And who. pray tell, is Inspector Chopra? The creation of author Vaseem Khan, Inspector Ashwin Chopra is a self-effacing, rigorously upright member of the Mumbai Police Department. On the day that we meet him, he’s in the process of retiring after a long and distinguished career.
True, he can do this officially and physically, but from a psychological and emotional standpoint, police work is in his blood. He cannot stop himself. No sooner has he cleared out his office than he begins, on his own, to investigate the mysterious death of a boy. Although ruled accidental, Chopra becomes increasingly convinced that it was murder – a murder that’s being too conveniently swept under the rug.
Ashwin Chopra and his wife Poppy live in an apartment block in Mumbai. Early in the novel, a baby elephant arrives to disrupt their rather simple existence. It seems that this lovable but somewhat depressed creature has been left to Chopra in the will of his recently deceased uncle. Part of the fun of The Unexpected Inheritance lies in watching Poppy and Chopra attempting to cope with this rather cumbersome legacy. At one point, “Baby Ganesh” ends up actually inside the Chopra’s apartment!
Ashwin and Poppy are extremely appealing individuals; even more so, the city of Mumbai itself can be considered a character in this novel. Chopra has much to say about the city he loves, and indeed, generally speaking, about his native country in its present incarnation. Upon visiting a mall filled with high end luxury goods, these are his thoughts:
Chopra did not need Van Heusen and Louis Philippe shirts, he had no use for Apple accessories and Ray Ban sunglasses. Sometimes it seemed to him that the whole country was being rebranded. He imagined the lines of Indians moving past booths manned by representatives of foreign multinationals as each Indian went past he was stripped of his traditional clothes, his traditional values, and given new things to wear and new things to think. Branded and rewired, this new model of Indian went back to his home thinking that he was now a truly modern Indian and what a fine thing that was, but all Chopra saw was the gradual death of the culture that had always made him proud of his incredible country.
That sounds rather gloomy and heavy, but this novel is for the most part optimistic, if cautiously, and even at times humorous.
In the biography on his website, London-born Vaseem Khan tells how when, arriving in Mumbai in 1997 to work as a management consultant, he beheld an elephant walking down the middle of the road. This amazing vision…”served as the inspiration behind my Baby Ganesh series of light-hearted crime novels.” Khan concludes his biographical sketch thus:
Elephants are third on my list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, not always in that order.
(For the complete biography, click here.)
Just for fun, to get you in the mood for things Indian, here’s one of my favorite music videos, the manically cheerful and riotously colorful “Kal Ho Naa Ho – Maahi Ve:”
Last February, I wrote a post in which I expressed my disappointment in A Murder of Crows, then the latest installment in P.F. Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey series. I was not sure that I wanted to read A Chorus of Innocents, the novel following that one. Then I saw the Kirkus review, in which the writer concludes with this assessment:
One of Chisholm’s best Elizabethan mysteries… combining all the historical information readers have come to expect with a swiftly moving story featuring a strong woman whose romantic aspirations have yet to be fulfilled.
The strong woman in question is Lady Elizabeth Widdrington. In A Chorus of Innocents, she is determined to solve a murder that smites her sense of justice deeply. It is more or less unheard of that a woman, even – or especially – a noble woman, should involve herself in a murder investigation, but such considerations do not weigh greatly with Lady Widdrington.
She has the great misfortune to be married to a thoroughly nasty man who beats her and refuses to share her bed. The same unbending rectitude that impels her to pursue the malefactor in this case also governs her behavior as a wife. She believes she must submit to her husband because he is her lord. Unlike many women of her rank, she is without exception faithful to her spouse, no matter how odious his treatment of her. What makes this situation especially remarkable, not to mention painful, is that she is deeply in love with another man, Sir Robert Carey, and he, equally with her. Sir Robert serves in Queen Elizabeth’s court when he’s in London and serves as Deputy Warden of one of the Marches located in the border country between England and Scotland. (This is an altogether tough region to police; it very much reminds of the early days of the American West.)
P.F Chisholm is on record as having taken her inspiration for this series of novels from her reading of The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser. I’ve only read the first few pages of this book, but I hit almost at once upon this quote:
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.
Chisholm’s depiction of this clash of civilizations is robust and amazingly vivid and convincing. She writes terrific dialog, redolent of the speech patterns and eccentric vocabulary of those who dwell in the border regions. They are as lively and irreverent a gang of folk as I’ve met in a long time, or perhaps ever. Religion is invariably a hot topic in these parts, and in the midst of a debate over the afterlife, this view is offered to Elizabeth:
“….all the borderers go to hell; it’s warmer there and better company.”
Quite naturally, she can’t think how to reply and so remains silent.
Throughout this novel, times of intense activity and excruciating suspense alternate with moments of tenderness and heartache. Along the way there is a good deal of humor, though mostly laced with irony and sometimes even bitterness. The Kirkus reviewer is right on the mark: this is outstanding historical fiction.
A Chorus of Innocents is the sixth entry in the Sir Robert Carey series. As I’ve read the five previous titles, I’m undecided as to whether a reader can begin here, or whether it’s needful to go back to the first book, A Famine of Horses. That novel was similarly wonderful; the three immediately following were enjoyable rather than stellar, and the fifth, as I’ve already said, was below par in my view.
So, Reader, it’s up to you. Whatever you do, don’t miss the series opener and this latest installment. You will be amply rewarded by both.
Last Thursday’s AAUW Readers planning session was most enjoyable and productive. Here are some of the highlights:
As she was not able to come, Susan suggested via email that we read Richard Russo’s EVERYBODY’S FOOL. This is the “rollicking sequel” (as per The Seattle Times) to NOBODY’S FOOL from 1993. The latter was made into a film starring Paul Newman, of blessed memory. (While I’ve read neither of these titles, I do have a fond recollection of Russo’s EMPIRE FALLS.) Additionally recommended by Jean was Russo’s STRAIGHT MAN, a novel that sounds made to order for those of us who have labored, at some point in our working lives, in the groves of academe.
Barb brought WILDE LAKE by Laura Lippman. Columbia, a planned community in Maryland where most of us live and some of us work, is composed of ten villages, of which Wilde Lake (est. 1967) was one of the first (possibly THE first?). Laura Lippman graduated from Wilde Lake High School in 1977. Her novels are usually set in Baltimore, but this time, she’s brought the action back home to Howard County.
It’s safe to say that many readers in this area are eager to get their hands on this book. As of this writing, the local library has 360 reserves on it. (I’m number 165.)
Phyllis recommended THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE by Melanie Benjamin. At this suggestion, several of us chimed in enthusiastically. The Literary Ladies – another book group to which I belong – had a terrific discussion of this title last month. Click here for a brief review and some striking photographs of a bygone era.
My recommendations were as follows:
THE INVENTION OF NATURE: ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT’S NEW WORLD, by Andrea Wulf: An amazing book about a great scientist and a true visionary. Essential reading for anyone who cares about the environment, science, botany, conservation – anything related to the natural world. Beautifully written and fascinating from beginning to end. (I’m gushing, I know, but I can’t help it.)
DEEP SOUTH: FOUR SEASONS ON THE BACK ROADS, by Paul Theroux. After a lifetime of fruitful laboring in the vineyard of literature, Theroux may now have written his masterpiece. Sick of dealing with airplanes and airports, he got in his car and drove to points south – deep south, primarily Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. His goal was to see how the people in these places were faring. What he found was poignant, heartbreaking, and at times inspiring.
For me, reading DEEP SOUTH was both an exalting and a humbling experience. How could I have been so oblivious to the pain and the vitality inherent these lives, in this vast swath of the country which is theirs as much as it is mine? He made me want to go there.
THE NATURE OF THE BEAST by Louise Penny. Penny’s Three Pines mysteries don’t always work for me. The denizens of this strangely obscure village seem overly precious at times, except for the nasty poet Ruth and her pet duck, who veer in quite the opposite direction. In this particular series outing, all of these characters and more get tangled up in a truly Byzantine plot. Nevertheless, it’s an absorbing read, and it’s based on a highly unusual, not to say bizarre, true story. (Gentle hint to this author: Could you possibly make more sparing use of the expletive “G-d damn?” Maybe it jumped out at me repeatedly the way it did because I was listening to the audiobook.)
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout was suggested by Rosemarie, who also mentioned THE MORNING THEY CAME FOR US: DISPATCHES FROM SYRIA by Janine di Giovanni. LUCY BARTON looks good – not least because it’s blessedly short – but I have to admit that Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE, beloved by book clubs and awards committees, left me cold. Rarely have I encountered a drearier, more humorless cast of characters! (On the other hand the film, with Frances McDormand in the title role, was a real tour de force.)
In addition to THE NATURE OF THE BEAST and WILDE LAKE, two other crime and suspense novels were mentioned at our meeting. Dottie suggested MALICE by the Japanese crime writer Keigo Higashino. (The Usual Suspects discussed THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X by this same author as part of our “international mystery” year in 2015. Most of us were favorably impressed by it.) And Jean brought IN A DARK, DARK WOOD, by Ruth Ware, a novel designated “a slick debut thriller” by NPR reviewer Jean Zimmerman.
Additional recommendations were as follows:
FIRST WOMEN: THE GRACE AND POWER OF AMERICA’S MODERN FIRST LADIES, by Kate Andersen Brower
WHAT YOUR BODY SAYS (AND HOW TO MASTER THE MESSAGE), by Sharon Sayler
DEGREES OF EQUALITY: THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF UNIVERSITY WOMEN AND THE CHALLENGE OF TWENTIETH CENTURY FEMINISM by Susan Levine
THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert
AHAB’S WIFE: OR, THE STAR-GAZER by Sena Jeter Naslund
WHAT JEFFERSON READ, IKE WATCHED AND OBAMA TWEETED: TWO HUNDRED YEARS OF POPULAR CULTURE IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Tevi Troy
MAESTRA by L.S. Hilton.
JEFFERSON’S SONS: A FOUNDING FATHER’S SECRET CHILDREN by Kimberly Bradley
THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE by Ann Packer
So there we were, faced with the challenge of narrowing the list down. We needed to decide on five titles for the coming year. (We meet every other month.) Lorraine’s suggestion that we put it to a vote worked extremely well. Those present could vote for multiple titles, if they so desired. We decided on the following:
THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE
I think everyone present felt that we’d generated some terrific ideas for worthwhile reading, whether for group discussion or for individual enjoyment.
I feel lucky to be a part of this articulate and passionate group of fellow book lovers. Thanks to all of you!
“None of us can tell the future,” said Gamache. It was an intentionally banal response….
“Oh, I think some can, don’t you?”
Something in his tone made Gamache refocus and give the scientist his attention. “What do you mean?”
“I mean some can predict the future because they create it,” said Rosenblatt. “Oh, not the good things. We can’t make someone love us, or even like us. But we can make someone hate us. We can’t guarantee we’ll be hired for a job, but we can make sure we’re fired.” He put down his apple cider and stared at Gamache. “We can’t be sure we’ll win a war, but we can lose one.”
From The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny
There is always a garish carnival across the boulevard. We are born, we eat and sleep, conspire and mourn, a birth, a betrayal, an excursion to the harbor, and it’s done. All of it, done.
From “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta” by Kate Braverman
(This story can also be found in Best American Short Stories 1991.)
In the silence that followed, Dodd reflected that it was always interesting to watch the way a man held a sword, providing he wasn’t facing you at the time.
From A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm (Patricia Finney)
The People in the Castle is a new collection of short stories by Joan Aiken. In her introduction to this volume, Kelly Link makes some insightful observations about the form. These came about as a result of a literary festival she attended, where she detected, on the part of certain participants, a decided negative attitude toward the short story:
The general feeling was that short stories could be difficult because their subject matter was so often grim; tragic. A novel you had time to settle into— novels wanted you to like them, it was agreed, whereas short stories were like Tuesday’s child, full of woe, and required a certain kind of moral fortitude to properly digest.
Link, herself a distinguished writer of stories, respectfully disagrees:
…. it has always seemed to me that short stories have a kind of wild delight to them even when their subject is grim. They come at you in a rush and spin you about in an unsettling way and then go rushing off again. There is a kind of joy in the speed and compression necessary to make something very large happen in a small space.
I think she’s really on to something in that last sentence. (It puts me in mind of Shakespeare’s telling locution, “a great reckoning in a little room.”) For instance, in Guy de Maupassant’s story “Looking Back,” a world of feeling opens up toward the end of a conversation between an aristocratic woman and the parish priest who has been her dinner guest. This short tale is both specific to its time and place, and universal in the poignant sensation it evokes in the reader.
I came upon this story in an unassuming little paperback anthology I picked up at an airport several years ago. Edited by Milton Crane, 50 Great Short Stories first came out in 1952; it was reissued several times subsequently, the last being in 2005. This terrific collection contains some of my favorites:
Poe’s terrifying and memorable “Masque of the Red Death”
Shirley Jackson’s iconic “The Lottery”
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” by Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite authors. Her blend of dark – very dark – humor with the apocalyptic onslaught of fate scares me senseless!
“The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. His ability to move and to disturb the reader remains undiminished over the years.
I fear that the airport bookstore is fast becoming a thing of the past. I especially lament the passing of the Hudson Bookstore at BWI (Baltimore-Washington International), a store with a carefully curated stock where I formerly loved to browse. At any rate, it appears that 50 Great Short Stories is still in print and for all I know still turns up now and again in airport outlets. I recommend it.
At the front of the book, Professor Crane asks the question, “What makes a great short story?” In response, he offers the following:
The sudden unforgettable revelation of character; the vision of a world through another’s eyes; the glimpse of truth; the capture of a moment in time….
He goes on to suggest that a short story “…can discover depths of meaning in the casual word or action; it can suggest in a page what could not be stated in a volume.” It’s instructive to reflect on precepts such as these now and again while reading the stories.
An anthology I’m particularly fond of is The Library of America’s two volume set of American Fantastic Tales. Selected by master of the genre Peter Straub, this collection features one gem after another.
From Straub’s Introduction:
For now, let us at least take note that loss, grief, and terror echo throughout the two volumes of American Fantastic Tales. If the fantastic story originates in such emotions, as I believe it does, it is constantly confessing its origins, and with helpless fervor. Gothic literature in general is inherently melancholy, and melancholy is generally its most cheerful aspect….in most of the cases here we are dealing with the gothic sensibility, the many avatars of which are riddled with isolation, loneliness, and dread.
(This eloquent exposition has put me in mind of the plight of Helen Clarvoe in Margaret Millar’s novel Beast in View.)
In point of fact, not only I have I not yet gotten to Volume Two, I have yet to get past the half way point of Volume One (Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”).
The first story is entitled “Somnambulism: A Fragment,” by Charles Brockden Brown. The tale itself is preceded by an italicized superscription which largely consists of an excerpt from the Vienna Gazette of 14 June 1784. The article relate the events of an actual crime which supposedly took place in Silesia and upon which the fictional story is based. There is some reason to doubt the veracity of this piece:
That Brown himself created this “extract” is possible. Scholars have been unable to locate this story either in the Vienna Gazette or in any of the periodical literature from that time. No one has been able to produce a copy of the article, nor has anyone been able to find for certain that the Gazette was even published in 1784….
[from Charles Brockden Brown and the Literary Magazine: Cultural Journalism in the Early American Republic, by Michael Cody, published in 2004]
From the actual short story:
All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments. Ideas haunt them in spite of all their efforts to discard them. Prepossessions are entertained, for which their reason is unable to discover any adequate cause. The strength of a belief, when it is destitute of any rational foundation, seems, of itself, to furnish a new ground for credulity. We first admit a powerful persuasion, and then, from reflecting on the insufficiency of the ground on which it is built, instead of being prompted to dismiss it, we become more forcibly attached to it.
A home truth, eloquently articulated and crucial to the feeling of dread that gradually and inexorably accrues in “Somnambulism.” (I’m reminded of Blaise Pascal‘s aphorism: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.”)
Like his novels Wieland and Edgar Huntly, Charles Brockden Brown’s fragment of fiction called “Somnambulism” is set on the American frontier between civilization and the wilderness. And as is the case with the novels, the fragment’s setting and action reaffirm Brown’s ability to use this frontier as a space for exploring ideas about an American life in transition. Within this setting, Brown utilizes some rather typical Gothic conventions—darkness of night, a young woman in danger, an unknown presence, and the like—to tell the story of a tragic murder and the search for information that hopefully will lead to the author of the crime.
[from “Sleepwalking into the Nineteenth Century: Charles Brockden Brown’s ‘Somnambulism'” by Michael Cody]
Poor Charles Brockden Brown: his life was brief and his literary renown, apparently even briefer. Yet he was arguably the forerunner of Hawthorne, Poe, and other bright literary lights. His story is immediately followed by a veritable roll call of greatest hits of early American literature:
And numerous others.
Lately, my reading in the mystery genre has been guided by these factors:
The appearance of British Library Crime Classics, which led to my reading of
Additional classics, several suggested by a Facebook group and several terrific bloggers;
Titles selected by the always discerning Usual Suspects Mystery Book Group;
Latest additions to beloved series;
Lucky strikes gleaned from perceptive reviews and recommendations.
I’ll start with the British Library’s hugely successful foray into the world of classic crime fiction. The first volume in this series, Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon, was a surprise bestseller in 2014. It’s been followed by novels and short story collections along the same lines, by which I mean early twentieth century crime fiction by authors who are not currently as well known as their Golden Age counterparts; namely Sayers, Christie, Marsh, Allingham, and Tey.
“The Crime Classics stand out against the darker crop of contemporary crime fiction and offer something a bit different. A lot of modern stuff skews closer to thriller than mystery. It has been a treat to see mystery writers such as John Bude, Mavis Doriel Hay and J Jefferson Farjeon get their due. I think that’s a credit to the British Library, which has not only done the important work of archiving this material, but now brought it to a wider audience.”
I enjoyed Mystery in White so much that I could hardly wait to read more from this series. The short story collections are especially welcome, as they provide the reader with an introduction to several of these “hidden gem” authors in one volume. So far I’ve read two in this category:
I enjoyed both so much that I selected Capital Crimes as my July discussion presentation for the Usual Suspects. It’s almost always the case with collections that some tales will stand out more than others. For me, three of the stories in the Capital Crimes anthology were especially impressive: “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole, and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White. The Walpole story led me to anthology of his tales called The Silver Thorn – an inexpensive download. I’ve only just read the first story. It’s called “The Little Donkeys with The Crimson Saddles.” Not a crime story, but a sheer delight all the same.
I knew that Ethel Lina White wrote the book on which the Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes was based. The novel’s original title is The Wheel Spins. I decided it was time to read it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read somewhere that White specialized in young heroines in danger who rise to the occasion and, with a combination of courage and perseverance, overcome the threat with which they’re confronted. Iris Carr’s story is illustrative of this scenario. I was rooting for her – sometimes anxiously – throughout!
I’ll definitely be reading more by this author. In addition to The Wheel Spins, Some Must Watch (filmed as The Spiral Staircase) and The First Time He Died have also been recommended.
