‘The Dark birds came and bore them across.’ – Two Truths and a Lie, by Ellen McGarrahan

April 16, 2021 at 1:20 am (True crime)

The year is 1990. The place, Starke, Florida – more  specifically, the Florida State Prison, also known as Raiford Prison. This is ten miles from Starke, and possesses a Starke mailing address. This location is in the northernmost part of the state, not far from the Georgia border.

The author, Ellen McGarrahan, is at this time an investigative reporter. (Later she becomes  a full time private investigator.) She has come to the prison to be a witness at an execution by electric chair. The person whose bleak destiny this is? A young man named Jesse Tafero, age 43. He had been convicted of the murder of two police officers in 1976.

It can be easily understood that this act of witnessing is very upsetting. The experience cannot be easily put out of mind. This is especially true for Ellen, as she starts hearing an increasing drumbeat of protest: Could Jesse Tafero have been innocent?

I will let the author sum up the situation as it presented itself, just past seven AM, on February 20, 1976:

A beat-up green Camaro is parked in a rest area fifteen miles north of Fort Lauderdale on Interstate 95. Inside are an armed robber on parole; a fugitive convicted rapist and drug dealer; his girlfriend, a rich young woman with a history of drug dealing and a loaded gun in her purse; and her two children–a baby girl and a nine-year-old boy.

There’s more:

In the car are five guns, a hatchet, a bayonet, and a Taser. Drugs: amphetamines, cocaine, Quaaludes, marijuana, hashish, glutethimide. Thorazine, Pentazothene. Cigarettes. Beer. The sun has risen but the day is new and the rest area is shrouded in fog.

Trooper Phillip Black, in performance of his duty as a highway patrolman, pulls over to see if there is some sort of problem. With Trooper Black is a guest  from Canada, Corporal Donald Irwin.

Both officers of the law were subsequently shot dead. But later, there was some question as to who actually did the shooting. Was it in fact Jesse Tafero? His girlfriend Sonia, aka Sunny, Jacobs? Or Walter Rhodes, the person who arranged the transportation? Possibly even Sunny’s nine-year-old son Eric? Or maybe more than one of these individuals is responsible.

This is the question that Ellen McGarrahan feels she must get the answer to. The right answer. She travels far and wide, mostly with her husband Peter, in her quest for the truth. She goes out of the country – to Ireland, where Sunny Jacobs now resides, and to Australia, where Eric,  Sunny’s grown son, currently lives.

All in all, McGarrahan conducts a dizzying number of interviews. Almost everyone she locates is willing to talk to her. She must constantly interpret, evaluate, and re-evaluate. The amount of physical, intellectual and emotional energy this effort took can hardly be exaggerated. No one asked her to embark on the prodigious task of re-investigating this cold case. It is quite simply something she felt called upon to undertake. (Her husband Peter is the very model of a help meet, traveling with her and supporting her quest in every way possible.)

Over all of this – over every aspect of this complicated crime, hangs the incredibly sad specter of the murder of two fine young men. It’s enough to make your heart ache.

Trooper Phillip Black, right, and Corporal Donald Irwin

This marker was placed along the highway in 2019.

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Crime Fiction Update III: The Rest of Them

April 12, 2021 at 5:30 pm (Mystery fiction)

Okay, as I’m eager to get back to posting about art, I’m going to fairly race  through the remaining titles on my list of mysteries:

A second reading, for a book group discussion. Loved it. I always like mysteries set in academia. (“Academic Politics Are So Vicious Because the Stakes Are So Small.”) Can hardly wait to read the next one, The Postscript Murders. So happy to know that DS Harbinder Kauer will feature in this sequel (along, hopefully, with her delightful mother).

This is a series that never lets me down. I feel so comfortable and contented hanging out with the newly promoted Chief of Police Bruno Courreges and his friends (and his outstanding dog Balzac – a basset hound, or perhaps, more properly, a Petiit Basset Griffon Vendéen) in the village of St. Denis, nestled in the beautiful and historic Dordogne region of France.

This was good but not great. I appreciated the rural Irish setting, but the novel was longer than it needed to be. Characters were interesting but not especially compelling.

Mason Falls, Georgia, has an especially resourceful and appealing police officer in P. T. Marsh. A vivid setting coupled with a briskly moving plot make this one a winner. This is the first work I’ve read by McMahon; I intend to read more.

This is the sixth book I’ve read by Quartey and the first to disappoint. Characters, plot – it just never came together for me. But I’ve enjoyed his novels so much up to this point that I intend to read the next one anyway. And the Ghana setting continues to fascinate.

Perry’s The Bomb Maker is one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve ever read. But this one did not reach that mark. It had its moments – Perry’s been at  this for a long time, and he  really is an excellent writer – but  the the plot was fairly over the top, plus the body count was so high that – well, it was just too high.

