‘It seems to plunge us back at once into the Dark Ages.’ – The Wicked Boy, by Kate Summerscale

August 17, 2016 at 10:47 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

9781594205781     Matricide. It is certainly one of the most loathed and loathsome crimes imaginable. Surely the killer would have to be irredeemably evil.

And yet…. In July of 1895, in a house in Plaistow, “a poor but respectable working-class  district in the borough of West Ham” in East London, Robert Coombes, age 13, stabbed his mother Emily to death as she lay in her bed.

He then closed and locked her bedroom door.

Robert had a brother a year younger than himself. He was called Nattie. Their father, a seaman bound for New York, had no idea of the horror awaiting him back home.

Acquiring funds any way they could, Robert and Nattie proceeded to live large. When friends and family asked after their mother, they invented various excuses for her absence. Aside from running around town and generally enjoying themselves, especially when watching cricket test matches  at Lord’s, Robert and Nattie spent time at home playing cards with their friend John Fox, a man in his mid-forties of apparently limited intellect.

Meanwhile, a noxious odor had begun to emanate from the upper floor. It was beginning to pervade the entire house and could even  be detected from the outside. Robert and Nattie’s excuses began to wear thin. They were even barring the door to their mother’s friends and her sister-in-law, also named Emily. Soon the latter would brook no further obstruction. She and her friend Mary Jane Burrage forced their way into the house as Nattie fled out  the back. Once again, Aunt Emily demanded to know the whereabouts of Robert and Nattie’s mother. Robert claimed that she was in Liverpool. Mrs Burrage was having none of it. She stated bluntly: “‘Your mother is lying dead in that room upstairs.” With Robert still denying, she and Aunt Emily went up and gained entry to the bedroom.

Although they could not see only mounded up sheets and pillows, the stench was overwhelming. They backed out of the room and sent for the police. When PC Twort finally arrived and removed the coverings, he was greeted by a gruesome sight: a woman’s dead body, already undergoing putrefaction and crawling with maggots.

Nattie and Robert Coombes were arrested, as was their friend John Fox. Fox was soon discharged; charges against Nattie were withdrawn on condition that he testify against his brother. This he did.

Both the public and the press the followed the legal proceedings avidly, while all the time condemning the appalling nature of the crime. From a local paper called the Stratford Express:

“The ‘Plaistow Horror’ is a story which must depress all who are longing for the improvement of mankind. It will pain public feeling to an extent which has rarely been equalled . It seems to plunge us back at once into the Dark Ages.”

The only way that Robert Coombes could escape the death penalty – his youth was no bar to it – was if he were found to be insane. In due course, this judgment was handed down. Robert was sent to Broadmoor Hospital.

Broadmoar Asylum Terrace in 1885

Broadmoor Asylum Terrace in 1885

Upon its founding in 1863, the facility’s official name was The Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. In the late 1890s, as per Summerscale’s fascinating description, it was operated in a remarkably humane manor. In addition, the grounds were bucolic and offered appealing views to all who dwelt therein.

It was as idyllic a prospect as a city boy like Robert had ever seen. In this pastoral setting the inmates of Broadmoor were returned to a kind of innocence: they were stripped of their freedoms and responsibilities, rendered as powerless and unencumbered as children. In Broadmoor they were unlikely to be reproached for their crimes. They entered a suspended  existence, with little reference to the past or the future, a strange corollary to the dissociated, dreamlike state that often attended psychosis. The asylum was both gaol and sanctuary, fortress and enchanted castle. The spell by which the patients were bound within its walls could be lifted only at the behest of the queen.

(I am deeply grateful that there are still among us people who have such a marvelous command of the language.)

Having lived at Broadmoor for seventeen years, Robert was discharged in 1912.. He was thirty years old. In January of 1914 he set sail for Australia. (Nattie, who had become a seaman like their father. had also emigrated.) Once there, Robert set about creating a new life for himself as a farmer. But the outbreak of war intervened.

In August of 1914, Robert joined the 13th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force. He had already had experience playing in brass bands in England, specifically at Broadmoor; he took on that role with his mates in the battalion. He was also trained as a stretcher bearer; his task, along with his fellow bearers,  was to rescue the wounded from the battlefield and bring them to a place behind the lines where they could be treated in relative safety. His ability to perform this task effectively would be tested to the limit when, in April of 1915, his battalion set off for Gallipoli, “a peninsula squeezed between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles in what is now western Turkey.” (Smithsonian Magazine)

I’d heard of this battle and seen the 1981 film Gallipoli. I didn’t remember much about it. Possibly I repressed the memory.  I knew that words such as carnage and slaughter were frequently used to describe the battle. All I can say is that Kate Summerscale’s description of what actually happened there was so harrowing that I had to fight my way through it. If  there was ever a Hell on Earth, Gallipoli was it.

An Australian soldier lies wounded in the foreground, as hundreds of other soldiers move among the dead and wounded on the beach at Anzac Cove on the day of the landing. The soldiers wearing Red Cross armbands are tending to the wounded. Boxes of equipment are stacked among the men and the beach is also littered with discarded personal equipment. This scene is looking along the beach to the north. Photograph by Charles Atkins. [AWM PS1659]

An Australian soldier lies wounded in the foreground, as hundreds of other soldiers move among the dead and wounded on the beach at Anzac Cove on the day of the landing. The soldiers wearing Red Cross armbands are tending to the wounded. Boxes of equipment are stacked among the men and the beach is also littered with discarded personal equipment. This scene is looking along the beach to the north. Photograph by Charles Atkins. [AWM PS1659] From the site Gallipoli and the Anzacs

As for Robert, his performance as stretcher bearer under  these extreme conditions was exemplary. He managed to survive the experience, an achievement in itself. He was directly or indirectly responsible for saving numerous lives, and was awarded several medals, richly deserved by all reports.

Robert Coombes, in the late 1960s or early 1940s

Robert Coombes, in the late 1960s or early 1940s

The above summary of Kate Summerscale’s narrative is cursory in the extreme. She not only covers the trial of Robert Coombes in fascinating detail, but she also pulls back from his story to provide a wider  context for the reader. She’s especially good at conveying the mindset of the people who lived at the turn of the century, both in England and Australia.

As this book approached its conclusion, I began to appreciate its true heft. For me, The Wicked Boy addresses a most profound issue; namely, can a person live his or her in such a way as to expiate a “primal eldest” sin? It is a matter that only the individual reader and thinker can decide. But Kate Summerscale has given us the perfect case study with which to ponder the question.

A mesmerizing read; a terrific book.

Kate Summerscale

Kate Summerscale

 

 

 

 

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Crime fiction – and fact – in the New York Times

August 11, 2016 at 1:37 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, True crime)

A special issue of the July 31 edition of The New York Times Book Review – “Summer Thrills” –  was fairly bursting with great suggestions for us crime fiction fans. And there was even a two page spread allotted to true crime! The writer was none other than the paper’s long time mystery reviewer (and taste maker for many of us), Marilyn Stasio.

Before plunging into specifics, Stasio admits that “…true crime unnerves me. It’s so…real.” Well of course it is! (I found this confession rather endearing.) But plunge ahead she does, to the tune of six different titles. There’s a nice variety here: contemporary, historical, a visit to the morgue, obsession with a rare tropical fish (the Asian arowana), etc.

51ZtPrT2OHL  I’ve read two of the six: True Crime Addict and The Wicked Boy. In a way, they represent the extremes of true crime writing. In the first, journalist James Renner recounts his obsessive search for Maura Murray. On February 9 2004, while standing beside her disabled vehicle in Haverhill, New Hampshire, Murray went missing. Between the time she was spotted by a passerby who offered to help, and seven minutes later when the police arrived, she had disappeared. Just like that. One minute she was there; the next, she was gone.

Maura Murray in 2003

Maura Murray in 2003

She has not been seen or heard from since.

Renner’s determination to solve this mystery is impressive. He conducted many interviews, reviewed a great deal of evidence, and in general worked tirelessly. This is an unusual true crime narrative, though, in the sense that the writer/investigator keeps getting in his own way. There’s a definite manic aspect to this quest that seems to take root in an already volatile personality. It probably didn’t help that after taking the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, he was informed by the psychologist that “‘Your results were very similar to those of Ted Bundy, the serial killer.'”

After this bomb is dropped, Renner comments: “That’s one of those statements you just can’t unhear.” (It turns out that hard charging individuals such as law enforcement officers and CEO’s tend to score in a similar range.)

Sometimes the prose gets a bit ragged around the edges, but the book is never dull. In fact, there are times when Renner’s observations are striking. At one point, he hikes an area near where Maura disappeared. It’s treacherous going, and icy to boot. When he finally gets back to his vehicle, he’s tearful, exhausted, and drenched in sweat.

We forget how dangerous nature can be. We want to forget, I think. We don’t want to be reminded that nature is more deadly than man. Man can be cruel, but nature is indifferent. It is the unrivaled psychopath.

Throughout this book, the author veers from intense concentration on the task at hand to a self-absorption that’s almost as intense. He’s married with children; they must perforce go along with him on this wild ride. (The term I’d use to describe his wife Julie is ‘long suffering.’) Renner’s taking – or not taking – the drug Cymbalta is a thread that runs through this story. He’s grateful for the calming affect it has on him. On the other hand: “…there’s a freedom in blind rage once you give yourself over to it that is as welcoming as any drug.” At one point, he gives himself over to it in court and as a result, lands in jail.

James Renner

James Renner

I actually had trouble putting this book down. I might even read it again.
*****************************

9781594205781 Kate Summerscale is the author of the terrific Victorian true crime narrative, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008). In my view, The Wicked Boy is just as good, perhaps even better. It deserves a review of its own, and will get it in this space, soon.

 

 

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“fresh data on what it’s like to be human”

August 10, 2016 at 1:44 am (Anglophilia, Art, New York City)

Peter Scheldahl writes about art for the New Yorker. The short piece in the August 1 issue of the magazine is entitled “Young Master.” Here’s how it begins:

Seeing an unfamiliar painting by Rembrandt is a life event: fresh data on what it’s like to be human.

The Rembrandt in question is called “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver:”

rembrandt-first-masterpieceRembrandt painted this when he was twenty-three years old. It is considered to be his first masterpiece, and is currently in the news because it has been lent to the Morgan Library and Museum, one of my favorite places in New York. The Morgan will exhibit it until September 18, at which time it will presumably be returned to the private collection whence it came.

I thought that finding out where that private collection is would be a deep dark secret, but I had very little trouble discovering it. Both the Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons identify it as Mulgrave Castle in Lythe, Yorkshire.

But that’s where the confusion begins – at least, for me it does. Wikipedia explains that Mulgrave Castle actually refers to three separate structures: an ancient ruin supposedly built in the sixth century, a later castle probably of Norman origin, and a country house built by one Lady Catherine Darnley presumably in the late 1600s. In 2003, supermodel Elle Macpherson comes into this mix! (check out  the aforementioned Wikipedia entry for details.) The Wikipedia entry contains no mention of the Rembrandt.

The estate is currently owned by Constantine Phipps, Fifth Marquess of Normanby. It is situated near Whitby in North Yorkshire. Whitby is a storied place. We were there in 2007. The town has interesting shops; when you’re walking along the commercial avenue and you look up, you behold, high on a distant hill, the ruins of Whitby Abbey, originally established in AD 657 and destroyed in the mid 800s by the Vikings. A Benedictine monastery was established there in 1078. This in turn fell to ruin after King Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic religious houses in 1539. And that is what you see after you put your wallet away, secure your purchases, and turn your gaze upward.

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Whitby3

(This almost supernatural collision of past and present is one of the reasons why I love England so much.)

When you go  to the website for the Mulgrave Estate,  it’s all business – not a hint of poetry anywhere. And once again, not a word about the Rembrandt….

 

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‘You can never know the whole truth of anything.’ – Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman

August 6, 2016 at 8:46 pm (Book review, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

Lippman  Searching for truth, uncovering deception, both deliberate and inadvertent – these are Lu Brant’s core motivators, in both the personal and professional spheres. She’s the recently elected state’s attorney for Howard County, Maryland, and like her father who served in the position before her, she intends to be an unflinching seeker of justice. But as she starts out making her mark in the legal community, she has no idea how close to home this relentless ambition will soon take her.

A widow with two young children, Lu – short for Luisa – has chosen to move back into her childhood home so that her father, now retired, and his long time housekeeper can help her balance her overloaded life. It’s a bit like living in the past and the present simultaneously. The home in question is in the village of Wilde Lake, situated on the lake itself. Along with her parents, Lu and her much older brother AJ had been among the pioneers of the “new town” of Columbia, Maryland. (As she grew older, Lu had been told the sad facts concerning her mother’s passing.)

The above is but a brief recounting of a complex narrative which alternates back and forth between the past tense narration of the family’s early years in Columbia and the exposition of events occurring in the present. (Also, the past is related by Lu in the first person; the present, in the third person.)  The family’s past is interwoven with Columbia’s early years. In these chapters, Lippman uses the actual names of various streets and neighborhoods.

The problem with parallel narratives is that one of them often asserts a larger claim on the reader’s interest than the other. When that happens,you can become impatient with the narrative that you’re finding less compelling. Again, this was my own experience with the novel.

There is also a problem with reading something that takes place so close to home. The impulse to fact check sometimes overrides one’s attentiveness to the story. At least, that was the case with this reader. I admit it was hard not to jump up and down when ‘Rain Dream Hill’ was mentioned, as I lived there for two years in the mid-1970s, which is pretty much the time period the author is describing in those sections.

Lippman’s writing is as breezily accessible as usual, and her sense of humor is very much intact. At one point, she describes a salad set cherished by her father and referred to by him as his “‘lares and penates’.”  She confesses that “For years I thought that was Latin for oil and vinegar.” (Dictionary.com defines them as “the benevolent spirits and gods of the household.” This is how I have always regarded pets that are kept and loved in the home.)

My overall assessment of Wilde Lake? First off, the local references were fun but at the same time distracting. I found the plot rather convoluted. In addition, I don’t especially care for the technique of jumping back and forth in time, or of switching verb tenses and point of view. I like a straight ahead narration. (This may be one of the reasons I’m currently preferring to read nonfiction, the other being that there’s so much terrific nonfiction being written right now.)

But well, it is Laura Lippman, she is a home town girl and a very talented one, and Lu Brant is an exceptionally likeable and sympathetic character: a thoroughly modern woman in some ways, but still beset with the same doubts and uncertainties that, in the twenty-first century, still bedevil women in this country and elsewhere as well.

So I would say in general that despite the reservations voiced above, I liked the book. I’d recommend it especially to those who are recent residents of this area or who, like me, resided here during the same period as Lu Brant did as a child (and as Laura Lippman herself did as a teenager, graduating from Wilde Lake High School in 1977).

My favorite work by Laura Lippman is still What the Dead Know. This powerful novel from 2008 was inspired by the disappearance of  the Lyon sisters in adjacent Montgomery County in 1975. (Strangely, almost fatefully, after forty years without any substantial leads the case is once again in the news. This stunning development put me in mind of the penultimate line of the story “Dr. Henry Selwyn” by W.G. Sebald: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”

I’d like to give Lu Brant herself the final word:

The truth is not a finite commodity that can be contained within identifiable borders. The truth is messy, riotous, overrunning everything. You can never know the whole truth of anything.

And if you could, you would wish you didn’t.

Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman

 

 

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The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare

August 4, 2016 at 4:21 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

the-merchant-of-venice-at-shakespeares-globe-theatre-5e0447b96ab71c2145f4bdbf0c9f6eca

I’ve been missing our sojourns to the Folger Theatre, so yea, verrily, I was yearning for the wit, wisdom, and poetry of the Bard…

I got all three on Saturday in the Globe On Tour’s production of The Merchant of Venice at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

That’s Jonathan Pryce, above, as Shylock, the play’s most famous and controversial character. This was his first appearance in that role and his first time acting with the Globe. When he was first invited to take the part, he said no. He had never had any desire to act Shylock; in fact, he had a positive aversion to the role. But a seed had been planted. He reread the play, changed his mind, and signed on to do it.

It was brilliant. The entire production was brilliant.

This is not a play with which I’m particularly well acquainted. I came to it relatively cold, deliberately. Of course, I knew about Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. To a degree, I braced myself for the ugliness to come. And ugliness there is, but there is beauty also, mainly in the person of three sets of lovers who, this being a comedy, all ultimately attain their hearts’ desires.

Yet Shylock remains the burning center of the action. And, for me at least, his forced conversion at the play’s end was cringe-inducing in its cruelty. (To me, it seemed not only a mockery of Judaism, but of Christianity as well.)

Shakespeare’s comedy is Portia’s play, though some audiences now find it difficult to reach that conclusion.

Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

It begins with boisterous music and dance. There’s also a  fair amount of lighthearted horseplay, supplied mainly by Stefan Adegbola as Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo. Adegbola shouts gleefully, and dashes all over the stage and into the audience, where  he grabs people and pulls them onto the stage and into the action. Adegbola is a gifted comedian; he had the audience in stitches.

Stefan Adegbola as Launcelot Gobbo

Stefan Adegbola as Launcelot Gobbo

The single intermission did not occur until shortly before the famous courtroom scene. By then, the mood had turned decidedly somber.

One of the joys of seeing a Shakespeare play with which you are not all that familiar is the way in which familiar lines of dialog pop up now and then, providing richly rewarding “aha!” moments. A good example of this is Portia’s devastating putdown of one of her more irritating suitors: “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man” (Act 1, Scene 2).

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Shakespeare's Globe 2015 CREDIT: MANUEL HARLAN ... HANDOUT ...

Portia (Rachel Pickup) enduring the importunities of one of her oily suitors, the Prince of Arragon (Christopher Logan)

Then there’s this:

How far that little candle throws its beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

(Act 5, Scene 1)

Portia speaks these words almost in a state of wonderment. That second line appears in Judgement in Stone, Ruth Rendell’s masterpiece. In the context in which the late Baroness Rendell places it, the tone is quite different.

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock remonstrates with his daughter Jessica (Phoebe Pryce, who is Jonathan Pryce's daughter in real life)

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock remonstrates with his daughter Jessica, played by Phoebe Pryce, who is Jonathan Pryce’s daughter in real life

In Act Five, the playwright, as if released from some mysterious constraint, bursts forth with some of the most gorgeous poetry anywhere in the canon. Witness the dreamy, lyrical exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo that opens Scene One:

Lor.  The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, in such a night         5
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls,
And sigh’d his soul toward the Grecian tents,
Where Cressid lay that night.
Jes.        In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew,         10
And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself,
And ran dismay’d away.
Lor.        In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea-banks, and waft her love         15
To come again to Carthage.
Jes.        In such a night
Medea gather’d the enchanted herbs
That did renew old Æson.

I confess the line I was waiting for was “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.” It’s spoken just a bit later, in the same scene, by Lorenzo:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patenes of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-ey’d cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

When finally I heard it, I sighed inwardly: how lovely… And I’m delighted by “Sit, Jessica.”  It is a line that’s startling in its contemporary resonance – as when Juliet says to Romeo: “The orchard walls are high and hard to climb.”

As for being Jewish while watching this play – well, I felt strangely ambivalent. My dear cousin, with whom I attended the performance and who is more committed in her Jewish observance than I am, had, I believe, a similar reaction; namely, it is anti-Semitic and it is brilliant. (There’s that word again; no denying it.) You can tell yourself that it is an entertainment of and for the time in which Shakespeare and his fellow players and collaborators lived and worked.

And yet – to quote Shylock:

If you prick us, do we nor bleed?

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Tragedy in Ellicott City, Maryland

August 1, 2016 at 12:24 am (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Maryland)

We are saddened and shocked by the devastating flood in downtown Ellicott City. A torrential downpour is responsible for two deaths and tremendous destruction of property.

This is a community of quiet charm, lovely – and in some cases, quirky – shops, and fine restaurants.

But now….

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ECflood4

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(Pictures are from The Washington Post.)

This happened some four or five miles from our house. We are on high ground and so were unaffected by this storm. Unaffected – but plenty scared. It seemed as though the pounding rain would never stop.

So far I have found these two organizations who are accepting donations for flood victims:

The Ellicott City Partnership

Preservation Maryland

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Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland

July 29, 2016 at 8:00 pm (Book review, books, History, Italy, Music)

Dynast11  I finally finished it. I didn’t think I would, but I did.

So: what was it like, spending in excess of four hundred pages in the company of the mighty, world-conquering Caesars? You may judge for yourself….

When people think of imperial Rome, it is the city of the first Caesars that is most likely to come into their minds. There is no other period of ancient history that can compare for sheer unsettling fascination with its gallery of leading characters. Their lurid glamour has resulted in them becoming the very archetypes of feuding and murderous dynasts. Monsters such as we find in the pages of Tacitus and Suetonius seem sprung from some fantasy novel or TV box-set: Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools; Caligula, lamenting that the Roman people did not have a single neck, so that he might cut it through; Agrippina, the mother of Nero, scheming to bring to power the son who would end up having her murdered; Nero himself, kicking his pregnant wife to death, marrying a eunuch, and raising a pleasure palace over the fire-gutted centre of Rome. For those who like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison and exotic extremes of perversion, the story might well seem to have everything. Murderous matriarchs, incestuous powercouples, downtrodden beta males who nevertheless end up wielding powers of life and death: all these staples of recent dramas are to be found in the sources for the period. The first Caesars, more than any comparable dynasty, remain to this day household names. Their celebrity holds.

Celebrity, admittedly. But notoriety might be closer to the mark.

Here’s the genealogy of the Caesars:

 

Julians.jpp

[Click twice to enlarge]

In Holland’s telling, Julius Caesar was indeed as dangerously ambitious as  Brutus claimed. He was a genuine threat to the Republic. But perhaps the Republic was doomed anyway. Aside from subduing the Gauls – no small feat – Caesar’s greatest gift to the Roman people was his appointment of his great-nephew Octavius as his heir.

 

Augustus von Prima Porta (20-17 v. Chr.), aus der Villa Livia in Prima Porta, 1863

Imperātor Caesar Dīvī Fīlius Augustus (born Gaius Octavius) 63 BC – 14 AD

(The names will drive you crazy, if nothing else does first.)

Augustus was a reasonably good ruler and, by our standards anyway, a reasonably decent man. And his wife Livia was one of  the more powerful, memorable, and upright female presences in Roman history.

She was the mother of the emperor Tiberius, paternal grandmother of the emperor Claudius, paternal great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and maternal great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero.

from the Wikipedia entry

Livia_Drusilla_Louvre_Ma1233

Livia Drusilla, also know as Julia Augusta 58 BC – 29 AD

 

 

statue of Livia Drusilla at Paestum

Statue of Livia Drusilla at Paestum

Alas, from here it was downhill all the way. Tiberius, successor to Augustus, seemed worthy at his reign’s outset, but he became increasingly erratic, finally withdrawing to his estate on the cliffs of the Isle of Capri, high above the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Sorrento. Here he indulged in grotesque orgies far from the prying eyes of Roman citizens. (But of course. tales of what was going on eventually reached the capital, a place where people indulged lavishly in rumor mongering and gossip.)

The following are pictures taken by me in Italy in 2009:

The approach to Capri by boat

The approach to Capri by boat

As we circled the island, our guide first told us about Tiberius; then he pointed to some jagged rocks sticking straight up out of the water. There, he said, is where the Sirens lured ships to their doom:

2009 May - Walking the Amalfi Coast 182-X2I was stunned. We had gone from history to prehistory, and were now reaching all the way back to the kingdom of myth.

Next comes Caligula, great-grandson of Augustus.

Ever since his childhood, …Caligula had displayed a taste for dressing up. Capri, that wonderland of stage sets, enabled him to give it free rein. Wigs and costumes of every kind were his to try on, and opportunities to participate in pornographic floor-shows freely granted. Tiberius was happy to indulge his great-nephew. He knew what he was leaving the Roman people in the form of their favourite – and he had ceased to care. ‘I am rearing them a viper.’

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka Caligula 12 AD - 41 AD

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka Caligula 12 AD – 41 AD [Photo by Louis Le Grand]

Next up: Claudius:

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 10 BC - 54 AD

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 10 BC – 54 AD

Up until now, my knowledge of Claudius derived exclusively from the TV series I Claudius, in which Sir Derek Jacoby so memorably portrayed the seemingly hapless ruler.

Derek Jacobi as Claudius. THe series caused a sensation on this side of the Atlantic and vaulted this brilliant actor to instant stardom.

Derek Jacobi as Claudius. The series created a sensation and vaulted this brilliant actor to instant stardom.

Somehow I remember Claudius as being a better man than he seems to be in Tom Holland’s telling. Oh, but he was positively saintly compared to his successor, the incredibly loathsome

Nerō Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 37 AD – 58 AD

Nero had a wife, Poppaea Sabina, whom he adored and whom he had obtained for himself by putting her husband, his closest friend, out of the way. (oh – and Nero himself had also been married, too poor, dull Octavia; she, too, was got rid of.)

As ambitious as she was glamorous, the radiance of Poppaea’s charisma exemplified everything that Nero most admired in a woman. Even the colour of her hair, neither blonde nor brunette, marked her out as eye-catching: praised by Nero as ‘amber-coloured’, it was soon setting the trend for fashion victims across the city.

But the beautiful and vainglorious Poppaea Sabina made a fatal mistake: she nagged the ruler of the known world, thus committing the unforgivable sin of discomfiting him.. Never mind that she was heavily pregnant with their child; Nero kicked and beat her to death. No sooner had he done this than he was filled with remorse. The kingdom was scoured looking for another who was just like her. The closest he could get to achieving that goal was embodied in the person of a young boy whom he called Sporus. Nero joyfully took possession of this prize: “…it was as though his dead wife had been restored to him. So completely did he imagine himself to be gazing on her face again, caressing her cheeks and taking her in his arms, that Poppaea seemed to him redeemed from the grave.” But the youth needed to be kept smooth cheeked and beardless forever. How to prevent the onset of puberty? There was only one way: Sporus was castrated.

Meanwhile, Nero’s mother had moved heaven and earth to make sure he attained Rome’s highest office.

Nero and Agripppina

Nero and Agrippina

How was she ultimately rewarded?

Nero and Agrippina had spent an harmonious evening at a villa he was then occupying on the Bay of Naples. Then , as a gesture of filial devotion, he presented his mother with the gift of a yacht.

Greatly affectionate, he gave her the place of honour next to himself, and talked with her until the early hours. By now, with night lying velvet over the Bay, it was too dark for her to take a litter back home; and so Nero, informing his mother that her new yacht was docked outside, escorted her down to the marina. There he embraced and kissed her. ‘For you I live,’ he whispered, ‘and it is thanks to you that I rule.’ A long, last look into her eyes – and then he bade her farewell. The yacht slipped its moorings. It glided out into the night. Lights twinkled on the shore, illumining the curve of ‘the loveliest bay in the world’ while stars blazed silver overhead. Oars beat, timbers creaked, voices murmured on the deck. Otherwise, all was calm.

Then abruptly the roof fell in.

By some brilliant luck – read helpful fishermen who happened to be nearby –  and her own native strength and resourcefulness, Agrippina was able to attain land and return, bleeding but alive, to her villa. But her good fortune was short lived; Nero was not through with her yet:

A column of armed men came galloping down the road. The crowds outside were roughly dispersed; soldiers surrounded the villa, then forced their way in. They found Caesar’s mother in a dimly lit room, attended by a single slave. Agrippina confronted them boldly, but her insistence that Nero could not possibly have meant them to kill her was silenced when one of the men coshed her on the head. Dazed but still conscious, Agrippina looked up to see a centurion drawing his sword. At this, rather than protest any further, she determined to die as who she was: the daughter of Germanicus and the descendant of a long line of heroes. ‘Strike my belly,’ she commanded, pointing to her womb. Then she fell beneath the hailstorm of her assassins’ swords.

As for the famous fire of 64 AD that Nero supposedly waited out while playing the fiddle, that’s a slightly erroneous legend. He didn’t play the fiddle; he played the lyre. And he played the lyre so he could accompany his singing performances. Nero sang everywhere and anywhere there was a stage – or not –  and an audience. He entered innumerable vocal competitions and naturally enough was awarded first prize in every one of them.

Nero as he might have looked at one of his 'shows'

Nero as he might have looked at one of his ‘shows’

Down through history, unconfirmed rumors have held that Nero himself torched the city. The accusation was made during his own lifetime. He in turn blamed the Christians, thus initiating their persecution.

Soon it became clear that Rome had had quite enough of this particular despot:

‘Murderer of mother and wife, a driver of chariots, a performer on the public stage, an arsonist.’ 70 The list of charges was long. Few in the upper echelons of Roman society doubted that Nero, if permitted to live, would add to it. To kill a Caesar was, of course, a fearsome thing; but by early 65, enough were convinced of its necessity to start plotting Nero’s liquidation.

The deed was finally accomplished in 68 AD. Knowing his death at the hands of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard was imminent, Nero took his own life.

‘What an artist perishes with me.’ So Nero, with his customary lack of modesty, had declared as he steeled himself to commit suicide. He had not exaggerated. He had indeed been an artist – he and his predecessors too. Augustus and Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius: each, in his own way, had succeeded in fashioning out of his rule of the world a legend that would for ever afterwards mark the House of Caesar as something eerie and more than mortal. Painted in blood and gold, its record would never cease to haunt the Roman people as a thing of mingled wonder and horror. If not necessarily divine, then it had at any rate become immortal.

Thank you, Tom Holland, for this book. You are a terrific storyteller, and this was one wild and totally engrossing ride.

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A number of fiction titles, some read by me and some not, kept entering my thoughts as I was reading Dynasty. Not all of them were directly related to the specific time frame covered in this book, but they did deal with some aspect of ancient Rome.

These I have not read but have long known of and hope to get to some day:

  89231   tumblr_mk1jczyHLs1rrnekqo1_1280

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These were the first two books to appear in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mystery series. I’ve read nearly all of them and recommend them most highly. (Later titles actually go back in time – see the link provided above.)

Roman_Blood_cover  17406306411

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KeyJaro  I read this novel when it first came out in 1988 and loved it. Benita Kane Jaro, who lives in this area, came into the Central Library shortly after I’d finished her novel, and we had a chance to chat. I’ve always meant to go back and read the two subsequent books in her Ancient Rome Trilogy – The Lock and The Door in the Wall.  I’m delighted that that Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers are keeping these works in print. (The Key, newly purchased, is currently on my night stand.)

Finally, there is this: once read, never to be forgotten: 12172 . Marguerite Yourcenour’s masterpiece, decades in the making, was first published in France in 1951. It is not a fast read; rather, it is slow, majestic, and deeply rewarding.

This passage is quoted in Wikipedia:

Of all our games, love’s play is the only one which threatens to unsettle our soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body’s ecstasy. …Nailed to the beloved body like a slave to a cross, I have learned some secrets of life which are now dimmed in my memory by the operation of that same law which ordained that the convalescent, once cured, ceases to understand the mysterious truths laid bare by illness, and that the prisoner, set free, forgets his torture, or the conqueror, his triumph passed, forgets his glory.

IMG_20160728_201332  This is my own copy of Memoirs of Hadrian. I’ve had it since 1982 and intend to have it always.

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Tom Holland’s translation of The Histories of Herodotus came out in 2014.  61HHV3wB42L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_  It’s a regular doorstop of a tome, so this reader is both grateful and admiring. I’ve long wanted to read Herodotus on the Egyptians, and I believe Holland’s lively prose reworking will facilitate this goal:

After the meal at any party where the hosts are well-to-do, a man carries round the likeness of a corpse in a coffin, carved out of a block of wood and painted to look as lifelike as possible, which in size can be anything between one and two cubits. Showing it to each guest in turn, he says: ‘Look on this carefully as you drink and enjoy yourself, for as it is now, so will you be when you are dead.’ Such is the practice at any drinking-party.

Well, not exactly a laugh a minute, those Egyptians – at least, in this particular setting.


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Let’s conclude with The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. If you don’t have the time to hear the entire symphonic poem, then go forward to 15:25 on the drag bar and listen to the final section, “The Pines of the Appian Way.” This is the most heaven-storming music imaginable. If you ever have the chance to hear it performed live – drop everything and go!

The Pines of the Appian Way is a representation of dawn on the great military road leading into Rome. Respighi recalls the past glories of the Roman Republic. The legions approach to the sound of trumpets, where possible in the form of ancient Roman buccine, instruments best imitated by the modern flügelhorn, and the Consul, elected leader of the Republic, advances, as the sun rises, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.

From the Naxos site

 

 

 

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College of literary knowledge

July 24, 2016 at 2:17 pm (books)

Recently the Times ran a feature on New York City’s famous Strand Bookstore.

17STRAND-JUMBO-superJumboThe Strand is everything you want a bookstore to be: crammed with literary treats for bibliophiles and staffed by knowledgeable people who understand passionate readers. In order to join that select cohort – the store’s staff, I mean – it is necessary to take and pass a multiple choice quiz. The Times very generously posted several iterations of that test on its site. If you click here, you can test your knowledge of the written word.

strand

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So, intellectuals read mysteries! Whaddaya know….

July 21, 2016 at 9:13 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

It started with a profile of Hillary Clinton that appeared in the May 10 issue of New York Magazine. Among other topics, author Rebecca Traister wrote about Clinton’s reading preferences:

In person, she presents, at 68, as a nana. When she tells me what she reads, she sounds just like my mother and so many other women I know, describing how she has become addicted to mystery novels. She cites the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear and Donna Leon’s series set in Venice, explaining, “I’ve read so much over the course of my life that now I’m much more into easier things to read. I like a lot of women authors, novels about women, mysteries where a woman is the protagonist … It’s relaxing.”

I was pleased to learn that Clinton enjoys the works of Jacqueline Winspear and Donna Leon. Both are fine novelists, especially Leon who, with The Waters of Eternal Youth, has just hit it right out of the ball park. May I venture an opinion that by saying these books are easy to read, Clinton is comparing them to some of the policy papers and similar material that she has to not only wade through but also master. To then allow herself to become engrossed in a good story well told and peopled with interesting characters must be a profound relief.

In late June, an article by Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post amplified the subject of Hillary Clinton’s reading taste. Corrigan claimed that in the New York Magazine piece, Clinton was guilty of “a minor flub.” She quotes Rebecca Traister’s ad hoc clarification to the effect that “…Clinton is no cinnamon-scented Mrs Tiggy-Winkle” (a reference which I found baffling and had to look up). Corrigan counters:

But that is, indeed, the patronizing image that bedevils female readers of cozy mysteries. The idea that these writers — and “women’s mysteries” in general — are “easier to read” sounds a tad trivializing.

Right off the bat, let’s assume that Maureen Corrigan – frequent reviewer of mysteries for the Post  – did not mean to imply that Donna Leon is a writer of cozy crime fiction. On the contrary, her novels are concerned with the most  basic truths and the fathomless complexity of human motivations. Winspear’s works may be somewhat lighter, but I don’t know that I’d call them cozies either. (The last one I read, Pardonable Lies, was excellent.)

Mrs Tiggy Winkle, created by Beatrix Potter (as I should have guessed)

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, created by Beatrix Potter (as I should have guessed)

So, then – what exactly is a cozy:

From Wikipedia:

Cozy mysteries, also referred to simply as “cozies”, are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.

From “The Immense Popularity of Cozy Mysteries,” a piece by Kristen Houghton on the Huffington Post site:

Cozies are fun to read. There’s a formula to the cozies that work very well drawing readers back again and again. The amateurs in such stories are nearly always well educated, intuitive women. Books, especially in series form usually have the story line relate to the detective’s job or hobby. Murderers in cozy mysteries are generally intelligent, rational, articulate people, and murders are pretty much bloodless and neat. Violence and sex are low-key and supporting background characters bring comic relief to the story. Some cozy series are set during holidays such as Valentine Day or Christmas making them more intimate to the reader.

See the article on the Cozy Mystery List site for a yet more extended treatment of this subject.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that Lawrence Block defines a cozy mystery as one in which a cat figures prominently in the plot. (I believe this was a tongue-in-cheek offering, but one can never be sure, especially where Block is concerned.)

Finally, a spirited riposte appeared earlier this month in the Post’s Letters to the Editor column. Written by Claire Tieder, it’s entitled “Intellectuals like reading mysteries, thank you very much:”

As one egghead to another, and on behalf of my many egghead friends: Thanks Claire!

Donna Leon

Donna Leon

Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear

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Let me also add that I read my share of cozy mysteries, chief among them M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth novels and the No.1 Ladies’ Detective novels and the Corduroy Mansions series by the prodigiously gifted Alexander McCall Smith.

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Part Three of the Capital Crimes discussion: “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White

July 18, 2016 at 1:09 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

[Click here for Part One of this post, and here for Part Two.]
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At one point in his book The Golden Age of Murder, after naming several of the outstanding male authors of the period, Martin Edwards poses this question:

One of the mysteries of the Golden Age is – why have they been airbrushed out of its history so completely that it is often seen as the exclusive territory of the ‘Queens of Crime’?

In actuality, the aforementioned ‘Queens’ – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham, with the somewhat later Josephine Tey often thrown into the mix for good measure – not only crowded out a large number of male writers by dint of their sheer brilliance, but also a fair number of other women writers as well. One of those in this latter group was Ethel Lina White.

White’s story “Cheese” was the final selection from Capital Crimes to be considered by the Usual Suspects at last Tuesday’s discussion. The framework for this story is so elegantly – and eloquently – set forth that I’m going to quote it in its entirety:

This story begins with a murder. It ends with a mouse-trap.

The murder can be disposed of in a paragraph. An attractive girl, carefully reared and educated for a future which held only a twisted throat. At the end of seven months, an unsolved mystery and a reward of £ 500.

It is a long way from a murder to a mouse-trap— and one with no finger-posts; but the police knew every inch of the way. In spite of a prestige punctured by the press and public, they had solved the identity of the killer. There remained the problem of tracking this wary and treacherous rodent from his unknown sewer in the underworld into their trap.

They failed repeatedly for lack of the right bait.

And unexpectedly, one spring evening, the bait turned up in the person of a young girl.

Cheese.

The principal dramatis personae in this tight, suspenseful little drama:

Jenny Morgan, freshly arrived from the blooming English countryside, eagerly seeking her fortune – quite literally, as she’s in dire need of funds.

Inspector Angus Duncan, “…a red-haired Scot, handsome in a dour fashion, with the chin of a prize-fighter and keen blue eyes.” (Please excuse all the direct quotes; I do love White’s writing.)

Jenny may be keen, but she’s also cautious. She’s received a letter detailing a job offer as a traveling companion and secretary to an elderly lady, but the instructions she’s been given concerning the initial interview for the position have made her uneasy. A friend connected with the police has advised her to seek their counsel. She goes, describes her situation, and asks for their advice – more specifically, for Angus Duncan’s advice, as he is the detective who has caught the case.

(Oh – and watching all this is a Great Dane, resting placidly by the office fireplace. Jenny longs to go over pet him, but she lacks the nerve to move from her chair. Trust me; this is an important detail.)

Inspector Duncan says he needs to have this letter checked out by an expert. Can he take it for that purpose, and will she please come back the next day?

Jenny says yes.

It turns out that by answering just such a summons, the hapless young victim alluded to in the passage quoted above met her tragic fate. As is also stated in that passage, the identity of the perpetrator is known; his whereabouts are not. What’s needed is bait with which to lure this rat out of hiding. As Angus Duncan stares across his desk at Jenny Morgan, a plan, plain as day, reveals itself to him.

He asks Jenny if she’d be willing to help the police capture the malefactor. True, she’ll need to summon her courage, but she need not be too concerned: She will be surreptitiously watched over and guarded every step of the way. Oh – and she will earn a reward: five hundred pounds!

Once again, Jenny says yes.

What happens next is – well, I won’t give away any more. As Frank would say, White summons a plot device into being that the reader has no trouble buying into and that generates edge-of-the-seat suspense. Finally, added to the mix is the beginning of a romance, always a welcome development in a mystery story.
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Ethel Lina White was born in Abergavenny, Wales, in 1887. Upon moving to London, she took a job with the Ministry of Pensions. Eventually she left that employment in order to devote herself to writing full time. During the 1920s and 1930s, she was both prolific and popular. Although not as well known these days, she’s still remembered for two novels which were made into successful motion pictures: The Wheel Spins, filmed in 1938  by Alfred Hitchcock and retitled The Lady Vanishes, and Some Must Watch, which was released in 1946 as The Spiral Staircase and directed by Robert Siodmak. (The Lady Vanishes was remade for theatrical release in 1979 and for television in 2013. The Spiral Staircase was remade for theatrical release in 1975 and for television in 2000.)

In his introduction to “Cheese,” Martin Edwards states:

White’s speciality was ‘woman in jeopardy’ suspense fiction, and her ability to evoke a mood of mounting fear has seldom been matched.

The ‘woman in jeopardy’ trope was, of course, one of the keys to the effectiveness of “Cheese.” White deploys it on a larger canvas and with great success in The Wheel Spins, a novel I recommend with great enthusiasm. (Some Must Watch is high up on my to-read list, but as is the way with such lists, one makes no promises.)

Very little is known of Ethel Lina White’s personal life – witness the sketchiness of the Wikipedia entry. (It’s  interesting how is frequently this is the case with women writers of that era who have never married or had children. One thinks of Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey, although a new biography of the latter by Jennifer Morag Henderson is said to have unearthed some new information about that famously elusive author.) The lengthiest research I found on White is in the Gale database Biography in Context (available through many library websites), and even there, the piece was almost exclusively focused on her work. Frank and I both tried without success to find a date for the initial appearance of “Cheese.”

To recapitulate: the four stories from Capital Crimes that we read for this discussion were “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Hands of Mr Ottermole” by Thomas Burke, “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole, and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White. I think I’m safe in saying that “Cheese” was the favorite among those present at the meeting. (Suspects and others, please feel to offer additions, corrections, or other comments.)

WhiteEthelLina

This is the sole image I was able to find of Ethel Lina White 1876 – 1944

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At the start of the discussion, I handed out the following very subjective list of recommended reading in the classics.

FURTHER READING IN THE CLASSICS INSPIRED BY BRITISH LIBRARY CRIME CLASSICS, MARTIN EDWARDS (BOTH HIS BLOG ‘DO YOU WRITE UNDER YOUR OWN NAME’ AND HIS AWARD WINNING BOOK THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER), THE GOLDEN AGE DETECTION GROUP ON FACEBOOK, ETC.

I enjoyed the following by authors appearing in the Capital Crimes collection:

“The Leather Funnel” and “Lot No. 249” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Complete Adventures of Judith Lee by Richard Marsh (first few stories)

“The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles” from The Silver Thorn by Hugh Walpole

“The Whistle” from All Souls’ Night by Hugh Walpole

Mist in the Saltings by Henry Wade

Before the Fact by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)

Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham

The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) by Ethel Lina White

In addition, I recommend the following:

The Emperor’s Snuff Box by John Dickson Carr

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

 

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