“We were like you. We were all of us just like you.” – A discussion of The Escher Twist, by Jane Langton

September 18, 2008 at 6:40 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

I first read The Escher Twist when it came out six years ago. As I came to it a second time, this is what I still recalled from that initial reading:

1. A cosmetic surgeon telling Mary Kelly that you can tell a woman’s real age by looking at her hands;

2. A consoling stanza from “Resignation,” a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow;

3. A most unusual tea party.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a man and a woman strike up an acquaintance at an exhibition of the works of M.C. Escher.  There is an immediate sympathy between the two. They exchange first names: Leonard and Frieda. Then Frieda disappears.

Leonard is a crystallographer. He teaches at Harvard. Up until the day of the exhibit, his life had been a solitary journey. He was constantly discerning the patterns of the world, yet they seemed to have nothing to do with him personally. After the Escher exhibit, though, he has a new purpose, and a burning one at that: to find the mysterious Frieda.

This tantalizing glimpse into a future that could contain a genuine soul mate has left Leonard feeling lonelier than ever. He returns to the exhibit, in the vain hope that he will encounter Frieda yet again. He does not, but shortly thereafter, when he visits Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the next best thing happens: he meets a down-to-earth resourceful  couple, two people who are always ready to help someone in need: Homer and Mary Kelly. Always game for an adventure, especially one involving a quest, the Kellys join Leonard in the search for Frieda.

The Escher Twist is a highly unusual work of crime fiction. The battle between good and evil is clearly defined, yet for much of the novel, the reader sees “through a glass darkly.” This opacity, verging on a kind of mysticism, intrigued some members of the Usual Suspects mystery discussion group; others found it exasperating and off putting.

Both Frieda and Leonard possess what I would call doppelgangers. Frieda’s is very dangerous, a woman whose heart has been hopelessly twisted by a desire for revenge. Leonard’s double, on the other hand, is benign but hapless.

The novel’s action continually returns to Cambridge’s fabled Mount Auburn Cemetery. This beautiful, haunted abode of the deceased becomes at times more real than the city surrounding it.

This tower plays a crucial role in the plot of The Escher Twist

This tower plays a crucial role in the plot of The Escher Twist

****************************************************

Reproductions of Escher’s work appear throughout The Escher Twist. They have a hallucinatory quality that meshes neatly with the narrative.

Double Planetoid

Double Planetoid

Ascending and Descending

Mobius strips also figure prominently. They fascinated Escher, as they fascinate Leonard. In the first chapter, he rips a narrow strip of paper off the gallery pamphlet so that he can demonstrate to Frieda what a  Mobius strip is. Her response when she sees it is to laugh and then comment: “It’s bewitched.”

One of the pleasures of leading a book discussion is that in doing background research, you’re often led down strange roads. I particularly enjoyed reading about about August Ferdinand Mobius (1790-1868), originator of the eponymous strip. Mobius, a mathematician and theoretical astronomer, was descendant, on his mother’s side, from Martin Luther.

A mobius strip - the strip of paper contains just one twist.

A Mobius strip - the strip of paper contains just one twist.

Mobius Strip II, by Escher

Mobius Strip II, by Escher

****************************************************

I greatly enjoyed reading about Mount Auburn Cemetery, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior. Numerous worthies find repose  there, among them Buckminster Fuller, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Mary Baker Eddy, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Click here for a more complete list of names.)

The plot of The Escher Twist is quite convoluted. Some in the group found it bewildering and far fetched as well. It was pointed out that police procedure – even police presence – was largely missing, even at the scene of an accident that resulted in a fatality. I hadn’t actually thought about that fact, as I was so busy beavering away at my research and admiring the author’s elegant prose and bracing wit! But that observation was a valid one.

I count myself a long time admirer of Jane Langton’s Homer and Mary Kelly series, having read or listened to eight of them. Among my favorites:

Lamentably, older titles in this series are almost all out of print, with the exception of The Transcendental Murder, which Felony & Mayhem Press, bless them, has just re-issued with a wonderful new cover.

With the exception of a brief stint at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Jane Langton has lived all her life in the Boston area. She says this about her work:

“My books start with an interest in a place. This has been most often Concord, Massachusetts, with its several layers of history, both from revolutionary times and from the nineteenth century transcendental times. But it is the present time, littered about with the past, that I seem to want to write  about.

(I had the great pleasure of reading God in Concord while I was actually in Concord in the early 1990’s.)

Equally well regarded an an author of children’s books, Langton is coming out with a new title in her Hall family chronicles, The Dragon Tree. In addition, she is working on The Thurber Murder, a mystery for adult readers set in the 1920’s and presumably not featuring the Kellys.

And speaking of the Kellys, not everyone in the Usual Suspects was enamored with them. Homer was described as irascible to an annoying degree; in addition, it was felt that he tended to shift work onto Mary’s shoulders when she was just as busy as he was. (Both teach classes at Harvard, BTW.) Then there were those of us, especially long time readers of the series, who tended to be more indulgent in our view of this singular couple. Yes, Homer can be cranky, but he can also be quite entertaining. In one scene, Mary is musing on what it is about the older homes of Cambridge that gives them their uniquely haunted character. Homer thinks he has the answer:

“‘Old ectoplasmic professors seeping through the wallpaper. It’s a known scientific fact that you can’t get rid of ectoplasmic professors behind the wallpaper. They stay right there and peek out from time to time.’

I’d like  to take a moment here to sing the praises of the Usual Suspects. This is a brainy group of people who are also warm, generous, and funny. They make trenchant observations and offer insight and criticism with maximum tact. Well done!

Finally, I wish to refer back to the beginning of this post, where I mentioned a tea party. It occurs near the end of the book and is one of the most magical scenes I have encountered, at least in recent years, in a work of fiction.

Jane Langton

Jane Langton

5 Comments

  1. Ann Darnton (Table Talk) said,

    Jane Langton is a new name to me and I’m off now to see if she’s published on the side of the Atlantic and if so, whether or not my library stock her books. Having just finished an Irish crime thriller about someone’s double (Tana French’s ‘The Likeness’) I would love to read another for comparison.

  2. BooksPlease said,

    Jane Langton is new to me too. Escher’s work has always fascinated me and your review has me itching to read her books.

  3. By a Spider’s Thread « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Cemetery. Like Mount Auburn Cemetery, which I talked about last month in the discussion I led of The Escher Twist, Greenmount has a fair number of august personages interred within its […]

  4. bruce bilney said,

    Usual Suspects!
    Being fascinated by tessellations, of which I have managed to create quite a few (which you may view on my website http://www.ozzigami.com.au, go to my tessellations and punography page) I went looking in my local library for references to MC Escher, who started it all. ( ‘it’ in this case meaning specifically lifelike tessellations since the word really just means ’tilings’ which have been around longer than the Wheel!) There I found just 2 references, one is a big book of Escher’s designs, “ESCHER The Complete Graphic Work” which oddly is not true to label, at least 2 of his tessellations, Sea-Horses and one of greyhound-like Dogs are missing! Anyway the other book is Jane Langton’s “The Escher Twist”. I have borrowed both books. Her title interested me strangely: a decade ago I wrote “A Yarn with an Escheresque Twist”, an anecdotal account of a series of concatenating events which formed a sort of Moebius strip in my life. I’m going to put this on my blog, both this letter to you and my story, it’s sort of interesting, (at least to me).
    As for Ms Langton’s book, it’s certainly a bit turgid and not necessarily very believable, and it ends up a lot neater than most things in life and death . . . but then . . . it is called “The Escher Twist”, Escher’s work is all of the above, (and in Spades, as they say) so that’s pretty fair eh!
    If you want to read my story you will have to see my blog
    http://ozzigami.blogspot.com/ Note I haven’t written it down there yet – I only have an old hard copy but it’s less than a page so I’ll type it out again. In the meantime check out my site, it won’t bite. Bruce in OZ.

  5. Art and Intrigue II: The Gardner Heist, by Ulrich Boser « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] final note: one of my favorite mystery authors, Jane Langton, sets most of her novels in the greater Boston area, where she is a long time resident. Langton […]

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