I love the unforced way in which Donna Leon‘s prose transforms itself into poetry:
“Brunetti had not been to the industrial area for years, though the plumes from its smokestacks formed an eternal backdrop for anyone arriving in the city by boat, and the highest plumes of smoke could sometimes be seen from Brunetti’s terrace. He was always struck by their whiteness, especially at night, when the smoke swirled so beautifully against the velvet sky. It looked so harmless, so pure, and never failed to make Brunetti think of snow, first communion dresses, brides. Bones.
The “Face” of the title belongs to Franca Marinello, wife of a prominent industrialist. Franca could almost have been beautiful, but her visage is marred by a not very successful surgery, which everyone assumes was done for cosmetic reasons. The process has left her oddly disfigured and caused her to be known locally as La Superliftata. But why would a woman in her thirties need to undergo such a procedure to begin with? This question and its attendant mysteries are at the heart of this provocative novel.
As ever, it is a pleasure to spend time in the company of Commissario Guido Brunetti, especially when he is at home. His wife Paola is a professor of English literature, but her academic obligations rarely interfere with her ability to throw fabulous meals together at a moment’s notice. The kids, Chiara and Raffi, are a delight. (I especially enjoy watching Chiara as she becomes more and more the uncompromising idealist, very much in the mode of her mother.)
Venice itself, with all its charms and flaws, is a crucial component of this series. Donna Leon does not hesitate to criticize the corruption, incompetence, and just plain indifference that she sees around her. She is equally adept at extolling the beauty and grace of her adopted home. At one point, a rare snowfall has Brunetti almost giddy with delight:
“Patches of the domes poked through the snow, which Brunetti could see was beginning to melt in the morning sun. Saints popped up from everywhere, a lion flew by, boats hooted at one another, and Brunetti closed his eyes from the joy of it.
Guido Brunetti is at once a deeply cultured and wholly unpretentious man. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but the Commissario makes it look easy.
In a very gracious comment on my About page, Kathy Durkin states:
‘I just read Donna Leon’s latest, “About Face,” which was great. I almost have to join a 12-step program when I finish her books as it’s like finishing a chocolate cake and then saying, “What now”?
Kathy has asked a very good question. Let’s see if I can provide as good an answer.
If you are looking for vividly drawn characters, intriguing setting, trenchant social criticism, excellent writing, or any combination of the aforementioned, then you’ll probably enjoy these:
( Click here for reviews of mystery fiction on this blog.)
Perhaps you are looking for a novel specifically set in Italy…
In the past, I have enjoyed crime fiction by both Magdalen Nabb and Michael Dibdin. (Oddly, and sadly, both of these writers died in 2007 at age 60.) Nabb’s novels are set in Florence, where the author lived for many years. This one is my favorite:
As for Dibdin, I have just begun re-reading this one: Cosi was the first book I read in the Aurelio Zen series. I absolutely loved it, and I’m reading it again now because it is set in Naples, where I will be going, for the first time, next week.
Finally, there is a series set in the fictional town of Vigata, in Sicily, that has been gaining steadily in popularity since it first appeared in this country in 2002. I refer to the Salvo Montalbano novels by Andrea Camilleri. Now, here’s the chance for certain members of the Usual Suspects discussion group to point there fingers at me and say, while laughing triumphantly: “We told you so!” Well, yes, you did. You kept singing the praises of this series and I kept letting myself be put off by such quirks as a healthy dose of profanity on page one. In addition, the books seemed like Mystery Lite – breezy and superficial. True, the latest, which I just finnished, started off that way. But I was soon hooked by the wonderful descriptions of Sicily, the compelling plot, and – oh, yes, the novel is very funny. The police station interplay between Montalbano and his fellow cops alone is worth the price of admission! I can tell I’ve genuinely liked a book when, by the time I finish reading it, it’s bristling with post-it flags. Well, to my surprise, it happened with August Heat.
One of the great pluses of the Salvo Montalbano novels is Salvo himself. (Yes..I can see that now!) He is probably the first – only? – police detective in crime fiction to strip down to his underwear in his office. Granted, he’s desperate to escape the heat – but still! Anyway, by the time he decided to entertain himself by singing an aria from Cavalleria Rusticana, this rustic product of Southern Italy had pretty well won me over.
