O joy – a Laurie R. King sighting!

October 15, 2008 at 11:17 pm (books, Bouchercon 2008, Mystery fiction)

From time to time at Bouchercon, my whole being would light up as I recognized a long admired author – “There’s ____ in the flesh!” The first time it happened was when we walked into the room where the “Living in the Past” panel was to be held. And by golly, there at the front of the room was Laurie R. King.

Laurie King is the author of two novels that I cherish: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and A Monstrous Regiment of Women. (The title of the latter comes from a treatise by John Knox, published in 1558.) They’re the first two entries in her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series. I still recall vividly the opening scene in Beekeeper, in which a disconsolate Mary, wandering the Sussex Downs, nearly trips over The Great Detective, who is crouched in the shrubbery observing the activities of a swarm of  bees. From that moment, King had me in her writerly  thrall. I could not wait to see what fate awaited the awkward, bookish adolescent and the celebrated, if highly eccentric, sleuth. The arc of the plot that begins in Beekeeper and culminates in Regiment is a masterpiece of artful, yet seemingly artless, storytelling.

(I wrote, albeit briefly, about these two titles in a post I did a while back on love stories.)

I have to say that I struggled through the third book, A Letter of Mary. If memory serves, the story was good and the writing was excellent – I expect no less from this author – but the novel lacked the high drama of the first two series entries.

At that point, I basically “went off” this series, but in 2005, when Locked Rooms came out, I was sufficiently intrigued by the reviews to jump back in. I really enjoyed this novel! Laurie King can be very cunning, and the way she wove a famous writer of the period into this tale was cunning indeed, and deeply satisfying – at least, to this reader. I remember having one reservation, though. It had to do with the relationship between Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. I am well aware that theirs is a marriage of true minds, but I would like to have seen some  genuine display of affection between these two admittedly cerebral individuals.

I was somewhat surprised when I looked King up on Stop! You’re Killing Me and found that Locked Rooms is the most recent in the ongoing saga of Russell and Holmes. King has published a standalone in the meantime, Touchstone, which I have not yet read. She also has a contemporary series featuring Kate Martinelli, a policewoman in San Francisco. The first book in that series, A Grave Talent, came out in 1993, a year prior to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. It garnered several awards and nominations, but I was not able to get through it. I did enjoy the sequel, To Play the Fool. The fifth book in the series, The Art of Detection, came out in 2006. IMHO, these books, while engaging and well written, do not have the magic of the Mary Russell novels.

And that brings us to the question: what’s next for Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes? Well, it turns out that Laurie has recently completed the ninth entry in the series, The Language of Bees, due out in the spring of next year. (You can learn more about this project from the author on her blog.)

At any rate, with her magisterial bearing, keen intellect,  and ready wit, Laurie King was an ideal choice to moderate “Living in the Past” – about which, more coming, and soon!

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“The word that is most true, most exact, most filled with meaning, is the word ‘nothing.'” – Nothing To Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes

October 13, 2008 at 10:41 pm (Book review, books)

In Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes holds Death up as though it were a gorgeous, dangerous bauble, and examines it in every kind of light. He reflects on the thoughts of others on the topic; he visits cemeteries to seek out the graves of the famous as well as the obscure; he talks about the hopes and fears commonly experienced by all of us:

“As one who wouldn’t mind dying as long as I didn’t end up dead afterwards,  I can certainly make a start on elaborating what my fears about dying might be.

One of the greatest of those fears is pre-death disability and decrepitude. It was a fate that befell first his father, then his mother. Like most of us, he wants no part of it but doesn’t know how it can be avoided with any degree of certainty.

Much that Barnes observes in everyday life pulls him back to death awareness. Recently, while in this country on a book tour, he took the train from New York to Washington. (This is a journey I myself have made many times, and it’s hard to describe the soul deadening expanse of waste land that sweeps past- I always find myself thinking of Scott Fitzgerald’s “ash heaps.”)  Just south of Trenton, Barnes espies a burial ground:

“And there, at the southern end of this unmenacing strip, is a cheery American moment: a sign proclaiming BRISTOL CEMETERY–LOTS AVAILABLE. It reads as if the pun on ‘lots’ is intended: come and join us, we have much more space than our rivals.

Not long ago, the author celebrated – if that overly chipper word can be used here- his sixtieth birthday. He had specifically asked friends and family to decline giving him any gifts on the occasion and so was annoyed by the arrival of a small package. It proves to contain a lapel badge with a battery that enables the legend “60 today” to flash with manic frequency. But when he sees a manufacturer’s warning on the back of the box, he cannot help but laugh out loud: “WARNING: May Cause Interference With Pacemakers.”

The book is full of droll stories like these. I was amazed at how often I too laughed out loud. But the somber passages do give pause. Here Barnes is comparing Death to God:

“Death can’t be talked down, or parlayed into anything; it simply declines to come to the negotiating table. It doesn’t have to pretend to be Vengeful or Merciful, or even Infinitely Merciless. It is impervious to insult, complaint, or condescension. “Death is not an artist”: no, and would never claim to be one. Artists are unreliable; whereas death never lets you down, remaining on call seven days a week, and happy to work three consecutive eight-hour shifts.

There’s more, but you get  the idea, I’m sure.

Not only is Barnes’s own writing superb, but he quotes from many other writers whose observations are eloquent and provocative. A lifelong student of French literature and culture, he treats us to numerous bon mots from the likes of Montaigne, Zola, and Flaubert. And he frequently cites an astonishing writer with whom I was not familiar until now: Jules Renard.

This is now on my Amazon wish list.

The quotation used in the title of this post comes from Renard’s writings.

I also like Henry James’s definition of life as “a predicament before death.” ( I seem to recall reading elsewhere that at a time when he thought he fatally ill, James referred to death as “the distinguished thing.”)

When Turgenev turned sixty, he wrote the following to Flaubert:

“‘This is the start of the tail-end of life. A Spanish proverb says that the tail is the hardest part to flay…Life becomes completely self-centred–a defensive struggle with death; and this exaggeration of the personality means that it ceases to be of interest, even to the person in question.’

The real meat of this book is the vexed question of how to face death with equanimity and courage when you possess no compelling religious convictions. This is the situation in which Barnes, like many of his fellow Britons, currently finds himself. He relates the following anecdote about the great twentieth century philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. Russell, a lifelong atheist, was asked what he would do if, after death, he found himself in the presence of the Deity whose existence he had, in life, steadfastly denied. His reply: “‘I would go up to Him, and I would say, ‘You didn’t give us enough evidence.'”

Now this clever riposte is in the great tradition of bracing British wit, but one doesn’t necessarily have to agree with it. There are those who feel that there is plenty of evidence of God’s hand in the visible world. Are they deluding themselves? It is impossible to say with certainty one way or another.

Julian Barnes is the author of Arthur & George, a novel I enjoyed tremendously. Here he is on the subject of the craft of fiction:

“Fiction is made by a process which combines total freedom and utter control, which balances precise observation with the free play of the imagination, which uses lies to tell the truth and truth to tell lies.

Whenever I read a book that I know I’m going to review on the blog, I place post-it notes in various places that I know I want to come back to or get quotes from. I have never used as many post-it notes on any book as I have on Nothing To Be Frightened Of. It’s a mere 244 pages, yet so crammed with riches – I just couldn’t stop myself.

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“Walk on the Wild Side”

October 13, 2008 at 12:36 pm (books, Bouchercon 2008, Mystery fiction)

Each of the panels at Bouchercon took its name from a song title. The first panel we attended on Thursday was “Walk on the Wild Side” (song by Lou Reed). Often the title did not give much of a clue as to what the panel’s topic actually was. I gather that in such situations – and this was one of them – the moderator is free to pose questions that he or she considers relevant. I was delighted to note that our moderator in this instance was George Easter. Easter publishes the criminally enjoyable magazine Deadly Pleasures. If ever I m at a loss as to what crime fiction to read next, I consult that magazine’s “Best of” lists. They invariably reflect the titles that have been especially well reviewed that year. The rest of the panel consisted of those pictured below:

Val McDermid

Val McDermid

Colin Harrison

Colin Harrison

Chris Knopf

Adrian Magson

Adrian Magson

Of these four, I had only read one novel by one of the authors: A Place of Execution by Val McDermid. I knew of Colin Harrison but had not read him. I had barely heard of Chris Knopf. Adrian Magson, whose name was entirely new to me, lives in Oxfordshire and is a columnist for Writing Magazine in the UK. He likes to tackle topical issues in his fiction; his latest, No Kiss for the Devil, concerns the murky activities of certain Russian oligarchs. I thought it sounded interesting, and I enjoyed making the acquaintance of this genial, articulate man.

So, just what did the quartet of crime writers talk about?  They started by discussing rules – and the breaking of them! There’s no way I can convey, in an orderly way, just how things progressed from there. My notes look like a gigantic scribble! I can tell you that at one point, the question was posed as to how far you can go into a dark place before you actively repulse the reader. Obviously, that depends on who that reader is! One of the participants warned the others against describing anything nasty done to an animal. That’s when you get the hate mail! Well, I have to say that for this reader, that really is a hard and fast rule.

At one point, I wrote  the phrase “moral landscape of the novel,” presumably because I liked it, though I can’t recall precisely what was said on the subject. Val McDermid used the term “transgressive writing,” and I do remember that part of the discussion. She defined the term as referring to a clear case of rule breaking in the context of writing crime fiction. She used as an example the revelation, at a novel’s outset,  of the identity not only of the victim but also of the perpetrator. I immediately thought of the famous – and famously radical –  first line of A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell:

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”

Toward the end of the panel’s allotted hour, George Easter posed the question as to which writers had most influenced the participants. Without hesitation, Val McDermid, a Scot, said Robert Louis Stevenson. When we were in Edinburgh last year, Ian Rankin said the same thing. I am only now beginning to realize what a huge influence Stevenson has had on Scottish literature. I heartily recommend reading, or re-reading, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I did so last year and was amazed at the punch still packed by that slender volume.

Chris Knopf cited the hardboiled masters Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Adrian Magson mentioned Leslie Charteris (“The Saint”) and Mickey Spillane, as well as Western writers Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, whose storytelling prowess he remembered vividly. As for Colin Harrison, who has read widely and eclectically his whole life – everything and everyone from Batman to Shakespeare!

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Bouchercon – the day after

October 12, 2008 at 8:49 pm (Uncategorized)

Ah, Bouchercon – festival of book love! What a rich – and enriching – experience. And as for writing about it: where to begin?

My very own table of goodies! (Click to enlarge)

[Bouchercon actually concludes today with the Anthony Awards luncheon, but Marge – my “partner in crime” – and I pleaded exhaustion and decided to stay home on this beautiful Sunday in autumn.]

Here are some the elements that made up Bouchercon 2008, otherwise known as “Charmed to Death,” in honor of its Baltimore venue:

Panel discussions and one-on-one interviews, followed by book signings; a silent auction; booths with information about other crime fiction conventions and mystery fan and author organizations; the bestowing of the Shamus and Anthony Awards; the annual B-con basketball game (!); and much more. There was great generosity in evidence: as I walked down the hall, a vendor pressed a free copy of Ian Rankin’s Exit Music into my hands.

Soho Press, an outstanding small publisher committed to publishing quality fiction by veterans like Peter Lovesey and newcomers like Henry Chang, raffled off several of their titles after the “I’ll Take You There”  panel discussion.

Henry Chang

Henry Chang

I won Year of the Dog by the aforementioned Mr. Chang, who graciously proceeded to inscribe his novel for me.

And the bookroom – Oh, the bookroom! Den of temptation, to which I happily and hungrily succumbed! Collectible books and magazines – copies of the venerable Black Mask! – were on hand, plus the latest offerings by numerous authors, including British titles not yet published here. I scarfed up a copy of The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine, aka Ruth Rendell. Amazon gives the stateside publication date as March 2009!

Here’s a list of the vendors, and here is more of the booty acquired by Your Faithful – and book drunk! – Blogger:

As if that weren’t enough – and you know it never is! – I just returned from the library with the following:

More about these authors in future posts. Meanwhile, I want to go back to the bookroom in order to sing the praises of Tom and Enid Schantz of The Rue Morgue in Lyons, Colorado. Their Rue Morgue Press is doing an outstanding job of bringing older and classic crime fiction back into print. I asked Tom Schantz for recommendations, which he enthusiastically provided. And so, the to-read pile is now enriched by the presence of:

There’s more to come on Bouchercon. (“Boucher” rhymes with “voucher,” BTW.) I have made “Bouchercon 2008” a separate category, for ease of retrieval. I’ll keep the posts coming, as time and energy permit.

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Quick Bouchercon Bulletin

October 11, 2008 at 11:51 am (books, Bouchercon 2008, Mystery fiction)

What can I say – Bouchercon has been fabulous! Numerous authors, hundreds of books. And how marvelous it has been to disappear into this milieu, where reverence for  the printed word is paramount.

Here are some of the writers we’ve seen and heard so far:

The gracious - & vivacious! - Julia Spencer-Fleming

The gracious - & vivacious! - Julia Spencer-Fleming

Louis Bayard, author of The Pale Blue Eye (see the post just prior to this one.)

Louis Bayard, author of The Pale Blue Eye (see the post just prior to this one.)

The vibrant and beautiful Louise Penny

The vibrant and beautiful Louise Penny

John Harvey, whose superb novel Cold in Hand I finished just days ago

John Harvey, whose superb novel Cold in Hand I finished just days ago

Peter Robinson, whose Inspector Alan Banks series is consistently terrific

Peter Robinson, whose Inspector Alan Banks series is consistently terrific

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“In vain, yes, in vain did I struggle–” – The Pale Blue Eye, by Louis Bayard

October 4, 2008 at 3:40 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

I’ve been wanting to read Louis Bayard’s book since it came out two years ago. Spending time recently in the Hudson River Valley, in the vicinity of West Point, made me want to read it now.

I did not expect to find the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, founded in 1802, especially interesting. But I found myself genuinely intrigued by the rich history of the place, bound up as it is with the history of this country. The Pale Blue Eye is set at “the Point” and its immediate environs. It is a tale of murder and revenge, with a strange, rococo twist at the end.

The year is 1830. Widower Gus Landor lives alone in a cottage in Buttermilk Falls, amid the gorgeous scenery of the Hudson River Valley. During the years he served on New York City’s police force, Landor gained a reputation as an exceptionally resourceful sleuth. He has left the city for retirement in the “Hudson Highlands” partly to escape the trappings and burdens of his former profession. But his renown has followed him to his new dwelling place.

Superintendent Thayer of West Point finds himself dealing with a bizarre sequence of events: the suicide of a  cadet, followed the desecration of the hapless young man’s body. Powerful voices abroad in the land are already questioning West Point’s right to exist. This scandal-in-the-making could strike at the very foundation of the Academy.

Needing an investigator who is both intelligent and discreet, Thayer calls on Gus Landor. Somewhat reluctantly Landor agrees to the undertaking, but he has some requirements of his own. He needs, he asserts, the assistance of another cadet, a young man with preternatural gifts. His name is Edgar Allan Poe, and it would be hard to find a youth with a finer mind, albeit possessed of a feverish, romantic temperament that renders him almost completely unsuited to the rigors and regimentation of military life. Landor’s request is acceded to, and the inquiry swiftly gets under way.

And stalls almost at once. The post mortem examination of the deceased cadet, described in fascinating if gruesome detail, yields little in the way of useful knowledge. Meanwhile, more horrors, equally baffling, come to light.

Louis Bayard succeeds completely in evoking a past time and place. This is, of course, the principal act of artistic conjuring that one hopes to experience in a work of historical fiction (or in a work of history, for that matter). The writing is graceful; the story compelling. And if Bayard goes a bit grand guignol at the end, well, I for one am prepared to make allowances.

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

A number of lengthy, discursive letters and reports purportedly written by Poe appear in the narrative. While reading one of them, I experienced a thrill of recognition. See if you do too:

“Had there been a lantern at my disposal, I might have had the means to put my fears at rest. Alas, with vision so effectually stymied, I had only the evidence of those other senses, which, by way of compensation, had stimulated into overacuteness, so that there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.

Yes! That last line comes word for word from “The Tell-Tale Heart.” (You can see, from this passage, how skillfully Bayard emulates Poe’s ornate prose style.)

During our tour of West Point this past August, our guide mentioned several well known personages who attended the Academy but never graduated. Edgar Allan Poe was one of that  number. (The painter James McNeill Whistler was another.)

I look forward to seeing Louis Bayard, among others, at Bouchercon next week.

Louis Bayard

Louis Bayard

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