We have lost a member of our Usual Suspects Mystery Book Club.
Barb has long been one of the group’s most enthusiastic participants. In fact, along with her friend Susan, she was slated to lead a discussion earlier this month. The title they chose was I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman, one of Barb’s favorite authors. In the event, Barb was unable to attend. Susan, a relatively new addition to the group, did an excellent job as solo facilitator, but she made it clear that she was greatly aided by Barb’s insights and suggestions, shared with her prior to the night in question.
We in the Usual Suspects group have always appreciated Barb’s intelligence and perceptiveness, as well as her ready wit and sense of humor. She was with us in spirit the night of the Lippman discussion; in like manner, she’ll be a presence at future gatherings of the Usual Suspects, as the months and years unfold.
She was a good friend and a good person, and will be missed by all of us.
One of my favorite authors of crime fiction has passed away.
Reginald Hill was the author of the Dalziel and Pascoe procedurals as well as a number of standalones, and as of 1993, a series featuring private investigator Joe Sixsmith. He also wrote seven thrillers under the name Patrick Ruell. Here’s the complete list.
It’s a large body of work, and its quality was consistently high. I’ve always looked to Hill’s novels for elegant prose, prodigious erudition, ingenious plots, and that wry, biting wit that we Anglophiles so cherish in British writers.
My reading of Reginald Hill’s oeuvre has been pretty much confined to the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. My favorites among them are The Wood Beyond, On Beulah Height, Dialogues of the Dead, Death’s Jest Book, Good morning, Midnight…well, as you can see, I’m having trouble choosing. If I had to pick a masterpiece from the lot, I’d choose On Beulah Height, a crime story which possesses an added dimension of urgency because of a dire situation involving one of the main characters in the series. The psychological acuity at work in this novel took my breath away. In her New York Times review of On Beulah Height, Marilyn Stasio called Reginald Hill “ever the master of form and sorcerer of style.” Click here for an appreciation of Hill’s work that I wrote in 2008.
For the 2007 Smithsonian Tour “Mystery Lovers’ England and Scotland,” Recalled To Life was on our list of suggested reading. This is my brief review, including a lengthy quoted passage:
I had deliberately saved Recalled To Life, a nicely compact mass market paperback, to read on the plane. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would still be reading it on the way back! I am a dedicated reader of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels, but I found this one, published here in 1992 and located about half way through the series, to be exceptionally dense and complex. It’s a country house murder, all right, but with an enormous cast of characters; I had trouble keeping track of who was who. Nevertheless, it has all the trademarks of Hill’s wonderful writing. Dalziel in particular is in exceptionally fine fettle here: pushy, coarse, low class – sometimes rather deliberately so – but also capable of compassion and insight. He’s a real brawler, too when the occasion calls for it, which it does several times in this book.
Recalled to Life is named for the title of the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. Quotes at the head of each chapter are taken from the Dickens work. Hill’s novel is indeed about people being “recalled to life” in various ways: released from prison after over two decades, in the case of one character; given a new, if brief, lease on life as in the case of Ellie Pascoe’s aging mother. Towards the conclusion, as Dalziel and Peter Pascoe are heading north on the A 1, Hill treats us to this poignant, eloquent paragraph, as good an illustration as any of the way in which the British are never very far from an awareness of their rich, extraordinary, and sometimes brutal history:
“This was the Great North Road, or had been before modern traffic made it necessary for roads to miss the townships they had once joined. Hatfield they passed, where Elizabeth the First learned of her accession, and Hitchin, where George Chapman translated Homer into English and John Keats into the realms of gold; Biggleswade where the Romans, driving their own road north, forded a river and founded a town; Norman Cross, near which a bronze eagle broods over the memory of eighteen hundred of Napoleon’s dead, not on a field of battle but in a British prison camp; then into what had been Rutland before it was destroyed by little men whose power outstripped their vision by a Scotch mile; and now began the long flat acres of Lincolnshire, and the road ran by Stamford, once the busy capital of the Fens and later badly damaged during the Wars of the Roses; and Grantham, where God said, ‘let Newton be,’ and there was light, though in a later century the same town ushered in some of the country’s most twilit years…”
Dwelling in his Cumbrian fastness, Mr. Hill has always avoided the limelight. (This short, lively bio has been on the Random House site for as long as I can remember.) His books will stand as a fitting monument to a life well lived in the realm of literature.
Yesterday’s Washington Post brought news of the passing of British author Beryl Bainbridge. In the course of her writing life (she was an actress first), Bainbridge was nominated for the Man Booker Prize five times. She never actually won and, as a result, was sometimes referred to as a “Booker bridesmaid.”
She did, however, win other literary awards, most notably the Whitbread – twice – for Injury Time and Every Man for Himself. I really enjoyed the second title. In Every Man for Himself, Bainbridge takes us on board the Titanic and places us among the doomed vessel’s passengers and crew members. You may think there’s no opportunity to create suspense here, but you’d be wrong. Yes, we readers know what’s going to happen, but the characters, of course, do not. You want to cry out a warning. I’m reminded of a scene in Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii in which the aquarius, Marcus Attilius Primus, is riding his horse up the slopes of Vesuvius. I wanted to grab the reins and shout, “Be afraid! Turn this horse around and ride like the wind in the other direction!”
(This serves to remind me that a little over a year ago, I was in a tour bus riding up the slopes of Vesuvius. I and my fellow travelers then got out and hiked a further way up the mountain. Was I fearful? No – I was exhilarated. On the way up, we saw lovely houses with pantile roofs and gardens nurtured by the rich volcanic soil. This is the so-called Red Zone. People live here because it is a beautiful place affording stunning views of the Bay of Naples. The mountain is, for the time being, quiescent. The scene put me in mind of spectacular dwellings I’ve seen magnificently and precariously perched on the steep hillsides of California.)
My favorite Bainbridge novel is According To Queeney. In it, the author vividly depicts eighteenth century England as she tells the story of Dr. Samuel Johnson and his intense, rather strange friendship with Hester Thrale, wife of a wealthy brewer. I read this book a awhile ago, but I still recall Hester’s repeated childbearing. Unfortunately, her infants tended to be frail and did not live long after their birth.
Bainbridge practiced the less-is-more method of writing historical fiction. Her novels are short. With a few masterful strokes, she brings the past to life. Sometimes a well placed detail can be more evocative than a grand, broad canvas. While it’s true that I loved every word of Hilary Mantel’s magisterial Wolf Hall, I love several much shorter historical novels just as much. There are the two by Beryl Bainbridge, discussed above, and these marvelous masterworks by Penelope Fitzgerald:
Click here for a complete list of works by Beryl Bainbridge. Her name also appears on a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945,“ compiled by the Sunday Times of London in 2008. Don’t know about you, but the names of a fair number of my favorite authors appear on this list.
According to the itinerary for the Smithsonian Tour entitled Classic Mystery Lover’s England, this activity is scheduled for October 20:
Step into a Dick Francis mystery during a morning focused on horse racing. Witness a display of strength and discipline during the morning “gallops” and view these fine race horses up close at the stable. Over coffee with the trainer, take an in-depth look at the culture of horseracing in the Cotswolds, described in Francis’ novels, from his first, Dead Cert, to the most recent, Under Orders.*
Ron and I took this tour in 2006. At the time, we weren’t sure that this particular excursion would prove to be worthwhile. After all, we were not actually going to meet Dick Francis…
In the event, this visit turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. We got to the stables early in the morning, when the horses are first taken out to be exercised. The Downs were enveloped in a fine mist, which gradually cleared as the sun grew warmer. Two of the stable’s employees took obvious pleasure in showing us around and answering our questions. A small dog – a Jack Russell terrier, I believe – was delighted to have such a large company of amiable humans on hand and darted back and forth among us.
In the chill air of morning, you could see the horses’ breath. They were beautiful animals.
Dead Cert (1962) was featured on the reading list prepared for out trip. Although I have long been a reader of Dick Francis’s books, I had never read this one, the author’s first, and was afraid it would come across as dated. My reservations turned out to be completely unfounded. Dead Cert was a joy to read: the character were engaging, as was the racing lore. The plot moved at lightning speed, like – well, like a steeplechase jockey and his mount headed confidently for a first place finish.**
Dick Francis was born in Wales in 1920. Prior to the First World War, his father had been a steeplechase jockey; after the war, he managed the W.H. Smith Stables in Maidenhead (Berkshire, England). Immersed from childhood in a world of horses and racing, Dick Francis became devoted to that world. It was an ardor born early and destined, in the coming years, to increase in intensity. He left school at the age of fifteen to pursue his own dream of become a jockey. The rest, as they say, is history; you can read about that history here.
My own interest in horse racing was bequeathed to me by my father. When we were kids, he used to spend his Saturdays at the track. (In the way of children, I assumed at the time that this was what everyone’s Dad did on weekends.) These weekly excursions were his chief means of escape from the pressures of work. When Dick Francis began writing his novels of the racing world, my Dad was pleased to discover them. I like to picture the two of them encountering each other in the hereafter. If you see my Dad, Mr. Francis, be sure to greet him warmly. In later years, he was a great fan of yours.
*This needs updating. As of now, the latest novel is Easy Money (2009), co-authored with Francis’s son Felix. Crossfire is due out in August of this year.
**The early 1960s were pivotal years for British crime fiction. Like Dead Cert, Cover Her Face, P.D. James’s first entry in her acclaimed Adam Dalgliesh series, came out in 1962. Ruth Rendell brought out the first Wexford novel, From Doon with Death, two years later.
Caves of ice, caves of ice…where did that come from? Oh yes – “Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” Nothing sunny about this day, alas, although rumor has it that we might see that Blessed Orb tomorrow.
The story goes that while Coleridge was in the midst of writing this poem, he was interrupted by a man who had come from Porlock on some pedestrian errand. When Coleridge had rid himself of this intruder, he found himself unable to continue work on this poem. Thus “Kubla Khan” is usually referred to as a fragment – but what a glorious fragment it is, with its hallucinatory visions and glimpses of a mysterious unseen world.
Then I was reminded of a scene from the Inspector Morse film Twilight of the Gods. Morse, played by John Thaw, has almost completed a crossword puzzle when Lewis (Kevin Whately) interrupts him. Irritated, Morse tells Lewis that he’s “the person from Porlock.” Lewis, whose literalness was always one of his most endearing traits, replies “No, Sir, Newcastle.”
Here’s the final scene from that film. It serves as a vivid reminder of what we lost with the passing of John Thaw:
Ralph McInerny, author of the Father Dowling mysteries, has passed away.
McInerny did much more than write crime fiction. He was also a noted scholar of Catholicism, and, from 1955 until his retirement last year, a professor of philosophy and of medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame.
I read Ash Wednesday (2008) and enjoyed it a great deal. The author managed to tackle the difficult subject of euthanasia while keeping the essential humanity of his characters in full view of the reader. I’ve always appreciated McInerny’s wry humor and his ability to show compassion for his characters. Father Dowling did not offer summary judgment of fallible human beings; neither did his creator.
Stained Glass, the latest entry in the Father Dowling series, was already on my night table when I heard the sad news.
For this reader, these books have provided an astute yet gentle look into the heart of Catholicism.
Louis Auchincloss, a writer I admire, has passed away at age 92. I have sampled Auchincloss’s works from time to time, especially when I felt like reading about the monied upper classes. He could write on other subjects – I recall enjoying False Dawn: Women in the Age of the Sun King - but he always returned to the world he knew best, having been raised in it and been at home in it his entire life
In regard to its themes and preoccupations, Auchincloss’s fiction has frequently been compared to that of Edith Wharton (whom his grandmother knew). It is an apt comparison.
Louis Auchincloss was extremely prolific. A complete list of his works can be found on Wikipedia. The last novel I read by him was East Side Story. I recommend it.
Here is the obituary in the New York Times.
Auchincloss was a friend of Brooke Astor’s and was quoted several times by Meryl Gordon in her book Mrs. Astor Regrets. Now Mr. Auchincloss and Mrs. Astor are both gone, and an entire era with them.
Robert B. Parker, one of the giants of contemporary crime fiction, has passed away.
Somehow I never thought this would happen. Sarah Weinman says she does not know how to process this sad news. I could not agree with her more.
Many of us owe Parker a debt of gratitude for the hours of highly enjoyable reading with which he provided us. For all his success in the field, he always came across as a regular, unpretentious person, able to laugh at himself and to appreciate the worth of others.
Requiescat in pace, Mr. Parker; you will be much missed.
When I heard the news, I went to my bookshelf and drew out The Afterlife and Other Stories. I turned to “A Sandstone Farmhouse,” where I had marked several passages. Here’s the first, barely three pages in:
“He remembered swinging the great stones out the attic window, he and his grandfather pushing, trying not to pinch their fingers, while his father, his face white with the effort, held the rope of a makeshift pulley rigged over a rafter. Once clear of the sill, the heavy stones fell with a strange slowness, seen from above, and accumulated into a kind of mountain it became Joey’s sumer job to clear away. He learned a valuable lesson that first summer on the farm, while he turned fourteen: even if you manage to wrestle only one stone into the wheelbarrow and sweatily, staggeringly trundle it down to the swampy area this side of the springhouse, eventually the entire mountain will be taken away. On the same principle, an invisible giant, removing only one day at a time, will eventually dispose of an entire life.
Joey’s youthful memories are inextricably bound up with life at the sandstone farmhouse. Now in his fifties and living in an apartment in Manhattan, he is called upon to return once more to the farm in Pennsylvania. His mother, who still lives there, is old and ailing and steadily retreating behind a wall of fear and obduracy.
“Each day she spent in the hospital, the little sandstone house pulled at her harder. ‘Get me home,’ she begged Joey.
‘And then what?’
‘Then we’ll take what comes.’ Her eyes widened, watching his, and her mouth as it clamped shut over ‘what comes’ was very like a child’s, stubborn in its fright. For, however close their consultations, however fervent their agreements, both were aware that she was the star and he merely the prompter: though his turn would come, the spotlight burned upon her. She was center stage, in this drama whose climax everyone knows.
Not a single wasted word or superfluous sentiment. Updike does not go in for verbal pyrotechnics; his writing embodies the simple art of truth telling, rendered with grace and an unblinking eye.
John Updike’s short stories show in distilled form his superb craftsmanship and mastery of the art of storytelling. My favorite is probably “The Music School.” With its laserlike focus on the vagaries of the human condition, this story seems to contain the entire world – or several worlds, come to that.
“The Music School” is about eight pages in length.
I was happy to see that The Washington Post placed the news of Updike’s passing on its front page. Here he is on why we need fiction:
“‘We read fiction because it makes us feel less lonely about being a human being….We read about what other human beings feel – what they’re driven to do, how often they work for their own destruction, how they’re in the grip of appetites that are beyond them and they can’t control or harness.’
In 2006, Updike defined the act of reading as an “encounter, in silence, of two minds.”
Also yesterday, the Post featured a lengthy appreciation of Updike, in the paper’s Style section. And today’s editorial page brings “Renegade Updike,” by critic and reviewer Marie Arana. (The title in the print version is “Moments with Updike.”)
And now – at this juncture, I just have to say this – there is no small irony in the Post’s homage to one of America’s greatest men of letters. The paper has just announced that as of next month, the Sunday Post’s Book World will no longer exist as a separate section. The book reviews will be parceled out to two other existing sections, Outlook and Style & Arts. We are assured that Book World’s current embodiment will still exist in an expanded form online; in addition, weekday reviews will still appear regularly.
We are assured by editor Rachel Shea that “…it’s not worth gnashing our teeth about too much.” Sorry, Ms Shea, but here at Books to the Ceiling there is plenty of gnashing going on, accompanied by howls of dismay!
It’s one of those obituaries that you knew you’d probably be seeing before too long, but would rather not have seen at all…
In straightforward, unadorned prose, Tony Hillerman shone a light on the Navajo and Hopi cultures. (I was not aware that the author himself had recorded some of his books. I have listened to George Guidall’s readings, though, and I recommend them highly.)
In addition, he took New Mexico, a land that for some of us was as remote and exotic as Tibet, and made it real and immediate. Hillerman’s wonderfully evocative novels are the reason my husband and I have twice journeyed to the Land of Enchantment. The stark, majestic landscape, the deep blue skies, the smell of pinon – I’d willingly go back again!
The author, in the landscape he loved.
On her blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, Sarah Weinman has gathered a bouquet of tributes to Tony Hillerman.