    A lighthearted romp through Christie-land, this novel is actually set in upstate New York. The premise involves a rich and eccentric old lady, Vera Van Alst, who is searching for a supposedly lost play by the Queen of Crime. Miss Van Alst uses a wheelchair, so she hires Jordan Bingham to do her sleuthing for her. Jordan is both ambitious and clueless – she didn’t even know about Christie’s famous missing days in Harrogate! The plot was all over the place and there were too many characters, but the novel did have its humorous moments. These mostly involved Vera Van Alst’s relentless cook, Signora Panetone, who is constantly scurrying about in the kitchen and dining room and exhorting Vera and Jordan to “Eat! Eat!” She was my favorite character. (Also read for a book group)

  I love reading books set in Wyoming. (My son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren are frequent visitors there.) It a place of surpassing beauty. Also, if you read the crime fiction of C.J. Box (and Craig Johnson too) a place of considerable danger, the danger emanating largely from political infighting. As regards this particular series entry, game warden Joe Pickett is once again in the thick of the action when, in a shocking incident,  a judge’s wife takes a bullet. Long Range has one of the most imaginative, beautifully written opening chapters that I’ve ever encountered in a mystery. This was a most enjoyable read; I’m greatly looking forward to the next one, Dark Sky.

 

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Crime Fiction Update II: Mysteries of Brittany, as elucidated by Jean-Luc Bannalec

April 9, 2021 at 2:30 pm (France, Mystery fiction)

Hardcover Death in Brittany Book Hardcover Murder on Brittany Shores : A Mystery Book

 

Jean-Luc Bannalec

Having hugely enjoyed Death in Brittany, I knew I’d want to follow up with this series. The second entry, Murder on Brittany Shores, concerns the relation between the lad and the sea. Unlike Death in Brittany, the story does not concern itself with the region’s rich artistic heritage. I was initially disappointed by this, but I was won over as I read on. For one thing, Bannalec’s descriptions of coastal Brittany are simply wonderful. To whit, Commissaire Georges Dupin’s ruminations early in the novel :

He had stopped saying that the sea was blue. Because that wasn’t true: the sea  was  not just blue. Not here in this magical world of light. It was azure, turquoise, cyan, cobalt, silver-grey, ultramarine, pale watercolour blue, silver-grey [sic], midnight blue, violet blue…Blue in a good ten or fifteen base colours and and infinite numbers of shades in between. Sometimes it was even green, a real green or brown – and deep black. All of this depended on various factors: the sun and its position, of course, the season, the time of day, also the weather, the air pressure, the exact water content in the air, all of which refracted the light differently and shifted the blue into this or that tone….The most important factor was a different blue though – the sky, which varied in the same way and even contrasted with the clouds. It was this blue that found itself in an infinite interplay with the various shades of the sea. The truth was this: you never saw the same sea, the same sky, not once in the exact same hour and in the exact same place.

Then he cannot help adding:

And it was always a spectacle.

All credit to this eloquent writer – Jean-Luc Bannalec, pseudonym of Jörg Bong, a German national and deep lover of all things Breton. Equal praise is due to to the translator, Sorcha McDonagh.

One is given to believe that Brittany’s Celtic heritage is alive and well. Folk tales and legends are retold, with gusto. Here, for instance, is a retelling of the story of Groac’h, a species of supernatural being that (supposedly) inhabits the Breton landscape:

‘If she calls your name, you have no choice. She leads you to the Baie des Trépassés, the Bay of the Deceased. A boat is waiting for you. It’s low in the water and seems to be heavily laden and yet it’s totally empty. The Skiff of the Dead is waiting for your crossing. A sail hoists, as though by a ghostly hand, and you are tasked  with steering it safely to the Ile de Sein. As soon as the skiff reaches the island, the souls leave it. Then you may come back, to your family. Everything is just a shadow, but you are never the same.’

As I read the above passage, I got chills, because I recalled coming across the same tale in a book of Celtic legends some years ago.

Meanwhile, my liking for Commissaire Dupin is steadily growing. It helps greatly that these novels are police procedurals.

I went on to read the third book in the series, The Fleur de Sel Murders. In a way, the subject matter this time was the most exotic I’d yet encountered. As defined by Wikipedia, Fleur de Sel “…a salt that forms as a thin, delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates.” It has apparently been harvested from the Atlantic since ancient times.

Commissaire Dupin notes:

The fleur de sel gave off a curious fragrance in the days after the harvest; it mingles with the smell of rich clay and the salt and iodine in the air that people here in the middle of the white land–the Gwenn Rann. the far-reaching salt marshes of the Guerande–smelled and tasted more strongly with every breath than anywhere else on the coast.

