while on routine patrol, Harry Tasker, a young beat cop, has been shot and killed by a sniper. Chief Superintendent Diamond must bring the full force of his investigative acumen to bear on one of the most baffling cases he’s ever encountered. ”Since its inception, with The Last Detective in 1991, the Peter Diamond series has gotten better and better….I owe many hours of great reading pleasure to Peter Lovesey. His procedurals are on a par with those of Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter.”
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris. A vivid retelling of France’s notorious Dreyfus Affair by a master of the historical thriller. “While finely attuned to modern resonances of surveillance, cultural identity and patriotic loyalty, Harris stays true to the atmosphere and morals of the period. He has crafted a compelling narrative of state corruption and individual principle, and a memorable whistleblower whose stubborn call can still be heard more than a century later.” Andrew Anthony in The Guardian/Observer
And for those who love Italy, as I do:
Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio. “This is not a plot driven novel. Its richness lies in its character creation, vivid sense of place – the place being the city of Bari, in Italy’s Puglia region – and terrific writing. Temporary Perfections is the fourth in the Guido Guerrrieri series….I plan to go back and read the other Guerrieri novels. I absolutely love this book!” (I also recommend, and highly, The Silence of the Wave.)
A Venetian Affair: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the Eighteenth Century, by Andrea di Robilant. A cache of letters found in a Venetian palazzo proves to be a treasure chest for this Italian journalist. With the aid of these precious documents, di Robilant is able to track back the history of his own family. In the process, he unearths a beautiful love story set against the grandeur and intrigue of eighteenth century Venice.
The Golden Egg, and pretty much all the Commissario Guido Brunetti novels by Donna Leon. “I very much like the use Leon makes in these novels of the third person limited point of view. It has allowed her readers over the years to attain a kind of intellectual and emotional intimacy with Guido Brunetti….Likewise, the reader gets to spend time en famille with Brunetti, Paola, and their two children, Chiara and Raffi. This is a close and devoted family. Meals are taken together, including lunch – including on weekdays – very civilized. The meals are invariably delicious; Paola is a terrific cook. The conversation at table is often both bracing and raucous.”
Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Highet. Born in Glasgow Scotland in 1906, Gilbert Highet taught the classics at Columbia University from 1938 to 1971. During that time, his charismatic classroom presence became legendary. Poets in a Landscape is part history, part travelogue, and wholly magical. Every page is animated by Highet’s deep knowledge and love of Italy, both past and present….From start to finish, a transcendent reading experience.”
It is good for us to think of Catullus returning to his northland from enervating Asia or corrupt Rome, and, for a time, being happy in ‘relief long-sought, when the mind drops its burdens’. Yet he was a man doomed to misery. We come closer to his soul when, with a single small volume of poems (a promise of far richer possibilities unfulfilled) in our hand, we stand above the endlessly rolling waves that beat on Sirmio, and watch the olive trees, twisted into shapes like those of tormented prisoners, tossing their arms wildly in the air, and feel upon our faces the tearful violence of the restless and passionate wind.
I need to read this gorgeous book again, and soon (in Italy, perhaps…?)
“Kitchie-Gami was colored golden, pink, silvery-white, sulfur-yellow, as well as a number of hues for which no words existed.” – Vidar Sundstøl’s The Land of Dreams
Kitchie-Gami is the Ojibwe name for Lake Superior. The lake is a gigantic, mysterious presence in The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl. The story takes place on Minnesota’s North Shore, where the land meets the water. It is here, amid a landscape densely covered in greenery and studded with dramatic waterfalls, Forest Service officer Lance Hansen makes a discovery of unparalleled horror: a body brutally savaged by an unknown killer. The victim is one of a pair of Norwegian tourists. He discovers both young men in peculiar circumstances.
Throughout the novel, Lance is haunted by his remembrance of the victim. Even worse, he is bedeviled by a nagging suspicion; namely, is the murderer really unknown? Or is he known only too well?
Lance Hansen is a melancholy, inward turning person, but he is not a cliche of the genre. Rather he is all too human, divorced and the father of Jimmy, a seven-year-old currently living with his mother on the Ojibwe Reservation. Lance has lived on the North Shore his entire life, yet as the drama of The Land of Dreams unfolds, he seems very solitary. His nagging fear concerning the identity of the killer serves to isolate him further from family and friends.
