The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins: a discussion

August 16, 2007 at 7:55 pm (Book clubs, Mystery fiction)

moonstone.jpg wilkie-collins.jpg Tuesday night our mystery book discussion group, aka “the Usual Suspects,” met to discuss The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. I had read The Woman in White years ago but somehow had never gotten around to tackling Collins’s other masterwork. Actually for this discussion, I listened to it, as did several other members of the group.

[ The Moonstone is frequently referred to as a “novel of sensation.” We weren’t quite sure what that meant, but I have just now found a list of the genre’s main characeristrics onA Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection. Scroll down to “Sensation Fiction” and you’ll see the bullet points. ]

The Moonstone is the kind of great Victorian sprawling heap of a novel that I have always loved but gotten out of the habit of reading in my long years of working at the library and concentrating almost exclusively on hot-off-the-press new fiction. And although there are places where it slows to a snail’s pace, for the most part, the novel was a joy! It has an unusual construction: the story is handed off from one character to another, so that you get several different “takes” on what is actually happening. This sounds as if it would make for a choppy narrative, but somehow it doesn’t impede the flow at all; if anything, it enhances it.

The initial act of mischief, of course, is the theft of the jewel in the first place, a crime committed in India by the brutal John Herncastle. He later wills the diamond to his niece, the novel’s principal heroine Rachel Verinder. Is it a gift? a curse? both?

On the occasion of Rachel Verinder’s birthday celebration, she is presented with the gift of the moonstone, which promptly goes missing yet again. From this event, much mischief flows. For one thing, it would appear that Rachel must separate forever from the love her life, her cousin Franklin Blake. Around the agonies of these two struggling lovers swirl the fates of numerous secondary characters. Some of these are so entertaining that they nearly steal the show. Gabriel Bettteredge, the crusty old retainer of the Verinder establishment, clings tenaciously to his copy of Robinson Crusoe, a novel which, he is firmly convinced, contains the answers to all life’s most pressing and profound questions. Rachel’s mother Julia, Lady Verinder, tries desperately to hold home and hearth together while managing her headstrong, unruly daughter. Roseanna Spearman, a servant and a reformed (at least, such is the hope of her employer) thief, has a strangely deformed shoulder and a hopeless love tormenting her heart. On the basis of that love, she makes a disastrous miscalculation. Her error serves to advance the plot of the novel, albeit in the wrong direction. But that’s fine, one feels; in a novel of this length, many wrong turns must be made in order to maintain momentum – and to justify its length!. The resolution, of course, hovers hazily and tantalizingly in the distance.

The issue of Anglo-Indian relations came up, as it must when considering this novel, featuring as it does the intermittent appearance and disappearance of Indian nationals as well as their legitimate claim upon the diamond. In general, the agglomeration of Western attitudes of that era (and not exclusively that era) towards the people of Asia, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent is often referred to as Orientalism. “Excessive in their attachment to sensual pleasure, given to effeminacy and torpor, yet subject to fits of irrational violence, ‘Orientals’ were thought to be ruled by sweeping passions and given to treacherous, inscrutable plots and acts of unimaginable cruelty.” Charles J. Rzepka, in his book Detective Fiction, concludes his paragraph on this subject by commenting wryly that “This ‘Orient’ was and is, needless to say, a special place in the Euro-American collective imagination, not a region on the planet Earth.” (It may be needless to say, but it is just as well to come out and say it, as with all prejudices and preconceptions, it needs to be debunked over and over again.) It is to Wilkie Collins’ credit that he does not endorse this caricature in The Moonstone. As Catherine Peters observes in her introduction to the Knopf Everyman edition of the novel, “It is clear from everything Wilkie Collins wrote that he was always intrigued by, and sympathetic to, outsiders and outcasts, those branded as inferior by reason of class, race, gender, physical handicap or unusual appearance.” (How to account for the presence of not one, but two physically deformed/handicapped young women in this novel? one of our group wondered.)

Our discussion leader noted that the fame of The Moonstone made it relatively easy to find criticism and commentary. A good part of that fame is due to the presence of the laconic, rose-loving Sergeant Cuff. (His arguments with Lady Verinder’s gardener over the virtues of lawn as opposed to gravel in a rose garden were utterly irrelevant and most entertaining!) Cuff is widely considered a highly influential prototype of the detective protagonist in crime fiction.

(Cuff’s predilection for roses brought to mind one of my favorite passages from the Sherlock Holmes stories. It is from “The Naval Treaty:”

What a lovely thing a rose is!” holmesrose.jpg

[Holmes] walked past the couch to the open window, and held
up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at
the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new
phase of his character to me, for I had never before
seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary
as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back
against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact
science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the
goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the
flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires,
our food, are all really necessary for our existence
in the first instance. But this rose is an extra.
Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life,
not a condition of it. It is only goodness which
gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to
hope from the flowers.”)

The solution to the mystery of the diamond’s theft hinges on the influence of opium on the defenseless, unsuspecting mind of Franklin Blake. We wondered whether the drug would, or could, have that specified effect, mimicking so closely that of auto-hypnotic suggestion. In fact, Collins shows the opium acting on Blake in this peculiar manner not once but twice, the second time with his full knowledge of having taken it. This second instance is what my son in his young years used to call a “do-over.” But can a valid conclusion be fairly drawn, given that this time, Blake knows exactly how he is supposed to act – and react?

This scenario is devised by a character I have not yet mentioned, Ezra Jennings. Even though we were not convinced of the soundness of his method in carrying out this experiment, we did all agree that in other ways he was a fascinating character – possibly the most memorable one in the entire novel. Some terrible injury done to his reputation in his youth had blighted his life and cost him the woman he loved. He had been able to scrape a living together by assisting Lady Verinder’s physician, the kindhearted Dr. Candy. At the time that his role in the events of the novel becomes crucial, he is already dying of cancer. He has been treating his pain with opium, to which he himself has become addicted. It is this fact that makes him believe that he possesses sufficient expertise to be able to use the drug to help solve the mystery of the theft of the moonstone. In effecting this solution, he will enable Rachel and Franklin Blake to reconcile. He desires this to happen from completely unselfish motives. He had long ago lost his own chance at happiness, and was soon to lose his life as well. Jennings’s death scene is anguished and poignant in the extreme. Dr. Candy is attending him:

“A few minutes before the end came he asked me to lift him on his pillow, to see the sun rise through the window. He was very weak. His head fell on my shoulder. He whispered, `It’s coming!’ Then he said, `Kiss me!’ I kissed his forehead. On a sudden he lifted his head. The sunlight touched his face. A beautiful expression, an angelic expression, came over it. He cried out three times, `Peace! peace! peace!’ His head sank back again on my shoulder, and the long trouble of his life was at an end.”

There is so much more to discuss where The Moonstone is concerned, but I think I’ll wrap it up here. Just two more things: First, we were given some notes on the life of William Wilkie Collins. These came from The Victorian Web, a great site for those who are interested in this era of British history, art, and literature. We learned that Collins himself was an opium addict, having first use the drug to ease the pain of gout. It was also noted in our handout that he was “distressed by his corpulence,” a phrase which elicited gales of laughter, as which of us had not been similarly distressed at one time or another!

The discussion was intense and focused; it last for an hour and a quarter and was interspersed with relatively few digressions. (I actually love the digressions in book discussions, as they are sometimes as much fun as the actual matter at hand!) The turnout was small; there were seven of us. It is August in the Washington D.C. area, after all, and just about anyone with the means to do so has fled in order to avoid melting. It was still an excellent, stimulating get-together, with a great group of mystery aficionados. May we grow ever more mysterious as the years pass!

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“Hi! How Ya Doin!” by Joyce Carol Oates

August 14, 2007 at 4:32 pm (books, Eloquence, Short stories)

joycecaroloates.jpg Yikes! a story by Joyce Carol Oates, six pages of nonstop manic motion, propulsive and relentless, spent in the chaotic company of numerous runners, oblivious to one another, except for one, all hurtling toward some unknown fate, not to be avoided, greatly to be dreaded, a lifetime encapsulated in one unending sentence, you will feel as though you have indeed been sentenced, by this master mesmerizer!

Okay – we know Joyce Carol Oates, and I’m no Joyce Carol Oates. Still, I needed to write – I couldn’t help thinking – in stream-of-consciousness after reading “Hi! How Ya Doin!” for the second time. I woke up this morning with the joggers’ feet still pounding in my brain. I’ll probably read the story yet again, but not just now – I need time to breathe!

dr-moses.jpg “Hi! How ya Doin!” is the first in a new anthology of stories by Oates, entitled The Museum of Dr. Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense. I’ve read only that first tale. Any more shocks to my system like that one and they’ll have to carry me out!

You can read the first three pages only of this story online, courtesy of’s “Search inside the book” feature. – click on “excerpt.” Go ahead – if you dare. (Or maybe it was just me – I do feel calmer now, at any rate…)

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Mysteries: the Century’s Best!

August 13, 2007 at 6:03 pm (books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

As year 2000 got under away, a number of “Best of the Century” lists began to appear. Happily for the mystery genre, numerous fans and cognoscenti jumped on this bandwagon.

bests.jpg One result was the Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, edited by Tony Hillerman and that supreme guru (and advocate) of the crime fiction genre, Otto Penzler. This is an interesting, if quirky, collection, containing stories that vary in quality. For one thing, many stories by great mainstream American writers are included, authors whom one doesn’t normally associate with crime writing. Some examples: Willa Cather, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon. On the other hand, stories by the acknowledged “greats” in the field make their appearance: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, John D. MacDonald and Ross MacDonald. One especially pleasant surprise to be found in this anthology is “Naboth’s Vineyard” by Melville Davison Post (1871-1930). post_melville.jpg Post was a prolific writer of short mystery fiction. His Uncle Abner stories, set in Virginia (what is now West Virginia) in the early 1800’s, are extremely evocative and readable. Although they have now pretty much dropped out of the canon, in their day they were considered small masterpieces. No less an expert on the genre than Howard Haycraft, author of the classic work of history and criticism Murder for Pleasure: the Life and Times of the Detective Story (1941), said this of Post’s tales of Uncle Abner: “No reader can call himself a connoisseur who does not know Uncle Abner forward and backward. His four-square pioneer ruggedness looms as a veritable monument in the literature. Posterity may well name him, after Dupin, the greatest American contribution to the form.”

jdm.jpg don1.jpg Two relatively lighthearted entries in Best American Mystery Stories were quite enjoyable: “The Homesick Buick” by John D. MacDonald (pictured above, left), and the Edgar-winning – and truly hilarious – “Too Many Crooks” by Donald Westlake (above, right). “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather is a marvel of powerful writing, but I thought it was a stretch to include it in this anthology. I highly recommend the film version of this story, though, starring Eric Roberts. It is part of a series called The American Short Story. These films were made in the early 1980’s under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities. They are outstanding, the embodiment of what government sponsorship of the arts can achieve when a project is informed by true expertise and discernment. Other performers you will encounter in these films are Fritz Weaver (“The Jolly Corner” by Henry James), Tommy Lee Jones (“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner) and Ron Howard (“I’m a Fool” by Sherwood Anderson). paul.jpg fool.jpgbarn.jpg

Back to the stories themselves: “Ransom” by Pearl Buck had me shaking my head in amazement. Such clunky, graceless writing by a Nobel Prize laureate! In stark contrast, there is Raymond Chandler’s masterful “Red Wind,” with its oft-quoted opening lines:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” chandler.jpgcain11.jpg

One story that was for me a real revelation was “The Baby in the Icebox” by James. M Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice. This story is a real noir gem. [Raymond Chandler is pictured above left; James M. Cain, to the right]. Finally, there is Susan Glaspell’s much-anthologized “A Jury of her Peers,” still a must-read, as compelling and disturbing now as when she wrote it in 1917.

I believe that a more accurate, inclusive title for this book would have been “The Best American Crime Writing of the Century.”


Crum Creek Press is The Little Press That Can – and Does!

100-fav-myst-of-cent.jpg in-vain.jpg muses.jpg In 2000, it published 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century. The titles included in this tiny but mighty little book were selected by members of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. It’s a great little source book for readers wanting to fill in the gaps in their knowledge of the history of crime fiction. Following hard on its heels was They Died in Vain, subtitled “Overlooked, Underappreciated and Forgotten Mystery Novels” (2002). The premise of this quirky, fascinating little of volume of undeservedly forgotten writers and writing is stated on the back cover: “If characters die in a mystery novel, and no one reads their story, have they died in vain?” As in the previous book, the accompanying annotations are meticulous and thought-provoking. There is a third book in this series called Mystery Muses; it’s enjoyable, but not, in my view, as essential or as entertaining as the previous two. (Crum Creek used to put out a wonderful little periodical that featured truly incisive reviews and essays on trends in crime fiction. It was called The Drood Review of Mystery. Although it ceased publication several years ago, “the Drood” is still remembered and missed by its loyal – and wistful! – readers.) drood-2.jpg drood-1.jpg The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association has on its site an excellent feature called Killer Books. This is yet another of the primary places I go to for reading recommendations.

crime-mstyery-100.jpg keating.jpg Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books was written by H.R.F. Keating and published in 1987. Keating is a veteran author of mysteries as well as a highly respected commentator and reviewer. His essays are full of insight and beautifully written. Mixed in with the (justly) famous are authors and titles you’ve likely never heard of (including the aforementioned Uncle Abner stories by Melville Davisson Post). At any rate – as with the above reference works: highly recommended.

And before I close: Baltimore’s own Mystery Loves Company Bookstore has a Best Mysteries of the Century list posted on its website.

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Rough Guide to Crime Fiction by Barry Forshaw

August 10, 2007 at 2:05 am (Mystery fiction)

rough-ghude.jpg This gem of a little book just fell into my hands: The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction by Barry Forshaw. There seems to be a Rough Guide for just about everything – May we expect a Rough Guide to Life in General anytime soon? – but this one is an especially welcome addition to the canon of reference works for mystery lovers. “The genre is a broad church,” Forshaw observes in his preface, “with every level of achievement available, from subtle psychological insight into the minds of murderers to uncomplicated thick-ear action.” (I like that “thick-ear,” don’t you?) He then goes on to state that he has covered all sub-genres and selected the best crime fiction written in “the last century or so.” The one thing he has no patience with or use for, he warns us, is bad writing. Amen to that! For years I’ve been telling fans of the genre that there is so much terrific writing out there that there is absolutely no need to settle for mediocre, inferior, or just plain clunky prose.

In his thoughtful foreword, Ian Rankin asks if it is possible to hope that crime fiction is finally getting the respect that has long been owing to it. He is pleased that the genre is getting increasing coverage in the major media, and yet “…when a famous prize-winning literary novelist recently turned his hand to crime fiction, he felt obliged to put it out under another name.” My (educated) guess is that Rankin is referring to Christine Falls by Benjamin Black, alias John Banville. I think we can also consider the possibility, where this particular example is concerned, that Banville wants this projected series to be more readily identifiable by being issued under his pseudonym. Certainly no effort was made to conceal his true identity; the inside jacket flap proclaims Christine Falls to be “the debut crime novel from Booker Award winner John Banville.” (The sequel, The Silver Swan, is due out in March of 2008.) The other way to look at this phenomenon is to ask the question: What is the next (really bracing) challenge a Booker-winning literary novelist would want to take on? Why, writing quality crime fiction, naturally! (So take heart, Ian.)

[(August 14) I’d like to insert an addendum here. In his blog Crime Always Pays, Declan Burke quotes my surmise concerning John Banville’s pseudonym and his purpose in using it; he then goes on to remind me (gently and graciously) that Banville has in fact already written several outstanding crime novels. This does poke something of a hole in my thesis, although I was thinking rather specifically of a character – Garret Quirke, in this case – being carried forward as the protagonist in an ongoing series. Still, point taken!]

Barry Forshaw has taken on a large task here, and by and large he has succeeded, within the confines of this diminutive volume. (Why do I keep referring to its size? Because it has roughly the same dimensions as a mass market paperback – and retails for $12.99!) The publication date is June 2007, and several entries are gratifyingly current. Yet Forshaw’s approach is thematic rather than chronological; for instance, Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938) immediately precedes Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen (2000) in the chapter entitled “In the Belly of the Beast.” Leafing through this delightful volume, I was reminded of classics I had always meant to read but hadn’t, e.g. Green for Danger by Christianna Brand, and books I’ve been meaning to read again, e.g. Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley.

josephine-tey-1.jpg fossum.jpg Forshaw is a man of definite views. For instance, he states “without hesitation” that The Franchise Affair is Josephine Tey’s best book; he further asserts that “There is no room for debate: the most important female writer of foreign crime fiction at work today is the Norwegian Karin Fossum.” [Fossum is pictured above, right.] Now, I never mind opinionated people as long as they are sufficiently discerning to hold the same opinions that I do. As it happens, I agree with Forshaw about both of these superb writers, so – no problem! (You can read more of his views and reviews at the Crime Time site.) This Rough Guide includes of capsule reviews of crime films that sound terrific, though they may be hard to find.

Just one more thing, as Columbo would say: I do appreciate Barry Forshaw’s eloquence in praise of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels: “These are gracefully written, atmospheric essays in classic crime, with the cultivated, beer-loving Morse one of the great literary curmudgeons (his sniping relationship with his sidekick Lewis is wonderfully entertaining).” We still have these wonderful novels, but how we do miss the incomparable John Thaw (1942-2002). jthaw.jpg

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Many Worlds, Many Portals

August 7, 2007 at 12:01 pm (Anglophilia, Art, books, Eloquence, Music, Poetry)

In one of my favorite passages in Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, Hrothgar, ruler of the Shieldings, describes Grendel and his mother: “They are fatherless creatures, /and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts. They dwell apart/ among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags / and treacherous keshes, where cold streams / pour down the mountain and disappear / under the mist and moorland.”

heaney460.jpg When we read works like this, we tend to skim, or even skip, the introduction – or I know I am guilty of this, at any rate. I urge you to read this one though; if you don’t, you’ll miss out on some gorgeous prose writing. Trying to pin down the source of this epic’s astounding power, Heaney observes that “…the poet conjures up a work as remote as Shield’s funeral boat borne towards the horizon, as commanding as the horn-pronged gables of King Hrothgar’s hall, as solid and dazzling as Beowulf’s funeral pyre that is set ablaze at the end. These opening and closing scenes retain a haunting presence in the mind; they are set pieces, but they have the life-marking power of certain dreams..”

Here he describes the dragon:

the-fire-drake-e.jpg “Once he is wakened, there is something glorious in the way he manifests himself, a Fourth of July effulgence fireworking its path across the night sky; and yet, because of the centuries he has spent dormant in the tumulus, there is a foundedness as well as a lambency about him.”

One more quote about the strangeness of Beowulf: “…it arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose.., it passes once more into the beyond.” This quote resonated for me in several ways, especially as regards the use of the word “bourne.” There’s Hamlet brooding on “that bourne from which no traveler returns.” Then there it is again, in “Crossing the Bar’ by Tennyson:

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

tennyson.jpg [Alfred, Lord Tennyson]

secretaries.jpg Finally, the idea that this epic poem is some strange manifestation of another world reminded me of something Adam Nicolson says near the conclusion of God’s Secretaries (wonderful title, that; wonderful book, for that matter). In comparing the New English Bible’s version of the New Testament to that of the King James, Nicolson describes “…”the extraordinary and overpowering strangeness of the Bible, its governing sense of the metaphysical somehow squeezed, dragged and stretched, like Christ himself, into the world of men.” (p. 234)

Coming back to Beowulf, one of the things that surprised me most was the mixture of the pagan and monotheistic sensibilities. I wanted to say “Christian,” but there is no mention of Christ in the poem. There is mention, though, of “Almighty God” at line 1314; it occurs about thirty lines before the description of Grendel, his mother, and attendant demons and ghosts, in the passage cited at the beginning of this post.

beowulf-the-king-e.jpg geatish-warriors-e.jpg grendel-scrithing-e.jpg burnett-lament-e.jpg [More Beowulf art can be found at Beowulf in Steorarume]

In the July 30 issue of Newsweek, there is a fascinating article on quantum physics by Sharon Begley in which the author poses the provocative question: Can the Future Leak Into the Present? I’d like to quote one passage in particular; I don’t dare attempt to paraphrase it: “Last week a conference at Oxford University explored the idea that every time a subatomic system reaches a decision point–to undergo radioactive decay or not, say–it chooses both possibilities: in other words the particle decays, while in a parallel world it does not.” Begley refers to this as the ‘many worlds’ interpretation, which is, apparently, accepted by some physicists, for reasons which I won’t elaborate on here. Now this stuff is really hard to understand; nevertheless, one can readily see that it is extremely intriguing in its implications.


rvw2.jpg My husband and I were pleasantly surprised by the large number of hits we got on a search for Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Vaughan Williams on YouTube. We have decided that this means there is hope for the world after all! Here is a link to the incomparable Tallis Fantasia, performed by an accomplished group of musicians at Indiana University.

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The Water’s Lovely by Ruth Rendell

August 6, 2007 at 12:43 pm (Mystery fiction)

water.jpg ruth_narrowweb__300x4260.jpg At the center of Rendell’s latest novel of psychological suspense are two sisters, Ismay and Heather Sealand. As the story begins, they have already lost their father; their mother Beatrix, still relatively young, has remarried. Her second husband, Guy Rolland, is a genial predator and the worst sort of man to have brought into a household containing two young daughters.

Some years later, Guy is laid low by a flu-like illness and though still in a weakened state, is gradually recovering. Ismay and Beatrix come home from a shopping trip and are confronted by the sight of thirteen-year-old Heather, her dress and shoes soaking wet, descending the stairs in a kind of trance. “You’d better come,” she tells them. Upstairs in the bathroom a terrible sight awaits them: Guy, floating in the bathtub, dead. Beatrix calls the police, and when they get there, she and Ismay are ready with a cover story: Heather had been out shopping with them, and the three of them, on returning home, had found Guy as the police now saw him. The deception works; Guy’s death is ruled an accident. Neither Beatrix nor Ismay ever asks Heather what really transpired in their absence. For Ismay, the question nags and torments as she and Heather grow into young womanhood. Meanwhile, Beatrix retreats into insanity, spending her days and nights hunched over her handbag with her ear pressed against a radio that is barely audible. She has become yet another of Rendell’s horribly damaged grotesques.

Yet her daughters remain devoted to her, keeping her at home and caring for her with the help of her sister, their Aunt Pamela. This is the situation as the novel opens. Ismay and Heather are likewise devoted to each other, this despite being drastically different not only physically but also temperamentally and emotionally. Ismay has acquired a boyfriend named Andrew Campbell-Sledge. He is self-centered and inconstant, but no matter; she loves him “with a love that was more than love.” For her part, Heather, who never expected to have any sort of meaningful relationship with a man, starts going out with Edmund, a nurse at the hospice where she works. Edmund is a thoroughly decent and caring individual, and soon, he and Heather are deeply in love. But it is a different kind of love altogether than what Ismay is experiencing with Andrew – it is a “mighty fortress” kind of love, solid and built to withstand blows. Which turns out to be just as well…

While all this is going on, various minor characters appear in the narrative, mainly for the purpose of causing trouble. Chief among these is Marion Melville, a type who operates with a cheerful malevolence that reminded me of Joan Smith in A Judgement in Stone.

I have heard Rendell’s writing style describes as detached and clinical. I remember years ago when I read Therese Raquin by Emile Zola that his style was describes in a similar way and given the name “naturalism.” I understood the term to signify a sort of extreme realism, in which the author places the characters under the microscope of his or her scrutiny and simply reports on the various types of Hell they sink into and flail about desperately to escape from. Is this in fact what Rendell does in her fiction? Yes, to varying degrees, although the technique is not as evident in the Wexford and Barbara Vine books as it is in novels of psychological suspense like this one.

If memory serves me correctly (and it doesn’t always), there was a deficit of likable characters in Therese Raquin. This is not the case in The Water’s Lovely. I liked the Sealand sisters and Pamela very much, and I particularly liked Edmund. He is a person of rock solid integrity who is at the same time a model of patience, compassion and loyalty. Too good to be true? Not at all – he comes across as very true. Heather is deeply lucky to have found him, and she knows it. On the other hand, there is present the usual quota of awful people that invariably populate Rendell’s fiction. Sometimes you know at once that they are awful; at other times, they don’t seem so at first but reveal gradually their true and appalling selves. One of the great strengths Ruth Rendell possesses as a novelist is the ability to allow her characters to do this; there is no commentary by an omniscient author coaching you as to what your reaction to these characters should be. There is no need; you can form an accurate judgment of these people by their words and actions, just as you do in real life.

Back to the characters you like (or at least, that I liked): the more you care about them, obviously, the more you are at the mercy of the author’s machinations. (Interestingly enough, the author can be subject to the same anxieties as the reader. In a BBC interview several years ago, Rendell stated that she became very attached to the Coverdale family in A Judgement in Stone and therefore was genuinely agitated when contemplating their fate. She nevertheless felt that in order to stay true to the novel’s intent, she was powerless to alter their destiny.) I have to say that as I was reading this book, my sense of dread mounted to a degree that I found almost intolerable. I couldn’t help saying to myself, okay, I am riveted, but am I enjoying myself? Still, when I finished the book late last night, I came downstairs and held it up to my husband and said simply: “A masterpiece.”

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Bill James: the Harpur and Iles mysteries

August 5, 2007 at 1:10 am (Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

jamesbil.jpg Bill James’ Harpur & Iles novels are, at least in my experience, unique. This underappreciated (at least in this country) British crime writer is exceptionally cunning in his plotting, but it’s his use of language that really sets him apart (more on this later). His characters both fear and threaten violence, which occasionally erupts, but often remains a potent, unrealized possibility, a deadly undercurrent. Meanwhile, on the surface, the police and the bad guys perform an elaborate dance with one another, trading information, and even more often, disinformation. The dialogue in these novels is brilliantly written, but I should warn the novice reader: you’ll be constantly thinking you missed something. Speakers are frequently at cross purposes; someone will ask a pointed question and be answered with a complete non sequitur. Then, several lines – or even pages! – later, the question will be answered, or answered in a manner of speaking, totally out of the context of the current conversation. It’s actually a bit dizzying!

back.jpg Colin Harpur is a decent cop, after his own fashion, but his boss, Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles, is something else entirely. Here’s a description of the ACC from the twentieth entry in this long-running series, The Girl with the Long Back (2004): “…a malevolent, pirouetting, egomaniac vandal.” This, from Harpur himself! He can say this, despite being Iles’s second-in-command and probably the closest thing to an actual friend that Iles possesses. But in the past there’s been bad blood between these two: Harpur is the former lover of Iles’s wife. Indeed, in this strangely inverted universe, folk hop into and out of bed with one another with wild abandon. Marriage is no bar to the merriment. Iles himself prefers them under age. Harpur is constantly at pains to keep him away from his daughter Hazel, who herself is one of those cynical teen-agers with the knowingness of a thirty-five-year-old. (There’s something distinctly Nabokovian in this situation.) Iles may sound like a thoroughly reprehensible character, but he actually has his uses. He’s good at striking terror into the hearts of the bad guys. He has an absolute belief in justice; in fact, his convictions on this score include the sanctioning of revenge. In an earlier book in the series, two men who had killed one of Iles’s prize snitches were acquitted by the courts. Shortly thereafter, Iles saw to it that they were dispatched efficiently and irrevocably.

The bad guys in this series are extremely colorful and often a deal less frightening than their counterparts in law enforcement. They have wonderful names: Panicking Ralph Ember, Caring Oliver, and my personal favorite, “Mildly Sedated” Henschall. Some of these characters come and go rather quickly, often in the space of a single novel; others have staying power. Ralph Ember is of the latter group. He’s the owner and proprietor of the Monty, which he hopes will become a truly classy club at some time in the future. In the meantime, however, “…the Monty became the venue for community jubilees: wedding receptions, birthday get-togethers, champagne and canape evenings to mark Parole Board successes, or trial acquittals, post-funeral drink-ups, shindigs for coming of age, vengeance triumphs, accumulator racing wins.”

wolves.jpg This cheerful mixture of bourgeois neighborliness and ruthless criminality is one of the chief sources of (very black) humor in this series. These books have an in-your-face, politically incorrect, utterly irreverent quality that might turn off some readers. I tend to take them in the spirit in which they are offered: as high-spirited, often hilarious, entertainments in which the vagaries of human nature are, at times, shrewdly observed. The most recent novel in this series, Wolves of Memory, is, I think, one of James’s best. The twenty-third, Girls, is due out in October.

I’d like to conclude this post by returning to where I started: namely, with James’s highly original use of language. A reviewer in Publisher’s Weekly described it as “a kind of powerful, deadpan poetry” (laced, I had better mention, with liberal doses of profanity). James makes exceptionally effective use of figurative language, often coming up with truly startling comparisons. To wit: here is Ralph Ember trying to figure out how to get his hands on more guns: “It was a real while since Ralph bought armament and he could not be sure the supply scene had stayed the same. Stupid and smug to let absolute basic knowledge slide like that: did the Pope ditch christening skills because he had a palace now?”

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The Bad Quarto by Jill Paton Walsh, with a digression on Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

August 2, 2007 at 7:21 pm (Mystery fiction)

jill-paton-walsh.jpg bad-quarto.jpg Paton Walsh packs a lot into this terrific little gem of a novel. There’s the lore of the “night climbers” of Cambridge University, the art and science of boating on Britain’s canals and inland waterways (some lovely descriptive passages here), and delicious gossipy glimpses of life at one of the world’s premier universities. But best of all, there’s Hamlet. The plot of The Bad Quarto begins to thicken when a drama society decides to stage the “Bad Quarto” version of Hamlet. In truth, the Kyd Society has been railroaded into offering this performance by one Martin Mottle. Mottle, a wealthy student at the university, has offered to pay the Society a whopping – and desperately needed – one hundred thousand pounds in exchange for playing the starring role in Hamlet on opening night. Mottle obviously has his own agenda, but no one knows what it is until the production is actually under way.

Paton Walsh’s spirited protagonist in these doings is Imogen Quy, a nurse at St. Agatha’s College, Cambridge. (This novel is the fourth in a series; the first is The Wyndham Case.) As the college’s infirmarian, Imogen offers wise counsel to the troubled, primarily, but not exclusively, students. Students, of course, are by no means the only ones hiding secrets in these hallowed halls. Although Imogen is a fellow of the college, she is not part of the community of scholars. This somewhat unique situation affords her a distant and therefore valuable vantage point from which to view whatever mystery is confronting her.

sayers_sidebar.jpeg gaudy.jpg The Bad Quarto is steeped in university life. It exudes the very spirit of a book that I and many others cherish: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. Like Harriet Vane, Imogen Quy discovers that spite, jealousy and resentment are at the heart of the investigation in which she has been called to assist. Some writers – as well as others – would have us believe that these qualities are endemic to life in academia. While acknowledging the presence of these baser emotions, both authors also pay loving tribute to the life of the mind – and to the illustrious institutions that foster and nurture that life. [Note that the above image is of the cover of the audio version of Gaudy Night. The reader is Ian Carmichael. It is published by Audio Partners, and I cannot recommend it highly enough!]

Like her alter ego Harriet Vane, Dorothy Sayers attended Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied modern languages. Although she completed her course work in 1916, she was not granted a full degree in that year. Women could not be officially considered Oxford graduates until 1920. In that year, Sayers was awarded both a B.A. and an M.A. She was numbered among the first group of women to accomplish this in the long history of that famous place.

One of my favorite passages in Gaudy Night occurs near the beginning of the novel when Harriet first returns to Shrewsbury College (her fictional stand-in for Somerville) for the Gaudy Night celebrations. She is taking stock of her life, a life marked by turbulence. Some years prior, she had stood accused of murdering her former lover Phillip Boyce (see the novel Strong Poison). Only the intrepid sleuthing of the renowned Lord Peter Wimsey had saved her from the gallows. Lord Peter, of course, has been entreating her to marry him ever since, but she, for her part, has been unable to answer him in the affirmative. Her love for him is not in question; the shape to be taken by the rest of her life as a woman and as a writer is. At length, she laughs at her confused longings and thinks to herself: “They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University;… a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.” By gosh, I just wanted to stand up and cheer when I read that – You go, Harriet!

thrones.jpg In 1998, Jill Paton Walsh completed Thrones, Dominations from a manuscript left unfinished by Sayers at the time of her death. In an author’s note at the back of the book, she (Paton Walsh) tells how reading Gaudy Night in her early teens fired her with a desire to attend Oxford University, a desire which she ultimately fulfilled. Thus, she declares, she is “life-long in debt to Dorothy L. Sayers.” As are, probably, other women of high intellectual and artistic achievement, from her own generation and those following.

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