In praise of Felony and Mayhem – the Press, that is

August 28, 2009 at 1:32 am (books, Mystery fiction)

Many are the joys I feel when gazing upon the offerings of Felony & Mayhem Press. This outstanding venture was undertaken by Maggie Topkis in 2006. Topkis, co-owner of Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village, was constantly searching for copies of mysteries that she knew would be just right for her patrons, who were often connoisseurs of the genre. More and more frequently, her quest was fruitless, because the titles she sought were out of print.

Then Topkis began hearing about the novels of Elizabeth Ironside. She began importing them, along with other titles, directly from Great Britain, until they, too, fell out of print.  Finally, Topkis realized that there was only one way to insure the availability of these books for discriminating readers: she would have to publish them herself. Felony & Mayhem Press was born of this realization and the determination to act upon it.

Here’s the story as reported three years ago in the Wall Street Journal.

And here are some of my favorite Felony & Mayhem titles:

accomplice

(reviewed on this blog)

ruling

I have an unstinting devotion to Reginald Hill’s Dalziel & Pascoe novels. Donna Leon said it best:  “Few writers in the genre today have Hill’s gifts: formidable intelligence, quick humour, compassion and a prose style that blends elegance and grace.”

Felony & Mayhem has been steadily reprinting the earlier entries in this series. Here’s a brief review of A Ruling Passion on the blog Letters from a Hill Farm. In the comment section, there’s a reference to the BBC crime drama based on this series. The commenter – from Britain? – had recently watched one of the episodes. Nan responds that he is lucky to be able to see them. They were shown here some years ago and have not reappeared since, nor have they become available on DVD. I saw them, too, and I agree with Nan completely – they were wonderful, and the casting was perfect.

Colin Buchanan as Peter Pascoe and Warren Clarke as Andy Dalziel

Colin Buchanan as Peter Pascoe and Warren Clarke as Andy Dalziel

One of the most praiseworthy undertakings of Felony & Mayhem is the re-issuing of first entries in several excellent series. Here are some notable examples:

somerstown In his capacity as a specialist in the purchase of art works as investments, Tim Simpson acts as an adviser to a prosperous London banking firm. It seems to me that Malcolm’s fine series has never found the audience it deserves. These novels are filled with fascinating lore concerning British painters and sculptors of the twentieth century. In addition, Tim Simpson is an engaging character who, in the course of the series, loses his heart to a delightful young woman.

badger The very incarnation of the English village mystery, Caroline Graham’s Barnaby and Troy novels have been turned into television’s immensely enjoyable Midsomer Murders (available on DVD at the local library).

Jany Wymark as Joyce Barnaby, John Nettles as Tom Barnaby, and Laura Howard as Cully Barnaby

Jany Wymark as Joyce Barnaby, John Nettles as Tom Barnaby, and Laura Howard as Cully Barnaby

morning(reviewed on this blog)

marx In a small London neighborhood called Jerusalem Lane, a place with an intriguing history,one of three elderly sisters in inexplicably murdered. The investigation leads David Brock and Kathy Kolla to question the practices of certain  bankers and developers. I had read several recommendations of this novel before I actually got around to reading it. Now, I’d like to recommend it in my turn: it is sheer delight!

orchestrated I read Orchestrated Death when it came out in 1991 and knew at once that I’d I’d be following the series. Bill Slider is married with kids, but when he meets Joanna, a violinist, in the course of a murder inquiry, his heart begins to sing in a way  that it hasn’t in years. Harrod-Eagles’s knowledge of music and her quick wit combine to make these novels exceptionally appealing.

suspectKathy Durkin recently left this comment on my About post:

“One book discovery this summer has been “The Suspect,” by L.R. Wright, aka Laurali Rose Wright. She was the first Canadian writer to win the Edgar in 1985 and beat out Ruth Rendell, among others. That intrigued me right away.

That book and one other in her Karl Albert series have been reprinted by Felony and Mayhem Press. It is a terrific read, full of character development and scenes of Western British Columbia.”

Kathy’s comments are always perceptive, none more so than this one. She is right on the money here. (Slight correction: the character’s name is actually ” Karl Alberg.”)

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With the exception of  The Suspect, all the above titles fall under Felony & Mayhem’s “British” rubric. The following sentence is from an explanatory blurb at the front of those titles: “These books are set in or around the UK, and feature the highly literate, often witty prose that fans of British mystery demand.”

What can I say except yes – YES!! ( The Suspect falls into the “Foreign” category. Oh, those exotic Canadians!)

On the back cover of a Felony & Mayhem title, you’ll frequently find the question, “Who’s Likely to Like This?” In the case of  The Marx Sisters, the answer to this query is given as “Fans of P.D. James and Elizabeth George.” On the back cover of Robert Barnard’s Death and the Chaste Apprentice, the response provided is: “Opera-lovers and fans of Caroline Graham and Ngaio Marsh.”  The Suspect is recommended to “Fans of Scandinavian mysteries, with which it shares a sense of chilly introspection.”  (Oh, well said, forsooth!) Clearly Topkis and company appreciate the value of thoughtfully proffered readers’ advisory.

And another thing: as you can see from the examples above, these books are very pleasing as physical objects. The covers are imaginative and beautifully executed. At a time when some are predicting the demise of the book in print form, Felony & Mayhem is  putting out an exceptionally appealing product. I can envision these books becoming collectibles. I own nine of them at this point and have every intention of buying more!

There’s just one thing I wish I could change, or rather add: I wish the books contained some  author information. I do miss having that, and I wonder if even a few brief sentences about the writer might, in future, find a place in the pages of the titles being issued by this fine publishing enterprise.

Meanwhile, treat yourself to a tour of the Felony & Mayhem site. It is an extremely enjoyable place to spend time, especially for us incorrigible crime fiction fans!

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I knew that some day soon I would wake up to this news…

August 26, 2009 at 12:01 pm (Current affairs, In memoriam)

Nevertheless, the news of Ted Kennedy’s passing came as a jolt.

For some of us who came of age in the 60’s, it feels like the end of an era.

Edward Moore "Ted" Kennedy:  February 22, 1922 - August 25, 2009

Edward Moore "Ted" Kennedy: February 22, 1932 - August 25, 2009

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Why we need newspapers

August 26, 2009 at 1:40 am (Magazines and newspapers)

If not for the Sunday July 12 edition of New York Times, I would never have known the sad and mysterious story of Lloyd Gaines – and of the reparation made on his behalf.

If not for this past Sunday’s edition of the same paper, I would never have known about Sammy Green and the generosity of the people of Tiger, Georgia.

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“‘It’s like copying truths from God’s notebook, though we aren’t always sure where to find this notebook or when it will be open.'” – The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

August 23, 2009 at 4:47 pm (Book review, books)

housekeeper As this novel opens, we learn that the Professor, a mathematician of some distinction, was seriously injured in a car crash some years ago. The accident  severely impaired his memory; he needs constant reminders concerning day to day activities and has almost no ability to recall names and faces. Notes containing timely reminders are pinned to his clothing. He rarely leaves his house.

His only near relation, a sister-in-law, lives nearby. She prefers to keep her interactions with the professor at a minimum. She hires a housekeeper to cook and clean for the professor. It is the housekeeper who tells us what happens next.

Not that much actually does happen: this is really the story of how three people come to know and care for one another. The third person is the housekeeper’s ten-year-old son. The Professor insists that the child come to his house after school, so that he will not be at home by himself while his mother is working. The little boy sports a buzz cut; as the Professor runs his hand over the top of the boy’s head, he is reminded of the sign for taking the square root of a number. Thereafter, the boy is called Root.

The author does not tell us the actual names of any of these characters; at times, I had the sense that I was reading a fable. The Professor’s little house contains these three people for most of the daylight hours, and their lives are progressively enriched by this close association. Ogawa’s writing, a model of grace and restraint, is the perfect vehicle through which to observe the process.

The discusions of mathematics were a revelation to me. Many of us recall struggling with math in school and being relieved to be released from its toilsome clutches. But even for the non-mathematically inclined like me, the conversations about numbers were a delight. Here, the housekeeper proudly shares a discovery that she has made on her own:

“‘The sum of the divisors of 28 is 28.’

‘Indeed…,[the Professor] said. And there, next to his outline of the Artin conjecture, he wrote: 28 = 1+2+4+7+14. ‘A perfect number.’

‘Perfect number?’ I murmured, savoring the sound of the words.

‘The smallest perfect number is 6: 6 = 1+2+3.’

‘Oh! Then they’re not so special after all.’

‘On the contrary, a number with this kind of perfection iss rare indeed. After 28, the next one is 496: 496 = 1+2+4+8+16+31+62+124+248. After that, you have 8,128; and the next one after that is 33,550,336. Then8,589,869,056. The farther you go, the more difficult they are to find’ – though he had easily followed the trail into the billions!

The Professor goes on to define ‘abundant numbers’ – those whose divisors add up to more tan the number itself – and ‘deficient numbers’ – those whose divisors add up to less than the number under consideration. An example of an abundant number is 18; its divisors –  1, 2, 3, 6, and 9 – when added up, equal 21. The number 14, on the other hand comes up short: its divisors – 1, 2, and 7 – only come to 10.

As she  is taking all this in, the Housekeeper begins to play mind games of her own: “I tried picturing 18 and 14, but now that I’d heard the Professor’s explanation, they were no longer simply numbers. Eighteen secretly carried a heavy burden, while 14 fell mute in the face of its terrible lack.”

The lives of both the Housekeeper and Root are enriched by the Professor’s love of  mathematics, and by his ability to communicate that love in a manner that is both lucid and joyous. For him, mathematical probing that fills his days is akin to peering into  what he calls “God’s notebook.”  Root and the Professor are also both great baseball fans. Almost inadvertently, the Professor’s love for that sport provides a key to a fuller understanding of his past.

Throughout this novel, the Housekeeper is self-effacing in the extreme. She portrays herself as merely the chronicler of these events, rather than as a participant of any particular importance. But it is her selflessness and generosity of spirit that make possible the string of little miracles that take place in the course of this narrative.

Ultimately, the Housekeeper characterizes the Professor thus:

“He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world.

One of the great achievements of this slender volume consists in its simultaneous appeal to the intellect and to the emotions. The Housekeeper and the Professor, both original and profound, is a triumph of the novelist’s art.

Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa

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Monsieur Monde Vanishes…and reappears in Hanover, PA

August 21, 2009 at 2:24 am (Book clubs, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

monde This past Monday, I gave my lecture presentation at the newly renovated library in Hanover, Pennsylvania.  guthrie As usual, I am feeling a mixture of relief and exhilaration. I don’t need to fret any more about how it’s going to go. It went well, I think, judging by the audience reaction.

Those in the Hanover group like their book discussions accompanied by a healthy serving of author information. One of the reasons I selected a novel by Georges Simenon is that I knew that he led a turbulent, eventful life. Just how turbulent it was, and how some of the events unfolded, is often open to question. To put it kindly, Simenon was not averse to embellishing the facts from time to time. In its turn,  le monde litteraire was full of contradictory opinions about Simenon the man and Simenon the author.

I began my talk by referencing an article that appeared in the L.A. Weekly in May of last year. In “The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon,” John Banville won the Booker Prize in 2005 for this novel: sea. Despite receiving this accolade, Banville was starting to feel dissatisfied with the direction his writing was taking. Then a friend recommended that he read Simenon, specifically les romans durs, those darker, non-Maigret novels of which Monsieur Monde Vanishes is an example. Herewith, Banville’s reaction to this first reading: “’I was really blown away by this extraordinary writer. I had never known this kind of thing was possible, to create such work in that kind of simple — well, apparently simple — direct style. …'” In short, Simenon provided Banville with a new direction in which to take his fiction. The most obvious result: Christine Falls, the first mystery in the Garret Quirke series (written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black). christine-falls

The first part of my presentation consisted of a summary of Simenon’s and life and work. The two are so closely intertwined that’s it is virtually impossible to discuss them separately.  One of the facts about Simenon, invariably mentioned first in most books and articles about him, is how astonishingly prolific he was. In his lifetime he published some four hundred novels under his own name and using various pseudonyms. He also write numerous short stories and several screenplays. All this, before the age of the word processor! He was a veritable human word processor, all on his own. Here again is John Banville:

“As one contemplates the life and work of Georges Simenon, the question inevitably arises: Was he human? In his energies, creative and erotic, he was certainly extraordinary.

Demonstrably true, that second sentence, although in the area of erotic adventures, Simenon almost certainly stretched the truth. He claimed to have slept with 10,000 women, many of whom were prostitutes, whose “professionalism” he praised!

Simenon was born in 1903 in Liege, Belgium. In his early twenties, he took off for Paris, seeking fame and fortune and finding both. He developed a restless, peripatetic way of life, leaving France after the Second World War for Montreal and then the U.S. He lived at various times in Maine, Connecticut, Manhattan, and Arizona. Also during this period he divorced his first wife Regina, with whom he had had a son, and married his secretary Denyse Ouimet. This union, which produced two more sons and a daughter, proved even more turbulent than the first. In 1955, Simenon returned returned to Europe, living briefly in France before finally settling in Switzerland. In 1964, Simenon separated permanently from Denyse. By that time he had already taken up with Teresa, who had  been hired as a housekeeper three years earlier.

Simenon’s daughter Marie-Georges, whom he always called Marie-Jo, became increasingly troubled emotionally as she grew to adulthood. In 1978, at the age of 25, she committed suicide. From that moment, Simenon abjured the writing of fiction and began instead to work on his autobiography. Intimate Memoirs Memoires Intimes – was published in 1981. (The English translation became available in 1984.)  Appended to this volume is what Simenon called “Marie-Jo’s book” – a collection of letters, short fictional pieces, and poems written by Marie-Jo in the course of her short life.  intimate

As Intimate Memoirs opens, Simenon speaks directly to his daughter, whom he calls “My tiny little girl.” He goes on to describe the final farewell and its aftermath, continuing to address his words to Marie-Jo:

“I scrupulously carried out your last wishes, found on your bed. No ceremony. The next day, just a few people gathered before your casket while an organist played some of the Johann Sebastian Bach music we both loved. Flowers galore. Mine were armfuls and armfuls of white lilacs, which, in my view, harmonized with the laughing little girl I had known….

The next morning, early, the undertaker’s man brought us the box with your ashes, and, once we were alone, I fulfilled your last wish: to have those white ashes strewn over the little garden of our pink house.

***

A little later, your brothers came in. The sun was bright, the grass a fine green.

For the last time, I was sleepwalking as I had done in my childhood, but, as I kept looking out on the garden, the violent pain that had kept me doubled over during the long week of waiting gave way to a feeling of tenderness, which I still experience every time I see that garden and the birds pecking in it, and considering the position of my armchair, which you know so well, that happens a hundred times a day.

I’ve gotten into the habit of saying good morning to you when the shutters are opened, and good night in the evening when they are closed, as well as talking inwardly to you.

It took me a long time to get used once again to living like everybody else.

Simenon and Marie-Jo

Simenon and Marie-Jo

Marie-Georges Simenon

Marie-Georges Simenon

Teresa remained as Simenon’s companion until his death in 1989. ( Click here for more on Simenon’s life and work.)

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The most important advice about writing that Simenon ever received came from Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who is usually known solely by her last name. In her capacity as editor at Le Matin, she rejected several stories submitted by Simenon to that publication. In an interview he gave to the Paris Review in 1955, Simenon reiterated Colette’s objection to his work: “‘Look, it is too literary, always too literary.” The interviewer asked Simenon what he took to be her meaning: “Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect.” What action did he take as a result? “You know, you have a beautiful sentence – cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.”

This counsel from Colette, then, was key to the development of the lean, spare prose style so emblematic of Simenon’s work.

pen_eni The first Maigret, The Strange  Case of Peter the Lett (I’ve seen several titles assigned to this novel), came out over the winter of 1929-30. Despite the publisher’s initial reservations, the police procedurals featuring Maigret and his colleagues in the Quai des Orfevres eventually achieved enormous international success. In the meantime, Simenon became rather ambivalent about the success of his fictional detective, preferring instead les romans durs, as typified by Monsieur Monde Vanishes, as well as these:

dirty red

tropic

John Banville calls these novels “superb and polished works of art masquerading as pulp fiction.”

We are indebted to New York Review Books, which is currently reprinting these books. In addition, they have commissioned new introductions from distinguished contemporary authors. The introduction to Monsieur Monde Vanishes was written by Larry McMurtry, who offers some interesting insights. He points out that where style is concerned, this novel, with its  “flatness of tone and, for that matter, mood,” bears more than a passing resemblance to Albert Camus’s The Stranger. I also liked McMurtry’s concluding comments about Simenon: “His preference was for the seedy, the slightly tawdry, the not-best-dressed, the none-too-clean. It was in such melancholy places that he worked his magic.”

(I do have one problem with McMurtry’s piece. In naming some famous instances of mysterious disappearance, he lights on the example of Agatha Christie, who, he states, “vanished for a couple of months, but was found taking tea in Yorkshire and allowed herself to be persuaded to return.” Yes, she turned up in Yorkshire in 1926, at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, whose lobby I found myself happily wandering through  four years ago. If you’ll read the text on the hotel’s site, you’ll note that it gives the time period of Christie’s clandestine stay there as ten days. I’ve also seen the number eleven, as in this Wikipedia entry. But “a couple of months?” Quite simply not the case.

I e-mailed New York Review Books several weeks ago about this misstatement. I have not heard back from them.)

In some ways, in regard to his authorial duality, Simenon reminds me of Ruth Rendell. No matter how awful the crime, both Rendell’s Wexford procedurals and Simenon’s Maigret novels provide some kind of resolution. Order is restored, justice is meted out; some degree of consolation is afforded to victims and/or families. Both Wexford and Maigret are reassuringly normal family men; they tangle with malefactors and unbalanced people from a position of strength. They have not only the unwavering support of their respective wives – they have, ready to assist them, a team of investigators and the entire apparatus of the police force and the judiciary.

In the novels of psychological suspense, however,  no such reassurance is on offer. In fact,  quite the opposite is the case. Just think of Judgement in Stone!  And think of Monsieur Monde Vanishes.

It is the difference between getting on a roller coaster at an amusement park, and, having experienced the usual thrills, getting back on firm ground in a matter of minutes; as opposed to being driven to the edge of a cliff, all the while hoping desperately that someone or something will rescue you from the abyss.

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The impression I came away with Monday is that the Hanover readers found Monsieur Monde Vanishes and its author intriguing; the verdict on the actual experience of reading the novel was more guarded. Gail said that she was surprised by  the book, as were several others in the group. For one thing, they were expecting something that could more readily be classified as a mystery – something, in other words, more like the Maigret books. Also they felt misled by the title. The book begins with Madame Monde going to the police to report her husband missing. The reader is given the impression that we will now be following a missing persons investigation. But no – later in the same chapter –  the first –  we meet Monsieur Monde himself, as he is leaving for yet another day at the family firm. And we remain with him for the duration, as he cuts one by one the ties that bind him to family, to work, and to his entire bourgeois existence:

“When, a short while before, he had decided…But he hadn’t decided anything! He had had nothing to decide. what he was living through was not even a completely new experience. He must have dreamed about it often, or have thought about it so much that he felt he had done it all before.

This is about as close to introspection as Monde, or any of the novel’s other characters, gets. In our discussion of The Maltese Falcon, Barb, our leader, emphasized that readers get to know the dramatis personae through their actions – we are not made privy to their private thoughts. Much of the time this holds true as well for Monsieur Monde Vanishes. But added to the latter is an enveloping air of fatalism:

“Once again, he was following a preordained plan, for which he was not responsible. Nor had he made any decision the day before. It all came from much further back, from the beginning of things.

Standing on the platform of the bus, he patted his pockets; he leaned forward to see his reflection in the window. He felt no surprise. But he was still waiting as he had waited after his First Communion, for something he longed for, which was slow in coming.

To me, that last sentence is a thing of beauty and almost unbearably poignant, signifying as it does “the melancholy, long withdrawing roar” of religious faith, with its promise of hope and consolation.

We agreed that there are many memorable passages in Monsieur Monde Vanishes. But of course, we are encountering them at second hand, since this is a translated work. I would be interested to read this novel in the original French. I could probably just about handle it,  with my trusty Larousse by my side! In fact, the English translation of this novel’s title is what misleads first time readers (as it misled me on my own first reading). The French title is La Fuite de Monsieur Monde: literally, “The Flight of Monsieur Monde.” This more accurately describe the novel’s subject, which is not the void left by the man’s disappearance from his quotidian existence but the radically new life into which he emerges.

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Here is the most comprehensive site I know of for Maigret / Simenon information.

I was not able to obtain Pierre Assouline’s definitive biography of Simenon until shortly prior to my going to Hanover. I do hope to read it at some future time; it looks to be fascinating and beautifully written.  assoulin

One final word on the subject of deliberate disappearances, both real and fictional. A member of the group reminded me that Anne Tyler used this plot premise in one of her novels. We couldn’t recall the title at the time, but I found it later: ladder. In this context, I also brought up the strange and haunting Flitcraft parable from The Maltese Falcon.

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The research process can sometimes yield  surprising, even disconcerting results. It happened to me when I found this article, which appeared in Britain’s Independent newspaper in 2002: “Simenon’s great-niece on trial for killing lover.”

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In a comment on a previous post on Simenon, Barb Fisher of Hanover wrote: “Don’t know if you realized that all four of us who heard your ‘Art of Mystery’ talk in Howard County made it to the Hanover meeting along with the rest of the crowd.” What a lovely compliment! And what a great group of book lovers.

hanover1

As we wind down our session, a brave Hanoverian attempts to refold a 24-page printout containing Simenon's complete oeuvre!

As we wind down our session, a brave Hanoverian attempts to refold a 24-page printout containing a list of Simenon's complete oeuvre!

hanover5

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“Life could punch you in the throat no matter how you chose.” – Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy

August 15, 2009 at 1:18 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

both Are we entering a Golden Age of the short story? First, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and now this hugely entertaining collection from Maile Meloy. The title is taken from a poem by A.R. Ammons. The poem consists of a single sentence:

“One can’t have it / both ways and both / ways is the only / way I want it.”

In the story “The Children,” Fielding is torn between his wife and his lover. In a moment of exquisite anguish he recalls this poem and thinks to himself, ‘What kind of fool wanted it only one way?’

What kind, indeed. Meloy’s stories are full of people avidly pursuing ends that are almost sure to prove mutually exclusive. They want their spouses, and they want their lovers. They take lovers carelessly and yet yearn for a stable domestic life, as in the story “Nine.” That’s the age of Gwen’s daughter Valentine. Theirs is not a cruel household, nor even an indifferent one. And yet you will wish fervently that circumstances could be different for Valentine, a sweet and confused child surrounded by clueless, self-absorbed adults.

Meloy’s stories are often informed by a kind of bitter irony. In “The Girlfriend,” a father’s desperate effort to protect his daughter goes horribly awry. He relentlessly presses yet another girl for the truth of what actually happened on one fateful night. Eventually he gets what he is seeking from her, and it proves to be information that will haunt him for the rest of his life. “The Girlfriend” is the most somber tale in this collection – and, incidentally, one of the best crime stories I’ve read in a long time.

“Spy Vs. Spy” offers a pained, often hilarious look at the way in which family members cheerfully drive one another nuts. George, a ski instructor, has invited his brother Aaron along on a ski trip. George’s latest girlfriend Jonna will also be there. For his part, Aaron will be accompanied by his wife Bea and daughter Claire. Claire is a comely college girl; in Aaron’s eyes, George has lately been paying her undue attention.

It’s hard  to imagine two people with more disparate temperaments than George and Aaron. Aaron, an orthopedic surgeon, is a conscientious, conservative person. George, on the other hand, tends to grab life by the throat and shake it until it bleeds. Here’s what happens when the members of the ski party assemble for lunch (Among his other strongly held beliefs, George is a militant vegetarian.):

“‘George,’ [Aaron] said. ‘We should ski together this afternoon.’

‘All right,’ George said warily, pounding the ketchup bottle over his yellowish soy patty.

‘You act like I want to push you off a cliff.’

‘Maybe you do.’ George resorted to a knife, and the ketchup slid out along the blade.

‘You should take me on the good stuff.’

‘You can’t handle the good stuff.’

‘Sure I can.’

‘Honey, you don’t always do well at eight thousand feet,’ Bea said. ‘And you’ve had two beers.’

‘See?’ his brother said. ‘Listen to your wise wife.’

Aaron didn’t like to be reminded of his debility – no one else got sick at this altitude – and he was doing fine. ‘Did you take Claire on the good stuff?’ he asked.

‘Dad,’ Claire said.

‘Claire’s a really good skier,’ George said, through a mouth full of soy.

‘I know she is. I taught her.’

I taught her,’ George said. ‘And she’s thirty years younger than you are.’

‘But you’re only five years younger.’

‘But I ski every day. Stop staring at my veggie burger. Eat your own goddamn burger. Your dead cow corpse burger.’

And that’s just the  beginning…

In “Agustin,” we meet a man who, in his distant youth, had let his one chance at real happiness slip through his fingers. Over the years he has more or less come to terms with the consequences of his action – or inaction; the last thing he needs or wants is to be reminded of what was lost all those years ago. As the story opens, Agustin is leading a blameless, quiet life on his ranch, a prosperous enterprise. A visit by his daughter and son-in-law – she with one eye to her potential inheritance – brings little in the way of solace and much in the way of regret. He cannot help thinking to himself  “Children were experiments, and his had failed.”

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I read this novel when it came out three years ago and loved it: family Meloy has another novel, and another story collection: liars half. I look forward to reading both.

Meanwhile, I feel like saying to lovers of quality fiction: Put away your Grishams, your Pattersons, your Picoults (if only for a little while) – Maile Meloy can really write!

Maile Meloy

Maile Meloy

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“The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people…” The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, a book discussion

August 13, 2009 at 6:49 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

In the book Sleuths, Inc., Hugh Eames quotes from The American Commonwealth, written by James Bryce and published in 1888. In this passage, Lord Bryce offers his own rather unique version of California’s history:

“‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with, or suppression of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the union.’

Bryce had something to add about the place that he considered to be the epicenter of California’s corruption:

“‘That scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulated in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constituent of the population.’

These thoughts may have been penned in the late 1800’s, but there is evidence that these conditions persisted into the twentieth century – or perhaps were jump-started by Prohibition and its destructive effect on the forces of law and order.  Dashiell Hammett once told a reporter that California had the most corrupt politics in the world. And Raymond Chandler said the following in a letter to his agent:

“‘The thing I love best about S.F. is its go to hell attitude…The narrow streets are lined with NO PARKING AT ANY TIME signs and also lined with parked automobiles which look as if they had been there all day…The taxi drivers are wonderful too. They obey no laws but those of gravity and we even had one who passes street cars on the left, an offense for which you would probably get ninety days in Los Angeles.’

All of the above quotations and other information come from Sleuths, Inc., which is subtitled Studies of Problem Solvers: Doyle, Simenon, Hammett, Ambler, Chandler.  This book, published by J.B. Lippincott in 1978, is the most idiosyncratic and prized volume of crime fiction criticism in my (fairly large) collection of same. Sleuths Inc cover (It is owned by the Howard County Library.) I had never heard of Lord Bryce and The American Commonwealth until I encountered him in its pages. The only information provided about Hugh Eames was that he was also the author of Winner Lose All: Dr. Cook and the Theft of the North Pole. I had no luck with Google or Wikipedia, but the Gale database Biography Resource Center did feature a brief entry on this author. Eames was born in Philadelphia in 1917 and obtained his degree from Northwestern University in 1939. He served in the army during World War II. From 1945 to 1950, he was a reporter for Fairchild Publications in New York and Chicago. He then spent five years in Europe, during which time he studied at both the University of Madrid and the University of Paris. He then worked in the hotel business in Carmel, California. It was during this period that he began to write, beginning with fiction in 1956 and switching to nonfiction in 1968.

The Biography Resource Center cites by title only his two works of nonfiction. There’s something oddly sketchy about this information; I’ve been intrigued some time now by the question: just who is this man?

Well, I didn’t actually mean to get off on that tangent… but rather interesting, yes?

Anyhow – the somewhat anarchic state of things in the City by the Bay came up in our discussion of The Maltese Falcon. maltese_falcon_1930_redux Our leader Barb also provided some fascinating information about the workings of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the days when Hammett was in their employ. But the most interesting part of the discussion had to do with The Maltese Falcon itself: can the book can still be read with enjoyment, all these decades after its initial appearance? The verdict was mixed. There was impatience with Hammett’s depiction of women, although we agreed that the male characters were themselves rather stereotypical. For some in the group, that fact was a deal breaker – that, and a general dated feeling about the narrative. But for some of us, that very datedness was a plus, as it brought a particular time and place so vividly to life. (The novel’s action takes place in 1928; it was published in 1930.)

Barb emphasized the groundbreaking aspect of The Maltese Falcon: although Carroll John Daly originated the fictional hardboiled private eye, he was nowhere near as gifted a writer as Hammett, who is generally credited with refining the form and giving it heft. Some of  that heft has to do with the moral dimension of detective work. Barb was much concerned with this question, and it proved an interesting one. Does Sam Spade act in accordance with a moral code, or is his interest in the recovery of the falcon purely mercenary? In the end, the need to obtain justice on behalf of  his murdered partner Miles Archer – a man for whom Spade had little liking and less respect – and whose wife he was carrying on an affair with! – trumped all other considerations, including his undeniable attraction to  Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

Toward the end of the evening, we viewed two scenes from the classic 1941 film version of this novel. First, we see Brigid coming to Spade for help. She presents herself to him as “Miss Wonderly” and proceeds to tell a story about a missing sister whom she wants Spade to locate. The whole thing is a farrago of lies, but Spade is at once fascinated by this woman and willingly lets himself be sucked into the intrigue in which she herself has become embroiled.

We then watched the film’s final scene. Brigid is entreating Sam Spade not to turn her over to the police. Finally he’s had it with her begging, pleading, and manipulating, and he rounds on her angrily:

“‘I’m not going to play the sap for you. I won’t walk in Thursby’s and Christ knows who else’s footsteps. You killed Miles and you’re going over for it.’

(These lines of dialog are actually from the novel, but words very like it are spoken in the film.)

At this crucial point in the story, Sam wants it made clear to Brigid that he’s not going to “play the sap” for her. He feels so urgently on this score that in the novel he repeats the sentiment, using the same expression, several times before the end. Is this, in fact, a basic credo of his; namely, don’t let a woman’s wiles cause you to do the wrong thing or be made a fool of? Spade also tells Brigid quite frankly that if he lets her get away with murdering Miles, “‘…you’d have something on me that you could use  whenever you happened to want to.'” In my mind, as soon as he says that, their relationship instantly became the stuff of a very debased currency – an impoverished thing, with no component of trust in it.

Brigid O'Shaughnessy being taken away by the police. The grille of the elevator mimics the prison bars through which she will soon be peering out at the world.

Brigid O'Shaughnessy being taken away by the police. The grille of the elevator mimics the prison bars through which she will soon be peering out at the world.

At the conclusion of the film, after Brigid’s fate has  been sealed, one of the cops asks Sam Spade just what the falcon is, anyway. Spade answers, “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.” I’m not sure if that’s the exact quote, but it’s something very close to it. As Barb pointed out to us, that final line of dialog was added by director John Huston; it does not appear in the novel. But one feels that it could have, and that it is true to the novel’s overarching theme.

Here’s a fascinating piece on the falcon in January Magazine. It’s by Hammett biographer Richard Layman.

Barb did a great job leading this discussion. She shared a wealth of background material with us, and her questions were provocative and thoughtful. She recommended Spade & Archer, a new title by veteran crime writer (and former private investigator)  Joe Gores.  archer

I recommend this American Masters film: Dashiell Hammett DVD Cover It was made in1999; in it, people who knew Hammett are interviewed.

Finally, I brought this along: daughter This book has some priceless photos of Hammett’s family, and Hammett himself, when he was a young man “on the make.” Hammett had two daughters; Jo was the younger. Her reminiscences, included here,  are poignant. Hammett scholar Richard Layman served as the editor of this volume, along with Julie M. Rivett, Jo Hammett’s daughter.

Julie_Rivett_Joe_Gores_Bill_Arney

[Thanks are due to Mike Humbert and his wonderful website for this picture.]

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The power of understatement: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

August 10, 2009 at 5:08 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

rooms I’ve been reading the stories in this slender volume over a period of several months. This is something I like to do with story collections, but it does mean that by the time I finish the book, precise memory of the earlier stories has begun to recede. Nevertheless, there’s been a cumulative effect from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; and that effect is quite simply admiration unbound.

The Pakistan in which Daniyal Mueenuddin sets his stories is largely rural, a place where a few well-heeled landowners, almost always male, hold all the cards and do not scruple to play them as they see fit.  It is entirely within purview of these men to be either kind or cruel to the workers on their estates; they show themselves capable of being both, depending on the circumstances and the personalities involved.

Even as Mueenuddin depicts this society with meticulous care, he acknowledges through his characters that it is fast disappearing:

It’s a little dying world, she reflected, this household, these servants, the old man at the center. She had seen this before among her own relatives, one of her great-aunts who lived on into her nineties, quarreling with her maidservants, absorbed in prayer, ill-tempered, reputedly with boxes full of cash and gold salted away, though none of it turned up after her death. (from “Lily”)

Mueenuddin is particularly adept at showing us the lives of impoverished women, who use their wiles and sometimes their bodies to get what they want; their goal, usually to secure a leg up in an age-old power struggle. Even when they succeed, their position within a given household often remains precarious.

Mueenuddin possesses formidable powers of description. In his hands, even minor characters – especially minor characters – spring vividly to life:

“The next evening, when I drove through the gate of my house, a sagging wooden affair once painted green, once perhaps in colonial days a swing for little English children, I found an old man standing by the portico with the timeless patience of peasants and old servants, as if he had been standig there all day. He wore a battered white skullcap, soiled clothes, a sleeveless sweater, and shoes with crepe rubber soles, worn down on one side, which gave each foot a peculiar tilt. The deep lines on his face ran in no rational order, no order corresponding to musculature or to the emotions through which his expressions might pass, but spread from numerous points. The oversized head had settled heavily onto the shoulders, like a sand castle on the beach after the sea has run in over it. (from “About a Burning Girl”)

These tales are told with terse eloquence. Mueenudin’s writing puts me in mind of other masters of the short form:  Joan Silber, Jhumpa Lahiri, and William Trevor among them. Also, with their air of quiet fatalism, these stories made me think back to one of the most powerful, shattering novels I have ever read: mistry

Here’s one of my favorite passages from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; it comes from the title story:

” A servant came in with an armful of wood, threw it with a crash into the fireplace, then took a bottle of kerosene and poured a liberal splash. Hew threw in a match and the fire roared up. For a minute he sat on his haunches by the fire, grave before this immemorial mystery, then broke the spell, rose, and left the room.

It seems to me that one of the advantages of using the short story form to describe life in a troubled region is that a writer can confine his material to a small canvass. He can depict a particular town or household through the eyes of a single individual and concentrate on the relationships among a small cast of characters and more or less excluding the larger picture of the body politic. People do, after all, have personal lives, even in war zones. The first story in this volume, “Nawabdin Electrician,” also appears in Best American Short Stories 2008. In selecting it for that prestigious collection, Salman Rushdie comments:  “It had wit, freshness and suppleness of language, everything a short story should be.”  Rushdie then adds that up until the time that the story was referred to him as guest editor, he had never heard of Mueenuddin.

Here is this author’s brief biography, as it appears on his website:

Daniyal Mueenuddin was brought up in Lahore, Pakistan and Elroy, Wisconsin.  A graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, and The Best American Short Stories 2008, selected by Salman Rushdie.  For a number of years he practiced law in New York.  He now lives on a farm in Pakistan’s southern Punjab.

I was much intrigued by this  rather elliptical summation of a life in which some interesting decisions about how to live have been taken. Then I came across a review, in the New York Times Book Review of July 26, of the novel The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi. In this piece,  Mike Peed observes that “…Sethi joins an ever-expanding roster of gifted young Pakistani writers who, after graduating from Western universities, have returned home with an urgent need to explain their misunderstood country to a global audience.” Daniyal Mueenuddin would appear to be part of this cohort.

I have not yet read The Wish Maker, but I recommend, with the greatest enthusiasm, In other Rooms, Other Wonders. It is superb.

Daniyal Mueenuddin

Daniyal Mueenuddin

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Magic…Mystery…Mozart

August 7, 2009 at 10:46 pm (Music, opera, Performing arts)

magic-fluteWednesday night I went to the movies. This is something I have virtually stopped doing at  this point in my life, but the occasion was a special one: I was attending a screening of  The Magic Flute, an HD “encore presentation” by  the Metropolitan Opera. I had been meaning to do this since since the inauguration of these broadcasts in 2006. This was the performance that kicked off the series that year.

I have loved this opera my entire life – seen it in live performance at least three times and listened to it countless times. So I went Wednesday night with certain expectations. One of those was that  the work would  be presented in the original German. I also thought I’d be seeing the work in its entirety. I should have taken the time to read the blurb on the Met’s site. Had I done so, I would have know that I would be attending “…an abridged 100-minute version, sung in English.”

I had less trouble with the abridgement than with the language. I know this opera in German. I don’t speak German, but I am on intimate terms with the (German language) libretto of The Magic Flute. Obviously I had to get past this dismaying change if I were to enjoy the evening. I did get past it – for the most part. Now this film did use subtitles from time to time; even English, when sung, can be hard to understand. It seems to me that they could have retained the German and used English subtitles more liberally.

The Met blurb proclaims that the shortened version of the opera and its presentation in English makes this version “perfect for opera fans of all ages.” Well, maybe. I realize that there’s a fine line between making high culture more accessible and outright dumbing it down. Also, mixed in with that fine line is the problem of the bottom line, especially in these parlous times. I grant all this. Just don’t expect us purists to be always cheering these “innovations”…

In some instances, the Englsh translation of the spoken dialog verged on the slangy. At one point, Poppageno (Nathan Gunn) asks, “Can’t a guy get a beer around here?” – or words to that effect. Poppageno is certainly a comic character, but at times in the film, Gunn’s antics were, IMHO, a bit over the top.

And speaking of Nathan Gunn, why was it so difficult – if not impossible – to tease out the names of cast members from the Met’s site? Opera has always thrived on the star system; the last thing these singers need is anonymity! This is especially true re this production, in which the singing was quite simply superb. Ying Huang, Matthew Polenzani, and  Rene Pape were all three marvelous. And then there was Erika Miklosa as Queen of the Night, a role which is the ultiamte test for the coloratura, with its soaring showpiece arias. She triumphed – I had goosebumps!

Here she is in a concert performance of the fiendishly difficult (and incredibly gorgeous and dramatic) “Der Holle Rache:”

Doesn’t she just toss that off as though it were all in a day’s work! And incidentally, Miklosa is perfectly capable of “looking daggers”  without  the heavy make-up she wore in this production -make-up made even more grotesque by the frequent close-ups characteristic of filmed performance. A very attractive woman was transformed into a sorceress so frightful –  with costumes to match –  that it was almost hard to look at her. (The photo below does not quite convey the effect.)

erika Mikosa as the Queen of the Night and Ying Huang as her daughter Pamina

Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night and Ying Huang as her daughter Pamina

(Here’s the complete cast, courtesy of Internet Movie Database.)

You may have gathered that I’m somewhat ambivalent about Julie Taymor’s production. What with the lavish sets, garish lighting effects, and bizarre costumes, there was plenty of eye candy on display – perhaps, at times, too much. On the other hand, there were some wonderful touches; I particularly liked the outsized diaphanous puppets that looked like dancing polar bears:

Flute600

That's Matthew Polenzani as Tamino, playing "die zauberflote" for everything he's worth!

Alex Ross,  impressed by Julie Taymor’s “deeply dazzling vision,”  reviewed the production with customary eloquence on his blog.

Here is Rene Pape singing ” Isis und Osiris,” as it was performed in the production I saw:

Finally, here are Nathan Gunn and Jennifer Aylmer in the much beloved duet sung by Papagena and Papageno. This is Mozart at his sunniest:

I walked out of the theater feeling like the Wedding Guest in Coleridge’s poem: “stunned / And…of sense forlorn.” For there is no experience quite like coming face to face with the genius of Mozart. I felt as though I had been in the presence of something holy.

Amadeus, indeed.

Wolfgang-amadeus-mozart_1

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I have just finished a terrific novel: Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth

August 2, 2009 at 7:39 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction)

marvels Mesopotamia, 1914. John Somerville is a British archaeologist excavating at a site called Tell Erdek. His assistant is Palmer, who at the tender age of twenty-seven is already an expert on Assyrian and Sumerian inscriptions. Also making up the party is Patricia, a graduate student.  They all anticipate a momentous find at this site.

Somerville’s wife Edith is also present but spends most of her time back at the expedition house,  seeing to the comfort of her husband and the others. She seems the very emblem of a traditional wife – but appearances are deceiving. Circumstances change, and people change along with them.  Their values, even their natures, alter. In some cases, they end by becoming more like their true selves.

Other individuals cycle through the expedition house. The ethic of the time and place requires that they be offered hospitality, whatever the purpose of their journey may be. Sometimes that purpose is just what it seems, as is the case with the Johanssons, a Swedish couple traveling on behalf of The Society for Biblical Research. I like the way Unsworth describes the husband:

“Johansson had a slow and weighty manner and a heavy, crumpled-looking face, rather appealing, with some fugitive likeness to a teddy bear in it, one that had been knocked about a bit but not in any spirit of malice.

Other visitors have more sinister reasons for turning up at the dig. These individuals attempt to conceal their true agendas beneath a convivial veneer, succeeding only partially in this effort.

Then there is Jehar, a young man in Somerville’s employ. Jehar serves as an interpreter and also as a valuable source of information concerning developments in the immediate environs. Unbeknown to Somerville and his group, Jehar has an agenda of his own: he cherishes an obsessive ardor for a beautiful young woman from a nearby village. He woos her with stories:

“He described the town to Ninanna, the green islet in the midst of the stream, the permanent bridge that went from one bank to the other, the six white minarets that rose above the roofs of the houses, the great mass of gardens and palm groves and cultivated fields that extended along the river for many miles to the east. Memory and invention combined with love to make him eloquent.

Jehar is describing a kind of paradise, which he hopes that he and Ninanna will one day inhabit together. But his tales are by no means solely concerned with idyllic episodes. One of them, about a powerful desire that proves both insatiable and unquenchable, is told so vividly and ends so horrifically that I could not stop thinking about it for days afterward.

Land of Marvels is rich in details about the geopolitics of the region and its ancient and mysterious past, and also about the processes of archaeological and geological exploration. I was trying to think of other novelists who likewise make confident assumptions about readers’ intelligence. Two names came to mind: Ian McEwan and Anita Brookner.

The characters in this novel are not all likable, but they are all in varying degree interesting. Gradually tension builds among them. Everyone knows part of what is going on; no one knows the whole story. As I read on, I became increasingly convinced that some cataclysm awaited these people. But what ? and when? As I approached the final phase of the narrative, the tension became so great that I could only read a few pages at a time. I felt as though I were literally gasping  for air! Among its other virtues, Land of Marvels served as a reminder to me that “suspense” is not a genre but a quality that inheres in any skillfully crafted narrative. In addition to his command of a beautifully precise prose style, Barry Unsworth is a master of the storytelling art.

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In addition to Land of Marvels, I  recommend this novel of medieval England: moralityplay.

Barry Unsworth

Barry Unsworth

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