Another excellent attribute of Montalbano’s is that he’s a reader: “He sat outside until eleven o’clock, reading a good detective novel by two Swedish authors who were husband and wife, in which there wasn’t a page without a ferocious and justified attack on social democracy and the government.” He is, of course, reading a mystery by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall and thereby showing a superb taste in crime fiction! And like the Swedish duo, Camilleri/Montalbano can be very cynical when it comes to business as usual in Sicily:
“Montalbano felt momentarily demoralized. How could it be that things never changed? Mutatis mutandis, one always ended up caught in a dangerous web of relations, collusions between the Mafia and politicians, the Mafia and entrepreneurs, politicians and banks, money-launderers and loan sharks.
In Vigata, treacherous actions coexist uneasily with an unabashed love of pleasure and leisure – what the ancients called otium.
The plot of August Heat centers around corruption in the building trades in general and the killing of a comely young girl in particular. The victim’s surviving sister, Adriana, is also beautiful – beautiful, and well nigh irresistible…
Camilleri’s novels, unlike those of Nabb, Dibdin, and Donna Leon, are written in Italian. Stephen Sartorelli’s translation reads quite smoothly; nonetheless, there are occasionally some jarring elements, as when he tries for an English equivalent of colloquial Italian speech. A glossary in the back of the book was much appreciated.
Here’s a recent release that will be of interest to the many fans of Donna Leon’s fiction:
For more information on mysteries set in Italy, go to Italian-Mysteries.com.
Souls of antiquity, artists and politicians, the real and the mythical, are taking up residence in my brain:
“Persephone’s childhood friends, the siren sisters, were the daughters of Melpomene, the muse of tragedy.They are often depicted as beautiful creatures, half-woman and half-bird….However, since the Middle Ages, the sirens have been portrayed as mermaids, half-woman and half-fish, representing a potential hazard to fisherman and sailors. The Ancients had a reverential fear of the sirens, who personified the perils of the sea and its storms. Because the sirens had been cursed by Demeter for their failure to save her daughter [Persephone], their beautiful music always portended disaster. Their songs promise to reveal great secrets about life and the world, yet in truth they were only a ruse to lure hapless sailors to their island off the Amalfi Coast, to be seduced and devoured.
The very rocks on which those vessels foundered are, I understand, near the Isle of Capri. One can still see them – I will see them!
Sirènes, by Claude Debussy, Claudio Abbado conducting:
I really appreciate “Brevity’s Pull,” an aptly titled piece by one of my favorite columnists, A.O. Scott. In it, he discusses the work of three American writers: Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, and Flannery O’Connor, each of whom is the subject of a new biography. All are renowned for their mastery of the short story form.
I’ve never read Barthelme or Cheever(!!), but as for Flannery O’Connor…she has been giving me chills since I first encountered her work . (This would have been during my English major days at Goucher College, a small women’s college in the Baltimore suburbs where I received a superb education in the humanities. I graduated in 1966. Since that time, Goucher has become co-educational.)
O’Connor’s stories combine laugh-out-loud hilarity with apocalyptic dread You wouldn’t think it possible, but it is, in the hands of this amazingly gifted writer. Ordinarily I am not a great fan of Southern Gothic, but it’s hard to imagine these stories taking place anywhere but in a hardscrabble South still oppressed by the past horrors of slavery and the lingering legacy of racism.
For me, the most memorable works from O’Connor’s oeuvre are “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “A Good man Is Hard To Find,” with its shocking conclusion (though, sad to say, probably not as shocking today as when it was published, in 1955), and above all, “The Displaced Person.” This last was memorably dramatized in one of the films comprising the series called The American Short Story Collection.
Flannery O’Connor’s star flamed only briefly toward the heavens: she died of lupus in 1964 at the age of 39.
Robert B. Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript provides yet another occasion of exuberant good times, not to mention no-holds-barred assessment, for the Usual Suspects
Last week, the Usual Suspects met to discuss The Godwulf Manuscript, the first novel in Robert B. Parker’s long running Spenser series. Or at any rate, that was our topic, in theory…
I don’t mean to imply that we did that famous Book Club Thing where you talk about everything except the book – au contraire! Ably led by Mike, who shared with us some great material on Parker’s personal and professional life, we ranged far and wide on the subject of this now-venerable author of crime fiction and his oeuvre. But we also touched on other mystery authors, such as
Donna Leon: “I didn’t like the new one at all!” “What!! I thought it was terrific!”
Elizabeth George: “The TV films are terrible.” “Actually, I think they’re an improvement on the books.” “How can you say that! She’s a great writer!”
The above snatches of (approximately replicated) conversation illustrate the ability of the Suspects to agree to disagree. Well, most of the time anyway…
Then we got onto the subject of Frank Sinatra, with Leo recalling some of the lore of Ole Blue Eyes that was part of the currency of his years of living in Hoboken. Loved the story about the baseball bat, Leo! And speaking of baseball, Leo reminisced about taking the subway to Yankee Stadium. Since, when young, I did likewise with my Dad and my brothers, I joined him in this fond recollection. Yet it was bittersweet as well: that storied ball park home no more to the New York Yankees, and my father gone these nine years.
But you cannot dwell too long on any one topic at a Suspects gathering – unless that topic is the book currently under consideration. And so, back to The Godwulf Manuscript. This first entry in the long running Spenser series came out in 1973, and as is usual in such cases, we found that the novel contained plenty of “time capsule” elements. Much of the action is set at a university, and the depiction of the speech and behavior of students is both interesting and jarring. As a whole, the kids are pretty obnoxious, with their imitation jive talk and anit-establishment cant. All this, mind you, while they drink and smoke more or less continuously. The drinking seemed par for the course, but the smoking came as a surprise – at least, it surprised me.
Then as now, there is drug use. Yet another difficulty is posed by the casual expression of anti-gay attitudes. Spenser does not indulge in these slurs; in fact, his stance indicates disapproval when others use them. Ethnic slurs and cruel stereotyping can pose a problem for readers of older crime fiction. I”ve encountered both in the novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers – especially the latter – but it was somewhat disconcerting to come upon such sentiments in a novel written in the early 1970′s.
Even those of us who enjoyed Godwulf Manuscript were annoyed by Spenser’s casual bed-hopping. Ostensibly he’s trying to assist a young co-ed who’s gotten herself involved in a very dicey situation. When he meets her parents, they are portrayed as a couple of blue bloods with ice water in their veins. But before you know it, the mother is throwing herself at the detective! And who is he to refuse and risk hurting her feelings? Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there…
Perhaps allowances needed to be made for the randy sleuth, someone suggested. After all, the Sainted Susan Silverman had not yet appeared on the scene to tame the beast. True, but even so! (Susan Silverman joins the cast of characters in the next book in the series, God Save the Child.)
Finally, there was criticism of the plot. Although I’m a long time fan of this series, I’ve never read this particular novel. I’ve known the title though, and always wondered what Parker might have to say about a rare and precious document dating from medieval times.The answer is…not much.
Spenser is initially hired by a university to find the Godwulf manuscript, which has unaccountably disappeared from the library where it was housed. Parker is at pains to give the document an impressive, though entirely fictitious, provenance. The following information is provided by a rather pompous university president:
“‘A handwritten book, done by monks usually, with illustrations in color, often red and gold in the margins. This particular one is in Latin, and contains an allusion to Richard Rolle, the fourteenth-century English mystic. It was discovered forty years ago behind and ornamental facade at Godwulf Abbey, where it is thougght to have been secreted during the pillage of the monasteries that followed Henry the Eighth’s break with Rome.’
To which Spenser cheekily responds, “‘Oh…that illuminated manuscript.’” (Spenser’s ability to crack wise was already fully formed in this initial outing. Then, as now, it tends to activate readily when a windbag needs deflating.)
(BTW – the president’s tale is in no way improbable. Last year, a psalter dating from the fourteenth century was discovered by a Sotheby’s cataloguer in the library of a stately home in England. Also, although Spenser likes to play the rube, he really isn’t one. Even less so is Parker himself, holder of a PhD in English from Boston University.)
The manuscript is a prime example of what Alfred Hitchcock called a McGuffin. Having served as the springboard for all that follows, the document itself quickly fades into the background. In point of fact, it is, in an of itself, of little importance. Pauline cited this fact as a contributing factor to what she considered to be the novel’s poor plotting. She then mentioned a principle propounded by Chekhov; I believe she was referring to the dictum known as ‘Chekhov’s gun’ (Pauline, please correct me if I’m wrong):
“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Pauline disliked the book; a goodly cohort of Suspects joined her in this verdict. Yet again, I found myself very nearly “alone, upon a promontory” (with my long time partner in crime, Marge), liking a book that almost no one else liked. (Are my critical faculties inadequate? Do I need to worry about this?)
