A California sojourn; in which, among other entertainments, a horse tries to eat my finger and and my sister-in-law takes me to prison for my birthday
Middle of May, 2015.
Ah, Northern California, land of plenty:
Brains, talent, ambition, money, mountains, beaches, majestic trees, spacious vistas, a turbulent and fascinating history.
Yes- a surfeit of everything. Except
Upon arrival, one expects to be gazing upon an utterly parched landscape. This was not the case, as the view from the kitchen window of my brother and sister-in-law’s house attests:
It is along the verges of the roads that one sees the tell tale signs. Oh – and we are enjoined to use the term “golden” to describe the color – not “brown.”
It was surprisingly cold in California this time: temps in the fifties and very windy. But for the most part, the sun shone down on us. After the relentless drear of the East Coast, it was a welcome change.
Donna, my sister-in-law, loves to walk, as do I. Her neighborhood is ideal for this purpose, especially as there is a delightful destination within easy walking distance: the Westwind Community Barn.
As Donna and I share a love of horses, we entered the gated pasture by a side entrance in order to feed to the animals grazing there some cut up veggies. Donna, the soul of gentleness and kindness, was delighted that they seemed to like the celery she’d brought. As for me, I was feeding one of them a carrot when he decided that my finger would also make a delightful snack as well. Fortunately, this misapprehension by my new equine acquaintance resulted in a lightly bruised digit and nothing more.
To show there was no hard feeling, I stroked his glossy neck and leaned my head against his warm body.
The sightseeing highlight was our trip to Alcatraz, aka “The Rock.” (It’s reached via ferry from the Embarcadero in San Francisco.) This fabled island prison once housed the likes of Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, James “Whitey” Bulger, the famous Bird Man of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, and many others of lesser fame but equal infamy.
It would have been a horribly grim place to be incarcerated, with the glittering lights of San Francisco always in view – a mere one and a half miles distant, but utterly unreachable due to the icy cold waters of the Bay. Accommodations in the prison itself were exceedingly basic. Privacy was almost nonexistent. Surroundings were profoundly ugly. Secure incarceration, not rehabilitation, was the mission of the institution. Even the most basic privileges had to be earned.
We heard the stories of various escape attempts. The most famous involved two brothers, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin, and a third man, Frank Lee Morris. Their meticulous advanced planning included dummy heads fabricated from soap, concrete powder and hair, materials obtained from the prison barber shop. Positioned strategically in the prisoners’ respective beds, these constructions gave guards the impression that the inmates were sleeping peacefully, whereas in reality they were in the process of effecting their escape.
When the prisoners could not be awakened, a guard tapped one of the heads, which promptly rolled onto the floor. (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at that moment!) By the time the entire force on the island was mobilized for the search, the Anglin brothers and Morris were off the island. But what then became of them? That question remains unanswered. There are several theories, some of which posit their survival. But all we know for certain at this time is that they were never seen or heard from again.
Before we left “the Rock,” we visited the gift shop. Museum shops are among my favorite places to browse, and this one was particular well set up for that purpose. First, I bought a tee shirt to wear to exercise class.
Then I noticed that in another part of the store, a book signing was taking place. The book was Murders on Alcatraz, and the author was George DeVincenzi, pictured above as one of the narrators of the audio tour. I purchased the book and had an enjoyable chat with Mr. DeVincenzi. As I was walking away with my newly signed volume, he called after me: “I was involved in the first two murders!”
When I had returned home, I googled Mr. DeVincenzi. I was especially curious as to how old he was. By my calculation, he is now 87 or 88! All I can say is, you’d never know it.
Back home all was quiet and peaceful. Time spent with Donna and Richard is always an enriching experience.
One of the many pleasures of being in this beautiful home was provided by the dainty visitors to the hummingbird feeder affixed to the kitchen window:
Thursday May 14 was my birthday. On that day, nature staged a rare display.
First, the clouds gathered:
Then the sky turned an ominous and uniform dark gray:
And then, with the maximum amount of drama, the heavens opened up:
When had they last experiences a downpour like that? Richard and Donna agreed that it was probably back in February.
It was a spring day. We passed Geelong and were soon flying along between paddocks yellow with capeweed, their fence lines marked by the occasional windbreak of dark cypresses. Across the huge sky sailed flat-bottomed clouds of brilliant white. My companion and I had spent years of our childhoods in this region. We were familiar with its melancholy beauty, the grand, smooth sweeps of its terrain. Rolling west along the two-lane highway, we opened the windows and let the air stream through.
(Helen Garner’s companion on this grim journey is a teenager named Louise, looking for a useful way to employ her time during her “gap year.”)
At the end of the gruelling day the jury looked older, weary and sad. The men’s brows were furrowed, the women were stowing sodden handkerchiefs. Out in the courtyard we passed Bev Gambino. She gave us a small, shaky smile. Her face was thin, her eyes hollow behind the pretty spectacles. A puff of wind would have carried her away. Louise and I were beyond speech. We parted in Lonsdale Street. On the long escalator down to Flagstaff station I could not block out of my mind those small bodies, the tender reverse-midwifery of the diver. The only way I could bear it was to picture the boys as water creatures: three silvery, naked little sprites, muscular as fish, who slithered through a crack in the car’s rear window and, with a flip of their sinuous feet, sped away together into their new element.
The stunning image summoned forth here will, I think, stick with me for the rest of my life. What a mind Helen Garner possesses! What an amazingly gifted writer. And I had never before heard of her.
Garner says that when she first saw the image of the submerged car in which the Farquharson boys had been trapped, ‘‘I suppose it struck me in the way it struck everyone who saw it, with a terrible gong of horror.’’ This House of Grief in part depicts Garner’s personal struggle to make some kind of sense out of this tragedy. In her attitude toward the chief players in the drama – the father who stands accused, the ravaged mother, and others – she is alternately tough minded and tender. She feels the horrible loss almost as if it were her own. It is indeed very deep water, and the reader must perforce go with her on this harrowing journey.
Obviously this book is not for everyone. In fact, those to whom I’ve described its matter tend to recoil in dismay, exclaiming all the while: “How could you read about something so awful?” This goes back to the questions we dealt with in the True Crime class:
- What is true crime, and what accounts for its appeal at this particular point in time?
- Why is this type of murder narrative so fascinating? (It can be by turns riveting and tedious.)
- “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”
So why couldn’t I stop reading this horrifying story?
1. The author’s voice is extraordinarily compelling.
2. I came to care deeply about the people involved.
3. I was riveted/appalled by the story.
4. I don’t know.
I’ve read quite a few true crime narratives, and lately their number has multiplied as a result of teaching the true crime class. This House of Grief is not only one of the most powerful of that lot – it is one of the most powerful, wrenching, and eloquent stories I’ve ever read in any genre. At the very least, it belongs up there in the pantheon with In Cold Blood, Blood and Money, Fatal Vision, and The Stranger Beside Me.
That is not to say I didn’t enjoy it – I did. For me, Donna Leon almost never disappoints, and she didn’t this time. The saga of Flavia Petrelli, an opera singer bedeviled by an obsessed fan, was enriched as usual by the incomparable Venetian setting. Added to that, the opera in question is none other than Puccini’s Tosca.
I found myself almost pathetically eager to be once more in the company of the cultured Commissario. At the Questura, he deals skillfully with difficult, often dense superiors and prickly administrative assistants – yes, that would chiefly be the mercurial Signorina Elettra. At home, he is buoyed by the companionship provided by Paola, his spirited and fiercely intellectual wife, and his children Chiara and Raffi. (And these four really are present in one another’s lives. Not only are their dinners often festive affairs, but they also frequently lunch together – at home, enjoying delicious feasts prepared by Paola.)
In his book Opera as Drama (1956, revised 1988), Joseph Kerman famously referred to Tosca as “a shabby little shocker.” In a recent essay collection, Leon herself calls it “a vulgar potboiler I wouldn’t today cross the street to hear.” My response to all of this vilification is…YES!! Tosca is everything an opera should be: turbulent, melodramatic, filled with over the top exploding passions and glorious music, and – well, quintessentially operatic.
As usual, the city of Venice is itself a character in the drama. There are the inevitable laments over its deterioration and despoiling, particularly by the hoards of tourists who are bent on destroying what they supposedly love. And yet…As Brunetti and Paola are walking homeward on a moonlit night, they experience this:
There was no wind, so the moon was reflected as though on a plate of dark glass. No boats came for some minutes, and Brunetti remained silent, as if afraid that the sound of his voice would shatter the surface of the water and thus destroy the moon. The footsteps on the bridge stopped, and for a long time there was silence. A Number One appeared down at Vallaresso and crossed over to La Salute, breaking the spell and then the reflection. When Brunetti turned towards San Vidal, he saw motionless people on the steps below him, all transfixed by the now-shimmering moon and the silence and the facades on either side of the canal. He looked to his right and saw that the railing was lined with more motionless people, faces raised for the moon’s benediction.
Paola is moved to exclaim: “We live in Paradise, don’t we?”
I’ve featured this segment in previous posts, but it’s always worth seeing and hearing again:
I didn’t know where to begin. But an article in the Guardian helped. It listed five key works by this author. They are as follows:
1. From Doon with Death (1964). Ruth Rendell’s first published novel. In it, she introduces her policeman protagonist Reginald Wexford.
2. A Judgement in Stone (1977). A standalone containing one of the best known opening sentences in modern crime fiction.
3. A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986). Winner of the 1987 Edgar Award for best mystery, this is the first work that Rendell published using the pseudonym (alternate identity?) of Barbara Vine. A book I’ve always meant to read and still haven’t.
4. Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (2001). This choice, another standalone, threw me. I know I read it, but I remember nothing about it. Time to revisit, I suppose.
5. Not in the Flesh (2007). A later Wexford, and one of the best in the series, in my view.
I think by “five key works,” authors Alison Flood and Vanessa Thorpe mean to suggest good entry points into Ruth Rendell’s large and varied body of work. Looking at this list, the one choice they made that I totally agree with is A Judgement in Stone. I’ve led book discussions on it, and I’ve read it three times. And every single time I’m filled with dread and awe, despite already knowing what the shattering climax will be. The build-up of tension over the course of the narrative is simply incredible.
For me, the Wexford novels, good from the very beginning, became increasingly compelling from the mid-1980s to the present. From An Unkindness of Ravens (1985) to No Man’s Nightingale (2013), I’ve loved them all. Somehow, when I’m reading them, my critical faculties are suspended. I’m held in the thrall by the writing, the story, the characters, Wexford and his utterly ordinary yet fascinating family life, his second in command Mike Burden, whose starchy, conservative exterior serves to protect the vulnerable man within.
I thought The Vault was an especially cunning work. It’s a sequel to A Sight for Sore Eyes, in which Rendell gave us one of the most uniquely frightening characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction: Teddy Brex. The Vault is a Wexford novel; A Sight for Sore Eyes was a standalone. In The Vault, Rendell brings in a retired Wexford to help investigate an extremely strange discovery: the remains of four bodies found in the sealed off basement of a house. If you’ve read A Sight for Eyes, you the reader have some recollection of who these people are. Wexford and company lack that advantage.
Houses are often fateful places in Rendell’s fiction; so it is with this one, named Orcadia Cottage.
The Girl Next Door, a standalone that came out last year, stands as a kind of summation of Rendell’s art. The vagaries and the irony of the human condition find rich embodiment in the cast of characters that people this narrative. I thought it was outstanding.
I’ll save my final words of praise for novel written in 1987 but not read by me until 2012: A Fatal Inversion. This is probably the most riveting and haunting work of psychological suspense that I’ve ever read. Read my review to find out why.
Ruth Rendell was an outstanding & hugely popular figure in British literature & served in the House of Lords with great loyalty & passion.
Oh – and the famous first line of A Judgement in Stone?
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.
Where the world of crime fiction is concerned, Carol of the Usual Suspects does a great job of keeping us group members informed. She recently sent along information about a Google doodle that pays homage to the great Golden Age writer Ngaio Marsh. The doodle appeared only in Marsh’s native New Zealand, so one would have known nothing of it had we not been specifically alerted to its existence:
Shortly thereafter, Carol forwarded an article on Marton Cottage, once home to Dame Ngaio.
One of my favorite novels by Ngaio Marsh is Death in a White Tie. This is as much a novel of manners as a mystery, providing as it does a close-up look at the ‘London season’ with all its social commotion and marriage market significance. It’s a poignant tale of loss, and an even more poignant love story. The tone commingles compassion and irony. The writing is unfailingly graceful and precise.
What a splendid job Felony & Mayhem Press has been doing in bringing so many of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn novels back into print. Click here for the full list.
And click here to hear Dame Ngaio explain how she first came to the writing of crime fiction.
Thanks so very much, Carol, for pointing me to all this excellent material!
In her Washington Post review of Jane Smiley’s Early Warning, Valerie Sayers proclaims: “In an era of tweets, texts and flash fiction, the big, juicy novel is ascendant again.” One can only say, thank goodness!
Early Warning is the second volume in a projected three volume trilogy. Some Luck, the first, moves at a slow, deliberate, even magisterial pace. One learns, like the Midwestern farm folk in the novel, to become attuned to the slow unfolding of events. I loved the book, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the sequel.
And speaking of anticipated sequels, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, a follow-up to Life After Life, is due out here on May 5. With its digressive, nonlinear narrative, Life After Life was a book I was prepared to dislike. In fact, I expected to be unable to get through it. In the event, it held me spellbound – a masterpiece of compelling storytelling.
Some months ago, I received word that Martin Edwards was writing a nonfiction work on the beginnings of the Detection Club and the rise of crime fiction in England in the early years of the twentieth century. It was to be called The Golden Age of Murder. I pre-ordered on Amazon as soon as I could, and two days ago it came:
Subtitled The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, this is a tome of substance, clocking in at some 457 pages (including bibliography). I plan to hold off for as long as I can before plunging in. It looks delicious!
In “The Maigret-a-Month Club” in the Wall Street Journal, Allan Massie begins with this pronouncement:
Georges Simenon was a phenomenon, a hack who became a great writer.
Massie’s article is filled with similar bons mots. It is a beautiful summation of the distinctive peculiarity of Simenon’s achievement in the field of crime fiction.
Massie is particularly concerned with the Maigret novels. These have been receiving renewed attention of late, due to an initiative undertaken by Penguin Press. They have commissioned new translations of all 75 of them, in handsome soft cover editions replete with eye-catching new covers.
The library has been acquiring these erratically, and I’ve been reading them just as erratically. (The Maigret books I’d read previously tended to be of a later vintage.) Penguin is issuing these novels roughly in chronological order. Simenon apparently dashed off a slew of them right at the outset of Maigret’s career. Steve Trussel – the “go to guy” for all things Maigret – assigns to each of the first eight titles above the same original publication date, 1931.
I’ve skipped Pietr the Latvian deliberately. It’s the first in the series; critics seem to agree that it’s quite obviously a journeyman effort (“a somewhat rough diamond” in the words of John Banville).. Recently I’ve read – I’m almost wanting to say ‘devoured’ – the following: The Yellow Dog, Night at the Crossroads, The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, The Grand Banks Cafe, and The Saint-Fiacre Affair (aka Maigret Goes Home, in an earlier translation). Ever since reading in Allan Massie’s article that no less a literary light than Muriel Spark considered Madame Maigret to be a her favorite character in fiction, I’ve kept a weather eye out for her appearance in the novels. (Massie observes of Madame Maigret: “She is the model wife of pre-feminist times.”)
At the outset of the series, appearances of, and references to, Madame Maigret are few in number. From The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin:
For all that she was married to a detective chief inspector of the Police Judiciaire, she had kept all the innocence of a true daughter of rural France.
Lovely phrasing, that. The same goes for this, from The Grand Banks Cafe:
The kiss he placed on the forehead of his drowsy wife was solemn and sincere.
Simenon’s depiction of the Maigrets’ married life is securely placed in this placid ground. Maigret, though sensitive to feminine beauty, seems never to be seriously tempted to stray outside his conjugal vows. For him, Madame Maigret is an entirely satisfactory life partner; she harbors the same sentiments towards him. (They have no children.) I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an element of wistfulness in this picture, as if, at least in respect of the domestic aspect, Simenon wishes from time to time that his own life could have more closely resembled that of his creation.
Not all of these early works are of the same high caliber, though I am finding, as I go along, that they’re getting better and better. The plotting becomes more deft, characters become more intriguing, the sense of place more resonant. The above two, from which I quoted, are my favorites so far. The Grand Banks Cafe in particular would be a good choice for a book discussion group.
What do “literary” novelists admire in Simenon? The combination of a positive and a negative, perhaps: a mixture of what he can do better than they, and of what he can get away with not doing. His admirable positives: swiftness of creation; swiftness of effect; clearly demarcated personal territory; intense atmosphere and resonant detail; knowledge of, and sympathy with, les petites gens; moral ambiguity; a usually baffling plot with a usually satisfactory denouement. As for his enviable negatives: Simenon got away with a very restricted and therefore very repetitive vocabulary (about 2,000 words, by his own estimation) – he didn’t want any reader to have to pause over a word, let alone reach for the dictionary. He kept his books very short, able to be read in one sitting, or (often) journey: none risks outstaying its welcome. He eschews all rhetorical effect – there is rarely more than one simile per book, and no metaphors, let alone anything approaching a symbol. There is text, but no subtext; there is plot but no subplot – or rather, what appears to be possible subplot usually ends up being part of the main plot. There are no literary or cultural allusions, and minimal reference to what is going on in the wider world of French politics, let alone the international arena. There is also – both admirable positive and enviable negative – no authorial presence, no authorial judgement, and no obvious moral signposts. Which helps make Simenon’s fiction remarkably like life.
Julian Barnes, in the Times Literary Supplement
I have recently downloaded a sample from this: . I’m intrigued, and may spring for the whole book. (Maigret, Simenon and France was a 2014 Edgar Award nominee for Best Critical/Biographical Work.)
Penguin has bestowed new titles on the entries in this latest re-issue of the Maigret novels. Unfortunately, they’ve not provided information on how they’ve been titled in the past. This has resulted in some confusion, understandably. Thus far, I’ve found two sites that display that information and are up to date. Steve Trussel’s site provides the original French language title followed by English language variants. The Wikipedia entry is equally current, though it helps to know that the new Penguin titles are listed at the bottom of each cell.
Simenon’s prose is famously stripped down and lean. Early in his career as a novelist, he was advised by the writer Colette to keep his writing from becoming “too literary.” When pressed to clarify this directive, Simenon explained:
Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.
In accordance with this injunction, Simenon learned to choose his words with care. In brief bursts of dead-on prose he could conjure up a world:
He turned his head. He saw the trawler’s funnel, from which smoke was gently rising, for the boilers had just been lit. Fécamp was asleep. There was a wide splash of moonlight in the middle of the harbour. The wind was rising, blowing in off the sea, raw and almost freezing, like the breath of the ocean itself.
from The Grand Banks Cafe
Simenon wrote with incredible speed. A story is told about a time in which Alfred Hitchcock was trying to get in touch with him:
In the latter years of Georges Simenon’s prolific writing life, when he had already published close to 400 novels, Alfred Hitchcock was said to have telephoned, only to be told by Simenon’s secretary that he couldn’t be disturbed because he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock, knowing that Simenon was capable of writing one novel — or two or three — every month, replied, ”That’s all right, I’ll wait.”
I’ve read a number of Simenon’s titles that do not feature Maigret and are not strictly speaking police procedurals. As works of psychological suspense, they can be quite gripping. This is especially true of Monsieur Monde Vanishes and Act of Passion. Now, though, I am finding the Maigret books oddly soothing. Julian Barnes has a good grasp on the reason why:
Apart from delivering the usual satisfactions of crime fiction, the Maigret books work because they offer a continuous, reliable, easily re-enterable world. Those early readers never had to look up a word in the dictionary; and we later readers, whether foreign or French, never have to get out histories of the first half of the twentieth century to understand what is going on….The world he describes may exist as a moral and economic consequence of the First World War, but in the first six Maigrets that war is mentioned on only two occasions, once as part of a rare simile: The Carter of La Providence is set among the chalk hills of Champagne, “where at this time of year the vines looked like wooden crosses in a Great War cemetery”. Where the larger, outer world has been, is and may be heading does not impinge, any more than it does on, say, the world of Jeeves and Wooster. We enter Maigretland confident that the weather will be extreme, the Inspector will solve a seemingly insoluble crime, and that we shall not need to Google anything. This blithe sense of security will now continue for another sixty-nine volumes.
(To read the Julian Barnes article in its entirety, click here.)
There have been numerous film and television versions of the Maigret novels and stories. I’m pretty much wedded to the one made by Granada Television in the early 1990s and starring Michael Gambon as the taciturn inspector. The introductory film clip is wonderfully atmospheric (even though the series itself was actually filmed in Budapest).
My thoughts have turned to this subject of late, for two reasons: I’ve been reading quite a few historical mysteries, and I’m watching Wolf Hall:
I have little to add to the praise that has already been heaped on this production. I adored both books – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – and I’m loving the screen version, although I by no means consider them equivalent in impact. But oh, those costumes, those sets, those tapestries! (what you can see of them in the dark, that is).
(Vanity Fair has posted a very helpful guide to the cast and characters in Wolf Hall.)
Now, on to the meat of the matter. Currently I have two favorite historical mystery series. First, there’s Robin Blake’s novels featuring coroner Titus Cragg and his friend and fellow investigator Luke Fidelis, a physician. These books are set in a very specific time and place: Preston, Lancashire, in the eighteenth century. The first, A Dark Anatomy, takes place in 1740. The next two, Dark Waters followed by The Hidden Man, advance the action exactly one year forward. Thus having recently finished The Hidden Man, I feel firmly rooted in the world that Robin Blake has created. It’s an extremely interesting world and it feels utterly real. I feel as though I actually know Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis. Titus is married to the sweet and empathetic Elizabeth; Luke is single. (I am most eager for Elizabeth to become pregnant and for Luke to find a soul mate.)
P.F. Chisholm’s series is set in the late 1500s in the far north of England, near the Anglo-Scottish border In this region, a curious and widespread lawlessness prevails. Queen Elizabeth is apparently too far away to take any meaningful corrective action; one doesn’t get the sense that she’s much interested in this remote domestic Hell raising anyhow. She does send one of her favorite courtiers, a distant cousin named Robert Carey. Would he please try to impose some sort of order on these people? Once arrived, Sir Robert assumes the role of Deputy Warden. Although his immediate superior, the Chief Warden of the region, happens to be his brother-in-law, this does not secure for Sir Robert any special favors. Rather, as he goes about the often dangerous business of pursuing outlaws, he is subject to a more particular scrutiny by that gentleman. Sir Robert’s sister, the wonderfully named Philadelphia, gives him a hand whenever she can.
After reading the first in the series, A Famine of Horses, I went on to read the next three in quick succession. I couldn’t get enough of Sir Robert Carey, his occasionally hapless men, and his seemingly doomed to be hapless love life.These books sparkle with wit, dry humor, and offhand irreverence. They are a joy to read – and there are more!
I’ve written about both Blake and Chisholm elsewhere in this space. It perplexes me that they are not better known and appreciated. Be that as it may, I recommend them to the discerning reader as highly as I possibly can.
What qualities are inherent in good historical fiction? To begin with, the writing has to be first rate. And so important: no anachronisms! Banish them utterly; they break the spell and spoil the illusion. Dialogue can be especially treacherous territory. I’ve read – or begun to read – some historical novels in which one encounters blocks of prose that are passable, even elegantly descriptive. But when the characters open their mouths to speak, they sound like high school kids from some idyllic valley in California. One certainly wishes them well – but do please extract them from Elizabethan England, the sooner the better! One way to skirt this pitfall is to cast the novel in the form of a first person memoir. Although this will limit point of view – the narrator can’t know what’s going on elsewhere except later and at second hand – it’s a technique that offers certain advantages. This is nowhere more apparent than in Marguerite Yourcenar’s brilliant Memoirs of Hadrian.
Really good historical fiction is carefully researched so that the era in question can be meticulously recreated. That research must then be subsumed beneath the surface of the story that’s being told. If it obtrudes itself in an ungainly way into the narrative, then the cherished illusion of being transported into a past time is under threat. C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels have been justly praised for their rich depiction of life in Tudor England. I’m currently reading the latest, Lamentation. I’m about third of the way in – it’s quite long – and generally speaking, I’m enjoying it. But I’ve been dismayed to encounter several instances in which one or another aspect of the times is explicated for the benefit of the contemporary reader rather than for the novel’s characters.
Here’s an example: Shardlake, a lawyer, is conversing with his new pupil Nicholas on the subject of the accoutrements that may legally be worn in public. As they head for the street, Shardlake asks if Nicholas is carrying a weapon. The pupil replies in the affirmative, and Shardlake offers this comment:
“Since your father’s being a landowner decrees you are a gentleman and gentlemen wear swords in public, we may as well turn the sumptuary laws to our advantage.”
Granted, sumptuary law will prove an arcane subject for most contemporary readers. (The WordPress visual text editor does not have the word “sumptuary” in its lexicon.) Still, in the context of the novel, this is too much information, methinks. Shardlake and his contemporaries would probably have been well versed in this body of regulations, since violating them could carry serious consequences. For whom then is this information intended? The modern reader, one can but supposed.
Admittedly a small cavil, but what can I say? It sets my teeth on edge and breaks the spell.
If, like me, you love historical fiction, here’s a little book that may drive you crazy in the best possible way:
For me, the chief task of historical fiction is to transport me to another time and place – and keep me there for the duration. Above all, transcendent writing can help make the leap. There are two passages from Wolf Hall that illustrate this phenomenon exceptionally well well. This one:
‘The harvest is getting in. The nights are violet and the comet shines over the stubble fields. The huntsmen call in the dogs.
He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.
All our senses are heightened and brought into play. The past is made real once again.
At 5:30 this morning, while suffering my usual early morning insomnia, I found myself brooding over the strange case of Lizzie Borden.
As an aid to the brooding process, I summoned up on my iPad “The Trial of Lizzie Borden: edited, with a history of the case.” The author of this document is Edmund Pearson. Pearson, as it turns out, was one of the bright lights of true crime writing in the early twentieth century. Published in 1937, this is probably his most famous work.
There is a quality in Pearson’s prose that I find curiously mesmerizing. Perhaps this is due to the combined effect of grace, eloquence, and a deeply ironic world view which comes to bear powerfully on the events and people of which he writes. The writing itself has a slight touch of antiquity, of formality, yet it is in some ways curiously modern.
First, Pearson set the scene for us. The Fall River of 1892 was still firmly rooted in the nineteenth century. Gradually he turns his focus onto the Borden family, who lived, in varying degrees of unhappiness, pretty much smack in the middle of town. The author fills us in on the family’s background. Andrew Borden’s first wife died when he was in his forties. He was left with two young daughters: Emma, twelve, and Lizzie, not yet three. (A daughter born in the years between these two died while still a toddler.)
Here, Pearson describes the scene as it unfolded, just before the murder of Andrew Borden. The old gentleman had just returned from a walk into town. His wife Abby already lay dead, in the upstairs guest bedroom which she’d been tidying, but only one person knew this.
Lizzie has employed – or seemed to employ – a stratagem whereby Bridget the maid might be induced to go out.
“There is a cheap sale of dress goods at Sargent’s, at eight cents a yard.”
Bridget expressed a polite interest, but still made no move to leave the house. She did, however, do something equally convenient to the plans which must have been rapidly revolving in the brain of someone close by. She went up the back stairs to her room, intending to use her half-hour’s leisure taking a nap.
Mr Borden was overcome by weariness and the sultry air. He had moved from his chair to the sofa against the north wall of the sitting room. Here he stretched himself out almost at full length, but with his feet resting on the carpet.
His wife had been surprised alone, and in a place from which there was no escape. The old man had walked into his home as unsuspecting as an animal going to slaughter. But he was a tall man, still on his feet, and with his senses about him. A doubtful enemy to attack, he could at least shout for help.
But now everything was made secure for his assassin. He lay down and slept.
How long Bridget was in her room on the third floor, she never knew. Perhaps ten, probably twenty minutes. She heard the nearby clock on the City Hall strike eleven. She lay on her bed and dozed. It was a drowsy, hot hour; the energy had gone out of the day, and out of everyone. The neighbors and the few people who passed the house dragged their steps; the sun blazed through the dusty street; men stopped in the sparse shade of the trees and wiped the sweat from their foreheads.
And then suddenly, in the midst of this pervading torpor, Lizzie calls to Bridget, demanding in strident tones that she present herself at once:
“Come down here! Father’s dead; someone came in and killed him!”
In the hours following, in the days, weeks and months that followed, and down through the decades, a single question has been persistently asked:
“Where were you, Miss Lizzie, when this happened?”
Pearson reviews various theories of the case, among them the suggestion that in order to avoid bloodied clothing, the killer perpetrated the attacks while in the nude:
The thought is so precious, the notion of the secretary of a Christian Endeavor Society [a post held by Lizzie at the time of the murders] prancing through the house like a blood-drunken nymph at the Witches’ Sabbath is so delightful, that it is with great sorrow that I must say that all evidence for it is wanting, and, on strictly practical grounds, it is most improbable. There was calculation and scheming in the murders; a plan hastily executed, to be sure, but nevertheless a plan. The possibility of interruption or premature discovery must have been considered, and, in that event, it would be easier to explain away a drop or two of blood on the clothing than to be surprised, at eleven o’clock of a Thursday morning, stripped to the buff.
There’s more, but you get the idea. Certainly Pearson cannot resist having a bit of a lark with this notion, especially as it gives him a chance to skewer people’s pretensions and hypocrisies. It’s an opportunity that he invariably took advantage of, often with considerable glee.
But in the end, he offers extremely compelling evidence that Lizzie herself was the perpetrator. Indeed, from a purely logistical standpoint, it could hardly have been anyone else.
As for the motive, one component was probably greed. Old Andrew Borden had amassed a considerably estate, but he was parsimonious in its outlay. The house in which the family lived was modest to a fault; it did not possess amenities as basic as indoor plumbing.
After Lizzie’s acquittal, she and her sister Emma, who had been visiting friends in Fairhaven at he time of the murders, moved to a far nicer established up on “The Hill.” Lizzie grandly named their new domicile Maplecroft. She became an aficionado of the theater and began to entertain actors, actresses, and other folk from that world. Emma became increasingly unhappy with this influx of what she considered questionable associations. In 1905, she moved out of Maplecroft. The sisters never saw each other again.
Lizzie continued to live at Maplecroft up until her death in 1927.
Lizzie Borden strikes me as a woman seething with frustration and resentment. Beneath her starchy, proper exterior she must have yearned desperately for something resembling a normal social life. Instead, she moved in a constricted, narrow sphere in which church activities were the only acceptable outlet. All because she lived in a house that was unpretentious to a fault, with an apparently passive older sister and stepmother and an oblivious, unsympathetic father. She could not break out and establish her own household elsewhere. It simply wasn’t done at that time. And besides, unless her father agreed to support her, what would she live on? She had no proper profession. And, of course, she had no husband to support her.
Oh no – such a thing was not possible. Certainly not while Andrew and Abby Borden were still alive. And so we are left with a portrait of barely suppressed rage and misery.
The full text, in PDF format, of Edmund Pearson’s work on Lizzie Borden can be found on Murderpedia. Many are the online sources and resources on the Borden case. The Wikipedia entry is as good a place to start as any. I found one of the more thoughtful articles on the subject in the archives of Yankee Magazine.
I regret that in the course of the True Crime class, I had virtually no time to spend on this notorious case. It receives scant mention in the True Crime Anthology, though editor Harold Schechter does include a “murder ballad” on the subject. He mentions that although these scurrilous little ditties are usually anonymous, the author of this one not only published his name, but also included his likeness and appended his address:
Interest in this subject never seems to flag. As with a number of other high profile murders, the Lizzie Borden case has found expression in various media and art forms. There’s the opera Lizzie Borden: A Family Portrait,” by Jack Beeson, premiered in 1965 by the New York City Opera. There’s Fall River Legend, one of Agnes de Mille’s best know ballets, set to music by the American composer Morton Gould and premiered by American Ballet Theatre in 1948.
Several days ago, while working at the library’s Central Branch, I cam upon a novel entitled Maplecroft on the new book shelf. I said to myself, Oh, this can only be about…
I knew of Ambrose Bierce from his famous – and famously irreverent – Devil’s Dictionary, and his equally famous and frequently anthologized short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
First: some excerpts from the aforementioned dictionary:
Featured in the True Crime anthology were excerpts from Bierce’s varied journalistic output. All appear under the rubric “Crime News from California.” This first entry effectively conveys Bierce’s satiric flair. For something written – and published – in 1869, it seems to me rather daring, not to mention in some respects ahead of its time:
In the course of looking into Beirce’s background, I discovered a story – a very brief tale – entitled “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” This is the whole of it:
One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles from Selma, Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on the veranda of his dwelling. Immediately in front of the house was a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public road, or, as it was called, the “pike.” Beyond this road lay a close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree, rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface. At the time there was not even a domestic animal in the field. In another field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an overseer.
Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: “I forgot to tell Andrew about those horses.” Andrew was the overseer.
Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation. Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of thirteen. When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: “I forgot to tell Mr. Williamson about those horses.”
Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: “Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?”
It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.
Mr. Wren’s strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here follows:
“My son’s exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree, but I reckon more by my son’s manner than by anything he had himself observed. [This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.] As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: ‘He is gone, he is gone! O God! what an awful thing!’ and many other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect. I got from them the impression that they related to something more–than the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred before her eyes. Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances. I have no reason to think she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson.”
This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a proper term)–the lad James. Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. The boy James Wren had declared at first that he SAW the disappearance, but there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court. None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly known of the matter. The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law.
As can be seen, the date Bierce assigns to this strange event is 1854. The story appeared originally in 1888 and was included in a collection called Can Such Things Be, published in 1893. Now it seems that in the mid twentieth century, a similar legend was recounted concerning a certain David Lang. The year of these alleged events is given as 1880:
David Lang was said to be a farmer who lived near Gallatin, Tennessee. On September 23, 1880 he supposedly vanished into thin air while walking through a field near his home. His wife, children, and two men who were passing by in a buggy all witnessed his disappearance.
Frank Edwards included the following description of Lang’s disappearance in his book Stranger Than Science (1959):
David Lang had not taken more than half a dozen steps when he disappeared in full view of all those present. Mrs. Lang screamed. The children, too startled to realize what had happened, stood mutely. Instinctively, they all ran toward the spot where Lang had last been seen a few seconds before. Judge Peck and his companion, the Judge’s brother-in-law, scrambled out of their buggy and raced across the field. The five of them arrived on the spot of Lang’s disappearance almost simultaneously. There was not a tree, not a bush, not a hole to mar the surface. And not a single clue to indicate what had happened to David Lang.The grownups searched the field around and around, and found nothing. Mrs. Lang became hysterical and had to be led screaming into the house. Meanwhile, neighbors had been altered by the frantic ringing of a huge bell that stood in the side yard, and they spread the alarm. By nightfall scores of people were on the scene, many of them with lanterns. They searched every foot of the field in which Lang had last been seen a few hours before. They stamped their feet on the dry hard sod in hope of detecting some hole into which he might have fallen — but they found none.David Lang was gone. He had vanished in full view of his wife, his two children, and the two men in the buggy. One second he was there, walking across the sunlit field, the next instant he was gone.
Eventually the grass around where Lang had disappeared turned yellow in a fifteen-foot diameter circle, suggesting that some form of energy had mysteriously transported him away.
Seven months later his children were said to have heard their father’s voice faintly calling out for help as they played near the spot of his disappearance, but eventually the sound of his voice faded away. They never heard his voice again.
This tale is recounted on the site The Museum of Hoaxes. Further information and speculation is therein contained.
At any rate, the question remains: Whose is the original disappearance? Williamson the planter of Alabama or David Lang the farmer from Tennessee? Is either story true?
In the late 1990s, a chamber opera was composed that was based on the story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” It has been performed several times since then, to considerable acclaim.
To add to the general strangeness of this subject, the composer’s name is David Lang.
In 1913, after an extended period of travel, Ambrose Bierce, then age 71, announced his intention to go to Mexico. At the time, that country was embroiled in revolutionary turmoil. His stated aim was to join the army of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juarez as an observer. At the time of Bierce’s last known communication, he was in Chihuahua. After that, he was never heard from again.
In other words, he disappeared.
“This year John Billington the elder (one that came over with the first) was arraigned; and both by grand, and petty jury found guilty of willful murder; by plain and notorious evidence. And was for the same accordingly executed. This as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them; they used all due means about his trial, and took the advice of Mr. Winthrop, and other the ablest gentlemen in the Bay of Massachusetts, that were then newly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land be purged from blood. He and some of his, had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them; … His fact was, that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen (about a former quarrel) and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.”
Such poignancy in the line, “This as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them…”
For more about John Billington, click here.
The murder of John Newcomen took place in 1630. Another murder in the colonies, not included in the Schechter anthology, occurred in New Hampshire in 1648. In May or June of that year, one Hannah Willix was found floating in the Piscataqua River in New Hampshire. The body was in shocking condition: “…her necke broken, her tounge black and swollen out of her mouth & the bloud settled in her face, the privy partes swolne &c as if she had been muche abused &c.” In the course of her research, blogger Pam Carter, a lifelong Maine resident and self-confessed genealogy addict, discovered that Hannah Willix was her own tenth great grandmother.
Robert Begiebing, now professor of English emeritus at Southern New Hampshire University, first came across this story in a different context: he was looking for fresh subject matter with which to engage creatively.
While in this rather restless frame of mind, Begiebing was reading “Bell’s History of Exeter,” an 1888 book about the Exeter-Newfields region where he lives. Alarms went off in Begiebing’s head when he came across a one-sentence entry in the journal of Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop.
That sentence was exactly the same as the one, quoted above, that was found by Pam Carter in the course of her genealogical research. It fired Begiebing’s imagination at once; the result was a fine piece of historical crime fiction, in which Hannah Willix becomes the eponymous – and similarly unfortunate – Mistress Coffin:
Here is the book trailer for this novel: