Books discussed in this entry:
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
With No One As Witness by Elizabeth George
Sometimes reading is a sweet release and an escape; other times, a book can plunge you straight into a Slough of Despond. Two titles come to mind. The first is A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry. This novel takes pleace in India in the early 1970’s, when emergency measures instituted by then Prime Minister Indira Ghandi went into effect throughout India.
Having lost her young husband in a tragic accident, seamstress Dina Dalal takes in boarders in order to make ends meet. One, Maneck Kohlah, is a student; the two others are Ishfar Darji and his nephew Omprakash. Together, they struggle to survive while the powers of the state seem deliberately arrayed against them. The outside world is at best, indifferent to their tribulations; at worst, it is cruel and malevolent. Yet these four people continue to battle for even the smallest crumbs, while never losing their basic humanity. Mistry makes you care deeply about these four people, and then…well, I don’t want to give anything away. If and when you choose to read this unutterably sad, unmistakably brilliant book, keep in mind the admonition of Marc Antony: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”
You really have to prepare to shed them – copiously – if you read WITH NO ONE AS WITNESS by Elizabeth George. First, let me say right off the bat that I’ve not been fan of George’s Lynley novels for some time now. It had been a while since I’d read a book in that series, but this one was getting exceptional reviews, so I thought – wanting to be broadminded, mind you – that this might be the time to jump back into the series and try once again to figure out what it is about this writer that so many mystery readers love. Why was I not enthralled by her books like so many other fans of crime fiction?
Okay, well, I was enthralled all right. Enthralled and horrified. Again, I don’t want to spoil things for potential readers of this particular book, but all I can say is that something happens in WITNESS that I found so irredeemably awful that I became deeply upset and literally lost sleep over it. George has since published another book concerned with the actors in this one. It is entitled WHAT CAME BEFORE HE SHOT HER. I have not been able to make myself read it.
I would be interested hear from readers who may have also read either of these books as to whether they were similarly affected. I would also enjoy hearing from you if you were affected in a similar way by another book.
On the website Classic Crime Fiction the police procedural is defined as “…the story which not only deals realistically with police work but gives the principal parts to members of the police force…” (http://www.classiccrimefiction.com). There are certainly Americans who write in this subgenre: Ed McBain and Michael Connelly come to mind, as well as my personal favorite, Archer Mayor. But British police procedurals, especially those written with consummate skill and elegance, I not only love but downright crave; there are times when I simply cannot read anything else.
The essay “Mary White” came to mind because of this week’s sad and horrific events in Virginia. I first read it as a schoolgirl in New Jersey. I have forgotten much – both in and out of school – in the decades following, but I have never forgotten Mary White.
True, her death was the result of an accident, not of a “motiveless malignity;” still, White’s heartbreaking elegy for his daughter can, I believe, bring solace. And I am really grateful to Bartleby for making editor Christopher Morley’s gracious prefatory comments available to present day readers.
I mention in my review of Dust by Martha Grimes that I struggled to some degree to “get” the story “The Great Good Place” by Henry James. James wrote several ghost stories, my favorite of which is the intriguingly titled “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” the full text of which can be found at http://www.horrormasters.com/Text/a0590.pdf . Not only is this a more accessible story than “Great Good Place,” it is chock full of atmosphere, a quality so essential to this genre.
I just finished the latest Richard Jury mystery by Martha Grimes. I found Dust as delightful and enjoyable, as the preceding entry in this series, The Old Wine Shades. Grimes has a light, almost whimsical touch with her subject matter; yet she can turn somber when the occasion demands. Right off the bat in Dust, Jury gets entangled with a very brainy, very sexy fellow detective named Lu Aguilar. This is a really hot love affair: Lu and Jury can barely get from the door to the bedroom before everybody’s clothes are lying in a tangled heap on the floor! This is a major complicating factor in Jury’s life: he is already in a relationship with pathologist Phyllis Nancy.
Lu and Jury meet initially because of a murder inquiry. Billy Maples has been found dead in his room at the Zetter Hotel, a “hot” new London venue. In his early thirties, the victim had been an ardent supporter of the arts. Though subject to erratic moods, he was nevertheless beloved and esteemed by friends and family. So who would want to kill Billy Maples? As the investigation proceeds, Jury and Lu are surprised to learn that the answer lies in the past – specifically, in the horror and dislocation of the Second World War.
Two added elements present in this novel make it a particularly pleasurable read. First, Martha Grimes obviously has a special affection for dogs; they have their own important status as characters in her books. She is skillful at pulling this off without being cloying or sentimental, no mean feat. Secondly, the life and works of Henry James figure importantly in Dust. So much so, that I had to find something – anything! – to read by “the Master,” albeit a relatively short work. I found in my own (rather capacious) library the short story “The Great Good Place.” Well…the writing was gorgeous of course, but I had some difficulty knowing exactly what was going on until I was very close to the end. Alert for those who wish to exercise their gray matter (and revel in beautiful prose): read Henry James!
I took the title from a poem by children’s author and illustrator Arnold Lobel:
“Books to the ceiling, books to the sky.
My piles of books are a mile high.
How I love them!
How I need them!
I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them.”
This poem, along with Lobel’s delightful illustration, can be found in Whiskers & Rhymes.
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
I shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last–far off–at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
“In Memoriam” Alfred, Lord Tennyson
My deepest condolences.
Every once in a while, the controversy named in the title of this post gets dragged back into the spotlight. Lovers of crime fiction and mysteries (of which I most certainly am one) get huffy and defensive, demanding to know why their favorite genre gets ignored when the high profile fiction awards are being handed out. One response to this persistently irritating phenomenon has been to pick up our collective toys and go play elsewhere; namely, where organizations consisting of crime writers and readers bestow their own accolades. The best known of these is the Edgar Allan Poe Award, given by the Mystery Writers of America. Almost as famous, probably as prestigious, are the dagger awards bestowed by the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain. (There has recently been something of an uproar over the daggers; I’ll address this subject in a subsequent post.) Of course, we now have the Agatha Award, the Anthony Award, and numerous others. For a comprehensive rundown on awards for mystery fiction, see
To view a recent volley of newspaper articles, blog posts and comments on this subject, click on http://preview.tinyurl.com/3ctkxc
At issue is a comment made recently by one Steve Proctor, currently the deputy managing editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, to wit: “The ability to empathize with and understand all kinds of characters is the difference between popular writing and serious fiction.” (Popular fiction being code for genre fiction, of course.) Sigh…
I think the difference between serious, sometimes called literary, fiction, and crime fiction has more to do with emphasizing rather than empathizing. Books in the mystery genre do tend to be more plot driven. But is this to the detriment of characterization? Sometimes yes, but not necessarily.
Anyway – here are some of my favorite “mysterious” characters:
Commissario Guido Brunetti and his brainy, outspoken wife Paola. (Donna Leon);
Former jockey Sid Halley, a courageous and compassionate man (what my gradmother would have called a “mensch”). (Dick Francis);
Earthy, over-the-top Andy “Fat Man” Dalziel and his cerebral second-in-command, Peter Pascoe. And Peter’s wife Ellie, who, is, if anything, even brainier and more outspoken than Paola Brunetti. (Reginald Hill);
Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s melancholy Swede;
And two couples who are desperately trying to work things out:
Joe Gunther, probably the most decent cop in literature today, and his long time lover, the politically ambitious Gail Zigman (Archer Mayor); Episcopal priest and army veteran Clare Fergusson and (married) Sheriff Russ Van Alstyne (Julia Spencer-Fleming).
Needless to say, I could go on…
And don’t forget that if you are looking for information on the order of books in a mystery series, where the series takes place, who the main character is, or what his or her profession is, go to http://www.stopyourekillingme.com
The Man Booker International Prize was established in 2005 to supplement Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize. It is awarded to an author for the entire body of his or her work. The winner in 2005 was Albanian novelist Ismael Kadare.
The list of nominees for the 2007 has just been published. They are: Chinua Achebe, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Peter Carey, Don DeLillo, Carlos Fuentes, Ian McEwan, Harry Mulisch, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Amos Oz, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, and Michel Tournier.
I have been trying this morning without success to get on the award’s official website:
Dare I hope that this reflects actual excitement about an event related to books? So runs my dream…
Jean Sibelius is supposed to have comforted a young composer by saying, “No one ever put up a statue to a critic!” It is still a commonplace to deride the efforts of reviewers (especially if you yourself have been badly reviewed!). But I have found of late some exceptionally fine writing in reviews and critiques. Here is an example, from Elizabeth Judd’s review of Anne Tyler’s DIGGING TO AMERICA:
” Tyler, who was raised among various Quaker communities and who turned eleven before she first used a telephone, understands the powerful magic of self-imposed isolation.” (This review appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, a magazine with an outstanding book review section.)
BTW, DIGGING TO AMERICA is a terrific novel; if you haven’t yet read it, please drop everything and do so immediately!