Back to the British Library series for a moment: In addition to Mystery in White, I’ve so far read these three novels: . I enjoyed each of them, but I’d award top marks to Murder of a Lady for its exceptionally cunning plot, which unfolds against the backdrop of a vivid Scottish setting.
In recent months, I’ve read quite a few mysteries not included in the British Library series (or at least, not yet). I’ve already mentioned The Wheel Spins, and I’ve written about Mist in the Saltings by Henry Wade and Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham in this post.
The Usual Suspects kicked off this year’s program of discussions with Margaret Millar’s Beast in View. Both creepy and compelling, and set against the Los Angeles backdrop used so effectively by Millar’s husband Ross MacDonald, Beast in View was the Edgar Award winner for Best Novel in 1956. Helen Clarvoe is a highly nervous young woman and a virtual recluse. She’s living alone in a hotel and feeling reasonably safe until she begins receiving a series of menacing phone calls. “And from there unspools one of the most terrifying stories you will ever read.” Thus saith Laura Lippman and forsooth, she is right!
I always know that I’ve really loved a novel when I immediately want more from the same author. This was absolutely the case with The Emperor’s Snuff Box (1942) by John Dickson Carr. What a gem this is! From its atmospheric setting in rural France, its memorable cast of characters, exceptionally fine writing – well, and just about everything else you desire in quality crime fiction. Carr was well known and appreciated in his day, and in my view, it’s time for a revival of interest in his work.
Herewith, some general observations regarding the classics. I’d like to deal first with the most troubling factor; namely, the degree to which racial and ethnic slurs appear in the stories and novels of early to mid-twentieth century. (And let us acknowledge that this problem is not exclusive to crime fiction.) You can read any number of mysteries without coming across this sort of thing and then bang, there it is, jarring to say the least, especially if you’re a member of the ethnic, racial, or even gender group that’s being disparaged. In The Emperor’s Snuff Box, for instance, Carr tosses off several statements along the lines of “You know what women are.” I just sighed deeply and read on.
The worst examples that I’ve yet encountered in a crime classic occur in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. (I’m talking about the original, not the “cleaned up” version that was published in this country after the Second World War.) I know that for many Christie fans, this book is her crowning achievement. For me, it took a while after I read it to recapture my old affection for this writer. (The Miss Marple short stories were a big help there.) I’ve written in more detail on this subject in this post.
One of the reasons that the British Library’s Crime Classics initiative is so welcome is that some of the lesser known classics are now hard to obtain. Many are out of print. If you’re lucky, you’ll find an e-book download for only a few dollars. Mist on the Saltings was neither in print nor available in e-book format. I ended up getting a rather worse for wear paperback from Amazon. (It was more than worth it.) There are some small publishers who for several years now have been doing excellent work in keeping the classics in print. I’m thinking in particular of Felony and Mayhem Press and their editions of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels.
Not only are some of these older volumes a challenge to find, they’re also a challenge to identify correctly. This is also true of their authors. John Dickson Carr’s life and work nicely exemplify the occurrence of these conundrums. In addition to using his real name, Carr also wrote under the pseudonyms Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson, and Roger Fairbairn. The Hollow Man is often considered to be his finest work – but you’d best also search for it by its American title, The Three Coffins. An Amazon search by the latter title disclosed no e-book edition and edition currently in print. (A number of used copies are on offer, though, ranging in price from $3.61 to $80.02 – take your pick!)
So: back to The Hollow Man. Yes! there’s a Kindle download, and at a nice price, too. Alas, when you click on it, you get this message: “
In the course of researching this and other mystery related posts, I’ve come across some truly excellent blogs. In the past, I’ve referred to Martin Edwards’s Do You Write Under Your Own Name. His recurring feature on “Forgotten Books” offers a wealth of information and recommendations. Martin Edwards‘s steady advocacy of classic crime novels and stories has lately received well-deserved recognition. Since 1914, he’s been consultant to the British Library for their Crime Classics series. In addition, he’s the current President of the prestigious Detection Club. He’s the author of The Golden Age of Murder, a history of that organization that sheds light on its distinguished, fascinating, and sometimes elusive members. Finally, he’s the author of several fictional series and stand-alones. (I’ve particularly enjoyed the Lake District series featuring DCI Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind.)
Other blogs I’d like to recommend are as follows:
Other blog recommendations would be gratefully received by me – also more recommendations of classic mysteries! (What more proof is needed that I can never get enough?)
Recently, a discussion by the Usual Suspects of Dorothy L Sayers’s classic crime novel ranged far and wide. The plot is famously convoluted; the characters are numerous and colorful, and the depiction of a small, remote English village is vivid and evocative. And then, of course, there are those bells…
The English art of change ringing is the beating heart of The Nine Tailors. Indeed, Tailor Paul is actually the name of one of the bells rung in the parish church at Fenchurch St. Paul, the village at the center of the mystery. There is a saying, “Nine tailors make a man,” which has been construed in several ways:
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (2009), “nine tailors make a man” refers to the fact that a gentleman must select his clothing from a range of sources. However, numerous historical sources illuminate another meaning related to change ringing: the practice of ringing a death knell, or passing bell. In small villages in England the sickly or ill would be common knowledge to the people who lived within hearing of the church bell. The bell–typically the tenor, or lowest bell–would be rung to mark the death, and people could deduce who had died according to the number of times the bell sounded. Old wood carving
Local variances could be found around Britain, but the universal tolling-bell, or “teller,” to denote a deceased male was rung nine times. In many places six “tells” indicated a woman, and three indicated a child, so “nine tellers mark a man.”
You can see how the bell both “tolled” and “told” the death of someone in the village, and how over the years “teller” became “tailor” and “mark” became “make.”
Another article worth a look is “The Science of Mysteries: For Whom the Bells Toll,” part of a series that has appeared in Scientific American. The article opens with this observation: “A Twitter exchange recently revealed that certain members of the small subset of science writers who were humanities majors, also have a shared taste for classic mysteries.” Please be on the watch for the spoiler warning in this article. Wikipedia also has a detailed entry on change ringing.
Some of us also sought the aid of Wikipedia in order to get the plot of The Nine Tailors firmly fixed in our minds. Well, we had to laugh when comparing notes: we had trouble getting even that relatively lucid summary to resolve itself into something comprehensible! That of course is the point at which you decide either to give up or to enjoy other aspects of the novel. Most of us chose the latter course.
Frank, himself an aspiring author of crime fiction, is always especially interested in how plotting is handled in the books we read. He was deeply impressed with this novel, which, while complex in its structure, always plays fair with the reader. Not previously being a reader of Sayers’s works, he asked us whether all her plots were this “twisty” (good term for it). After a hasty consultation, we replied in the negative, though even the confirmed Wimsey fans among us hadn’t recently read any of the other novels in the series (although Mike, our excellent leader and an ardent fan of Sayers, led us in a discussion of Murder Must Advertise not long ago).
The Wimsey series is strangely bifurcated. Courtesy of Wikipedia, here’s a list of the eleven novels in the series, along with their publication dates. (There are also several short story collections):
- Whose Body? (1923)
- Clouds of Witness (1926)
- Unnatural Death (1927)
- The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
- Strong Poison (1931)
- Five Red Herrings (1931)
- Have His Carcase (1932)
- Murder Must Advertise (1933)
- The Nine Tailors (1934)
- Gaudy Night (1935)
- Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)
Harriet Vane first appears in Strong Poison; subsequently she appears in Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. Among other things, these books chart the course of her love affair with Lord Peter Wimsey, a course that is anything but smooth. But as the Bard is wont to remind us, that’s typical of true love, and this particular love is, despite various obstacles, strong and true and does win out in the end. In reference to Frank’s question, cited above, I wonder if the Harriet Vane novels are less intensely plotted so that Sayers can concentrate more on the evolution of the relationship.
BBC Television filmed and broadcast five of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels from 1972 to 1975. They are Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Five Red Herrings, Murder Must Advertise, and The Nine Tailors. Edward Petherbridge portrayed Wimsey in three out of four of the Harried Vane titles in 1987. (The BBC were apparently not able to secure the rights for Busman’s Honeymoon.) I’ve watched all of the episodes multiple times. I like what Wikipedia says about them:
Both sets of adaptations were critically successful, with both Carmichael and Petherbridge’s respective performances being widely praised, however both portrayals are quite different from one another: Carmichael’s Peter is eccentric, jolly and foppish with occasional glimpses of the inner wistful, romantic soul, whereas Petherbridge’s portrayal was more calm, solemn and had a stiff upper lip, subtly downplaying many of the character’s eccentricities.
From time to time, one encounters speculation that Sayers invented Harriet Vane as a surrogate for herself, so that she could become, in her imagination at least, Lord Peter’s lover. Harriet and Dorothy L. Sayers share some commonalities: both are Oxford graduates – among the earliest women to become so – and both write crime fiction. Unlike her creation, however, Sayers was never brought up on a murder charge!
There were, in fact, other good reasons for Sayers to insert Harriet Vane into the Lord Peter novels:
In creating Harriet Vane, who appears in four of the twelve Lord Peter Wimsey novels, Sayers was able to comment from within about the genre and its shortcomings, detailing Harriet’s relationships with her publisher, agent, fans, the press, and the snobbish literary scene. The personal concerns of the self-sufficient writer are expanded in Gaudy Night into a richly detailed examination of women’s education, career opportunities, and marriage prospects in a society not quite recovered from one war and sliding helplessly into the next.
From “Second Glance: Dorothy Sayers and the Last Golden Age” by Joanna Scutts, in Open Letters Monthly
I’ve frequently quoted the thoughts that Sayers ascribes to Harriet in Gaudy Night as she once again enters the precincts of Shrewsbury, her Oxford University alma mater:
They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University;… a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.
I like to think of the deep satisfaction Dorothy L Sayers must have been feeling as she typed those words.
One more thing about my revisiting of The Nine Tailors. I was struck this time by the extreme insularity of Fenchurch St Paul. It almost seemed like a village out of time, a sort of Brigadoon. (I’m currently listening to The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny, and it occurs to me that she depicts the Quebecois village of Three Pines in much the same way.)
Wimsey’s devotion to the town, its people and the unfolding of the crime opens unexpected windows onto an English culture flailing to right itself after the lingering disruptions caused by the First World War. A friend warned me I might find the novel “a little dated” when she gave me her copy this summer. It was anything but. This is literary mystery perfect for the dialogue-devotees of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. Sayers’ smart descriptions of peculiar English customs like change-ringing, and of the arcane engineering marvels that for centuries kept her East Anglia from drowning in annual spring floods, sparkle every bit as much as the affectionate portraits she paints of her characters, even those with minor roles.
From “What I’m Reading: The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L Sayers,” by Jon Nagy in Notre Dame Magazine.
Mike provided us with excellent background on Dorothy L Sayers, a brilliant woman whose life had more than its share of pain and difficulty – but, one senses, had its moments of real happiness and satisfaction as well.
If you ever have the opportunity to listen to Ian Carmichael’s reading of The Nine Tailors, you will encounter as bravura an audio performance as I’ve ever experienced. Carmichael gets the accents of the “locals” just right. He seems to be enacting numerous roles all on his own. And the drama at the novel’s climax…well, it’s just terrific.
Our group was generally positive about this novel, although quite a few of us were challenged to follow the threads of the plot. And more than one person commented that there was more than enough material on the bells. Of course Reverend Theodore Venables would undoubtedly disagree – he simply could not get enough on the subject! In the 1993 biography Dorothy L Sayers: Her Life and Soul, Barbara Reynolds observes the following concerning Sayers’s father, the Reverend Henry Sayers, MA:
Six years after his death, his unworldly and self-effacing personality was to be tenderly evoked in The Nine Tailors in the lovable character of the Reverend Theodore Venables, rector of Fenchurch St. Paul.
Sometimes you read a book that redirects your mind. An interest that hovered at the periphery is suddenly at dead center. A previously unknown artist captivates. People and places take up residence in your head, demanding attention which you grant willingly, happily.
All this and more came to me courtesy of Paul Theroux’s deeply felt, wonderfully realized travelogue.
The subtitle”Four Seasons on the Back Roads” is meaningful. Theroux had no interest in visiting places like Charleston and Savannah; rather, he wanted to see what life is like for people in the small towns that dot the landscape of Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
This happened in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, at the beginning of the author’s southern travels:
He was sitting in his car trying to determine the location of the Cornerstone Full Gospel Baptist Church. A woman in the car beside him asked if he was lost. He explained that he was a stranger, to which she replied “Ain’t no strangers here, baby.” Introducing herself as Lucille, she offered to lead him to the church. When she had done so, he thanked her. She responded with two words: “Be blessed.”
That seemed to be the theme in the Deep South: kindness, generosity, a welcome. I had found it often in my traveling life in the wider world, but I found so much more of it here that I kept going, because the good will was like an embrace. Yes, there is a haunted substratum of darkness in Southern life, and though it pulses through many interactions, it takes a long while to perceive it, and even longer to understand.
I sometimes had long days, but encounters like the one with Lucille always lifted my spirits and sent me deeper into the South, to out-of-the-way churches like the Cornerstone Full Gospel, and to places so obscure, such flyspecks on the map, they were described in the rural way as “you gotta be going there to get there.”
On the subject of traveling in America, Theroux quotes this comment by Henry James: “One’s supreme relation…was one’s relation to one’s country.” Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? And did he actually do much traveling in his native land?
At any rate, Theroux continues:
With this in mind, after having seen the rest of the world, I had planned to take one long trip through the South in the autumn, before the presidential election of 2012, and write about it. But when that trip was over I wanted to go back, and I did so, leisurely in the winter, renewing acquaintances. That was not enough. I returned in the spring, and again in the summer, and by then I knew that the South had me, sometimes in a comforting embrace, occasionally in its frenzied and unrelenting grip.
I received two gifts from Deep South for which I’m especially grateful. One is an introduction to the writer Mary Ward Brown. Like me, Theroux had never heard of this author before being introduced to her by an enthusiast. After reading her short stories and her memoir, this was his assessment:
Her writing was direct, unaffected, unsentimental, and powerful for its simplicity and for its revealing the inner life of rural Alabama, the day-to-day, the provincial manners and pretensions, the conflicts racial and economic. No gothic, no dwarfs, no twelve-year-old wives, no idiots, no picturesque monstrosities, nothing that could be described as phantasmagoric.
The story “New Dresses” takes place some years ago and is told from the point of view of Lisa, a Midwesterner. She has married into the Worthy family, a clan with deep roots in the South, and she’s having trouble adjusting. In this scene, Lisa has conveyed her extremely frail but insistent mother-in-law to a department store in town, where everyone seems to know and revere her:
Mrs. Worthy had to be supported to the elevator, where the black woman averted her eyes and worked the controls in silence. Mrs. Worthy leaned on Miss Carrie, who kept one arm around her waist. Lisa stared blindly at advertisements taped to the wall, wondering what vanity or pride could prompt anyone so sick to subject herself, subject them all, to such an ordeal.
From the story “The Barbecue:”
Jeff was named for the southern hero Jefferson Davis. The first time someone told Tom his weekend neighbor was a collateral descendant of the president of the Confederacy, of the same blood and could trace it, Tom had laughed. “You mean they got the papers on him, like a bull?” Laura said there was an original portrait of President Davis’s mother in one of the Arrington parlors. They prized it above everything else in the house, she said.
The J in Tom’s name stood for Jefferson too. He was named for a hero even greater, the architect of American democracy, but he was no kin whatsoever. It was just a name his father had picked out, hoping it would help him amount to something, his mother said. His father had been a two-mule farmer in the poorest county of the state.
This is the kind of fiction writing I have come to cherish: straightforward, unadorned, not striving for effect.
While visiting the home of Mary Ward Brown, a painting by Crawford Gillis was pointed out to Theroux. He had never heard of this artist. Neither had I. While searching for his work online, I came across the site of the Johnson Collection in Spartanburg, South Carolina. What a gem of an art museum!
Two paintings by Crawford Gillis:
Have a look at the site; the place is a veritable treasure trove. I just want to include one other work here. It’s an untitled painting by Carl Christian Brenner. It is so evocative, I get lost in it. (To get the full effect, click to enlarge):
I have many marked pages in my e-book version of Deep South, and the book deserves a great deal more attention that I have time to give it at present. Let me just say that I loved it. Despite the desperate straits of some of the small towns he visited, Paul Theroux made me want to go to the Deep South- to see what he saw and to meet and talk to the people he met.
If you’ve spent any time at this site in the past year, you’ll know that Stranger Than Fiction, the course in the literature of true crime that I had the privilege of teaching last year, pretty much hijacked my nonfiction reading for a while. If you read in the subgenre of historical true crime, the experience is slightly less scary. So here are some recommendations, made on that basis.
Let me get Murder by Candlelight out of the way first. This survey of crime in early nineteenth century England can admittedly be rather unsettling. But Michael Knox Beran’s is such a bracing and refreshing intellect, I can’t help but sing the praises of this book (though approach with caution, please!)
And here are some others: The Destiny of the Republic, in which Candice Millard returns James A. Garfield to his rightful place in the pantheon of great Americans;
Blood Royal by Eric Jager, in which medieval France comes vividly, if frighteningly, to life (The Last Duel by this author is also very enjoyable);
The Mad Sculptor by Harold Schechter. Schechter is also the editor of True Crime: An American Anthology. This is the book I used as my text for the true crime course.
Some of the most marvelous nonfiction I’ve come across recently is in the form of exhibition catalogs. I saw “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” just before it closed at the National Gallery in Washington DC:
I saw Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC several months ago.
(I stood in front of this painting for quite some time, along with a young couple. Finally I said, “Why is this painting so wonderful?” The woman murmured that she did not know, and then they both turned to me with radiant smiles.)
“Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” never came any closer than Boston, and while I love the Boston area, I wasn’t able to make to to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibits. However, the paintings are so fabulous that I purchased the catalog anyway.
A quick reminder concerning Josh Ruxin’s inspiring chronicle of the work that he, his wife, and many others have been doing in Rwanda before I go on to more current items.
I am now reading two nonfiction titles: The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore and The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. I’ve written recently about The Romanovs, and I hereby reiterate my intention to read the entire book. Eventually.
The Invention of Nature is a biography of Alexander Von Humboldt. I’m about half way through it, and it’s wonderful. Here was a man gifted with a profound intellect and a restless curiosity about the world around him. The story of his explorations of South America, begun in 1799 and lasting for five years, is alone worth the price of admission. He cheerfully endured almost inconceivable hardships in his quest for ever deeper knowledge and understanding of the natural world.
Over thousands of years crops, grains, vegetables and fruits had followed the footpaths of humankind. As humans crossed continents and oceans, they had brought plants with them and thereby had changed the face of the earth. Agriculture linked plants to politics and economy. Wars had been fought over plants, and empires were shaped by tea, sugar and tobacco. Some plants told him as much about humankind as about nature itself, while other plants gave Humboldt an insight into geology as they revealed how continents had shifted. The similarities of their coastal plants, Humboldt wrote, showed an ‘ancient’ connection between Africa and South America as well as illustrating how islands that were previously linked were now separated – an incredible conclusion more than a century before scientists had even begun to discuss continental movements and the theory of shifting tectonic plates. Humboldt ‘read’ plants as others did books – and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movements of civilizations as well as of landmass. No one had ever approached botany in this way.
As you can see, Andrea Wulf’s writing is clear and lucid. Von Humboldt freely mixed his scientific observations with an esthetic response; hence, his writing is often lyrical:
At the foot of the high granite spine that, in the early days of our planet, defied the incursion of the waters during the formation of the Antillean Gulf, there begins a broad, immeasurable plain. Upon leaving behind the valleys of Caracas and the island-rich Lake Tacarigua, 1 which reflects in its surface the trunks of the pisang trees, leaving behind fields resplendent with the delicate light green of Tahitian sugarcane or the solemn shade of cacao plants, one’s gaze toward the South comes to rest upon steppes that, seeming to climb, dwindle into the distant horizon.
Admittedly it was a mistake to tackle both of these books at the same time. But I confess I’m in a fever over the cornucopia of new offerings in nonfiction – I have trouble restraining myself!
Here are two more that I’m going to tackle next:
(Asterisk denotes a potentially good book club choice.)
I thought I would heartily dislike this book, and for the first few pages, I did. The “Swans” were driving me crazy – what a frivolous, irritating, useless bunch of women! And as for their friend Truman Capote – he struck me as repulsive, but that didn’t surprise me.
Had I not been reading Swans for a book club, I would most likely have tossed it aside. But I persisted – I’m very fond of the folks in this particular group – and gradually the novel grabbed me and refused to let go. Swans is actually the depiction of a particular time and place: New York City in its mid-twentieth century heyday, a playground for the rich and famous. Women like Gloria Guinness, Nancy ‘Slim’ Keith, Pamela Churchill, and above all Barbara ‘Babe’ Paley, were ornaments of their class. They appeared at all the right places and wore the latest, most expensive designer fashions. Nothing more was expected or required of them.
But add Truman Capote to their gossipy clique and a combustible element inevitably takes hold – and grows, slowly but surely.
Has any remnant of this society persisted into this century? Have a look at the Evening Hours page in the Style section of the Sunday New York Times, and draw your own conclusions.
Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, 1966
(Since my parents lived part of every year in Manhattan during this time period, Swans gradually took on added meaning for me. Several of the venues mentioned, especially the 21 Club, are places to which my father took us. If memory serves, we were there once at Christmas to witness a special annual event:
I was also reminded of my impulsive visit to Bergdorf’s in midtown Manhattan in April of 2008. I blew in to this impossibly high end establishment on my way to the Museum of Modern Art. My son was to be married in two months, and I need some accessories for the occasion. So I thought I could pick up a few things…This (mis)adventure is chronicled in the post Gotham Diary. )
A sort of early twentieth century take on Fielding’s Tom Jones. Unapologetically bawdy and an absolute delight!
Or, as Oprah Winfrey proclaims, “This book about pleasure is a provocative joy.”
Written in 1925 and amazingly readable. A terrific story of a spoiled young woman’s coming of age.
A great idea for a book club is to read this book and then watch the 2006 movie starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. It’s an excellent film that hews fairly closely to the novel but also makes some interesting changes in the plot line.
I first read The Painted Veil when Selena Hastings’s 2010 biography of Maugham launched me into an most gratifying program of reading the works of this master storyteller. And just now I’m reading a thriller by Philip Kerr in which Maugham himself figures as a character – most gratifying!
A remarkably accomplished work for a first novel, this unabashed but not overly sentimental love story is set in the English countryside, where some of us spend much of our time imagining ourselves to be.
The Corduroy Mansions Trilogy by Alexander McCall Smith:
Corduroy Mansions, The Dog Who Came In from the Cold, and A Conspiracy of Friends
Unfortunately, I started on the second volume rather than the first. But I can tell you for sure that numbers two and three are utterly captivating. I got completely caught up in the characters’ lives; most especially that of Freddie de la Haye, a most engaging (not to mention courageous and resourceful) canine.
Once again, a book club selection that I did not expect to like but did. It’s a love story that’s both modern and timeless, similar in that sense to Major Pettigrew, cited above. Warm-hearted and gracefully written.
The following are titles I’ve reviewed previously in this space. I’ve provided links to the relevant posts:
*Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
I should not have liked this novel. I’m always insisting that I like my stories related in a chronological manner. If it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc., it’s good enough for me. No experimental narrative time lines – please!
Well, what can I say. This one of the most non-linear narratives I’ve ever encountered. Somehow Atkinson’s storytelling method adapts itself perfectly to her subject: the political chaos of Western Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, as exemplified in the life – or possible lives – of one woman.
Four deliciously creepy novellas from a master of the genre.
*The Children Act by Ian McEwan
McEwan here depicts a moral dilemma of the most dire nature. The suspense grows naturally from the agonizing situation, one in which all parties, even those in fiercest opposition, are trying to do the right thing.
A tour de force by a writer who turns them out regularly
*Sparta by Roxana Robinson
As a depiction of the trials of a returning soldier, this novel was both convincing and compassionate.
The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis
Among the two or three most brilliantly uncanny historical novels I’ve ever read. Based on an actual incident in which a man long absent from his home in rural France returns to claim his patrimony – and his wife. Made into an equally brilliant film titled The Return of Martin Guerre:
Next up: nonfiction and crime fiction
I did indeed love this book, from its opening at a celebration for a French patriot and war hero right through to the conclusion, where Bruno, having solved a fiendishly intricate mystery, is nonetheless still pining for the ideal wife and mother he seeks to make his life whole and rewarding.
This yearning, which from time to time retreats into the background of his life but never entirely disappears, is one of the traits that makes Bruno Courreges such an endearing character.
In addition to Bruno, the novel’s other characters are vividly depicted, and once again the beauty and fascination of the Perigord region is brought to life for the reader. But most amazing of all are the descriptions of the food and wine. Bruno is a gourmet cook, and his version of “whipping something up” is miles above mine (canned tuna with mayonnaise thrown in and some crackers, with Diet Snapple to wash it down.).
He filled the trout with some crushed garlic and lemon slices. He washed the large mushrooms, put a teaspoon of white wine into the bowl of the mushrooms and then inserted a cabécou [a type of goat cheese] into each one. He prepared a bowl of honey and some crushed walnuts and then opened one of the jars of black-current compôte he’d made when the hedge below his house had been thick with the ripe fruit.
Then the actual meal, at which Bruno’s guests are understandably impressed and grateful:
“I’ve never seen this before,” said the brigadier as J-J cut into the pate and the foie gras and sliced truffles were revealed. They ate in appreciative silence, and as the last of the pate disappeared, Bruno took the mushrooms from atop the grill and slid them beneath the ehated plate and watched until the goat cheese started to bubble. When he judged them done, he took them out, sprinkled crushed walnuts over each one and then drizzled honey on top. Bruno then put the trout onto the grill and served the mushrooms.
Don’t know about you, but I’m ready to hop on a plane and head straight for this culinary paradise!
Oh – and then, there’s the wine. In this scene, Bruno has been invited to a cave, or wine cellar, to deliver his opinion of a new vintage:
He swirled the glass a little to see the healthy crown as the liquid trickled back down the sides of the glass. He swirled it more and then sniffed, cocking his head as he’d been taught to give each nostril a chance to savor the bouquet. He smelled dark fruit, a fresh earthiness like a plowed field after the rain; that would be the merlot…He swirled the glass again and sniffed once more, recognizing the freshness of the cabernet sauvignon. He took a sip, let it settle in his mouth to reach those less-used taste buds at the back of his tongue. He recognized something mineral in the flavor….
I cannot tell a lie: Whenever my husband encounters passages like this especially the part about “the fresh earthiness like a plowed field after the rain,” he invariably lifts his gaze heavenward and proclaims: “They’re making that stuff up!” But these folks do take their wine very seriously.
And they take their fun seriously as well. The (fictional) village of St. Denis, where Bruno does his policing, seems to be by and large a delightful and welcoming place. Its residents, mostly known to one another, socialize frequently and informally. They live surrounded by beautiful countryside and a rich history that goes back to prehistoric times.
Medieval and Renaissance era history are also a vivid presence, as Bruno reflects while driving by the Chateau de Losse.
So where, you may reasonably ask, is the mystery? Oh, it’s there, all right. It begins with a decease that seems to be from natural causes – if drinking yourself to death can be termed ‘natural’ – but might in fact be something else. Original? Not very, but it doesn’t matter. A tangled set of circumstances requires the steady persistence of Bruno and his friends and colleagues to unravel. There is perhaps too much convoluted explanatory material presented near the conclusion. (This is a tendency I’ve noted in quite a few crime novels of late.) But your interest will be held, if not by the investigation itself than by the enchantment of the Perigord region of France. (A word of warning: the local lifestyle includes an unapologetic enthusiasm for hunting and for the eating of meat. In fact, Patriarch includes a gripping subplot that concerns a fiercely uncompromising animal rights activist who thinks nothing of going up against these and other local cultural norms.)
From the author’s Acknowledgments at the end of the book:
The Périgordins are a convivial and welcoming folk, deeply appreciative of their good fortune in living in such a lovely and historic part of the world, and my family and I count ourselves lucky to have been allowed to share it for the past fifteen years.
Of the Perigordins, Walker adds: “They are the real stars of the Bruno tales.”
After Winter, Spring is a film by Judith Lit about the people of this region and their way of life:
“…a chronicle of fathers and sons, megalomaniacs, monsters and saints.” – The Romanovs 1613 – 1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Some weeks ago I became aware of a sweeping new history of the Romanov dynasty by British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. When I made this discovery, the book had not yet been published here; neither was it available on Kindle. I therefore ordered it from Amazon.co.uk. You understand: e-book or hard copy, I had to have it immediately. (This title comes out here on May 3.)
The text consists of 654 pages, prefaced by a nine page introduction, which should definitely not be skipped. The text is followed by 71 pages of bibliographic citations and footnotes. Then finally, the index.
Every few years I make it a point to delve into the perpetual mystery of Russian history. Russia being a place where, as Scottish writer Neal Ascherson reminds us, “the past is said to be unpredictable,” I figure it’s worth checking from time to time on how things stand. The Family Romanov (2014) was my most recent foray:
The story of the Romanov dynasty is nothing short of astonishing: filled with ruthless jockeying for power, merciless destruction of human obstacles – murder was the least of it. Methods of torture were freely employed that I’d never heard of and hope never to hear of again. I had to skim certain parts.
Upon the death of Michael in 1645, Alexei ascended the throne. He was a religious fanatic, spending many hours in prayer, but compared to some of his successors, he wasn’t half bad as a ruler. When he died in 1676, the almost inevitable struggle for power ensued.
For a time, Alexei’s daughter Sophia ruled as regent until she was hustled off to a convent in 1689. In the 1879 portrait below, Ilya Repin depicts her looking distinctly disgruntled at being shoved aside. Actually she’s lucky nothing worse was done to her. Ditto for the man hanged outside her window, on the right:
The man doing the shoving was Peter the Great. Peter is an amazing character in every way, even for Russia, a country whose history is filled with amazing (and often appalling) actors. (And “actor” is often the right word: people were constantly appearing out of nowhere to declare themselves the rightful heir to the throne of Russia. One of the more remarkable among them, appearing in the following century, was Princess Tarakanova. Her name is shrouded in legend, one of which claims that she died in a flood. In this 1864 painting, Konstantin Flavitsky depicts her as she awaits her fate. Has she attained a sort of ecstatic state? I’m not sure, but it’s a remarkable and strangely haunting work:
There is also a silent film about Princess Tarakanova:
Back to Peter the Great: at six foot eight, a larger than life personage in every way:
The Wikipedia entry on Peter is quite comprehensive. I note, however, that it makes no mention of a sort of profane dining and drinking society first convened by Peter in 1691, when he would have been barely twenty years old. I am reading about it right now. Its full name was the All-Mad, All-Jesting All-Drunken Synod (or Assembly):
Between 80 and 300 guests, including a circus of dwarfs, giants, foreign jesters, Siberian Kalmyks, black Nubians, obese freaks and louche girls started carousing at noon and went on to the following dawn….
A steely capacity for alcohol (which he usually called Ivashka, the Russian version of John Barleycorn) was essential to rise at Peter’s court. Peter was blessed with an iron metabolism for alcohol, rising at dawn to work even after these marathon wassails.
Participation in these coarse and repulsive revels, in other words, was mandatory.
I’m currently on page 84 of this magisterial volume; I have every intention of pressing on.
Simon Sebag Montefiore himself comes from a distinguished lineage, described in Wikipedia as “descended from a line of wealthy Sephardi Jews who were diplomats and bankers all over Europe and who originated from Morocco and Italy.”
This book has lovely endpapers. This may seem of little significance to some, but to me, it is part of what makes hard copy books precious.