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:
I’ve written before about a group of friends with whom I have lunch once a month. This past Monday, our conversation was, as usual, lively and stimulating. Angie’s description of The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, a recent selection by her book club, reminded me of Eric Weiner’s immensely enjoyable recounting of his search for The Geography of Bliss.
Having asked her book group members what made them happy, Angie turned the question over to us. We all admitted to being immensely moved and comforted by simple, everyday acts of human kindness – including, in one particular case, compassion and support freely offered when a disturbing diagnosis was divulged. Then the to-be-expected happiness creators were named: Children! Grandchildren! Beloved pets! In a subsequent email, Angie mentioned that her group also credited music with lifting their spirits. And there is so much more; one cannot help but be grateful.
(Angie also said something – I can’t remember exactly what – about entering the realm of the sacred. She added that this was not necessarily a specifically religious sensation. This may be true for some people – but I have a vivid recollection of standing in Ripon Cathedral and seeing, out of the corner of my eye, several people receiving communion in a small side chapel. The elusive sun of northern England shone through the stained glass windows. At that instant, I felt as though an arrow from God had come straight at me.)
We were also celebrating the birthday of one among us, Ann. For her birthday, gift, she requested reading recommendations from each of us. (You can see why I’m so fond of this exceedingly enlightened group of women!) Here are Angie’s suggestions: (I too am a great fan of the ‘Bruno, Chief of Police’ series written by Martin Walker and set amid the timeless beauty of France’s Dordogne region.)
These recommendations came with Angie’s usual lively commentary. She also added an apology for not naming any British titles, one of Ann’s stated preferences (such a discerning person!). Naturally I rushed in to fill that particular void:
In addition, I suggested these:
Kay was not able to join us Monday, but she still sent along her recommendations. Her annotations are so good, I’m going to include them as well:
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai. Lucy Hull hadn’t intended to be a librarian, but when offered the job of children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, she accepted because she had no other prospects and didn’t want to live at home. This is the one element in the book that really strains credulity, because clearly she was born for this job. In fact, she is so good at it that a 10-year-old misfit, whose born-again parents keep censoring his reading, talks her into running away from home with him.
This is a wonderful, funny, sad, and engaging tale about Lucy’s flight with Ian from Missouri to Vermont. Ian can be positively obnoxious (he’s 10 after all), but their shared love affair with books and frustration with evangelical America (Ian’s mother has enrolled him in a reeducation program for possibly gay kids) is one I know I’ll read again.
How It All Began by Penelope Lively. At age 77, Charlotte has retired from a career as the sort of teacher who changes students’ lives. Though widowed, she volunteers to teach adult literacy and is fiercely independent–right up to the moment that a mugger throws her to the pavement, breaking her hip. Forced to live with her daughter and son-in-law while recuperating, she agrees to have one of her adult students come to the house for tutoring. This sets the plot in motion, changing the lives of many people around her.
I’ve always enjoyed Penelope Lively’s novels, but this one is stellar. In one sense, it’s a portrait of a born teacher who will probably go on teaching in one way or another till the day she dies.
But it also contains some wonderful reflections on what reading means to us dyed-in-the-wool bookworms:
“Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction even. She has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her–then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing.”
This passage captures my own life-long affair with the book. The short novel is brimming over with such reflections, and it explains why I’ve got “How It All Began” on my Kindle to read and reread again.
(I haven’t yet read How It All Began, but I share Kay’s enthusiasm for the works of Penelope Lively.)
Wicked Autumn by G. M. Malliet. Wonderful! A cozy with a kick. The vicar served in MI5 for 15 years and is nobody’s fool, albeit a decent and kindhearted chap. The victim is a woman who bullies everyone in the Women’s Institute beyond bearing; so many people have a motive to kill her that the detective has an embarrassment of suspects on his hands. The writing is superb, a bit like a Granny Smith apple. Not too sweet, but mellow and full bodied.
(Kay’s reviews can be found on Goodreads.)
Wednesday night Angie called me. She had just finished Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. and needed to talk about it. Among other things, our conversation convinced me that McEwan’s cunning and inventive novel is going to be a great choice for book groups.
That Monday evening, while working at the research desk at the Central Branch of the library, I caught a particularly juicy readers advisory question. Having read some fiction by John Grisham and some Mary Higgins Clark, a young man declared that he wanted to read thrillers with “more depth.” Oh my, where to begin?
I told him that I have a category in my personal reading pantheon called “Thrillers with brains.” More recently, I’d written reviews of All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen and The Fear Index by Robert Harris. I had sought out these two novels out of frustration with four mysteries I’d read recently. Those mysteries had been engaging in various degrees, but their plots moved at such a glacial pace that I was left yearning for a true page turner.
Upon hearing this customer’s request, one title that came immediately to mind was William Landay’s Defending Jacob. It was not, alas, available right then at Central. Defending Jacob may be the best legal thriller I’ve ever read, but my interlocutor was only mildly intrigued. He was looking for something more along the lines of psychological suspense. (I must interject here, though, that in Defending Jacob, I encountered exceptionally acute – and astute – descriptions of mental and emotional anguish.)
At any rate – this is what I ended up giving him:
Later, after he’d left, I was annoyed at myself for forgetting Dan Fesperman, who wrote two novels of international intrigue that I greatly admire: Small Boat of Great Sorrows and The Warlord’s Son. And then there’s The Horned Man by James Lasdun, one of the most disturbing novels I think I’ve ever read. (I am currently reading a nonfiction work by this author entitled Give Me everything You Have: On Being Stalked. I am reminded once again what a superb writer James Lasdun is. I can hardly put this book down – although there are other times when I’m reluctant to pick it up. Talk about mental and emotional anguish….)
Recently, the Howard County Library System has garnered praise from the local media, both for its recent spectacularly successful “Evening in the Stacks” fundraiser, and for its overall excellence. Naturally I had to add my own two cents, in a letter to the editor.
I must apologize for my prolonged silence, occasioned by travels out West and various matters that needed to be attended to here at home. While I’m working my way back to writing – so much harder than I ever though it would be! – I thought I’d point you to some recent articles of interest.
This past week, our local paper had a feature story on the Howard County Library System.
I appreciated the Washington Post’s recent editorial in praise of President James A. Garfield. But I do wish that the editors had mentioned Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, a riveting biography of this courageous and compassionate man.
If you search online for book reviews as much as I do, you’ll notice that content from Goodreads almost always appears near the top of your results. The New York Times recently featured a backgrounder on this site, one that is hugely popular with both avid readers and authors.
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:
My reading has far outstripped my reviewing capacity at this point, and now I’m heading for the airport. But I simply can’t leave without recommending four books: two are historical fiction, one is a classic of psychological suspense, and one is a biography. All were outstanding, and I hope to write about each of them in detail when time permits. Meanwhile, here they are:
I mentioned The Bedlam Detective in a recent post on new historical mysteries. At that time, I had just begun the novel. Now I’ve finished it and can recommend it without reservation. It’s a vivid evocation of Britain just prior to World War One. Also it’s exceptionally well written.
When the Emperor Was Divine is more than exceptionally well written – it is just beautiful. Beautiful, and almost unbearably sad, this is the story of what happens to one Japanese-American family during World War Two. Events unfold through the eyes of a young boy, who witnesses his family being uprooted and torn asunder. When I finished it, my heart felt so heavy, I could think of nothing else all day.
Of Georges Simenon‘s Act of Passion, John Banville asks, “Has there ever been a more penetrating account of love’s destructive power?” Penetrating, riveting – and profoundly shocking.
When I finished Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, I felt compelled to learn more about just what happened to Ann Boleyn, and why. So I turned to Alison Weir’s biography of that hapless figure in history. The Lady in the Tower was all absorbing and deeply tragic. And some questions are still not answered, and may never be.
“You may have heard the news that the independent bookstore is dead, that books are dead, that maybe even reading is dead—to which I say: Pull up a chair, friend. I have a story to tell.” – Ann Patchett
I now have both a Kindle and an iPad. The latter was a gift from my younger brother, formerly of Harvard Business School and currently employed by Apple at their corporate headquarters in California. Now I just googled Apple to be sure that the address is Cupertino rather than Mountain View. (When you do not live there, the now famous names of the towns of Silicon Valley tend to run together.) To be exact, the current address of the corporate offices is ’1 Infinity Loop, Cupertino.’ Nearby is the Junipero Serra Freeway, named for the Franciscan Friar and famed missionary.
Thus we have the kind if random juxtaposition of past and present – happy, carefree, and jumbled – that to me seems typically American and inspiring of a sort of head shaking but nonetheless deep affection.
Well, I’ve wandered way off topic….
Anyway, I’ve not been using the Kindle much lately, as I’ve been overawed by the iPad’s mighty capabilities. (You were right, Richard!) But lately, where reading is concerned, I’ve found myself desiring less and less to read e-books, preferring instead to have the old fashioned print volumes nestled securely in my hands. More than one person has recently commented to me that they’ve gone over to e-books exclusively. I find such confidences dismaying, especially as they’ve been emanating from persons of my own generation.
I’ve been feeling very differently of late, possibly because I haven’t been traveling in recent weeks (a respite that’s about to end). I’ve been desirous of reading in the old way- and only in the old way, with books, magazines, and newspapers in my hands, positioned to receive the light. So you can imagine how delighted I was by “Don’t Burn Your Books–Print Is Here To Stay,” an article that appeared in the January 5 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Among other encouraging words, Nicholas Carr says this:
Half a decade into the e-book revolution,… the prognosis for traditional books is suddenly looking brighter. Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency.
Now, there are times when I think that resiliency is entirely down to me! But no – it seems that others are making a similar discovery. After charting the recent decline in e-book sales, Carr observes: “The fact that an e-book can’t be sold or given away after it’s read also reduces the perceived value of the product.” You may disagree with a few of Carr’s other assertions – I myself would quibble with the allegedly disposable nature of genre fiction – but still be heartened by his analysis of the current state of the world of books.
And then there’s “The Bookstore Strikes Back,” Ann Patchett’s rousing piece in the December 2012 Atlantic. Patchett and her business partner have singlehandedly demonstrated the durability of this beloved retailing tradition. They couldn’t stand the idea that their city, Nashville, was facing a future without a bookstore, and so they did something about it. Despite the odds in the current climate, Parnassus Books has succeeded brilliantly, and not just in financial terms.
In February of last year, during an appearance on The Colbert Report, Ann promised viewers signed copies of State of Wonder if they purchased it through her bookstore’s website. The result; a gratifying spike in sales of this terrific novel.
You may have heard the news that the independent bookstore is dead, that books are dead, that maybe even reading is dead—to which I say: Pull up a chair, friend. I have a story to tell.
Ann Patchett, writer and co-owner of Parnassus Books
What a pleasure it is to be once again reading John Updike!
Upon graduating from Harvard in 1954, John Updike set out to be a graphic artist. Toward that end, he went to London and attended the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. His actual aspiration was to be a cartoonist. In the introduction to Always Looking, he exclaims: “‘How I did love Big Little Books!’”
Upon returning to the U.S., Updike moved with his family to New York. He began contributing regularly to the New Yorker; thus, his career as a writer, rather than an artist, was launched.
Updike begins the collection Always Looking with a brief, lively, and cogent essay on some of the high points of American art with “…the first great painter cast up by our art-sparse, undercivilized, eastern-coastal New World, a young man as precocious as he was assiduous, John Singleton Copley.”
Born in 1738 of Irish immigrants on Boston’s Long Wharf, his childhood marred by his early death and then, when he was thirteen, by that of his stepfather, the English artist and engraver Peter Pelham, Copley was all his life a striver and, with what I would like to think of as a typically American trait, a learner.
This portrait of Paul Revere is probably Copley’s most famous work – though not, in Updike’s view, his best: “The shirt is splendid, but the hand on the chin appears too big for the face, and the reflection of the fingers of the other in the silver of the teapot seems surreally artful.”
On the other hand, Copley’s portrait of Epes Sargent “…shows a textural brilliance of another sort, in the thoughtful aged face and the puffy, wrinkled hand set off against a coat of plain gray broadcloth.” Updike adds: “The painter’s voracious eye even notes the little snowfall on Sargent’s shoulder from his powdered wig.”
I love this portrait of Mercy Otis Warren, a woman I’ve not previously heard of, although I should have:
Of Winslow Homer, Updike tells us: “Instead of going to Europe, as he and his family had intended, he went to war. Specifically the Civil War, at the behest of Harper’s Weekly. One of the illustrations that he produced for that periodical is entitled The Army of the Potomac–A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty:”
Updike notes that Boys in a Pasture “…gives us a low horizon, a hat of sunstruck straw, a Pythagorean triangle, and beautiful bare feet–we can feel the grass tickle them.”
Was ever a work of art so succinctly and gracefully summed up!
Twenty years later, Homer produced this masterwork:
From the vantage point of his cottage on Prouts Neck, in Maine, “Homer wrested images of untamed wildness and power, scenes of water and rock generally unpopulated.” Updike goes on to say of Homer’s famed seascapes in general:
…we cannot but be conscious of the paint itself, of thick white dabbled and stabbed, swerved and smeared into place in imitation of the water’s tumultuous action; we simultaneously witness both the ocean in action and the painter at work. These arduous passages of tumbling foam and exploding spray are at once representative of natural phenomena and examples of painterly artifice; thing and idea are merged in the synthesis of artistic representation.
Sunstruck straw…dabbled and stabbed…Updike effortlessly transforms prose into poetry.
In the New York Times, in November of 2011, Andrew Delbanco noted that Higher Gossip, a posthumous collection of essays and reviews, serves as a “… reminder of what a prodigy we have lost.” How sad and how true. Always Looking does likewise. (John Updike died in 2009.)
The full text of the above essay, entitled “‘The Clarity of Things,’ can be found on the NEH website.
For this reader, 2013 might well be the year of historical mysteries. These are a few that are looking good to me right now:
I’m already about a quarter of the way through The Bedlam Detective. I was a bit uncertain at the beginning, but I am now well and truly hooked. This mystery is set in England’s West Country, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. Stephen Gallagher writes with a sort of measured understatement that I find extremely appealing.
Reviews for each of the above titles can be found at Kirkus.
Over the years, my devotion to the works of Ruth Rendell has steadily increased. She is one of the few writers who never disappoint – or, almost never….
Perhaps “disappointed” is not the right term to describe my feelings about The Child’s Child. Certain aspects of the novel were very impressive. Rendell plunges fearlessly into challenging territory; namely, homosexual love and motherhood outside of marriage. Her characters are blunt and unflinching when discussing these sensitive subjects; their clashes come across as real and convincingly abrasive.
Grace Easton is a university lecturer in literature and a candidate for a PhD . As the novel begins, she and her brother Andrew have just inherited Dinmont House, a spacious London dwelling, from their grandmother. Rather than sell it, they decided not only to keep it but to move in and live there. At the time, both are unattached, but soon Andrew becomes seriously involved with James Derain – so seriously that there’s a very real prospect of Andrew’s bringing his lover to live with him – with them – at Dinmont House. What makes this a dicey proposition is that Grace and James have taken an instant dislike to each other. Their animosity grew out of a conversation about the pain inflicted on two groups of individuals who have suffered opprobrium throughout history: unmarried mothers and homosexuals. Who has had to endure the most agony? The conversation became heated. Grace retreated slightly, in an effort to cool things down, but James wasn’t having any of it. (It’s a fascinating argument; you can feel the heat emanating from both parties as James, unyielding and indignant, continues to up the ante.)
The atmosphere at Dinmont House, initially so pleasant, has been poisoned, at least for Grace, through whose point of view we’re following these developments. In light of this disturbing change, what happens next is all the more unexpected and complicates matters enormously.
Have I whet your appetite? Well, The Child’s Child is nothing if not a page turner. This, despite the fact that Vine/Rendell inserts a book within a book smack in the middle of the story of the Eastons at Dinmont House. This second narrative is purported to be by an early twentieth century writer named Martin Greenwell. Though never published, Greenwell’s novel had been privately printed. Grace is avid to get hold of it, as its themes are relevant to the subject matter of her doctoral thesis. Toby Greenwell, the author’s son and heir, has agreed to lend the book to her.
As she settles down to read it, we settle down beside her. The title of Greenwell’s novel is The Child’s Child, and its content proves strangely relevant not just to Grace’s academic work but also to her life, and to the lives of Andrew and James as well. And one thing soon becomes apparent: The Child’s Child could never have been published in Britain, in the early part of the twentieth century.
Two aspects of The Child’s Child have appeared in previous works by Rendell. Writing as Barbara Vine, she used the device of the novel within a novel equally effectively in Anna’s Book (1993). Again as Barbara Vine, she explored various facets of homosexual love in No Night Is Too Long (1994). What I haven’t encountered before, in my three decades of reading and loving this author, is writing that at least at certain times, seems curiously flat – almost, in some instances, downright awkward. For example: “One thing Maud’s mother had never told her was where babies came from, but Maud was already anxious to keep her daughter aloof from the dangers of men’s company so gave her some limited sex education.” It’s a clumsy locution rather than an egregious one, and it could easily have been smoothed out, perhaps as follows: “….Maud, already anxious to keep her daughter aloof from the danger of men’s company, had given her some limited sex education.”
There were several similar instances. A minor character is introduced as Enid, only to become Edith later in the same paragraph. Now, it’s easy to see how this could happen. But it seems to me that someone – the author, a proofreader, or an editor – should have caught the error.
I could not help but wonder if the desire to move the plot along at all due speed took precedence over the desire to write eloquently, with beautifully crafted sentences flowing one into the other.
It’s not that I found a great deal of this kind of thing. It’s just that I am not accustomed to finding it at all in the prose of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine. Did it spoil the book for me? Not really – not at all, in fact. Both stories were sufficiently compelling that in my eagerness to learn the fates of the respective characters, I was able to overlook a few infelicities.
And there’s more than enough exceptional writing here to act as antidote. Grace’s thesis concerns the portrayal of single mothers in the classics of literature. As she gets deeper into her subject, her empathy for these women deepens accordingly:
So I went to bed, thinking as I often did about how these women felt when they knew they were pregnant, the disbelief, the realisation, the horror, shame, fear, and wish for death.
Later, Grace observes that “One single act of sex can have a profound effect on one’s life….” This time she’s not thinking only of other men and women, but of herself as well.
To sum up, I do recommend A Child’s Child, despite some problems with the writing. I guess that for me the bottom line is that even when she’s not at her absolute best, Ruth Rendell outdistances the competition by a substantial margin. And one thing I particularly appreciate about this novel is that it’s actually about something other than the arranging of characters in entertaining scenarios. Rendell deals with difficult issues in an unflinching manner that I find entirely admirable as well as completely convincing.
It is my feeling that the masterpiece among the Vine novels is A Fatal Inversion; for the greatest of the non series novels written as Ruth Rendell, I’d choose A Judgement in Stone. As for the Wexfords, I have trouble deciding. She’s such a master of the procedural; they’re all, in varying degrees, excellent.