Pix, by Bill James

December 30, 2009 at 8:16 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Yes, okay, I really do love the wild and crazy guy of British crime fiction! Where else does the reader encounter a dead body on the stairs of a renovated rectory, currently lived in by one Mansel Shale, an expansive and devoted family man (among other things). I know that I’ve categorized Pix as a police procedural – perhaps, it should more properly be termed a villain procedural!

I do so enjoy being in this dark, perverse and perversely hilarious world, where values are turned on their collective heads and given a thorough shaking for good measure.

Here’s the opening sentence of Pix:

‘When Mansel Shale looked into his personal soul – and he did that now and then, though not making a big thing out of it, for God’s sake – yes, when he looked into his personal soul he saw that the main reason he ran a business was so he could use the good profits to buy good art. Manse liked  the neatness and the wholesomeness of this thought – good profits, good art.

There is just one problem with this exercise in magnanimous self-satisfaction: Mansel Shale is a high end drug dealer.

It’s true, though, that a goodly portion of his profits go toward the purchase of fine paintings. He is particularly enamored of the Pre-Raphaelites. One of his favorites, a work by Arthur Hughes, has until recently held a place of honor in the rectory: directly over a wall safe which housed a weapons cache consisting of several Heckler and Koch 9 mm pistols plus ammunition.

At any rate, Manse Shale returns to the rectory one day after a round of golf to find that the Hughes and all his other precious art works have vanished from the rectory walls. And there is worse to come, when he gets to the staircase…

It is really hard to convey adequately the wacky, manic flavor of these books. And I admit, they’re not for everyone. For one thing, they contain a fair amount of profanity, something that ordinarily annoys me greatly, but in this case does not – it is so much a part of the furnishing of this strange world, in which the conduct of the police officers is only a shade less outrageous than that of the criminals.

Pix is the twenty-fifth entry in the Harpur & Iles series. I’ve read about twenty of them. Ths is a series that is best read  in chronological order, though I myself have cheerfully disregarded that advice on several occasions. (Previously on this blog –  and thanks to the folks at Desperate Housewives for that locution! – I’ve reviewed Girls, Wolves of Memory, and The Girl with the Long Back.)

I like this piece on the Harpur and Iles novels. And last year, D.G. Myers wrote with his usual eloquence about the brilliance of The Lolita Man, relating to what he perceived as a disturbing trend in modern life.

Finally, dated June of 2009, here’s a lively interview with Bill James on Detectives Beyond Borders.


Behind this innocuous pseudonym lie two more pseudonyms: David Craig and Allan Tucker. Real name: James Allan Tucker: author, no less, of a biography of Anthony Powell, who wrote a classic cycle of novels that I’m most desirous of reading some day: .

Bill James

Bill James

It’s pretty tricky trying to find information and/or visuals due to that same bland pseudonym. It must be assumed that  the highly inventive creator of the Harpur & Iles series dwells contentedly somewhere in deepest Wales and is not especially worried about his own elusiveness.  That’s fine, Mr. James/Craig/Tucker – just keep those terrific books coming!

(Some basic facts concerning the life and work of Bill James can be found on the Gale Database Biography Resource Center.)

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Wolf Hall sequel in the pipeline!

December 27, 2009 at 5:52 pm (Anglophilia, books, Historical fiction)

You (might have) heard it here first: Hilary Mantel is at work on a sequel to Wolf Hall. The title, at least as of this writing, is The Mirror and the Light. This news gleaned from an interview with Kathryn Hughes in the December/January issue of Literary Review.

I didn’t mention it in my own review, but Wolf Hall‘s narrative ends more or less in medias res, so while I’m delighted  by the news of a follow-up in progress, I’m not altogether surprised.

Here’s video of the author discussing her Man Booker Prize winning novel:

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Celebrating the season with music, dance – and the Tooty Ta song!

December 25, 2009 at 6:20 pm (Ballet, Christmas, Music)

For years, I’ve been a great fan of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. First held on Christmas Eve of 1918, this is a comparatively new tradition at Cambridge University – which  this year has been celebrating the eight hundredth anniversary of its founding. (Yes, you read that right – 800!!)

The Chapel of King’s College is one of the chief architectural glories of England.

King's College Chapel, by JMW Turner

Here is how the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols begins:

Additional selections can be viewed here.


The haunting song “I Wonder As I Wander” has a fascinating history; click here to read about it. Fredericka von Stade sings it in this excerpt from a 1991 Carnegie Hall concert. She is followed by Kathleen Battle, who sings “Mary Had a Baby.”


Here is our favorite Christmas music in the classical repertoire: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. It is here performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, led by Sir John Eliot Gardner:


The Nutcracker ballet has become an integral part of most Christmas celebrations. Its history is recounted in this video:

Here is “the Dance of the Mirlitons” in a performance by the Kirov (now the Mariinsky Theatre):

And here is a rather astonishing, seemingly Cossack-inspired version of the Russian dance , choreographed by Alex Kalinin:


Finally, this has nothing directly to do with the holidays – except to remind us to cherish the children!

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Dartmoor hill ponies

December 24, 2009 at 5:02 pm (Anglophilia, Horses, Magazines and newspapers)

This photo appears in Beautiful Britain, a magazine to which I happily subscribe. Click on “The Great Moor”, under “Sample articles.” (And isn’t that viewer a felicitous blend of old media and new).

The ponies look like something out of a fairy story; they seem by their very existence to confer a blessing.

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Suggestions from Salon for best of 2009

December 23, 2009 at 2:32 pm (Best of 2009, books)

I’ve long appreciated Salon’s generous coverage of books. Here are Laura Miller’s choices for best fiction and nonfiction of 2009.

As if she could not stop herself, this passionate reader went on to name her favorites of the decade. (And aren’t I delighted to see The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher on that list!)

I’m not sure what the relationship of “Open Salon” is to “Salon” proper, but the site features an excellent aggregator of “best fiction of 2009” lists. (Be sure to look closely at the entry from Publishers Weekly. They stirred up a hornet’s nest by coming out with a “ten best” list that did not include a single work by a female author! This in a year of so many outstanding works by women; among them Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s stunning Man Booker Prize winner. Once again, Laura Miller has a thoughtful piece on the PW dustup.)

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‘The harvest is getting in. The nights are violet and the comet shines over the stubble fields. The huntsmen call in the dogs.’ – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

December 21, 2009 at 6:51 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Historical fiction)

What a feat Hilary Mantel has pulled off with her Man Booker Prize winning novel! In Wolf Hall the author conjures up a world so compelling that once you’re drawn in, it is hard to get out. And you may want to get out at times, because this is a world that is at once dazzling and dangerous, fascinating and forbidding, lavish and cruel – very cruel indeed.

England, early 1500’s. We are at the court of King Henry VIII. The king is trying to rid himself of his current wife Katherine of Aragon, so that he may marry his current love, Anne Boleyn, who might possibly provide him with the male heir he desires. The principal character in this drama is Thomas Cromwell. When we first meet him, he is being beaten mercilessly by his lout of a father. Not to worry – Thomas can take it – and then some. It’s partly his ability to roll with the punches, and even more importantly, to see  them coming, that facilitates his rise at court. He begins in the service of the all-powerful Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey provides the entrée Thomas needs. From there his star continues to ascend.

Cromwell’s home life is as interesting as his life at court. His household is a cacophonous mixture of immediate family, extended family, old retainers and new proteges. As if that were not enough, he is daily besieged by those seeking some kind of preferment:

‘There are artists looking for a subject. There are solemn Dutch scholars with  books under their arms, and Lubeck merchants unwinding at length solemn Germanic jokes; there are musicians in transit tuning up strange instruments, and noisy conclaves of agents for the Italian banks; there are alchemists offering recipes and astrologers offering favorable fates, and lonely Polish fur traders who’ve wandered by to see if someone speaks their langauge; there are printers, engravers, translators and cipherers; and poets, garden designers, cabalists and geometricians.

Cromwell lives in a place called Austin Friars, a little world unto itself. It tries to be a bastion of comfort set against the outside world, yet it is nonetheless stalked by death. This was true of every dwelling place, high or low, in that perilous time. Life hung  by the slimmest of threads and was easily and arbitrarily cut.

As I was nearing the end of Wolf Hall, a new biography of Thomas Cromwell came to my attention. I was initially pleased at this confluence of subject matter, but upon reading author Robert Hutchinson’s introduction,  my pleasure changed to dismay. The author makes his subject out to be the most dreadful man imaginable. No, no, I wanted to cry out, not so! He was a complicated person, made up of diverse elements. True he could be steely and ruthless, but the times called  for it. Moreover, he could also be extremely compassionate and generous. So – which is the revisionist portrait? At  this point I could not say. I only know that the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall leaped off the page and  became someone I knew and utterly believed to be real. Have I been seduced by an artful fiction? Perhaps…

Much of the sheer wonder of this novel comes from Hilary Mantel’s marvelous writing. Here she describes a world gone suddenly quiet:

‘He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.

At other times, a riotous celebration – in this case, the Feast of Epiphany:

‘The night is loud with the noise of bone rattles, and alive with the flames of torches. A troop of  hobby horses clatter past them, singing, and a party of men wearing antlers, with bells at their heels. As they near home a boy dressed as an orange rolls past, with his friend, a lemon.

Often I hear of people giving thumbs down to a work of fiction because in the course of their reading, they had not encountered a single likeable character.  Wolf Hall presents a crowded canvas; its characters act in ways that can variously be described as gracious, gallant, playful, repugnant, cruel. For the most part, no one person behaves the same way all the time. To be blunt, I had the hardest time with the burning of heretics. Incredibly, even more horrific ways of torturing and killing people – on behalf of church and state! – had been devised. I decline to describe them here; so, for the most part, does Mantel. The incidents to which I refer are not all that frequent, but when they do happen, you want to turn away. It made me angry, this unmitigated cruelty, sanctioned cruelty, done in the name of religion. Hilary Mantel is economical, yet pitiless, when she writes of it:

‘At Smithfield Frith is being shoveled up, his youth, his grace, his learning and his beauty: a compaction of mud, grease, charred bone.

While this horror is being brought to fruition, King Henry is out riding on a favorite mount.

I know that such things happened in that time and  place. All the same, at that moment I thoroughly despised Henry, his henchman, his hangers-on – the lot of them! I despised them all. And that includes – most definitely! – that arch manipulator, that ruthless little schemer, Anne Boleyn.

Well. Time to pull back. Wolf Hall was a wild and harrowing ride, but ultimately a fantastic read. There is much to compensate for the burning of John Frith (though it’s something I’ll never forget, or forgive). There are moments of lightheartedness, even of humor, though these tend to have a sinister edge to them. When Cromwell returns to Austin Friars after meeting Anne Boleyn for this first time, the women of his household besiege him with questions. At length one of them, Mercy, asks if Anne has good teeth. An exasperated Cromwell responds “‘For God’s sake, woman: when she sinks them into me, I’ll let you know.'”

In one of my favorite scenes, Cromwell’s son Gregory is brimming with excitement over his current reading matter: the legends of King Arthur and his knights. He can’t wait to share his enthusiasm with his father:

“‘Our king takes his descent from this Arthur. He was never really dead but waited in the forest biding his time, or possibly in a lake. He is several centuries old. Merlin is a wizard. He comes later.You will see. There are twenty-one chapters. If it keeps on raining I mean to read them all. Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories.’

Well said, young Gregory; well said.

Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall

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Snow Before Christmas: a rhyming post

December 20, 2009 at 11:48 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Snow Before Christmas

automotive artifact

I went downstairs with Miss Marple the cat
Her big green eyes seemed to ask, “What’s that?”

When we gazed out the window everything was so bright
Why, all we could see was covered in white!
It had snowed and snowed, and snowed…all night!

When we searched in the driveway for our small black car,
It resembled an artifact sent from afar.

But the biggest challenge of all surely lay
In the disappearance of our driveway

Under what seemed like a ton of snow –
Would we ever get out again? We didn’t know.

Ron and I dug, and then dug some more
But we needed to stop – we were getting so sore!

How will we ever get out? I did ask;
For we’d barely made a dent in the task.

Then suddenly there arose around us
A gaggle of friends and neighbors – They’d found us!

They’d seen our difficulty and distress,
And worked to get us out of that mess.

To these friends and neighbors: we’re gratified and touched –
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah – and thank you so much!

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More best crime fiction of 2009

December 20, 2009 at 6:25 pm (Best of 2009, books, Mystery fiction)

Some folks in the blogosphere have been helpfully aggregating. Here’s Janet Rudolph’s much appreciated list of lists. (Thanks to Carol of the Usual Suspects for sending me this and many other useful links.)

Here are the selections made by Marilyn Stasio, veteran reviewer of crime fiction for the New York Times.

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Best books of 2009: my own favorites

December 20, 2009 at 2:50 am (Best of 2009, books, Mystery fiction)

This is the day to  work on this, for sure. We are completely snowed in – socked in, and immobilized. I always love a day like this,  although tomorrow, when we start shoveling out our fifty-plus foot long driveway, my sentiments will be of a somewhat different cast. Nevertheless:

“Ah, fill the Cup:—what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
Unborn TOMORROW, and dead YESTERDAY,
Why fret about them if TODAY be sweet!”

(Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam of Naishapur, Verse 37)

So here they are:

Roberta’s Choice for Best Books Read in 2009


Wolf Hall by HilaryMantel
Love and Summer by William Trevor
To Heaven by Water by Justin Cartwright
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
It’s Beginning To Hurt by James Lasdun
Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine
The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro


Piper on the Mountain by Ellis Peters
The Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum
Skeleton Hill by Peter Lovesey
Pix by Bill James
All My Enemies by Barry Maitland
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Turning Point by Peter Turnbull
White Nights by Ann Cleeves
A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny
Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor
About Face by Donna Leon
August Heat by Andrea Camilleri
The Price of Malice by Archer Mayor
Caravaggio’s Angel by Ruth Brandon
The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar
The Private Patient by P.D. James
Blackout by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
Wycliffe and the Tangled Web by W.J.  Burley
The Professional by Robert B. Parker
Hit and Run by Lawrence Block
Fell Purpose by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles


The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, by Ulrich Boser


I’ll have more to say on this by and by, but first and foremost I wanted to get the basic list posted.

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The Professional; or, back on solid ground with Robert B. Parker

December 18, 2009 at 2:44 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Thank goodness for The Professional!

Why do I say this? Because for me, its immediate predecessor was unreadable. Right at the beginning of Rough Weather, there’s a horrible shoot-out. Susan is taken prisoner and Spenser on his white charger must ride to the rescue of his Lady Love. The whole set-up was grim and brutal, with a hint of cliche thrown in – definitely not what I am accustomed to in my beloved Spenser mysteries. I read these books to be pleasantly entertained, to spend time in the Boston area, one of my favorite locales, with the gently wise-cracking detective, his long time lover, the enigmatic Hawk, Vinnie the pragmatic enforcer, and others. Oh yes – there’s Rita Fiore, the crackerjack lawyer with great legs that she takes care in displaying. Rita would love to ensnare Spenser, to be his Belle Dame Sans Merci, but she cannot succeed…no, never…because of SPENSER’S UNWAVERING DEVOTION TO SUSAN.

What is The Professional about? It seems that a smooth operator with the unlikely name of Gary Eisenhower has been bedding various wealthy young ladies. The source of the wealth enjoyed by these women can invariably be traced to the impressive portfolio of a much older husband. These men are proud of their lovely young wives and allow them a certain latitude in how they spend their time. But this latitude does not extend to down-and-dirty sleepovers with scum like Eisenhower. So when the said Eisenhower demands money in exchange for silence about amorous  encounters with the said wives, they are, of course, outraged, not to mention terrified. Four of them band together, hire an attorney, and engage Spenser’s services. His task: to make Gary Eisenhower go away, in return for which he will be handsomely rewarded. Seems a fairly straightforward proposition, right? Only of course, it isn’t.

Now some of this is plausible; other parts are farfetched, but all of it is in the spirit of good, if not exactly clean, fun. In other words, a welcome return to form for this long running series. (The Professional is Parker’s thirty-eighth Spenser novel.)

The one aspect of this series that does have me clenching my teeth at times is the constantly at-the-boiling-point nature of the sex life so richly enjoyed by Spenser and Susan. There  are times when one would like to feel the effect of the passage of time on these two, who, while fiercely and monogamously devoted to each other, are not only not married but not even living together, their one experiment in cohabitation having ended with their retreating in relief to their respective domiciles.

And yet…

“When Susan made love she went deep inside someplace. She didn’t withdraw. It was just the intensity of er focus that rendered everything except the lovemaking irrelevant.I liked to look at her then, her eyes closed, her face perfectly still, calm in contrast to what we were both feeling and doing. The event was busy enough so I couldn’t look for very long, but when we were done and I was looking down at her, after a time she opened her eyes and looked at me and I could see her slowly refocusing, swimming back to the surface from wherever she had been. It was always a moment like no other.


First of all, give Parker credit for writing here with restrained grace and utter seriousness. And what can one say about Susan, a (beautiful of course) psychotherapist with a Harvard PhD who’s also great in bed? She’s got it all, and he’s got her – a dream lover for a very lucky guy (who knows it).


In a new anthology called Line-Up, Otto Penzler asks writers such as Parker, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and Colin Dexter to write a brief biography or profile of their respective series characters. For his segment, Parker sets up a neat little scenario in which Spenser is being interviewed by Amy, a friend of Susan’s. Amy is working on a book, possibly to be called Men Who Dare. It will consist of “…series of profiles of men who are strong and tough and do dangerous work. Mountain climbers, Navy Seals, policemen, firemen.” It’s Susan who suggests Spenser as a possible subject for her friend’s inquiries.

Spenser immediately fires back: “Amy’s looking  for sexual splendor as well?”

Obviously he just can’t help himself!

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