Here is what this substance looks like just prior to harvesting:

And here it is, made ready for commercial consumption:

All this was quite intriguing to me. I’d never  before heard of fleur de sel; the same is probably true for you as well, Dear Reader. I might just betake myself to Wiliams-Sonoma and purchase this little item, provided the price is not overly outrageous.

Square plots of salt marsh are carefully laid out, zealously guarded and harvested by the paludiers, or salt farmers, who are responsible for their maintenance.

Now, as fascinating as all this may be, the plot of The Fleur de Sel Murders never developed any big momentum. There were times when I had to push myself to keep going. Mostly it was the substance itself that held my interest.

Despite this somewhat disappointing reading experience, I intend to stick with this series. On to The Missing Corpse! my hopes are high. Mostly I love spending time in Brittany, even if it as at a wide, wide remove. In my dreams, I will go there….

 

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Crime Fiction Update I: Classics

April 7, 2021 at 5:22 pm (Mystery fiction)

So: Due to general slothfulness and specific pandemic dullness, I have fallen woefully behind in my book blogging. This is especially true of mysteries, which I’ve been devouring like candy (a handy metaphor for one who can no longer consume actual candy – thanks for that, Type 2).

Let us now attempt to remedy  this woeful state of affairs. I will start with several classics.

Some weeks ago, I had the pleasure of viewing a webinar on crime fiction set at Oxford. This was presented by Daniel Stashower, a writer and critic. I recommend his book The Beautiful Cigar Girl, which tells the story behind the events that gave rise to one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget.”

Herewith the contents of the handout that accompanied this webinar:

An Oxford Tragedy, by J.C. Masterman

Death at the President’s Lodging, by Michael Innes

The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers

Trick of the Dark, by Val McDermid

Landscape with Dead Dons, by Robert Robinson

Oxford Blood, by Antonia Fraser

An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Ian Pears

The Oxford Murders, by Guillermo Martinez

The Inspector Morse series, by Colin Dexter

An Oxford Tragedy was a new one on me. Finding that it was available for downloading on Amazon for a mere $4.74, I acquired it and read it. Turns out, there was good reason for never having heard of this title: John Cecil Masterman was an academic, associated for almost his entire life with Oxford. In that time he wrote only two mysteries, of which An Oxford Tragedy, published in 1933, is the first. (The second, The Case of the Four Friends, did not appear until 1957.)

For the most part, I found this an enjoyable work of crime fiction. The enclosed world of the fictional St. Thomas College is beautifully realized, as seen through the eyes of the novel’s narrator, the sixty-year-old Senior Tutor Francis Wheatley Winn. Here he describes one of his favorite regular rituals:

To a middle-aged don, as I might describe myself, or to an old don, as I might almost be described, there is no place more pleasant  than Common Room, no hour more wholly pleasurable than that spent in it immediately after dinner. For here the fellows of St. Thomas’s, having dined, settled down to enjoy the comfort of port and desert, of coffee and cigars,

I really like reading this kind of gently antiquated prose.

Since we are at Oxford in the 1930s, we are dwelling in a largely exclusive male preserve. However, there are women in the lives of several of Wheatley’s colleagues. They are, in fact, crucial to the plot of this novel.

My one reservation concerning An Oxford Tragedy has to do with the conclusion. Masterman piles on a whole lot of explanatory material at the very end. By the time he had finished this exposition, I found myself not caring very much, having been wearied by the whole exercise. I need to mention at this point that I’ve encountered this tendency as well in numerous contemporary crime novels.


*************

I’d like to mention briefly two other classics. Martin Edwards has said of Julian Symons that his distinguished work as a critic – he’s the author of Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History –  has tended to overshadow his achievements as a novelist. I’d like to sing the praises of one of those achievements. It is entitled The Progress of a Crime. This book received the 1961 Edgar Award for Best Novel. Upon reading it, I could easily see why. Highly recommended.


**************************

Finally, an entry in the American Mystery Classics series. These works are currently being published by Otto Penzler, whose services to the field of crime fiction are great and much appreciated. That said, I was not overly enamored of the several series entries I’d read – until I picked up The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong. This tale is set once again in Southern California, that favored haunt of American crime fiction:

It was a bright afternoon, windy and clear. On all sides the hills were visible and sharp, cutting the flat land into valleys. The brilliant light picked out the brightest colors, greens in the landscape, red, orange, magenta flowers, and beat them to a sparkling blend. No color could be garish in this sun. The bright air consumed it all.

Twenty-three-year-old Amanda Garth, attractive and restless, manages to insinuate herself into the Garrison family. This distinguished, distinctive, yet in some ways secretive clan had as its patriarch, the painter Tobias Garrison. Matters evolve inevitably, and things become frightening and beyond Amanda’s control.

The Chocolate Cobweb came out in 1948. Charlotte Armstrong won the Edgar Award in 1957 for her novel A Dram of Poison. Have a look at her Wikipedia entry and you’ll see how prolific she was. And highly respected as well.

 

 

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A Much Beloved Painting

April 5, 2021 at 1:31 pm (Art)

Garden at Saint-Adresse, also known as La Terrasse à Saint-Adresse, by Claude Monet, 1867

As I approach my seventy-seventh birthday (!!), I find myself increasingly frustrated by the inability to make time stop. Yes, to stop in its tracks. To cease, desist, quit robbing others and myself of our ability, vitality, and just plain life force. We know where we are headed, inexorably.

There is one way to stop time. From the beginning of the world, image makers have known this. You will pass, but the image will remain. Thank God – literally – for this.

It is the gift given to us by the arts of painting and photography. The Garden at Saint-Adresse is one of my favorite paintings because it fixes in time a moment of supreme happiness. The people, the sun,the wind, the flowers, the sea – all there, bathed in golden light, forever.

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A Worse Place Than Hell: How The Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation, by John Matteson

March 26, 2021 at 1:17 am (Book review, books, History)

This handsome youth is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In the course of his military service in the Union Army, he was wounded on three separate occasions. Afterwards, having made it through this harrowing experience, he vowed to enter the practice of law. He was not only interested in becoming a lawyer, but was equally interested in exploring the philosophical underpinnings of the profession.

In this photo, Holmes appears composed and confident. He was not that way at all by the time his service ended. He was lucky to be alive and he knew it. But he had seen terrible things that could never be forgotten. They affected the entire remainder of his long life.

As far as can be known, Holmes regarded his survival as mere happenstance— confirming, not disrupting, his sense of the universe as a place of inscrutable, mindless forces. If it had any effect on his thinking at all, the wounding at Antietam more stoutly convinced Holmes, already a religious doubter, that the world had neither plan nor reason. The power that drove the world could be neither understood nor appeased. Randomness had become God.

Holmes went on to become one of the most distinguished Supreme Court Judges this country has known. He also served in that capacity for a very long time – just under thirty years. This record remains unbroken.

In A Worse Place Than Hell, John Matteson describes some of these terrible things in excruciating detail. I had to force myself to read some passages. But I felt that I had to. For one thing, this was such a compelling narrative and so beautifully written. For another, it was such a huge part of this country’s past, and therefore, of my past. I have heard it said that the Civil War was America’s Iliad. It seems to me an apt comparison.

The lives of four other individuals are delineated in this book.   Louis May Alcott came to Washington to work in the hospitals where wounded soldiers were treated.

She told herself, “There is work for me, and I’ll have it.” She went back to her room “resolved to take Fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.”

Walt Whitman did likewise, although he worked at a different location from Alcott. There is no evidence that they ever encountered one another.

Here is another picture of Whitman, taken when he was younger. I was struck by this image, having only seen him as an elderly, heavily bearded sage.

Whitman was a big-hearted man of very modest means, with not much in the way of tangible effects to give to these sick and wounded young men. So he did what he could:

The poet gave almost every form of sustenance: blackberries, peaches, lemons, preserves, pickles, milk, wine, brandy, tobacco, tea, underclothing, and handkerchiefs all passed into the hands of his grateful boys. He wrote countless letters and read aloud, both from his own poetry and from whatever material a soldier might fancy. It seemed to Whitman, however, that the most precious gift he gave lay in “the simple matter of physical presence, and emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism.”

Arthur Fuller was a native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Harvard Divinity school. A gentle soul who yearned to ‘do something for my country,’ Fuller became chaplain to to the Sixteenth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in 1861.

He came from a distinguished family. Margaret Fuller was his sister. His full name was Arthur Buckminster Fuller, and yes, R. Buckminster Fuller, he of geodesic dome fame, was his grandson.

Arthur Fuller’s brother Richard wrote his biography in 1864. It is available on the Internet Archive.

It opens thus:

HERE is a natural curiosity to trace a stream to its source — to follow it back to the hills from whose bosom it first springs to life-. The more noble the flow of its current, the more beneficent its waters, in opening paths to inland navigation or furnishing food for man, so much the keener is curiosity to trace it to the crystal fountain of its origin. The undiscovered source of the Nile was for centuries the theme of speculation. Inquirers, after the ancient method, propounded this practical question to the oracles of reason, and drew from them the enigmatical responses of theory ; never apparently thinking of the solution, which modern empiricism has reached, by actually threading back the stream, and thus working out the safe result of observation.

Human life, like the river, may attract little public notice in its playful early course, when prattling among the parent hills, or leaping in gay cascades on its downward way, to swell, eventually, into the graver, deeper current of manhood. But if, as its waters gather head, they furnish a spectacle of natural beauty in their flow or fall, or bestow public blessings in banks made green and fruitful, or bountiful fisheries, or bear upon their back the burdens of navigation, or attract attention by the glory of their exit into the sea, symbolizing the issue of life for time into the ocean of eternity, — then men turn their steps back to the early stream, and search out, in its source and surroundings, every presage of its destiny.

How I yearn to read more of such lovely, old-fashioned prose! And in the service of Arthur Buckminster Fuller, a courageous and immensely appealing man.

And finally, John Pelham, a young tearaway from Alabama who became a first rate artillery officer. Not only that, he astonished his fellow soldiers with acts of brazen, almost inhuman bravado on the battlefield.

John G. White of the Second Maryland Infantry outdid even [J.E.B.] Stuart in his appreciation. To him, Pelham was nothing less than “some god of battle.” But in an instant, a battle can turn a god to dust.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, Arthur Fuller, John Pelham. These five individuals are the linchpins of this narrative. There is plenty of description of battles also, especially of Antietam and Fredericksburg. Much of it was difficult to read.

Men killed with cold, unthinking hatred— hatred for the war, for the enemy, for the miserable fate that had led them here, hatred perhaps above all for themselves. Many of the participants who told of it later, even though they had seen the slaughter with their own eyes, could not believe the heartbreaking truths that they were telling.

Heartbreaking is exactly the right word. I experienced that sensation over and over as I read this book. Yet I think that, at least from my perspective, One owes it to these mean to learn of what they went through, to acknowledged both the heroism and the horror of this brutal war.

  This book is superb. I’ve been reading a great deal of history lately, yet the stories contained in  A Worse Place Than Hell – the words are Lincoln’s; the full quotation is “If There Is a Worse Place Than Hell, I Am In It” – will remain with me the longest.

They watched as “the sun set in the smoke of battle,” a sight that, for some of them, surpassed anything they had ever imagined. Now and then a shell would explode against the sky, ironically forming “the most beautiful wreaths” of color. As the sound of the artillery rolled on, the heavens darkened, and the blood-red sun went down, Chaplain Hartsock thought “the orb of day” wore “a fitting appearance” as it looked down “upon the crimson tide that flowed from American veins.”

 

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Crime Fiction in the Grand Tradition: Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

March 7, 2021 at 8:54 pm (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction)

  What do I mean by ‘the grand tradition?” Well, I mean that Moonflower Murders is a whodunnit in the classic mode of Agatha Christie and her legion of imitators. Not that I would call Anthony Horowitz an imitator as such. On the contrary, he’s one of the more creative minds at work in the crime fiction field at the present time.

Susan Ryeland is a  former editor and publisher. As this novel opens, she is running a hotel and the island of Crete, along with her lover Andreas. (To find the reason for her sudden career switch, one must read Magpie Murders – a delightful task!) Susan finds herself summoned back to England  to help uncover the truth about the murder of a hotel guest named Frank Parris. The killing occurred in 2008 at Branlow Hall, an inn on the Suffolk coast. Adding urgency to the situation is the fact that Cecily Treherne, the daughter of Pauline and Lawrence Treherne, the hotel’s owners, has recently gone missing.

In her time as an editor, one of Susan’s authors had been Alan Conway, writer of a popular series of mysteries featuring Private Investigator Atticus Pund. Intrigued by the killing at Branlow Hall, Conway decides to make use of the crime in his next novel, to  be entitled Atticus Pund Takes the Case.

Cecily Treherne is married and the mother of a little girl. Before vanishing, she stated that she had unmasked  the true identity of the murderer of Frank Parris. How had she done this? By stumbling upon a crucial clue in Alan Conway’s novel.

Susan Ryeland realizes that in order to solve this present-day mystery, she must solve the past one as well. And to finally arrive at the truth concerning both, she must  revisit an experience that torpedoed her life’s work in 2008: She has to  read, for the second time, Atticus Pund Takes the Case.

And so she does, and so do we, right along with her. For this is not one book but two: The complete text of Alan Conway’s novel is contained within the pages of Moonflower Murders. I cannot forebear to mention that within the pages of Atticus Pund Takes the Case, I came across a reference that delighted me. It concerns the diminutive detective’s choice of reading matter to take on a rail journey:

Pund passed the time absorbed in a study that he had received from the highly respected American Academy of Forensic Sciences: an examination of the so-called Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee, who had constructed intricate models of complicated crime scenes in order to analyse them.

I first became aware of the Nutshell Studies when I was doing research for a course I taught several years ago. It was called Stranger Than Fiction: The Literature of True Crime. As for Frances Glessner Lee, she  became, almost accidentally, a pioneer in Forensic Science. I was fortunate enough to see the Nutshell Studies two years ago when  they were exhibited at the Renwick Gallery.

Meanwhile, on the same train trip alluded to above, Pund’s secretary Miss Cain was reading A Daughter’s a Daughter by Mary Westmacott. Mary Westmacott is a pseudonym used by Agatha Christie for works she wrote that were not in the crime fiction genre.

Moonflower Murders is a regular romp of a  novel. It contains no larger lessons about the human condition, at least none that I could  readily detect. It was written to entertain, and it succeeds beautifully. It’s long – some 580 pages – but I tore through it in a matter of days.

Anthony Horowitz is the creator of the tv series Foyle’s War; in addition, he wrote eleven episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot and six episodes of Midsomer Murders. He’s the author of the popular Alex Rider series for young adults as well as numerous other novels and plays. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If  there were an Anthony Horowitz Fan Club, I’d be in it.

Anthony Horowitz

 

 

 

 

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‘That arm, hacking like an executioner, performed an act of the most extreme cowardice.’ – The Wreck of the Medusa, by Jonathan Miles

February 26, 2021 at 4:02 pm (Art, France)

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The size of the above image does not convey the full impact of this painting. The format of this blog does not allow for anything larger. So I suggest that you click here . Then click again on the image displayed.

The Raft of the Medusa depicts the actual aftermath of a terrible maritime disaster that took place in July of 1816, off the coast of what is now Mauritania. The artist is Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault.

There were 148 persons aboard  the raft – 147 men and one woman. These were the ones that didn’t make it into the lifeboats. At first, the lifeboats were towing the raft. But then, those in the boats felt that the raft was too much of a drag on their efforts to reach the shore.. So one among them took an axe and hacked away at the rope that connected the sea-going vessels. Thus, with those brutal strokes, the raft was set adrift, with almost no food, precious little water, and no navigational instruments with which to aid their passage through the stormy Atlantic.

Everything terrible that could happen to those on the raft, happened. Every desperate measure was acceded to. When they were finally rescued, only fifteen survivors remained.

The story of the  survivors’ ordeal on the Medusa’s raft is fairly well known. What is less wel known is the story of the survivors on the lifeboats. They put ashore in what is now Mauritania. (Their original destination was Senegal.) They found themselves in the Sahara, marooned with almost no food or water and harassed by hostile tribesmen. The heat alone was nearly unbearable. For sustenance, they were forced to drink milk mixed with camel’s urine, a “…common source of nourishment for the nomadic tribes who spent up to a week without solid food….”

After a horrific ordeal, the survivors of the shipwreck were finally rescued. It is a miracle that any of them lived to tell the story. And yet, miraculously, they did.

Horace Vernet, Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Gericault, probably 1822 or 1823, 1998.84, MET.jpg

Theodore Gericault, by Horace Vernet, 1822-1823

And let us not give short shrift to the artist. Gericault was the very embodiment of the tormented Romantic artist.   While still in his teens, he embarked on a passionate love affair with Alexandrine Caruel, Baroness de Saint Martin. She was young and beautiful, and possessed a keen interest in the arts. In short, she was everything Gericault wanted in a woman. She was also, by marriage to his father’s brother, his aunt. Alexandra Caruel by Géricault

The affair went on for several years. Gericault absented himself for a time in Italy, partly in an effort to forget Alexandrine, but it didn’t work. As soon as he returned to France, he fell back into her embrace. Eventually she became pregnant, and this finally put paid to their affair. Their infant son was farmed out to the care of another; Gericault never saw him.

Gericault was a man of overmastering passions. He transferred his obsession with Alexandrine to an obsession with the story of the Medusa shipwreck. He shaved his head and sequestered himself in his studio as he labored on his great masterwork. He obtained body parts from the mortuary of a nearby hospital to aid him in his quest for a realistic depiction of a horrible event. (At the time, the composer Hector Berlioz was a reluctant medical student at the same hospital.)

The painting was completed in 1819. By that time, Gericault was beset by illness – depression and tuberculosis. He died in 1824 at the age of 32.

Today, The Raft of the Medusa is one of the most renowned works of art in Paris’s Musee du Louvre.

This book was recommended by Paul Glenshaw. Mr. Glenshaw has recently presented a number of fascinating art webinars for the Smithsonian Associates Streaming Service.

Theodore Gericault’s monument is located in Paris’s famed Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

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Favorite Recent Reads

February 18, 2021 at 5:08 pm (Book review, books)

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

 

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Image result for crisis francis

 

Pachinko (National Book Award Finalist) by [Min Jin Lee]

 

 

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Image result for some danger involved

 

 

 

This month, I’ve had the pleasure of presenting two programs of book talks for a local organization of which I’m a member. The  first session occurred at the beginning of this month; the second, this past Monday.

Each was accompanied by a book list. Here’s the first one:

FIFTEEN FAVORITES 2020!

FICTION

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam

THE OTHER AMERICANS by Laila Lalami

OLD LOVEGOOD GIRLS by Gail Godwin

MYSTERY

DEATH IN DELFT by Graham Brack

DEATH IN BRITTANY and MURDER ON BRITTANY SHORES by
Jean-Luc Bannalec

A CHRISTMAS RESOLUTION by Anne Perry

ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE by Louise Penny

THE STRANGER DIARIES by Elly Griffiiths

CRISIS by Felix Francis

A STUDY IN SCARLET by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

NONFICTION

JIM THOMPSON: THE UNSOLVED MYSTERY by William Warren

THE DEEPEST SOUTH OF ALL: TRUE STORIES FROM NATCHEZ,
MISSISSIPPI by Richard Grant

OWLS OF THE EASTERN ICE: A QUEST TO FIND AND SAVE THE
WORLD’S LARGEST OWL by Jonathan C. Slaght

CROSS OF SNOW: A LIFE OF HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW by
Nicholas A. Basbanes

This is the second:

2020 BEST BOOKS – II

Fiction

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
The Sun Collective by Charles Baxter

Crime fiction

Wife of the Gods and The Missing American by Kwei Quartey
The Coldest Warrior by Paul Vidich
The D.A. Calls It Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner
Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas
The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong
The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith

Nonfiction

Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald
World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Black Hole Survival Guide by Janna Levin
The Revenge of Thomas Eakins by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick
We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence                             by Becky Cooper

Children’s

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates! By Ryan T. Higgins

Wherever I’ve written at any length about one of the above titles, I’ve provided a link. And I’d like to append some comments here:

I may not have reviewed Laila Lalami’s book in this space, but I did facilitate a discussion of this excellent novel for a book group I attend some months ago. It was a good discussion; I highly recommend The Other Americans for book groups as well as solitary readers.

In Death in Delft, the reader meets an appealing protagonist called Master Mercurious. He is a clergyman and an academic attached to the University of Leiden in what is now The Netherlands. Being as it’s the 17th century, we  get to encounter the painter Vermeer and the scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek as well. A thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

I know Louise Penny has legions of fans devoted to her Armand Gamache series . These novels are usually set in Quebec; however, the events of All the Devils Are Here take place in Paris. That change of venue is one of the reasons I elected to read this novel. Penny doesn’t always work for me, especially as regards the cast of characters that inhabit the village of Three Pines. There were things about this series entry that bothered me as well, but on the whole, I enjoyed it. I especially appreciated being back in Paris, if only by way of someone else’s story – sigh….

I recently reread The Stranger Diaries for the Usual Suspects mystery book discussion group. This is an outstanding novel; I could hardly put it down this time around.

And speaking of mysteries (and when am I not speaking of mysteries), Kwei Quartey is a new and, for me, very welcome discovery. Wife of the Gods is the first entry in the Darko Dawson series The Missing American marks the start of a new series featuring private investigator Emma Djian. I’ve learned many fascinating facts about life in Ghana, Dr. Quartey’s native land. (The Missing American has just been nominated for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best Novel.)

And speaking of historical mysteries, Some Danger Involved was recommended to me by my friend Angie, an astute and discerning reader of crime fiction. This is the first in a series featuring private investigator Cyrus Barker and his newly hired assistant Thomas, Llewelyn. The action takes place in late 19th century London and concerns that city’s thriving (but perpetually nervous, with good reason) Jewish community. My inner Judaism Checker was attuned to the author’s religious references and especially to his use of the Yiddish vernacular. Everything was spot on; moreover, the atmosphere was wonderfully evoked and characters, believable and appealing.

Finally, a word about Pachinko. I only read this novel because it was a book club selection. I am deeply grateful to this book club (AAUW Readers). Pachinko is one of those old style novels that opens up an entire world and peoples it with credible and often fascinating characters. I don’t have enough superlatives in my vocabulary with which to heap praise on Min Jin Lee’s masterpiece. It’s the best work of mainstream fiction that I’ve read in years.

Towards the conclusion of the second set of book talks, several of the participants brought up trends in contemporary fiction that they wanted to discuss. One person bemoaned the tendency of narratives to abruptly go back and forth in time – “I had to take notes, to know where I was!” A second reader chimed in with the observation that a change of narrators was occurring more frequently and could be likewise confusing. And finally, there is the tendency to switch from the first person to the third – with occasionally  the second making a brief, unwelcome appearance.

I really enjoyed this exchange of views! It was a welcome reminder of my days as an English major in college and graduate school. In fact, the whole experience was extremely rewarding. I am grateful to the participants for making it so.
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Oh, and I almost forgot – the children’s book We Don’t Eat Our Classmates! was just  for fun:

 

 

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Unblogged (and soon to be overdue) books

January 11, 2021 at 7:16 pm (Book review, books)

So recently I was cruising through the various rooms in my house when I encountered a stack of books sitting stolidly on the edge of a bookcase. They’d  been read but not blogged. Horrors! The world is awaiting my comments on these volumes! Actually the library is waiting, as in, Woman, are you planning to return these any time soon? There are others wanting to read them, you know…

Okay, so let’s make a start:

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam.  City dwellers Amanda and Clay have found (via Airbnb)  a quiet place to vacation on Long Island. So they drive out to their getaway home. With them are their two children, fifteen-year-old Archie and Rose, age twelve (or thereabouts). Upon arriving, they’re all pleased with what they see. The house is well turned out and has a swimming pool. There are woods nearby. It is quiet, a welcome respite from the perpetual noise of Gotham.

Rumaan Alam extracts much humor from the foibles of America’s upper middle classes. He describes Amanda’s initial food shopping expedition in detail, noting that that she was sure to throw into the basket “Ben & Jerry’s politically virtuous ice cream.” (As we are regular purchasers of this product, it is now designated in these exact terms on our shopping lists.) At the outset, the tone of the novel is lighthearted, but it does not stay that way. Events occur which are unexpected, strange, downright threatening. The light has more and more trouble penetrating the darkness.

Oh, they are leaving the world behind, all right…. Or is the world leaving them?

Rumaan Alam is a terrific writer. His prose is urgent and graceful at the same time. And as for the tale he relates herein, I can only say that it’s been a long time since I was this thoroughly unnerved by a work of fiction.

Highly recommended.
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The Searcher by Tana French. Cal Hooper, a former detective with the Chicago police, has traded the chaos of the big city for a whole new life in a small town in Ireland. The house he has purchased is run down, to say the least, but fixing it up provides him with a much needed project.

He enjoys this  rain. It has no aggression to it; its steady rhythm and the scents it brings in through the windows gentle the house’s shabbiness, giving it a homey feel. He’s learned to see the landscape changing under it, greens turning richer and wildflowers rising. It feels like an ally, rather  than the annoyance it is in the city.

Trey Reddy, a teenager, appears out of nowhere to give him a hand with carpentry and painting. Welcoming the help, as well as the companionship, Cal finds himself drawn into a classic mystery: Trey’s brother has disappeared, and Cal’s help is needed in order to  find the missing sibling.

There’s some lovely writing in this novel; it contributes greatly to the sense of being in the midst of rural Ireland:

Eve smack in the middle of a temperamental Chicago neighborhood, dawn sounds rose up with a startling delicacy, and  the air had a lemony, clean-scoured tinge that made you breathe deeper and wider. Here, the first light spreads across  the fields like something holy is happening, striking sparks off a million dewdrops and turning the spiderwebs on the hedge to rainbows; mist curls off the grass, and the first calls of  birds and sheep seem to arc effortless miles.

Well, zowie, the woman can write! On the other hand, the dialog, while realistic and believable, at times drags on for too long. In fact, the novel as a whole could have been shorn of a hundred or so pages and  been none the worse for it – better, in fact, with the plot being somewhat tighter. Even so, Cal and Trey are beautifully drawn characters, as are numerous others.

Tana French is a writer that readers and reviewers consistently rave about. Her books don’t always work for me, but by and large, this one did.
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Anne Perry

A Christmas Resolution by Anne Perry. In recent years, it has become Anne Perry’s custom to pen a work at Christmas time with an appropriate theme. This short novel – almost a novella, really – is set, as we’d expect from this author, in the nineteenth century:

Celia approached the vicar, who stood alone for a few moments in the shadow of the rounded arch above the doorway, sheltered from the rising wind.

With such an opening sentence, we know full well that we are in Anne Perry Country. Celia wishes to compliment the vicar on that mornings sermon. Alas, the Reverend Arthur Roberson is a melancholy figure. He is oppressed by matters of the heart.

A Christmas Resolution is characterized by a mixture of charm, earnestness, and peril that is so characteristic of this author’s works in this genre. We are soon involved, with Celia and her husband Detective John Hooper, in an urgent effort to prevent Celia’s dear friend Clementine Appleby from making an ill-advised marriage.

Okay, so not  a very original plot premise, but one is lulled into a sense of mild anxiety without having to be overly concerned. We know things will turn out all right. Clementine will be saved! Even the vicar might be delivered from his unhappy state.

In other words, a pleasant diversion for which I was grateful, what with the world being in its current state.

 

 

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