Stay Hidden, a Mike Bowditch mystery by Paul Doiron

August 8, 2018 at 1:48 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was very impressed by The Poacher’s Son, the first entry in Paul Doiron’s series featuring Maine game warden Mike Bowditch. So were other readers, apparently: the book was a finalist for the 2011 Anthony, Edgar, and Macavity Awards for Best First Novel. It won the Barry Award in that same category.

For whatever reasons – mostly having to do with the”so many books, so little time” mantra – I did not continue with the series until I was lured back by positive reviews to Widowmaker (#5). My reaction: “This guy is only getting better and better!” The next book, Knife Creek, was also excellent. And so, on to number seven, Stay Hidden.

Mike Bowditch has achieved his long-sought goal of becoming a Warden Investigator. But the case he’s investigating – his first in that capacity – is a real puzzler. It takes him to the remote island of Maquoit, off the coast of Maine. A woman has been shot and killed while in the prosaic act of hanging laundry outside her rented home. Ariel Evans was an investigative journalist. More significant, she was an incomer, not native to the island or even to the state. That made her presence on Maquoit suspect, to begin with. At least, that’s how the natives saw things.

Hunting is a major activity on the island, and accidents do happen. Ariel Evans was a stranger who presumably was not well versed in the folkways of the natives. Although she was out of doors during hunting season, she was not wearing blaze orange.

Was this shooting in fact, an accident? Or is there something more to this story? Mike’s brief while on this island is to drill down to the truth. This will not be easy; some of  the long time residents consider him as much of an alien as Ariel Levy was.

One of the pleasures of this novel, as with others in the series, is Paul Doiron’s vivid descriptions. To wit:

Autumn is the season of rot in the Maine woods. Out of the sun and wind, under the scraggly boughs of the apple  trees, the light had an almost-sepia tint. The air was still and the odor of decomposition was strong. The miasma blotted out even the smell of the sea.

I particularly like this sentence:

Past the seawall were the remains of vanished wharfs in the form of pilings rising like a submerged forest from the surface of the sea.

Doiron clearly appreciates the beauty of the Pine Tree State, but at the same time he is clear-eyed and unsentimental. In this passage, he’s out on the water:

I came upon a raftlike float called a lobster car. In a month the island lobstermen would tie up crates to it. But for now it waited. A cormorant surfaced from beneath the raft and confronted me with red eyes. Clamped in its cruel bill was a writhing pollack, which the bird swallowed whole.

Nature red in tooth and claw….

Mike Bowditch is the kind of protagonist you find yourself empathizing with and rooting for. His  dogged efforts in the face thinly disguised and sometimes mean spirited opposition are admirable. His personal life is characterized by thwarted romance. In this, and in other particulars, he reminds me of Martin Walker’s wonderful series featuring Bruno Courrèges, Chief of Police in St. Denis, a fictional town in the southwest of France.

In an interview in Yankee Magazine from last year, Paul Doiron says this of his background:

Well, I grew up in Maine—my family is from Sanford originally, but I grew up in Scarborough. I come from a family of mill workers, and growing up I had relatives who were working as dishwashers and those sorts of jobs. I was fortunate to have a very different kind of experience. I grew up in a suburb and I went to Cheverus High School in Portland and I got a Jesuit education, and then went to Yale. I’ve always felt as if I am a child of “the two Maines,” as they are often spoken of.

Pine trees on the coast at Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine; photo by John Schinker on Flickr

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‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark.’

August 5, 2018 at 7:42 pm (California, True crime)

  I wasn’t planning to read this book. In fact, I was definitely planning NOT to read this book.

But I read it anyway. I finished it yesterday and have thought of little else ever since. The Golden State Killer – that moniker was bestowed upon him by Michelle McNamara – was an incredibly evil man.

After committing a hundred deliberately messy thefts, he was  dubbed the Visalia Ransacker.   He then embarked on a series of cruel and sadistic sexual assaults in the Sacramento area. Wikipedia estimates the known total of these to be fifty-one. This aggregation of atrocities resulted in his being called the East Area Rapist, or EAR. But there was worse to come.

The attacker wanted “justification” for killing, the psychiatrist said, and it was only time before he found it.

[“Salem man recalls obsessive search for the Golden State Killer,’ in The Statesman Journal]

Twelve murders followed. Twelve known murders, that is. The acronym was expanded to reflect this grim new reality. EAR became EAR/ONS. (The ONS stands for ‘Original Night Stalker;’ this, to differentiate him from Richard Ramirez, who was first dubbed the Night Stalker by the press in the mid 1980s.)

Unfortunately GSK (the Golden State Killer) was as cunning as he was brutal. He managed to avoid capture even when police appeared to be within a hair’s breadth of apprehending him.

This one man crime spree began in 1976 and ended ten years later. No one knows why it ended. Perhaps now that they have a suspect in custody, they will find out. I rather doubt it. The Wikipedia entry provides most of the known particulars. The sheer length of the list of offenses is gasp-inducing. Reading about even a few of them, one is sickened. Why read about it at all?

Here we come to Michelle McNamara. Michelle grew up in a suburb of Chicago. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Notre Dame University. She also possessed an advanced degree in creative writing (MFA), attained at the University of Minnesota.  She maintained a  blog called True Crime Diary.
She was especially intrigued by the case of the Golden State Killer. That interest became, by her own admission, an obsession. The obsession, in turn, became a book project.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a painstaking elucidation of a repugnant series of crimes. Michelle McNamara subjected some exceptionally painful scenarios to an unflinching gaze and then tried to draw from that process some useful knowledge about the perpetrator. Although she was able to synthesize and put in order a great deal of information, she was not able to pinpoint his identity. Small wonder. Several law enforcement entities brought all their resources to bear on this stubborn mystery and did not  get any further than Michelle did. The geography alone is challenging, especially for those of us not familiar with the terrain. The map below gives a general idea of where and when the crimes occurred.