This is a beautiful book. The characters are memorable and intriguing, but what has really stayed with me is Sundstøl’s remarkable evocation of a place I previously knew nothing about. In writing that is intensely lyrical, he has made Minnesota’s North Shore come alive. Here, Lance is recalling his impressions while driving south along Lake Superior, during the time of his courtship of Mary Dupree:
It was in the spring and summer that the beginning phase of their relationship unfolded. The evenings were long and bright,the lake and sky merging in a hallucinatory way so that it was impossible to see where on ended and the other began. The humidity from that enormous expanse of water filled the air with a delicate mist, and in the mist floated shades of yellow, pink, and blue, like watercolors, all of them illuminated by the evening sun hovering low in the sky. After the sun sank below the horizon, the colors darkened to violet and black.
Since both the murder victim and a potential suspect are Norwegian nationals, the decision is taken to have a Norwegian law enforcement officer flown in to assist in the investigation. Upon landing in Duluth, this is Eirik Nyland’s first impression:
In spite of the typical and anonymous scene that characterizes every airport, he had a distinct awareness that he was in the United States. Even in this small airport in Minnesota, he had the feeling of a smooth, carefully structured surface concealing a violent energy underneath.
In fact, Duluth turns out to be an interesting city. We get a glimpse of its impressive aquarium when Lance takes Jimmy there on a weekend outing. In addition, the rather amazing Aerial Lift Bridge crosses the canal that connects Lake Superior to the Duluth-Superior Harbor and the St. Louis River:
Like so many that live in the region of the North Shore, Lance Hansen is descended from Norwegian immigrants. He is an avid student of the region’s history and its people; indeed, this novel provides fascinating glimpses into that history. For instance, in the 1830s, John Jacob Astor financed a fishing concern on Lake Superior’s northern shore. A financial crash stopped the project in its tracks, yet at the same time it seemed to portend what the future would bring:
Gone were the voyageurs’ romantic songs and the Celtic strains from the Great Hall. Gone were the dairy cows, the pigs waiting to be slaughtered, and the crates of Portuguese wine. Gone were the European Crowns’ colorful flags and banners, the uniforms and drums, and cries of “God Save the King!”
Instead, something entirely different was approaching. Something that would redefine the land itself. The time of treaties was approaching. Legal provisos, signatures, and maps. Rivers and mountains and valleys were given new names. The flowers too. And the birds and fish. Everything had a new name, and the names were written down in books. And the world as it actually existed was erased and conjured into a dark spirit world.
What was approaching was the modern nation of the United States.
Since I’ve been praising the writing in The Land of Dreams, I should also praise the work of the translator, the redoubtable Tiina Nunnally. Now you may fairly ask yourself why a novel set in Minnesota needs to be translated into English. Here’s the answer: author Vidar Sundstøl is Norwegian; he writes, naturally enough, in that language. He and his wife came to live on the North Shore for two years. The result of this experience – or one of its results – is this novel, published in Norway in 2008, plus two others: Only the Dead and Ravens. Taken together, they constitute The Minnesota Trilogy. In this essay, the author provides some background on how the writing of these books came about. (According to Amazon, Only the Dead is due out here in October. No word yet on Ravens, or at any rate, none that I was able to find.)
The Land of Dreams is aptly titled. Dreams – the act of dreaming and the content of the dreams – appear and reappear throughout the narrative. Lance can recall significant dreams from his past but none from recent times. In fact, he believes that he’s lost the knack of dreaming completely. The last dream that he can remember having – and he remembers it vividly – dates from the time of his son Jimmy’s birth:
Seven years ago he’d dreamed he was standing at the deepest spot in Lake Superior. He thought he was going to freeze to death. At the same time, it was beautiful. A blue landscape he was convinced existed only in his dream. Now he stared out at the darkness enveloping the lake. Once upon a time this was a place where dreams determined a person’s path in life. The Ojibwe, before they became Christianized, were a people who interpreted dreams. Their names often came from dreams. They made dream catchers to protect themselves from nightmares, and they wore amulets that represented particularly significant dreams they’d had.
And now? Now there was a different kind of land out there.
Years ago, when researching the novels of Tony Hillerman, I came upon an article in which the author observed that the Native American peoples of the Southwest had taken that vast and dramatic landscape and absorbed into their own interior landscape. In The Land of Dreams, we see something akin to this phenomenon happening to those who dwell in the very different surroundings of the North Shore.