One person who did like Godwulf was Frances, one of our newer members. Now Frances has come to the Suspects from the rarefied world of ConanDoyle/Sherlock Holmes devotion. (I’m right there with you, Frances!) She had actually never read a Spenser novel and so was able to bring a fresh perspective to our discussion. What struck her was the artful way in which Parker seeded clues to Spenser’s character throughout the narrative, so that by its conclusion, you felt that you knew the detective as well, if not better, than any of the other characters did.
One other small but interesting point: I can’t imagine two more dissimilar writer than Alexander McCall Smith and Robert B. Parker. Yet in Godwulf, Parker quotes from the same poem that McCall Smith alludes to in The Careful Use of Compliments. Here, Spenser has stumbled on a murder scene:
“I looked at her for two, maybe three minutes,feeling the nausea bubble inside me. Nothing happened, so I began to look at the bathroom. It was crummy. Plastic tiles, worn linoleum buckling up from the floor. The sink was dirty and the faucet dripped steadily. There was no shower. Big patches of paint had peeled off the ceiling. I thought of a line from a poem: “Even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course / Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot.” I forget who wrote it.
W.H. Auden wrote it; the title of the poem is “Musee des Beaux Arts.” It appears in full in the post entitled Feeling Scottish.
Back in January, Pauline led us in a wonderfully illuminating discussion of Sue Grafton’ s first Kinsey Milhone novel, A Is for Alibi. I’m rather liking this idea of going back to an author’s early oeuvre and seeing how it compares to his or her present work. A few years ago, I went back in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series to the third entry, A Ruling Passion (1973), and really enjoyed it, not least because it depicts Peter Pascoe and his spirited lover, Ellie Soper, as they head toward matrimony. Dick Francis has always been sparing in his use of continuing characters; nevertheless, I was delighted to make the acquaintance, albeit brief, of steeplechase jockey Alan York in Dead Cert (1962), Francis’s wonderfully accomplished first outing.
We Suspects mostly agreed that the television versions of the Spenser novels have never quite gotten it right. I’d like to add, though, that whether or not you read Parker’s Jesse Stone series, you should definitely watch the films. The production values are extremely high, cinematic in quality, and Tom Selleck is close to perfect as Stone, the brooding, small town cop who can solve any mystery except that of his own broken heart.
Last night I had the pleasure of attending a performance of classical guitar music at the East Columbia Branch of the Howard County Library. The concert took place after the library’s open hours, so the audience was seated in the branch itself rather than in the meeting room. This proved to be an ideal setting, both spacious and intimate. Despite the rainy weather, the light coming in though the many windows was warm and welcoming.
A graduate of Baltimore’s famed Peabody Conservatory, Stephen Tunstall is an extremely accomplished musician. Last night’s program included works by Fernando Sor, Leo Brouwer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Agustin Barrios, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.Tunstall enlivened the proceedings by providing some background on these composers. He told a particularly poignant story about Agustin Barrios. Barrios was from Paraguay, but he lived in El Salvador for a time and taught music there. According to Barrios’s students, a woman used to come to the house each day begging for alms. This prompted Barrios to compose “Alms for the Love of God” (Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios), one of the selection that Stephen played for us last night.
Tunstall’s playing was warmly applauded by an enthusiastic audience and was followed by a question and answer session that proved exceptionally enlightening. One audience member asked why there are not more concerts of classical guitar music. Tunstall explained that it’s been quite a few years since the discipline had produced a “rock star” on the order of magnitude of Andre Segovia. Segovia, a genuine apostle for the instrument, was in his day able to fill a concert hall. Few other than John Williams – the guitarist, not the composer – command that kind of following today.
Tunstall went on to speak of the marginalizing of classical music in general in contemporary American culture. Personally, this is something I haven’t worried much about since my brother gave me the following advice regarding our mutual love of classical music: “Think of it as an exclusive club, and be glad you’re in it!” Unfortunately, in these days of financially stressed arts organization, that statement seems somehow inadequate.
There were more questions from Tunstall’s enthusiastic and inquisitive listeners. Someone asked if there were a guitar equivalent of a Stradivarius violin. Stephen responded that there was not, as the instrument is something of a work in progress. Apparently, efforts are constantly under way to increase the instrument’s sound output without compromising tonal excellence (and without, needless to say, resorting to amplification). He added, to the surprise of all of us, that Stradivarius also made guitars.
I asked Stephen if he had ever had the chance to be the soloist in the performance of a guitar concerto. He replied in the negative, saying that he would certainly welcome such an opportunity. In asking that question, I had in mind Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. I first heard this work in a live performance in the late 1970′s in Madison, Wisconsin. The featured artist was (the exceedingly handsome) Angel Romero, scion of Spain’s great musical family. By the time that this lovely, unabashedly romantic piece had reached its conclusion, I think just about every woman in the audience had fallen in love with this soloist!
Here is the concerto’s famous second movement. Daniel Barenboim conducts the Berlin Philharmonic; the soloist is John Williams:
Be sure to visit Stephen Tunstall’s website, where sound files are available. In an era in which “performers” possessed of both overweening narcissism and little or no talent are a frequent and annoying presence in public life, Stephen Tunstall, a self-effacing, genuinely gifted artist, was a very welcome breath of fresh air!
When introducing the pieces by Villa-Lobos, Stephen mentioned that this composer’s most famous work, in this country at least, is the Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 for cellos and soprano. This is an exotic and astonishing vocal work. Here it is, sung by the legendary Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayao:
First, there was “The Allusionist,” in which Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette states that she has always had trouble liking the music of Johannes Brahms; further, she assures us that she is not alone in her aversion: “…Brahms has a particular cadre of detractors.”
Then, in a review of a recent performance of the German Requiem at the Kennedy Center, Phillip Kennicott delivers the following warning:
“Brahms done without absolute conviction is deadlier than most composers, and last night one was reminded of the tired old joke by George Bernard Shaw — that Brahms’s Requiem can be borne patiently only by the corpse. One hates to repeat it. One can’t help it.
Okay, Kennicott didn’t like this particular performance (by Kurt Masur and the National Symphony Orchestra). But yes, one could have helped it!
And so I was gratified to see that, in his poignant valedictory for Washington’s Master Chorale in today’s Washington Post, columnist Marc Fisher got it exactly right, just as the Chorale apparently did, in a performance I am sorry to have missed:
“From the chorister seats in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, these singers — by day, lobbyists and lawyers, teachers and shop clerks — poured their all into Brahms’s “German Requiem,” a huge work that soars from mourning to joy and settles into a soul-drenching peace.
Brahms’s German Requiem (Ein Deutsches Requiem) is one of the great works in the choral repertoire, achingly beautiful and at the same time ennobling, edifying, and inspiring. I recommend two performances in particular:
Needless to say, if you have the opportunity to attend a live performance – take it!
Here is Daniele Gatti conducting a performance that took place in Bologna in 2003. This is the second movement:
When it came to writing symphonies, Brahms was apprehensive and uncertain. He felt himself dwelling in the enormous shadow cast by Beethoven. But he overcame his doubts and ultimately wrote four symphonies, each one a masterpiece.
We were thrilled to find a video of Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic performing Brahms’s First Symphony. The venue was Tokyo; the year, 1959. Like Brahms, von Karajan has had his detractors, but we are not among them. In this video, he is seen at his most charismatic. At times his gestures are fluid and graceful, almost balletic; then they becomes urgent and forceful. He seems to be conducting not just with his hands but with his entire body, and to be in an almost trance-like state, totally at one with the music.
“What seems clear is that his Sierra summer awakened the deepest and most intense passion of his life, a long moment of ecstasy that he would try to remember and relive to the end of his days. His whole body, not his eyes alone, felt the beauty around him. Every sense became intensely alive. He bounded over rocks and up mountains sides, hung over the edge of terrifying precipices, his face drenched in the spray of waterfalls, waded through meadows deep in lilies, laughed at the exuberant antics of grasshoppers and chipmunks, stroked the bark of towering incense cedars and sugar pines, and slept each night on an aromatic mattress of spruce boughs. Each thing he saw or felt seemed joined to the rest in exquisite harmony. ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself,’ he wrote, ‘we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’ Nature was all one body, beating with a heart like his own, and more intensely than ever before in his life he felt his own heart b eating in unison. He experienced, in the fullest sense yet, a profound conversion to the religion of nature.
John Muir was a marvelous writer; his biographer, equally so.
In Greene on Capri, Shirley Hazzard describes Villa Fersen, a deserted estate on the island:
“Inexpressibly romantic in its solitude and decline, it was cared for by a custodial Caprese family who for years intrepidly occupied the kitchen quarters at the landward rear of the building, while the haunted drawing rooms, shedding stucco and gold leaf, teetered ever closer to the limestone brink. The damp garden tended by the housekeeper was ravishing: suitably overgrown, encroached on by a cloud of ferns, creepers, acanthus, agapanthus, amaryllis; shadowed by umbrella pine, and by cypress and ilex; lit from within by massed colours of fuchsia, hortensia, azalea, and all manner of trailing mauves, blues, and purples–wisteria and iris in spring, solanum and ‘stella d’Italia’ in high summer; in autumn, plumabago and belladonna lilies. Geraniums were the size of shrubs, and of every red and coral gradation. The different jasmines flowered there, on walls and trellises, in relays throughout the year.
In September and October, crowds of wild cyclamen, small fragrant flowers of Italian woods, sprang from the crevices of the rock face in which the house is virtually framed….Fersen’s in those years was a garden of mossy textures and dark dense greens, with impasto of luminous flowers: a place of birdsong and long silence; of green lizards and shadowy cats, and decadent Swinburnean beauty.
I read Greene on Capri because I am headed for Naples and the Amalfi Coast next month. As part of the tour, a day trip to Capri is planned. Shirley Hazzard is a writer whose style has posed difficulties for me in the past – I barely got through The Great Fire. But I was enchanted by this slender little memoir detailing the friendship that Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, shared with Graham Greene on that magical island during the postwar years.
Villa Fersen, near and distant:
Yesterday’s Washington Post Style & Arts section featured a piece on artist Stanley Mouse, who, along with the late Alton Kelley, designed the posters that advertised concerts by the Grateful Dead. Mouse’s work is currently being exhibited at the Govinda Gallery in Washington DC.
Mouse provides this explanation of how the duo’s most iconic poster came about:
“Kelley and I had a job doing posters for the Avalon, and the promoter said: ‘Do a poster for the Grateful Dead.’ So we went to the library in San Francisco, just searching through old books. We came across “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” and in it was an old illustration that had the skull-and-roses character on it. We went: ‘Whoa, look at that! That has Grateful Dead written all over it.’ So we used it on that poster, which became the famous icon.
Here is the poster:
The article does not provide the original “old illustration,” but I can:
After many years of searching, I found the Rubaiyat I wanted at Books With a Past in Western Howard County. The artist who created the haunting images in this edition of the poem is Edmund J. Sullivan. The book itself contains no copyright date; my guess is that it was published around 1935.
My quest had nothing to do with the Grateful Dead; this edition of the Rubaiyat was at one time one of my mother’s prized possessions. Growing up, I read and re-read it often. Both the poetry and the illustrations made a lasting impression on me. Somewhere along the long path of my life, it was lost. I am very pleased to possess it now, a small piece of the past recaptured, as it were.
For additional information, see the post Lunching with Intellectuals.
Oddly enough, the same Grateful Dead poster is also on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section in yesterday’s New York Times; it accompanies the article “Bring Out Your Dead.”
Here’s the scoop – dare I use the word! – in today’s Washington Post.
In my ongoing fit of enthusiasm for Felony & Mayhem – the Press, not the activities! - I’ve been buying and reading various books from this worthy enterprise’s burgeoning list of offerings. One of them is Death in the Morning by Sheila Radley.
I could find very little background information online about this author. According to the proprietary database Biography Resource Center, “Sheila Radley” is the pen name of Sheila Mary Robinson. Born in 1928 in Northamptonshire,(England), Robinson/Radley obtained her BA degree from Bedford College, University of London. After penning several romance novels, she turned to crime fiction, beginning with Death in the Morning, published in the U.S. in 1979. Eight more novels featuring DCI Douglas Quantrill followed, the last being Fair Game, published 1994.
[ Biography Resource Center and Literature Resource Center are made available by many public and academic libraries via their websites. You will probably be required to enter a library barcode number in order to access these resources. Here is the link to the Howard County Library's List of Databases.]
Death in the Morning opens with an eerie, compelling scene strongly reminiscent of the Queen’s description of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet: a beautiful young girl lies face down, unmoving, in shallow water. She is identified in fairly short order as eighteen-year-old Mary Gedge. But other questions prove harder to answer: how did she die, and how did she come to be on the weedy bank of the river Dunnock? Questions beget questions; it is up to Quantrill and his team to find out the truth.
This novel offers many pleasures, chief among them the opportunity to immerse oneself yet again in that beloved classic form, the English village mystery. And Douglas Quantrill, himself country born and bred, makes an appealing protagonist. Having left school at the age of fourteen, he is most definitely not in the mold of the highly educated, highly literate policemen one encounters in the novels of P.D. James and Colin Dexter, among others. In fact, when someone likens the scene of Mary Gedge’s death to that of Ophelia’s, he responds with the query, “Ophelia who?” The nickel drops eventually, but Quantrill is mortified by the gaffe, especially since one of his interlocutors at that moment is Jean Bloomfield, a teacher with whom he is in love.
Everything is not cute and quaint in the villages of Suffolk. Here’s a startling look inside a chicken processing plant, an experience that even a homicide investigator finds almost intolerable:
“Sickened, Tait stood as though his shoes had been cemented to the bloodstained concrete floor. The grotesque chorus line of dead birds dipped and swayed on the hooks across the shed, plunging into tanks of scalding water, entering a plucking machine, and then emerging naked to be slapped down on another conveyor belt for evisceration and packing by a team of women. In a matter of minutes living creatures were being transformed before his eyes into hunks of graded, quality-controlled hygienically packed, inexpensive protein.
Enough to put anyone off his or her grub, right? And Yours Truly had chicken pot pie for dinner last night…
So: excellent writing, evocative atmosphere, appealing characters…What’s not to like? A couple of things, actually: First of all, the Felony & Mayhem edition of this novel is 244 pages long. From the beginning, witness and suspect interviews and various other components of the investigation are reported in great detail. No problem – my interest was thoroughly engaged. But I admit that I was disconcerted by the book’s time frame. Here’s what I mean: throughout the narrative, reference is made to the fact that the investigators are impatiently awaiting the autopsy report on Mary Gedge. On page 156, Sergeant Tait, Quantrill’s second-in-command, announces the arrival of the report. I had been thinking that this crucial information was a long time in coming. So, imagine my astonishment when, having gathered his team for a briefing, Quantrill makes the following statement re Mary Gedge (no spoilers here, I promise):
“‘She was last seen alive, wearing the clothes in which the body was found, at approximately eight forty-five last night in Breckham Market.’
Last night? It felt as though at least a week has gone by since the discovery of the body. Was this a problem with the novel’s structure? a problem with the reader’s attentiveness? Don’t know. I only know that I was completely nonplussed to find that barely twenty-four hours had gone by since the finding of Mary Gedge.
Was this sense of dislocation a showstopper? Not really. I was enjoying the book sufficiently to want to continue with it. As I did, I began to suspect that I knew who the killer was. Knew – but could not suss out the motive. To make a long story short, I was right about the culprit’s identity. But when the motive was revealed, I found it incredible. I mean that in the literal sense of the word: impossible to believe. So yes, I was, once again, frustrated with the novel. Still – not sufficiently frustrated to give it a thumbs down. Ultimately its virtues - strong characters, lovely sense of place, a poignant love story – triumphed over its perceived defects.
One more gripe – and then I’m done! The British title of this novel is Death and the Maiden, a far more apt and evocative one than the rather drab Death in the Morning. I fear that this is yet another instance of “dumbing down” by the publisher. The String Quartet in D minor by Franz Schubert is popularly known as “Death and the Maiden.” It is one of the great masterpieces of chamber music. Here is the first movement, played by the Alban Berg Quartet:
From The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Crime Fiction (compiled by Mike Ashley, 2002), we learn that Sheila Radley ” believed that most people are not criminally minded but are driven to crime by overwhelming pressures.” The brief entry further informs us that the author was “ideally placed” to observe village life from the vantage point of the village store and post office in Banham, Norfolk. Radley ran this establishment for fourteen years up until 1978, the year that saw the publication of the first Douglas Quantrill novel in Great Brtiain.
Hamlet is almost painfully filled with brilliance, but the line with which Queen Gertrude begins the sad tale of Ophelia’s death has, for me, always stood out as especially haunting:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook…