Love and Summer, by William Trevor

October 31, 2009 at 7:17 pm (Book review, books)

love&summer Set in the tiny town of Rathmoye in Ireland, where, a reviewer tells us, “nothing happens and everything happens” –  a concept with which Miss Marple would empathize instantly –  Love and Summer is a bittersweet tale of anguished love, divided loyalties, and the persistent desire to be good – even in the face of unruly desire.

Ellie has come straight from convent school to Dillahan’s farm, first to be his housekeeper and then his wife. Sheltered and unworldly, she does not at first know her own heart. She come to know it only too well in the course of this poignant tale.

Some years before Ellie first came to the farm, her husband had suffered a horrible tragedy: his wife and young child had been killed in an accident. The mishap involved machinery that Dillahan himself had been operating at the time. He thought his life was destroyed irrevocably and forever. But then Ellie came into it, her arrival signaling the unhoped-for prospect of consolation, companionship, and finally, love.

Ellie and Dillahan’s story unfolds in the richly woven context of rural Ireland in the 1950’s, a time and place that seem very remote. Trevor peoples his story with interesting secondary characters who tend to be reserved, even severe. Along with her brother Joseph Paul, Miss Connulty operates a bed and breakfast in the town. A harrowing incident in her past nearly destroyed their family and permanently formed her bleak future. Old Orpen Wren, his mind slowly going, lives almost wholly in the past and spends his days wandering  through the town and occasionally out into the countryside. At times I found Wren somewhat annoying and intrusive – until  suddenly he became crucial.

Trevor’s style is spare in the extreme. As with short stories (and even more so with poetry), this kind of writing requires a very precise choice of words. Trevor, an acknowledged master of the short form, does this with ease –  or rather, he makes it seem as though he does it with ease.

A beautiful book.


William Trevor

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Mysteries go global, part two: Scandinavia

October 29, 2009 at 1:04 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

From our consideration of Alexander McCall Smith (Part One), we moved on to the Scandinavians. The Nordic genius in this genre first became apparent with the ten Martin Beck procedurals written between 1965 and 1975 by the Swedish journalists (and husband and wife team) Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. (If you’re going to read just one title by this gifted pair of writers, I recommend The Laughing Policeman.)

Led by Henning Mankell, whose works began appearing in translation in Western Europe in the late 1990’s,  Sweden has recently staged a crime fiction Renaissance. I particularly like Kjell Eriksson, whose Demon of Dakar made my Best of 2008 short list. (And I’m also a fan of Mankell’s Wallander novels. The first one I tried was One Step Behind; I still consider it one of the most gripping police procedurals I’ve ever read.)

Recently Stieg Larsson created a sensation first in Europe and then in this country. Larsson is the author of the Millennium Trilogy, which consists of these three novels:  dragon fire hornet(This final title is due out here in May of next year.)

Here’s a list of the awards that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was either nominated for or won:

2009 Anthony Award for Best First Novel
2009 Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel
2009 Macavity Award for Best First Novel
Finalist 2008 International Dagger Award
Finalist 2009 Anthony Award for Best Mystery

When I started this book a couple of weeks ago, I had some misgivings. To begin with, I didn’t realize that Dragon Tattoo is not a police procedural. This somewhat dampened my initial enthusiasm. Secondly, the novel’s opening gambit was quickly followed by a convoluted tale of financial chicanery. This made my eyes glaze over. But then the protagonist, an investigative journalist names Mikael Blomkvist, receives an intriguing offer from Henrik Vanger, a wealthy, reclusive tycoon. Vanger’s much-loved niece Harriet had disappeared some forty years previous. He wants someone to find out what happened to her, and he believes Blomkvist has a chance to succeed where all others, including the police, have failed. Blomqvist, meanwhile, is due to serve a brief prison term for the crime of slander. He needs a diversion, and he needs a new source of income. Taking on this task would provide both, and so he accepts Vanger’s offer.

And from the moment that Blomqvist begins his investigation, I was hooked. Although initially daunted by this  novel’s length – the paperback is just under 600 pages – I found myself reading at speed. Larsson is a great storyteller; his narrative flows smoothly and is delightfully peppered with witty asides and observations. References to modern technology are up to date but not intrusive. I found myself like Blomkvist very much and rooting for him. And then there’s Lisbeth Salander the eponymous tattooed girl. Lisbeth is a unique and in some ways perverse character. I’m not sure how I feel about her, but I am pretty sure she wouldn’t care one way or the other!

Stieg Larsson’s own life story reads like a novel. A journalist like his protagonist, he died of a massive heart attack in 2004. He was fifty years old and had lived just long enough to complete his trilogy. Click here to read Val McDermid’s appreciation of this writer.

Like Sweden, Norway is currently the home of several fine writers of crime fiction.

water I am currently reading The Water’s Edge, Karin Fossum’s latest Inspector Sejer novel, and enjoying it as much as I have the other entries in this fine series. Fossum’s writing is marked by an economy of expression and shrewd insight into the vagaries of the human heart – the same qualities that make Ruth Rendell’s books so irresistible. Sejer and the other characters engage in conversations that are profound and provocative; one is glad to have had the chance to overhear them. Fossum’s novels tend to be rather bleak; nonetheless, I find them extraordinarily compelling.

(I am reminded of a comment made by Jake Kerridge in an article in the The Telegraph, “Efficient Mystery with Light Emotional Wallowing,” Kerridge observes: ” The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die.”)

The website of the library at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota features an excellent resource page on Scandinavian crime fiction. In addition, here’s a fine blog on the subject.

The next new author Scandinavian author whose work I’m eager to sample is that of Karin Fossum’s fellow Norwegian, Jo Nesbo. I’m intrigued by the laudatory reviews I’ve read of Redbreast and Nemesis.


Stieg Larsson

Kjell Eriksson

Kjell Eriksson


Karin Fossum


Jo Nesbo

Mankell, Henning

Henning Mankell

Here is what the Salomonsson Agency says on its website about Sjowall and Wahloo:

“If any crime novels deserve to be called modern classics, it must be the ten police procedure novels about Martin Beck and his colleagues: with them, the Swedish writer’s duo Maj Sjöwall (1935-) and Per Wahlöö (1926-1975) virtually created the modern police procedure novel, their imitators count by thousands. The Decalogue of Sjöwall-Wahlöö, written in the sixties and seventies, is nothing less than the Holy Grail of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, a chronicle of the painful creation of modern society.


Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

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“On wings of song…” another memorable evening with the Columbia Pro Cantare

October 27, 2009 at 1:58 am (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

Saturday night’s musical evening began with Mendelssohn’s lovely Auf Flugeln Des Gesanges (“On Wings of Song”). Tenor Charles was Reid was accompanied on the piano by Alison Matuskey.

Cahrles Reid

Charles Reid

Alison Matuskey

Alison Matuskey

This was followed by four selections from Haydn’s Aus Des Ramlers Lyrischer Blumenlese (“Ramler’s Lyrical Flower Harvest”) performed by the Pro Cantare Chamber Singers, led by their charismatic conductor Frances Motyca Dawson (and accompanied at the piano by Ms. Matuskey). This music was completely unfamiliar to both Ron and me, and we were completely charmed by it.

Ron commented that Franz Joseph Haydn is in a sense the founding architect of classical music, having given us, among other treasures, the string quartet and the symphonic form. In a sense, he made it possible for Mozart, Beethoven, and so many others to give full expression to their genius.

Click here for the Haydn pieces we heard at the concert. Scroll down to where the selections are numbered. ( The chamber group did numbers 2, 4, 8, and 12.) Click on “Play”; then sit back and enjoy the music – and the accompanying visual effects.

This part of the program concluded with a Cantata by Handel: Lucrezia: O numi eterni (“O eternal deities”). This highly dramatic work was amazingly rendered by mezzo soprano Mary Ann McCormick. Accompanied by cello and organ, Ms McCormick’s vocals soared as she convincingly portrayed Lucrectia’s agony. One does not often have the opportunity to hear this highly ornamental baroque music sung live, so this was a special moment, made more special still by this splendid singer.

Mary Ann McCormick

Mary Ann McCormick

The rape of Lucretia is tragic, fascinating, and – to me, at least – somewhat enigmatic story. I never really knew it until I listened to Prof. Elizabeth Vandiver’s recounting of it in one of her lectures for the Teaching Company. When faced with an excruciating crisis, Lucretia acts in the most honorable way possible. Yet in the aftermath of the attack, she is resolved to kill herself.


Lucretia, by Veronese

Prof. Vandiver discourses on the reasoning behind that decision, but at this point,  I can’t recall the explanation. This is as good a reason as any to procure the CD set of those lectures and listen to them again!

Here is a section of the cantata sung by the late, much-revered Lorraine Hunt Lieberson:


As I said, the first part of the evening’s program was quite wonderful. But then, ah, then…

Mozart’s Requiem.

How could I have forgotten the power, majesty, and sheer beauty of this music? I hadn’t listened to it in its entirety for some time. But I was reminded by the superb performance of the Columbia Pro Cantare, the Festival Orchestra, the soloists, and probably most indispensably, Frances Motyca Dawson.

For the performance of this mighty work Saturday night, everything came together. The soloists were wonderful; the orchestra and chorus sounded superb. As we were leaving the auditorium – the James Rouse Theater, whose acoustics are outstanding – Ron and I agreed that you could schlep to the Kennedy Center, deal with traffic, confusing signage, and parking challenges, and not hear anything nearly this good. (To quote the always eloquent Ron: “Boy, they sure hit that one out of the ball park!”)

Here’s the opening of the Requiem. Karl Bohm leads the Vienna Symphony and Chorus:

This is the Confutatis and Lacrimosa, performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardner:

I’ve praised the Pro Cantare before, but last Saturday, they really outdid themselves. Bravo to them, and thank God for the gifts bestowed on posterity by these great men:

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn

Haydn, Franz Joseph_small

Franz Joseph Haydn


George Frideric Handel


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

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Mysteries go global: Part One

October 24, 2009 at 10:33 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

This past Tuesday morning, thirteen of us gathered together to talk about mysteries. I had an hour in which to cover the genre (HAH!!) and felt an urgent need to impose some structure on my material. So I chose as my theme, “Mysteries go global.” I was doing this presentation on behalf of the Howard County Library, which graciously produced a book list for the occasion.

I started off by reading from “The Mysterious Travel Guide,” an essay by G.J. Demko. (This piece, as well as other sprightly commentaries on the roll of setting in crime fiction, can be found on Professor Demko’s website, Landscapes of Crime.) It seems that some years ago, Demko  led a tour to China. He placed Dorothy Gilman’s novel Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station on the list he assembled for members of his group:

“About halfway through the trip, as we left Urumchi in western China, the group informed me that they were best prepared for the excursion by the Mrs. Pollifax mystery. The story had prepared them for each place we visited by describing the main tourist features but, more importantly, it explained much about the culture and people in each place we visited. The political issue related to the Muslim Uyghur people had been explained and they were ready to encounter the Kazakhs on the grasslands and much more. And all this was conveyed via an interesting and informative Mrs. Pollifax adventure, infinitely more pleasant than a boring tourist guide or long political text on contemporary China.


Professor Demko’s concluded that”…more often than not, mysteries can be the best guides for a journey, foreign or domestic.”

I’ve not read the Mrs. Pollifax novels, but since we were on the subject of mysteries set in China, I took the opportunity to rave about another of Professor Demko’s favorites,  the Dutch writer and diplomat  Robert Van Gulik. robert_van_gulik I’ve written about Van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories in previous posts, but only briefly. Van Gulik was also an accomplished orientalist and musician; the story of how he came to write the mysteries featuring Judge Dee – a real personage from Chinese history – is almost as fascinating as the books themselves. Click here to read more.


[First digression: I little expected to find a connection between Judge Dee and, of all things, this: bluebook How did I get from one to the other? Curious as to who posted the illuminating explication of the Judge Dee mysteries, I scrolled down to the bottom of the post and clicked on Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. Professor Ross is obviously and justifiably proud of this family connection!]


dee This (rather garish!) edition of Judge Dee at Work is owned by the Howard County Library. I also highly recommend the audio versions of the Judge Dee stories, superbly read by Frank Muller.

In “The Mysterious Travel Guide,”, Prof. Demko goes on to extol the virtues of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti novels: “The squares, districts, canals and the waterway system as well as a typical Venetian diet are regularly and brilliantly described in this truly fascinating series.” Tuesday morning, I naturally extolled right along with him, as I have so often done in this space.

Donna Leon

Donna Leon

As of this writing, Prof. Demko is recovering from a stroke. He declares on his site that a vital aid to his recuperation process has been the reading and re-reading of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels:

“Most of the Paris stories are set in the 50s and 60s but, once immersed in a Maigret story, I can smell the bistros and brasseries on the romantic sounding boulevards. His apartment on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir and his office at the Quai des Orfevres beckon me to visit Paris and wander around those well known sections of the city he describes so well in his tales. I can envision myself sitting in the Brassiere Dauphine sipping a calvados and imagining Jules and Madame Maigret, arm in arm, coming in the door.

As I recently told a group in Hanover PA, the Maigret novels, so redolent of mid-century Paris, are only minimally disturbing, tending rather to reassure the reader with the inevitable restoration of order and dispensation of justice; while the non-Maigret novels are quite the opposite: deeply unsettling with their open-ended angst and refusal to provide easy answers to life’s most vexing questions.



I was astonished and delighted to find this video featuring Simenon on YouTube. True, the interview is completement en francais, but even though I can comprehend only a fraction of what’s being said (a really tiny fraction), it was nevertheless a pleasure to see le maitre soi-meme holding forth!

I warmly urge you to listen to the four Maigret novels read by Andrew Sachs for Audio Partners. I’ve done so myself – numerous times and with the greatest pleasure. He reads the books in English, of course, but his pronunciation of French places and names is flawless. Sachs obviously possesses considerable skill with languages, as he proved so memorably when he transformed himself into the hapless Manuel of Fawlty Towers!

Andrew Sachs

Andrew Sachs

Of course, we can’t long discourse on the subject of setting in crime fiction before coming to the subject of the astonishing Alexander McCall Smith.  mccallsmith5522 His Number One Ladies Detective series has an enormous following, and justly so. The books are simultaneously sad and sweet but never bathetic or mawkish. The films are wonderfully done and serve to enhance the popularity already enjoyed by the novels.ramotsweMany readers who fell instantly in love with Precious Ramotswe – that’s her on the cover of the DVD, delightfully portrayed by Jill Scott – did not have the same reaction to Isabel Dalhousie, protagonist of McCall Smith’s Edinburgh series. sunday1 right-attitude careful

I think they may have been somewhat put off by the first novel, The Sunday Philosophy Club, in which Isabel may come across as somewhat too cerebral. I actually enjoyed that book, but with its sequel, The Right Attitude To Rain, l found myself truly enthralled. Isabel Dalhousie a fascinating character – fiercely intellectual and at the same time capable of great passion.( Just how great, you find out in Right Attitude.)  The fourth book in the series, The Careful Use of Compliments, is a real triumph. Into it McCall Smith pours all his love for Scotland in general and Edinburgh in particular. I was so caught up in his vision that I found myself ordering books of Scottish art and poetry – whatever I could get my hands on.

Meanwhile, here’s one of the paintings that I was able to find online:

Isabella McLeod, Mrs. James Gregory, by Henry Raeburn

Isabella McLeod, Mrs. James Gregory, by Henry Raeburn

I recommend Davina Porter’s marvelous reading of these novels. And while we’re “feeling Scottish,” I’m a great fan of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series. Davina Porter also reads these, but I like Graeme Malcolm’s soft, lilting  burr even better.  gentle,jpg


[Second digression: As I was trawling the web for a picture of Alexander McCall Smith that seemed fresh and new, I found a site of an organization called the American Academy of Achievement. I was delighted with the photo of McCall Smith, and then I noted , top right, a picture of Dr. Paul Farmer, one of the founders of Partners in Health, a terrific organization dedicated to providing quality health care for the poor throughout the world. Read Farmer’s compelling story in Tracy Kidder’s (equally compelling) book:  kidder]


Coming soon: Part Two: the Scandinavians, and more…

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A musical interlude

October 24, 2009 at 1:40 pm (Music)

The post I’m currently working on is going rather slowly; in the interim, I thought I’d share some of my favorite music with you, courtesy of YouTube.

This is the Rondeau from Les Indes Galantes, by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Marc Minkowski leads Les Musiciens Du Louvre; soloists are Magali Leger and Laurent Naouri:

Here is the Gloria from the Mass in B minor of Johann Sebastian Bach. The Beethoven Academia Orchestra and the University of Warsaw Choir are led by Irina Bogdanovich:

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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale: a book discussion

October 18, 2009 at 9:08 pm (Book clubs, books, Crime, History, Uncategorized)

jwhicher I confess I approached last Tuesday night’s discussion with a certain diffidence. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher presents such an array of complex issues, I doubted I could do the book justice. But – doubts were vanquished almost as soon as we began. I have the incredible good luck to be associated with The Usual Suspects, a gratifyingly brainy group of people who brought their impressive intellects to bear full force upon Kate Summerscale’s many-layered, remarkable narrative. (Click here to read my original review of  this book. Also, be warned: this post contains spoilers.)

I began our discussion  by a reading a passage from the introduction:

“A Victorian detective was a  secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. In a newly uncertain world, he offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos. He turned brutal crimes – the vestiges of the beast in man – into intellectual puzzles. But after the investigation at Road Hill the image of the detective darkened. Many felt that Whicher’s inquiries culminated in a violation of the middle-class home, an assault on privacy, a crime to match the murder he had been sent to solve….

That paragraph in its entirety summed up many of the issues explored by the author in this book.

I next asked everyone to look at the Kent family tree. Several of the birth and dates there given serve as a sobering reminder of how prevalent infant death still was, even in the mid-nineteenth century in a progressive Western country.

I then went on to provide some biographical information on Kate Summerscale.  This Wikipedia entry pretty much sums up what I was able to find. In addition, here is an interview with the author:

Then it was time to look at the murder itself, and the context in which it took place. When I asked what emotion this core aspect of the book evoked, someone immediately responded, “horror.” Everyone agreed at once. It seemed an especially heinous crime, compounded as it was of cool calculation and unimaginable rage. As Summerscale puts it, concerning the weeks that followed the grisly revelation :

“The puzzle of the Road Hill case lay in the killer’s peculiar combination of heat and cold, planning and passion. Whoever had murdered, mutilated and defiled Saville Kent must be horribly disturbed, possessed by unnaturally strong feelings: yet  the same person, in remaining so far undiscovered, had shown startling powers of self-control.

The author concludes this paragraph by pointing out that “Whicher took Constance’s cold quiet as a clue that she had killed her brother.” And though he was made to pay dearly for it, he was exactly right to do so.

We all agreed that this book was greatly enriched by the frequent allusions to works that were seminal in the evolution of the detective fiction genre. Some time ago, the suspects had discussed The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, so it was particularly enjoyable to encounter this great writer once again, in this context. Collins coined the phrase “detective fever,” declaring that Charles Dickens had a bad case of it where the Road Hill House crime was concerned.

Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone are both to some extent modeled on the real life character of Jonathan Whicher. Another novel mentioned in connection with the Road Hill House case is Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. When I first read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, I was intrigued by the mention of this title. It was a book – and author – which rang only the faintest of bells for me, dating from my English major days at Goucher College and Georgetown University. I then tried to read it, but got bogged down in the rather protracted description of Audley Court with which the novel begins.

This time, after completing my second traversal of Summerscale’s book, I decided yet again to read Lady Audley. And a strange thing happened:I was mesmerized by this novel! Once past that slow-moving opening passage, I found myself completely engrossed in a genuinely fascinating story. It was hard for me to believe I that a work of such positively juicy readability was originally published in 1862. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, you sorceress – where have you been all my life?  audley

Lady Audley’s Secret is the exemplar of a genre known as the novel of sensation. Attaining great popularity in the 1860’s and 1870’s, such works aimed to jolt the reader by turning certain staid Victorian conventions on their collective heads, and by dealing deliberately in shocking subject matter, such as “adultery, theft, kidnapping, insanity, bigamy, forgery, seduction and murder” (Wikipedia). Well gosh, no wonder that was so much fun!

To a considerable extent, novels of sensation were the forerunners of the detective story, so they should naturally be of interest to those of us who are ardent readers of crime fiction. Kate Summerscale advances the possibility that “…the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional…[is] to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away.”  Summerscale goes on to quote Raymond Chandler to the effect that “The detective story…is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Our group kicked this provocative observation around a bit. IMHO, this is Chandler speaking with tongue firmly in cheek. This is, after all, the man who wrote, at the conclusion of one of the greatest mystery novels ever written:

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.

No happy ending there ( though the writing itself is stunning.) Summerscale’s theory, on the other hand, has real merit.

I’ll have more to say about Lady Audley’s Secret in a later post. But first: more on the book under consideration Tuesday night.

As with much sensation fiction, madness runs as a dark undercurrent throughout Kate Sumerscale’s narrative. The Kent family was a blended one, comprising Samuel Kent’s children by his first wife, Mary Ann Windus, and those he fathered subsequently by Mary Drewe Pratt.

Samuel Kent

Samuel Kent

Mary Ann Windus was a sad case. Married to Samuel Kent in 1829 at the age of twenty-one, she became repeatedly pregnant. Out of a total ten live births, only five children survived infancy. When still young, Mary Ann purportedly showed signs of ‘weakness and bewilderment of intellect.’ The repeated pregnancies and infant deaths she had to endure can only have made matters worse.

Also unhelpful was the introduction into the household of Mary Drewe Pratt as governess to Constance, who was born in 1844. Pratt, an apparently imperious presence on the domestic scene, disparaged and marginalized Mary Ann Windus. The latter finally died in 1852. A year later, Samuel Kent married Mary Drewe Pratt. Proving to be just as fecund as her predecessor, Pratt gave birth to three children in quick succession. Francis Saville, born in 1856, was the murder victim in 1860.

The initial revelations concerning the murder caused a kind of feeding frenzy among members of the public and the press. Jack Whicher obstinately insisted that Constance Kent was the culprit, but his methods were blunt and ham handed, and he lacked any convincing evidence. People found another theory more compelling; namely, that Samuel Kent and the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, were lovers and had been observed in flagrante by little Saville. Gough slept in the same room with the younger children and was present when Saville was taken from his bed. Although she insisted that she had slept through the abduction, neither seeing nor hearing anything, she nevertheless made an attractive suspect.

In the short term, no further compelling evidence appeared. No breakthrough was achieved. The hubbub gradually died down.  Whicher,  his investigative techniques and seemingly arbitrary conclusions thoroughly vilified by both the press and the public at large, slunk back to London. The public’s attention was diverted to other matters. (Whicher stayed with the police force for several more years. After retiring from the force, he became a private “agent of inquiry,” a career path similar to that of Anne Perry’s fictional protagonist William Monk. It’s also worth noting that amid the general disapproval, Whicher did have his defenders.)

Jonathan Whicher

Jonathan Whicher

Then, in 1865, Constance Kent came forward and confessed to the murder of her step-brother.  Her initial explanations in regard to her motive tended to be murky and contradictory. Ultimately, however, it emerged that Constance was possessed of a great animus toward her stepmother. Mary Drewe Pratt had sewn a huge resentment in the bosom of Mary Ann Windus’s daughter by denigrating and ultimately seeking to replace her own mother. To make matters worse, Pratt displayed blatant favoritism toward the children she and Samuel had together. With Saville’s murder, she seems to have reaped the fruits of her own actions. If her sole aim was to secure Samuel Kent for her husband and thereby make a place for herself among the middle classes of nineteenth century England, she achieved her goal, but at a terrible price.

Constance Kent

Constance Kent

When it became known that Constance had confessed of her own free will, the question arose as to whether she, like her mother, suffered from “the taint of madness.” How else to account for an adolescent girl’s commission of such a terrible act? In recent years, the theory has surfaced that the real trouble – or at least, the medical trouble – in the Kent family was caused by Samuel’s having had syphilis, and having passed the infection on to Mary Ann Windus. Among its other scourges, this disease can cause early infant death and mental instability. Men were extremely reluctant to seek medical help for this particular ailment, or even to admit to be suffering from it.

At any rate, Summerscale advances this theory cautiously, warning that “Syphilis is an affliction easy to suspect in retrospect.”

We talked about the strange lack of emotion displayed by members of the Kent family. Samuel is reported to have been seen weeping at one point, but we are not told of any other demonstrative displays. This is perhaps understandable in the context in which the crime occurred. First of all, Summerscale could report on only what was supported by written testimony. And this was an era in which people – especially those belonging to the upper classes –  were taught to reign in their emotions.

The one member of the Kent family to whom Constance felt genuinely close was her brother William. Indeed, several years before the murder, the two had attempted to run away to sea. Some commentators on the crime believe that it would have been impossible for Constance alone to have abducted and killed Saville. She must, in other words, have had an accomplice. Was that accomplice William? Proof positive of this has never been found. Many, though, consider it to be highly likely. Our group was of that opinion. We felt it likely that Constance deliberately “took the rap” for the crime, insisting that she acted alone. This admission effectively lifted the cloud of guilt from other members of the Kent family. Constance would have been especially keen to have William no longer suspected of complicity. And in fact, William went on to enjoy a distinguished career in microscopy and marine biology.

William Saville-Kent, in the 1880's

William Saville-Kent, in the 1880's

As we discussed this outcome, Pauline put this question to us: in the matter of the murder of Saville Kent, was justice done? The group’s consensus: in the main, it was not. Constance Kent did serve a 20-year prison term, but she was still only 41 years old upon her release. Assuming the name Ruth Emilie Kaye, she emigrated to Australia, where she received training as a nurse. She never married and spent the remainder of her life in service to others. And it was a very long life: Constance Kent, aka Ruth Emilie Kaye, died in 1944 at the age of 100. Her obituary mentions that at one time, she nursed lepers.

It would appear  that Constance was trying to make restitution for her crime to society. Did she achieve this? It’s a subjective question, one that can never be answered conclusively. (And the same question could be asked of the aforementioned Anne Perry.) Even if one wishes to concede that a good faith effort was made here – What, then, about William Kent? His role in the events at Road Hill House was never proven and remains a matter for speculation. As an adult, he was free to live a full and productive life.

From the question of justice in this particular instance, our discussion widened to include the issue of the death penalty. It was necessary to tread carefully here, as people have strong opinions on this issue, but I thought our group handled that part of the discussion with admirable tact and diplomacy. I observed that Britain had come a long way since the day when executions were a form of public spectacle. Pauline, our “token Brit,” told us about the John Christie and Derek Bentley cases. Both involved wrongful execution; the ensuing revulsion proved instrumental in the decision to abolish capital punishment in the UK.

Several of us had read “Trial by Fire,” an article in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker concerning the possible wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004. (At one point in this article, author David Grann recounts the following case from British history:

“In the summer of 1660, an Englishman named William Harrison vanished on a walk, near the village of Charingworth, in Gloucestershire. His bloodstained hat was soon discovered on the side of a local road. Police interrogated Harrison’s servant, John Perry, and eventually Perry gave a statement that his mother and his brother had killed Harrison for money. Perry, his mother, and his brother were hanged.

Two years later, Harrison reappeared. He insisted, fancifully, that he had been abducted by a band of criminals and sold into slavery. Whatever happened, one thing was indisputable: he had not been murdered by the Perrys.

This was the famous Campden Wonder, which I first heard of from our seemingly omniscient Smithsonian tour guide, Ros Hutchinson.)

We talked about other high profile murder cases in which justice has proved elusive. We’ve all had the experience of learning of a verdict or a sentence and exclaiming in disbelief: How could they? or words to that effect. What is the answer to this perennial question? Mine is that just as human beings are hard wired to want to solve puzzles, so are we equally hardwired to yearn for justice – and to keep up the relentless effort to see that justice is served.


Kate Summerscale won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction for The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

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Crime fiction: good things in store…

October 12, 2009 at 8:54 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

Despite my panic upon finishing Peter Lovesey’s superb Skeleton Hill, I am actually quite sanguine with regard to new mysteries by some of my favorite authors. Here are two that are already on my night table: crowd pix .  I’ve just begun Alone in the Crowd and am enjoying it, although it is not a quick read.  I don’t remember noting this in previous novels in this series, but this one, at least, contains significantly more interior monologue and correspondingly less dialogue than I usually encounter in crime fiction. These are interesting minds whose ruminations Garcia-Roza makes us privy to; primarily, those of Inspector Espinosa and of Hugo Breno, the man “suspected of being a suspect.” Not surprising that this author renders mental and emotional states so vividly: he holds doctorates in psychology and philosophy and taught these subjects for thirty-three years at the Federal University in Rio de Janeiro.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Espinosa is a bookaholic. Here’s how his home library is set up:

“…Espinosa used what he called provisional shelving: he’d chosen the longest wall in the room and started piling his books up there, from the floor up, one row of books standing up, upon which he’d deposited a sequence of books lying flat, and so on and so forth, in a rising construction whose limit would obviously be the ceiling. That’s what he started calling his ‘shelfless shelving’ or ‘shelving in the purest state’ or ‘a shelf made only out of books,’ and now, a few decades on, it took up the entire wall of the living room and was more than six feet tall…nad hadn’t fallen over once.

Ah, yes – some of us know this syndrome only too well!

Here’s an interview with Garcia-Roza that appeared several years ago in the New York Times.


As for Bill James, his Harpur & Iles novels are filled with razor sharp dialogue, much of which doesn’t resemble in any way language that you’d recognize from your own everyday life. Highly idiosyncratic vocabulary alternates with savage profanity; the effect is  at times hilarious, at other times shocking. No one’s sensibilities are spared; the reader – at least, this reader – is never bored. One of my favorite locutions is one that Colin Harpur came up with in The Girl with the Long Back, where he described Desmond Iles as “a malevolent, pirouetting, egomaniac vandal.”

lolita I found a fascinating (and disturbing) article about  the second book in this series on D.G. Myers’s  Commonplace Blog. I read The Lolita Man some time ago but Myers’s thoughtful commentary makes me want to revisit it.


serpent In addition to the above two, I’m looking forward to the fourth entry in the Lake District series by Martin Edwards.  The Serpent Pool is due out in the U.S. in January. (Dancing for the Hangman, a standalone, is due out in December. Click here to see the enthusiastic response of British readers to Edwards’s fictional treatment of the notorious Crippen case.)

Here’s a video clip in which Edwards talks about the third Lake District book, The Arsenic Labyrinth:

These novels have a wonderful sense of place and are beautifully written. I highly recommend them.


malice Vividly drawn (and exceptionally appealing) characters are among the chief pleasures of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels. The Price of Malice is the twentieth entry in this fine series.

Here’s Mayor being interviewed by Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ:


Here is number twenty-three in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series:  fugue (I’m excluding two short story collections from this tally.) I’ve written in prior posts about my deep respect and affection for this author and his works.

Reginald Hill

Reginald Hill


Another great favorite is Alexander McCall Smith. I reaped so many riches from the last two Isabel Dalhousie novels – The Careful Use of Compliments and The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday – that I’m not sure my teeming brain has room for: gratitude . Not to worry – I shall read it  and gladly make available any room that’s needed to accommodate the gifts that will undoubtedly be bestowed in this sixth series entry.

As for the Number One Ladies Detective novels, I tend to listen to, rather than read, these, mainly because of the lovely intonation of South African born actress Lisette Lecat. The latest, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, was predictably delightful.  teatime

Click here; then scroll down to Barnes & Noble Studio to hear Alexander McCall Smith talk about his writing life.


Finally, Ruth Rendell’s twenty-second entry in the Reginald Wexford series of procedurals:  monster. Here’s a recent video in which Rendell discusses the genesis of this series and the ways in which it has evolved over the years:

Amazon gives the publication date of The Monster in the Box as tomorrow – Tuesday  October 13. What joy!

How do I love thee, Reg Wexford; let me count the ways…

George Baker as Inspector Reginald Wexford

George Baker as Inspector Reginald Wexford

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Everything a mystery should be: Skeleton Hill by Peter Lovesey

October 10, 2009 at 1:00 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond series is set in the historic city of Bath, a World Heritage Site in the south west of England. Lovesey’s sense of the absurd is frequently evident in the unconventional opening passages of his novels. Witness The Vault:

“WPC Enid Kelly, on desk duty this afternoon, sneaked a look at the Asian man who had brought in a pizza box. She was sure of one thing: it didn’t contain a pizza….

Something bulkier than a pizza had been stuffed inside. Bulkier than two pizzas. ‘This I am finding at Roman Baths.’

‘What have you got here, sir?’

‘Some person’s hand, I am thinking.’

‘A hand?’

‘A hand I said.’

‘It was in this box?’

‘No, no, no. My lunch was in box. Tomato and mushroom pizza. This was best thing I could find to carry hand in.’

After reading this, it was a while before I could gaze upon a pizza box with the usual calm detachment…

skeleton As for Skeleton Hill, it begins thus:

“Two dead men lay on a battlefield and one said ‘Hey!’

The other stayed silent.

All manner of ills flow from this singular encounter, whose real meaning becomes clear as the plot gradually unfolds. And that plot is one that can actually be followed: it is cunning without being Byzantine. A skeleton is discovered on Lansdown Hill. (According to Charlie Smart, one of Diamond’s team, Lansdown is “…Bath’s back room…stuffed with things people want to forget about.”) The police must first determine whether the skeleton is that of a murder victim; secondly, they must find out the victim’s identity. The search follows a route  whose twists and turns constantly threaten to sabotage the entire investigation. To add to the tension and frustration, another murder occurs, in very strange circumstances. Peter Diamond feels certain that  the two crimes are connected, but he has a devil of a time proving it.

Skeleton Hill is witty without being vulgar; literate without being pretentious. The novel contains a wealth of fascinating facts concerning  Bath’s history; these are seamlessly woven into the plot. (Of especial interest are the references to William Beckford and his tower.)

In the Summer 2009 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, George Easter has this to say about Skeleton Hill and its author:

” The excellence of Lovesey’s writing has been highly consistent over the years. When I open a new book by him my expectations are very high and they are always deliciously rewarded. One of the year’s best novels by a master storyteller.

I could have cried when I finished this one – I may not read another mystery this good for a long time to come…

Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey

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Bach is back!

October 6, 2009 at 6:32 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

The Bach Concert Series kicked off its 2009-2010 series this past Sunday with a performance of the beloved Cantata 140, “Wachet Auf, ruft uns der stimme” ( “Sleepers Awake”). Maestro  T. Herbert Dimmock began the concert by welcoming all of us back with heartfelt joy.  He then proceeded to enlarge on the musical message inherent in the cantata. And oh, that music!

Here performed in Vienna in 1984 by the Concentus Musicus Vien, under the baton of Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

(Click here for the cantata’s German text; here, for the English translation.)

As is the custom at  these concerts, we the audience were invited to join in the singing of the hymn, which in this case was, naturally, “Wachet auf.” This was followed by the organ solo, always an occasion to look forward to, as the sound of the mighty Andover 114 fills the sanctuary of Christ Lutheran Church. Sunday’s selection, played by Jonathan Parker, was Bach’s “Praeludium and Fugue in C minor, BWV 546.” Here it is, played by Aarnoud de Groen, at the organ of Bethlehemkerk, The Hague,  in the Netherlands:

(A commenter on this video observes: ” The organ looks like a jet liner with wings. Flight is now ready take off with Mr. Bach!”)

The Bach Concert Series has introduced me to some marvelous music of which I was previously unaware. Sunday, for the first time, I heard “E’en so Lord Jesus Quickly Come,” by Paul Manz. Here it is, sung by Robert Hale and Dean Wilder on the album “The Legacy, Volume I”:


The program concluded with a motet by Tchaikovsky: “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Detail from a portrait of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, by Nikolai Dmitrievich Kuznetsov


I recently came across this video of Dinu Lipatti playing Bach’s Partita Number One in B flat BWV  825.

Lipatti was a tremendously gifted musician whose untimely death was a great loss to the musical world. You can read more about him here.


In Sunday’s program notes, Maestro Dimmock shares his brother Jonathan’s thoughts on the music of Bach:  “Bach was a vessel through which the world has been given a unique glimpse of eternity and paradise.”

Statue of Bach in Eisenach, Germany, the city of his birth

Statue of Bach in Eisenach, Germany, the city of his birth

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From Christie to Shakespeare, in one easy leap

October 5, 2009 at 11:50 am (books, Mystery fiction, Performing arts, Shakespeare)

So there I am, happily engrossed in this book: caribbean . My reading of A Caribbean Mystery followed our viewing of the film:

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery

This in turn had followed my listening to the audiobook, read by –  who else:  Caribbean-Mystery-N41110L There was something curiously mesmerizing in Ms. Hickson’s narration. A story which in itself is not remarkable became, at least for this listener, imbued with a deeper meaning.  (On the back of the book on tape, an Audio Editions Mystery Masters production, we are informed of the following:

“This audio performance is unique in that the recordings were made at Miss Hickson’s home when she was approaching her 90th birthday. Just as Miss Marple is an octagenarian, she is perfectly portrayed by an octagenarian par excellence.

Scroll down to the  bottom of this post, and you’ll see video of Joan Hickson being interviewed at a celebration of Agatha Christie’s one hundredth birthday. This video also features a segment in which Ms. Hickson and David Suchet, in character as Hercule Poirot, meet for the first time.)


Here’s the set-up for A Caribbean Mystery: following a severe illness, Miss Marple is treated by her nephew Raymond to a stay at the Golden Palm resort on the lush ( and fictitious) Caribbean island of St. Honore. She’s not been there long when an elderly guest dies suddenly. Miss Marple has her suspicions regarding this death, but she is not sure whether she should communicate them to those in authority. At one point in her cogitations, she reflects on these lines from Shakespeare: ‘Duncan is dead. After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well!’

That first sentence is not rendered correctly: the exact words are “Duncan is in his grave.” The quote is from MacBeth; it occurs about midway through the play. MacBeth is already beginning to feel like a soul in torment. Speaking to his wife, he declaims these bitter words:

…better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.

This is an amazing speech. Here is a murderer, envying his victim the peace conferred by death – a death that the noble Duncan neither sought nor desired. It is as good an indicator as any of the moral cesspit into which MacBeth has already sunk.

And I can’t resist adding that where I come from, this would be called the ultimate in chutzpah!


Here is the review I wrote of the Folger Theatre’s stunning 2008 production of “the Scottish play.” This performance is now available on DVD.

These images appear on the Folger site:

Henry Fuseli. Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head.

Henry Fuseli. Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head. 1793

Kenny Meadows. Lady Macbeth. Engraving, 1850.

Kenny Meadows. Lady Macbeth. Engraving, 1850.

 William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London, 1623.

William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London, 1623.

There is seemingly no end to Shakespeare’s power to astonish (or in Agatha Christie’s power to entertain and oftentimes, to provoke).

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