V. Historical mysteries
The Apothecary Rose and The Lady Chapel by Candace Robb
Robb vividly evokes the world of 14th century Britain.
P.F. Chisholm does likewise for the 16th century in A Famine of Horses . Chisholm’s writing is enlivened by an irony and irreverence rarely encountered in historical fiction, which has an occasional tendency to take itself too seriously. Her protagonist, Sir Robert Carey, is based on an historical figure. The scenario she depicts, up north by the Scottish borders, is rife with a sort of cheerful, energetic lawlessness. This too is based in the factual history of the period. In her introduction to this novel, Chisholm tells us that “…I first met Sir Robert Carey by name in the pages of George MacDonald Fraser’s marvellous history of the Anglo-Scottish borders, “’The Steel Bonnets’.” I love this quote from Fraser:
The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.
This series currently encompasses six novels. They’re not all as compelling as the first, though A Chorus of Innocents, the most recent, I thought was every bit as good as Famine.
A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake. The first entry in the Cragg and Fidelis series, one that deserves to be much better known than it is. Set very specifically in eighteenth century Preston, Lancashire, and peopled with an exceptionally appealing cast of characters. (See the link at the beginning of this post.)
The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor
The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Wow! A standalone novel of tremendous depth and power. The year is 1869. Amid the oppression of a community of Scottish crofters by cruel and heedless overseers, a young man’s anger and resentment build steadily until they reach the boiling point. His Bloody Project made the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2016, apparently astonishing certain folk among the ‘literati.’
Judge Dee at Work and The Haunted Monastery by Robert Hans van Gulik (historical and international!) Here’s a case in which the story of how these books came to be written is as fascinating as the books themselves. I wrote of this in some detail in a previous post.
Born in the Netherlands in 1910, Robert Van Gulik spent most of his childhood in what was then the Dutch East Indies and is now Jakarta, Indonesia. While there. he learned Mandarin as well as other languages. He seems to have been an intellectually voracious and multi-talented individual whose life was cheifly characterized by a love of all things Chinese. The site RechterTie.nl is a veritable goldmine of information on this fascinating man his work.
Illustrations by Robert Van Gulik
The Judge Dee mysteries take place during the 600s (Tang Dynasty). In Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart, events transpire in an era much closer to our own: the early 1700s. We are nonetheless presented with kingdom which, for all its riches, remains largely aloof from Western influences. The Jesuits, however, have made significant incursions into the culture of this isolationist empire. It is their presence, and their influence, that lie at the heart of this impressive first novel.
Li Du is an exiled scholar whose wanderings take him to Dayan, a city at the edge of China’s empire. Here, feverish preparations are under way for a festival in honor of the Emperor, whose arrival is imminent. A shocking murder disrupts the proceedings, and Li Du, a cousin of the ruling magistrate, finds himself pressed into the role of detective. The Emperor is due to arrive in Dayan in a matter of days. Li Du is required to have solved the mystery by that time. It is a daunting task.
So, to be honest, is the reading of this novel – at least, it has been, for me. (I’ve got about 45 pages to go.) Hart spends a fair amount of time describing life in the city of Dayan during this era. Her writing is wonderful, but in the midst of her rich prose elaborations, I found it all too easy to lose the thread of the plot. It seemed at times to wander like the depiction of a sinuous landscape one sees in certain paintings from the Qing Dynasty.
Clearing after Rain over Streams and Mountains
by Wang Hui, 1662
There are several examples of story within a story in Jade Dragon Mountain. In one instance, one of the featured characters was none other than Judge Dee. Another story is the retelling of an old Sufi legend that I first came across in a biography of Somerset Maugham. Maugham retells the story in his play Sheppey. Sometimes referred to as “Death Comes to Baghdad,” sometimes as “The Appointment in Samarra,” it is more of a fable, actually, its message being that we cannot outrun the fate that awaits each of us.
I’ve already had occasion to praise Elsa Hart’s writing. Some passages in this novel rise to the poetic. Here Li Du, traveling in mountainous terrain, is enjoying a rare moment of repose after a meal. Gradually he finds himself enveloped in clouds and mist.
The quiet deepened into silence. Li Du did not move, but rested his eyes on the soft white expanse. As he watched, the cloud shifted and broke. He saw, as if through a window, a tree on the opposite side of the gorge. It was a dead, hollowed oak, blackened by fire. Only one branch remained, reaching out perpendicular to the trunk. The vapor thickened, the window closed, and the tree was gone.
Another opening appeared. Through this new window Li Du saw movement, and though the could make out the rounded back of a little bear trundling across a clearing into a copse of evergreens. Again the mist moved, erasing the scene.The next break in the cloud framed a waterfall, a still, silver column too distant for him to perceive its tumbling energy. That window closed, another opened, and he saw a tree. It was in the same place as the tall oak he had seen minutes earlier. Only this one was not hollow, but alive, its limbs and trunk whole and draped in garlands of lichen.
He imagined then t hat t he shifting clouds contained thousands of years, and that he had seen the same tree in two different times. What if every moment of that tree’s existence, the whole of is past and its future, exited at once, here in this blank and infinite cloud?
Oh that we could each of us be vouchsafed such a lovely vision!
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Herdwick sheep, a heritage breed native to England’s Lake District
And these as well:
Floss and Tan, dear ones as well as essential helpers
And love James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life.
Ever since Rebanks’s book hit the bestseller list in Britain, he’s become something of a celebrity. It’s easy to see why:
As a celebration of an ancient way of life that persists despite the odds, The Shepherd’s Life is incomparable.
You could bring a Viking man to stand on our fell with me and he would understand what we were doing and the basic pattern of our farming year. The timing of each task varies depending on the different valleys and farms. Things are driven by the seasons and necessity, not by our will.
Sometimes I am left alone somewhere on the mountain, waiting for the others, alone in the silence. Skylarks rise, ascending in song. Sometimes there are moments when not a sheep or a man can be seen. Away in the distance I can see the main roads and the villages. No one really knows how long this fell gathering has happened, but it is quite possibly as much as five thousand years.
With The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks has given us a priceless gift. If you need to feel better about a beautiful landscape preserved as well as a way of life enriched with animals, children, and nature’s joys and rewards, read it.
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[For Part One of this series of posts, click here.]
IV. International authors and settings
The Laughing Policeman and the other nine Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Sweden)
Here is what the Salomonsson Agency says on its website about Sjowall and Wahloo:
“If any crime novels deserve to be called modern classics, it must be the ten police procedure novels about Martin Beck and his colleagues: with them, the Swedish writer’s duo Maj Sjöwall (1935-) and Per Wahlöö (1926-1975) virtually created the modern police procedure novel, their imitators count by thousands. The Decalogue of Sjöwall-Wahlöö, written in the sixties and seventies, is nothing less than the Holy Grail of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, a chronicle of the painful creation of modern society.
Their story is poignant. Per Wahloo died of cancer in 1975 at the age of 48, when Maj Sjowall was 40. They had been together for thirteen years, sharing their lives and writing their books. Maj Sjowall is now 81, and has been coaxed out of retirement on occasion so that she might appear at certain mystery conferences to speak and to receive homage, on behalf of herself and her late partner, from appreciative readers.
This series of ten novels is sometimes referred to collectively as The Story of a Crime. In this space I’ve written about The Terrorists and The Fire Engine That Disappeared. In addition I highly recommend Roseanna (first in the series) and The Laughing Policeman.
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Don’t Look Back, and Black Seconds by Karin Fossum (Norway)
The Demon of Dakar and Open Grave by Kjell Eriksson (Sweden)
Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio (Italy)
Fossum’s star would seem to be on the rise; however, neither Eriksson nor Carofiglio have received the recognition that is their due. At least, that’s how I see it. In my own small way, in this space, I try to correct that grievous oversight.
The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon (Italy) I’ve reviewed a number of Leon’s Guido Brunetti novels in this space. I feel that with this one, her gift for evoking compassion and empathy is at its pinnacle.
The Possibility of Violence by D.A. Mishani (Israel)
The Dark Vineyard and The Patriarch by Martin Walker (France). Love this series; it just keeps getting better and better. (See the link provided at the top of this post.)
The Bookseller by Mark Pryor (France)
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan (India)
This is a book to turn to when you need something on the light side. But it’s not frivolous; on the contrary, it is full of incident and vivid local color, and characters that one cares about. Here’s
Vaseem Khan‘s explanation of how he came to embark upon this series:
I first saw an elephant lumbering down the middle of the road in 1997 when I arrived in the city of Mumbai, India to work as a management consultant. It was the most unusual sight I had ever encountered and served as the inspiration behind my Baby Ganesh series of light-hearted crime novels. I was born in London in 1973, went on to gain a Bachelors degree in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics, before spending a decade on the subcontinent helping one of India’s premier hotel groups establish a chain of five-star environmentally friendly ‘ecotels’ around the country. I returned to the UK in 2006 and have since worked at University College London for the Department of Security and Crime Science where I am continually amazed at the way modern science is being used to tackle crime. Elephants are third on my list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, not always in that order.
Latest entries in two of the above series:
This novel is outstanding. I find Eriksson’s mixture of tenderness and violence (thankfully not dwelt upon) strangely compelling. But be aware: Stone Coffin, translated into English (meticulously and gracefully by Ebba Segerberg) and published here in 2016, is actually the third entry in this series and was initially published in Sweden in 2001. (The first two have yet to be translated into English, according to the entry in Stop! You’re Killing Me.) Nowhere in Stone Coffin could I find an explanation of this fact. The result was some confusion on my part. I’d already read The Princess of Burundi (#4, 2006), The Demon of Dakar (#7, 2008), Black Lies, Red Blood (#9, 2014), and Open Grave (#10, 2015). I was already following Lead Detective Ann Lindell’s progress through the adventure of motherhood! Imagine my confusion when I came upon this same character in Stone Coffin as she’s first coming to terms with being pregnant. This conundrum teased at the back of my mind throughout my reading of this otherwise wonderful book. Of course, if I’d scrutinized the copyright information at the front, I would have gotten a clue. But I didn’t do that, so the matter didn’t come clear to me until I’d finished the novel and checked Eriksson’s Stop! You’re Killing Me entry. No matter; I loved the book anyway, just as I have all the others that I’ve read so far.
There may have been a bit more in the way of legalistic jargon in this novel than was strictly necessary, but I very much enjoyed it anyway. This is largely due to the presence of Avvocato Guido Guerrieri, a character of whom I’ve become inordinately fond.
A Fine Line has recently received mention in both Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine and Mystery Scene Magazine:
What a fabulous novel, the fifth in this series. This Italian author writes like a dream. While telling a wonderful story, he expresses some profound truths about life, “justice” and personal character….This book transcends any form of legal thriller to become a thoroughly engaging novel on many levels. Kudos also to the translator for doing such a superb job.
Steele Curry in Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, Summer/Fall 2016
Courtroom novels from outside the USA, Britain, or other English speaking jurisdictions are are rare, but one of the best such series comes from Italian author Gianrico Carofiglio, whose quirky and likable advocate Guido Guerrrieri, a lifetime boxer who has conversations with his punching bag returns in A Fine Line….The novel thoughtfully and unsparingly dramatizes dilemmas in legal ethics that cross cultural and national lines. All the books in this series are worthwhile.
Jon L. Breen in Mystery Scene, Winter 2017
I’d like to add that Carofliglio also writes standalone novels; I can recommend The Silence of the Wave.
If you’re trying to locate crime fiction in particular settings, the incredibly useful StopYoureKillingMe site is the place to go.
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So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
When I am trying out a new pen in a shop, I write out the first words of Beowulf as translated by Seamus Heaney. Years ago, I memorized that opening page. After a while, those were the words that came most readily to hand when I was testing the flow of ink. And, once, an attendant in a shop, reading over my shoulder, said: “Hey, that’s real nice. Did you just make that up right now or…?”
From the Preface to Known and Strange Things: Essays, by Teju Cole
A longboat full of Vikings, promoting the new British Museum exhibition, was seen sailing past the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Famously uncivilised, destructive and rapacious, with an almost insatiable appetite for rough sex and heavy drinking, the MPs nonetheless looked up for a bit to admire the vessel.
The Times, 16 April 2014
Prefatory to the text of Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas, by Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough
I kicked off the proceedings on Saturday by referring to Terrence Rafferty’s article in last summer’s Atlantic Magazine. It was entitled “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels.” One could quibble with such a blanket generalization, but he does a lot to bolster his contention:
Once upon a time, in the smoky, violent neverland of crime fiction, there were seductive creatures we called femmes fatales, hard women who lured sad men to their doom. Now there are girls. It started, of course, with Gillian Flynn, whose 2012 suburban thriller, Gone Girl, told a cruel tale of marriage and murder and sold a zillion copies.
( I like the term “suburban thriller,” but I was, alas, a Gone Girl dissenter. I found both the characters and the writing so irritating that I was unable to finish the book.)
Rafferty is somewhat wistful concerning the prior hegemony of the tough guy private eye:
For those of us who choose to entertain ourselves, from time to time, with made-up stories of murder, mayhem, and deceit, this is actually a welcome development, because the men with guns don’t do their job nearly as well as they used to. They’re old, they’re getting tired of walking through those doors, and the heroes they used to threaten—lone-wolf private eyes like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—have practically disappeared from the genre.
He confesses, though, that “I do still go back every now and then to the eccentric sleuths inspecting corpses in locked rooms, or to the hard-boiled dicks walking down their mean streets, but only as an exercise in nostalgia.” (As one who is prone to similar attacks of nostalgia and who is currently reading The Moving Target, Ross MacDonald’s first Lew Archer novel, I understand how he feels.)
At any rate, let us proceed with Trend Number One:
I. Domestic / psychological suspense
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross
II. Police procedurals by women (and featuring women as investigators):
The Red Road by Denise Mina
The Trespasser by Tana French
A Man of Some Repute and A Question of Inheritance by Elizabeth Edmondson. These are the first two books in a series called A Very English Mystery. I’ve recently read both and enjoyed them a great deal. Sadly, with only these two entries completed, Edmondson passed away in January of last year. Her son, writer Anselm Audley, has committed to finishing a third book in the series. I’m grateful to him for this. I became very attached to the characters created by Edmondson: the brave yet tenderhearted intelligence operative Hugo Hawksworth, his feisty and precocious little sister Georgia, the snobbish and secretive Lady Sonia, the wise Father Leo, and the beautiful and generous Freya, who has secrets of her own.
III. The resurgent interest in classic mysteries.
British Library Crime Classics
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon. Farjeon jump starts this gem with one of the best set-ups I’ve ever encountered in crime fiction.
Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, ed. Martin Edwards
Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne features a wonderfully evocative Highland setting, great characters, and a great puzzle plot. Probably my favorite of those that I’ve read so far in this series.
Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton
Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North
Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, edited by Sarah Weinman (Weinman puts out a highly informative newsletter called The Crime Lady. I subscribe to it and recommend it.)
(Felony & Mayhem Press currently has a whopping twenty Allingham titles in its catalog.)
The Clock Strikes Twelve by Patricia Wentworth. If you’re a Miss Marple fan like me, you’ll enjoy Miss Silver novels like this one.
Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham. A delight from beginning to end. No wonder Allingham is A.S. Byatt’s favorite Golden Age writer. Here’s an excerpt:
The room they entered was a typical Cambridge study, aesthetically impeccable, austere, and, save for the two deep arm-chairs before the fire, slightly uncomfortable. As they entered, a wire-haired fox terrier of irreproachable breeding, rose from the hearth-rug and came to meet them with leisurely dignity. Marcus effected an introduction hastily. ‘Foon,’ he said. ‘Written “Featherstonehaugh”.’
Somewhat to his host’s embarrassment Mr Campion shook hands with the dog, who seemed to appreciate the courtesy, for he followed them back to the hearth-rug, waiting for them to be seated before he took up his position on the rug again, where he sat during the rest of the proceedings with the same air of conscious breeding which characterized his master.
Margery Allingham struggled with her weight all her life; my reading informs me that she had thyroid problems. Whatever he cause, she has my complete and total sympathy on that score; moreover, I think she is very pretty, regardless.
This cover art is attributed to Youngman Carter, aka Philip Youngman Carter, artist and writer and husband of Margery Allingham
The Emperor’s Snuff Box by John Dickson Carr
Before the Fact by Francis Iles
Mist on the Saltings by Henry Wade
The D.A. Calls It Murder and other Doug Selby novels by Erle Stanley Gardner.
The D.A. Calls It Murder is an excellent yarn, well told and bristling with the kind of snappy dialog that characterizes crime fiction of 30s. More than that, it was, at least for this reader, an experience in time travel. We find ourselves in a world where telephones are not always available when and where needed, and sending telegrams is often easier – and cheaper – than making long distance calls The idiosyncrasies of typewriters can provide crucial evidence in a murder case, as can laundry marks found on the victims clothing, including his starched collars.
The D.A, Calls It Murder came out as the noir style in crime fiction was in its ascendancy. Dashiell Hammett’s career as a writer was pretty well over (hard to believe), while Raymond Chandler, who’d been churning out stories and articles at a rapid rate, was about to embark on a stellar career as a novelist, starting with 1939’s fully formed masterpiece, The Big Sleep
The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross MacDonald. This is the first Lew Archer I ever read – recommended to me by a close friend, a holder of a doctorate in comparative literature who taught Spanish at Columbia – and it is still my favorite. There’s a scene in this novel that has remained forever etched in my memory:
The striped hearse was standing empty among other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.
The book cover above puts me in mind of the line from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats:
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun….
Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality by John le Carre. The first two George Smiley novels were actually mysteries with a touch of espionage. (I particularly liked the latter, with its setting in a private boys’ school and the attendant claustrophobia and mutual knife thrusting among faculty members.) With the third, the justly famous The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, that emphasis shifted dramatically. The novel caused a sensation and le Carre found himself famous, his sudden renown being greatly aided by the terrific film starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner.
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I prepared this list of online resources to accompany my presentation of Current Trends in Crime Fiction.
Articles and blog posts
Sites of interest
The most useful site on the internet for information on crime fiction. It not only gives the order of books in a series but also provides information about location, ethnicity of protagonists, and loads more. (See the column on the site’s left hand side.) Not to be missed by mystery fans!
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When I read a historical novel I want to find myself immersed in another world: a past world that has come alive. Paulette Jiles has worked this magic in News of the World. Set in Texas in the 1870s, it’s the story story of Captain Jefferson Kidd, a Civil War veteran in his early seventies, who accepts a commission to convey Johanna Leonberger, age ten, to her relations in San Antonio. Johanna has spent the past four years living with Kiowa Indians who kidnapped her after killing her parents. Since the Captain and Johanna are starting out in the very northernmost part of the state, they have a long journey ahead of them. For a conveyance that will serve, Kidd has purchased a green ‘excursion wagon;’ on its side is painted in gold letters Curative Waters East Mineral Springs Texas. His two horses, Pasha and Fancy, will also make up the party.
Along the way, Kidd and Johanna have plenty to contend with. Lawless bands of heavily armed men are freely roaming the countryside. The weather is harsh and unpredictable. There is the constant danger of theft of their meager stores. Kidd ekes these out by hiring venues along the way and therein presenting readings from various newspapers to the state’s news-starved (and sometimes illiterate) denizens.
Meanwhile Johanna, a cheerfully feral child, has become Kiowa in spirit and outlook. It’s some time before the Captain is able to inculcate into her some basic notions of “civilized” behavior. She may be a wild child but she’s an extremely resourceful one. At one point, she gets the herself and the captain out of a tight spot by showing him how to use coins as projectiles in their severely depleted store of ammunition. Amazing!
Jiles’s wonderful writing is enlivened by a sly wit and a telling instinct for le mot juste:
There is a repeat mechanism in the human mind that operates independent of will.
I knew I’d want to remember that. And here’s a wonderful bit of description:
The man was too big to be a human being sand too small to be a locomotive. He had been shot of the tower of the Bardsley mansion and when he fell three stories and struck the ground he probably made a hole big enough to bury a hog in.
Jiles employs the same low key narrative tone in describing a harrowing river crossing:
They slowed as the current stopped them and then it took hold of the little mare and their wagon as well. Crows shot up out of the far bank screaming. Foam churned around them, drift and duff ran on top of the fast water in snaking lines. Briefly the wagon floated. The roan mare snorted, went under, came up and beat at the floodwaters with her hooves. Then she struck hard bottom and they pulled up on the far bank with water draining in streams.
Unavoidably they encounter sad evidence of the devastation wrought by war:
They came to a destroyed cabin and he pulled up and then went inside. Broken cups and pieces of dress material torn on a nail. A doll’s body without a head. He dug a 50-caliber bullet out of the wall with his knife and then carefully placed it on the windowsill as if for a memento. Here were memories, loves, deep heartstring notes like the place where he had been raised in Georgia. Here had been people whose dearest memories were the sound of a dipper dropped in the water bucket after taking a drink and the clink of it as it hit bottom. The quiet of evening.
It goes on.
The plot is not the main point of interest in this novel. It is not especially original. There’s a certain inevitability about the way in which the Captain and Johanna gradually form a bond. But the story is told in so compelling a way that the fate of these characters becomes increasingly crucial. I was very worried about what would happen at the end. I cared tremendously.
News of the World carried me back to one of the greatest reading experiences of my life: Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Jiles’s canvas is smaller here, but I got the same feeling of being transported to a time and place that, when artfully limned, seems to all but overwhelm the senses: namely, the state of Texas in former times.
In her New York Times review of News of the World, Suzanne Berne says the following:
In a world where live oak leaves fall “like pennies” and teams of oxen move in “a ponderous waltz,” everything is news. And at scarcely 200 pages, this exhilarating novel, a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, travels through its marvelous terrain so quickly that one is shocked, almost stricken, to reach the end. So do what I did: Read it again.
I may need to do the same.
A wonderful, wonderful book.
I’m currently having a great deal of fun putting together a presentation on mysteries for my AAUW colleagues. The first title I chose was “Hot trends in Crime Fiction!” I then decided to tone it down a bit; it is now “Current Trends in Crime Fiction.”
Having achieved that much, I then sat back, contemplated the general state of things, and asked myself in all seriousness what those trends might be. This list is what I’ve come up with so far:
Domestic (i.e. psychological) suspense
Classics reissues and rediscoveries
International authors and settings
Use of actual historical personages as detectives
Regional mysteries (U.S.)
Increasing presence of women protagonists
Diminishing number of police procedurals
“Crime fiction is finally getting the critical respect it deserves”
This is by no means definitive, but at present, it seems reasonably workable. (I’ve already penned three posts on the subject.)
It then occurred to me to see if this subject had been tackled elsewhere. As expected, the internet came through with “A History of Detective Stories: Current Trends.” This essay begins with a general assessment of the genre and then moves to a discussion of the challenges posed to mystery fiction by rapidly emerging technologies.
The subgenre that most appeals at the moment is listed above as “Classic reissues and rediscoveries.” I recently wrote a review of The D.A. Calls In Murder, the first entry in Erle Stanley Gardner‘s Doug Selby series. I’ve now read the second and the third – The D.A. Holds a Candle and The D.A. Draws a Circle – and my enjoyment has increased with each perusal.
As I mentioned in the review cited above, these books are hard to find. I’ve been getting them via interlibrary loan from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a wonderful facility which since 1971 has been designated as the (Maryland) State Library Resource Center. Alas, as the series progresses, the volumes themselves are proving to be increasingly fragile. As I was reading in bed the other night, I noticed small pieces of dark brown paper appearing on the blanket. These proved to be escaping from the book’s binding. I prodded the larger piece back into place, but it showed no great inclination to remain there. Now Pratt seems blessedly reluctant to discard books like this, but I can’t help feeling that I might be the last person to borrow this poor decrepit entity.
One of the things I’ve really been enjoying about this series is its artless evocation of a bygone era. In the era between the two World Wars, Southern California was already undergoing some dramatic changes, yet the orange groves, apple orchards, small towns, (like the fictional Madison City where Doug Selby plies his trade) and country roads were still a vivid presence.
The sheriff drove rapidly over the grade, out of the orange lands into the app;e country, and then down a gradual slope between snow-capped mountains to where the country abruptly changed from fertile soil to arid desert.
The dialog is snappy, but Gardner does not overdo the noir lingo. Doug Selby is a very appealing protagonist. Alongside him works Sylvia Martin, intrepid reporter. (Think Lois Lane of Superman fame.) In many noir novels and stories, the only woman on the scene is the perennial femme fatale, so Sylvia’s presence is refreshing, to say the least.
In the climactic scene of The D.A. Draws a Circle, she and Doug, along with the sheriff, become embroiled in a shoot out. Doug is trying to protect her, while she’s quite literally fighting him off. Later she apologizes – after a fashion:
“Gosh, Doug, I’m sorry I kicked at you. But you’re not the only one with a job to do. If I want to take risks, I’ll take them. I had to be in at the finish.”
Selby said, “You’ll stop a slug one of these days, and then what would I do?”
She said indignantly, “I’m just as much entitled to stop slugs as you are.”
“You’re a woman,” Selby said.
Sylvia Martin said, “Well, well. You’re finding that out, are you?”
Oh, yes, he certainly is….
The Selby novels are by and large composed of such dialog exchanges. They move along at a rapid clip; I’m finding them to be excellent escapist reading.
There are moments, though, when Gardner waxes unexpectedly poetical:
Passages like this are welcome, as they’re so rarely encountered in this context.
The archive of Erle Stanley Gardner now resides at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin. Gardner’s study has been digitally recreated at this site. Click here to view.
Congratulations to all those who made it to the Women’s March on Saturday. My heart was with you.
Meanwhile, a column by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, dated Inauguration Day, really got me down. It was about Chuck Schumer’s address. Here’s how it began:
It sounded at first, from my seat in the plaza below the inaugural platform, like a helicopter flying low over the mall, or perhaps an unusually loud jet taking off from Reagan National Airport. But I turned to discover the noise was the combined booing and jeering of thousands in the sea of red “Make America Great Again” caps.
They weren’t only booing and jeering Schumer, the highest ranking Democrat in the land; they were booing and jeering what he was saying.
“Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, whether we are immigrant or native-born, whether we live with disabilities or do not, in wealth or in poverty,” the Senate minority leader said, “we are all exceptional in our commonly held, yet fierce devotion to our country.”
The booing intensified when Schumer mentioned “immigrant.” It continued as he read a letter from a Civil War soldier saying “my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.”
The crowd responded: “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
Is this what we’ve come to, America?
And so I am doubly grateful to Saturday’s marchers. By being where they were and doing what they did, with joyous and exultant demeanor, they answered Dana Milbank’s question with a resounding, “NO!”
I’ve been very late getting this done, I know. This is mainly due to my work on what was the most challenging book discussion preparation I’ve ever undertaken. The book was Paul Theroux’s Deep South. The discussion took place on this Thursday past, and I’m glad to report that it went quite well, mainly due to the lively and insightful comments of my colleagues in AAUW Readers.
Mostly it’s done. And what a sweet relief!
Audiobooks are very vital to me. I only listen to them in my car, and I want to feel a sense of happy anticipation when, belted in and ready to roll, I fire up my current choice. I knew I’d get that good feeling from a work by Alexander McCall Smith, and so I am now listening to the 44 Scotland street series.
Love Over Scotland, the third entry, features a prose passage so moving – at least it was to me – that as soon as I got back home, I downloaded the novel in its entirety.
The excerpt I refer to consists of a letter being written by the artist Angus Lordie to his friend , the beautifully named Domenica Macdonald. Domenica, described as a “freelance anthropologist,” is at that time halfway around the world studying the mores and folkways of a community of pirates inhabiting the Malacca Straits. (McCall Smith’s imagination as usual, ranges freely from the domestic to the remote to the downright bizarre.)
In this missive, Angus gives voice to his feelings upon the loss of a friend in strange and sad circumstances. I’m going to quote the whole thing here:
“My dear Domenica,” he began. “I write this letter seated at the kitchen table. It is one of those cold, bright winter mornings that I know you love so much, and which make this city sparkle so. But the letter I write you will be a sad one, and I am sorry for that. When one is alone and far from home, as you are, then one longs for light-hearted, gossipy letters. This is not one of those.
“Yesterday, as I was painting his portrait, Ramsey Dunbarton, a person I have known for a good many years, died in my studio. He was seated in my portrait chair, talking to me, when he suddenly stopped, mid-anecdote. I thought nothing of it and continued to paint, but when I glanced from behind my canvas I saw him sitting there, absolutely still. I thought that he had gone to sleep and went back to my painting, but then, when I looked again, he was still motionless. I realised that something was wrong, and indeed it was. Ramsey had died. It was very peaceful, almost as if somebody had silently gone away, somewhere else, had left the room. How strange is the human body in death–so still, and so vacated. That vitality, that spark, which makes for life, is simply not there. The tiny movements of the muscles, the sense of there being somebody keeping the whole physical entity orchestrated in space–that goes so utterly and completely. It is no longer there.
“You did not know Ramsey. I thought that you might perhaps have met him at one of my drinks parties, but then, on reflection, I decided that you had not. I do not think that you and he would necessarily have got along. I would never accuse you of lacking charity, dear one, but I suspect that you might have thought that Ramsey was a little stuffy for you; a little bit old-fashioned, perhaps.
“And indeed he was. Many people thought of him as an old bore, always going on about having played the part of the Duke of Plaza-Toro at the Church Hill Theatre. Well, so he did, and he mentioned it yesterday afternoon, which was his last afternoon as himself, as Auden puts it in his poem about the death of Yeats. But don’t we all have our little triumphs, which we remember and which we like to talk about? And if Ramsey was unduly proud of having been the Duke of Plaza-Toro, then should we begrudge him that highlight in what must have been a fairly uneventful life? I don’t think we should.
“He was a kind man, and a good one too. He loved his wife. He loved his country–he was a Scottish patriot at heart, but proud of being British too. He said that we should not be ashamed of these things, however much fashionable people decry love of one’s country and one’s people. And in that he was right.
“He only wanted to do good. He was not a selfish man. He did not set out to make a lot of money or get ahead at the expense of others. He was not like that. He would have loved to have had public office, but it never came his way. So he served in a quiet, rather bumbling way on all sorts of committees. He was conservative in his views and instincts. He believed in an ordered society in which people would help and respect one another, but he also believed in the responsibility of each of us to make the most of our lives. He called that ‘duty’, not a word we hear much of today.
“There is a thoughtless tendency in Scotland to denigrate those who have conservative views. I have never subscribed to that, and I hope that as a nation we get beyond such a limited vision of the world. It is possible to love one’s fellow man in a number of ways, and socialism does not have the monopoly on justice and concern. Far from it. There are good men and women who believe passionately in the public good perspectives. Ramsey was as much concerned with the welfare and good of his fellow man as anybody I know.
“People said that he had a tendency to go on and on, and I suppose he did. But those long stories of his, sometimes without any apparent point to them, were stories that were filled, yes filled, with enthusiasm for life. Ramsey found things fascinating, even when others found them dull. In his own peculiar way, he celebrated the life of ordinary people, ordinary places, ordinary things.
“I suspect that Scotland is full of people like Ramsey Dunbarton. They are people whose lives never amount to very much in terms of achievement. They are not celebrated or fêted in any way. But there they are, doing their best, showing goodwill to others, paying their taxes scrupulously, not cheating in any way, supporting the public good. These people are the backbone of the country and we should never forget that.
“His death leaves me feeling empty. I feel guilty, too, at the thought of the occasions when I have seen him heaving into sight and I have scuttled off, unable to face another long-winded story. I feel that I should have done more to reciprocate the feelings of friendship he undoubtedly had for me. I never asked him to lunch with me; the invitations always came from him. I never even acknowledged him as a friend. I never told him that I enjoyed his company. I never told him that I thought he was a good man. I gave him no sign of appreciation.
“But we make such mistakes all the time, all through our lives. Wisdom, I suppose, is seeing this and acting upon it before it is too late. But it is often too late, isn’t it?–and those things that we should have said are unsaid, and remain unsaid for ever.
“I am heart-sore, Domenica. I am heart-sore. I shall get over it, I know, but that is how I feel now. Heart-sore.”
He finished, read it through, and then very slowly tore it up. He would not send it to Domenica, even if he meant every word, every single word of it.
I’d never heard of Cesar Aira until I encountered him in a review in the Wall Street Journal written by Nathaniel Popkin. Popkiin was actually reviewing a novel called Zama by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto. In the concluding paragraph, reference was made to Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira, Di Benedetto’s fellow Argentinian.
Two things about Episode immediately piqued my interest. First, there was the fact that the protagonist was a painter; his name is Johann Moritz Rugendas. Secondly, Rugendas had been encouraged to travel to South America in order to find new and exotic subjects with which to fuel his artistic impulses. The individual urging him on this course of action was none other than the great explorer and natural scientist Alexander Von Humboldt. Early last year I read The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Von Humboldt’s “New World” became my new world – what an absolutely terrific read this was! Had it been up to me, Andrea Wulf would have won every existing literary award and then some.
The following is from Aira’s novel:
Rugendas was a genre painter. His genre was the physiognomy of nature, based on a procedure invented by Humboldt. The great naturalist was the father of a discipline that virtually died with him: Erdtheorie or La Physique du monde, a kind of artistic geography, an aesthetic understanding of the world, a science of landscape. Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an all-embracing scholar, perhaps the last of his kind: his aim was to apprehend the world in its totality; and the way to do this, he believed, in conformity with a long tradition, was through vision.
And so I read Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Though slight in length – more a novella than a novel – it is one of the most unusual and powerful works of fiction I have ever encountered. Johann Moritz Rugendas was an actual historical personage, a German artist of the early nineteenth century who traveled to South America in search of new vistas to paint. But although this novel takes Rugendas’s life as its starting point, it diverges significantly from his actual biography. This is nowhere more true than in regard to the episode in the title. Actually, ‘episode’ is a misleadingly innocuous term to describe what actually happens to Rugendas shortly before the novel’s midpoint. I don’t want to say anything more about it except this: it haunts me.
I do think I can say that for me, this novel is about two things: the courage that individuals are capable of in extreme circumstances, and the sustaining devotion that one friend freely gives to another.
The writing is extraordinary. Kudos to Cesar Aira for his intense lyricism and meticulous descriptions, and to Chris Andrews, the translator.
At a recent book club discussion I attended, some readers expressed impatience with descriptive passages that impede the pace of a book’s plot. While I have encountered this from time to time in my own reading, the sheer beauty of the prose in Episode was one of the main things that kept me riveted to the narrative.
It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away . . . and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alternations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness. Each day was larger and more distant. As the mountains took on weight, the air became lighter and more changeable in its meteoric content, a sheer optics of superposed heights and depths.
I hope to read more of the works of Cesar Aira; I’d like to read Zama as well.
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