Michelle McNamara might have gotten there, or at least gotten closer, eventually. But fate had decreed otherwise. She passed away in her sleep in April of 2016, leaving behind her husband Patton Oswalt and a seven-year-old daughter.

And the book, only partially written.

Once Patton Oswalt had begun to recover from this sudden, awful blow, he made the finishing of Michelle’s book a top priority. Working together, investigative journalist Billy Jensen and crime writer Paul Haynes saw the project through to completion.

The individual accused of the Golden State Killer crimes is Joseph James DeAngelo. He is 72 years old, a Vietnam veteran and a former police officer. At the time of his arrest, he was living in Citrus Heights, not far from the scene of several of his many depredations.

To my eyes, DeAngelo’s visage is frightful to behold. Some photos of the man when young have appeared online; they show him as more or less agreeable looking, in an average sort of way. I choose not to place any of those images here. Instead, I’d like to recall a novel by Oscar Wilde, first published in 1890. The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of one man’s descent into depravity. In a portrait painted in his youth, Dorian Gray is handsome and appealing, even alluring. His face is smooth and unmarked. In life, it stays that way, even as his his actions become more and more cruel and unforgivable. But the portrait, hidden away in an attic room, tells the real story. And of course, this state of affairs cannot persist indefinitely…

Another classic work of fiction this subject has brought to mind is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Michelle McNamara was an excellent writer; her  style was ideally suited to the subject matter. To wit:

Most violent criminals smash through life like human sledgehammers. They have fists for hands and can’t plan beyond their sightlines. They’re caught easily. They talk too much. They return to the scene of the crime, as conspicuous as tin cans on a bumper. But every so often a blue moon surfaces. A snow leopard slinks by.

I love her use of figurative language and  short, punchy sentences. Stylistically it’s like the nonfiction equivalent of noir mystery fiction.

Here’s another passage, with longer sentences, equally effective. It concerns the very crucial question of whether these crimes could be linked to the same perpetrator:

A forensic match between the cases didn’t exist but a feeling did, a sense that a single mind was at work, someone who didn’t leave many clues or talk or show his face, someone who strolled undetected in the middle-class swarm, an ordinary man with a resting-pulse derangement.

This excerpt brought to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd:”

“The old man,” I said at length, “is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.

Illustration by NC Mallory of E.A. Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd.”

 

From the blog Madness and Insight

Paul Holes is the cold case investigator who worked with Michelle, up until her death, on the Golden State Killer case. He had  this to say about the experience:

“The ability to learn the case, have insights that many do not have the aptitude for, the persistence, and the fun and engaging personality all wrapped up in one person was amazing. I know she was the only person who could have accomplished what she did in this case starting out as an outsider and  becoming one of us over time. I think this private/public partnership was truly unique in a criminal investigation. Michelle was perfect for it.”

So yes, this was a tough book to get through but at the same time I couldn’t stop reading it. I’m glad all of these facts have been read into the record. The victims and their families deserve to have their ordeals known and acknowledged. The fight for justice has, after all, been very much waged on their behalf. And those criminalists and officers of the law and of the court who have been in the trenches, in some cases for years – Detective Paul Holes, Sergeant Larry Crompton, Detective Richard Shelby, forensic scientist Mary Hong, and numerous others – are owed an enormous debt of gratitude.

Here is Paul Holes on how DNA was used to solve this case::

These words by Elizabeth Bruenig, appearing in today’s Washington Post, are part of a passionate brief opposing the death penalty. Wherever you stand on that issue, I believe that her thoughts on the most basic aspects of human nature are eloquently expressed here; as such they are, I think, a good way to conclude this post:

In the world we encounter evil. Our impulse is to destroy it. But here in the world, good and evil are hopelessly entwined; you contain evil, bring it to account, heal injuries and make restitution for wrongs — but it is impossible to finally destroy all evil without also taking the good with it. This is because good and evil are tangled in the hearts of human beings and cannot be sorted out in this life. And since the goodness in us — the humanity — is worth preserving, we ought not inflict death as a punishment, but rather cling to life, even unto the very last moment of hope.

Michelle Eileen McNamara: April 14,1970-April 21, 2016

 

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‘…who has the gun, where is the gun–‘ Sunburn, by Laura Lippman

July 30, 2018 at 9:23 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

When’s the last time you read a crime novel  set in Delaware?

This may have been a first for me. Be that as it may, that’s where we find ourselves in Sunburn. Polly (Pauline) Costello has fled the beach retreat she was sharing with husband Gregg and three-year-old daughter Jani. She hasn’t gone far: just inland to the town of Belleville. As she sits on a bar stool in a restaurant oddly named High-Ho, she is noticed by Adam Bosk. There’s an instant attraction, but only on his part – at first.

These two have plenty of secrets, but Lippman reveals them gradually and obliquely. It’s a good technique for hooking the reader, and I was duly hooked. More  characters enter the scenario, but the spotlight remains firmly fixed on Polly and Adam. As is invariably the case with Lippman, these characters are real and believable. No one is completely good or irredeemably bad. The core truth of what’s really going on stays hidden for a long time, though, and the outcome remains uncertain right up to the end.

I had an interesting moment when I read this description of Polly Costello: “Her figure’s pretty good, but she has that narrow, foxy look common to redheads.” Suddenly Polly’s image materialized very precisely in my mind. For me, anyway, it was an extremely telling passage. Here’s another one that resonated.  Adam is  reminiscing tenderly about his mother and father:

How he misses his parents, those sad, sweet hippies who ate macrobiotic, smoked dope, and died before they were sixty – a heart attack for him, a stroke for her – because some people do everything right and still don’t catch a break.

I don’t ordinarily like  fiction written in the present tense, but in this novel it worked beautifully. And anyway, I almost never don’t like Laura Lippman‘s writing.

We here in the Free State get an extra kick out of Lippman’s novels, since  they almost always contain some local lore. Sunburn features several trips to ‘Bawlamer,’ specifically referencing Northern Parkway, a route I’ve traveled on a number of occasions. It’s a sort of partial inner beltway; one wishes more cities had such a route. (Baltimore also has an outer beltway, which is becoming increasingly congested despite relentless efforts to widen it.)

I think Sunburn would be an excellent selection for discussion groups, especially those in this region. As with all Laura Lippman’s novels, it grabs you from the start, it’s witty, and it moves along at a good clip. One other point: I’m not sure  how I feel about the ending, and I’d welcome the chance to talk to other readers about it.

 

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Van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard

July 27, 2018 at 12:35 pm (Art, France, Smithsonian Associates World Art History Certificate Program)

Self-portrait with Grey Felt Hat, 1887

Les peintres du petit boulevard. So they were called, first probably by Van Gogh himself. On a recent Saturday, my “art partner” Jean and I went to a Smithsonian program about these artists. The lecturer was art historian Bonita Billman, two of whose presentations we’ve already attended and greatly enjoyed.

When attending a function of this sort, one always hopes to receive a handout replete with definitions of terms, bibliography, and other enriching information. This Ms Billman provided. Here are the first two paragraphs of the handout:

Vincent Van Gogh spent 1886 to 1888 in Paris, living with his brother Theo, an art dealer. Theo’s connections with the avant-garde art world gave Van Gogh a quick and intensive contemporary art education as he was drawn into a social and artistic circle of like-minded painters that included Pissarro, Seurat, Signac, Gauguin, Laval, Bernard, Anquetin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. He called the rising group the Painters of the Petit Boulevard to distinguish them from the established and successful impressionists like Monet, Degas, and Renoir.

Van Gogh’s time among these young artists was among the most influential in his brief life. In searching for his own style, he rapidly passed through approaches including impressionism and divisionism, lightening his Dutch-inspired palette and breaking up his brushstrokes. He conceived the idea of his fellow artists joining him in a community he called the Studio of the South – a colony that never came to pass.

Divisionism is defined by Ms Billman in her handout as a “…painting technique making use of color theory in which the application of dots of complementary colors heightens their luminosity…” This is similar to pointillism, a term greatly disliked by Seurat, to whose work it was principally applied.

Seurat’s most celebrated painting, Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte, holds pride of place in the Art Institute of Chicago, where my granddaughter, a Chicago resident, is always happy to encounter it.

More art by painters in this group:

Avenue de Clichy, Louis Anquetin

 

Portrait of Felix Feneon, by Paul Signac

 

Laborer at Celeyran, by Toulouse-Lautrec

 

Une Bergère Bretonne (a Breton shepherdess), by Paul Gauguin  1886

 

Bathers at Asnières by Seurat, 1884

 

Elégante de profil au Bal Mabille, 1888

 

And there she is again, Grandma’s little art lover!

I saved Camille Pissarro for last because I’ve fallen deeply in love  with his paintings, especially  the early works. This just happened – honestly! Here are several:

Road in a Forest, 1859

 

Paisaje tropical con casas rurales y palmeras, 1853

 

Entrée du village de Voisins, 1872

 

Two women chatting by the sea, 1856

To me, there is something magical about these two women. I imagine they are talking over some small, mundane matter as they stand by the sea, bathed in the calm and beautiful sunshine. Some time ago I titles a post  about the art of Vermeer, ‘Quotidian moment, frozen in time.’ The same phrase might be applied, I think, to this painting.

In these works, Pissarro shows an almost uncanny way of capturing light, especially sunlight at a certain time of day. In 1885, he began studying With Seurat and Signac, adopting for a time their Divisionist technique:

La Récolte des Foins, Eragny (1887)

Pretty, but I rue the absence of that special light. At any rate, after a few short years, Pissarro abandoned the neo-Impressonist style, claiming that

‘It was impossible to be true to my sensations and consequently to render life and movement, impossible to be faithful to the effects, so random and so admirable, of nature, impossible to give an individual character to my drawing, [that] I had to give up,’

[From John Rewald’s biography of Pissarro, quoted in the Wikipedia entry.]

The artists of the petit boulevard frequently painted and drew one another:

Émile Bernard by Toulouse-Lautrec, 1886

 

Paul Signac, by Georges Seurat, 1890

The above portrait is executed in conté-crayon, defined in Wikipedia as  “a drawing medium composed of compressed powdered graphite or charcoal mixed with a wax or clay base, square in cross-section.” The entry goes on to further elucidate:

They were invented in 1795 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté, who created the combination of clay and graphite in response to the shortage of graphite caused by the Napoleonic Wars (the British naval blockade of France prevented import). Conté crayons had the advantage of being cost-effective to produce, and easy to manufacture in controlled grades of hardness.

Van Gogh, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1887

 

Henri de Toulouse-Laurec by Louis Anquetin, 1886

Although Toulouse-Lautrec painted numerous different scenes and portraits, his fame rests largely on his depictions of the patrons and the performers at the Moulin Rouge:

Bal au Moulin Rouge

And here it is, brought to vivid, joyous life in the 1952 film Moulin Rouge. Watch carefully: About a third of the way in, you’ll see Toulouse-Lautrec’s hands sketching the scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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British Royalty: an AAUW Readers discussion

July 21, 2018 at 4:16 pm (Anglophilia, Book clubs, books)

Inspired by the recent wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry,, we members of AAUW Readers decided to read up on the British royal family. Here’s how the meeting went:

  That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, by Anne Sebba (recommended by Barbara). Just when everyone thought that the subject of Wallis Warfield Simpson had been done to death, along came Sebba’s book, replete with new and intriguing revelations.

I was reminded of a memorable scene described by Selina Hastings in her biography of Somerset Maugham. The year is 1936. Four men are seated a table, hunched over a radio – perhaps I should say “wireless,” this being England – listening to the abdication of speech of Edward VIII. One of the men is Maugham; the identity of two others I don’t recall; the identity of the fourth man was Graham Greene. (Oh, right: I should have designated him The Third Man.)

  Referring to Victoria, the PBS Masterpiece production, Pat filled us in on the culinary aspects of Victoria’s reign, especially as regards Charles Elmé Francatelli,  her chef from 1840 to 1842. I had never heard of this person, but I should have. His books, or versions of them, are available on Amazon. Some of the texts are available online, at Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, and other locations. (See the Wikipedia entry for links to these.)

From The Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s and Butler’s Assistant (1861), here is a recipe for “The Stock Pot:”

Place in a well tinned stock pot, capable of containing about eight gallons, about ten pounds of leg or shin of beef, and an equal weight of knuckles of veal, cut into pieces; to these add the carcass of an old hen and a knuckle of ham; moisten with two quarts of broth or water; set the stock-pot on the fire to boil down sharply until the liquid has become reduced to a glaze .

The heat must then be slackened by placing ashes upon the fire in order to abate its fierceness, so as to allow the glaze to attain a light-brown colour, with out its being burnt and carbonized: if this latter accident happen, it tends considerably to diminish the stomachic qualities and flavour of the stock or consommé.

As soon as the consolidation of the glaze is effected, make up the fire, fill up the stock-pot, and when it boils, skim it thoroughly; after which garnish with six carrots, four onions, three turnips, four leeks, two heads of celery, and an onion in which twelve cloves have been stuck; season with three ounces of salt, and having allowed the stock to continue gently boiling for about five hours, remove the grease from its surface; and then proceed to strain it through a sieve into clean pans for use, as will be directed hereafter.

Charles Elmé Francatelli

Queen Victoria was the subject of several of the group’s selections:

 

Jean recommended Victoria and Albert: A Royal Love Affair, by Daisy Goodwin  and Sara Sheridan, while Sharon favored Her Little Majesty: The Life of Queen Victoria, by Carolly Erickson. Caroline brought We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals, by Gillian Gill. Debbie’s recommendation was Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise of Britain’s Greatest Monarch by Kate Williams

Queen Elizabeth II came in for several mentions. Marge recommended Queen and Country: The Fifty-Year Reign of Elizabeth II, by William Shawcross, while Debbie favored Young Elizabeth: The Making of the Queen by Kate Williams.

You’ll note that two of the recently mentioned titles were authored by Kate Williams. Williams comes trailing numerous accolades from academia (including a PhD from Somerville College, Oxford, alma mater of Dorothy L. Sayers, Iris Murdoch, and numerous additional women of note); she is also a frequent TV commentator (see YouTube). Her biography of Emma Hamilton, the mistress of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, was a great read.

Suzanne recommended the following three titles:

The Royal Family: A Year by Year Chronicle of the House of Windsor, Paragon Books. I had a chance to page through this briefly; the pictures are gorgeous.

Figures in Silk by Vanora Bennett is a novel set in 15th century England. Main characters are John Lambert, a silk merchant with marriageable daughters, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who aspires to be king.

A Short History of England, by Simon Jenkins. Now this one looked familiar to me, so I began searching for it in one of my vast book repositories and lo! It was there. Yet another enticing volume, patiently waiting to be read.

To the right of A Short History of England can be seen additional titles by Sir Simon, plus three titles by my brother, Richard S. Tedlow   (and some health items that sneaked into the picture.)

  I began by recommending Restoration by Rose Tremain and film by the same name. Tremain’s wonderfully vivid and involving novel of late 17th century England centers on one of Charles II’s many peccadilloes and a hapless doctor, Robert Merivel, who is ensnared by  the King’s scheming. I remember really loving the film when it first came out. This trailer, however, makes it appear somewhat over the top, in several respects. It’s got a terrific cast, though, and might be enjoyable viewing, if one is in the mood for it:

 

   To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape, by Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer and younger brother of Princess Diana. The book got off to a slow start but picked up steam fairly quickly, until I didn’t want to read anything else until I’d finished it. Charles’s great escape actually consists of several escapes, made possible by his loyal followers and often just barely succeeding. The forces of Oliver Cromwell hunted the Royalists relentlessly, but Charles and company always manages to stay a step ahead of them. I already knew the general outline of the story, but Spencer puts you right in the thick of events in a breathtaking way. Great story, great book.

 

 

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‘It was just that in her own mind the house itself was tainted by something evil right at its heart.’

July 18, 2018 at 11:59 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Just a quick word on this one. Although I read this mystery a while ago, I don’t want to miss the chance to recommend it to my fellow crime fiction fans.

On a remote corner of the Isle of Skye, in Scotland, Human Face has its headquarters. This is a charity that provides aid and comfort to Third World Children. For Beatrice Lacey, Human Face represents a passionate and powerful commitment. Co-founded and funded by herself, it takes its name from “The Divine Image,” a poem by William Blake:

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Beatrice’s other great passion is for Adam Carnegie, Human Face’s other founder. Adam is a manipulative user and a guileful charmer, but Beatrice, overweight, ungainly, and filled with thwarted yearning, sees him solely through the eyes of (hopeless) love.

Other forces are at work, both within the house that serves as Human Face’s headquarters and on the larger island itself. An unexplained disappearance occasions police involvement. There’s worse to come.

For its mixture of fully developed and engaging characters along with vividness of setting, I give Human Face high marks. And the writing by Aline Templeton, an author new to me, is excellent:

In the city there was always ambient light and Kelso was uncomfortable in darkness like this: it had an intense, almost physical presence. It seemed to wrap itself about you till the air itself felt thick and smothering. There were no stars, only a greenish pallor that was the moon, heavily veiled by cloud.

The reader will encounter some piquant Scottish locutions. Here are some examples:

The word teuchter is used by those in Lowland areas of Scotland to describe those from the Highlands, specifically those in rural areas who speak Gaelic. More loosely, the term is used for a country-dweller.

From the newspaper The Scotsman

Laldy
 To give it Laldy means to do anything with great gusto or to get laid in to someone big style whether physically or verbally.Ye shooda seen big Effie it the karaoke,she wiz geein it laldy aw night.

From TalkingScot.com

Scunner: The first definition is something that disgusts, or causes dislike, for example his attitude fair scunners me. The second usage describes the actual feeling of disgust or dislike. It’s unclear whether some definitions of this word stem from the word ‘sickener’ or whether the similarities in pronunciation and meaning are coincidental. The final definition is used for someone or something who causes the dislike or disgust, such as It’s a right scunner that the match has been cancelled ‘cause of the weather.’ This particular word is used widely, with the original meaning – to shrink back, or recoil – falling by the wayside somewhat, in preference for the more generic term we know today.

From The Scotsman

Then there’s the strange phenomenon known as a Brocken spectre. This is originally a German term rather than a Scottish one, but one can imagine that it’s a concept that that the Scots, with their rich folkloric tradition, might be receptive to. At one point in the novel, Beatrice is terrified by the sight of this eerie manifestation in the nearby mountains, but her friend Vicky, who has also seen it, explains it to her thus:

‘It’s a sort of light effect when there’s fog and the sun comes up…. It’s your own shadow and you move, it does too.’

Here’s a visual, from the Wikipedia entry:

A semi-artificial Brocken spectre created by standing in front of the headlight of a car, on a foggy night. [Photographed by Bob Blaylock]

I owe thanks to Carol from the Usual Suspects group for this fine recommendation.

 

 

 

 

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A Famine of Horses: a book discussion

July 16, 2018 at 12:24 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

Somehow I managed to work myself up into quite a state for this book discussion. There always seemed to be more research that needed to be done, more questions needing to be answered, more tangled webs to untangle…. In the end, though, I was really please with how it went. This is mostly because the group members were simply outstanding. They caught the  ball and ran with it. I didn’t have many discussion questions prepared and as it turned out, for the most part, I didn’t need them.

I began, in the usual way, with author information. P.F. Chisholm is a nom de plume  for Patricia Finney. Born in London in 1958, Finney attended Wadham College, Oxford, earning a B.A. degree  and graduating with honors. According to Biography in Context, she has had an extremely varied work life, having worked as a journalist, a medical magazine editor, hospital administrator, scriptwriter, entrepreneur, and – most intriguing – a “property empress.”

Patricia Finney

(The above information was gleaned from an entry in the Biography in Context database. I highly recommend this research tool, although, at least on the local library’s website, you have jump through several hoops to get to it.)

Along with this wide ranging work experience, Finney’s abiding passion, from youth onward, was for storytelling. I shared  with the group this story, recounted on her blog:

One of my first memories is of being in hospital to have my tonsils out, aged 5 (they did tonsillectomies on youngsters with more enthusiasm then). I was doing what I always did to get to sleep, when a nurse came to me and asked if I was having a bad dream. No, I told her with withering patronage, I was telling a story about a hamster. Why was I shouting, she wanted to know? Because the hamster was being silly and trying to jump out of his balloon basket without his rocket pack and I was warning him. She told me to stop telling stories at once and be quiet. She went away rather hurriedly.

I then moved on to the historical background for the novel. During the late 1590s, the time of A Famine of Horses, the north of England near the Scottish border was a land of lawlessness and depredation. Lawlessness might not be the correct  term: the Borderers did have a sort of homegrown legal system. It was based primarily on tit for tat, an eye  for an eye, thieving and reiving and cattle rustling and endless retribution among powerful warlike clans: the Elliots, the Grahams, the Nixons, and the seemingly always belligerent and bellicose Armstrongs.

(The Debatable Land was an area in the border country that seemed to belong simultaneously to everyone and no one. It served as a haven for outlaws and for “broken men,” those who had no declared allegiance to a particular lord or sovereign power.)

Patricia Finney has cited her reading of Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser as the inspiration for this series. That book contains a wonderful sentence that boldly sets the scene:

The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.

That about sums it up, sure enough. Consideration of the enormous contributions in the spheres of literature, science, medicine, philosophy, etc. made by both England and Scotland over the past centuries is enough to convince anyone that these two small nations have consistently punched well above their weight.

Sir Robert Carey, Chisholm’s chief protagonist in Famine and throughout this series was an actual historical personage. He served at the court of Queen Elizabeth and later, at his Sovereign’s request, as Warden of the Border country, where his efforts to institute the rule of law were eventually proven effective.

Sir Robert’s father, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, was a  favorite cousin of the Queen’s. His mother Mary Boleyn was sister to the Queen’s ill-fated mother, Anne Boleyn. Mary was married twice, but she was also, for a time, mistress to Henry VIII. She supposedly bore him two children, although he acknowledged neither of them.

Carey returned to London in 1603 as Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and her life, were coming to an end. Most importantly, his written memoirs have come down to us. They provide a first hand, eyewitness account of the Queen’s passing:

When I came to court I found the Queen ill disposed; and she kept to her inner lodging; yet she, hearing of my arrival, sent  for me. I found her in one of her withdrawing  chambers, sitting low upon her cushions. She called me to her: I kissed her hand, and told her it was my chiefest happiness to see her in safety and in health, which I wished might long continue. She took me by the hand, and wrung it hard, and said, “No, Robin, I am not well,” and then discoursed with me of her indisposition, and that her heart had been sad and heavy for ten or twelve days, and in her discourse  she fetched not so few as forty of fifty great sighs.

Carey found these sighs particularly disconcerting; he hadn’t heard her sigh like that, he averred, since the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots.

Upon retiring, Carey left word that he was to be notified immediately of the Queen’s death. And so it came to pass, in the middle of the night:

…I entered the gate, and came up to the Cofferer‘s chamber, where I found all the ladies weeping bitterly.

Queen Elizabeth: the Ditchley Portrait

There follows a narration of the exploit for which Sir Robert Carey is best known: His breakneck ride north to Edinburgh to hail the Scottish King James VI as James I of England. (Just before her death, Elizabeth had declared this to be her wish in regard to her successor as ruler of England. It signified the end of the Tudor dynasty, which then gave way to the reign of the Stuart kings.)

Finally – on to A Famine of Horses. I discerned a range of  reactions to the novel among the Suspects. Several were put off by the author’s use of antiquated vocabulary. Terms like dag (early firearm type), caliver (a standardized arquebus), collops (slices of beef), and cramoisie (crimson) were found, understandably, to be bewildering. Others, however, maintained that their meaning, at least generally speaking, could be determined from the context in which they appeared. I admit that I was in that second group. I failed utterly to perceive that the vocabulary used in the novel would serve as a stumbling block. to some readers. (This might be partly due to the fact that so much of what I read, both fiction and nonfiction, historical and contemporary, takes place in Britain.)

We all agreed that a glossary would have been very helpful. Another inclusion that would have helped is a list of the characters – who they are, how they’re related, etc. For one thing, there are a great many of them and they’re hard to keep straight. Of course, this impacts the plot, which, as the narrative progresses, becomes increasingly Byzantine.

The Kirkus review of A Famine of Horses was generally favorable, with reviewer describing the the book as “A briskly paced debut rich in spiky characters, eccentric accents, and, above all, a charismatic hero with a sense of honor and a sense of humor.” On the other hand, the Publishers Weekly reviewer was distinctly underwhelmed. That review concludes thus:

Chisholm’s short digressions on the new concept of due process are thoughtful but blunted by archaic terms. And Carey, an upright courtier with the gift of guile, remains too distant, never fully retaining the reader’s sympathies.

That last sentence left me scratching my head. Did this reviewer read the same book I read? In Patricia Finney’s introduction to the year 2000 paperback edition (published by Poisoned Pen Press), she confesses that she’s fallen “hook, line and sinker, for the elegant and charming Sir Robert Carey.” I felt the same way.

Sir Robert Carey, First Earl of Monmouth

Our discussion ranged freely over various aspects of this book. Frank mentioned the fear felt by ordinary people when venturing out alone, especially at night. Marge said that there was a fair amount of humor in the novel, more, at any rate, than she had expected to encounter. She also reminded us of another historical novelist whom we’ve read enjoyed: Candace Robb.

We talked about the way in which details of clothing and food add greatly to the novel’s verisimilitude. And oh, the fleas! Some of us began to itch with empathy for the beleaguered characters.

I think just about everyone agreed that the plot was very complicated. It was hard not to get lost in the thicket of events, some of which seemed to careen into the narrative with sudden and unexpected force. The murder described at the book’s very outset almost seems to have  been shoved aside by the general melee. The solution almost seems hastily arrived  at, toward the very conclusion of the narrative. I had to reread that section several times to make sure I’d gotten in right. (That ending was not at all satisfactory to Pauline. She found it very dismaying.)

However, the novel has many strengths, one in particular being the creation of especially vivid female characters. Elizabeth Widdrington, Sir Robert’s (unfortunately chastely married) lady love; Janet Dodd, Henry’s fearless wife; and the wonderfully named Philadelphia Scrope, wife of the chief Warden and beloved sister to Sir Robert, will probably stay with you for a while after you’ve finished the book.

In my previous post on Famine, I recounted two of my favorite scenes. I’d like to add another. This one takes place at a banquet at Netherby, stronghold of the Earl of Bothwell:

  As the procession reached the high table and the chief men were served, the Earl stood up and threw half a breadroll at a nervous-looking priest in the corner.

“Say a grace for us, Reverend,” he shouted.

The Reverend stood up and gabbled some Latin, which was in fact a part of the old wedding service, if Carey’s feeble classical knowledge served him right. Everyone shouted Amen, bent their heads and began shovelling food into their guts as if they were half starved.

I can just see this happening. In fact, I found many scenes in Famine exceptionally rich visually. I think the book would make a great movie or television series.

Once more, thank you, Suspects. You make the effort well worthwhile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Word Is ‘Mesmerizing’

July 11, 2018 at 5:02 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Got through it in 48 hours. It may be 387 pages long (hardback, U.S. edition), but somehow it felt much shorter.

Anthony Horowitz has pulled off something very cunning in this novel: He has made himself the main character. Yes, I mean the actual Anthony Horowitz, author of the immensely popular Alex Rider series for young adults, creator of the Foyle’s War series on Masterpiece Mystery, author of the delightful Magpie Murders, and plenty more.

Oh – and by the way, it’s now Anthony Horowitz, OBE.

The novel opens with a very odd chain of events. A woman, Diana Cowper, visits an undertaker with the purpose of planning her own funeral. That in itself is not so very unusual. What is unusual is that six hours later, she is found dead – unquestionably murdered (as Paula Zahn would say – with special emphasis – on her program On the Case) in her own home!

One of the persons tasked with doing the detecting in this case is Daniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne is a former policeman, having left the force under a cloud. But his skills are such that he is retained by the force from time to time as a consulting detective.

Hawthorne, not short of a certain egotistical self-regard, wants a book to be written about his exploits. He requires, therefore, a recorder equal to the task; an accomplished writer who will shadow him as he investigates but who will not  intrude on the investigative process. Who better than Anthony Horowitz? He it is that narrates the events of the novel in the first person.

Sound like another pair you may have encountered in your reading of classic crime fiction? I assure you, that is not a coincidence. Poor Anthony, though: He cannot resist asking what he believes to be perceptive questions in the course of various interviews. Almost invariably, said questions are adjudged to be intrusive, or even detrimental to the proceedings by Daniel Hawthorne. This exasperates Hawthorne, but it exasperates Anthony even more. After all, he – Anthony – is accustomed to thinking himself superior in perceptiveness and intellect. Who does this Hawthorne person think he is, to be denigrating the Great Author in this way?

In the course of the narrative, one encounters flashes of wit from time to time. At one point, Hathrone and Anthony encounter the official investigator, Detective Inspector Meadows, at yet another crime scene. D.I. Meadows orders Hawthorne to vacate the premises. “And take Agatha Christie here with you.”

Horowitz reacts thus:

He meant me. Agatha Christie is something of a  hero of mine but I was still offended.

In The Word Is Murder, you will not find lyrical description, lengthy expository passages, ruminations on the evils of mankind. What you will find is a plot that moves at breakneck speed, pulling the reader inescapably along.

Observing me turning up in various places through the house, oblivious of all except the text before me, my husband commented that this must surely the ideal summer read. I agree. Great fun, and highly recommended, for any season, actually.

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“In Okahumpka, he was known as the boy on the bike.” – Beneath a Ruthless Sun, by Gilbert King

July 1, 2018 at 9:40 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

This is the story of Lake County, Florida, in the mid twentieth century. It is a powder keg of a place where the corrupt law enforcement apparatus was controlled by a ruthless, pitiless sheriff named Willis McCall.

Sheriff Willis McCall, center, with two of his deputies

McCall presides over a process whereby Jesse Daniels, a slow and unworldly nineteen-year-old who spends most of his time bicycling around the tiny town of Okahumpka, is made to take  the blame for the rape of Blanche Knowles, a wife and mother from a socially prominent family. From this basic cast, King’s narrative expands outward to encompass numerous individuals hapless enough to catch the eye of the sheriff, as well as those who fought him any way they could (and there were not many safe ways in which to do this).

Location of Lake County, Florida, in red.

Oh and by the way, I say of Jesse Daniels that he was “made to take the blame’ rather than being convicted because initially, he was never tried. Instead, he was declared insane and sent to the Florida Asylum for the Indigent Insane, now know simply as the Florida State Hospital,  in Chattahoochee. If you’re imagining a place of sheer awfulness right out of a film shocker, you’d  be about right.

As this saga commences, Jesse Daniels was a gentle, loving soul, an only child with devoted parents. He was not insane but rather developmentally disabled. He had committed no criminal act. Yet he spent fourteen years in Chattahoochee.

(Another famous inmate of this notorious institution, also in the 1950s, was Ruby McCollum, whose case was written about so memorably by Zora Neale Hurston.)

Both Blanche Knowles and Jesse Daniels were white. The Knowles family had money and status; the Daniels family had neither. Pearl Daniels had suffered repeated miscarriages before having Jesse. Pearl’s husband Charles, Jesse’s father, a veteran of the First World War, was functionally illiterate and beset with arthritis and other adverse health conditions. He was unable to work.

As I was reading this book, I was experiencing many emotions: astonishment, dismay, and anger were just a few of  them. But reading about Pearl Daniels evoked feelings of almost unbearable sadness. Here was a woman for whom almost nothing in life had gone smoothly, who possessed so  little of material value. But the one thing she did prize above all else was her son Jesse.

Pearl Daniels and her son Jesse

Pearl never stopped fighting for Jesse. And in this fight she was aided and supported by a most extraordinary woman. At the time she enters this story, Mabel Norris Reese, later Chesley, was the editor of a small weekly newspaper, the Mount Dora Topic. (Her husband Paul Reese had bought the paper in 1947.) From the start, Reese was relentless in her effort to free Jesse Daniels. By means of her fiery editorials, she went after Sheriff McCall and the corrupt minions who carried out his orders. (A historian of the paper refers to one of them as “McCall’s right-hand thug.”) She was treading in dangerous territory. Her dog was poisoned. She received death threats. Her house was firebombed. Nothing stopped her.

Reading her editorials on microfilm at the library in Eustis, I didn’t know what was odder, Reese’s willingness to take on a fight no one else cared to get into, or that her struggle with such a venomous foe was wedged it inbetween innumerable reports on the everyday — city council meetings, oak tree plantings, bass fishing, library events, shuffleboard results, Easter services, rosy copy about the city’s fine weather (intended to lure the northern visitor), prep sports, performances the local theater, election politics, engagement announcements, “East Town News” (goings-on in the city’s black neighborhood), car crashes and farm reports. She reported on it all, sold all the ads, too. She didn’t quit her day-job obligation to cover her community while at the same time challenging it to live up to the highest standards.

From A History of Mount Dora’s News (2), by David Cohea

Eventually, because of financial strain and the danger of their position in the town, it became impossible for Mabel and Paul Reese to continue to put out the Mount Dora Topic. The marriage cracked under the strain. Mabel remarried, moved to Daytona Beach, and joined the staff of the Daytona Beach News. Her efforts to seek justice continued. She died in 1995, at the age of 80.

Mabel Norris Reese

Woven around the story of Jesse Daniels are numerous other crime narratives, most involving African Americans. They are painful to read. The depth of the racist sentiment is simply appalling. It was exacerbated by the changes being wrought by the Civil Rights Movement. The subtitle of  this book is ‘A True Story of  Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found.’ Found, that is, if you believe that justice delayed – in Jesse Daniels’s case long delayed – is still justice.

My heart ached as I read this book. At the same time I was mesmerized by it. I had to keep reminding myself of the quotation from Martin Luther King:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

(For an interesting backgrounder on this quote, click here.)

Beneath a Ruthless Sun was preceded by Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. Published in 2012, this book tells the story of four young black men accused of raping a white woman in Lake County Florida, in 1949. Thurgood Marshall was their defending attorney. Beneath a Ruthless Sun is in a sense a follow-up to that first narrative. Gilbert King refers to the events told therein several times. While it’s not necessary to have read Devil in the Grove first, I rather wish that I had.

Devil in the Grove won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2013. I’d love to see Beneath a Ruthless Son receive a similar accolade.

[My family lived in Miami Beach, Florida, from 1953 to 1962, when I went north to college. Miami Beach was an oddly insular community, largely composed of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and Russia, their children – such as my parents – and their grandchildren – such as my brothers and myself. If there was any awareness of what was going on in Lake County, it was not, to the best of my recollection, communicated to us children.]

In 2007, Willis McCall’s son Douglas said of his father: “He was a son of the old South,” adding that “He was investigated more times than the Kennedy assassination and they never found anything.” Oh, but there was plenty to find, if one only knew where to look (and then how to impanel an impartial jury to hear the  evidence and judge accordingly).

 

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Working on A Famine of Horses while finishing the latest Bill Slider novel

June 28, 2018 at 2:05 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  My choice for the next Usual Suspects mystery discussion is A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm. I like this book mainly because of the way it brings a distant time so vividly to life. One way Chisholm does this is by weaving particulars about dress, food, and other specifics into a narrative that has an actual historical personage as its hero. I refer to Sir Robert Carey, cousin to Queen Elizabeth I – His father, Lord Hunsdon, was the son of Mary Boleyn, sister to the ill-fated Anne, Elizabeth’s mother.

Sir Robert Carey, First Earl of Monmouth, circa 1591

The historical Sir Robert Carey’s main claim to fame is his breakneck horseback journey in 1603 from London to Edinburgh. His purpose: To inform King James VI of Scotland that he was now King James I of England:

When the Queen died at Richmond Palace Lady Scrope threw the blue ring from a casement window to her brother. Carey, who had previously told King James that he would be the first man to bring the news, set off immediately for London and from there started his epic ride to Edinburgh. He completed the journey in less than three days, and on his way caused King James to be proclaimed by his brother (the governor) at Berwick upon Tweed, the strongest fortress on the road from Scotland. On arrival at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, he hailed King James as King of England and Scotland.

From The Great North Ride

P.F. Chisholm’s prose style is uniquely suited to the time and place of which she writes. It helps cast a spell; I feel transported to that era. One of my favorite of her locutions occurs when she’s describing Sir Robert’s fast-growing goatee as “invading upland pastures.”

Then there’s the passage in which he strives to convey to Henry Dodd, his second-in-command, the flavor of the language used by those who wish to survive at the Queen’s court:

“Well,” he said consideringly, “a scurvy Scotsman might say she is a wild old bat who knows more of governorship and statecraft than the Privy Councils of both realms put together, but I say she is like Aurora in her beauty, her hair puts the sun in splendour to shame, her face holds the heavens within its compass and her glance is like the falling dew.”

Dodd, astonished by this recitation, asks if all the courtiers are required to speak in this manner. Sir Robert replies with unaccustomed bluntness:

“If they want to keep out of the Tower, they do.”

Queen Elizabeth I, the Darnley portrait, circa 1575

My favorite scene in Famine is one in which the characters move seamlessly from discussing a murder investigation – the killing of one Sweetmilk Graham –  to making music together:

“And then,” continued Carey, as he dug in a canvas bag for the latest madrigal sheets he had carried with him faithfully from London, “there’s where he put the body. After all, Solway field’s a very odd place. The marshes or the sea would give him a better chance of the body never being found. It’s almost as if he couldn’t think of anywhere else. And how did Swanders come by the horse?”

“Killed Sweetmilk?” asked Henry Widdrington, picking up one of the sheets and squinting at it. “

“Not Swanders. He doesn’t own a dag. A knife in the ribs would be more his mark. Can you take the bass part?”

Henry Widdrington whistled at the music. “I can try.”

Meanwhile Lord Scrope, Chief Warden and husband to Sir Robert’s sister Philadelphia, is hard at work tuning the virginals in a corner of the room they’re currently occupying. Scrope may be a lackluster administrator, but he’s a genuine music lover and an excellent keyboardist.

And so, they’re off and singing! The effect they’re striving for would have sounded something like this:

or, more informally, this (‘O Eyes of My Beloved’ by Orlando di Lasso – such a beautiful song!):

(Now in my youth, I sang with a madrigal group, and I can tell you from experience, it’s a fiendishly tricky business for nonprofessionals.)

Another way in which Chisholm strives to achieve authenticity is through liberal use of vocabulary appropriate to the times. Here I must insert a caveat. Words such as Cramoisie and dag do not trip lightly off the tongue of a modern reader. The author does not provide a glossary; I rather wish that she had. Even a few footnotes at the bottom of the page would have been helpful. The degree to which this is a problem will of course vary from reader to reader. (I put together a brief glossary for my fellow Suspects. It’s available upon request!)

A Famine of Horses is the first in a series that at present comprises eight novels. I have read all of them. In the main, they are quite entertaining. I thought A Murder of Crows (2010) rather sub par, to the extent that I had trouble finishing it. On the other hand, I found A Chorus of Innocents (2015), a real triumph and, in my opinion, the best series entry since the series itself began. A Suspicion of Silver, entry number nine, is due out in December of this year. (P.F. Chisholm is a pseudonym used by Patricia Finney, a writer of historical fiction and children’s books.)

Another series of which I’m inordinately fond is the Bill Slider series written by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. These novels have the same sparkling irreverence and wit that I prize in the Sir Robert Carey novels. The latest, which I just finished, is entitled Shadow Play.

The dialog that characterized Slider’s team is often quite delightful. To wit:

“I’ve never been there,” Atherton said. “Don’t need to. It’s a totally justified irrational prejudice based on subliminal impressions gained over a lifetime.”

“I wish you came with subtitles,” Loessop complained.

And I love this description of a top speed race to capture a suspect on the run, so dizzying it’s positively cinematic:

It was a glorious, adrenalin-fueled chase, through the narrow streets of Soho, dodging the evening revellers and the crawling traffic; down Wardour Street, left into Noel, left again into Poland, across Broadwick Street, into Lexington. Onlookers stepped helpfully out of the way, even when LaSalle shouted, ‘Police!’ In the old days someone would have stuck out a foot. Loessup began to fall behind, but LaSalle had long legs. Where were the two men carrying a sheet of glass, the tottering stack of cardboard  boxes, the young mother pushing a pram, when you needed them?

Having just finished the twentieth installment of the adventures of Bill Slider and company, I find myself so enamored of this series that I’m thinking of going back to the beginning and starting it all over again!

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