(Sundstøl has also managed to evoke in this reader in a deep desire to experience the North Shore at first hand. I know from my past travels that you don’t have to be a long time resident of a place in order to fall under its spell, especially if you have envisioned it beforehand. Years ago, my reading of Willa Cather, Tony Hillerman, and Judith Van Gieson strongly impelled me to go to New Mexico. I was already half in love with the place before I got there. Needless to say, it did not disappoint.)
Because Vidar Sundstøl’s writing is so straightforward and lacking in showiness, the events of the novel seem to unfold naturally and inevitably. He delivers profundity by means of understatement. All this against a backdrop of boreal forest, rivers and waterfalls, and the great, unknowable Kitchie-Gami itself.
“Superior, they said, never gives up her dead…” (from ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ by Gordon Lightfoot).
The nominees for the year 2014 Best Novel Award were the following:
Of these six, I’ve read three: How the Light Gets In, Ordinary Grace, and Sandrine’s Case. I’d like to comment on these.
By the time I got around to reading the Louise Penny title, I’d already read a number of glowing reviews. So I was hopeful, and that hope was vindicated. How the Light Gets In is a wonderful novel, filled with Penny’s signature poetic writing and populated with characters we’ve come to know and care about.
At this point, I’ve read nearly all of the books in the Inspector Gamache series and enjoyed them, for the most part. You’ll notice, I qualified the previous statement. Some of the novels have worked better for me than others. And then there was The Beautiful Mystery, the series entry immediately preceding this one. Almost from the beginning, I felt as though I were slogging through this narrative. Some mysteries have a slower pace than others, and don’t necessarily suffer for it, but this book seemed to me positively inert, completely becalmed. Everyone was penned up in a monastery on an island, and all I knew was, I wanted off that island ASAP! At about the half way point, I gave up.
The Beautiful Mystery was an award winner – nearly all of Louise Penny’s books have been honored in this way, several with multiple accolades – but it did not work for me on any level. This was one of the reasons I was so delighted with How the Light Gets In. A glorious return to form for Ms Penny.
For the record, my favorite entries in this series are the first one, Still Life, and especially Bury Your Dead, the reading of which made me want to drop everything and get on a plane to Quebec City, where I would (naturally) stay at the fabulous Chateau Frontenac...
William Kent Krueger has garnered a slew of raves for Ordinary Grace. The novel is set in New Bremen, Minnesota in 1961; the unfolding events of that fateful summer are recounted by teenager Frank Drum. Frank’s father is a Methodist minister; his mother, an aspiring writer. A younger brother and an older sister make up the rest of the family.
From the jacket copy:
It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.
Yes, it’s all there and it sounds sensational, yet as I was reading, it didn’t strike me that way. This may be partly because, clocking in at just over 300 pages in the hardback version, the novel proceeds at an oddly leisurely pace. We get quite a few opportunities to delve inside the daily lives of Drum family members, and, as is the case in most families, these quotidian glimpses are not all uniformly fascinating – at least they weren’t for this reader. There were times when I became a bit impatient, in particular with Frank’s younger brother Jake, whom I found at times to be pesky. Perhaps his behavior was meant to be endearing; instead I found it annoying. (Sorry – apologies to baby brothers and sister the world over!)
Krueger is the author of a highly regarded series featuring Cork O’Connor. It too is set in Minnesota. (The Land of 10,000 Lakes seems to be having its moment right now. I’m currently reading The Land of Dreams, a terrific novel in the Minnesota trilogy by Norwegian author Vidar Sundstol. And then, of course, there’s Fargo.) Cork O’Connor is a very appealing protagonist, and his home state is vividly described by Krueger. Native American lore and characters also enrich the novels in this series. I’ve read and enjoyed two of them: Thunder Bay and Boundary Waters, which was a discussion selection by the Usual Suspects group.
When I sat down to read Ordinary Grace, I was optimistic, having no reason not to be. But only a few pages in, I looked up from the book and sighed deeply. I could not help thinking, I’ve been here before; another coming of age novel, a teenaged boy – it’s seems that it’s almost always a boy – finds out the Truth about Life. Part of my problem was that I still held in my mind the recollection of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, a stellar example of fiction in this genre, beautifully written and lightened with welcome touches of humor.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I was not quite as enthralled by Ordinary Grace as other readers obviously were. I found the novel by turns engaging and exasperating. I guess the problem was pretty much mine alone: Ordinary Grace just won the Edgar for this year.
