With malice toward none….

March 3, 2015 at 2:18 pm (History)

MaliceCharity

Tomorrow,Wednesday March 4, is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. My  brother Richard,  holder of a PhD in American history, has called to remind me.

I am fortunate to live near the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. This museum occupies shared premises with the American Art Museum in the Old Patent Office Building, itself a majestic edifice with a fascinating past. (In this slide show, Temple of Invention brings that past to life.)

Located on the first floor of the Portrait Gallery, The American Origins Exhibition is a repository of art and history that is rich with meaning for all of us.

It is even more meaningful, and deeply moving as well,  to walk the length of the Great Hall, site of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball.

GreatHall Patent Office

It takes no great feat of imagination to conjure the crowd of well wishers and celebrants, to hear the animated conversation and the music – and to inhale the aromas emanating from the banquet table.

Inuguralmenu

(Click here for more on the Inaugural Banquet.)

The appearance of the Great Hall today is not exactly the same as it was for the occasion of Lincoln’s Inaugural Ball. In 1877, The Old Patent Office was severely damaged by fire; what we  currently see is the refurbished version of the Great Hall.

In 2000, the entire building was closed for renovation. By 2007, all galleries and other public spaces were reopened.

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Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

March 4, 1865

Fellow-Countrymen:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Source: Library of Congress

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President Lincoln was felled by an assassin’s bullet on April 14, 1865.

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Mystery Round-up

February 27, 2015 at 2:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

The large helpings of the literature of true crime in which I’ve been lately immersed have, at times, made me feel as though I were marinating in sin. So I’ve sought relief in a different kind of reading matter altogether. And what would that be? Why mysteries, of course….

514aFVbukyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  51pBrR7JZFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ In Deadly Virtues, we’re introduced to Constable Hazel Best, one of the Norbold (England) police department’s newest – and greenest  – recruits. She had come to the aid of one Gabriel Ash, a man half destroyed by the disappearance of his wife and sons. In the process, Hazel had proven herself an officer of worth and mettle.

Perfect Sins is Hazel’s second outing. This time, she  becomes embroiled in a situation  involving deeply held family secrets. For Hazel, this is more than just another case: the Byrfields, aristocrats of long and proud lineage, are the employers of Hazel’s father Fred Best. Luckily, she has the help and support of Gabriel Ash – and he has the help and support of Patience, his faithful and preternaturally wise lurcher.

Spending time with Hazel and company is pure pleasure. She is such a fine and decent person, with all the attributes needed to become, in time, a first rate investigator. Her creator, Jo Bannister, has long labored in the field of crime fiction, producing a body of work of continuously high caliber. Yet she is little known in this country. I hope this fine new series changes that.

At one point in the narrative, Gabriel Ash, so grateful to Hazel for her straightforward loyalty and affection, turns to her and says: “I wish I could explain to you how much richer my life is for having you in it.”

Jo Bannister

Jo Bannister

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8686068  The Devotion of Suspect X by Japanese author Keigo Higashino is the March selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery discussion group. We Suspects are currently having an international year. This means we read novels set elsewhere than in the US or the UK. We began in January with Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Although I was not crazy about the book, it nevertheless provoked a lively and enjoyable discussion. February’s selection, set in Barcelona, was A Not So Perfect Crime by Teresa Solana. I opted out of this one, due to time pressures occasioned by work on the True Crime Course.

But being intrigued by reviews I’d read – and desperate to resume my normal activities! – I decided I’d make time for the March selection. Initially, I had trouble with  The Devotion of Suspect X. It seemed a curiously glum bit of prose and was not drawing me in. But a few chapters in, that changed. Surprisingly, this novel turned out to be in no small part  a story of thwarted love, and of humans living in isolation, loneliness, and sometimes fear. The picture the author paints of contemporary Japan is a bleak one, with occasional flashes of light. And the ending – well, I won’t say any more. Find out for yourself; it is well worth it.

Keigo Higashino

Keigo Higashino

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22273335  I always look forward to  the next Harpur & Iles novel. I know I’ll be equal parts amused and appalled (but in an entertaining way). That’s exactly the effect that author Bill James strives for and achieves so effortlessly. Disclosures, the 32nd (!!) entry in this  series, suffers a bit for having this dynamic duo off stage or much of the book’s action. A fair compensation, though, is the presence of Ralph W Ember, a long running character, owner of the Monty, a social club, and a member – until recently – of the drug cartel called Pasque Uno. (Strange names abound in these novels.)

Ralph aspires to join a better class of people; his ruminations on the subject of high culture can be quite diverting:

Ralph would admit he didn’t know a terrific amount about classical music, but on the whole he was not anti. It could do no real harm. Radio Three was always there, but you could take it or leave it alone.A lot of the stuff had been around for centuries so there must be certain parts that were reasonably OK.

