‘A few prayers, word of the Book, nod of the head, and into the ground sharp.’ – Skin and Bone by Robin Blake
Titus Cragg is Coroner to the town of Preston, in Lancashire, in the 1740s. I do not give the exact date because this series advances one year per entry. Skin and Bone is the fourth such.
In the first, A Dark Anatomy, we meet Titus and his close friend, the physician Luke Fidelis. From time to time, Luke lends his assistance in Titus’s death investigations. His expertise often proves invaluable.
In Skin and Bone, the mystery commences with the discovery of the body of an infant. Neither the child’s identity nor the cause of death are known. Pursuing the answer to these questions lands Titus in a world of trouble he could not have anticipated.
Blake’s plots are well wrought, but the real joy of this series lies in his meticulous evocation of mid-eighteenth century England. Details describing the workings of the coroner’s office are particularly fascinating. The characters are eminently real. believable, and appealing, for the most part. A particular pleasure is the depiction of the marriage of Titus Cragg and his wife Elizabeth. With their steadfast devotion to one another, and in particular her staunch loyalty to her often beleaguered husband, we witness first hand the source of their strength.
Titus and Elizabeth eagerly await the coming of a child into their lives. Elizabeth in particular has to fight impatience and anxiety on this score. Titus is well aware of her struggle. Early in the novel, this exchange occurs:
Her mocking tone had long gone and, now, tears were glinting in her eyes.
‘My dearest wife,’ I said, kneeling by her chair and clasping her hands. ‘You are not yet thirty and God is merciful. It is not too late for you–for us–I am sure of it.’
A simple yet moving statement of faith.
I am somewhat perplexed that this series is not better known. I would rate it without hesitation among the very best of the historical mysteries. One thinks of the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters and C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series.
Do yourself a favor and start with the first, so that the novels’ cumulative effect can work freely on your imagination. For myself, I eagerly await the fifth.
I’ve been trying to brace myself for this news, but it hurts all the same.
Colin Dexter autographing my copy of The Jewel That Was Ours at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford in 2006. Our tour group had the impression that he was enjoying himself hugely. Someone asked him why he had to kill Morse, and he responded, sounding – and looking – somewhat injured: “But I didn’t kill him – He died of natural causes!”
Few English families living in England have much direct contact with the English Breakfast. It is therefore fortunate that such an endangered institution is perpetuated by the efforts of the kitchen staff in guest houses B & B’s, transport cafes, and other no-starred and variously starred hotels. This breakfast comprises (at it best): a milkily-opaque fried egg; two rashers of non-brittle, rindless bacon; a tomato grilled to a point where the core is no longer a hard white nodule to be operated upon by the knife; a sturdy sausage, deeply and evenly browned; and a slice of fried bread, golden-brown, and only just crisp, with sufficient fat not excessively to dismay and meddlesome dietitian.
Our tour group met Dexter at the Randolph hotel in downtown Oxford. A room was set aside where he could wax expansive and witty, chatting with us agreeably and holding us spellbound.
I felt very lucky that day. I’d met my favorite author and enjoyed some precious time in his company.
Lewis smiled in spite of himself. Why he ever enjoyed working with this strange, often unsympathetic, superficially quite humorless man, well, he never quite knew. He didn’t even know if he did enjoy it.
Dexter wrote thirteen Morse novels and also some short stories. He was not especially prolific (though the filmmakers were: There are thirty-three episodes in all). Dexter closed out the series in 1999 with The Remorseful Day. Although I’ve read the novel, I was never able to bring myself to watch the tv episode. The death of 60-year-old John Thaw, three years after the demise of his fictional counterpart, was especially poignant.
Morse thought it must be the splendid grandfather clock he’d seen somewhere that he heard chiming the three-quarters (10:45 a.m.) as he and Lewis sat beside each other in a deep settee in the Lancaster Room. Drinking coffee.
“We’re getting plenty of suspects, sir.”
“Mm. We’re getting pretty high on content but very low on analysis, wouldn’t you say? I’ll be all right though once the bar opens.”
“Is is open–opened half-past ten.”
“Why are we drinking this stuff, then?”
One of the most memorable book discussions I led while still at the library was of The Jewel That Was Ours. The quoted passages above are all from that novel. Somewhat confusingly, the tv version is title The Wolvercote Tongue. (The tv script apparently preceded the novel in order of composition.) At the end of that episode, divers are shown making desperate effort recover the jewel from the river. When one of them finds it, he holds it aloft in a manner that instantly puts one in mind of the Lady of the Lake clutching Excalibur.
As we were leaving, Oxford, Colin Dexter joined us as our bus proceeded through ‘leafy North Oxford.’ He graciously offered to point out the sights along the way. My husband recorded his commentary.
I especially like the obituary in The Independent.
For his services to literature, Colin Dexter was awarded the OBE in 2000.
From Jane Austen, to Reginald Hill, to Sir Thomas Browne, and back to Reginald Hill, in one easy leap
The March 13 issue of The New Yorker featured a delightful piece by Anthony Lane about Sanditon, Jane Austen’s final unfinished novel. By the time I finished reading it, I was scrambling to find a downloadable version. I’ve read all the other Austen novels – more than once, in some cases – but like many, I’ve always assumed that ‘unfinished’ meant ‘not worthwhile.’ Not so, avers Mr. Lane:
Although—or precisely because—“Sanditon” was composed by a dying woman, the result is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness. It brims with life.
This encomium put me in mind of Reginald Hill’s novel The Price of Butcher’s Meat, in which Dalziel goes to a seaside resort called Sandytown, ostensibly to recover from wounds received in a recent attempt on his life. The place name is an homage to the fictional Sanditon of Austen’s invention. Hill says he got the idea when he had the pleasure of attending a conference of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Here are his prefatory notes to the novel:
To Janeites everywhere
and in particular to those who ten years ago in San Francisco made me so very welcome at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s AGM, of which the theme was “Sanditon–A New Direction?” and during which the seeds of this present novel were sown. I hope that my fellow Janeites will approve the direction in which I have moved her unfinished story; or, if they hesitate approval, that they will perhaps recall the advice printed on a sweatshirt presented to me (with what pertinence I never quite grasped) after my address to the AGM
–Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint–
and at least agree that, though from time to time I may have run a little mad, so far I have not fainted!
(AGM stands for Annual General Meeting.)
Reginald Hill passed away in January of 2012 at the age of 75. Later that year, the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain posted a memorial page in his honor on their site. I was deeply honored to be asked to contribute to this project. Click here to read what I wrote.
This might be a good time to revisit one of my favorite YouTube clips: Emma Thompson’s acceptance speech at the 1995 Golden Globe Awards for best screenplay for Sense and Sensibility:
The Price of Butcher’s Meat is the penultimate Dalziel and Pascoe novel, and this bit of reminiscence reminds me how much I loved those novels and how much I miss the presence on the mystery scene of the erudite and witty Reginald Hill.
The novel’s title is taken from a passage in Sanditon:
Aye–that young Lady smiles I see–but she will come to care about such matters herself in time. Yes, Yes, my Dear, depend upon it, you will be thinking of the price of Butcher’s meat in time.
But the British edition has a far more euphonious title: A Cure for All Diseases. The phrase originates in this apt and wry comment from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici:
We all labour against our own cure, for death is the cure of all diseases.
Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a physician and author of works in a variety of fields. He was one of those admirable polymaths who frequently spring up in the course of British scientific and literary history.
(You could say that Emma Thompson – writer, actress, and scholar – is another such polymath.)
The Price of Butcher’s Meat is followed by Midnight Fugue, the last novel the Dalziel and Pascoe series. Here is rare footage of Reginald Hill discussing that book:
I’m no expert – but I know what I loved as a kid, the music that enlivened and enriched my teen-aged years, that took away the pain – and I loved this:
Thanks, Chuck: Thanks for the beat, the vitality, the duck walk – all of it.
If Jeremy Thorpe were a character in a novel of political intrigue, reviewers and readers alike would cry out, “Oh, that’s so over the top!” For an excellent summing up of the intricacy and sheer weirdness of this story, read this write-up in the Guardian.
At the time that I picked this book up, I was in need of something that would hold my interest – with little or no effort on my part – from first to last. A Very English Scandal – sometimes sordid but never dull – proved to be just the ticket.
Now, the mysteries:
In his informative and entertaining Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, Barry Forshaw describes Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target as “…vintage MacDonald and one of the best post-Chandler private eye novels, with a palpable sense of evil.”
So that naturally sent me back to one of my favorite writers of crime fiction. The Moving Target was one of the few Lew Archer novels I’d never read. Published in 1949, it’s the first in the series. I thought it might be too obviously a journeyman effort. As I began reading, I thought my fears were confirmed. He’s toiling too much, I thought, in the dark, dark shade of Raymond Chandler.
And yet, and yet…as the narrative developed, the prose took flight, out from behind the Chandler shadow and into the brilliant sun of southern California:
The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon’s mouth, bright blue and polished like a stone. Private property: color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small.
There is an element of bitterness, even at times self-loathing, that emerges from time to time in the character of Lew Archer. We don’t know where it comes from; we’re told very little, if anything, about his background and personal life. I would have liked to know more. I was in a state of heightened intrigue as I read this novel, and the others. I’ve always wanted him to fall in love, but the women that he meets in the course of his investigations are either unworthy of him or unavailable, for one reason or another.
The Moving Target has its moments, but I think for those new to the oeuvre, it can be safely passed over in favor of later works, in particular The Doomsters, The Far Side of the Dollar, The Galton Case, The Underground Man, The Chill, and of course, The Zebra-Striped Hearse. Then, of course, you can do as I’ve done and go back and read them all.
Sue Grafton on Ross MacDonald:
If Dashiell Hammett can be said to have injected the hard-boiled detective novel with its primitive force, and Raymond Chandler gave shape to its prevailing tone, it was Ken Millar, writing as Ross Macdonald, who gave the genre its current respectability, generating a worldwide readership that has paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps.
This next is going to be a very short review of a very long book – well, maybe not very long, but in my view, rather longer than it needed to be. In regard to my current reading life, the chief virtue of The Grave Tattoo (2006) is its setting in the Lake District, an area of preternatural beauty in the far north of England. God willing, and I fervently hope that He will be, we are set to go there in July, and to York as well.
This trip comes accompanied by a marvelous reading list. Those of us who love to travel and love to read know well that combining these two activities is one of life’s great pleasures. (Thanks are due for the trip’s literary component to Kathy of British Mystery Trips.)
The plot of Val McDermid’s novel concerns the doings of a Wordsworth scholar, a forensic anthropologist, a dealer in rare documents, a precocious and endangered adolescent girl, various law enforcement personnel, and others. It’s a densely woven narrative. At the outset, we are treated to a lengthy disquisition on the life and mystery surrounding Fletcher Christian, of all people. I almost gave up at that point, but I persevered, and actually I am glad that I did. Val McDermid has woven rather a fabulous tapestry here – if you can stick with it. And once the Fletcher Christian connection becomes clear, we’re treated to a very intriguing historical mystery. And I’m grateful to McDermid for her depiction of this special landscape:
[River] loved the place names too, with their echoes of another wave of invaders. The Vikings had left their mark on the places they occupied with suffixes–Ireby, Branthwaite, Whitrigg. And there were other wonderful names whose origins she knew nothing of–Blennerhasset, Dubwath and Bewaldeth. Driving from Carlisle to Keswick wasn’t just pretty, it was poetry in motion.
I have to say, though, that so far the most wonderful discovery gleaned from that reading list is The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.
George Hennessy knocked reverentially on the blue-and-green painted door of the modest bungalow on the outskirts of Fridaythorpe. He had never been to the village and found the name as pleasing as the appearance. “Thorpe” he knew to be an ancient Norse word for settlement but ‘Friday’ was unexplained. There was, he thought, probably a interesting story to the name.
(If you’re wondering whether there actually is such a place as Fridaythorpe – there is.)
Novels comprising the Hennessy and Yellich series used to arrive fairly regularly each year, Gift Wrapped having been the entry for 2013. When none arrived in 2014 or 2015 I became concerned…Was one of my favorite series now discontinued? Ergo, I was especially pleased to greet the appearance of 2016’s A Dreadful Past.
Crime solving is very much a group effort in these novels; George Hennessy’s team is comprised of a fairly stable cast of characters – stable both in their regular reappearance and their conduct. Their back stories are reiterated in each new novel. Some readers have complained about this, but I like it very much. It’s a sort of reaffirmation. Somerled Yellich is Hennessy’s second in command. Then there is Carmen Pharoah, a striking woman of West Indian heritage whose husband, also in law enforcement, was killed in action before she joined Hennessy’s team. Rounding out this tight knit group are Detective Constables Reginald Webster and Thompson Ventnor. They work together like the proverbial well oiled machine.
(From time to time, the reader will come upon a chapter heading like this:
In which a man becomes a woman, a name is mentioned and Carmen Pharoah and Somerled Yellich are severally at home to the most charitable reader.)
The particular case treated in this narrative is a cold one, twenty years of cold having accrued on the case of a triple homicide that nearly wiped out an entire family.. The only surviving member had been away at university at the time of the killings, and it is he, one Noel Middleton, who arrives at the police station with a very telling piece of evidence in the form of a Wedgwood vase. The piece had been stolen from his home at the time of the murders and has now turned up in an antique shop. While idly browsing some shop windows, Middleton had spotted it and known it for what it was.
I was amazed by what then happened as a result of this singular discovery. Read the book; I think you will be likewise astonished.
As they are set in the great and ancient city of York, these novels are also featured on the reading list for the trip. I was there for a day in 2005, and of course it was not nearly long enough. I was reading a book from this series, though I’m not sure which, at the time of my visit.
(Oh, for a different picture of this seemingly reclusive author…)
Gazing at this beautiful graphic on the cover of the Met’s Winter 2017 Bulletin, I thought to myself: Why, that looks like Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s backdrop for Mozart’s Magic Flute. More precisely, it’s identified as being by Karl Friedrich Thiele, “after” Schinkel’s design for The Hall of Stars in the Palace of the Queen of the Night. Here is the original by Schinkel:
Here is Diana Damrau, singing the Queen of the night’s famous – and famously challenging – aria, Der Hölle Rache:
Born in Prussia in 1781, Karl Friedrich Schinkel was a man of extraordinary gifts. He was not only a set designer but a painter and architect as well.
Back to the Met Bulletin: For two hours I’ve been lost in image searches prompted by this slender, unpretentious little volume. Here are some of the results:
If ever it could be said that a person’s very soul has been captured in an image, then surely it was done in this portrait of Louis-Remy Robert by his friend Alfred Thompson Gobert. The two were colleagues at the Royal Porcelain Factory at Sèvres. Commentary provided on the Met’s site explains how technical necessity resulted in a striking work of art:
Robert’s colleague Alfred Gobert, head of the Enameling Workshop at Sèvres, is shown here with his head slightly bowed and his eyes half closed (in part to help maintain his pose during a long exposure in bright sunlight), as if lost in thought. The shallow depth of field—only Gobert’s face is in focus—and the flecks of light and soft massing of shadows so characteristic of prints from paper negatives heighten the sense that this portrait is a privileged meditation by Robert on the interior world of his friend.
We know of this model nothing but her last name, Miss Keene.
I confess I exclaimed with delight upon seeing this photo! This school was founded in 1823 by George Barrell Emerson, second cousin to Ralph waldo Emerson. It is described in the Bulletin as “the most prominent school for young women in Boston.”
Described in the Bulletin as “a superb example of Atkins’s cameraless photograms of algae and plant specimens,” these and similar images were created by placing “plant samples directly on light-sensitized paper. The resulting cyanotypes, or blueprints, appear as negative images against a sea of Prussian blue.”
Ah, J.M.W. Turner, master of light….If you haven’t seen the film Mr Turner, featuring Timothy Spall’s brilliant and memorable portrayal of this genius of British painting, I recommend it very, very highly.
Just viewing this trailer made me yearn to see it again, in its entirety. Why aren’t there more movies like this?
As usual, this intensive period of image searching took me far afield, in this case somewhat outside the province of the Met Bulletin:
Date unknown, but probably not long after 1835, when Baron Gros committed suicide.
(Nine months later, our own Miss Marple, we still miss her so much.)
This is a gripping and disturbing novel. It is replete with the bursts of insight and powerful expression that readers of the fiction of Margaret Drabble have come to expect over the decades. I think of her as a writer of the old school. One finds in this novel no incursions into the realm of metafiction; the story unfolds in a more or less straightforward manner, though there is some shifting of time and place. The characters are for the most part in their seventies or thereabouts, as is their creator. And like their creator, they are highly literate and cultured people.
The mood is one of deep melancholy. Early on, Francesca Stubbs, one of the main characters in the narrative, recalls these lines from MacBeth:
And that which should accompany old age,As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,I must not look to have….
It’s rather an odd quote for Fran to be reflecting on, as she herself has quite a few friends. Some are in various stages of physical and/or mental decline, but others are still as robust and active as she herself is. In fact, some might say she overdoes it, driving all around the countryside in her capacity as inspector of facilities for the housing of the aged. She has two grown children, a son and a daughter, each rather odd in his or her own way, but basically caring and loving. And she prepares and delivers “plated meals” for her ex-husband Claude, who is bedridden as much by inclination as by necessity.
Fran’s occupation causes her to think a lot about the current state of death and dying. Her conclusions tend to be rather grim:
Her inspection of evolving models of residential care and care hoes for the elderly have made her aware of the infinitely clever and complex and inhumane delays and devices we create to avoid and deny death, to avoid fulfilling our destiny and arriving at our destination. And the result, in so many cases, has been that we arrive there not in good spirits, as we say our last farewells and greet the afterlife, but senseless, incontinent, demented, medicated into amnesia, aphasia, indignity. Old fools, who didn’t have the courage to have that last whiskey and set their bedding on fire with a last cigarette.
Good grief. After that, you may be shuddering and thinking, why would I want to read this book? Here’s the thing, though: the interactions among the characters are rich and memorable. You come to care greatly about both their lives and their deaths. And believe it or not: There’s humor, too, although mostly of a decidedly dark caste.
Much of the novel’s action takes place in England – a mostly rainy, chilly England – but a good portion takes place in the Canary Islands. This sunlit, idyllic locale is home to Ivor and Bennett, writers and literary gentlemen. These two have been quietly devoted to each other for decades. They still have a connection to Britain, and friends from there cycle in and out of their lives, most notably Fran’s son Christopher. Drabble renders this setting so vividly that you’ll want to up sticks and go there (especially if you’re experiencing dreary weather in your current habitation.)
Ivor is younger than Bennett, but both are aging into that realm of uncertainty which precedes death:
Bennett is here for his health and Ivor is here because Bennett needs him to be here….Ivor needs Bennett because Bennett holds the purse strings. It is too depressing, and yet not ignoble. They are bound together by the needs which succeed love, by the needs which succeed sex and affection. Ivor does not like thinking in these terms, but it is hard to avoid them. They sit by him, these considerations, looking at him from time to time, as does the pretty collared dove with its pale and pearly plumage.
Ivor has begun to seek solace in visits to a small chapel on the island. He tells no one he is doing this, not even Bennett. Especially not Bennett. Ivor’s wordless prayers ascend upwards.
It may be a false solace, but there’s more truth in it than in the endless discussions about doctors, diets, symptoms and medications, about dwindling royalties and bad reviews by old enemies, about the menace of e-books and the demise of booksellers and the new historiography.
Fran’s reflections on the subject of religion run along a decidedly different track:
She has known some who have lost their faith late in life, in their sixties, in their seventies, even in their eighties. Because the human story is so very disappointing, because the cruelty of it is so very great, and God’s care of his creation so hard to interpret.
‘God’s care of his creation’….That phrase really gave me pause. I had that reaction frequently while reading this provocative, no-punches-pulled novel.
One of the most appealing characters in The Dark Flood Rises is a friend of Fran’s named Teresa Quin. Teresa is ill with cancer and has not much longer to live and knows it. She’s resigned to her fate, and gracious in her resignation. Her chief desire is to see her son Luke, a physician in Africa, before she passes. This wish is granted. Luke reaches her in time. “Teresa is elated.”
The Dark Flood Rises is a profound meditation on death, but to me it seems an equally profound meditation on life: “O make the most of what we yet may spend….”. It has in it some of the qualities that Peter Ackroyd, in his book Albion, ascribes to the English temperament in general, and to the King Arthur legends in particular:
The story of Arthur has always been striated with sensations of loss and of transitoriness, which may well account for its central place within the English imagination; the native sensibility is touched with melancholy…and the sad fate of Arthur and his kingdom corresponds to that national mood. There is something, too, of determination and endurance within this dominant sensation. Some men say that Arthur will rise again; we must endure our going hence. It is the kind of stoicism which as been seen as characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, perhaps nowhere better expressed than in “The Battle of Malden” where the most famous Saxon or English cry has been rendered–“Courage must be the firmer, heart the bolder, spirit must be the greater, as our strength grows less.” That combination of bravery and fatalism, endurance and understatement, is the defining mood of Arthurian legend.
This also puts me in mind of the magnificent closing lines of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses:”
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’We are not now that strength which in old daysMoved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;One equal temper of heroic hearts,Made weak by time and fate, but strong in willTo strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
This novel’s title is taken from the poem “The Ship of Death” by D.H. Lawrence.
In 1916 John L. Porter, a Pittsburgh businessman, established a fund whose purpose was to purchase works of art to be given as a gift to the public schools of his city. This philanthropic initiative was to be called The 100 Friends of Pittsburgh Art. In 1922 Porter wrote:
‘Can art appreciation be taught at any better period in life than when the youthful eyes and mind are in their most impressionable and temperamental years? Can squalor exist in the surroundings of the children brought into daily contact with beauty?’
In celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Mr Porter’s farsighted and generous conception, Pittsburgh’s Senator John Heinz Center mounted an exhibit of some eighty works of art. In addition, they assembled a catalog, whose cover you see above.
Here are some of the featured paintings:
I was made aware of this exceptional exhibit by the American Art Review, a wonderful magazine for art lovers.
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.
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.
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!
And these as well:
And love James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life.
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.