“I want to be one of those isolated lights high up on the mountainside at night.”: Cleaver, a novel by Tim Parks

March 31, 2008 at 5:14 pm (Book review, books)

cleaver1.jpg Harold Cleaver is a British media darling. He interprets the news when not actually making it himself. Recently, he has made very big news indeed by savaging the U.S. president in a no-holds-barred interview that left viewers and listeners in no doubt about his opinion of America’s chief executive. But the anger that Cleaver let fly in that televised confrontation was, in fact, displaced. As it happens, just one day before the interview was scheduled to take place, a defamatory – and inflammatory – book had fallen into Cleaver’s hands. In it, a thinly disguised Cleaver substitute is exposed to almost unrelenting ridicule and scorn. Although calling itself a novel, Under His Shadow is a roman a clef if there ever was one. Cleaver recognizes everyone in it: Amanda, his wife – or non-wife, since they were never legally wed – and his contentious brood of children, numbering at one time four, but reduced to three by the untimely death, in an auto accident, of the teen-aged Angela. Angela had a twin brother, Alex, and there are two younger children, Philip and Caroline. Alex is the author of Under His Shadow.

His elder son’s monstrous betrayal, and the furor over the interview with the president, have caused Cleaver to flee Britain in search of solitude and anonymity. He finds both, to an extent, in the Tyrol, a region of the Eastern Alps that’s part Austrian and part Italian. Cleaver is both amazed and pleased to have fetched up in this remote place. tyrol.jpg The Tyrol is beautiful but dangerous, though, with heavy winter snows and challenging terrain. It is a country for fit outdoorsmen, a description that in no way applies to Cleaver, who is overweight and has smoked, drunk and eaten way too much for most of his adult life. In addition to these vices, so happily indulged in, he has been a compulsive womanizer, not only cheating on Amanda, but frequently cheating on his lovers on with yet another girlfriend. But no matter – the Tyrol, “the forgotten heart of Europe” –  is where he wants to be.

Cleaver is looking for a kind of purification, a purging of his excess baggage, both physical and emotional. In a rare moment of honesty with himself, he acknowledges how difficult it will be to bring about this transformation: “How sombre I feel, he realised, …a ghost shackled old haunts, but unable to take pleasure in them, eager to be exorcised.”

He arranges with a farm family to rent a primitive hut in the Alps. His new abode is without electricity or indoor plumbing. Cleaver is a man who has always been happy to let others do the heavy lifting while he entertained guests and television audiences with his facile wit. Now he is faced with the daunting prospect of laboring on his own just in order to survive.

Initially he is inept and clumsy. It doesn’t help that members of the farm family, whose help he desperately needs, speak almost no English, while he himself knows only a few words of German. Moreover, this family’s relationships are murky, tangled, and therefore very intriguing. Cleaver can’t help himself – he wants to know what’s really going on with these people. Here he is, trying to cultivate an indifference to the affairs of others, but he gets sucked into their story in spite of himself. He has left an extremely troubled family situation behind, only to find himself immersed in something disturbingly similar. Yes, there’s a barrier to communication here – but that barrier seems always to have been present in Cleaver’s personal life, even – especially? – when the people involved supposedly spoke the same language! The irony of this fact, for a man who has made his living by being articulate in public, is not lost on him.

This is a complex and volatile story, told with a high octane urgency that often resembles stream of consciousness. And Harold Cleaver’s consciousness can be uncomfortable space in which to dwell. Rage alternates with despair; when Cleaver is not heaping venom on others, he’s pouring liberal helpings on his own head and lacing them with humor that is bitter and black. His mind does indeed seem to be filled with scorpions.

But then things start to change. In the beginning, Cleaver comes across as a narcissistic, self-indulgent whiner. That changes, too – but it takes a while. And the change, when it comes, is momentous without being radical. To be fair, right from the start there are hints of another, rather different human being, hidden behind Cleaver’s smug, resentful persona. For one thing, it becomes increasingly clear that he has never stopped mourning his daughter. Angela had been his darling; once she was gone, his carapace had hardened and no new, forgiving light could penetrate. From this deep, unhealed wound, much pain has flowed.

There is some very powerful writing in Cleaver:

“The dark glass gave back the low flame of the lamp. It was the kind of light women liked to make love by, liquid, soft and mobile: the light most like the mind, as Cleaver had once scored points by observing.”

“Auld Lang Syne is a sort of mounting frame, Cleaver laughed, which holds the mind still while it is violated by a certain rapacious emotion. Perhaps a bell clangs. And through that emotion the song brings you close to other people, as when everyone sang so movingly at the funeral: Abide with me, fast falls the eventide. Including his partner’s lover, and her Scottish parents. It was horrible.”

parks.jpg goodness.jpg I’ve read several novels by Tim Parks. I remember that Goodness, which I read when it came out 1994, affected me deeply. In it, Parks describes how the birth of an infant with severe disabilities turns the lives of an upwardly mobile couple upside down. It’s a short book that packs a wallop.

And so does Cleaver. This may not be a novel for everyone, but I loved it.

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Tribute to an Outstanding Blog – Two, actually: Do You Write Under Your Own Name, by Martin Edwards, and Lost in Books by Lourdes, with a digression on the subject of short stories

March 29, 2008 at 7:01 pm (Blogroll of honor, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction, Short stories, The British police procedural)

martin.jpg Ever since Martin Edwards started Do You Write Under Your Own Name in October of last year, it has been one of my favorite destinations in the blogosphere. If you love crime fiction, this is a site to die for! But even if that genre is not one you favor, you can still enjoy Martin’s thoughtful observations of the cultural scene in the UK. Of course, the writing is wonderful – Martin himself writes crime fiction. If you have yet to read the three titles (so far) in his series set in England’s gorgeous Lake District, lakes.jpg then you should rush out and get them ASAP!

coffin.jpg cipher.jpg arsenic.jpg

Here are some of the delights you can expect to encounter on Martin’s blog:

1. Unjustly forgotten writers from the past. This entry on Margot Bennett will make you want to read her as soon as possible. Good luck trying, though; the books are out of print, at least in the U.S., and our library does not carry them. Ah, well, abebooks or interlibary loan – here I come!

2. Praise for his contemporaries. simon-brett-colour.jpg unprompted.jpg I really enjoyed this post on Simon Brett. Brett entertained us wonderfully at Claridge’s in London during our Smithsonian Mystery Tour in 2006. I enjoy his Charles Parris series; I especially recommend Murder Unprompted, which, besides being hugely entertaining, offers intriguing insights into the theater scene in England.

3. Appreciation for those writers who have recently left us. Here’s his memorial for Edward D. Hoch. Although Hoch had been writing for decades and was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 2001, he’s never been that well known. This, I think, his because he wrote primarily short stories rather than novels. Now crime fiction lovers have simply GOT to realize that many mystery short stories are absolute jewels and eminently worthy of your attention. (It’s so much fun to get into finger-wagging nanny mode once in a while!) Writing this has reminded me of all the terrific stories I read while I was teaching a class on mystery fiction at the local community college. (Now I think about it, I kind of miss doing that…) I’ve written about Best American Mystery Stories of the Century and The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps; in addition, I posted Mystery short stories: classics, with links to the full text of those famous tales. Here are some other anthologies that I used in that class:

worlds-finest.jpg The World’s Finest Mystery & Crime Stories: Second Annual Collection, edited by Ed Gorman. I particularly liked “Spinning” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, about an obese young woman’s struggle to lose weight. A big part of her effort involves attending a “spinning (cycling) class. She describes how when she first joins the group, member stared at her grotesquely overweight body with ill-concealed disgust. At one point in her struggle, “She wanted a piece of chocolate cake so badly that it hurt….Comfort food. She wanted comfort food because she needed comforting.” Do I empathize with this poor girl or what?!

“Spinning” is the first story in this generous volume. Other outstanding entries are “Let’s Get Lost” by Lawrence Block, a true master of the form; and “The Country of the Blind” by Doug Allyn, which will appeal to fans of medieval history.

Writers of short stories can be remarkably resourceful when evoking past eras and bringing them to life in the space of relatively few pages. Anthologist Mike Ashley has been collecting these tales for a number of years in the “Mammoth”series published by Carroll & Graf. I’m especially partial to The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits, published in 1993. mammoth.jpg The book is divided into four sections: The Ancient World, The Middle Ages, Regency and Gaslight, and Holmes and Beyond. Some of the standouts in this collection:

The Ancient World: “The High King’s Sword” by Peter Tremayne, and “He Came with the Rain” by Robert Hans Van Gulik, who, in addition to writing detective fiction, was an artist, translator, and celebrated Sinologist. gulik.jpg Van Gulik’s tales of Judge Dee, an actual historical personage who was a magistrate in eighth century China, are simply astonishing. (For a great listening experience, get the recordings made by Frank Muller.)

judge-dee.jpg [Judge Dee, as rendered in pen and ink by Robert van Gulik]

The Middle Ages: “The Price of Light” by Ellis Peters, of fond memory. (This is an early Brother Cadfael story.)

ellis.gif [Ellis Peters, with Sir Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael]

Regency and Gaslight: “Murder Lock’d In” by Lillian de la Torre, whose tales, now almost impossible to find, recreate the life and times of the famed eighteenth century lexicographer Samuel Johnson; “The Doomdorf Mystery” by Melville Davisson Post; and one of my all time favorites, “The Gentleman from Paris” by the endlessly cunning John Dickson Carr.

oxford.jpg Finally, there’s The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories edited by Patricia Craig, who also contributes an insightful and enlightening introduction. The first story in this collection, “The Stir Outside the Cafe Royal,” was written around the turn of the twentieth century and concerns a female police officer who goes under cover in order to facilitate the arrest of a criminal for whom she harbors a personal animus. Clarence Rook, the (rather obscure) author, is described in Gale’s Contemporary Authors Online as “…a shadowy figure whose writing rested uneasily between fiction and journalism.”

Many splendid stories fill out this fine anthology. Arthur Morrison’s “The case of Laker, Absconded” depicts in careful detail the way in routine banking transactions were carried out in the early part of the last century. (Yes, you have to trust me here – this really is interesting!) Other stories of note: “The Oracle of the Dog” a lovely, poignant tale by G.K. Chesterton, featuring one of the earliest of the clerical detectives, Father Brown; Agatha Christie’s sensational courtroom drama “The Witness for the Prosecution;” and “Thornapple,” one of the most chilling tales ever written by that past master of the dreaded – and dreadful – outcome, Ruth Rendell.

hoch.png Finally, to return to Edward D. Hoch: “Anything in the Dark,” which appears in Crime Through Time (a collection edited by Miriam Grace Monfredo and Sharan Newman) is a miniature tour de force in which the author contrives to solve two mysteries in the space of just a few pages: the disappearance of British envoy Benjamin Bathurst in Perleberg, a small city near Berlin, in 1809, and the death of Meriwether Lewis in the same year in Tennessee.

Okay – end of digression! Martin Edwards’s blog, on which you’ll also find news about crime shows on television and reflections on trends in crime fiction. And here’s a video clip of an interview with Martin about The Arsenic Labyrinth.

I’d like to thank Lourdes of Lost in Books for pointing me to this video, and also for the many terrific news items, reviews, and recommendations regularly found on her blog. And I do love the quote from Louisa May Alcott: “She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.” Ah, so that’s my problem…

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The Chameleon’s Shadow by Minette Walters

March 26, 2008 at 2:19 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

mystery-scene-mag.jpg In the Winter 2008 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine, Minette Walters states that her novels begin with characters rather than plots. She elaborates: “They have integrity as characters and therefore any obstacle or crisis that they may face, they will only deal with in one particular way. The story generates itself this way. In the beginning, there is a simple idea, which I can build upon.” Thus, her novelist’s imagination is spurred by the mystery of who people are. How they act and react to situations that either they themselves create or that impinge upon them from the outside world is a direct consequence of their complex identities.

chameleon.jpg And thus it is that in The Chameleon’s Shadow, we meet two exceptionally memorable and unique individuals: Lt. Charles Acland and his physician and friend, Jackson. As the novel opens, Acland and two of his subordinates in the Light Dragoon Guards are leading a convoy of armored vehicles along the highway that connects Basra to Baghdad. Suddenly, powerful roadside bombs explode. Their combined force is so tremendous that the Scimitar reconnaissance vehicle carrying Acland and his men is flung into the air before bursting into flames. Charles’s men are killed; he sustains terrible injuries to his head and face.

When we next encounter Charles, he is in a hospital facing multiple surgeries. The novel’s main concern is with his chances for a full recovery and a normal life. Generally speaking, the odds are in his favor. Unfortunately, one side of his face has been severely disfigured. A major question concerns how he will deal with this new reality when he meets the outside world.

Not long after his release from the hospital, Charles encounters Jackson. She’s not actually his doctor; they meet at a pub, the Bell, where Charles has attacked another customer in a rage. Among his other phobias, he cannot bear to be touched. Jackson breaks up the fracas and provides short term care for Charles.

Jackson is one of the most unusual characters I’ve encountered in my years of devouring crime fiction. She’s a big woman getting bigger – not because she overeats but because she is a bodybuilder! She lives with her lover Daisy, who actually runs The Bell. Jackson has a very tough exterior, but she is actually a very caring, compassionate person, with the true heart of a healer that one always wishes to find when dealing with medical professionals.

I know I’m having a great reading experience when I’ve gotten half way through a novel before noticing how much I’ve read. I’ve become so engrossed in the tale that I’m not keeping track of the page count. I usually have this experience when characters have taken root in my imagination and I’m dying to know what fate holds in store for them. This definitely happened as I was reading The Chameleon’s Shadow. I really cared deeply about Charles Acland; he seemed so alone in the world, and he’d sustained such a grievous injury, not just to his body but to his spirit as well.

There were lots of fascinating conversations in this book. I felt it a privilege to observe thoughtful, intelligent individuals trying to work through their difficulties, deal with their anguish, and do right by their fellow human beings. A most unusual and compelling thriller.

minette_walters_s07_1.jpg ice-house.jpg sculptress.jpg Minette Walters burst on the crime writing scene in 1992 with The Ice House; she’s consistently produced superior work ever since that auspicious debut. Her second novel, The Sculptress. won The Edgar for Best Novel in 1994. Both these novels were filmed for television. I particularly recommend The Ice House, which stars Kitty Aldridge, Penny Downie, Frances Barber, Corin Redgrave, and a pre-007 – and very sexy – Daniel Craig. ice-house-film.jpg

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Tribute to an Outstanding Blog: Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

March 26, 2008 at 12:58 am (Blogroll of honor, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

sarah2006b.jpg Sarah Weinman doesn’t really need me to sing the praises of her blog: any mystery lover worth his or her salt already knows about it. Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind has numerous links to crime fiction review sources, but what makes this site so much fun for us crime fiction fans is the many juicy tidbits about the publishing business and booksellers, especially independents, that this veteran blogger is privy to and shares so generously with her readers.

Under the blog’s title, it says “Crime fiction, and more.” You see pretty quickly that although Sarah Weinman’s main beat is mysteries, she’s just plain crazy about books in general. You can count on her to bring to your attention a worthy title or author that needs a boost where public recognition is concerned. This piece on Arthur Lyons is a good example.

Sarah is a reviewer herself; moreover, she is frequently asked to serve as a judge when accolades are handed out. Whether she’s on the panel or not, she’ll report the latest news on award nominations and winners. Next month, she’ll be taking part in the Los Angeles Book Festival, which looks like a terrific event.

I really enjoy Sarah’s bright, breezy prose. And she has a great sense of humor as well.

These are just some of the reasons to read Confessions – now see for yourself!

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Easter Sunday, March 2008

March 25, 2008 at 12:06 am (Food, Music, Spiritual)

Ron and I spent Easter Sunday at home, just the two of us. boeuf.jpg We made beef bourgignon and listened to music. First, the Mozart symphonies, starting with number twenty. We made our way through to the mid-thirties before switching gears and putting on the ‘Prelude and Good Friday Spell’ from the opera Parsifal by Richard Wagner.

mozart2.jpg mozart1.jpg The Mozart symphonies were performed by the Prague Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. The recordings were made in the early 1990’s. The clarity and exuberance of the playing – perfectly captured by Telarc, that home of sonic wonders! – fills the house.

The delicious aromas of the mingling stew components are equally pervasive. As dinnertime draws near, we put on the Wagner. I like to listen to this at Easter time. The recording we have features the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by the great Bruno Walter. Here is what the liner notes – uncredited, alas – say about this music:

“Like Tannhauser, the last of Wagner’s music dramas, Parsifal is built around a story of the Knights of the Holy Grail, and concerns itself with the conflict of spirituality and earthly passion. It contains some of the greatest music Wagner ever wrote, particularly the spiritual Prelude and one of the most awe-inspiring religious pieces of music ever penned–the ‘Good Friday Spell’ in Act III.”

walter.jpg This recording, released by Columbia Masterworks, was made in 1959. It is the only version of this sublime masterwork that I will ever need to own.

If there is one thing I have learned in my life, it is cherish days like yesterday for their simplicity and for the peace and love with which they are filled.

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Tribute to an Outstanding Blog: Booksplease

March 23, 2008 at 1:45 pm (Blogroll of honor, books)

primrosetitle.jpg Booksplease is one of my favorite blogs. margaret.jpg Margaret, the blogger, is passionate about books in a way that I completely recognize and understand. She write beautifully about books and authors and always makes me want to rush right out and get what she’s been reading. This post on the essays of Virginia Woolf is a good example.

Margaret recently posed the question: What do you do when you finish a book? Do you “dive right into the next one” or give yourself time to think about and reflect on the one you’ve just finished? Do you switch gears and do something else altogether? I really like this question. It made me consider my reading habits as a whole. And at once I came up with the precise adjective to describe them: frantic! To begin with, I’m always reading several books simultaneously. It’s a habit I acquired when I went to work at the library twenty-six years ago. I told myself I would stop doing this when I retired, but, well, I’m still doing it. Reading more than one volume at the same time saves me from that dreaded crisis moment compulsive readers face when they finish a book…Now what??!!

chameleon.jpg cleaver.jpg land.jpg For example: last night I finished The Chameleon’s Shadow by Minette Walters. Since I was already on page 52 of Cleaver by Tim Parks, I went right to it. I also have in reserve – I always like to have a nonfiction title “on the go” – A Land So Strange by Andres Resendez. This book is subtitled, “The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca: The Extraordinary Tale of a Shipwrecked Spaniard Who Walked Across America in the Sixteenth Century.” Where, I wonder, has this amazing story been all my life?

Here’s Margaret’s post on the subject of the passionate reader’s dilemma.

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Happy Blogday, Books to the Ceiling!

March 22, 2008 at 10:13 pm (Blogging-the process, Blogroll)

happybirthday_cake_by_littlefantasy.jpgThe first entry posted on Books to the Ceiling is dated March 26, 2007. When I began this undertaking – little suspecting the challenges with which it would present me! – one of the many aspects of the blogging process that I struggled with was the last-in-first-out model. And so, Dear Readers, that first entry is entitled “Best of 2006 – Part Two.” Where, you may reasonably ask, is Part One? Well, it ended up being posted several days later, on April 1, 2007, to be exact.

Those two “Best of” posts show how new I was to the process. There was the above noted difficulty which resulted in Part Two of a post preceding Part One. And there’s an obvious – glaring to me at this point, a year later – absence of visuals. Blogging is a classic example of learning by doing, though. I’ve now reached a level of comfort with the software that allows me to focus on content. There’s more I could learn, I know – but I’ve been too busy writing, uploading, and linking to take the time to delve deeper into WordPress’s many features.

I’d like to celebrate my first year of blogging by spending more time on some of the other terrific blogs I’ve come to know and enjoy. I’ m going to start at the top of my blogroll and work my way down. And it will be my pleasure to point you to posts that I think you’d enjoy reading.

Books to the Ceiling is much more labor intensive than I thought it would be. Writing, which I’ve been doing in erratic spurts since childhood and which my mother did beautifully, is proving to be much harder than I thought it would be. At times, I feel that I am struggling to keep the element of enjoyment foremost. Nevertheless – I persevere! And I really have to thank, first and foremost, my husband Ron, whose unfailing support, both technical and general, has been indispensable. (I’m always teasing him about being “the wind beneath my wings,” at which time he rolls his eyes heavenward!) My friends have also been enthusiastic and generous; this is especially true of Lisa B. from the Central Library. Thanks, Lisa!

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Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard by Georges Simenon

March 21, 2008 at 1:11 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

maigret.jpg I find that reading Simenon’s Maigret novels produces a pleasantly narcotizing effect, like drowsing in the first strong sunshine of Spring. Sure, there’s been a murder, and often the victim is some hapless soul down on his or her luck, but as regards the investigation, there’s rarely any undue urgency. Life proceeds at its usual measured pace; violence, while present and even menacing, is obliquely alluded to rather than explicitly described. This is not to say that Chief Superintendent Maigret is indifferent – far from it. But his determination is quiet, his manner deliberate. Members of his team – Lucas, Janvier, and the rest – are given their assignments and carry them out conscientiously. They report back to their “chief” and await further instructions. But rarely is anyone forced to work through the night or, God forbid, to miss a meal. Maigret is usually able to go home and have lunch with his wife. (In Donna Leon’s procedurals, Guido Brunetti also heads home to partake of the midday meal en famille – though it is hard to imagine two more dissimilar women than the quietly domestic Madame Maigret and the fiery Paola Brunetti!)

Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard opens with the discovery of a body in a narrow cul-de-sac off the Boulevard Saint-Martin. The identity card found in the victim’s wallet proclaims him to be one Louis Thouret. He has been stabbed in the back, and recently; at the time of its discovery, the body is still warm. Gradually, as the investigation gets under way, Maigret and his team enter into the world of Louis Thouret. Maigret’s first call is on the family, which consists of a wife, a daughter, and several sisters and brothers-in-law. The environment he encounters there is stifling. Madame Thouret is the very emblem of a bourgeois housewife. Dour and humorless – ‘hard as nails!’ as one of the detectives acidly observes – she has never let her husband forget that he hasn’t risen in the world as she would have like him to do. There he was, laboring day after day as an assistant manager at the retail firm of Kaplan et Zanin in the Rue de Bondy. He would head out every weekday morning to catch the same train, and return in the evening, also by the same train… But there’s a problem with this familiar scenario: unbeknown to Madame Thouret and the rest of the family, Kaplan et Zanin had ceased to exist some three years prior. Yet this sudden loss of employment had in no way altered Monsieur Thouret’s daily routine. And he was still, as it were, “bringing home the bacon.”

What gives here? Needless to say, this is where the story gets really interesting. In swift, spare prose, Simenon apprises us of Louis Thouret’s guilty secret, or rather secrets, as there are several that gradually come to light. As more new information comes in, it is examined and analysed during clipped exchanges of dialog. No one makes speeches; everyone beavers away until the truth at last comes to light. I have to say that for me, that truth, as revealed in the novel’s very last pages, was rather anti-climactic. By that time, though, I didn’t really care, as I was genuinely grateful for this delightful escapist entertainment.

In an article in The January 30 2006 issue of The New Statesman, Jason Cowley says of Simenon: “In truth, he is a limited artist, but an interesting one.” I would more or less agree with that assessment – although, maybe I’d modify it a bit: Simenon is limited in some ways but incredibly deft in others; moreover, he can be at times, not just interesting, but downright fascinating. In the Maigret novels, Simenon does not expend much time and energy on description, although he invariably manages to convey a vivid impression of Paris in the mid-twentieth century. The books are likewise short on introspection or philosophizing, but every once in a while, we are allowed into the inner sanctum of the Chief Superintendent’s mind. Interesting thoughts often dwell there. I particularly liked this poignant reflection:

“In the old days he had been particularly struck, even one might say romantically stirred, by the sight of those who, discouraged and defeated, had given up the struggle, being swept along willy-nilly by the great, surging tide of humanity.

Since then, he had come to know many such people, and it was no longer them whom he most admired, but rather those just one step above them on the ladder, who were clean and decent and not in the least picturesque, and who fought day in and day out to keep their heads above water, or to nurture the illusion, or perhaps the faith, that they were alive and that life was worth living.”

Jason Cowley describes Simenon as “grotesquely prolific.” Well, he did write more than 400 books! I have not read any of the crime novels that are not in the Maigret series. Simenon called those his “romans durs” – hard novels. Cowley says these books tend to be more thoughtful than the procedurals, and indeed, I have seen them praised often, especially Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Red Lights, and Dirty Snow. red-lights.jpg monsieur-monde.jpg dirty-snow.jpg (These titles, and others, have been re-issued in the past several years by New York Review Books, a publishing enterprise whose stellar efforts all book lovers should be grateful for.) Naturally, the romans durs have their place in ever-growing, never-diminishing stack of must-reads…

[ In regards to the passage quoted above: the expression “willy-nilly” always puts me in mind of a quatrain from “The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam.” This bit of poetry doesn’t really have anything to do with Maigret and Simenon – at least, I don’t think it does – but it has haunted me for years:


Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing. ]


For further exploration of the subject of Georges Simenon, see Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. In addition, the increasing number of re-issues of the novels has prompted numerous tributes by reviewers, such as this recent one by Paul Theroux in the Times Literary Supplement.simenon_georges.gif Georges Simenon 1903-1989

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Reason to rejoice: a bumper crop of British procedurals

March 17, 2008 at 10:22 pm (books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

A goodly number of police procedurals are slated for publication in the next few months, with quite a few coming from some of our favorite writers of crime fiction.

Here’s some of what he can look forward to. (I’ve provided dates for U.S. publication, as near as I can determine them. Also, I have linked to reviews previously posted of other books by these authors.)

waterloo.jpg fyfield.jpg careless.jpg harrod.jpg

Deborah Crombie: Where Memories Lie (Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid). June 24

Martin Edwards: Waterloo Sunset (Harry Devlin). April 15

Frances Fyfield: Blood from a Stone (This actually looks more like a legal thriller, and I’m not sure if any of Fyfield’s regular series characters make an appearance.) Published in the UK on March 6; I’m still looking for a U.S. pub. date.

Elizabeth George: Careless in Red (Havers and Lynley). May 6

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles: Game Over (Bill Slider – Hurray!!). June 19

cold.jpg cure.jpg rendell.jpg

John Harvey: Cold In Hand (Lynn Kellogg and Charlie Resnick – welcome back, Charlie!). April 22

Reginald Hill: A Cure for All Diseases (Dalziel and Pascoe, one of my all-time favorite detecting duos!) October 7

P.D. James: The Private Patient (Adam Dalgliesh, praise be!) To be published in the UK in September, but we should be getting it not too long afterward. Here’s the scoop from the Eurocrime blog.

Ruth Rendell: Not in the Flesh (Yes – it’s a Wexford – O frabjous day!). June 10

Peter Robinson: All the Colors of Darkness (Alan Banks, and it’s a good thing, too – I’m dying to know the latest on his love life!) Coming out in the UK in August and in Canada in September.

Some of the sites that helped me pull this list together are Fantastic Fiction, Stop! You’re Killing Me, Eurocrime, and of course Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. And I have a friend who forwards choice posts to me from the venerable DorothyL discussion list. Finally, keep in mind that often the most helpful place to go for series information is to the author’s own website. While I’m on that subject, I highly recommend an essay posted on Elizabeth George Online. elisabeth_george.jpg witness.jpg In it, George deals in a forthright and eloquent manner with the traumatic – and traumatizing – event that was central to the plot of the novel With No One As Witness.

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Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson

March 16, 2008 at 9:13 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

In his essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” W.H. Auden asserts the following with regard to the ideal setting for a murder mystery: “Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder…The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.”

(Auden begins this essay, which he wrote in 1946, with a “confession,” to wit: “For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.” Oh, Wystan Hugh, How do I love thee; let me count the ways…but alas, I’ll have to count them in another blog post!)

The shocking, even revolting crime scene is a frequent feature in the work of P.D. James. In an interview that appeared in Salon Magazine several years ago, Baroness James cites the Auden essay and adds that she relies on the horror of the murder scene to bring out “…the contrast between the awfulness of the deed and perhaps the beauty of what’s surrounding it.”

devil.jpg Friend of the Devil begins with a murder scene that I won’t soon forget:

“She might have been staring out to sea, at the blurred line where the gray water meets the gray sky. The same salt wind that rushed the waves to shore lifted a lock of her dry hair and let it fall against her cheek. But she felt nothing; she just sat there, her expressionless face pale and puffy, clouded black eyes wide open.” Soon we discover more about the woman who sits motionless at the edge of the cliff. As the novel proceeds, however, we find ourselves further from the truth instead of closer to it. DI Annie Cabot, temporarily seconded to Eastern Area Headquarters, is an indefatigable investigator, but this crime tests her resources as never before. And it doesn’t help that her personal life is in crisis. For one thing, she’s skating close to the edge where drinking is concerned; incipient alcoholism is partly to blame for a shocking lapse of judgment that she seems to be paying for over and over again.

Annie’s opposite number in Western Area is Chief Inspector Alan Banks. Banks and Annie used to be lovers. The affair has cooled, but they remain friends, at least, on the surface. Meanwhile, Banks is pursuing a murder inquiry that has him equally baffled. An attractive college student has been murdered, and pressure is on the police to find the perpetrator. Banks is able to rule out many suspects until the pool becomes very narrow, but it’s a grueling slog and takes a lot out of him. Fortunately, he can always be consoled and strengthened by his love of music. One of the endearing things about this series, and this character in particular, is that Robinson is always very specific about which music Banks selects in any given situation. He understands how powerfully music can summon a state of mind, evoke vivid recollections – or console the distraught listener.

Eastern Area, Annie Cabot temporary berth, covers Yorkshire’s picturesque coastal area, including Robin Hood’s Bay, and the towns of Scarborough and Whitby. We were in Whitby this fall, and it was a deeply moving experience. The ruins of Whitby Abbey stand starkly upon a headland looking out to sea. dscn0409.jpg p1010030.jpg This is the place where, in 664 AD, the Synod of Whitby convened. Its members resolved to align their Christian practice with Rome rather than with the Irish church. This crucial decision altered the course of Christianity in England and in so doing, profoundly affected the history of the island nation.

dscn0418.jpg [ The town of Whitby, with the Abbey ruins looming above in the distance]

p1010034.jpg p1010028.jpg [ Hard by the Abbey is St. Mary’s church, with its curious box pews]

I’ve had the pleasure of following the Alan Banks series from its beginning, starting with 1987 publication of Gallows View. gallows.jpg robinson.jpg Since that time, Peter Robinson has gone from strength strength. His plotting ever more cunning, his characters subtly delineated, his dialog natural and unforced. Friend of the Devil is the seventeenth book in the series and possibly the best yet.

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