Two books that simply must go back to the library

December 9, 2018 at 2:39 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Don’t know about you, but I hate being overdue. So here goes:

  It’s late November, 1963. We meet the following in quick succession:

A small town housewife and mother – think June Cleaver undermined by a restless streak (and a well-intentioned alcoholic husband). Throw in a small time hood and glad hander steeped in the ethos of the Big Easy. Then there’s a vicious mob boss and his highly unconventional enforcer.

It’s a combustible combination. And into its midst bursts an assassination that shakes the world. What has that got to do with this oddball cast of characters? More that you’d think….

This was an amazing read. Toward the end I got so tense and agitated, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to race through the rest of the book or hide it under a stack of magazines – anything to avoid the conclusion I was dreading.

Memorable lines, spoken after a snappy exchange of dialog:

Guidry laughed and glanced at her, taking a fresh look. He liked a woman who could hit the ball back over the net.

An outstanding thriller, on a par with The Bomb Maker.
**************
  I was deeply impressed with You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott, and so was eager to read her next foray into the land of literary suspense. Give Me Your Hand is a worthy follow-up, though for some reason it didn’t grip me with quite the force of its predecessor.

Kit Owens has landed a coveted position in a lab where investigation is under way on the causes of a debilitating form of premenstrual syndrome –  PMS. She has the world figuratively on a string when her old nemesis Diane Fleming is added to the roster of researchers. Nemesis? – surely not; they were friends once. Then whence the atmosphere of dread that Diane brings with her?

I very much liked this novel’s setting. The tangle of relationships within the hothouse lab atmosphere are vividly rendered.  The sense of urgency and uncertainty is heightened by the first person narration. The milieu of scientific research is convincingly portrayed, and made to seem every bit as fraught and competitive as the world of athletics.

An absorbing and worthwhile read.

The brain itself is built with the battered beams of our early years. What the conscious mind forgets, the neurons remember.

 

 

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…“the long trail, the lone trail, the outward trail, the darkward trail.” – The White Darkness by David Grann

December 2, 2018 at 6:20 pm (Book review, books)

How do you get from this: to this:

  Here is the book that explains how it happened.

From boyhood, Henry Worsley had been captivated by the story of the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. He wanted desperately to follow in the footsteps of his idol. Shackleton had actually not achieved his goal of reaching the South Pole. His ship became icebound; he realized that if he were to save his men, he would have to turn back – walk back, in fact. This he did. He lost not a single member of his crew.

[I’d like to inject a brief personal note here: When we were in Edinburgh in 2007, we stayed at the Channings Hotel. This hostelry was made up of an agglomeration of townhouses. Ernest Shackleton and his family had resided in one of them while Sir Ernest served as Secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographic Society, a posted he acceded to in 1904. We stood in the library and drawing room, which remained as Shackleton had left them.
Rrecent research has revealed that The Channings closed last year. Hopefully the rooms that we saw have been preserved.]

After an exemplary thirty-six year career in the British Army, Henry Worsley set about realizing his boyhood dream of walking in the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton His first attempt, made with with two other men, was a resounding success. On January 18, 2009, they reached the South Pole.

Henry Adams, Henry Worsley and Will Gow at the South Pole in 2009

One feels this should have been enough. But sadly it was not. Worsley was not finished. He was driven to make yet another expedition – alone.

This solo undertaking was also a fundraiser for Endeavour, an organization that provides succor, financial and otherwise, for individuals injured in the line of duty to their country. Prince William is a patron. The Endeavour Fund continues its work today and into the future.

That said, I felt deeply frustrated by this story. Henry Worsley had a wife and two children. By all accounts, theirs was a close and loving family. And yet, in spite of this sustaining,  joy giving element in his life, he chose to go forward with an undertaking so punishing and dangerous it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would not survive the attempt.

In fewer than 145 pages, David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon, has penned one of the most riveting narratives I’ve ever read. And at its heart, a profound question; namely, what does a person with an obsession like Henry Worsley’s owe to the people who love him?

 

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After Emily, by Julie Dobrow

November 25, 2018 at 4:29 pm (Book review, books, Poetry)

    After Emily is subtitled: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet. The two women were Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham.

Yes, they were both remarkable. Although they strove relentlessly for the same goal – the publication in full of Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters – their temperaments could not have been more unlike. Mabel Loomis Todd was ambitious, outspoken, and gifted in many areas of endeavor: art, writing, and music among them. In an era of almost Victorian restraint, she was unabashedly sensual. Finally, into the bargain, she was beautiful. 

Author Julie Dobrow describes trips to far flung locales where Mabel’s astronomer husband David Peck Todd made fruitless attempts to observe a total eclipse. (The skies invariably clouded over at the crucial moment.). But this is really an Amherst story. In 1881, David secured a position as astronomy professor at Amherst College. David and Mabel began socializing with the Dickinson family, who were prominent members of the community.

Emily Dickinson and her sister Lavinia lived at the Homestead, where they cared for their elderly, ailing mother until her death in 1882. Their brother Austin, his wife Susan, and their three children lived close  by. When Mabel Loomis Todd and her husband David moved to Amherst, they rented a house not far  from the Dickinson domiciles. Indeed, Amherst was a relatively small village; no one lived very far from anyone else.

This fact greatly facilitated the relationship between Mabel Loomis Todd and William Austin Dickinson. That relationship swiftly moved from friendship to love affair – a fervent bond only lightly concealed by Mabel and Austin. It continued, only growing in intensity for nearly thirteen years, up until Austin’s death in 1895.

Mabel’s husband David was among those who knew about the affair. He was the epitome of the complaisant spouse, allowing his wife and her lover plenty of space in which to pursue their desires. Not so Austin’s wife. Susan Dickinson was the very epitome of the Woman Scorned. Her fury extended well beyond Austin’s death. It had a perverse and lasting effect on efforts to make the poetry and letters of Emily Dickinson available to the reading public.

In fact it is the story of those efforts, doggedly pursued by Mabel and then taken up by her daughter Millicent, that takes up the bulk of this narrative, particularly its latter half. It is a very complex tale, involving copyright and other legal issues. At times, it was hard not to get bogged down. Yet I was held, especially by the depiction of the strange complexity of the relationship between Mabel and Millicent, a rapport not helped by the fact that the latter was left in the care of her distant grandparents for long stretches of time. Like her mother, Millicent had a restless, brilliant intellect; among her many achievements, she was the first woman to obtain a doctorate in geology and geography from Harvard University. Unlike her mother, she was of a conservative bent. It took her a long time to fully come to terms with Mabel’s and Austin’s connection to each other. But eventually she became reconciled to its truth, even its legitimacy.

On the surface, Millicent Todd Bingham would seem less interesting than her colorful, flamboyant, and strong willed mother. Yet in a way, Millicent is the more admirable of the two, seeing the value of Mabel’s quest, adopting as her own, and ultimately seeing through to completion.

Finally, one comes  full circle, returning to the wellspring of this somewhat tortured narrative, to the elusive, reclusive genius that was Emily Dickinson. Of the many poems that I am familiar with, this is the one that haunts me the most:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
**************
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
*************
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

The first edition of poems by Emily Dickinson, published in 1890

 

 

 

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American Mystery Classics – Take Two

November 16, 2018 at 7:41 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Yesterday’s Washington Post features an article by Michael Dirda on American mystery classics. He begins with Leslie Klinger’s hefty anthology, which includes The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen,  The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine, The House Without a Key (in which Earl Derr Biggers introduced the Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan), W.R. Burnett’s Little Caesar, and Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.

The only one of those five that I’ve read is Red Harvest. With regard to the plot, I don’t recall any of the specifics but I’ll probably always remember what a wild ride it was. The body count alone was impressive – somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-three! Good guys  and bad guys, guilty and innocent, male and female – they kept stumbling into a shooter’s cross hairs or the wrong end of a knife.

Red Harvest is not a Sam Spade novel; rather, it features protagonist known only by his job title: the Continental Op, an operative of the Continental Detective Agency of San Francisco.   The famous first sentence more or less sets the tone for  the rest of the novel:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.

First appearing in 1929, The Roman Hat Mystery was the first novel by Ellery Queen, the pseudonym of joint authors (and cousins) Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. This hugely successful collaboration rolled merrily along until 1971, the year of Lee’s death. I recently wrote about Ellery Queen in the post entitled American Mystery Classics, selected  by Otto Penzler and published by Penzler Publishers.  In that post, I mentioned The Chinese Orange Mystery. This is one of eight mysteries newly reissued by Penzler. According to Michael Dirda, it is “…probably Ellery Queen’s most dazzling case.” I didn’t much care for the novel, finding it too gimmicky and full of uninteresting characters, including, alas, Ellery himself. (The author and the investigator share the same name, a somewhat disconcerting device which you eventually get used to.)

I had previously read and enjoyed Calamity Town, first in a brief series of Ellery Queen titles set in the fictional New England town of Wrightsville. Additional reading of critics and bloggers directed me back to the Wrightsville novels (and stories).  Ergo, I am currently reading- and very much enjoying – the second book in the series, The Murderer Is a Fox.

If you scroll to the bottom of the American Mystery Classics blog post that I linked to above, you will find several interesting observations on Ellery Queen by Xavier L., my occasional gracious and very knowledgeable online correspondent. Xavier has written an article entitled “Ellery Queen in France;” it can be found on his blog, At the Villa Rose.

About The Roman Hat Mystery, Michael Dirda says this:

Here was a classic Golden Age puzzle — Ellery Queen’s first case, in fact — and virtually all the characters were caricatures, the dialogue was stilted and corny, and the elaborate plot verged on the ludicrous. What more could one ask for?

He goes on to observe:

That sounds paradoxical, but artificiality is a welcome attraction in many vintage who-and-howdunits. The stories deliberately leave out the messiness of real life, of real emotions, thus allowing the reader to mentally just amble along, mildly intrigued, feeling comfortable and even, yes, cozy. In this case, the key clue — where is the murdered Field’s missing top hat? — drives home the difference between then and now: We are a long way from deranged fanatics armed with semiautomatic weapons.

I have to interject here that the dialog in The Murder Is a Fox is  anything but stilted. It is real and urgent. Here is part of a conversation between Ellery Queen and a local judge:

“How familiar were you with the proceedings?”

“I followed it fairly closely at the time.”

“And your sympathies?”

“In my business,” remarked Judge Martin to his stogie, “if you have any such, you sit on ‘em till they smother to death.”

“Then you did have some.”

“Perhaps.”

“For the victim or the defendant?”

Judge Martin tapped ashes into his wastebasket. “Young fellow, you’re not going to pump me on that. Where my sympathies lay is irrelevant—purely emotional, you understand. No basis in fact, no evidential value, no standing in court.”

“What did you think of the verdict?” persisted Ellery.

“My personal opinion?” Judge Eli squinted at him through the acrid smoke. “I don’t like the kind of evidence they convicted Bayard on. As a judge, I mean. I prefer something substantial when you’re trying a man for his life and liberty—like fingerprints.”

Ellery is desperate for some kind of information that will corroborate his view of the case.

As I noted previously, The Roman Hat Mystery came out in 1929. I can only assume that the Queen cousins learned something about writing dialog between then and 1945, the publication year of

The Murderer Is a Fox.

Ellery Queen, aka Manfred B. Lee (left) and Frederic Dannay

 

 

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The sweetest music

November 7, 2018 at 10:17 pm (Music)

In my youth, I became a great fan of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and sometimes (Neil) Young. I still enjoy their music.

Recently I came upon this YouTube video of a concert they gave in 2014. They’re singing “Our House,” a song that is much beloved by their fans. Anyway, it’s obvious almost from the start that as he sits at the keyboard, Graham Nash is being distracted by something. At about 1:55, you find out what – or rather, who – that distraction is:

To see this veteran rocker, white haired, still handsome, and still possessing a pleasant singing voice, so obviously enchanted by this little child, his granddaughter – well, to me it was a thing of beauty.

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Crime fiction and the Man Booker Prize

November 6, 2018 at 5:22 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

   It used to seem like an article of faith for book loving observers: Not only did Britain’s Man Booker Prize not go to a work of crime fiction, but works in that genre were not even considered for that prestigious accolade. Then in 2016, His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet made it onto the shortlist. (It did not win.) And this year, Snap by Belinda Bauer made it onto the longlist (but no further).

I read His Bloody Project shortly after it came out two years ago. I had this to say about it in a post from early  last year entitled ‘Current trends in crime fiction part three, the books: historical mysteries‘:

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.’

A word to the wise: if you’re thinking that the title betokens great violence, you would be correct. That violence seems to occur in the blink of an eye; it follows an extended period of almost relentlessly escalating tension and anger. The bloody climax is indeed terrible, but it does not come out of nowhere. Rather, it is the culmination of a cruel and heedless exercise of power over the powerless, one of whom reaches the breaking point, with catastrophic results.

I read Snap some time ago, so its contents are not fresh in my mind. Here’s what I do remember. In this novel, a combination of domestic suspense and police procedural, Belinda Bauer posits two seemingly unrelated story lines. You know they’ll eventually converge, but you’ve no idea how. When it finally happens, you’re treated to one of those ‘aha’ moments so beloved by readers of crime fiction.

Each story line features a young woman who is pregnant. Right away this fact ratchets up the reader’s anxiety level. (I like to think that this would be true for both female and male readers.) And then there’s the wonderfully named Jack Bright, a fourteen-year-old boy who is something of a hero, this despite certain of his actions, which are after all born of desperation on behalf of his two younger siblings.

In searching for reviews, I discovered that Snap was in fact inspired by an actual crime that occurred in 1988 and still has British police baffled. (Fair warning: details concerning that atrocity are fairly well described in the novel’s opening sections. There is no overt violence – just a terrible mystery hanging over the heads of three children.)

Snap is extremely well written, and Bauer tells a very compelling story. Highly recommended.

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American Mystery Classics, selected by Otto Penzler and published by Penzler Publishers

October 30, 2018 at 6:17 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I think of Otto Penzler as the American counterpart of Martin Edwards. Edwards has long been devoted to advancing the recognition and popularity of British crime fiction. He’s also added substantially to scholarship in the field with such award winning tomes as The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. In 2014, he was designated a series consultant for the highly successful British Library Crime Classics series of reissues. In this capacity, Edwards has provided introductions to numerous novels in this series; in addition, he has edited several short story anthologies for the series. (He is also the author of the Lake District Series and the Liverpool Novels.)

Here are six examples of books from the British Library series. (I really loved Murder of a Lady – very atmospheric and beautifully written.)

Now we have Otto Penzler bringing us American Mystery Classics. Here are the first twelve entries:

 

 

  

 

  

 

The first six of these titles became available this month (October); the remaining six are due to come out in March of next year.

Otto Penzler is the founder and owner of the venerable Mysterious Bookshop, currently located in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. Wikipedia states: ” It is now the oldest and largest mystery specialist bookstore in the world.” The store hosts numerous book signings by distinguished authors; in addition, Penzler, like Martin Edwards, has edited quite a number of anthologies. This one just came out this month: .

I found this one, from last year, highly entertaining:

The site for American Mystery Classics has this to say, in the way of a recommendation:

Each book has been personally selected by Otto Penzler, whose more than forty years of experience as an editor, critic, publisher, and bookseller brings an unparalleled expertise to the line.
***********

The Ellery Queen mysteries were actually written together by cousins Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay. The name Ellery Queen is also given to the protagonist – a quirky character and some time author. He investigates various crimes but has no official standing to do so. The cousins’ collaboration began in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery and continued until 1971, the year of Lee’s death.

Last year I read Calamity Town, my first foray into the Ellery Queen opus. I thoroughly enjoyed it, for reasons enumerated toward the bottom of a post entitled Best Reading in 2017: Classic Crime.  Before me sits The Chinese Orange Mystery, which I just finished. Alas, it did not thrill me. I found the crime at once preposterous and uninteresting. More fatally, Ellery Queen himself does not appear in an attractive light. He comes across as a louche dilettante, proclaiming his insights in a drawling manner. The supporting characters often verge upon caricature. The dialog often attempts a sort of noir hipness but doesn’t quite achieve it. (Having recently read Raymond Chandler’s stellar Farewell My Lovely, I’m somewhat sensitive to this particular trope.) I yearned for an appealing love story, but there was none.

While giving due credit to the ingenuity of the puzzle at the heart of the novel, the Kirkus reviewer says the following:

It’s easy to see why Queen’s exercise in deduction has dated badly: Everything about it is creaky and artificial, from the incredible logistics of the murder to the alleged passions of the characters.

Sadly, I agree.

Other readers and reviewers feel differently. For instance, The Chinese Orange Mystery received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.  And I hasten to add that my enthusiasm for this new publishing initiative remains undiminished. I note that one of the March 2019 releases is a Perry Mason mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner. I sincerely hope that Otto Penzler will consider placing at least a few of Gardner’s Doug Selby novels in his list. There are only nine of them. I’ve read six and loved them.

 

 

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South Atlantic Requiem by Edward Wilson

October 27, 2018 at 5:04 pm (Book review, books)

  I just read a novel about the Falklands War.

Yes, really.

This is a conflict about which I knew virtually nothing, save that it took place in the early 1980s – 1982, to be precise. Having just finished this novel, I don’t know a great deal more on the subject. Like all good espionage yarns, the plot of South Atlantic Requiem careens wildly from one place to another, without pausing for breath. At the dead center of this frenetic activity is one William Catesby. At the behest of England’s MI6, he goes undercover – or as himself – in pursuit of secrets being kept by the Argentinians, as well as other individuals and nations embroiled in the conflict.

As the book gets under way, we meet not only Catesby but also a young and very capable agent he has recruited. She’s Fiona Stewart, a British student living in Argentina and supposedly working on a doctoral thesis on Jorge Luis Borges. At first, Fiona manages to gather and send crucial intelligence to Catesby while keeping up with academic pursuits for the sake of appearances. But then she begins a love affair with Ariel Solar, crack polo player and military pilot. At that point, everything else falls by the wayside, as it will tend to do in such situations.

In one of the novel’s earlier scenes, at a meeting with his colleagues in intelligence and in the military, Catesby is queried about the inside information, or lack of same, coming from his agent in Argentina. Why hadn’t she tipped them off with more precise intelligence as to the bellicose intentions of the Argentinians?

Catesby decided to own up. ‘Okay. There has, in fact, been a lull in communication from this agent. We have no idea what has happened or whether communications will resume.’ It certainly wasn’t, thought Catesby, the best time for an agent to dry up.

Catesby did have a very good idea what had happened, but it wasn’t one that he could air at a JIC meeting. She had chosen love over patriotism.

There was, in other words, a very good reason for Fiona’s radio silence. At a moment of urgent passion, coupled with a need to prove fidelity, the actual radio – her key  transmission device – had been tossed into a river. Fiona and Ariel, pledged to each other for good.

Fiona then all but disappears from the narrative. She reappears later – much later – but in the interim, I missed her.

But still we’re constantly in Catesby’s company. And he is a very interesting man. Born and bred in Suffolk, in the east of England, he is strongly attached to his home ground. He loathes war and does work in the “secret world” always in the hope of preventing its outbreak. He and his wife are amicably separated; her adult children by a previous marriage are deeply fond of their stepfather. At one point they both show up at his London flat to cook him a gourmet feast. (This is a scene that does nothing to advance the plot but goes far in illuminating Catesby’s character.)

For me, the single most extraordinary episode in the novel is the scenario in which Catesby goes fly fishing in Patagonia with French missile expert and mathematical genius known only as Pascal. As they are both  – supposedly – vacationing in this idyllic spot, they become friends. It’s a dicey situation: Catesby’s orders call for him to kill Pascal.

It was a beautiful day for a murder. The skies of Patagonia were crystal clear – a perfect backdrop for the Andean condor that Catesby spotted on the way to the river. Murder or no murder, it was a sight that Catesby and his victim wanted to treasure. He stopped the car and they both got out to stare at the magnificent bird. The condor has a wingspan of more than ten feet, the largest of any land bird. This one was almost motionless against the sky – more an icon than a living bird.

This develops into one of the most intense scenes I’ve encountered in recent crime fiction. It alone would have been worth the price of admission.

South Atlantic Requiem startled me on several counts. Margaret Thatcher’s disparaging of Reagan. The widespread disparaging of Thatcher herself by other characters. Kill orders being given secretly to government operatives. This is a fascinating read, and a disturbing one as well.

This is the sixth entry in Edward Wilson’s William, Catesby series. It is generally acknowledged that the British possess a special mastery when it comes to the writing of espionage fiction. Catesby seems such a quintessential British character, with his admixture of world weariness, cynicism, and thwarted longing. So it came as a surprise to me that Edward Wilson was born and raised in Baltimore. (On his website, he notes that he attended the same high school as Dashiell Hammett. That would be Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. founded in 1883, still going strong, and often called “Poly” by the locals. H.L. Mencken also went there. Hammett dropped out  before graduating – well before, if I’m not mistaken.)

A decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, Wilson traveled widely after his military service. Ultimately he settled in Suffolk, England, where he took up  the teaching profession and continued in it for some thirty years before becoming a full time writer.

Edward Wilson

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Dorothy L. Sayers and the Lord Peter Wimsey novels

October 25, 2018 at 9:09 pm (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction)

This delightful visual appeared in a recent issue of the London Review of Books. It reminded me of how much pleasure I’ve received from the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, both in print, on audio, and in the two television versions. (Click twice on this image and you should  be able to read the text in the center.)

The first set of Wimsey episodes for television were aired on Masterpiece Theatre in the early 1970s. Starring as Lord Peter is the inimitable Ian Carmichael. Carmichael seemed eminently to the manor born, the ideal aristocrat of early twentieth century Britain, whose sometimes foppish ways and ready wit conceal a razor sharp mind and a firm sense of justice.

Here’s a trailer that capture’s the flavor of Carmichael’s performance (with apologize for the breakup at 32 secs).

Later, to this depiction of Wimsey, Edward Petherbridge added a vulnerable heart. First broadcast in the late 1980s, Petherbridge starred in three episodes: Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night. Together these comprise the story of Peter’s ardent pursuit of detective novelist Harriet Vane. The course of this true love ran anything  but smooth – in Have His Carcase, Peter and Harriet have an argument that almost breaks them both, it is so full of anguish – and yet, and yet…

To my mind, theirs is an exceptionally compelling  love story. And a surprisingly modern one as well. Told mainly from Harriet’s point of view, it treats of a woman who is desperate to retain her personal autonomy in the face of plenty of pressure, much of it coming, discreetly but relentlessly, from Peter. His is a love that will not be denied, but he is ever the gentleman, acting with restraint and deep respect. He does not wish to curtail Harriet in any way; rather, he wants to set her free to flourish in a world they both value. Only when  she finally acknowledges this fact – and acknowledges her love for him – can she at last relent and give him the answer he so desperately craves.

There are eleven novels in the Lord Peter Wimsey series.  I’ve either read or listened to all of them save Busman’s Honeymoon, the last, which was based on a play of the same name. I’ve enjoyed every one of them, but these three are my especial favorites:

I confess that the lengthy disquisition on campanology with which The Nine Tailors begins nearly stopped me in my tracks. I would have given up save for the fact that I was listening to Ian Carmichael’s marvelous reading. When once the plot got under way, I was captivated.

Due to an automotive mishap, Wimsey and his valet Bunter find themselves temporarily stranded in the little village of Fenchurch St Paul. This is a remote area in the East of England, flat and prone, at least at the time this book was written, to episodes of high water. Indeed, the novel’s climax features a flood of near Biblical proportion. Up until that point,, Peter has been investigating a crime – actually several crimes, with the added factor of assisting the local rector with the bringing off of a marathon bell ringing event – nine hours straight!

Here’s a short video of bell ringing at Westminster Abbey:

In the television version, Wimsey is played by Ian Carmichael and Bunter, by Glyn Houston. The Reverend Theodore Venables  is portrayed by Donald Eccles in one of the most endearing performances in the entire series.

Donald Eccles as Reverend Venables and Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter

When I wrote about The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie, I included a quote by John Curran that exactly described my feelings upon reading that work. There is in that novel, he asserts, “…“…a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.” I feel that the same is true of The Nine Tailors.

There’s a very insightful commentary on this program on the blog In So Many Words.

Here it is, the fateful bringing together of Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey. It happens in a courtroom. She’s standing trial for murdering her erstwhile lover Phillip Boyes. She is naturally in fear for her life. Peter, who’s observing the proceedings, swiftly comes to two conclusions: one, she’s innocent; and two, she’s the only woman in the world for him.

This is the novel’s first sentence:

There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.

  Finally, there is Gaudy Night. Many are the pleasures of this fine work. Returning to her alma mater by invitation from the faculty, Harriet is filled with justifiable pride at being a graduate of Shrewsbury, an Oxford college. (The actual college is Somerville, named for mathematician and science writer Mary Somerville.)

They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done
since, this remains. Scholar;, Master of Arts;, Domina;, Senior Member
of this University…, a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.

Despite Harriet’s success as an author, she cannot help longing for the insularity of the academic life:

As Harriet followed Miss Lydgate across the lawn, she was visited by
an enormous nostalgia. If only one could come back to this quiet place,
where only intellectual achievement counted , if one could work here
steadily and obscurely at some close-knit piece of reasoning, undistracted
and uncorrupted by agents, contracts, publishers, blurb-writers, inter-
viewers, fan-mail, autograph-hunters, notoriety-hunters, and com-
petitors ; abolishing personal contacts, personal spites, personal
jealousies, getting one’s teeth into something dull and durable ; maturing
into solidity like the Shrewsbury beeches — then, one might be able to
forget the wreck and chaos of the past, or see it, at any rate, in a truer
proportion Because, in a sense, it was not important The fact that one
had loved and sinned and suffered and escaped death was of far less
ultimate moment than a single footnote in a dim academic journal….

Alas, there is a serpent in this Eden. Although no murder takes place in Gaudy Night, there are a number of sinister and  very unnerving pranks being played on Shrewsbury residents. It is these that have brought Harriet back to the college. Can she locate the culprit, without involving the police? It remains to be seen.

Eventually Peter appears on the scene; he lends his support and unerring instincts to help her solve the mystery. And, inevitably, he and Harriet are  due for a final reckoning.

Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane

Novelist Jill Paton Walsh has written four novels which continue the story of Harriet and Lord Peter. Of these, I’ve only read the most recent, The Late Scholar. I enjoyed it very much.

 

 

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‘One of the most arresting jobs of ancient – as well as modern – sculptures was to be some kind of antidote to death and loss.’ – How Do We Look by Mary Beard

October 12, 2018 at 1:09 pm (Art, History)

  What a lovely gift to art lovers  and history buffs this book is! Renowned classicist Mary Beard has ranged far and wide to set before our eyes stunning images of ancient art. In some cases, the works and locales are familiar – Greece, Rome, Egypt – but even in these places, she introduces us to previously unseen objects – unseen by me, at any rate. Some examples:

 

This is the mummy of a Greek youth, between the ages of 19 and 21. It is owned by the British Museum. It dates from some time in the second century AD. The inscription on the painted stucco case reads: “Artemidoros – Farewell.”

The Boxer_of_Quirinal, dated somewhere between 330 and 50 BCE

Unlike the heroic, flawless athletes usually depicted in classical sculpture, this boxer is battered by past injuries and seems to be nearing the end of his career as a pugilist.

Boxing was always an important part of the ancient athletic repertoire, and the conceit of this sculpture is that the man must once have had a fit and toned body – but it has really suffered. The anonymous artist has focused on a wreck of a human being, devoting all his skill to a broken nose and cauliflower ears, flabby from all those blows. In fact, he appears to be still bleeding from fresh wounds. The blood is shown in copper and the bruises on his cheeks are brought out by a slightly different colour of a slightly different bronze alloy. It is almost as if the  bronze has become the mans skin.

Mary Beard, in How Do We Look

Compare him, for instance, to the Belvedere Apollo, the subject of Johann Winkelmann‘s rapturous description:

In gazing upon this masterpiece of art, I forget all else, and I myself adopt an elevated stance, in order to be worthy of gazing upon it. My chest seems to expand with veneration and to heave like those I have seen swollen as if by the spirit of prophecy, and I feel myself transported to Delos and to the Lycian groves, places Apollo honored with his presence—for my figure seems to take on life and movement, like Pygmalion’s beauty.

Back to  the subject of rough sport: Behold the Olmec Wrestler:

Made of basalt and described as nearly life size, this piece was found  by a farmer in 1933 in Veracruz, Mexico. (One is tempted to imagine his astonishment when, upon turning up a clod of earth, he finds himself confronted by this strange, otherworldly object.) There being little or no archaeological context with which to work, the Wrestler is extremely difficult to date – anywhere from 1200 BCE to 400 BCE. He is called a wrestler for lack of anything else to call him. He may not be a wrestler. He may even be a fake. If he is, he’s a mighty compelling one.

Probably the single most amazing surviving art from the Olmec culture – and certifiably genuine – is represented by the gigantic heads:

These heads, seventeen of which have this far been recovered, vary in height from between four and five feet to just over eleven feet. At least one weighs as much as fifty tons.

Above you see one of the the La Venta Heads. There are three more, located at La Venta Park, a premier archaeological site in Mexico.

Again, Mary Beard:

It is hard not to feel just a little bit moved by the close encounter with an image of a person from the distant past. Despite that distance in time, and despite the fact that he is, after all, just a face of stone, it is hard not to feel some sense of shared humanity.

But oh, the questions raised and not answered by this strange artifact of a remote time and place:

Ever since it was rediscovered in 1939, it has defied explanation. Why is it so big? Was he a ruler or perhaps a god? Was it a portrait of a particular individual, or something much less specific than that?Why is it just a head – and not even a complete one at that, but severed at the chin? And what on earth was the image for? It was carved using only stone tools, out of a single block of basalt that came from more than fifty miles away from where the head was found. It could not have been made without huge amounts of time, effort and human resources. But why?

Many other such phenomena are surveyed in this slender volume, packed as it is with riches. How Do We Look is a companion to the tv series Civilizations: From the Ancient to the Modern:

Episode Two featuring Mary Beard can be viewed in its entirety here.

 

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