Sandrine’s Case surprised me. I’ve had problems with Thomas H. Cook’s fiction in the past. Last year the Usual suspects discussed Breakheart Hill. I had serious issues with that novel and only barely got through it. Previously, I’d tried Cook’s Edgar winner, The Chatham School Affair, and gave up at about the half way point. I was finding the portentous tone and relentless hints at profundity just a bit too irritating. But in view of the laudatory reviews Sandrine’s Case was getting, I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.
Samuel Madison and his wife Sandrine are both professors at Coburn College in Coburn, Georgia. It’s a small college in a small southern town, and Samuel Madison can’t help feeling that he was destined for better things. When Sandrine, already ill, dies suddenly and inexplicably, her husband is accused of killing her. Initially,Madison’s default demeanor, characterized by an attitude of smug condescension, does him no good as a jury of his peers sits in judgment on him and on his actions.Here’s how he imagines the jurors perceive him:
I was a tenured professor, which to the people of Coburn was a ticket to a carefree and semiluxurious retirement. I couldn’t even be fired – so the locals assumed – no matter what I said in class, or even if I failed to show up in class at all. But this Samuel Joseph Madison character had wanted something more, they said to themselves and each other.A cushy life had simply not been enough for the esteemed professor, expert on Melville, Hawthorne, and God knows how many other lesser-known literary figures. Here was a man who’d lived high on the hog despite the fact that he conceived nothing, built nothing, invented nothing, maintained nothing, sold nothing. Here was a man who lived high on the hog by…talking.
In this surmise, he’s probably not fat from the truth. But as this courtroom drama runs its inevitable course, his views on his marriage, his life, and the nature of life itself all undergo a profound change.
The day to day progress of the trial provides an equal measure of tension and tedium.
Of course, as a reader, I knew that a great many things had been written about time. It was a river. It was a thief. It was money to Benjamin Franklin and a dream to Conrad Aiken. Tolstoy had thought of it as a warrior, but as my trial continued, I found myself recalling that it had been the peculiar power Shakespeare had ascribed to time that Sandrine had most often quoted, the notion that it voided cunning, that nothing could outfox it.
In other words, he observes wryly, murder will out.
Sandrine’s Case abounds with literary allusions. Partly these is meant to show the sphere in which Samuel Madison’s intellect nominally dwells (as did his wife’s). But they also showcase the erudition of the author himself. Cook’s knowledge and love of the world’s great literature enriches and deepens the scope of this narrative.
Be that as it may, Madison’s frequent citing of great literature risks making him look like an intellectual snob – which, to an extent, he is. At one point, he remarks to Morty, his lawyer, that he feels like Merseault, the emotionally inert protagonist of Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Morty’s response is heavy with sarcasm: “‘Be sure you mention that to the press, Sam, or better yet to the jury. I’m sure they’re all great fans of postwar existentialist French literature.'”
Sam Madison’s veneer of thinly veiled contempt is a cover-up for a man who is gradually and inevitably being shaken to his core. His mind is more and more frequently cast back into the past, his past with Sandrine, when their love was new and filled with hope and happy anticipation. Here he describes his feelings after indulging, while in court, in an especially poignant reverie:
Before that moment I’d sat in utter silence, completely still. I’d faced the witnesses squarely and offered no visible response to anything they’d said. But in the surprising insistence of that particular recollection I felt the emergence of a second, far darker tribunal, the grand inquisitor in his black robe, demanding to know what really happened, how with so starry a beginning I’d reached this starless night.
That is so beautifully put – I especially like the use of the word tribunal. There’s plenty of writing like this in Sandrine’s Case. But the greatest strength of the novel lies in its exploration of one person’s mind and heart, in its depiction of what the truth really consists of, and how, once that truth stands revealed, it has the power to alter a person’s most basic assumptions about the world, about other people, and most of all, about him- or herself.
Last October, an article by Thomas H. Cook entitled “The Ten Best Mystery Books” appeared in Publishers Weekly. His annotations are so persuasive, it’ll make you want to obtain his selections immediately. (The fact that three of my all time favorites are on this list may partly account for my enthusiasm. They are The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, A Coffin for Demetrios by Eric Ambler, and The Quiet American by Graham Greene.)
The Mystery Writers of America, the organization that bestows the Edgar Awards, features on its site a database that allows you to access the names of award winners and nominees going back to the inception of the award in 1946.