Or can we just say five crime fiction titles and leave it at that? Well, anyway, lest we get bogged down in these nice distinctions, let’s forge ahead with specifics:
I’ve been a fan of John Harvey’s novels since the days when he was writing about Charlie Resnick, an extremely appealing detective who lived and worked in Nottingham. The last entry in this series, Cold in Hand, came out in 2008. There was a gap of ten years between that title and Last Rites, the one that preceded it. Meanwhile, Harvey had created a new character, retired policeman Frank Elder. Recently, yet more protagonists have been created.
Good Bait is a standalone – or it is considered thus, I suppose, until or unless Karen Shields and/or Trevor Cordon appear in subsequent books. DCI Shields is based in London; DI Cordon, in Cornwall. They’re both involved in separate investigations, which, as the novel progresses, tend more and more to converge. With this kind of narrative, I often find that one thread is more vivid than the other. So it is in this case. Trevor Cordon is pursuing an inquiry on his own time – one that, for him, has a distinctly personal element.
Generally speaking, I liked Good Bait, though I found myself becoming somewhat impatient with it from time to time. John Harvey is a reliably skilled and intelligent writer. So: recommended, but not with wild enthusiasm.
I’m a big fan of the novels of Karin Fossum. In recent years, she’s been the author of some of my favorite mysteries. The Caller is about a series of practical jokes being played on strangers by a feckless youth. As the story proceeds, the jokes become increasingly sinister, causing more and more pain for innocent individuals. As is characteristic of much Scandinavian crime fiction, the sense of dread mounts steadily and inexorably as events unfold.
As with Fossum’s other books, the writing is spare and beautiful. She’s master of the plot-driven novel whose characters are fully fleshed out and intriguing, if not always likeable. One who most definitely is likable is her series protagonist, Inspector Konrad Sejer. Among his other winning character traits, Sejer loves dogs. His beloved (and outsized!) Leonberger having passed from the scene, he’s now the proud owner of a Shar Pei named Frank.
I want so much to recommend this book, but I feel that I must give fair warning: Late in the narrative, a terrible thing happens to a child, and for this reader at least, the event is described in more detail than was strictly necessary.
Jessica Mann reviews crime fiction for The Literary Review. She also writes novels in the genre. Some years ago, I read A Kind of Healthy Grave, which features series character Tamara Hoyland. I’ve been enjoying Mann’s reviews in the aforementioned magazine for several years now, so I decided to read another of her novels. As I was looking for something set in Cornwall, I chose A Private Inquiry.
Barbara Pomeroy is an arbitration judge. Her profession consists of rendering a decision as to whether a given development project can go forward in the location for which it is intended. It’s a job that demands intellectual rigor, scrupulous fairness, and a great deal of traveling. She loves it.
With her husband Colin and son Toby, Barbara lives in St. Ives, a town on the coast of Cornwall famed for its rich concentration of artists. Colin himself is a painter who is slowly but surely gaining recognition. Barbara must perforce spend much time away from her family, and it is while she’s away that a mysterious newcomer to St. Ives begins to insinuate herself into their small family circle.
The other major character in this novel is Dr. Fidelis Berlin, a child psychologist and specialist in parent child relationships. A breast cancer survivor, Dr. Berlin is unmarried and has no children of her own.
A Private Inquiry is a work of psychological suspense rather than of police procedure. Although the hardback is a mere 176 pages, the author creates a rich, fully realized world, peopled with complex characters whose fates are of paramount importance. The writing is terrific. The puzzle at the novel’s heart is cunning and compelling. (A Private Inquiry was a finalist for the 1996 Gold Dagger Award.)
I raced through this book and was sorry when it ended. Very highly recommended. (Alas, it is neither owned at Howard County Library nor currently in print in the U.S. I got a perfectly good copy from a third party seller on Amazon. That copy is now available for loan.)
I so enjoyed A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming that I decided to read another work by him. I chose The Trinity Six, partly because it concerns that most notorious (and endlessly fascinating) clutch of spies, the Cambridge Five. Sam Gaddis, a divorced academic short on funds, gets a tip about a spy scandal that could have international reverberations. Problem: anyone who gets near this subject tends to end up dead – or at least, missing. Still, Gaddis knows there could be a book in this – a sensational book, and one that could aid him in his solvency dilemma. And so he sets out to pin down the truth – or lack thereof – of the allegations in question. This is, naturally, is always a dangerous mission in a novel of espionage.
Gaddis’s quest has him careening all over Europe and Russia. He himself soon becomes as much the object of pursuit as the pursuer. There’s danger around every corner! And this was one of my problems with The Trinity Six. It makes use of the standard tropes of the genre without adding anything terrifically unique to them. Yes, there’s suspense; yes, there’s moral ambiguity. But the plot was so complicated that I gave up trying to tease out the various threads and had to be content to simply hang in there for the wild ride. Parts of it were fun. Other parts were baffling.
So: The Trinity Six had its enjoyable moments, but for this reader, it lacked the charm and the compelling quality of A Foreign Country. Still, Charles Cumming is at the forefront of the new wave of espionage authors, and deservedly so. He’s a good writer, and I would definitely read another novel by him.
Here’s a video interview of Cumming conducted by Dominic West:
Finally, we come to Chelsea Mansions, the eleventh entry in the series featuring DCI David Brock and DI Kathy Kolla. Barry Maitland’s meticulously crafted procedurals set in London are among my favorites. This one gets off to a flying start with an act that is both audacious and outrageous: the murder of a seventy-year-old American woman, committed in the street in broad daylight, in full view of aghast onlookers. Another killing soon follows, the victim this time being a Russian businessman.Could there possibly be a relationship between these two apparently disparate events?
Brock and Kolla are soon on the case, but Brock can’t be, for long. He is taken ill with a mysterious ailment. Kathy is beside herself with worry about this man who is both her mentor and her close friend. Meanwhile, one John Greenslade, a Canadian linguistics professor in town for a conference, becomes involved in the investigation. Greenslade seems just as anxious about David Brock’s illness as Kathy is. This puzzles Kathy, with good reason.
These and other tantalizing questions are not amenable to easy answers. Kathy and her team are dogged and skillful investigators. Brock’s indisposition has left Kathy in charge, with nearly disastrous consequences. She’s so good at her job, she’s almost too good – at least, in the estimation of certain people.
Other titles I’ve read in this series are The Marx Sisters, All My Enemies, Babel, No Trace, and Dark Mirror. If pressed for a recommendation, I’d choose The Marx Sisters or Dark Mirror, but really I’ve very much enjoyed them all. And that most definitely includes Chelsea Mansions. There is something of a story arc in this series, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read the novels in strict chronological order – that is, unless you’re compulsive about such things. (And you know who you are!)
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. The music is The Four Seasons (Le Quattro Stagioni) by Antonio Vivaldi; the violinist, Federico Agostini:
Click here to read the story of the dramatic ‘rediscovery’ of Vivaldi’s music.
RECEIVE ME FALLING by Erika Robuck. Bea described this novel as historical fiction with some supernatural elements. This was Robuck’s first novel, self-published in 2009. Her second and third books have been published by NAL/Penguin. You can learn more about her at www.erikarobuck.com. Bea Also informed us that Erika Robuck is a local author. Howard County Library does not currently own RECEIVE ME FALLING, but it does own Robuck’s second novel, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL. (Her latest, Call Me Zelda, is scheduled to be reviewed this week in the Washington Post.)
THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson was recommended by Lorraine. Subtitled ‘The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,’ this magisterial account has garnered numerous awards and accolades. The reviewer in Bookmarks Magazine states: “In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson has composed a masterpiece of narrative journalism on a subject vital to our national identity, as compelling as it is heartbreaking and hopeful.” It so happened that Wilkerson was giving a talk at the library that evening; the event was filled to capacity.
From the Amazon.com review of Snow In August: “In 1940s Brooklyn, friendship between an 11-year-old Irish Catholic boy and an elderly Jewish rabbi might seem as unlikely as, well, snow in August. But the relationship between young Michael Devlin and Rabbi Judah Hirsch is only one of the many miracles large and small contained in Pete Hamill’s novel.” Robin also enjoys Lisa Scottoline’s legal thrillers.
THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich was recommended by Caroline. From the book description on Amazon: “One of the most revered novelists of our time—a brilliant chronicler of Native-American life—Louise Erdrich returns to the territory of her bestselling, Pulitzer Prize finalist The Plague of Doves with The Round House, transporting readers to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. It is an exquisitely told story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a terrible crime that upends and forever transforms his family.” This novel won the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction.
BURNT MOUNTAIN by Anne Rivers Siddons was recommended by Emma. From the Booklist review: “Siddons mixes in a touch of the supernatural to bring the novel to an exciting climax, but what’s most appealing here is the layered family drama and the lush world Thayer inhabits…A master storyteller with a remarkable track record, bestselling Siddons returns to her signature Southern setting in her newest blend of emotional realism and a sliver of magic.”
SWEET TOOTH by Ian McEwan was recommended by Phyllis. Called “tightly crafted” and “exquisitely executed” in USA Today, this novel has an opening that grabs you by the throat: “My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, although he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.” Called “the connoisseur of dread” by Daniel Zalewski in a New Yorker Magazine feature piece, Ian McEwan is one of my absolute favorite writers. I greatly enjoyed SWEET TOOTH, but my favorite McEwan novel is probably ENDURING LOVE, a tale of obsession and the strange twists of fate that are part of the human condition.
SWEET TEA REVENGE by Laura Childs and THE SNOW CHILD by Eowyn Ivey were both recommended by Dottie. Laura Childs is the popular author of the Tea Shop series and the Scrapbooking series, mysteries which are usually classed in the ‘cozy’ subgenre. THE SNOW CHILD was Amazon.com’s selection for Best Book of the Month for February of last year: “In her haunting, evocative debut Eowyn Ivey stakes her claim on a Russian fairy tale, daring the reader–and the characters–to be lulled into thinking they know the ending. But, as with the Alaskan wilderness, there’s far more here than meets the eye.” In his review of this novel for the Washington Post, Ron Charles says: “The real magic of The Snow Child is that it’s never as simple as it seems, never moves exactly in the direction you think it must…Sad as the story often is, with its haunting fairy-tale ending, what I remember best are the scenes of unabashed joy.”
THE GRAVEDIGGER’S DAUGHTER by Joyce Carol Oates made a powerful impression on Connie. She spoke of the novel with quiet and compelling eloquence. From the Publisher’s Weekly review: “At the beginning of Oates’s 36th novel, Rebecca Schwart is mistaken by a seemingly harmless man for another woman, Hazel Jones, on a footpath in 1959 Chatauqua Falls, N.Y. Five hundred pages later, Rebecca will find out that the man who accosted her is a serial killer, and Oates will have exercised, in a manner very difficult to forget, two of her recurring themes: the provisionality of identity and the awful suddenness of male violence.” Sounds harrowing, but remember – this is Joyce Carol Oates. I admire the amazingly prolific Oates; I especially like her short stories. But she can be kind of scary….
Connie also recommended the novels of R.J. Ellory, two of the best known of which are A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE and A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS. Ellory has a rather unique life story.
KITCHEN TABLE WISDOM: STORIES THAT HEAL by Rachel Naomi Remen was Peggy’s recommendation. She said that this book had been given to her as a gift during a difficult time in her life, and that it had helped her enormously. This is the book description furnished by Amazon: “Praised by everyone from Bernie Siegel to Daniel Goleman to Larry Dossey, Rachel Remen has a unique perspective on healing rooted in her background as a physician, a professor of medicine, a therapist, and a long-term survivor of chronic illness. In a deeply moving and down-to-earth collection of true stories, this prominent physician shows us life in all its power and mystery and reminds us that the things we cannot measure may be the things that ultimately sustain and enrich our lives.”
THREE WEEKS IN DECEMBER by Audrey Schulman and A GOOD AMERICAN by Alex George were both recommended by Barbara, who spoke with deep conviction about the first title. The action in Three Weeks in December takes place in Rwanda, in two distinct time periods: 1899 and 2000. This novel was of special interest to Barbara because she’s been to Rwanda and greatly admires the people of that country and what they’ve been able to achieve, despite a horrific history. (If you get on the Amazon page for this title, you’ll see numerous customer raves.) Here’s the book description Amazon provides for THE GOOD AMERICAN: “It is 1904. When Frederick and Jette must flee her disapproving mother, where better to go than America, the land of the new? Originally set to board a boat to New York, at the last minute, they take one destined for New Orleans instead (“What’s the difference? They’re both new“), and later find themselves, more by chance than by design, in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri. Not speaking a word of English, they embark on their new life together.”
STILL ALICE by Lisa Genova and LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson were both recommended by Rita. The first is the story of Alice Howland, a distinguished Harvard professor who at age fifty is suddenly and unexpectedly afflicted with Alzheimer’s. As for LIFE AFTER LIFE, the plot description on the Amazon page begins with this question: “What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?” It goes on: “On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.” LIFE AFTER LIFE has gotten mixed reviews, but Rita liked it very much and gave persuasive reasons for her opinion.
Kate Atkinson wrote one of my favorite books of the past decade: CASE HISTORIES was at once almost unbearably poignant and genuinely funny; in addition, it’s one of the most elegantly structured novels I’ve ever read. I’ve not enjoyed any of her subsequent books anywhere near as much, but I’m going to try Life After Life, especially since the group has selected it for future discussion.
MAN IN THE WOODS by Scott Spencer was DruAnne’s recommendation. From Bookmarks Magazine: “What happens if we’re not made to pay for our crimes? This question lies at the heart of Man in the Woods, a psychological and philosophical thriller about belief, guilt, responsibility, love, religion, and the randomness of life.” From the starred review in Publishers Weekly: “Spencer, a deft explorer of obsessive love and violence, confronts the consequences of doing wrong for all the right reasons in his exquisite latest.” DruAnne emphasized the fact that the moral questions implicit in this narrative make it an especially good choice for discussion. I was pleased by that observation, as it provided a nice segue into the first title I was presenting to the group:
Josephine Tey’s BRAT FARRAR, written in 1950, is the story of an audacious imposture and its far reaching consequences. The story plays out against a pastoral setting in England, where the love and knowledge of horses reigns supreme. In particular, it’s the story of the Ashby family and their country home Latchetts. A serene peace resides there – until the sudden reappearance of Patrick Ashby, the long absent son and heir to the estate. It’s as if he’s returned from the dead…. The moral crisis that occurs at this novel’s climax creates an almost claustrophobic tension. The first time I read it, I was riveted.
I can never talk about BRAT FARRAR without also mentioning another novel by Tey, written in 1949, called THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR. As with the Dorothy L Sayers classic GAUDY NIGHT, there is no actual murder in this mystery; still, a deeply sinister force is doing its malign work.The story centers on two women who have a monstrous accusation leveled against them. Marion Sharpe and her mother have recently taken up residence in a house called The Franchise, in the village of Milford. Their dearest wish is to eke out their savings in peace and quiet, but instead they find themselves at the center of a firestorm with absolutely no idea how they got there, or how to get out. That is, until an unassuming solicitor named Robert Blair somewhat reluctantly answers their plea for help.
Josephine Tey is something of a mystery herself. Her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh; she wrote novels and plays under a variety of pseudonyms. She was born in Inverness, Scotland, in 1896. Little is known concerning her personal life, although some details have been filled on this site. Having been ill for some time, she ultimately died of cancer in 1952. She’d been secretive about her illness, as about almost everything else, and her death came as a profound shock to those who knew her.
Tey wrote eight novels that can be considered crime fiction. Detective Inspector Alan Grant, her series character, appears in six of them. Her most famous novel is The Daughter of Time, which I read ages ago and probably should revisit one of these days. But in the meantime, I’ve developed a huge fondness for the two above discussed titles.
Joesphine Tey is often grouped with four of her contemporaries: Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio March, Margery Allingham, and Agatha Christie. Together, these writers are sometimes referred to as “the Grandes Dames” of Britain’s first Golden Age of crime fiction.
(A word on Ngaio Marsh: my three favorite novels by her are The Nursing Home Murder, A Clutch of Constables, and most especially Death in s White Tie. There’s a nicely done two-season traversal of her works available on DVD, featuring Patrick Malahyde as Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. These DVD’s are owned by the Howard County Library System.)
We had two submissions from book lovers who were unable to attend our session on Thursday. Here’s what Jeannie kindly sent via email:
The books I was going to mention are “Mao – The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang, which is a detailed history of Mao; very clearly biased against Mao, but who can blame her — she cites 70 million Chinese deaths because of him. It’s long and tedious at times, but ultimately very intriguing. Now I’m in the midst of reading “Bound Feet and Western Dress” by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang, which is a biography by an American- born woman of Chinese descent about her great Aunt who lived through many dramatic cultural changes. I’m not an historian and know next to nothing about China but I’ve grown more and more interested through historical novels and our recent readings.
Finally, THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald was suggested by Doris, in view of the fact that a new film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, is due to be released on May 10. Several years ago, another book group I’m in revisited GATSBY in tandem with DOUBLE BIND by Chris Bohjalian. The latter contains story elements from the Fitzgerald classic, and treats the events in the lives of Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan and the others as though they actually happened. Although I did not care for Bohjalian’s novel, I enjoyed revisiting THE GREAT GATSBY and along with it, the bittersweet life story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
This was one of the most stimulating, even revelatory discussions I’ve had the pleasure to be present at in quite some time. What a pleasure it was to be among such eloquent and impassioned book lovers! Heartfelt thanks are owing to my AAUW colleagues and friends.
…in which the Usual Suspects undertake a discussion of the ninth volume in the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers by first briefly recounting the author’s life and times.. Sayers was one of a group of distinguished authors of crime fiction during that genre’s first Golden Age, usually described as taking place during the years between the two world wars.
Murder Must Advertise was Mike’s choice for our April book. She got us started with some background material on the author. Born in 1893, Dorothy Sayers was the late-in-life only child of the Reverend Henry Sayers and Helen Mary (Leigh) Sayers. Although born in Oxford, she grew up in the village of Bluntisham, in the fen country of eastern England. Sayers enjoyed a happy childhood, where her apparent gifts were recognized and encouraged by her parents. In 1912 she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford. She completed her studies there in 1915. At that time, Oxford did not grant its full degree to women. That policy changed in 1920. Sayers returned to the university in order to be among the first women to receive this momentous and well-deserved honor.
Meanwhile, in the wider world, Sayers was desperately cobbling together various means of employment and still dependent to an extent on her parents’ largesse. Finally, in 1922, she landed a job writing copy at H.F. Benson, an advertising agency in London. She worked there until 1931. It was during this period that she conceived and began writing the Lord Peter Wimsey novels.
Dorothy Sayers’s personal life at this juncture can best be described as turbulent. Eric Whelpton, her first love, enjoyed her company but never really reciprocated her affections. She then became involved with John Cournos, a self-important writer and ideologue who served as the model for Philip Boyes in Strong Poison. When that affair ended, she took up with Bill White, a cheerfully unpretentious person with whom she could just have regular fun. A bit too much fun, as it turns out: in June of 1923, Dorothy realized she was pregnant. Bill White reacted badly to the news. She might have considered marrying him, but it turned out that he was already married, and already a father.
Sayers took a leave of absence from H.F. Benson and went into seclusion, in order to see the pregnancy through, in strictest secrecy. Once the child was born, he was given to Ivy Shrimpton. a favorite cousin, to raise and care for. Shrimpton and her mother ran a home for foster children; this presented the perfect camouflage for the presence of Sayers’s son, whom she named John Anthony.
In 1926, Dorothy Sayers married Oswald Arthur Fleming, a World War One veteran and journalist invariably known among his acquaintance as “Mac.” Mac was divorced, with two children by his former wife. Dorothy and Mac’s marriage was not without its challenges. Mac had been injured in the war and was ultimately unable to work. Dorothy had to support them both. In addition, Mac drank heavily and came to resent his wife’s growing success and fame as the author of the Lord Peter novels.
Meanwhile, with her new husband, Dorothy came clean about her past. When told about John Anthony, Mac was not only undismayed but actually expressed a desire to bring the boy into their family circle. In the event, John Anthony never did come to live with them, even though they “informally ‘adopted’” him. (I’m not sure exactly what that means.)John Anthony also took ‘Fleming’ as his last name.
The marriage endured until Mac died in 1950. At the time, they were living in Sunnyside Cottage in Witham, Essex. Sayers stayed on in the cottage after Mac’s death. She suffered a massive and ultimately fatal heart attack seven years later. She was 64 years old.
One of the Suspects expressed surprise that a woman as modern and enlightened as Dorothy L. Sayers should be so shamed and secretive about an out of wedlock pregnancy. In Women of Mystery, Martha Hailey DuBose offers a partial explanation:
Today we can only begin to imagine the agonies of conscience [Sayers] must have suffered. England after the war was a profoundly changed place: moral standards and behavioral rules had shifted dramatically in a relatively short time. In London, just as in New York and Chicago, the 1920s roared with sex, drugs, and jazz. But some things remained verboten, and for women of Dorothy’s class and religion, unwed pregnancy was still at the top of the forbidden list.
DuBose goes on to expound on the likely repercussions Sayers would have suffered had she gone public with her situation: “It would have meant lifelong shame for herself, her child, and her entire family. Her parents, in their seventies, would be humiliated. Dorothy would likely lose her job and all hope of financial independence.”
It should be remembered that beneath Sayers’s breezy, confident, and liberated exterior there beat the heart of a deeply religious woman. She was in some ways quite conservative. Above all, she was desperate to protect her parents from any anguish or mortification caused by her own actions.
In the recent Winter issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, editor George Easter states: “Some books should never go out of print.” He was referring to the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Happily this perplexing state of affairs has been at least partly ameliorated by HarperCollins. Under the imprint of Bourbon Street Books, the publisher is in the process of reissuing the books in trade paperback editions with beautifully designed covers.
At this time, the plan includes only the novels featuring Harriet Vane. We can but hope that in the fullness of time, HarperCollins will see fit to bring forth the remaining series entries.
In a BBC piece on Dorothy Sayers, Jane Curran writes:
The image of Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, the great fictional detective of the 1920s and 30s, is of a moonfaced, heavily built, bespectacled elderly woman in mannish clothes.
Curran adds: “Yet she first caused a stir as a tall thin girl, nicknamed Swanny on account of her long and slender neck. “
Stay tuned for Part Two, in which H.F. Benson is transformed into Pym’s Publicity through the art of the supremely gifted novelist, Dorothy L. Sayers.
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.
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.
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:
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.