Regarding The Golden Egg: the truth is that for me, Donna Leon can pretty much do no wrong. She’s right up there with Ruth Rendell, in that respect. I was reasonably certain that The Golden Egg would not disappoint, and I was right. The story centers on the somewhat mysterious death of a man who has led an extremely constrained existence. He appears to have been deaf, possibly even developmentally disabled. He certainly had no language with which to express himself. Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola, a professor of English literature, had frequently seen this person at their neighborhood dry cleaner’s shop. They did not know his name.
I always learn things of value from these novels. At one point, Brunetti is observing the activity of a colony of cats that live in what he terms a cat condominium, a structure expressly set up for their use in front of the church across the street from the police station. ‘Unruly creatures, cats,’ he think to himself, ‘and profoundly, incorrigibly disobedient.’ Turns out that the Commissario likes cats and would be happy to have one or two in his home, were it not for the fact of Paola’s allergies. He then recalls this line of poetry:
‘For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.’
This quotation is from a poem entitled “Jubilate Agno,” written by Christopher Smart. This is a lengthy work, consisting of four fragments and running to some twelve hundred lines. In the poem’s best known section, Smart praises his cat Jeoffrey and speaks lovingly of what he perceives as the feline’s relationship with God. From 1757 to1763, Smart was confined to two different asylums for the mentally ill. It was while he was resident in the first, St .Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, that he composed Jubilate Agno. During this period, it is believed that Jeoffrey was his sole companion.
I very much like the use Leon makes in these novels of the third person limited point of view. It has allowed her readers over the years to attain a kind of intellectual and emotional intimacy with Guido Brunetti. The pace of her narratives is not necessarily swift. Sometimes, in fact, it seems downright leisurely. There’s a reason for this. Time must be allowed for pithy observations of Venice, in all its uniqueness and peculiarity. (Leon, a native of New Jersey, has dwelt in La Serenissima for some thirty years.) Likewise, the reader gets to spend time en famille with Brunetti, Paola, and their two children, Chiara and Raffi. This last is one of the chief pleasures of this series. This is a close and devoted family. Meals are taken together, including lunch – on weekdays – very civilized. The meals are invariably delicious; Paola is a terrific cook. The conversation at table is often both bracing and raucous. Here, Brunetti has just a told a joke they’ve all heard many times before: “Chiara slapped her hands over her erars, knowing what was coming. Paola sighed; Raffi ate.” They all chime in at different parts of the story.
The cacophony gradually ebbs. This is how Brunetti experiences the rest of the meal:
He ate the rest of the dinner, though he didn’t know what it was he was eating. He drank a glass of wine, left the second one unfinished, drunk with the words that crossed the table, their different meanings, the fact that they indicate time: future and past; that they indicated whether something had been done or was still to do; that they expressed people’s feelings: anger was not a blow, regret was not tears. Atone point, Paola expressed a wish and used the subjunctive, and Brunetti felt himself close to tears at the beauty of the intellectual complexity of it: she could speak about what was not, could invent an alternative reality.
In all my years of ardent crime fiction consumption, this was a first for me: a policeman – or any fictional character, for that matter - ready to cry over the use of the subjunctive! (As a great fan of the subjunctive mood, or rather, the correct deployment of same, I really appreciated this odd but illuminating interval.)
Guido Brunetti is a born and bred Venetian. Its culture, its folkways, are deeply embedded in his make-up. He no longer attends church, but one thing he does firmly believe in is the unique and special status of his native city. This brief exchange with a member of his team, herself newly arrived from Naples, pretty well sums it up:
As they passed San Giorgio, she turned to Brunetti and asked, in an entirely normal voice, “Do you ever get tired of all this beauty?”
His gaze passed beyond her to the clouds scuttling behind the dome. “Never.” The answer was automatic, unconsidered, true.
I haven’t said much about the plot of this novel. As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t read Leon’s novels primarily for their plots, but because they give me the chance to hang out with an exceptionally appealing group of people in a wonderful place.. But in fact, The Golden Egg relates a particularly gripping and ultimately bleak story. When he learns the truth about the actions of certain individuals, especially a certain woman, Brunetti is gutted. It takes all of his natural resilience to lift his spirits in the face of this egregious example of just how far some people will go in the pursuit of easy money. A walk alone on the Beach at the Lido is his chosen restorative.
Blogger Lizzie Hayes recently had a chance to interview Donna Leon. Here’s her delightful write-up of the experience.
Here’s my favorite video of Venice. For me, it captures the allure and the mystery of the place:
It is time – past time! – for me to bid farewell to The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath. I’ve already written about this remarkable book, in conjunction with a discussion of this author’s mystery White Heat. I liked the mystery, with some reservations, but I love The Long Exile, with no reservations. Here are some of the reasons why:
The little boy would have spent his first few months of life in Maggie’s amiut. There he would have lain warm and naked, the filling in a sandwich of animal fur and human skin. His earliest view of a landscape, one whose contours he would never forget, would have been the rise and fall of his mother’s strong, sealskin-scented back. When he was hungry, his mother would have lifted him from the hood and put him to her breast. When he shat, she would have cleaned his naked skin with her hair. For months he would have slept, watching the Arctic world go by, and dreamed. By the time summer came he would probably have already been eating what would become the mainstay of his diet, seal meat, chewed and softened by Maggie. Already the breezes and the low contours of the land would have been familiar to him. He would have had a strong sense of where he was.
The only land lying between the d’Iberville and northern Siberia, 1,500 miles distant across the polar ice cap, was the mountainous ice capped terrain of Ellesmere Island. It was a forbidding place. Layers of peaks stretched back as far as the eye could see like a great army waiting the call to march. Ice mist glittered from the crags and drifted into the air and it would have been easy for anyone of a superstitious nature to suspect the island of being some kind of rocky anteroom to eternity, an in-between world where discarded spirits and the souls of never-born children curled up from the high peaks like mist and real life was just a dimming dream.
McGrath is exceptionally eloquent when describing the deprivation and terror experienced by the Inuit during that first harrowing winter on Ellesmere Island:
On 15 October 1953, the sun set over Ellesmere Island for the last time that year. For the next four months the Inuit would be living in perpetual darkness. On good days, when the clouds were drawn back, the sea ice reflected the moon’s glow and so long as the Inuit were out on the ice, they could see their footprints. On bad days, and most days were bad days, they could not tell what was beneath or above or around them, nor in which direction they were travelling or even when their journey, however short, might end. The Inuit of Inukjuak had no word for the void that opened up around them. At first, they tried to carry on with the routine they had worked so hard to establish while there was still light….But the dark exhausted them and pretty soon it was almost impossible to maintain a routine. Their body clocks broke down and the brain could not tell whether it was day or night or something in between. The absence of light made hunting an almost daily terror. Though they could no longer see it, the constant creaking and cracking of the ice reminded them that they were surrounded. The ice around the Lindstrom Peninsula often broke open without warning and floes were blown away on the high winds. Rime frost and beached ice collected at the shore and right at the sea’s edge the smooth spread of the ancient ice foot gave way to rough ice rubble and pressure ridges. The hunters had not had time to learn the position of all the contradictory currents and eddies in the sound before the dark came down, and they did not know where the ice was at its most unstable. Around the cracks there were patches of rotting ice and, beyond these, smooth fields of the open sea ice interrupted by immense, embedded icebergs.
Later, when a new family arrives, they must endure the same awful privations:
After a few days, the Flahertys discovered that their internal clocks had broken, waking them at all hours and disturbing their sleep. In the dark, everything seemed at the same time simpler and more complex. Objects became silhouettes whose sharp outlines obscured detail. Their own fingers dissolved into tentacles floating in a sea of contradictory impressions. Adults felt shorter, children taller, eyelashes felt thicker, noses more fleshy. The others, who had gone through it all before, attempted to reassure them, but there were so many bewildering new sensations that it was impossible to feel comforted.
It was decades before the injury done to these people was acknowledged by the government of Canada. Redress for these wrongs was obtained by the formation of a new legislative entity: Nunavut, created on April 1, 1999. Nunavut means “Our Land” in the Inuktitut language. At 787,155 square miles, it comprises one fifth of Canada’s land mass and is the fifth largest country subdivision in the world.
The government made further reparations by establishing a fund containing ten million Canadian dollars, the purpose of which was “…to provide housing, travel, pensions and compensation for the sixteen families who were relocated to the High Arctic in 1953 and 1955 and their descendants.” McGrath adds that there were calls for the government to issue an official apology to those whose lives were blighted, and in some cases lost, due to the Arctic relocation. At the time of her writing, however, no such gesture had been forthcoming. (The Long Exile was published in 2006.)
The story of the Inuit of Inukjuak and their forcible removal to Ellesmere Island is one of suffering, endurance, and ultimately, vindication and triumph. It is told with compassion and conviction by Melanie McGrath. The reviewers in both Booklist and Publishers Weekly used the word “riveting” to describe this narrative. The Long Exile is a masterful recounting of a story that needed to be told. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
The Blackhouse is a big, ambitious novel. Its chief protagonist is Finlay MacLeod is a police officer in Edinburgh. As the novel begins, Fin is investigating a homicide that took place in that city when DCI Black, his boss, suddenly informs him that he’s being sent to the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It seems that a murder there closely resembles MacLeod’s Edinburgh case as regards the killer’s MO. One other important point: Fin MacLeod was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis.
Fin has not been back to Lewis for a long time. There are reasons for his lengthy absence. He has no living family members still on the island. But he does have friends, a former lover, and other associations still there. The woman he had loved, and known from childhood, was called Marjorie – Marsaili in Gaelic, pronounced Marshally in that language. Fin’s best friend had been Artair Macinnes. Artair and Marsaili were now married; they had a son named Fionnlagh, which is Fin’s own Gaelic name. If this sounds like a complex and potentially fraught situation – it is.
Nevertheless, Fin must follow orders and return to Lewis, to look into the murder of Angus Macritchie. In times past, Macritchie had been the archetypal schoolyard bully, disliked by Fin and pretty much everyone else on the island. Now he was dead, and it’s up to Fin to find out who killed him and why.
Meanwhile, Fin’s personal life in Edinburgh has been slowly and painfully disintegrating. He has suffered a terrible bereavement, and his marriage is on the rocks. It’s a good time to get away from Edinburgh. But Fin is apprehensive about returning to the Isle of Lewis – and it turns out, he has good reason to feel that way.
Peter May’s depiction of life on this remote outpost is meticulous and vivid. Here, Fin recalls a moment from his childhood on the island:
The northern part of Lewis was flat and unbroken by hills or mountains, and the weather swept across it from the Atlantic to the Minch, always in a hurry. And so it was always changing. Light and dark in ever-shifting patterns, one set against the other – rain, sunshine, black sky, blue sky. And rainbows. My childhood seemed filled with them. Usually doublers. We watched one that day, forming fast over the peatbog, vivid against the blackest of blue-black skies. It took away the need for words
In a later scene, Fin and a fellow officer are driving up the west coast of the island:
He watched the villages drift by, like moving images in an old family album, every building, every fencepost and blade of grass picked out in painfully sharp relief by the sun behind them. There was not a soul to be seen anywhere….The tiny village primary schools, too, were empty, still shut for the summer holidays. Fin wondered where all the children were. To their right, the peatbog drifted into a hazy infinity, punctuated only by stoic sheep standing firm against the Atlantic gales. To their left, the ocean itself swept in timeless cycles on to beaches and into rocky inlets, , creamy white foam crashing over darkly obdurate gneiss, the oldest rock on earth. The outline of a tanker, like a distant mirage, was just discernible on the horizon.
Peter May’s writing is powerful and persuasive, at times ascending to the poetic. This gift serves him well when he comes to describe an event of supreme importance to the people of Lewis: the guga harvest. Every year, a limited number of men are invited to be a part of this unique island tradition. It begins with a boat trip across treacherous waters to a rocky island called An Sgeir, where thousands of birds arrive during the summer months to nest and procreate. The guga, or gannets, are considered delicacies by the people of Lewis. The job of the guga hunters is to capture some two thousand birds within a two week period. The young chicks are plucked from their nests while the frantic parents flap their wings and screech in protest. The necks of the chicks are quickly broken; then they are plucked clean, slit open to receive sea salt as a preservative, and otherwise made ready for the return trip. Ultimately they will be presented to the islanders of Lewis, perfectly preserved and ready to eat.
It is considered an honor to be selected as a participant in the yearly guga harvest. Fin received just such an honor during his last summer before leaving the island to attend university in Glasgow. It is a distinction he could have well done without. He has no desire to go, but once chosen, it is virtually impossible to decline. And so, with a heavy, heart, he joins the team of hunters. After the inevitable rough crossing Fin catches sight of An Sger for the first time:
Three hundred feet of sheer black cliff streaked with white, rising straight out of the ocean in front of us….I saw what looked like snow blowing in a steady stream from the peak before I realized that the snowflakes were birds. Fabulous white birds with blue-black wingtips and yellow heads, a wingspan of nearly two metres. Gannets. Thousands of them, filling the sky, turning in the light, riding turbulent currents of air.
(The white streaks are actually bird guano. Fin had smelled An Sgeir before he’d seen it.)
An Sgeir was barely half a mile long, its vertebral column little more than a hundred yards across. There was no soil here, no grassy banks or level land, no beaches. Just shit-covered rock rising straight out of the sea.
Fin adds that he couldn’t imagine a more inhospitable place. But this is just the beginning. While engaged in the arduous labor of unloading two weeks’ worth of supplies, Fin discovers how hard it is to maintain your footing on the island. The rock is made slick not just by the guano but by the slimy green vomit produced by petrel chicks terrified by this sudden human invasion. Add to that the unceasing racket generated by the avian multitudes, and you have a sort of Hell on Earth. And there they will stay for two full weeks, carrying out the multifaceted operation of catching, killing, and preparing the birds.
There is only one place to shelter on An Sgeir. It is a blackhouse.
Although Fin can’t help but admire the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and just plain toughness of the guga hunters, he finds the two weeks on An Sgeir an awful experience, an endurance test that can’t end soon enough. And at the end of two weeks it does end. But not without two momentous occurrences, the full import of which Fin does not grasp until many years after the event.
Peter May’s evocation of life on the Isle of Lewis is deeply resonant. The geography of the place, the social order, the dominance of the church, the entire way of life – all are presented here in minute detail. There were times when I thought it might be too minute. The anthropology threatens to overwhelm the mystery. The actual crime was, for this reader, the least memorable aspect of the book. The cast of characters is fairly large; moreover, the complex narrative alternates between the present and the past. This brings up a certain aspect of the narrative style employed by May in this novel: the events of the present time are set forth in the third person, while the sections dealing with Fin’s boyhood on the island are recounted by him in the first person. It took me a while to get comfortable with this method of advancing the story.
Until I read The Blackhouse, the only knowledge I had of the Isle of Lewis had to do with the famous Chessmen, almost certainly carved by Norsemen in the early Middle Ages and discovered on the island in 1831. (In the novel, Fin recalls a bit of island legend to the effect that the crofter who found the tiny carvings, mistaking them for the “…elves and gnomes, the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore,” fled the scene in fear for his life.)
Peter May’s description of the guga harvest is riveting and bizarre to the point of almost seeming hallucinatory. Off hand, as regards its affect on the reader – this reader, anyway – the only recent fiction I can readily compare it to is Karen Russell’s astonishing story “St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves.” So - is there actually such a thing as the guga harvest? Indeed there is, as you will see if you click here.
There are actual blackhouses remaining in the Outer Hebrides, although few if any still serve as dwelling places. Here is Fin’s description:
The Blackhouses had dry-stone walls with thatched roofs and gave shelter to both man and beast. A peat fire burend day and night in the centre of the stone floor of the main room. It was called the fire room. There were no chimneys, and smoke was supposed to escape through a hole in the roof. Of course, it wasn’t very efficient, and the houses were always full of the stuff.
He adds: “It was little wonder that life expectancy was short.” (Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the blackhouses.)
The Blackhouse presents some structural challenges for the reader, and there were times when the plot seemed somewhat labored, if not downright irrelevant, given the fascination of the setting.. But Peter May writes beautifully, and he’s created an enormously likable protagonist in Fin MacLeod. This is the first novel in the Lewis Trilogy, and I look forward to the next one.
He almost cried out in despair, staring up at the cracked, whitewashed ceiling, a married man of forty-one at the mercy of a broken heart.
The place is Tunisia; the year, 1978. The man with the aching heart is Jean-Marc Daumal, not just a husband but a father as well. As A Foreign Country begins, Jean-Marc is deriving no pleasure from his domestic status. Amelia Weldon, his children’s nanny and the love of his life, has without warning, disappeared.
These events are succinctly narrated in the novel’s first chapter. We then leap ahead in time to the present day. Jean-Marc Daumal himself disappears from the narrative (at least, he seems to). Soon we meet Thomas Kell, a former MI6 officer: former not due to retirement – he’s only in his forties – but due to disgrace.
But as the main action of the novel gets under way, Kell is being brought back in from the cold. (Did LeCarre invent that expression? So evocative, really.) His handler Marquand needs his help. It seems that the new head of MI6 – its first female head, in fact – has gone missing while vacationing in the South of France. Marquand is convinced that Kell has the skills and the know how to find out what’s happened to her. But it’s a mission that will have to be conducted completely off the books. And as is always the case in these situations, Kell must face the dangers alone. Even if he succeeds, there will be scant glory at the end.
With some reluctance, Kell agrees to take on this extremely sensitive task. In short order, he finds himself in France:
Kell had forgotten how much he disliked Nice.The city had none of the character that he associated with France: it felt like a place with no history, a city that had never suffered. The too-clean streets, the incongruous palm trees, the poseurs on the boardwalks, and the girls who weren’t quite pretty: Nice was an antiseptic playground for rich foreigners who didn’t have the imagination to spend their money properly. “The place,” he muttered to himself, remembering the old joke, “where suntans go to die.”
I really do enjoy Cumming’s writing. It’s incisive and insightful and full of the flashes of cynical wit that are so very apt for novels of political and international intrigue.
As with most novels in this genre, the plot of A Foreign Country becomes increasingly complex, but never so much so that it becomes hard to follow. Mainly it was just plain fascinating. I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next. The genuine article, this: a page turner with both brains and a heart. I never stopped caring about the main characters.
Two quotations appear at the front of A Foreign Country. The first, from which the novel takes its title, is the famous first line from The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley:
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
This is the second:
“There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job…If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?”
“Then I’ll wish you good afternoon.”
This snatch of dialog comes from Ashenden: Or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham. ( Although not published until 1928, the stories that comprise this groundbreaking work were, for the most part, written during the First World War. They grew out of Maugham’s own experiences while serving as a secret agent for Britain in wartime.)
The Winter 2013 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine features a brief review by Larry Gandle of A Foreign Country. He prefaces it with these remarks:
Spy novels…tend to be long drawn out bores reflecting the reality of the inherent dullness of the profession. Spying can be a lonely occupation in which the less striking the figure the better the spy. They should be dull and unassuming like the books written about them.
Gandle then declares himself no fan of the genre – not surprising, given the above comments. But he goes on to say that this particular novel is exceptional:
Charles Cumming has written a compelling spy thriller that moves along swiftly with realistic characters and many exotic locales.There are numerous pitfalls that Kell must traverse if he hopes to successfully accomplish his mission. The fun rests in watching him work.
Gandle concludes by giving A Foreign Country a warm recommendation – praise indeed from one who is generally not enamored with espionage fiction.
At any rate – I agree with him: it was fun watching the resourceful Tom Kell maneuver his way into and out of dire situations. It was more than fun; it was deeply engaging. And in the end, events come full circle in a way that is most satisfying.
A Foreign Country was the recipient of the 2012 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, awarded by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. In addition, the novel was named Scottish Crime Book of the Year at the Bloody Scotland International Crime Festival last September. (I have friends who attended that first ever event. This video really drove home how much I missed by not being there!)
Last night we watched a film entitled The Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene. Greene was one of the greatest thriller writers of the twentieth century. In addition, he wrestled with the most profound questions about the human condition. My favorite among his numerous works is The Quiet American. The Dangerous Edge is narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi and features appearances by John LeCarre, John Mortimer, Shirley Hazzard, and Paul Theroux.
I’ve just begun listening to a Teaching Company course entitled Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History. Quite simply: I am enthralled!
Early in A Foreign Country, Thomas Kell reflects that “A wise man once said that spying is waiting.” That wise man is John LeCarre.
I felt in need of some light – or lighter, at any rate – reading. A book that would chase away ‘the old ennui’ and make me smile. That would not make too many heavy demands on my intellect. So where did I turn? Lawrence Block‘s stories about the adventures and misadventures of a hit man are written with tongue firmly in cheek. Keller, the eponymous protagonist, first appeared in short stories. Then the stories were collected in single volumes. Then they lengthened into novels. But, as can readily be seen from Hit Me, these novels retain the episodic quality of the stories. I think this works extremely well. It means the plot, or plots, never get too complicated and thus retain their narrative momentum. They also provide scope for Block’s wonderfully written dialog. In addition, we’re made privy to the thoughts that occupy Keller as he awaits the arrival of an intended victim:
Keller had read somewhere that all of man’s difficulties stemmed from his inability to sit alone in a room. The line stayed with him, and a while ago he’d Googled his way to its source. Someone named Pascal had made the observation, Blaise Pascal, and it turned out he’d said a lot of other interesting things as well, but all but the first one had slipped Keller’s mind. He thought of it now as he forced himself to sit alone in the maid’s room, waiting for Portia Walmsley to come home.
(Like his creator, Keller possesses a lot of what I’d call hidden erudition.)
It’s one of the perverse triumphs of these stories that Keller emerges as an oddly likeable guy. It is odd, one must admit, given the nature of his work. He may be a killer for hire, but he’s beset by many of the same anxieties and insecurities from which we all suffer. And yes, he does suffer occasional pangs of conscience. Also, he yearns for love and the comforts that a family would provide; latterly, he actually does acquire those precious attributes of a rewarding life. But can he hold on to them and still pursue his ruthless, if highly remunerative, profession? Should he look for another line of work altogether? Time will tell….
Whatever his choice of vocation, Keller avidly pursues a passionate vocation. It is the collecting of postage stamps, and you could say that it pursues him rather than the other way around. This is the third Keller book I’ve read – the fifth in the series – and I feel that there is far more stamp lore in this one than in the previous two. Philately is the kind of specialty that can easily afflict the unbeliever with glazed eyes and cognitive shutdown, but Block always stops short of indulging in that degree of detail.
At any rate, it’s a sideline that affords Keller a welcome distraction from the matters at hand – matters that must be dealt with, one way or another. Keller gets these assignments from a woman called Dot. You could say, using spy parlance, that she’s his handler. But Keller is more free than most agents of espionage are to decline a given task. Dot has the connections to shop it elsewhere. In Hit Me, Keller’s proposed “hits’ range from an angry husband’s wife and her lover, the abbot of a monastery (hence the “felonious monk” in the title of this post), and a fourteen-year-old boy. This last precipitates a crisis. Keller has always drawn the line at doing away with children for whatever reason (and the reason in this case is purely venal anyway). He comes up with a better idea.
In this video, Lawrence Block discusses Hit and Run (fourth in the series) and the strangeness of readers’ reactions to Keller.
“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.
This is how Ron Charles of the Washington Post begins his review of A Possible Life:
I’m not sure why Sebastian Faulks calls his new book “a novel” — I might as well call this review “a poem” — but labeling is the only thing he gets wrong here.
I share Charles’s puzzlement (and his approbation). Although there are some common threads running throughout, A Possible Life, to my view, consists of five novellas that don’t have much in common with one another, set as they are in different locales and eras.
The first one concerns Geoffrey Talbot and is set on the eve of the Second World War. Impatient and disillusioned with the military, Geoffrey decides to opt for intelligence work instead. Colossal bad luck lands him, along with a colleague, in a concentration camp. The description of what goes on there is excruciating; I nearly had to set the book aside. But I persevered, because I cared about Geoffrey and because the writing was so good. (This is something you can depend on from Faulks, author of Birdsong and A Week in December.)
In one scene, Geoffrey is attempting to tell his parents what sort of war work he’ll be doing, without telling them too much. This is the kind of luminous prose that keeps me continually returning to the works of this author:
For a moment the three of them, the small family unit, looked at one another and Geoffrey had the sensation of time stopping, as though all his childhood summers were rolled into that moment: the slow days when sun glowed on the brick of the village almshouses with their fiery beds of dahlias and wallflowers tended by old men in cardigans; the bubbling white of the water that ran beneath the bridge by the church in which, flat on the grass, he would dip his hands to cool them, then splash his face; the road when he bicycled past the cottage hospital on his way home from school and saw the patients wheeled onto the grass to lie in the drowsy afternoon with a wireless faintly playing through an open door.
Part Two is entitled “Billy 1859.” Billy’s family consists of himself, his three siblings, and his parents. The family is so impoverished that the decision is made to consign one of one of the children to a workhouse. It falls to Billy’s lot to go there. Again, we get a detailed description of an exceedingly bleak environment (but one that’s not nearly as ghastly as the concentration camp in the preceding novella). Billy’s resourcefulness in the face of daunting odds is deeply impressive and ultimately serves as a guide to the way out of the grinding poverty into which he was born. With it all, he never loses his humanity and his humility; yet at the end, he still struggles to make sense of things:
I don’t think you ever understand your life–not till it’s finished and probably not then either. The more I live the less I seem to understand.
This sentiment is a recurring trope in these stories.
(Oddly, I have a dim memory of my father saying something similar to me. That, and “every person has his pack on his back.”)
The best adjective I can think of to describe this novella is ‘Dickensian.’
Next, we meet Elena, an only child. The year is 2029. The place is Italy, initially a village near Mantua:
Elena Duranti was a wild girl who spent most of her time alone in the woods near her parents’ farm. Her mother said she was shy, but the truth was that she found other children irritating. She knew what they were trying to say even as they began to labor slowly towards it; and when they got there it hardly seemed worth the trouble.
Elena, brilliant and determined, is destined to make her mark as a researcher in neuroscience. But this comes after the solitude of her childhood is suddenly an unexpectedly breached. Roberto, her father, returns home from a business trip to Trieste with a young boy in tow. The boy had been rescued from an orphanage. He has no name, only a number. Roberto decides that he’s to be called Bruno. Dumbfounded by this sudden change in their domestic situation, Elena asks how long Bruno will be with them.
“‘For ever’ said Roberto. ‘We’re adopting him.’”
I was immediately reminded of the fateful arrival Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, but the similarities diverge, as the story progresses.
Elena’s evolving relationship with Bruno is the chief source of fascination in this novella.
One other point of interest – at least, it was of interest to me. Elena is an avowed atheist – a not uncommon conviction in the postmodern world she inhabits. Yet when she suffers a terrible loss, her grief is portrayed in a way that has a strong Biblical resonance:
She went out into the stony field, knelt and lowered her face between her knees. She picked up handfuls of soil and let them trickle from her fingers onto her bowed head. She had been snatched up violently and did not recognize the place where she had been put down. She lifted up her eyes to the hills, as though some help might be there; but all she sensed was how long it would take to realign herself to this new world.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the LORD,
which made heaven and earth.
The ancients may have sensed consolation coming from afar, but sadly, for Elena those same hills have no comfort to bestow upon her.
“Jeanne 1822″ is the fourth novella. It takes place in the Limousin region, in southwestern France. This is how it begins:
Jeanne was said to be the most ignorant person in the Limousin village where she had lived most of her life.
Jeanne works as a domestic in the Lagarde household. Monsieur and Madame Lagarde have two children, Clémence and Marcel. Jeanne’s fate and that of the members of the Lagarde family are virtually inextricable.
At one point, just before she turns twenty, Clémence presents to her family a young man by the name of Étienne Desmarais. This forms the occasion for a diner party, to which the Lagardes also invite their friends Mosieur et Madame Mechenet. At one point, Mme Michenet asks Desmarais if he intends eventually to reside on his family’s estates. To which he replies in the negative, and then adds: “‘The eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me.’”
It seems he is quoting a famous line of text from one France’s most famed philosophers. No one in the party recognizes it, however, and he needs must enlighten them: It is from the works of Blaise Pascal. Desmarais further informs them: “He was referring to the heavens, of course.’”
Knowing virtually nothing of Pascal’s Pensées except for the work’s general fame, I looked it up on Wikipedia. Wikiquote supplied it, and the lines preceding:
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?
The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.
I also found another quote, which I first heard in another context – I can’t remember which – and that has stayed with me: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” The original French reads as follows: ‘Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point.‘ I think I prefer this translation: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.” This sentiment also is relevant to the story of Jeanne and her sojourn through life with the Lagarde family.
“Jeanne 1822″ possesses narrative and descriptive elements which are reminiscent of the evocation of provincial life often encountered in nineteenth century French fiction. (Une Vie by Guy de Maupassant comes to mind.) Of the five novellas that comprise A Possible Life, it is my favorite.
The Wikipedia article on Limousin features this photograph, with the caption ‘Small river in Creuse, Limousin.’ I long to be there, for some reason.
Finally, there is “Anya 1971.” For me, this was the least satisfying of the five. Anya is a young woman with exceptional gifts in the fields of singing and songwriting. Faulks expends considerable effort in describing the qualities that make her music so special. Alas, it didn’t work for me. In fairness it must be said that writing about music is exceptionally difficult; one is trying describe a phenomenon that is almost entirely sensory, by a means that is primarily intellectual. When I attempt to do it on this blog, I am almost always dissatisfied with the results. What can I say about Mahler’s symphonies except that they give me gooseflesh and I think they’re fabulous? Ah well – I can refer you back to the recently mentioned Alex Ross, of the New Yorker. (By “recently mentioned,” I refer to one of my posts on the Met’s new production of Parsifal.)
Anya’s story is told by a young man who is a professional in the music business and is clearly astonished by Anya’s talent and in general very taken with her. I tried to care as much as he did, but I couldn’t. I felt as though Faulks were trying to imbue with profundity a story – not an especially gripping one - involving a group of rather unexceptional individuals.
That said, I mostly loved A Possible Life. In my view, Sebastian Faulks is one of the finest novelists at work today.
Having touched on the subject of thrillers in a recent post, I find myself wanting to say more on the subject.
I’ll start by recommending Thrillers: 100 Must Reads (2010). This is the kind of literature reference work that I love. It consists mainly of recommendations from writers of worthy works by other writers. John Connolly and Declan Burke use the same format in the equally excellent Books To Die For (2012).
Where thrillers are concerned, editors David Morrell and Hank Wagner cast a wide net – beginning with Theseus and the Minotaur ( Lee Child’s selection). In his “Welcome to the World of Thrillers,” David Hewson states:
Today, thrillers provide a rich literary feast embracing a wide variety of worlds–the law, espionage, action-adventure, medicine, police and crime, romance, history, politics, high-tech, religion, and many more.
…thriller authors are constantly aware that their readers want them to provide the sudden rush of emotions: the excitement, suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly, with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace.
Hewson concludes this introductory paragraph with a succinct statement of fact: “By definition, if a thriller does not thrill, it is not doing its job.”
There is quite a bit of overlap between these two reference books. Of course, Poe appears in both, as do Conan Doyle and Patricia Highsmith. Thrillers recommends The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838); BDF (Books To Die For) weighs in with Poe’s Dupin stories. Both chose Hound of the Baskervilles by Conan Doyle, and both chose Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. And I recently encountered this latter once again in James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked. As Lasdun struggled to come to terms with a perverse form of torment that threatened to destroy forever his peace of mind, he found that he identified powerfully with the hapless yet well-meaning Guy Haines, the architect / protagonist of Highsmith’s riveting novel. (Among other things, Lasdun’s deeply unnerving tale has served to remind me that sometimes a true story can generate as much, if not more, dread than one that has been fabricated expressly for that purpose.)
The great Wilkie Collins makes the cut twice. In Thrillers, it’s The Woman in White, while BDF features The Moonstone. This last recommendation is made by a favorite writer of mine, Andrew Taylor. I happily anticipate reading his new historical thriller, The Scent of Death.
In Thrillers, we find The Third Man by Graham Greene. I’ve not read the book, but I’ve seen the film many times. If you haven’t, I urge you in the strongest terms to do so. In BDF, Peter James, himself no slouch when it comes to writing great novels of suspense, recommends Greene’s Brighton Rock. Greene called the novels he wrote in this genre “entertainments,” to distinguish them from what he considered his weightier and more self-consciously literary undertakings. (The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory come to mind.) Not long ago, I read something to the effect that the so-called entertainments are holding up better these days than Greene’s more intentionally profound novels. My favorite work by this prodigious, somewhat enigmatic, and in my view brilliant writer is The Quiet American. I was extremely pleased that Pico Iyer recommended this novel, among others, in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal. (Once again, I recommend the film. Michael Caine was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 2003 for his superb performance therein.)
Not surprisingly, John LeCarre appears in both reference books, as does Agatha Christie. The Choice in both Thrillers and BDF is The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Once again, I’ve not read the book but the film version starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner, is one of my all time favorites. As to Christie: And Then There Were None appears in Thrillers; Murder on the Orient Express is the choice of BDF.
Eric Ambler also appears in both Thrillers: 100 Must Reads and Books To Die For. M.C. Beaton chose The Light of Day for BDF; for Thrillers, Ali Karim chose A Coffin for Dimitrios. When I was in Paris in 1995, A Coffin for Dimitrios was my choice for reading matter. I had no idea at the time that the second half of the novel takes place in the City of Light – right where I was. What a happy confluence! A Coffin for Dimitrios remains one of my favorite novels.
In BDF, John Banville recommends Act of Passion (Lettre à Mon Juge) by Georges Simenon. A more precise translation of the title would be ‘Letter To My Judge,’ and that’s exactly what this novel is: a long, rambling missive full of excuses and self-justification addressed nominally to the narrator’s appointed adjudicator. Only midway through, the tone changes; the narrator starts seriously coming to grips with the enormity of what he has done, as does the reader. Although the narrator takes his time in revealing the exact nature of his transgression, you, the reader, may have already guessed the truth before he gets around to revealing it in his own way. At any rate, what begins as a somewhat plaintive, almost whining attempt at an explanation gradually gains in power as the narrator gains in self-knowledge. Act of Passion a real tour de force.
Also in Books To Die For: selections by three authors whom I revere. There’s The Chill and The Goodbye Look by Ross MacDonald, and The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey.
“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write” is one of the most intriguing opening sentences in crime fiction.
Finally, Thrillers has an entry for the Ashenden stories of W. Somerset Maugham. After reading Selena Hastings’s magisterial biography of Maugham, I went on to read some of these tales – and to be astonished by them. They’re just plain terrific -incredibly readable and engrossing. (Like Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham worked during wartime as an undercover intelligence agent for the British government.)
On its cover, Thrillers proclaims that it features “Today’s best thriller writers on one hundred classics of the genre.” Books To Die For give us ” The world’s greatest Mystery writers on the world’s greatest mystery novels.” Between them, these two books could keep a person happily immersed in the masterpieces of these genres for a long time. Ah, but one does like to look to the future as well, right? Here are just a few of the thrillers / mysteries high on my list of what to red next:
In When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka tells the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War by relating the experience of a single family consisting of two parents, an eleven-year-old daughter, and an eight-year-old son. The place is Berkeley, California; the year is 1942. As the novel opens, the father has already been arrested and imprisoned in New Mexico. The authorities had hustled him out of the house while he was hatless and still in his dressing gown and slippers. It is an image indelibly stamped in the minds of his wife and children. For the son in particular, it is a mortifying memory of the father he adores.
The mother barely has time to pack before she and her children board the train. Their destination: a prison-like facility in the bleak Utah desert. Once resettled there, their existence is drab and circumscribed; one day is very much like the next. There is no variety and no beauty, with the exception of the wild horses occasionally glimpsed beyond the confines of the camp:
She pulled back the shade and looked out into the black Nevada night and saw a herd of wild mustangs galloping across the desert. The sky was lit up by the moon and the dark bodies of the horses were drifting and turning in the moonlight and wherever they went they left behind great billowing clouds of dust as proof of their passage.
Yet before long, those same horses provide a fresh source of grief.
The point of view from which this story is told shifts from chapter to chapter, as the narration shifts from one family member to another. The boy’s voice is especially poignant, as he struggles to understand what has befallen his formerly happy family, and why. He wants only a return to their former life. He begins to plan for that eventuality, and when the war is finally over and they are allowed to return home, expectations soar:
Nothing’s changed, we said to ourselves. The war had been an interruption, nothing more. We would pick up our lives where we had left off and go on. We would go back to school again. We would study hard, every day, to make up for lost time. We would seek out our old classmates….We would join their clubs, after school, if they let us. We would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again!
Surely one of the most hateful aspects of prejudice is the way in which its victims internalize the opprobrium of other people. The unreasoning animus of others is transformed into a denigration of one’s own self. (This process is vividly bodied forth in William Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy.”)
A few pages later:
We would accept all invitations. Go everywhere. Do everything, to make up for all the years we had missed while we were away. Yes, the world would be ours once again: warm days, blue skies, the endless green lawns,cold frosted glasses of pink lemonade, bicycles skidding across the gravel, little white dog on long leashes with their noses pressed hard to the ground, the street lamps coming on at dusk, the distant clang of the trolley cars, small voices crying out No, I won’t, the sound of screen doors slamming, the quick patter of footsteps running across driveways, mothers with wet hands–Mrs. Myer, Mrs. Woodruff, Mrs. Thomas Hale Cavanaugh–stomping out onto front porches shouting, Just wait till your father gets home!
The very next line tells us what we already suspect: “But of course it did not happen like that.” In fact, everything has changed, and changed irrevocably.
Julie Otsuka’s writing is elegant and full of poetry; it reminded me of a pointillist painting in its restraint and precision.And just below the surface there runs a current of barely restrained rage. That rage does not break through until the novel nears its end. Some reviewers have called the concluding chapter a mistake. I did not feel that way. By that time, I was ready for an anguished outburst. To me, it seemed a fitting way in which to end this sad and terrible tale.
Wikipedia has a comprehensive entry on the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during the Second World War. Some of the visuals featured are shocking – at least, to me they are. It was a shameful thing that was done to innocent people.
There’s an excellent review of When the Emperor Was Divine on the blog Books on the Brain.
The Bedlam Detective takes place in England in 1912; there are also several brief but intense excursions into the Amazon jungle. Sir Owain Lancaster ventured forth on these expeditions with plenty of preparation – only it was almost all the wrong kind of preparation, informed as it was with Sir Owain’s colossal hubris. He even took his wife and young son with him, making sure that they were provisioned as the family of an English aristocrat ought to be. The results – madness and death – are pretty much a foregone conclusion.
Now it is Sebastian Becker’s task to travel from his home in London down to the West Country in order to determine Owain Lancaster’s mental state and consequent ability to conduct his own affairs. If he is not competent to manage them, the Masters of Lunacy must take action. Sebastian, who for a time was a detective with the Pinkerton Agency in the U.S., has recently returned to England with his American wife Elisabeth and their son Robert. He’s now in the employ of the Masters of Lunacy in the capacity of special investigator. The meager salary barely pays the rent, but it’s a job, and one that holds a certain fascination for Sebastian. Moreover, this particular inquiry is destined to take Sebastian deep into ominous territory beyond the original remit.
The Bedlam Detective is one of the historical mysteries I included in a recent post about new historical mysteries. At that time I had just begun reading this novel, and I mentioned that Stephen Gallagher’s prose, characterized by “a sort of measured understatement,” very much appealed to me. I’m happy to report that there was no falling off as the novel progressed. In fact, there was unexpected added value in the form of some marvelous set pieces, like this description of a country fair:
First came the noise. Not one Marenghi organ, but a dozen, each one cranked up to drown out its neighbor….their tunes varied as the wind changed.
There was a gateway of painted scenery and electric bulbs that turned the entrance of a common field into a portal of wonders. Beyond it, a bazaar of light and noise. The fair was a portable city of tents and boards, of wooden towers and brilliantly decorated show fronts. Among the temporary buildings stood mighty engines like Babylonian elephants, all crashing pistons and blowing steam, powering the rides with their belts and dynamos.
Talk about putting you right there, in the midst! This is but one of several wonderfully evocative passages. Stephen Gallagher’s deep knowledge of the period about which he writes informs this novel throughout. It is not intrusive or distracting, as can happen with historical fiction. Rather, it acts as an enhancement to this absorbing story of crime, madness, sanity, courage, and love.
Although a fairly prolific novelist and screenwriter, Stephen Gallagher does not appear to have a series currently on the go. Yet The Bedlam Detective has a tantalizingly open-ended conclusion that left me wanting more. And so I hope that in future Gallagher will favor us with additional novels featuring Sebastian Becker.
This Marenghi organ was built in Paris in 1910: