RECEIVE ME FALLING by Erika Robuck. Bea described this novel as historical fiction with some supernatural elements. This was Robuck’s first novel, self-published in 2009. Her second and third books have been published by NAL/Penguin. You can learn more about her at www.erikarobuck.com. Bea Also informed us that Erika Robuck is a local author. Howard County Library does not currently own RECEIVE ME FALLING, but it does own Robuck’s second novel, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL. (Her latest, Call Me Zelda, is scheduled to be reviewed this week in the Washington Post.)
THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson was recommended by Lorraine. Subtitled ‘The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,’ this magisterial account has garnered numerous awards and accolades. The reviewer in Bookmarks Magazine states: “In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson has composed a masterpiece of narrative journalism on a subject vital to our national identity, as compelling as it is heartbreaking and hopeful.” It so happened that Wilkerson was giving a talk at the library that evening; the event was filled to capacity.
From the Amazon.com review of Snow In August: “In 1940s Brooklyn, friendship between an 11-year-old Irish Catholic boy and an elderly Jewish rabbi might seem as unlikely as, well, snow in August. But the relationship between young Michael Devlin and Rabbi Judah Hirsch is only one of the many miracles large and small contained in Pete Hamill’s novel.” Robin also enjoys Lisa Scottoline’s legal thrillers.
THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich was recommended by Caroline. From the book description on Amazon: “One of the most revered novelists of our time—a brilliant chronicler of Native-American life—Louise Erdrich returns to the territory of her bestselling, Pulitzer Prize finalist The Plague of Doves with The Round House, transporting readers to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. It is an exquisitely told story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a terrible crime that upends and forever transforms his family.” This novel won the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction.
BURNT MOUNTAIN by Anne Rivers Siddons was recommended by Emma. From the Booklist review: “Siddons mixes in a touch of the supernatural to bring the novel to an exciting climax, but what’s most appealing here is the layered family drama and the lush world Thayer inhabits…A master storyteller with a remarkable track record, bestselling Siddons returns to her signature Southern setting in her newest blend of emotional realism and a sliver of magic.”
SWEET TOOTH by Ian McEwan was recommended by Phyllis. Called “tightly crafted” and “exquisitely executed” in USA Today, this novel has an opening that grabs you by the throat: “My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, although he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.” Called “the connoisseur of dread” by Daniel Zalewski in a New Yorker Magazine feature piece, Ian McEwan is one of my absolute favorite writers. I greatly enjoyed SWEET TOOTH, but my favorite McEwan novel is probably ENDURING LOVE, a tale of obsession and the strange twists of fate that are part of the human condition.
SWEET TEA REVENGE by Laura Childs and THE SNOW CHILD by Eowyn Ivey were both recommended by Dottie. Laura Childs is the popular author of the Tea Shop series and the Scrapbooking series, mysteries which are usually classed in the ‘cozy’ subgenre. THE SNOW CHILD was Amazon.com’s selection for Best Book of the Month for February of last year: “In her haunting, evocative debut Eowyn Ivey stakes her claim on a Russian fairy tale, daring the reader–and the characters–to be lulled into thinking they know the ending. But, as with the Alaskan wilderness, there’s far more here than meets the eye.” In his review of this novel for the Washington Post, Ron Charles says: “The real magic of The Snow Child is that it’s never as simple as it seems, never moves exactly in the direction you think it must…Sad as the story often is, with its haunting fairy-tale ending, what I remember best are the scenes of unabashed joy.”
THE GRAVEDIGGER’S DAUGHTER by Joyce Carol Oates made a powerful impression on Connie. She spoke of the novel with quiet and compelling eloquence. From the Publisher’s Weekly review: “At the beginning of Oates’s 36th novel, Rebecca Schwart is mistaken by a seemingly harmless man for another woman, Hazel Jones, on a footpath in 1959 Chatauqua Falls, N.Y. Five hundred pages later, Rebecca will find out that the man who accosted her is a serial killer, and Oates will have exercised, in a manner very difficult to forget, two of her recurring themes: the provisionality of identity and the awful suddenness of male violence.” Sounds harrowing, but remember – this is Joyce Carol Oates. I admire the amazingly prolific Oates; I especially like her short stories. But she can be kind of scary….
Connie also recommended the novels of R.J. Ellory, two of the best known of which are A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE and A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS. Ellory has a rather unique life story.
KITCHEN TABLE WISDOM: STORIES THAT HEAL by Rachel Naomi Remen was Peggy’s recommendation. She said that this book had been given to her as a gift during a difficult time in her life, and that it had helped her enormously. This is the book description furnished by Amazon: “Praised by everyone from Bernie Siegel to Daniel Goleman to Larry Dossey, Rachel Remen has a unique perspective on healing rooted in her background as a physician, a professor of medicine, a therapist, and a long-term survivor of chronic illness. In a deeply moving and down-to-earth collection of true stories, this prominent physician shows us life in all its power and mystery and reminds us that the things we cannot measure may be the things that ultimately sustain and enrich our lives.”
THREE WEEKS IN DECEMBER by Audrey Schulman and A GOOD AMERICAN by Alex George were both recommended by Barbara, who spoke with deep conviction about the first title. The action in Three Weeks in December takes place in Rwanda, in two distinct time periods: 1899 and 2000. This novel was of special interest to Barbara because she’s been to Rwanda and greatly admires the people of that country and what they’ve been able to achieve, despite a horrific history. (If you get on the Amazon page for this title, you’ll see numerous customer raves.) Here’s the book description Amazon provides for THE GOOD AMERICAN: “It is 1904. When Frederick and Jette must flee her disapproving mother, where better to go than America, the land of the new? Originally set to board a boat to New York, at the last minute, they take one destined for New Orleans instead (“What’s the difference? They’re both new“), and later find themselves, more by chance than by design, in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri. Not speaking a word of English, they embark on their new life together.”
STILL ALICE by Lisa Genova and LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson were both recommended by Rita. The first is the story of Alice Howland, a distinguished Harvard professor who at age fifty is suddenly and unexpectedly afflicted with Alzheimer’s. As for LIFE AFTER LIFE, the plot description on the Amazon page begins with this question: “What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?” It goes on: “On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.” LIFE AFTER LIFE has gotten mixed reviews, but Rita liked it very much and gave persuasive reasons for her opinion.
Kate Atkinson wrote one of my favorite books of the past decade: CASE HISTORIES was at once almost unbearably poignant and genuinely funny; in addition, it’s one of the most elegantly structured novels I’ve ever read. I’ve not enjoyed any of her subsequent books anywhere near as much, but I’m going to try Life After Life, especially since the group has selected it for future discussion.
MAN IN THE WOODS by Scott Spencer was DruAnne’s recommendation. From Bookmarks Magazine: “What happens if we’re not made to pay for our crimes? This question lies at the heart of Man in the Woods, a psychological and philosophical thriller about belief, guilt, responsibility, love, religion, and the randomness of life.” From the starred review in Publishers Weekly: “Spencer, a deft explorer of obsessive love and violence, confronts the consequences of doing wrong for all the right reasons in his exquisite latest.” DruAnne emphasized the fact that the moral questions implicit in this narrative make it an especially good choice for discussion. I was pleased by that observation, as it provided a nice segue into the first title I was presenting to the group:
Josephine Tey’s BRAT FARRAR, written in 1950, is the story of an audacious imposture and its far reaching consequences. The story plays out against a pastoral setting in England, where the love and knowledge of horses reigns supreme. In particular, it’s the story of the Ashby family and their country home Latchetts. A serene peace resides there – until the sudden reappearance of Patrick Ashby, the long absent son and heir to the estate. It’s as if he’s returned from the dead…. The moral crisis that occurs at this novel’s climax creates an almost claustrophobic tension. The first time I read it, I was riveted.
I can never talk about BRAT FARRAR without also mentioning another novel by Tey, written in 1949, called THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR. As with the Dorothy L Sayers classic GAUDY NIGHT, there is no actual murder in this mystery; still, a deeply sinister force is doing its malign work.The story centers on two women who have a monstrous accusation leveled against them. Marion Sharpe and her mother have recently taken up residence in a house called The Franchise, in the village of Milford. Their dearest wish is to eke out their savings in peace and quiet, but instead they find themselves at the center of a firestorm with absolutely no idea how they got there, or how to get out. That is, until an unassuming solicitor named Robert Blair somewhat reluctantly answers their plea for help.
Josephine Tey is something of a mystery herself. Her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh; she wrote novels and plays under a variety of pseudonyms. She was born in Inverness, Scotland, in 1896. Little is known concerning her personal life, although some details have been filled on this site. Having been ill for some time, she ultimately died of cancer in 1952. She’d been secretive about her illness, as about almost everything else, and her death came as a profound shock to those who knew her.
Tey wrote eight novels that can be considered crime fiction. Detective Inspector Alan Grant, her series character, appears in six of them. Her most famous novel is The Daughter of Time, which I read ages ago and probably should revisit one of these days. But in the meantime, I’ve developed a huge fondness for the two above discussed titles.
Joesphine Tey is often grouped with four of her contemporaries: Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio March, Margery Allingham, and Agatha Christie. Together, these writers are sometimes referred to as “the Grandes Dames” of Britain’s first Golden Age of crime fiction.
(A word on Ngaio Marsh: my three favorite novels by her are The Nursing Home Murder, A Clutch of Constables, and most especially Death in s White Tie. There’s a nicely done two-season traversal of her works available on DVD, featuring Patrick Malahyde as Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. These DVD’s are owned by the Howard County Library System.)
We had two submissions from book lovers who were unable to attend our session on Thursday. Here’s what Jeannie kindly sent via email:
The books I was going to mention are “Mao – The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang, which is a detailed history of Mao; very clearly biased against Mao, but who can blame her — she cites 70 million Chinese deaths because of him. It’s long and tedious at times, but ultimately very intriguing. Now I’m in the midst of reading “Bound Feet and Western Dress” by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang, which is a biography by an American- born woman of Chinese descent about her great Aunt who lived through many dramatic cultural changes. I’m not an historian and know next to nothing about China but I’ve grown more and more interested through historical novels and our recent readings.
Finally, THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald was suggested by Doris, in view of the fact that a new film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, is due to be released on May 10. Several years ago, another book group I’m in revisited GATSBY in tandem with DOUBLE BIND by Chris Bohjalian. The latter contains story elements from the Fitzgerald classic, and treats the events in the lives of Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan and the others as though they actually happened. Although I did not care for Bohjalian’s novel, I enjoyed revisiting THE GREAT GATSBY and along with it, the bittersweet life story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
This was one of the most stimulating, even revelatory discussions I’ve had the pleasure to be present at in quite some time. What a pleasure it was to be among such eloquent and impassioned book lovers! Heartfelt thanks are owing to my AAUW colleagues and friends.
…in which the Usual Suspects undertake a discussion of the ninth volume in the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers by first briefly recounting the author’s life and times.. Sayers was one of a group of distinguished authors of crime fiction during that genre’s first Golden Age, usually described as taking place during the years between the two world wars.
Murder Must Advertise was Mike’s choice for our April book. She got us started with some background material on the author. Born in 1893, Dorothy Sayers was the late-in-life only child of the Reverend Henry Sayers and Helen Mary (Leigh) Sayers. Although born in Oxford, she grew up in the village of Bluntisham, in the fen country of eastern England. Sayers enjoyed a happy childhood, where her apparent gifts were recognized and encouraged by her parents. In 1912 she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford. She completed her studies there in 1915. At that time, Oxford did not grant its full degree to women. That policy changed in 1920. Sayers returned to the university in order to be among the first women to receive this momentous and well-deserved honor.
Meanwhile, in the wider world, Sayers was desperately cobbling together various means of employment and still dependent to an extent on her parents’ largesse. Finally, in 1922, she landed a job writing copy at H.F. Benson, an advertising agency in London. She worked there until 1931. It was during this period that she conceived and began writing the Lord Peter Wimsey novels.
Dorothy Sayers’s personal life at this juncture can best be described as turbulent. Eric Whelpton, her first love, enjoyed her company but never really reciprocated her affections. She then became involved with John Cournos, a self-important writer and ideologue who served as the model for Philip Boyes in Strong Poison. When that affair ended, she took up with Bill White, a cheerfully unpretentious person with whom she could just have regular fun. A bit too much fun, as it turns out: in June of 1923, Dorothy realized she was pregnant. Bill White reacted badly to the news. She might have considered marrying him, but it turned out that he was already married, and already a father.
Sayers took a leave of absence from H.F. Benson and went into seclusion, in order to see the pregnancy through, in strictest secrecy. Once the child was born, he was given to Ivy Shrimpton. a favorite cousin, to raise and care for. Shrimpton and her mother ran a home for foster children; this presented the perfect camouflage for the presence of Sayers’s son, whom she named John Anthony.
In 1926, Dorothy Sayers married Oswald Arthur Fleming, a World War One veteran and journalist invariably known among his acquaintance as “Mac.” Mac was divorced, with two children by his former wife. Dorothy and Mac’s marriage was not without its challenges. Mac had been injured in the war and was ultimately unable to work. Dorothy had to support them both. In addition, Mac drank heavily and came to resent his wife’s growing success and fame as the author of the Lord Peter novels.
Meanwhile, with her new husband, Dorothy came clean about her past. When told about John Anthony, Mac was not only undismayed but actually expressed a desire to bring the boy into their family circle. In the event, John Anthony never did come to live with them, even though they “informally ‘adopted’” him. (I’m not sure exactly what that means.)John Anthony also took ‘Fleming’ as his last name.
The marriage endured until Mac died in 1950. At the time, they were living in Sunnyside Cottage in Witham, Essex. Sayers stayed on in the cottage after Mac’s death. She suffered a massive and ultimately fatal heart attack seven years later. She was 64 years old.
One of the Suspects expressed surprise that a woman as modern and enlightened as Dorothy L. Sayers should be so shamed and secretive about an out of wedlock pregnancy. In Women of Mystery, Martha Hailey DuBose offers a partial explanation:
Today we can only begin to imagine the agonies of conscience [Sayers] must have suffered. England after the war was a profoundly changed place: moral standards and behavioral rules had shifted dramatically in a relatively short time. In London, just as in New York and Chicago, the 1920s roared with sex, drugs, and jazz. But some things remained verboten, and for women of Dorothy’s class and religion, unwed pregnancy was still at the top of the forbidden list.
DuBose goes on to expound on the likely repercussions Sayers would have suffered had she gone public with her situation: “It would have meant lifelong shame for herself, her child, and her entire family. Her parents, in their seventies, would be humiliated. Dorothy would likely lose her job and all hope of financial independence.”
It should be remembered that beneath Sayers’s breezy, confident, and liberated exterior there beat the heart of a deeply religious woman. She was in some ways quite conservative. Above all, she was desperate to protect her parents from any anguish or mortification caused by her own actions.
In the recent Winter issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, editor George Easter states: “Some books should never go out of print.” He was referring to the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Happily this perplexing state of affairs has been at least partly ameliorated by HarperCollins. Under the imprint of Bourbon Street Books, the publisher is in the process of reissuing the books in trade paperback editions with beautifully designed covers.
At this time, the plan includes only the novels featuring Harriet Vane. We can but hope that in the fullness of time, HarperCollins will see fit to bring forth the remaining series entries.
In a BBC piece on Dorothy Sayers, Jane Curran writes:
The image of Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, the great fictional detective of the 1920s and 30s, is of a moonfaced, heavily built, bespectacled elderly woman in mannish clothes.
Curran adds: “Yet she first caused a stir as a tall thin girl, nicknamed Swanny on account of her long and slender neck. “
Stay tuned for Part Two, in which H.F. Benson is transformed into Pym’s Publicity through the art of the supremely gifted novelist, Dorothy L. Sayers.
“Igunak. Fermented walrus gut. Very good for you. Keep you warm.”
Edie gets involved in an investigation that hits very close to home. It has to do with a death that appears to be a suicide but may have been something else. The police are also involved in the person of the local law enforcement officer, Derek Palliser. Derek is young, and a more than competent policeman, but his relationship with Edie produces plenty of static. Eventually she goes haring off on her own in an effort to further the investigation. Derek finds her actions deeply exasperating. (Derek has an obsession with lemmings that several of us found rather odd.)
In White Heat, M.J. McGrath presents us with an extremely crowded canvas, filled as it is with numerous secondary characters. In addition, the plot evolves toward a formidable degree of complexity. I readily admit to being lost in the back stretch, especially during the last third of the novel. On the other hand, McGrath’s descriptions of this forbidding yet fascinating place are intensely lyrical and evocative:
It was one of those beautiful, crystal-clear Arctic evenings where everything seemed picked out in its own spotlight. The sky was an unimpeachable blue and before him stretched a fury of tiny ice peaks, unblemished by leads. In the distance the dome-shaped berg, which had bedded into the surrounding pack for the winter, glowed furiously turquoise.
In contrast, descriptions of the food traditionally consumed by the indigenous population were somewhat off putting. No – let’s be blunt – at times, downright revolting! There’s the fermented walrus gut being praised so enthusiastically by Edie in the quote at the top of this post. In that scene, she is offering this ‘delicacy’ to Andy Taylor, a qalunaat for whom she is acting as a guide on a hunting trip. His reaction:
Taylor took a bite. Slowly his jaw began to move. Pretty soon a rictus of disgust spread across his face. He spat the meat onto his glove.
A profane exclamation is uttered at this point. (Andy later goes missing in a blizzard, on an excursion led by Joe Inukpuk. Andy’s disappearance creates a mystery, followed by a tragedy.)
Two other dishes offered up for the reader’s delectation in this novel are hearty seal- blood soup and “delicate little nuggets of fried blubber.” . We couldn’t help laughing about the way in which, in respect of food, White Heat differs so markedly from, say, the novels of Donna Leon. In those, the reader is positively salivating over the culinary delights so casually whipped up by Paola Brunetti, wife to the most fortunate Commissario. Whereas, quite frankly, the food described in White Heat made my stomach churn! Ah well. Perhaps one must be born to it.
I had a more serious problem with the relationship that the Inuit people have with the animals in their world. That the Inuit live by hunting is a given, but even the sled dogs are regarded more as engine parts than as living beings, never mind companion animals. Reed rightly offered the reminder that these dogs function as machines rather than pets, for their Inuit owners. My response was that even though I acknowledge this fact in my head, my heart cannot accept it. (Edie does have Bonehead, a pet more or less, but she doesn’t seem to expend much affection on him.)
Survival is – must be – a top priority in this community, and the author is generally compassionate toward the hard pressed Inuit. They can be courageous and resourceful, yet these very same people are beset with dysfunctional elements, chief among them being alcohol and drug abuse – problems not known to them prior to their contact with white men.
The Boy in the Snow, the second in the Edie Kiglatuk series, came out here in November of last year. Several in our group had either read it or were planning to do so. I believe that Carol mentioned that McGrath is already at work on the third Edie Kiglatuk novel.
Our discussion was led by Carol. She provided us with fascinating background material. I was especially interested in Melanie McGrath herself. What caused her to become so passionately interested in this remote region of the planet? Born in England, McGrath has traveled widely and lived for a time in places as disparate as Las Vegas and Nicaragua. She’s now back in England, concentrating on her writing.
Up until the publication of White Heat in 2011, McGrath had been writing primarily nonfiction. Carol had especially recommended one of those titles, The Long Exile. Subtitled A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, this is the story of the forced relocation of seven families, consisting of some three dozen individuals, from Inukjuak, their home on the east coast of the Hudson Bay, to Ellesmere Island some twelve hundred miles north. I started reading this book after I’d finished White Heat. The events described in The Long Exile are so gripping that they overtook the content of the novel in my imagination and more or less blocked it out. (Another person in our group, Pauline, was having a similar experience with the two books.)
The Long Exile begins with the story of Robert Flaherty’s travels in the Barren Lands that so fascinated him, and the landmark film that emerged from his experiences there.
Flaherty was used to wilderness, but no wilderness he had ever experienced matched this….He felt the flinty, lichen-painted sweep of the tundra and the great expanses of sea and ice and sky as a swelling in his chest. The starkness of the place enthralled him. It was as though every step farther north was a footfall on a new discovery. The tundra rolled out, empty and uncompromised, all around him.
Although some of the scenes were deliberately staged, his film Nanook of the North remains an almost iconic work of ethnography. With no road map to guide him, Robert Flaherty virtually invented the genre of documentary film.
And yet, Nanook of the North was not the only legacy Robert Flaherty left behind among the people of the High Arctic….
McGrath’s writing positively soars in The Long Exile. The story of the privation and suffering endured by the Inukjiak people as they struggled to survive their first winter on Ellesmere Island may be the most harrowing nonfiction narrative I’ve ever encountered.
The Inuit were deposited on the Lindstrom Peninsula of Ellesmere Island. There was insufficient snow for the building of snow houses, so the families had to remain in tents. The place was so alien, so devoid of any kind of life, human, animal or plant, that Mary Aqiatusuk, wife of Paddy Aqiasutuk, the group’s senior member and leader, was prompted to inquire of her husband: ‘Are we still in the same world?’
Well, they were, but just barely. And things were about to get worse. Once the sun set over the island on October 15 1953, it would not rise again until four months had passed. And with the all enveloping darkness came the cold, deep and brutal:
The temperature hovered around -30˚C and when November arrived, it plunged even lower. With winds roaring from the Arctic Ocean the windchill could drop the air temperature on the sea ice to -55˚C. Whenever they went outside, their heads pounded, their eyelashes froze together and little ice balls collected around the tear ducts in their eyes. The hairs inside their noses stuck together and pulled apart each time they breathed and their breath came as a shallow pant. The lungs burned, the eardrums ached and the brain struggled to locate the body’s extremities.
December came. The temperature inside the tents rarely rose above -15C. Hunting became impossible. The dogs suffered horribly, along with the humans. They all began to starve.
To satisfy their cravings they began to eat the carcasses of starved wolves or foxes they found lying in the ice. They ate ptarmigan feathers and bladders and heather, they boiled up hareskin boot liners and made broths from old pairs of sealskin kamiks. They chewed seagull bones and dog harnesses. They ate fur and lemming tails.
Much of this was indigestible and made their insides revolt.
There’s more, but you’ll have gotten the idea by now. By some miracle and despite these appalling conditions, the Inuit survived that terrible winter: “Spring arrived on Ellesmere Island.”
Ice crystals spangled the air. Forests of little ice fronds sprang up from the land, icicles hung from the roof of the sod huts and the wind transformed them into little glockenspiels. Ellesmere Island became almost unbearably beautiful.
Nanook of the North has been remastered and reissued by the Criterion Collection. The entire movie is available on YouTube:
An essay on the Criterion site provides context and background for the film. (Ron and I were struck by the exceptional beauty of the soundtrack. This is a new score, written expressly for the Criterion release by Timothy Brock, a composer who specializes in restoring the scores of silent films and composing new ones.)
Martha of the North is a 2009 film made by Martha Flaherty, Robert Flaherty’s granddaughter. Click here to watch the trailer. I found two other related films: Nanook Revisited (1990) and Broken Promises: The High Arctic Relocation (1995). Here is an excerpt from Broken Promises:
It appears that the only one of these films that’s readily obtainable is Nanook of the North.
The Nunavut region is now being promoted as a tourist destination. Unfortunately, as Melanie McGrath reports on her blog, the area is currently experiencing an upsurge in crime.
Aside from being a skilled hunter and a natural leader, Paddy Aqiasutuk was a gifted artist. While he and his family were struggling to stay alive through their first winter on Ellesmere, his work was featured in an exhibit of Inuit sculpture in London. Reviewers lavished praise on his carvings. There was a certain irony in all of this, and McGrath, who has a fine ear for such things, describes it thus:
The exhibition proved so successful that galleries in Edinburgh and Paris asked for it on loan and Aqiasutuk’s name became well known in certain art circles. Aqiasutuk knew nothing of this exhibition. No one had thought to tell him it was on. He was stuck at the top of the world, barely surviving.
I’ve not been able to find any images of carving directly attributed to Paddy Aqiasutuk. The image at the top of this post is feature on the Dorset Fine Arts site.
This dual reading experience put me in mind of a book I read some years back: Bloody Falls of the Coppermine by McKay Jenkins. This story of the murder of two Catholic missionary priests in the Canadian High Arctic in 1913 is among the best true crime narratives I have ever read.
White Heat elicited a stimulating discussion among the Usual Suspects. I think we all appreciated the uniqueness of both the setting and the protagonist. But the plot became somewhat labored, and the novel was so filled with the lore of the Inuit that, as Reed commented, it was as though McGrath were writing two different books at the same time. As I indicated earlier, I think McGrath has a better grasp of the material, and surely a more compelling story tell, in The Long Exile. Even so, for the most part I did enjoy White Heat and I might continue with the series at a later time. I thank Carol for her excellent choice – this was a real learning experience, in more ways than one.
Also I want to emphasize one fact: I think Melanie McGrath is a terrific writer.
The the High Arctic Relocation is a very complicated, as well as a very sensitive subject. While I haven’t attempted to examine it in detail here, I hope I’ve pointed you in the direction of further research, iff you’re interested. Certainly The Long Exile is an excellent place to start. The Wikipedia entry is also quite informative.
These still images from Nanook of the North are of “Nanook,” played by Alakariallak, and his wife “Nyla,” probably played by Maggie Nujarluktuk.
”’Some people will do anything for money,” the Communist sneered, with the fine scorn of someone who would do anything for a cause.’ – Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel
Last week, Pauline led the Usual Suspects in a discussion of the novel Death of a Nationalist. Rebecca Pawel’s novel takes place in Spain in 1939. The Nationalist cause has triumphed, and a number of its adherents are focused on Madrid, a former Republican stronghold. They are bent on extirpating any and all opponents of the new regime.
Pawel tells the story of a group of individuals caught up in the terrible events of that time and place. At the outset, we are introduced to the Llorente family. They’re living in a cramped apartment in the city and struggling to obtain food and other necessities of life, all the while keeping clear of the guardias civiles, the police agency tasked with rooting out any and all Republican sympathizers. The household consists of Carmen Llorente, her brother Gonzalo, Gonzalo’s lover Viviana (beautiful name, that), and Maria Alejandra, called ‘Aleja,’ Carmen’s seven -year-old daughter.
On her way home from school, Aleja witnesses a murder. Terrified, she makes her way back to her family and into the comforting arms of Viviana. It soon emerges that in the chaos of the moment, Aleja dropped her school notebook in the street. She needs it back: paper, along with so much else, is in short supply. Viviana decides to return to the scene of the killing in order to retrieve the precious object
This turns out to be a fateful decision. Viviana’s proud defiance is set against the brute authority of several members of the gardias civiles. Their leader is Sgt. Carols Tejada Alonso y León, subsequently referred to simply as Tejada. From this scene flows the rest of the novels content, embracing an ever widening cast of characters, including the Spanish nation itself, torn apart by warring factions whose competing atrocities foreshadow the horrors of the Second World War.
Pauline had a wealth of background material to impart to our group. This was accompanied by a five page handout, which included among other things a comprehensive list of characters and maps of the various regions of Spain. Truth to tell, we needed all of it. Most of us had virtually no prior understanding of the causes of the Spanish Civil War. Even more so, the various parties to the conflict were hard to sort out. To simplify greatly, the principal warring factions were on the one hand, the Republicans, and on the other, the Nationalists. The Republicans constituted the legitimately elected government; however, they were intent on enacting certain reforms that were fiercely opposed by powerful vested interests. These included the church, wealthy landowners, and the military. The Nationalists represented those interests. They were aligned with the church and the monarchists and were synonymous with the Fascists. (I’m not sure if that last statement is entirely accurate. At any rate, I remember that we were perplexed about the monarchists and the Fascists being allies.) It being the late 1930s, Mussolini and Hitler emerged as natural allies of the Nationalists, while the Communists were enlisted in the Republican cause.
Many other factors were at work in this bloody conflict. One of these was the need to keep Spain unified. The Basque Separatists were a particularly fractious group in this struggle. (I remember as a child hearing and reading about the nefarious activities of that regions home grown terrorist organization, the ETA.) In 1937, the German were induced by the Fascists to bomb a town in the Basque province. At the time, the village was primarily made up of women and children, the men having gone to fight in the Republican cause. This attack on defenseless and innocent civilians was thorough and brutal and has ever since been a symbol of the arbitrary viciousness of war.
The town was called Guernica:
[Click to enlarge]
This famous painting, made by Pablo Picasso in 1937, resided in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art for 42 years.It was in that august institution, in the 1950s, that I first saw it. It took up an entire wall of display space. Guernica said everything that needed to be said about the horrors of war.
After Franco’s death in 1975, this masterpiece was repatriated to Spain, land of the artist’s birth, in accordance with his expressed wishes. It is currently housed at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.
‘Guernica is to painting what Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is to music: a cultural icon that speaks to mankind not only against war but also of hope and peace. It is a reference when speaking about genocide from El Salvador to Bosnia.’
Alejandro Escalona, on the occasion of the painting’s 75th anniversary
On her website, Rebecca Pawel, a lifelong New Yorker, tells us that she studied flamenco and Spanish dance while in junior high. While still in high school, she spent a summer in Madrid and fell deeply in love with all things Spanish, going on to major in Spanish language and literature at Columbia University. Currently a teacher in what she terms the city’s “much maligned school system,” Pawel returns to Spain whenever possible. It was on just such a return journey in 2000 that, with the encouragement of a friend with whom she was corresponding, she decided to write Death of a Nationalist.
There are four novels in this series. There will be no more, although Pawel has chosen to make available in e-book format a story collection featuring Tejada. Entitled What Happened When the War Was Over, it can be accessed on a site called Smashwords. Pawel has taken this action, which she calls “an experiment both with new technology and with self-publishing,” partly in response to her frustration with commercial publishers (a frustration which, I hasten to assure her, is shared by many readers as well).
As to why there will be no more novels in this series, Pawel has her reasons, which she enlarges upon in the FAQ section on her site.
In last month’s issue of the British magazine Literary Review, two books concerning the Spanish Civil War were reviewed together: I am Spain: The Spanish Civil War and the Men and Women Who Went To Fight Fascism, by David Boyd Haycock; and Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle Against Fascism, by Richard Baxell. Both authors write about the International Brigades: men (and a small number of women) from fifty-three countries who came to Spain to fight along side the Republicans. One aspect of this conflict that has always puzzled me is the participation of all these incomers from other nations. Caroline Moorehead, author of this article, mentions that “George Orwell pawned the family silver to pay for the journey.’ Moorehead continues:
No war had ever attracted such a concentration of intellectuals. Many of them had visited Spain before and brought with them romantic memories of olive trees and bullfights. They revelled in the huge, hot landscape, the intensity of the political conflict, and the spectacle of revolutionary socialism in action – workers with rifles over their shoulders and cars painted with slogans. The anarchy was alarming, but it was also extremely exciting.
In addition, Pauline explained to us, the U.S., France, and Britain all declined to interfere in the conflict, leaving the field open to the Italians and Germans on the Nationalist side, and the Communists on the Republican side.
Somehow I was under the impression that the books in the Tejada series were out of print, but in fact they are all four currently available in soft cover editions from Amazon. They can also be purchased directly from Soho Press. (Thanks Soho; you’re one of my two favorite American publishers of crime fiction, the other being Severn House.)
Toward the end of this exceptionally stimulating meeting, Pauline asked our group the ever-perilous, bottom line question: Did we like the book? We answered in the affirmative – all ten of us! Pauline seemed not to have expected this response and was obviously gratified by it. Several of us added that while the plot was somewhat hard to follow and the cast of characters large and challenging to keep track of, the novel builds in power and intensity and ends by being quite gripping. All of this greatly helped by Rebecca Pawel’s superior prose style, which is elegant and incisive and laced with a fine irony.
I should add that it is very typical of Pauline to be modest about the fact that her own erudition and enthusiasm were key factors contributing to our enjoyment of this discussion and this novel.
Death of a Nationalist won the 2004 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. (It was also a finalist for the Anthony and Macavity Awards in the same category.) Below is a picture of Rebecca Pawel accepting the Edgar.
The Spanish Civil War is a fiendishly complex subject and Death of a Nationalist nearly matches it in complexity, as I’ve already mentioned. I’ve only skimmed the surface of both of these topics in this post. Thanks once more to Pauline and all the Usual Suspects for such an invigorating evening. Any errors contained herein are my own; if you spot any, please let me know.
This past Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the (newly reinvigorated ) AAUW Readers. The selection for this session was Midnight in Peking by Paul French. I admit I was a bit uncertain as to how well this book would lend itself to the reading group discussion format. In the event, I need not have worried. Participants were eager to dive in with their observations and questions, most of which concerned aspects of the character of Pamela Werner, the young victim of a horrendous crime, and of her father ETC Werner.
The year was 1937, and Pamela Werner seems not to have thought of the way of life she and her father shared as especially unusual. And yet it might seem so to contemporary readers. Her mother had died when Pamela was three years old. ETC Werner, a distinguished Sinologist already in his forties when she was born, seemed bookish and remote, leaving most of the child care duties to the household servants.
A fluent speaker of Mandarin, Pamela was a curious mixture of innocent schoolgirl and budding womanliness. Her existence in Peking was literally freewheeling: she navigated the streets and alley ways of the city on her bicycle, often alone, sometimes at night.
Author Paul French studied history, economics, and Mandarin language; in addition, he has an advanced degree in economics from the University of Glasgow. He is currently a business consultant and analyst in Shanghai. In the ‘Q and A’ section of the reading guide, French recounts how he first came upon the story of Pamela Werner while reading a biography of American journalist Edgar Snow. Ultimately, his search for information about Pamela’s murder led him to Britain’s National Archives in Kew:
I was looking through a box of jumbled up and unnumbered documents from the British Embassy in China in the 1940s when I found a 150 page or so long document sent to the Foreign Office by ETC Werner, Pamela’s father. These documents were the notes of a detailed private investigation he had conducted after the Japanese occupation of Peking until he was himself interned by the Japanese along with all other Allied foreigners after Pearl Harbor.
Those papers proved revelatory. This is the kind of find that every researcher dreams of.
Members of our group were much taken with Paul French’s vivid depiction of old Peking, an exotic and mysterious city about to be overrun by the Japanese army. They wished they knew more about the history of the region, but the fact is that French preferred to focus with laser like intensity on the murder of Pamela Werner and its immediate aftermath. The result is a tightly wound narrative that grabs the reader by the lapels (do we still have lapels?) and never lets go. As a fact crime narrative, it reminded me of People Who Eat Darkness. That book is set in present day Tokyo and is quite a bit longer than Midnight in Peking. But the riveting storytelling and the pathos of the human drama are vividly bodied forth in both books.
The investigation of the murder of Pamela Werner was a simultaneous undertaking conducted by a Chinese policeman and Scotland Yard detective. This was a very unusual instance of the two forces collaborating in the work of solving a crime. The trail of leads they followed was labyrinthine, and some provocative information was uncovered, especially as regarded the seedy underbelly of expatriate life in the city. Soon however the Japanese invaded, global war followed, and the search for Pamela Werner’s killer was lost in the chaotic currents of world events. In addition, the inquiry was subverted in several ways by people in powerful positions who did not want any ugly or incriminating truths to emerge.
And there matters might have rested permanently – except for the advent of a determined researcher decades later….
In the reading group guide, Paul French makes several suggestions for further reading. Among these are the novels Rickshaw Boy by Lao She, Moment in Peking by Lin Yutang, and The Maker of Heavenly Trousers by Daniele Varé. Numbered among the nonfiction accounts are Ponies and Peonies by Harold Acton, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China by Davis Kidd, and City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking’s Exotic Pleasures by Jon Blofeld. (Click here for additional titles.)
Midnight in Peking is an example of what is currently referred to in publishing parlance as historic true crime. “Prior Misconduct,” an article on this subgenre, appeared in a September issue of Library Journal. The author of the piece named several titles that I’ve very much enjoyed in the past several years:
. The question arises as to where in a bookstore (or on library shelves) titles such as these belong: history or crime? In actuality they partake of both classifications, and that’s one of the things that makes them so uniquely fascinating. I admit t hat I thought of Destiny of the Republic, Candace Millard’s superb biography of President James A. Garfield, as primarily a work of history, and yet it recently won the Edgar Award for ‘Best Fact Crime.‘ (Actually I think that book should win an award for being the best everything – it was simply terrific!) There is one other title not mentioned in the Library Journal that I (and a number of other reviewers) thought was exceptionally well done: The Fall of the House of Walworth, by Geoffrey O’Brien.
Toward the end of our discussion, I mentioned how much I’ve been enjoying my return to the classics. It’s something I’d promised myself I’d do when I retired, and it is proving to be an extremely rewarding experience. Since being reconstituted, AAUW’s book group has discussed two classics: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather and The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. Lorraine inquired as to whether I could come up with any other titles other titles of that ilk for the group. So glad you asked, Lorraine! Keeping in mind the issues of length and readability, here are some suggestions, for starters:
Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy
Une Vie ( A Life) and Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane
Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (really just about anything by Jane Austen!)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (These two were suggested by Doris, and I heartily concur .)
This delightful and articulate group of book lovers seemed to agree that Midnight in Peking was a great read and an excellent choice for discussion. Since I was the one who proposed it, I was most gratified by this outcome!
Talking about The Terrorists, by Sjowall and Wahloo: Everything a book discussion should be – and more
I’m not quite sure how to begin this post. Tuesday night’s Usual Suspects book discussion was so rich and stimulating:
When it’s Frances’s turn to lead the group, we always know we’re going to be treated to an extraordinary degree of preparation. Even so, she may have outdone herself as she led our discussion of The Terrorists, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.
From an amazingly thick binder, Frances extracted page after page of fact sheets and images. The latter were especially poignant; we got to see these two writers when they were still relatively young, just starting out in their lives both as crime fiction authors and as lovers.
I for one had not realized the complexity of their lives in the period before their time together. Maj Sjowall had been married twice and had a daughter; Per Wahloo was married at the time of their meeting. They met while working for the same magazine publisher. He wooed her with passages of writing in which he invited her to, as it were, fill in the blanks. Obviously she did that – and more.
Frances’s central question to us was: Who exactly were the eponymous terrorists in this novel? She helped bring us to the realization of the importance of this consideration. Meanwhile, many of us praised the sheer cunning of the plot hatched by the police in order to foil the would-be assassins. The Terrorists, the final novel in the Martin Beck series, was published in 1975. It was interesting to note that in today’s world of instant communications, where it’s so difficult to keep a secret, that plot would almost certainly not have worked.
The amazingly effective efforts by the police in this case made it all the more puzzling – to this reader, at least – that the writers allude almost casually to the routine corruption in the force, as in this passage concerning Martin Beck’s new and very desirable living space:
He had been in luck when he found the place, and the most extraordinary thing was that he didn’t get it through cheating or bribery and corruption–in other words, the way police generally acquired privileges.
It’s a well known fact about these novels that Sjowall and Wahloo used them as a vehicle for criticizing the social and political conditions prevailing in Sweden in particular, and the Western world in general, at the time of their writing. Marge commented that these critical comments, some of them very forthright and blunt, were her least favorite aspect of the novel. As she succinctly put it: ‘It stops the plot.’ I agree with her. As an instance of that, the above passage leaped out in a jarring way, interrupting the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative.
But this is a minor cavil: over all, the pacing is swift, the story is involving and suspenseful. The characters are exceptionally engaging. This is especially true of what Frances termed the ‘team of five,’ a group of exceptionally skilled and resourceful law men headed up by Martin Beck. I can do no better in describing this protagonist than Dennis Lehane, in his introduction to the 2010 Vintage Crime /Black Lizard edition of this novel:
As this novel…is Martin Beck’s swan song, it’s worth noting that in the annals of realistic fictional policemen, Beck stands a full head above most. He carries plenty of psychic scars and admits to a depressive personality, but he’s not gloom laden to the point of masochistic self-pity that so often masquerades as a hard-boiled hero’s tragic worldview. Beck is a dogged worker bee entering his later middle-aged years with a healthy romantic life and no illusions about his place in the larger scheme of things.
That last sentence, at least, could equally apply to two other favorite fictional policemen of mine: Commissario Guido Brunetti and Detective Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, recently retired. Brunetti and Wexford are both uxorious, dependent on their respective wives for affection, moral support, and insight. Both men are comfortably – and comfortingly – ensconced in marriages of long standing. Beck, on the other hand, manages in the course of the series to extricate himself from a stale and joyless union. In The Locked Room, the eighth book, he meets Rhea Nielsen, who works for the social welfare services and also owns and manages an apartment building. There’s an instantaneous attraction, and by the time the events of the tenth and last book are unfolding, Beck and Rhea are in a relationship that’s richly rewarding for both of them.
(I admit I was somewhat startled by the physical description of Rhea. Here’s her first appearance in The Terrorists, during a courtroom scene:
She was of below average height and had dead-straight blond hair, not especially long. Her clothes consisted of faded jeans, a shirt of indefinite color and strap sandals. She had broad, sunburnt feet with straight toes, flat breasts with large nipples that could be seen quite clearly through her shirt. The most remarkable thing about her was her small, angular face with its strong nose and piercing blue gaze, which she directed in turn on those present.
In the course of the novel, those nipples receive multiple mention, as do her feet.)
At any rate, the trajectory of Martin Beck’s love life would seem to have some parallels in the lives of the authors. (It also reminds me of events in the life of one of my other favorite fictional policemen, Bill Slider.) In a 2009 article in the Guardian/Observer, Sjowall admits that at the time that she and Per Wahloo began their love affair, “His wife hated me, of course.” She adds that they are now friends. (This is yet another instance of the fact that if you live long enough, the nature of some of your relationships may change profoundly.)
Frances asked us how we felt about The Terrorists being the conclusion of the series. Apparently this was the plan from the very beginning, ten years earlier, starting with Roseanna in 1965. I believe we agreed that this novel did not have that autumnal quality that one associates with such endings. Moreover, as a series winds down, it’s usual for its creator to have the protagonist retire, become in some way incapacitated, or even die. (Who can forget the loss of Inspector Morse, masterfully played by John Thaw, in The Remorseful Day? I read the novel, but I’ve never been able to watch the TV episode. Of course, one’s sadness was made more acute when John Thaw himself passed away a short time later.)
I don’t mean to be dismissive about the social and political concerns of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. According to my understanding, these were the prime motivation behind the writing if these novels. Again, Dennis Lehane:
One wonders how Sjowall and Wahloo managed to live there through the writing of the ten Martin Beck novels, , so negative is their depiction of not just the failed welfare state but the physical landscape as well, a shameless myth of blond goddesses and mineral springs that in reality gives birth every morning to a ‘dismal, dirty, gray and depressing dawn.’ It’s a late November world, compressed by a dark, swollen sky that hovers roughly four inches above your head until May. The courts don’t work, the schools produce little but rot, and the ruling class skims the cream off the top and turns its back as the poor fight over the coffee grounds.
Well. I don’t know about you, but this harsh appraisal does not at all accord with my mental picture of the workings of Sweden’s social democracy. But it was their country; they should know. When you add to this the fact that Sjowall and Wahloo began their collaboration at the height of the war in Vietnam their animus against Western governments in general becomes more understandable. And of course, much of that animus was directed against the United States. It’s the visit to Sweden of an American senator, with the concomitant need for extraordinary security measures, that precipitates the crisis in The Terrorists.
Per Wahloo is on record as stating that their goal in the Martin Beck novels was to “use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideologically pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type.” Well, golly, that doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? But these books are fun, in the sense that a terrific story well told invariably is. I like the way the case is stated at Scandinavian Books:
How well they succeeded as far as the social criticism of the Swedish welfare state is concerned, is open to debate. However, what they did succeed in, was the creation of one of the most interesting and wonderful series of crime fiction novels ever. While each of the books may be read individually as a stand alone crime novel, this well designed series contains a rich, intriguing and fascinating set of side stories about the main character Martin Beck and his family, the dynamics of the group of detectives working with him, and the intrigues and struggles within the police force. Martin Beck and his colleagues at the Central Bureau of Investigation in Stockholm are the main characters of the series.
This photograph of the authors, the one most commonly reproduced, is one I’ve featured in other posts on Books to the Ceiling: This was taken when Per Wahloo was already gravely ill, something I’d not previously known. (He died at the age of 48; Maj Sjowall was some eight or nine years his junior.): . Here are two photos of an earlier vintage: . I especially like this one, with the two sons they had together: . (The couple lived together but were never married.)
Frances did some research on the translators of the Beck novels. Translators tend to be the unsung heroes of international literature, yet there efforts are so crucial. The translator of the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition of The Terrorists is Joan Tate, who turns out to be an extremely interesting and accomplished person in her own right.
All ten of the Martin Beck novels, taken together, are called The Story of a Crime. . This image comes from a site called Zoom Street, where an ‘August Beck Fest’ was recently commended to crime fiction fans. Writer Derek Pell calls the books “highly addictive.” There’s no shortage of similar praise everywhere I’ve looked. And as for the new, most gratifyingly excellent wave of Scandinavian crime fiction authors currently on the literary scene, they’re all well aware that they stand on the shoulders of these two giants.
In 2010, Sweden issued a number of postage stamps featuring distinguished authors of crime fiction. This one honors Sjowall and Wahloo:
The Laughing Policeman made the list of 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century compiled by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.
I began by trying to take notes Tuesday night, but I soon gave up. Ideas, questions, and observations – all were flowing back and forth fast and furiously. Frances had such a wealth of material to share – I wished the meeting were being recorded. I don’t feel that I’ve quite conveyed the feeling of exhilaration that blossomed in Frances’s cozy and charming living room. I know I’ve left out a great deal of what passed. Suspects – feel free to offer additions and/or corrections. (For much of the time, Toby the genial Black Lab was chewing with noisy gusto on his bone, adding to everyone’s general delight in the occasion!)
There is something strangely compelling in the story of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: their passionate lives as both lovers and artistic collaborators; their carefully planned ten volume fictional series concluding at the same time that Wahloo’s own life was concluding. It was a richly rewarding partnership on several levels, cut short by a cruel and unforgiving fate. I can’t help thinking: If I’d been Maj Sjowall in 1975, I’ d have felt as though my entire world were imploding. And yet – look what they achieved – look what they had!
Wendy Tynes is a crusading TV reporter whose specialty is exposing pedophiles. When social worker Dan Mercer walks straight into one of her sting operations, he’s caught on camera. Mercer was supposedly on his way to molest a teenaged girl in her own home. But there is something wrong with this scenario right from the get go. And the consequences, for Mercer, Wendy Tynes, and a host of other people, are dire in the extreme.
It’s an explosive opener that certainly got my attention right from the start. But as the narrative progressed, problems arose. For one thing, there’s a whole other storyline unspooling. It involves the disappearance of Haley McWaid, a high achieving high school senior with nary a blemish on her character. Eventually – and inevitably – the two stories coalesce. But in the mean time, there’s a lot to keep track of: a burgeoning cast of characters, a variety of plot twists, and two separate investigations headed up by two different sets of investigators. And, of course, there’s Wendy Tynes, conducting her own investigation.
This past Tuesday night, Louise, the discussion leader, began our discussion of Caught by asking each of us to say what we liked and/or did not like about the book. As a method of kick starting a discussion, this gambit does not always work. But it worked quite well this time. It was interesting to hear the widely varying reactions to the novel. Several among us enjoyed it and declared themselves well disposed toward this author and willing to read more of his books. His pacing and inventive plotting won praise. But others in the group did not share this enthusiasm. They found the story convoluted and the profusion of characters confusing. Susan found the plot farfetched; others thought it spilled over from drama into melodrama. Finally some readers straddled the fence, liking some aspects of the novel and not others. (I was one of that group.)
Two of the novel’s characters were singled out as possessing an especially strong capacity to annoy. One was Hester Crimstein, a lawyer, TV personality possibly modeled on Judge Judy, and all around loud mouth. The other was an unemployed father who hung around with his buddies in a local bar and styled himself a rapper performing under the moniker ‘Ten-A-Fly’ (I learned from the blog Reading for the Joy of It that regarding Coben’s oeuvre, Hester Crimstein is a returning character . Yikes!) A reviewer in the media disliked Wendy Tynes, and if memory serves, one or two in our group felt likewise. Now this surprised me. I found her believable and appealing. I especially enjoyed her interactions with her adolescent son Charlie. Like any teenager, Charlie could be exasperating, but you never doubt the genuine love and protective instinct that subsists on both sides of the relationship. In a video interview on the subject of this novel, Harlan Coben describes, among other things, the way in which the character of Wendy Tynes grew in importance as he was writing Caught:
Harlan Coben lives in northern New Jersey, a region which furnishes the setting for this novel. This was a source of pleasure for Yours Truly, being as North Jersey is my ancestral homeland. The mention of South Orange, Livingston, and the South Mountain Reservation filled me with delight!
As so often happens at Suspects’ discussions, we attempted to properly classify this novel. Eventually we agreed that Caught should be considered a thriller as opposed to a mystery. Marge commented that the British designation ‘crime novel’ is useful in a case like this, in that it provides broader coverage and a more inclusive category. (The British also favor the term ‘detective fiction,’ which is somewhat narrower and more specific. P.D. James’s used it in the title of her delightful survey of the genre, Talking About Detective Fiction.)
After someone said that Caught read like a story destined for the movies, Louise made a suggestion that I found intriguing: she averred that some writers of crime fiction can be thought of screenwriters; others, as poets. This is the kind of observation that makes you want to start making lists. P.D. James? Poet. Harlan Coben? Screenwriter. But for me, at least, this attempt at classification broke down almost immediately. There were too many writers known to me whose work partook of the characteristics of both camps, by which I mean they are both fine writers and great storytellers. One thinks of Ruth Rendell, Peter Lovesey, Peter Robinson, Craig Johnson, etc.
One last word about the plot of Caught: at the conclusion, Coben did manage to generate some genuine suspense. Thus this somewhat flawed novel did succeed, at least to a degree, where much of contemporary fiction tends to fall short.
Before I myself conclude, I want to mention a fact about our discussion leader that is rather distinctive: she has lent her name to characters featured in several mysteries. Louise has been a frequent attendee at the Malice Domestic Convention, which takes place quite nearby every year. It is customary at these events to pick a charity to support, one that is often connected with the cause of promoting literacy. One of the ways tht authors raise money for the cause is to auction off the names of characters in their novels. Here’s what Louise told me:
I was able to get the high bid for a Donna Andrews book because it was a silent auction prize. Toward the end of the auction, I stood a few yards from the sign-up sheet so I could raise the bid on anyone who tried to outbid me. At the live auctions I set a maximum amount since these are the ones where folks get carried away.
Some bookstore owners and others who help out the authors often get a free character. I remember one year where half the current mysteries I read had the name Maggie Mason in them. The best one was a woman wrestler who was going to open a bookshop when she retired. Since that wouldn’t make her any money, she planned to run numbers.
In addition to the novel by Donna Andrews, Louise’s namesakes have appeared in books by Sharon Fiffer, Lillian Stewart Carl, Carole Nelson Douglas, and Jane Cleland. I found a column from last year’s the Richmond Times- Dispatch in which four mysteries are reviewed. In one of them, The Real Macaw by Donna Andrews, Louise’s namesake character is singled out for mention in the plot summary. (The next author to feature her moniker will be Charles Finch.)
So let’s hear it for Louise. She led an excellent discussion, and she’s a generous and warm-hearted person into the bargain. But then, we who are her fellow Suspects already knew that!
To quote the late, great Peter Falk as Columbo, just one more thing: We ended the evening by wishing Carol and Ann bon voyage. They’re off to Scotland next month for a mystery themed tour which will feature, among other activities, attendance at the first ever Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival.
[Click here for Part One of this post.]
The year is 1928. A woman sits on a train. She is alone; her daughter is safely ensconced in a boarding school. Her marriage, to her grief and mortification, has ended. Her beloved mother has died. Why should she not embark on an adventure? She is in need of a change of scene….
The woman is Agatha Christie. The train is the Orient Express. The destination: Baghdad.
Christie had originally planned a Caribbean vacation. But two days before her intended departure date, she happened to have dinner with a young couple just returned from Baghdad. They raved about the exotic, fascinating city. Christie assumed that to get there, you had to go by sea., but her interlocutors assured her that she could make the journey by train. And not just any train: you could travel on the fabled Orient Express! As it happened, Agatha Christie loved trains, and it had long been her desire to travel on that particular storied line. She says in her autobiography:
All my life I had wanted to go on the Orient Express. When I had travelled to France or Spain or Italy, the Orient Express had often been standing at Calais, and I had longed to climb up into it. Simplon-Orient Express-Milan Belgrade, Stamboul…I was bitten.
To us in the twenty-first century, Iraq may seem a strange choice for leisure travel. But as Andrew Eames reminds us in The 8:55 to Baghdad,* the situation was different in the late 1920s: “….at the time the country was a British protectorate and very much in the news thanks to the archaeologist Leonard Woolley’s discoveries, which were being talked up as a second Tutankhamun.”
So revelatory was that first visit that two years later, Christie decided to go back. On this second excursion, she met a young archeologist who had not been in Baghdad when she’d gone in 1928. His name was Max Mallowan.
*Many thanks to Ann for reminding me of this title from 2004. In it, Andrew Eames sets out to recreate Agatha Christie’s journey from England to the Middle East, one which would change her life in ways she could not have anticipated.
[Spoilers may be present in what follows.]
It never fails: when I re-read a book in preparation for leading a discussion, certain aspects of the work strike me differently than they did not on my first reading. Additionally, I’m always amazed at what I’ve forgotten, even if I completed that reading a relatively short while ago. So it was with The Pale Horse, which I read (after listening to Hugh Fraser’s superb narration) in November of 2010. At the moment, I’m referring specifically to the very first page of Christie’s novel. The Pale Horse does not begin with the scene in a Chelsea coffee bar in which two young woman come to blows over a man. Rather, it begins with a brief rumination by Mark Easterbrook. Wondering at what point in time his narrative should commence, he asks a provocative question: “At what point in history does one particular portion of history begin?” Now he himself is a historian by profession, so this is a natural question for him to be asking. After pondering several possibilities. he decides that his strange tale should take as its point of origin “,,,a certain evening in Chelsea.”
(As it happens, Mark Easterbrook’s Foreward provides yet another example of a phenomenon I encounter frequently on these occasions. I wanted to bring up this short half page with the group, and I never did. I’ve found that no matter how much preparation I do, no matter how meticulous my notes, list of questions, outlines, etc. – the thing rarely goes as planned. But there is almost always rich compensation for the omissions; namely, the questions and observations that, in the course of the discussion, come from the group members themselves.)
With Mark Easterbrook’s brief reflection, a mood of unease is created, a mood that gradually and ineluctably gathers strength. Nothing is wasted – absolutely nothing. For me, this tightness of structure combined with a heightened intensity of feeling is one of this novel’s most admirable qualities.
Mark Easterbrook is the chief protagonist, but there’s a significant array of supporting players on either side of the dividing line between good and evil. There’s Mark’s cousin Rhoda and her husband Major Despard. There’s the somewhat mysterious Mr. Venables, a man of considerable wealth, whose use of a wheel chair is crucial to the plot. There’s Mr. Osborne the pharmacist and Mrs. Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife. Inspector LeJeune and Dr. Corrigan the police surgeon are the official investigators. There’s Poppy, a young woman who’s both witless and knowing. There are the three women residing deep in the countryside in a sort of deconsecrated pub called The Pale Horse. There’s Mark’s steady, reliable, and rather boring girlfriend Hermia Redcliffe, whose inability to empathize with Mark’s struggle to uncover the truth about The Pale Horse conspiracy signals the doom of their relationship. On the other hand, art restorer (and comely redhead) Ginger Corrigan most definitely does empathize.
And then there’s Ariadne Oliver.
A writer of detective fiction and inveterate hoarder of apples, Ariadne Oliver is best known as the friend of Hercule Poirot. She appears with the Belgian sleuth in several of his detecting ventures. She’s also part of the cast of characters in two non-Poirot tales: The Pale Horse and “The Case of the Discontented Soldier,” a short story in the collection Parker Pyne Investigates. (Click here to download this story for 99 cents!) Ariadne Oliver is one of my favorite Christie creations. Christie seems to have invented her in order to poke fun at herself. We first encounter her when Mark goes to visit her. He’s on a mission, on behalf of his cousin Rhoda, who would like Ariadne to take part in a fête in her village of Much Deeping. When Mark enters Ariadne’s workroom, he finds her at her wit’s end over a plot point in a novel she’s currently engaged in writing:
‘But why,’ demanded Mrs. Oliver of the universe, ‘why doesn’t the idiot say at once that he saw the cockatoo? Why shouldn’t he? He couldn’t have helped seeing it! But if he does mention it, it ruins everything. There must be a way…there must be….’
Mark is finally able to bring Ariadne around to the question of putting in an appearance at the Much Deeping fête. At first, she adamantly refuses. She’s got her reasons: “You know what happened last time? I arranged a Murder Hunt, and the first thing that happened was a real corpse. I’ve never quite got over it!” This is a reference to the events of Dead Man’s Folly, a Poirot novel and a very enjoyable read. (Greenway, Agatha Christie’s holiday home, furnished the model for the house and grounds wherein the novel’s events take place. Last year, I purchased the paperback at Greenway’s splendid gift shop. The kind lady at the cash register stamped it for me.)
While it’s true that the Ariadne Oliver character provides some welcome comic relief, it should be remembered that she possesses a very astute intelligence. Late in the progress of The Pale Horse, she supplies a desperate Mark with some crucial information, arrived at through her own shrewd observation and deduction, that literally enables him to save a life. (In recent films of the Poirot novels, Ariadne Oliver has been played by Zoe Wanamaker, who seems ideally suited to the part.)
It was Charles Osborne in The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie who informed me where to look for Ariadne Oliver’s first appearance in the Christie oeuvre. He provided further information about other characters in The Pale Horse who appear elsewhere. Mark’s cousin Rhoda appears in Cards on the Table as Rhoda Dawes; she eventually marries Colonel Despard who was actually a suspect in the murder of the strange Mr. Shaitana. The Reverend Caleb Dane Calthrop and his wife appear alongside Miss Marple in The Moving Finger (1943). (I’m intrigued by the way in which Wikipedia presents this information, and the conclusion that’s drawn:
Mrs Oliver often assists Poirot in his cases through her knowledge of the criminal mind….
In The Pale Horse, Mrs Oliver becomes acquainted with the Rev and Mrs Dane Calthrop, who are friends of Miss Marple (The Moving Finger); thus establishing that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot exist in the same world.)
One of my favorite scenes in The Pale Horse occurs early in Chapter Four. Mark and Hermia have just been to see Macbeth at the Old Vic. From there, they proceed to a restaurant for brunch, where Mark spots fellow historian David Ardingly. David, a lecturer at Oxford, introduces them to his date Poppy, whom he calls “my particular pet.” They get to talking about the various productions of ‘the Scottish play.’ David remarks that he has his own ideas about how the three witches should be portrayed:
‘Id make them very ordinary. Just sly quiet old women. Like the witches in a country village.’
Poppy challenges him regarding that last bit, exclaiming that there are no witches in their modern world. David retorts: “You say that because you’re a London girl. There’s still a witch in every village in rural England.” And he begins ticking off examples of the phenomenon! This is a nifty bit of foreshadowing. And there’s more, when the party gets onto the subject of murder for hire….
This lead inevitably to a discussion of the major theme of good versus evil. I’ve always felt that much of the power of Macbeth resides in the swift ascendancy of evil over good, an evil that seems to encounter no opposition from an equally powerful force. But in The Pale Horse, despite the presence of what John Curran called “a horribly plausible plot” – and a fiendish and secretive thing it is, too – there is push back from people who know evil when they see it and believe in their ability, indeed their duty, to put a stop to it. This aspect of the novel – the sense of a desperate battle under way, even a sort of Armageddon – over and above the actual events and the people involved, made a deep impression on me when I first read it. I was interested to see that it had a similar effect on Frances, for whom The Pale Horse was her introduction to the work of Agatha Christie. In a subsequent e-mail to me, Frances commented:
Human nature is well examined in the book, and on a first reading I had the distinct feeling that to thoroughly grasp what the mind of an older, wiser, brilliant storyteller is talking about one would have to read and reread the story several times.
Having now read the novel twice and listened to it once, I can confirm that Frances is right. And as she is our resident Sherlockian, I am tempted to echo the words of the Great Detective: “These are very deep waters….” (Research just now conducted leads me to believe that this line originated in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” for my money the most purely frightening tale in the Holmes canon. It was brought vividly to life in the 1984 film starring Jeremy Brett.)
Frances expressed interest in the way in which Christie dealt with the question of good versus evil in her other works. The book that immediately sprang to my mind was Nemesis,. Published in 1971, this was the last Miss Marple novel written by Christie. (Sleeping Murder, though published later than Nemesis, was actually written earlier.) At the heart of the mystery limned in Nemesis is an ancient country house, where three elderly sisters live in deep seclusion, hoarding their secrets….
In her novels and stories, Agatha Christie does not as a rule expend a great deal of energy in describing her characters’ surroundings, opting instead to use her authorial capital in writing crisp and engaging dialog that advances the plot at a fairly brisk clip. When she does write descriptively, she’s very effective, conveying much in just a few words. In one of my favorite scenes in The Pale Horse, Mark has been conferring with Mrs. Dane Calthrop. She has been a great source of strength to him as he sallies forth, like a knight of old, to do battle against the forces of evil. As he prepares to take his leave of her, he pauses at the vicarage door:
I looked out over the richness of the autumn world. Such soft still beauty….
‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us,’ I said.
‘Amen,’ said Mrs. Dane Calthrop.
(‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ is Hamlet’s exclamation upon beholding the ghost of his father for the first time.)
There is plenty of discussion of death in this novel, and of what used to be called ‘the death wish’ or ‘the death drive.’ This concept apparently derives from Beyond the Pleasure Principle by Sigmund Freud. It’s well to be reminded that at the time of the writing of The Pale Horse, in the middle of the twentieth century, the theories and ideas of Freud were still very much common currency, and were influential in all areas of the arts, both in Britain and in the U.S. And of course the novel’s title derives from the Book of Revelations:
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him….
This excerpt is quoted by Mrs. Dane Calthrop near the novel’s conclusion.
I’d like to go back to Macbeth for a minute. I had with me a paragraph from Thomas de Quincey’s essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.” I wanted to read it aloud but there was not time to do so. But you can read it in my post on a performance of Macbeth that I saw at the Folger Theatre four years ago. (The paragraph in question is at the bottom of the post.)
As a meditation on the way in which evil deeds cut the doer (or doers) off from the everyday world in which goodness and grace may at least be hoped for if not readily attained, that passage has, for me, no equal. As I write this, I am thinking of the horrible events of this past Thursday night, in Colorado.
Toward the conclusion of The Pale Horse, there’s an interesting exchange between Mark Easterbrook and Inspector Lejeune:
‘One imagines a mastermind,’ I said, ‘as some grand and sinister figure of evil.’
Lejeune shook his head. ‘It’s not like that at all,’ he said. ‘Evil is not something superhuman, it’s something less than human. Your criminal is someone who wants to be important, but who never will be important, because he’ll always be less than a man.’
Lejeune here seems to be restating the concept of ‘the banality of evil,’ the locution famously coined by Hannah Arendt to describe of Adolph Eichmann. (I’ve never been sure that I agree with this. Again, at this moment in time, in light of the horrors of this past Thursday night, evil and its perpetrators seem gigantically awful and possessed of limitless power to do harm, while ordinary people – people of good will – stand by helplessly.)
Carol remarked that for a person with little in the way of formal education, Agatha Christie certainly knew her Shakespeare. I had the same thought. I think that at the time of Christie’s growing up, Shakespeare’s works were still ubiquitous, part of the air breathed by Britons, and an acknowledged part of their birthright.
I had nearly forgotten, until Pauline’s timely reminder, to mention that the line “The dog it was that died” turns up in Chapter 21 of The Pale Horse. This is the same line quoted in very poignant circumstances, in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil, which several of us had recently read and discussed at a different venue. It’s the last line of the poem “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog” by Oliver Goldsmith. (It’s also the title of a play by Tom Stoppard, which was subsequently made into a movie.)
Mike recollected that Dick Francis used the same poison that features in The Pale Horse, in his own novel Banker. (Dick Francis was yet another born storyteller, sorely missed.)
I owe thanks to Carol, for pointing out a passage in Laura Thompson’s biography in which the model for the pharmacist Mr. Osborne is identified. Christie knew him at the Torquay dispensary, where she worked during the First World War:
This man – who carried a lump of curare in his pocket because it made him feel powerful – reappeared more than forty years later in her book The Pale Horse, transmuted into the chemist Mr. Osbourne [sic].
Don’t forget to visit the Agatha Christie Blog Carnival, where you’ll find numerous reviews and lots of additional information about Christie. (Updated monthly)
I owe a debt of gratitude to the outstanding group of book lovers who comprise the Usual Suspects. Special thanks go to Ann, Carol, and Mike: their in depth knowledge of the life and works off Agatha Christie was both helpful and impressive.
Frances ended one of her e-mails to me with this statement: “I love our book group.” I couldn’t agree more.
I’d like the final words of this post to be from Mike Grost, whose Guide To Classic Mystery and Detection has been such a superb source since my earliest days online:
For many years I have had a dream, one that repeats itself quite regularly. I am in a library, and I find an Agatha Christie novel that I have never read before. I always wake up happy after this dream.
The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie: a book discussion. Part One: background (but first – a heartfelt digression)
As last Tuesday night’s meeting got under way, we members of Usual Suspects were treated first to a recap of Marge’s recent and rather fabulous trip to England. Not only did she savor the many joys of literary London, she also attended a star studded Crimefest Convention in Bristol. This is the same event that we both enjoyed last year, but this year’s Crimefest was truly stellar: Lee Child! Sue Grafton! And most amazingly, the reigning queen of British crime fiction, P.D. James! Marge’s tour also took her to Oxford, where she fell in love with the city of the dreaming spires and got to spend some time in the company of Colin Dexter, author of the peerless Inspector Morse novels.. (Ron and I enjoyed this same memorable experience in 2006, while on the Smithsonian Tour, Classic Mystery Lover’s England.)
All right – I must stop myself getting sad and dreamy-eyed, as I invariably do when remembering this, and proceed to the matter at hand…. Oh but first, I really must offer up a soundtrack. This video tribute to Barrington Pheloung begins with music he composed for the film Shopgirl. You’ll hear the Morse theme at about two minutes and twenty seconds in:
I began Tuesday night’s discussion of The Pale Horse began with a brief survey of the life of Agatha Christie. It was not my intention to delve into too much detail, as the general facts of her life are fairly well known and easy to access. Still, I admit I was knocked sideways by the fact that Carol rattled off from memory the name Roedean, this being the boarding school attended by Agatha’s older sister Madge. She was also well up on the arcana of Agatha’s complex familial antecedents. Well done, Carol!
Agatha Christie was born in 1890 in Torquay,on Devon’s south coast.
Lovely Torquay - Ron and I were first there in 2006, and then again, last year. (The first photo is of the lobby of the Imperial Hotel, where we stayed in 2006.)
Madge was eleven years older than Agatha; brother Monty was ten years older. So in some respects, Agatha’s upbringing resembled that of an only child. In addition, her father, the American born Frederick Alvah Miller, died in 1901, when Agatha was eleven years old. As a result, she and her mother Clara, already close, grew even closer. Clara had some eccentric notions concerning education; hence, Agatha’s was something of a catch-as-catch-can affair. As Agatha grew to young womanhood, her chief aim was to get married. As Joan Acocella tells it in her 2010 New Yorker profile: “All she wanted was a husband, and when she was twenty-four she got one: the dashing Archie Christie, a member of the Royal Flying Corps.” After a rather turbulent courtship, Archie and Agatha were wed. Archie went off to fight in France; Agatha went off to work in a hospital dispensary in Torquay, a fateful job choice as it later turned out.
When Archie came back from the war, he and Agatha at first settled into a comfortable domesticity. Agatha gave birth to their daughter Rosalind. But Archie was proving to be a less than ideal husband. In her autobiography, Agatha quotes him as saying : ” I did tell you once, long ago, that I hate it when people are ill or unhappy-it spoils everything for me.” Unfortunately for both of them, Agatha’s mother Clara died in 1926. As Joan Acocella wryly observes, this devastating loss had the effect of “…plunging her daughter into the kind of sorrow that Archie found so obstructive to his happiness.” Sure enough,Archie sought consolation elsewhere. He soon informed Agatha that he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. This crisis in her personal life prompted Agatha Christie to decide on a strange course of action, one which has been endless scrutinized and analyzed for decades: she disappeared.
She was gone for eleven days. Eventually it transpired that she had absconded to the Old Swan Hotel in the spa town of Harrogate, in Yorkshire. She checked in under an assumed name, giving as her surname ‘Neele,’ the last name of Archie’s new love. Her disappearance was sensational.
The Surrey constabulary, enlarged to five hundred men, combed the downs and dragged the ponds in the area around her abandoned car. When the weekend came, they were joined by a mob of volunteers, plus bloodhounds. Ice-cream venders set up stands to serve the crowd. Most of the major newspapers carried a daily story on the matter. Christie’s fellow-guests at the hotel looked at the photos of her in the papers, but none of them made the connection. Indeed, she later recalled playing bridge with them and discussing the strange case of the missing novelist.
Christie was eventually identified by members of the hotel’s band. What followed was a great deal of speculation. Had Christie experienced some kind of amnesia? Was this a desperate bid to regain Archie’s affection? Or was it a publicity stunt, pure and simple? Again, Joan Acocella:
….if Agatha’s flight was an effort to get the attention of the public, it was successful. She had produced six detective novels by that time, the last of which, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” (1926), was extremely popular. That success, in part, was why her disappearance received so much attention. Conversely, her disappearance, with its interesting link to detective fiction, made her a celebrity. Her earlier novels were reprinted, and they sold out.
(The publicity stunt rationale was deemed unlikely by the Suspects. The feeling was that Agatha’s natural shyness would have prevented her embarking on this gambit with such a calculating purpose in view.)
A word about Harrogate before we leave this subject: I’ve visited there twice. once in 2005 and again in 2007. It’s a lovely place in and of itself, and also an ideal base for investigating the nearby attractions of North Yorkshire:
Naturally I wandered through the lobby of the Old Swan Hotel, soaking up the ambiance, as Agatha Christie must have done all those years ago….
More about the life of Agatha Christie in a subsequent post. For now, I’d like to make a start on: . I first read this novel (and wrote about it in this space) in 2010. When I asked the Suspects if they’d discussed a Christie work lately, they replied in the negative. The Pale Horse struck me as a good bet for a discussion – though just how good, I hadn’t anticipated.
In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran states that The Pale Horse is one of the high marks of the last fifteen years of Christie’s writing life. He goes on to say that the novel “…has a horribly plausible plot, a very unusual poison and a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.” And in The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, Charles Osborne comments: “The Pale Horse is a remarkably fresh and imaginative creation for a writer entering her seventies.”
The Pale Horse possesses a beautiful structure, like an edifice rising in a slow and stately manner from bare ground. This dark tale of a fiendish conspiracy involves numerous disparate players, and Christie places the various components before the reader with extraordinary skill and timing. She’s certainly an expert at misdirection, but here she does something even more subtle: she embeds crucial facts in the most prosaic statements and situations. The names of characters who will ultimately play a major role in the story are sandwiched between those of comparative unimportance. Vital clues appear right from the beginning, in the most innocent-seeming settings. It’s so easy to miss them. I certainly did, on my first encounter with this novel.
A word at this juncture about the “very unusual poison” alluded to above by John Curran. In an effort to avoid ‘spoilers,’ I’m not going to name it here. I will say that it occupies an entire chapter in Deborah Blum’s terrific book The Poisoner’s Handbook. (We Suspects had a great time discussing this work at our June meeting.) In addition, on her blog Speakeasy Science, Blum tells the fascinating story of a crime committed just last year in Princeton, New Jersey, that involved the use of this same substance.
There’s quite a bit more to be said about our discussion of The Pale Horse. Part Two of this post will, I hope, not be long in coming. Meanwhile, I’d like to say a bit more at this point about sources and background.
The full text of Joan Acocella’s New Yorker piece on Agatha Christie can be found at Gale’s Biography in Context. This database can be accessed through the library’s website. Go to the home page; there, you will see the ‘How Do I’ drop box’ at the upper right, beneath ‘New & Hot Items’ and ‘Classes & Events.’ Click on the downward arrow and select ‘Use Electronic Resources.’ (You’ll find it about halfway down the list of options.) Select ‘List of Databases’ near the top of the page. Select ‘Biography’ at top left. Then select ‘Biographies’ at the top of the page. Type ‘Agatha Christie’ into the search box. Joan Acocella’s article is entitled “Queen of Crime;” the link to it is in the left hand column, second from the top. At some point in this process, you may need to enter your library card number. (One must jump through all these hoops, alas; the New Yorker keeps nearly all of its content behind a pay wall.)
What you won’t see is the rather startling photo that accompanied the article. It was taken by Lord Snowden in 1974, two years before Christie’s death:
There are other items of interest at Biography in Context’s Agatha Christie page. Right under ‘Queen of Crime’ you’ll find a link to the NPR piece about the tapes made by Christie that were found at Greenway in 2008 by her grandson Matthew Prichard. (What treasures were unearthed while Greenway was being readied to hand over to the National Trust!) You can go directly to the NPR segment, where you can listen to portions of those tapes. If you do so, you’ll note that the possibility is raised of a meeting between Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. One senses that the very idea irritated Dame Agatha. “But why should they meet?” she exclaims indignantly. ” I’m sure they would not like meeting at all.” Commentator Lynn Neary adds: “And no doubt, Agatha Christie knew exactly what she was talking about.”
Ah, but we Agatha aficionados know differently. They did meet – in Torquay in 1990, at the Agathe Christie Centenary Celebration. You can see for yourself. The meeting of the two famed fictional protagonists occurs about eighteen minutes in on this promotional video:
This video also made we wonder whether an annual Agatha Christie Festival has in fact been successfully established at Torquay. Judging by this next video, the answer is yes:
It is unusual, though not unheard of, for a novel to win the kind of unanimous approbation that was expressed Tuesday night for A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow. Ms Stabenow, a lifelong resident of Alaska, is fiercely loyal to her natal state. That does not lead her whitewash its tribulations, however.
Kate Sugak had been investigating sex crimes for the Anchorage DA’s office when she was savagely attacked and almost killed. In her struggle to recover, she has withdrawn to an isolated homestead deep in the Alaskan bush. But her skills as an investigator and her intimate knowledge of the Aleut community – she’s related by blood to a goodly number of its members- are desperately needed to advance an FBI case. So desperately that an agent shows up at her front door, accompanied by her former boss and ex-lover Jack Morgan.
It seems that a Park Ranger has been missing for six weeks. The FBI had sent in an agent two weeks ago to search for him. Now both the agent and the ranger have disappeared. With great reluctance, Kate is drawn into the investigation. And it is the quest for these two missing men that provides the framework and the momentum for a novel that is just as much about the state of the state of Alaska as it is about the solving of a particular mystery. Family obligations set against a desire for freedom of movement, tradition as opposed to change, environmentalists against – well, just about everyone: these conflicts are vividly depicted here. But the author never gets doctrinaire; she prefers to allow the characters’ passions, convictions, and anxieties to speak through their words and actions.
In A Cold Day for Murder, Dana Stabenow presents an entire world – her world. As one of the Suspects observed Tuesday night, Alaska itself is a character in this novel. But as such, it exists alongside real flesh and blood human beings, among whom Kate Shugak, the series protagonist, stands out as an especially compelling creation. A Cold Day for Murder, the first in the Kate Shugak series, came out in 1992. The following year, it won the Edgar for best paperback original. (When her editor called to tell her she’d been nominated for the award, Stabenow’s response was: “Great! What’s an Edgar?”) Last year, the novel reissued in hardback by Poisoned Pen Press. (And Kindle owners: it is available for downloading free from Amazon.)
Toward the evening’s conclusion, Mike, our presenter, asked us if we’d be interested in reading more of Dana Stabenow’s fiction. That’s the acid test for us choosy readers. As far as I could discern, we all answered in the affirmative.
Thanks to Mike for being an effective and enlightening discussion leader. And thanks to the Usual Suspects for being such a great group of mystery lovers!
Dana Stabenow comes across as a person with whom it would be enjoyable to spend time. Here she is. holding forth on the subject of the Kate Shugak novels: