Literature leads the way, Part Two

September 23, 2007 at 3:42 pm (books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

The reading list for “Mystery Lover’s England and Scotland” consisted of eleven titles. I have blogged five of them in the past several weeks: Death by Sheer Torture by Robert Barnard, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Raven Black by Ann Cleeves. Several books on the list I had read a while back and was not disposed to re-read: The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori by Robert Barnard, and Playing with Fire by Peter Robinson. And two I just plain didn’t read: Recalled to Life by Reginald Hill and Dracula by Bram Stoker.

Skipping Dracula proved to be a mistake: various aspects of the novel were frequently invoked during the trip. Like most people, I know the general outline of the story, but our journey took in specific locations relevant to the text. Obviously those aspects of the trip were more meaningful to group members who had recently read the book. My problem was that as our tour date approached, I found myself on vampire overload and rather weary of the whole I-want-to-suck-your-blood conceit; thus, I was unable to motivate myself to read the ur-text. Ah, well – live and learn! Anyway, the novel starts out with young Jonathan Harker making his way to Transylvania and Count Dracula in order to conclude a real estate transaction; this prompted our sage and witty study leader Carol Kent to observe that among other things, Dracula illustrates “the perils of business travel.” (There are undoubtedly many business travelers who would at this point utter a hearty “Amen to that!”)
As for Jane Eyre: I tried both reading and listening to it. What defeated me was the arbitrary cruelty toward Jane that was meted out so meanly and so relentlessly. I simply couldn’t take it – at least, not then. Maybe I’ll try again at some future time…especially now that I have revisited the Bronte Parsonage Museum – such a sad, haunted place…

My husband and I got about half way through listening to the spoken word edition of The Sunday Philosophy Club before we left for England. (I can’t recommend Davina Porter’s reading highly enough; she is really superb!) This is the first novel in McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series; I had recently read the fourth entry, The Careful Use of Compliments, and enjoyed in tremendously. It was interesting, if somewhat confusing, to go back to the first book. In our travels around Edinburgh, we located several specific venues where events recounted in The Sunday Philosophy Club took place, most significantly the Usher Hall, which was unfortunately closed for renovation and partially blocked from view. Still, the fall of poor Mark Fraser “from the gods” began to take on a mythic, Icarus-like resonance during the passage of our precious few days in that marvelous city.

I am presently close to finishing my re-reading of The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori. ( The correct pronunciation, apparently, is “Howith.”) I read this novel when it came out in 1998, and I have to say that I have been enjoying it once again, very much. I’m a fan of Robert Barnard’s mysteries and I think this is one of his best. As our coach was entering Haworth, we drove right past the Tandoori! Similar delightful moments related to our reading occurred throughout the trip.

I had deliberately saved Recalled To Life, a nicely compact mass market paperback, to read on the plane. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would still be reading it on the way back! I am a dedicated reader of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels, but I found this one, published here in 1992 and located about half way through the series, to be exceptionally dense and complex. It’s a country house murder, all right, but with an enormous cast of characters; I had trouble keeping track of who was who. Nevertheless, it has all the trademarks of Hill’s wonderful writing. Dalziel in particular is in exceptionally fine fettle here: pushy, coarse, low class – sometimes rather deliberately so – but also capable of compassion and insight. He’s a real brawler, too when the occasion calls for it, which it does several times in this book.

Recalled to Life is named for the title of the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. Quotes at the head of each chapter are taken from the Dickens work. Hill’s novel is indeed about people being “recalled to life” in various ways: released from prison after over two decades, in the case of one character; given a new, if brief, lease on life as in the case of Ellie Pascoe’s aging mother. Towards the conclusion, as Dalziel and Peter Pascoe are heading north on the A 1, Hill treats us to this poignant, eloquent paragraph, as good an illustration as any of the way in which the British are never very far from an awareness of their rich, extraordinary, and sometimes brutal history:

“This was the Great North Road, or had been before modern traffic made it necessary for roads to miss the townships they had once joined. Hatfield they passed, where Elizabeth the First learned of her accession, and Hitchin, where George Chapman translated Homer into English and John Keats into the realms of gold; Biggleswade where the Romans, driving their own road north, forded a river and founded a town; Norman Cross, near which a bronze eagle broods over the memory of eighteen hundred of Napoleon’s dead, not on a field of battle but in a British prison camp; then into what had been Rutland before it was destroyed by little men whose power outstripped their vision by a Scotch mile; and now began the long flat acres of Lincolnshire, and the road ran by Stamford, once the busy capital of the Fens and later badly damaged during the Wars of the Roses; and Grantham, where God said, ‘let Newton be,’ and there was light, though in a later century the same town ushered in some of the country’s most twilit years…”

3 Comments

  1. Juliet said,

    Hi – just discovered your interesting blog via the link on Martin Edwards’s. Glad to have landed here, and will be back to read more. Just returned from a short trip to wonderful Edinburgh myself, with McCall Smith’s most recent books fresh in my mind.

  2. Roberta Rood said,

    Thanks for the kind words, Juliet. I’m glad you enjoy the blog. And I assume that, like me, you are a reader of Martin Edwards’ excellent novels!

  3. A Fall from Grace, by Robert Barnard « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Barnard that I’ve read this year. His novels are set in Yorkshire; Death by Sheer Torture and The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori were on the reading list for the trip to Yorkshire and Scotland that we so enjoyed this past […]

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