So much for Mozart, Beethoven, etc.

Bill James is a bit of a mystery himself. He was born in 1929 and his real name is Allan James Tucker. He’s an extremely prolific writer and is still at it, apparently. He has no website, and this is the only photo I’ve ever been able to find (although it is usually reproduced in black and white):  JAMESBILL_198
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Surfeit-Of-Guns-A-Med-Res-Front-Cover-183x276  Plague-Of-Angels-A-Low-Res-Front-Cover-184x276

Finally, last but certainly not least, I continue to be vastly entertained by P.F. Chisholm‘s romp through late 1500s with Sir Robert Carey, his faithful and long suffering Sergeant Henry Dodd, his sister Philadelphia, the longed-for but unfortunately (in more ways than one) married Lady Elizabeth Widdrington, and a host of other colorful characters. I’ve already written about A Famine of Horses, the first book of this series, in a post entitled Best Reading in 2014. I felt compelled to go on with the series and am now on number four, A Plague of Angels.

Chisholm knows how to conjure up a scene, as in this description of an encounter in the countryside:

For a moment it was hounds only, the horses heralded by sound. The, like the elven-folk from a poet’s imagination, they cantered out of the tree shadows, three, four, eight, twelve of them, and more behind, some carrying torches, their white leather jacks pristine and lace complicating the hems of their falling bands and cuffs, flowing beards and glittering jewelled fingers, with the plump flash of brocade above their long boots.

(From A Surfeit of Guns, third in the series)

Chisholm has an in depth knowledge of the clothing and weaponry of the period, but her scholarship is never intrusive. Instead, it serves to make her evocation of a past time almost unnervingly vivid.

Oh – and she displays great helpings of wit, often of the most irreverent kind and therefore all the more welcome to a reader desperately in need of some comic relief.

P.F. Chisholm (Patricia Finney)

P.F. Chisholm (Patricia Finney)

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“Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks”

February 21, 2015 at 9:31 pm (Art, Music, Russophilia)

This picture of a triumphant troop of Russian-backed Ukrainian soldiers appeared in this weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal:

Russian Rebel Troups (600dpi)-L

The photo, with its air of exuberant comradeship, reminded me of The Reply of the Zaporoshian Cossacks, a painting by Ilya Repin:

cossackslaughing

A Wikipedia entry tells of how this monumental work was created, and also the story behind it. (Click twice on this image to achieve maximum enlargement.)

In the video below, the painting serves a backdrop for a  haunting aria from The Lieutenant Kije Suite by Sergei Prokofiev:

Sergei Prokofiev, born in the Ukraine (as were all four of my grandparents).

 

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True crime research: discoveries made along the way

February 15, 2015 at 3:33 pm (Poetry, True crime)

There are  some excellent full length documentaries on YouTube:

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Internet Archive maintains  a digitized (and searchable) pulp magazine archive:

TrueDetective03-30_0000

pulps

Pulps2

Google Books has digitized some interesting (and quite old) titles, such as The Record of Crime in the United States and The Triumphe of God’s Revenge Against  the Crying and Execrable Sin of Murther.

In an interview with The Library of America, publisher of True Crime: An American Anthology, Harold Schechter refers to a poem by Emily Dickinson called “One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted”

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Material Place—

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase—
Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter—
In lonesome Place—

Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.

The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O’erlooking a superior spectre—
Or More—

Once again I am stunned by the brilliance and audacity of Dickinson – but should I be? This is, after all, the woman who wrote “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -”

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –

And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through –

And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –

Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –

For me, the meaning of  this poem is somewhat opaque, yet there is no mistaking the power of those last two lines.
Before I close, some words of praise for Harold Schechter: Not all academics write in a way that is appealing and accessible to the common reader. Harold Schechter can and does. His writing is a felicitous combination of erudition, grace, and wit
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And so here I am, down to the wire in regard to “Stranger Than Fiction: The Literature of True Crime.” I’m teaching this class for Osher at Johns Hopkins University, a lifelong learning institute with three campus locations in this region. Fortunately, one of them is right here in Howard County.  (Click here to view the course catalog that includes the course to be taught by Yours Truly.)

I feel as though it’s taken a veritable army of supporters to assist me in this endeavor. Thanks to Pauline for recruiting me and offering me constant help and encouragement. Deep gratitude is due my husband for helping with the technology. Classroom teaching has undergone a quiet revolution in that sphere since my absence from the scene, and I’ve had to learn a great deal in a relatively short time span. Ron has been the most tireless and patient of teachers.

Barring any weather-related problems, I make my ‘debut’ tomorrow morning. Wish me luck.

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“….an exploration of deadly and sensational interpersonal betrayal, experienced on a very personal level.” – The Stranger Beside Me, by Ann Rule

February 14, 2015 at 4:02 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

51CgK5tPG2L  I’ve already written about rereading the terrific Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson. I did this in conjunction with preparing to teach a course entitled “Stranger Than Fiction: The Literature of True Crime.” The next classic of the genre that I tackled was Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me.

Since its initial publication in 1980, this seminal true crime narrative has been re-issued a number of times. In a 2008 preface to the latest edition, Rule writes, “I never expected to be writing about Theodore Robert Bundy once again.” Didn’t she? From the time of their fateful first meeting as workers at the Seattle Crisis Clinic in 1971, Ted Bundy has haunted Rule’s life, even commandeered her dreams, turning them into nightmares on frequent occasions. But at the beginning, they were friends, even confidants. Or so she thought.

Her determination to write about this experience in clear, honest prose probably saved her sanity; ironically, that same determination turned out to be the making of her as a successful author of true crime books.

There’s very little explicit violence in The Stranger Beside Me until about the book’s half way point. Until he went to Florida, Bundy’s murderous rampage was an oddly shadowed thing. His victims often seemed to disappear into thin air; some were abducted in broad daylight with other people not far distant. There was, in other words, no crime scene – or none until the body was discovered, weeks or even months or years after the commission of the crime. Some of the victims were never found. It was one of the reasons he was so difficult to identify and apprehend.

But once in Florida, the fever seems to have seized Bundy with an overmastering force. On one awful night in Tallahassee, he invaded a Florida State University sorority house and viciously attacked four young women as they slept in their beds. Two were killed; two more, severely injured. He then proceeded to an off campus residence and attacked another female student. The crime scenes were ghastly, and Rule describes them in precise detail. It was horrible, and I could not stop reading.

Professor Jean Murley descibes this phenomenon in her book The Rise of True Crime.  In the introduction, she states that as a teenager, her reading of The Stranger Beside Me sparked a life long fascination with the true crime genre. But alongside that fascination came the insistent question: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”

There is something uniquely dreadful about Ted Bundy. That a person who faces the world with such an easygoing, pleasant demeanor, and is nice looking to boot, could be so innately evil seems almost beyond comprehension – well, it is beyond comprehension.

Ted Bundy

Ted Bundy

In an interview with Library of America, Harold Schechter observes the following:

Our fascination with psychopathic killers derives in no small
part from their outward appearance of normality. Their atrocities provoke in us a
powerful need to comprehend an ultimate human mystery: how people who seem
(and often are) so ordinary, so much like the rest of us, can possess the hearts and minds of monsters.

Hamlet puts it even more succinctly: “The devil hath power / To assume a pleasing shape.”

As I read Rule’s book, I had the sense of following two parallel mysteries. The first concerned the nature of Ted Bundy himself – how such a person could even exist, could conceal his unspeakable compulsions and actions behind a veneer of affability and genuine intelligence. The second mystery resides with the author herself. Rule kept up her acquaintance, if not friendship, with Ted Bundy even when the murders came to light and he went on trial for his life. True, she was writing and publishing about him all the while. But it seemed to me that her feeling of connection with him went deeper than that. It’s  as though she were compelled to continue the work of reconciling in her mind the friend she’d known with the monster he was now known to be.

The last part of the book is occupied with Bundy’s seemingly endless legal maneuvering. Sometimes, when Rule would describe Bundy’s annoyance with a lawyer or judge, I would want to scream out loud, “Who cares how you feel, you horror!!”

Jean Murley observes that “Rule’s description of Bundy as sociopath is classic, and the insights she discovered though him form the basis of contemporary understandings about killers:

On the surface Ted Bundy was the very epitome of a successful man. Inside, it was all ashes. For Ted has gone through life terribly crippled, like a man who is deaf, or blind, or paralyzed. Ted has no conscience.”

Ted Bundy was  electrocuted in Florida in January of 1989. I remember the television footage of the scene outside Florida State Prison in Raiford. People were carrying placards and yelling, “It’s Fry-day, Ted!”
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“One purpose of true crime writing is precisely to provide
decent law-abiding citizens with primal, sadistic thrills—to satisfy what William
James called our ‘aboriginal capacity for murderous excitement.’ The worst
specimens of the genre may not rise above that quasi-pornographic level. But
the best—like those exquisitely ornamented warclubs, broadswords, and flintlocks displayed in museums—are a testimony to something worth celebrating:
the human ability to take something rooted in our intrinsically bloodthirsty
nature and turn it into craft of a very high order, sometimes even into art.”

From Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, as quoted by Harold Schechter
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rule_ann

Ann Rule

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The True Crime Course: a progress report, of sorts

January 29, 2015 at 2:57 am (books, True crime)

9780275993887  There’s a lot to report; this post will necessarily cover just a small amount of material. Doing the research has been an adventure, and a fascinating one at that.  (I am reminded of what Steven Saylor, in the author’s note in Arms of Nemesis, called “a sort of information ecstasy.”)

truecrimea Starting with Harold Schechter’s remarkable anthology, I’ve traveled down interesting byways, some fairly familiar and others more obscure. As I made my way through this hefty compendium – it clocks in at just under 800 pages – I encountered several unexpected names: William Bradford, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Abraham Lincoln (!), James Thurber. But what’s been especially gratifying is the discovery, or rediscovery, of writers of whom I’d never heard or whose names rang only the faintest of bells. I refer in particular to Miriam Allen deFord, Jose Marti, Celia Thaxter, Lafcadio Hearn, and Edmund Pearson. All are not only excellent writers but fascinating individuals in their own right.

Jose Marti

Jose Marti

Miriam Allen deFord

Miriam Allen deFord

Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn

James Thurber

James Thurber

Celia Thaxter in her garden, painted by her friend Childe Hassam

Celia Thaxter in her garden, painted by her friend Childe Hassam

Edmund Pearson, considered by many to be one of the founders of modern true crime writing, was by profession a librarian. His wry and irreverent observations on the foibles of human nature seem strangely apt. Pearson is best known for his work on the Lizzie Borden case. In this passage from The Trial of Lizzie Borden, published in 1937,  he debunks the assertion made by commentators that the Borden murders could only have happened in New England, ancestral home of the stern, humorless and unbending Puritans:

“The major events of the Borden case might have happened anywhere. Its chief
personages could have flourished in Oregon, in Alabama, in France or Russia.
Stepmothers, dissatisfied spinster daughters and grim old fathers are not peculiar to
Massachusetts. It is my impression that they appear in Balzac’s novels.

Perhaps this is mere whistling against the wind. We shall never give up the black-
coated scarecrow of the Puritan; throwing stones at him is too much fun. For three
hundred years New Yorkers have intimated, sometimes jocosely, sometimes angrily, that
the folk of New England, or most of them, are sour bigots…. Acquittals or convictions
have been equally wrong and have somehow resulted from “Bostonian snobbishness” or
“fierce puritanical hatred.”

This has become a convention, fostered by many who profess to scorn convention.

The feverish village patriotism of frontier days subsides for a time, but editors whip it up
again to tickle local pride. We pretend that the vinegar-faced Puritan is still bothering us,
just as we cling to our belief in the parsimonious Scot of the anecdotes.”

Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden

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Some of my generation may remember Dorothy Kilgallen from the famous quiz show What’s My Line.What's My Line?   What's_My_Line_1965
Less well remembered are her achievements as a groundbreaking journalist. “Sex and the All-American Boy,” her piece in the Schechter anthology, begins thus:
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“It was the consensus among my male colleagues, who either saw Margaret Crain  in the flesh or studied her photographs, that she had about as much sex appeal as a pound of chopped liver.”
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Making allowances for pre- PC mid-twentieth century America, this is at the very least an attention grabber. I immediately located and purchasd a copy of Murder One: Six on the Spot Murder Stories, a collection of Kilgallen’s crime writing.
At this point, I’d like to note the challenge of obtaining older true crime titles like this one. They tend to be out of print and unavailable in ebook format. Occasionally we  get lucky: a vintage true crime narrative is made into a high profile film and the source material finds its way back into print. That’s what happened with this volume,originally published in 1927:
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In this excerpt from Gangs, included in the Schechter anthology, Herbert Asbury describes the coming of age of one Monk Eastman, who eventually became a prominent gang leader:
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“His father set him up in business before he was twenty years old with a bird and animal store in Penn Street, near the family establishment, but the boy was restless, and dissatisfied with the monetary rewards of honest toil. He soon abandoned the store and came to New York, where he assumed the name of Edward Eastman and quickly sank to his natural social level. In the middle nineties he began to come into prominence as Sheriff of New Irving Hall, and is said to have been even more ferocious than Eat ‘Em Up Jack McManus, who was making history in a similar office at Suicide Hall and the New Brighton. Eastman went about his duties carrying a huge club, while a blackjack nestled in his hip pocket, and each of his hands was adorned with a set of brass knuckles. In the use of these weapons he was amazingly proficient, and in emergency could wield a beer bottle or a piece of lead pipe with an aptitude that was little short of genius.”
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 I’ve not seen Gangs of New York, but the trailer is pretty impressive:
Back, for a moment to Dorothy Kilgallen, who died in 1965  under somewhat mysterious circumstances at  the age of 52. For more on this, read an article that appeared in Midwest Today Magazine in 2007. It’s entitled “Who Killed Dorothy Kilgallen?”
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Professor Jean Murley of Queensborough College, author of the above pictured book on the true crime genre, raises some important questions on this subject. They’re similar to questions I’ve also been pondering since I began this strange  journey. I’d like to cite two in particular.The first is of a general nature, namely, what is true crime, and what accounts for its appeal at  this particular point in time?

Professor Murley defines true crime as “the narrative treatment of an actual crime.” She adds that in the course of constructing these narratives, writers frequently make use of fictional techniques. (This latter practice has been a source of controversy ever since Truman Capote announced the invention of what he called the nonfiction novel.)

The second question is more personal, almost a cri de coeur from the author herself: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”This one is harder to answer, or at least, to answer honestly. You don’t want to think of your interest in this subject as being purely prurient, or worse, deriving from a perverse enjoyment of the misery of others. Those elements may be present in some hopefully small degree, but Murley offers two other possible explanations for why we read true crime:

A desire to make sense of the (seemingly) senseless
A desire to illuminate the sordid with beams of truth
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Let’s leave it there, for the time being.

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One of the most helpful sites I’ve  found for researching murder cases and murderers is (the rather unfortunately named) Murderpedia.
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I came up with this list of postwar true crime classics:

Compulsion by Meyer Levin – 1956
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – 1965
The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh – 1973
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry  – 1974
Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson – 1976
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer – 1979
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule – 1980
Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss – 1983

Of these eight titles, I have, at one time or another, read five. My plan was to reread In Cold Blood and then read the three that I’d not read before: Compulsion, The Onion Field, and Helter Skelter. Meanwhile I had ordered a copy of Blood and Money, currently available from Carroll & Graf. I vividly recall being spellbound by  this book. What was it about this narrative that, on my first reading all those years ago, had so captivated me? I made  the mistake of opening it and perusing the first few pages….

You can guess the rest. I came up for air 474 pages later, at the end, feeling slightly stunned. I cannot overstate the compelling nature of this stranger than fiction story, infused as it is with Tommy Thompson’s relentless drive. The last two paragraphs are especially powerful. Some books, fiction or nonfiction, attain a kind of greatness at their closing moments. One thinks of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and The Great Gatsby as well. You can put Blood and Money in that select company.

Thomas Thompson died of cancer in 1982 at the age of 49. We are fortunate that he had the time and the will to write this true crime classic.

Thomas Thompson

Thomas Thompson

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My trove of recently acquired true crime material

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“….an existence so so splendid, so compelling, that the paltry realities of this world grew faint by comparison.” – Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison

January 23, 2015 at 12:52 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, France)

853693 This fanciful depiction of the maid of Orleans, or La Pucelle, is one of the images that haunted my childhood. This is another:

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Joan of Arc, by Jules Bastien Lepage 1879 [click to enlarge]

This is one of  the first paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I came to know and love. My mother could hardly wait to show it to me. She knew that even at the age of nine, I’d be wonder struck, as she had been. (She was right, of course.)

I’ve never lost interest in the story of Joan of Arc. So when I read of Kathryn’s Harrison’s new biography, I knew I’d want to read it.

51RddlpwHaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,2001_   I did. It was wonderful.

Ever since she made her appearance in the historical narrative, shaking that narrative to its core, people have longed to know what Joan of Arc actually looked like. The sole contemporaneous likeness we have is a marginal doodle by Clément de Fauquembergue, a clerk in parliament.

405px-Joan_parliament_of_paris

He made this drawing in 1429 without actually having seen its subject.But he was correct in making Joan’s hair black. How do we know this? In the mid nineteenth century, a single strand, inky dark in color, was found embedded in the wax seal of a letter she had dictated.

Harrison tells us that

Likenesses made in her lifetime were destroyed upon her being condemned as a witch, rendering them dangerous devil’s currency.

The image used for this book’s cover is an engraving from the 1903 issue if the magazine Figaro Iluustre: tumblr_n91a4eGm8v1ra3thco1_500

The frontispiece of this book contains a single word: the scrawled signature of the Maid of Orleans:

The_Signature_of_Joan_of_Arc

I was stopped in my tracks. You want to trace the jagged letters with your fingers. (I did.)

‘I was only born the day you first spoke to me….My life only began on the day you told me what I must do, my sword in hand.’

Joan speaking to her voices, in The Lark by Jean Anouilh

Pictorial representations of Joan of Arc have proliferated down through the centuries. And the coming of the motion of the motion picture provided a whole new means of bringing to life her remarkable story.

Harrison quotes liberally from the numerous books and plays in which some version of Joan’s life has been depicted, among them Anouilh’s The Lark (quoted above), George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, The Maid of Orléans by Friedrich Schiller, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, Saint Joan of the Stockyards by Bertolt Brecht,  and Joan of Lorraine by Maxwell Anderson. In addition, the author place’s the events of Joan’s life in their proper context. The mindset of the people of Western Europe in the late Middle Ages is of course foreign to us in many ways. This is especially true as regards the intensity of religious feeling on the one hand, and the prevalence of superstitious beliefs and fears on the other. (A good way to get a vivid feel for the period is to watch Ingmar Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal):

Harrison sums up the essence of this stranger-than-fiction individual thus:

Joan’s poise under fire demonstrated what she couldn’t by herself, even had she been erudite as well as literate. It’s one thing to assemble and polish a portrait of oneself, as St. Augustine, a professor of philosophy and rhetoric, and another to demonstrate at nineteen an integrity that a chorus of scheming pedants couldn’t dismantle, their sophistry displaying Joan’s virtues as she could not have done for herself. Few trial transcripts make good reading; only one preserves the voice of Joan of Arc. While the words of the judges are forgettable – all despots sound alike – Joan’s transcend the constraints of interrogation. Even threatened with torture and assaulted by prison guards attempting her rape, she could not be forced to assume the outline her judges drew for her. That was their script, their story of Joan’s life, and, unlike other such medieval documents, it was reproduced, bound, and distributed by her persecutors with the ironic purpose of establishing their punctiliousness in serving  the laws of canon.

In other words, she ran rings around her tormenters. Her courage and resourcefulness, both on the battlefield and in court, were almost beyond belief.

It can be seen from the above paragraph that Harrison’s meticulous and powerful prose is more than equal to the telling of this extraordinary story. (I particularly love the locution “chorus of scheming pedants.”) I do have a small caveat, however: Harrison writes this biography from a distinctly feminist perspective, or at least so it seemed to this reader. I was not troubled by this, because while she makes no secret of the gloss she places on certain aspects of this story,  she does not harp on ideological convictions. They’re there, in other words, but not to excess. They do not detract – nothing detracts, really – from this incredible tale.

Yet another biography of the Maid of Orleans is due out in May. The author, Helen Castor, is a distinguished British historian.  JoanofArcCastor

A brief biography of Joan with excellent illustrations can be found at Live Science.

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Finally, I recommend the (silent) film The Passion of Joan of Arc. It was made in 1928 by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. The history of this film is in itself rather unlikely. For one thing, it was very nearly lost to posterity. For another its star, Maria (sometimes called Renee) Falconetti did such an uncanny job of bringing Joan to life that it’s almost as though she were channeling rather than acting. Dreyer himself called her “the martyr’s reincarnation.”

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Several full length versions of The Passion of Joan of Arc reside on YouTube. The variations have mainly to do with the soundtrack. Voices of Light, a new soundtrack for the film, was written in 1985 by Richard Einhorn. It accompanies the Criterion release of the film.

The version below has no sound at all and French subtitles only. The final fifteen minutes are extremely harrowing and need no words whatsoever.

 

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“‘The triumphal progress of Linnet Ridgeway in her golden car….'” – a discussion of Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

January 18, 2015 at 4:55 pm (Anglophilia, Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

Beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway marries Simon Doyle. From this fateful and impulsive act, a world of trouble arises, starting with the couple’s Egyptian honeymoon.

But the great question, the  crucial question is…Why should we care?

51NjwLTlT6L  Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects discussed Death on the Nile, the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie. Led by Frank, one of our newer members and himself an aspiring writer of crime fiction, this proved to be an especially lively session.

Frank got us started by asking up front for  our opinions of the novel. In this space, I recently advised against opening a book discussion this way, but on this occasion, the gambit worked exceptionally well. The first few responses were fairly positive, but then Yours Truly, the curmudgeon for the evening, weighed in. Way too plot driven, I complained, at the expense of character development and setting evocation. We’re supposed to be in Egypt, for Heaven’s sake! Where are the descriptions of the wonders of antiquity? Instead, we have a group made up mostly of spoiled rich people and insufferable snobs (the usual suspects, in other words) playing out their petty psychodramas in the cramped confines of a cruise vessel called the Karnak. (Pauline opined that it would have  been a good thing if the ship had simply sunk, a view with which I concurred, as did several others.)

Admittedly, the basic murder plot was very cunning, but in order for it to work, circumstances had to obtain which were by no means a sure thing.  Meanwhile, readers were tossed enough red herrings to make a large seafood salad, and I admit that in this regard, Christie’s ingenuity positively shone. However, this multiplicity of suspects was made possible by the presence of  large number of characters who drifted in and out of focus as the narrative progressed. Also there are secondary plots involving the theft of valuable jewels and a murderer who foments trouble internationally and who, though his identity is unknown,  is also on board the Karnak. This is a lot to cram into a novel of about 330 pages in length.

In fairness, it must be noted that this novel contained some memorable passages. I liked the “golden car” conceit, and there were other piquant bon mots as well. Agatha Christie’s primary storytelling strength lies in the creation of clever puzzles that are difficult to unravel before she unravels them for you. In the first Golden Age of British crime writing, this skill was considered a key asset in an author of detective fiction, and Christie did it as well if not better than just about anybody else. (Frank admitted that he’s a great admirer of this kind of plotting – to the extent that he uses a computer to map puzzles like this one.) But it must be said that as crime fiction has evolved over the decades, character creation and evocative setting have become more or less coequal in importance with storytelling.

(Someone observed that for P.D. James, the setting sometimes came first – at least, in her imagination. The characters and their story then emerged from that setting, which remained throughout a powerful element in the story.)

Generally speaking, with regard to the works of Agatha Christie, our groups spans the spectrum from those who are unabashed fans to those who – well, who for the most part are not fans, unabashed or otherwise. Most of us dwell somewhere in the middle ground. There are some Christie works for which I have genuine affection; numbered among them are several of the Poirot novels and stories and just about anything with Miss Marple in it. Among my favorites: The Labors of Hercules, Five Little Pigs, The Body in the Library, and Murder in Mesopotamia. Finally, in my view, some of Agatha Christie’s later works, featuring neither Poirot nor Miss Marple, are among her most  powerful. I am thinking in particular of Endless Night and The Pale Horse.

Also we should keep in mind the jewel like quality of many of Dame Agatha’s short stories. Ann mentioned “Philomel Cottage.” This is one of the most chilling narratives in the canon. It can be found in two Christie collections: The Listerdale Mystery and Witness for the Prosecution. (It’s also included in an excellent if obscure collection that I acquired several years ago called Murder Short and Sweet.) “Philomel Cottage” has that atmosphere of dread that was so memorably evoked in The Pale Horse. In fact, my favorite works by Christie have this characteristic, which at times is  characterized by supernatural overtones. My favorite story collection is The Tuesday Club Murders, aka The Thirteen Problems. One story in particular, “The Idol House of Astarte,” is especially haunting.

tuesday club

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Witness_for_the_Prosecution

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One of the most gratifying aspects of Tuesday night’s discussion was its wide ranging scope. In addition to Death on the Nile, we talked about other works by Christie and about the way in which she handles the various facets of crime fiction: primarily plot, character development, and setting. For the sake of comparison, other authors, such as P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, and Theodore Dreiser, were brought into the conversation. (What this means, of course, is that in this post,  I’ve by no means “covered” Tuesday’s discussion in its entirety – just the highlights, and what I’m at present able to recall.)

Marge recommended the 1978 film version of Death on the Nile, memorable largely because of its cast, among them David Niven, Mia Farrow, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Angela Lansbury, with Peter Ustinov in the role of the imperturbable Belgian detective. I very much enjoyed the 2004 version with David Suchet. It was gloriously photographed, displaying all the wonder of Egypt that was so lacking in the book. (In the Suchet film, Colonel Race is played by James Fox, brother of actor Edward Fox and father of Laurence Fox, who plays Hathaway in the Inspector Lewis series.)

This was Frank’s first time leading a discussion for our group, and to my mind, it went about as well as one could possibly wish. His open mindedness, genuine curiosity, and probing questions resulted in numerous lively and rewarding exchanges. Well done!

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After its acquisition by the National Trust, Greenway, Agatha Christie’s country home, was opened to the public in 2009. For those of us who have met Christie scholar John Curran and toured  Greenway Estate, any visiting – or revisiting – of her works must invariably evoke memories of these excursions.

Greenway

Greenway

Here’s a recently discovered (by me, at least) video featuring David Suchet and Matthew Pritchard, grandson of Agatha Christie, at Greenway:

Finally, in the “Everything is connected to everything else” department:

This article links the Christie novel N or M? with the top secret activities taking place at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Christie’s connection with Bletchley was not through Alan Turing, subject of the current film The Imitation Game,” but through Alfred Dilwyn Knox,at  the time a leading British codebreaker.  Knox is one of  the subjects of The Knox Brothers, novelist Penelope Fitzgerald’s group biography of her gifted father Edmund Knox and his equally gifted siblings. It’s a wonderful, quintessentially British book. Fitzgerald is one of my favorite novelists, and I’ve lately been afraid of her slipping into obscurity. Happily this has been prevented by Hermione Lee’s celebrated new biography, which I very much look forward to reading.

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Book reviews and book reviewers

January 6, 2015 at 6:02 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers)

This past Sunday, Ron Charles of the Washington Post enumerated the books he’s looking forward to reading in the coming year. The column was squeezed into a tiny space. I almost missed it, and in case you actually did miss it, click here.

Ron Charles, Michael Dirda, and Jonathan Yardley, all of the Washington Post, are the most wonderful and perceptive book reviewers. Together these three have continually promoted and celebrated the reading life on behalf of those of us who live in the greater Washington area. Just last month, Jonathan Yardley announced his impending retirement. Oh, no! One hopes that he’ll still grace the pages of Book World from time to time and share his literary knowledge and boundless enthusiasm with us.

As a gift to us on the occasion of his farewell, Mr. Yardley composed a list of titles that have become, over the years, his personal favorites.   Like a little kid who does well on a test, I was delighted to find that out of the fifteen fiction titles on his list, I’d read eleven!

From 2003 to 2010, Jonathan Yardley wrote a column called Second Reading, which he describes as “an occasional series in which the Post’s book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.” One of my favorites from among these essays is entitled “Six Gifted Englishwomen.”

Mr. Yardley’s Second Reading pieces have been collected in a book by the same name.

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Jonathan Yardley, at ease - at last!

Jonathan Yardley, at ease – at last!

 

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The Girl Next Door: Ruth Rendell at the summit of her powers

January 6, 2015 at 3:25 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I was waiting for something – anything! – to fire me up again, in service to  Books to the Ceiling. This did it:

rendellnextdoor

In the waning years of World War Two, a group of children discover a series of tunnels near their neighborhood. Originally intended as part of a new housing development, they lay abandoned in the earth when the onset of war delayed the projected buildings.

The children find these subterranean passages to be ideal places to play. Far from the prying eyes of adults, they construct their own world there. One of the girls rather mysteriously dubs the tunnels ‘qanats.’  A term of Middle Eastern origin denoting “a series of well-like vertical shafts, connected by gently sloping tunnels,”  qanats is a lovely word, one that effortlessly breaks the ironclad rule that decrees that the letter q must always be followed by a u.

Eventually the children are chased out of the tunnels and banished from playing there by John Winwood the father of one their number, Michael. In those days, one of them later reflected, children did as they were told by the adults in their world. None of them ever went back.

The years passed and they grew up, and away from one other. Decades pass. Then, from deep inside their old hiding place, an ugly secret is disgorged, and they are once again thrown together. It proves to be  highly combustible reunion.

The Girl Next Door  contains a love story mesmerizing in its intensity, and also the most affecting description of a cruel and loveless childhood that I’ve encountered outside of Charles Dickens. (And yes, I am putting Ruth Rendell in that rarefied company.)

More than anything, this novel is about old age and its inevitable  mixture of dread and hope, fragility and strength, anger and passivity, the frustration of feeling outdated and irrelevant at war with an equally defiant determination  not to care, sadness, resignation, acceptance – and the strange and unexpected apparition of what I would call a kind of grace.

I was gripped by the whole scenario, from beginning to end.

Here is the meditation of one character who is forced, by circumstances beyond her control, into a profound and essential change:

Now Alan’s gone, said Rosemary to herself, I don’t much care. I did at first but now I don’t. That’s how it is with me. Calm, at peace, thinking ahead to all the clothes she would be able to make uninterruptedly, she began to pin the velvet pieces together. Tomorrow she would go to the shop which had reopened when knitting became fashionable again two or three years ago and buy enough wool to make herself a twinset. Something for the new baby too? I don’t think so. Freya wouldn’t appreciate it, so why bother?

Why do anything at all I don’t enjoy? I won’t. That’s how it is  for me now.

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One caveat: the cast of characters is rather large, and you may initially have trouble separating out the various strands of the narrative. Don’t worry; they’ll fall into place fairly quickly.

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In an article in the London Evening Standard, Mark Sanderson declares The Girl Next Door to be equal in greatness to Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis and Memento Mori by Muriel Spark: “Rendell’s novels, for all their aberrations, establish a sense of order that is deeply satisfying.” How true. I cherish those ‘aberrations’ as much as I appreciate – deeply – the underlying sense of order. Well put, Mr. Sanderson.

As i began reading this novel, I was reminded of this author’s A Fatal Inversion, which she wrote under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. My first thought was – oh, surely, this won’t be that good. Ah, but it was.

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Well done – very well done indeed, Baroness Rendell of Babergh.

queenOfCrimeAuthor01

 

 

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