Louis Auchincloss

January 29, 2010 at 2:48 am (books, Remembrance)

Louis Auchincloss, a writer I admire, has passed away at age 92. I have sampled Auchincloss’s works from time to time, especially when I felt like reading about the monied upper  classes. He could write on other subjects – I recall enjoying False Dawn: Women in the Age of the Sun King – but he always returned to the world he knew best, having been raised in it and been at home in it his entire life

In regard to its themes and preoccupations, Auchincloss’s fiction has frequently been compared to that of Edith Wharton (whom his grandmother knew). It is an apt comparison.

Louis Auchincloss was extremely prolific. A complete list of his works can be found on Wikipedia. The last novel I read by him was East Side Story. I recommend it. 

Here is the obituary in the New York Times.

Auchincloss was a friend of Brooke Astor’s and was quoted several times by Meryl Gordon in her book Mrs. Astor Regrets. Now Mr. Auchincloss and Mrs. Astor are both gone, and an entire era with them.

Louis Auchincloss: 1917 - 2010

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The Age of Wonder: a truly wonderful book

January 27, 2010 at 2:31 am (Book review, books)

I have mentioned  The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes in several posts but have not really done it justice. Subtitled, ” How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,” this is a capacious chronicle of exploration and discovery; the events it covers begin in the mid-1700’s and conclude around 1840. In that time span, momentous advances in astronomy occurred, audacious experiments were performed, and alchemy was transformed into chemistry. The ground work was laid for scientific inquiry to become what it is today.

This is a cunningly constructed book in which the stories of the major players are interwoven seamlessly with one another. Personal and private lives receive equal weight in Holmes’s narrative. In the time of which Holmes writes, the lines between various disciplines were fluid rather than hard and  fast, as they often appear to be in our own day. Science and the arts not only coexist peacefully, they furnish each other with inspiration.

The author’s lucid explanations allow the nonscientist to marvel at the achievements of these men and women without getting mired in abstruse details. In fact, Age of Wonder is so filled with fascinating stories and revelations that I was more or less mesmerized throughout. Richard Holmes is such a skilled raconteur – even his footnotes are riveting!

It’s been a while since I finished this book, but even if I’d finished it yesterday I would still lack the intellectual equipment  to do it justice in this space. My copy is replete with post-it flags, though, and I would like to share some of my favorite gems from Holmes’s compendious narrative, which begins with naturalist and ethnographer Joseph Banks:

‘He wrote witty, faintly scurrilous letters to his sister Sophia, and kept the first of his great journals, most notable for their racy style, appalling spelling and non-existent punctuation. On his return in November 1766 [from an expedition to Labrador and Newfoundland], with a vast quantity of plant specimens, Banks was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, still aged only twenty-three.

Joseph Banks, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Joseph Banks, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

The the Royal Society looms large in the story of the history of science in Britain; ultimately, Banks would enjoy a long and fruitful tenure as its president. (The Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy, is this year celebrating its three hundred fiftieth anniversary.)


Next up: the German-born astronomer (and musician) William Herschel. Herschel’s painstaking observation of the heavens, performed with telescopes he built himself, yielded up many riches, the most famous of which is the discovery of the planet Uranus:

‘Using a series of parallax readings, he calculated that the planet was large and unbelievably remote, over sixteen times further from the sun than the earth, and twice as far out as Saturn. The size of the solar system had been doubled.

Herschel’s life and work made for fascinating reading, but for me, the real revelation here concerned his sister. Caroline started out as William’s assistant and amanuensis. Gradually her skills as an observer grew so great that she began making discoveries of her own.

Herschel’s paper ‘On the Constitution of the Universe’ (1785) is filled with fascinating insights and conjectures. In it, he credits Caroline with the discovery of a small ‘associate nebula’ in Andromeda. Holmes notes that ” this was Caroline Herschel’s first new addition to the universe.”

William Herschel

Caroline Herschel


From the astronomical endeavors of the Herschels we move on to the efforts of French and English balloonists to achieve the long-held dream of flight. I was somewhat surprised to encounter this chapter, entitled “Balloonists in Heaven,” but the reader will here find some of the most astonishing stories in the entire book. The craze began in France but quickly spread to England. Many readers will have heard of the Montgolfier brothers, but there were many others who built hot air balloons and participated in manned flights.

The Montgolfier hot air balloon

The risks were considerable; for every triumphant flight there seems to have been another  that ended in tragedy. (I was especially pleased that in a footnote, Holmes references the famous hot air balloon sequence with which Ian McEwan‘s novel Enduring Love begins.)

One of the most arresting stories in this section concerns the French balloonist Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and an English convent girl named Susan Dyer. These two had a most improbable love affair. As I was reading about them, I could not help thinking, There’s a terrific movie idea in this material. The drama of these star-crossed lovers would be set against the drama and peril of ballooning. The visuals alone would be spectacular!

The author sums up thus:

‘Ballooning produced a new, and wholly unexpected, vision of the earth. It had been imagined that it would reveal the secrets of the heavens above, but in fact it showed the secrets of the world beneath. The early aeronauts suddenly saw the earth as a giant organism, mysteriously patterned and unfolding, like a living creature. For the first time the impact of man on nature was  clearly revealed: the ever-expanding relationship of towns to countryside, roads to rivers, cultivated fields to forests and the development of industry.

Holmes notes that this new view of earth is comparable in its revelatory power to this famous photo taken from space by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968:

William Herschel seized on the possibility of using a balloon to convey a telescope into the upper atmosphere. His vision was realized some two hundred years later when the Hubble telescope was launched into orbit.

Herschel himself takes center stage again: he is preparing to build an enormous state-of-the-art telescope. It is to be forty feet long and five feet in diameter. The mirrors will each way about a half a ton. Logistical challenges abound, not the least of which involves the acquisition of funding. (Sir Joseph Banks managed to convince King George to make a generous grant in aid of the project.)


Now we come to the explorer Mungo Park. This is a name I recalled faintly, mostly because of its oddity. Park was Scottish; his mother named him after a Gaelic saint.

Mungo Park

Poor Mungo Park! His travels in Africa constitute an almost unrelieved chronicle of suffering and loss. Yet there are moments of consolation, even revelation. After he has been roughly handled by the Moors, an African woman invites Park into her hut. What he assumes to be a sexual overture turns out to be something quite other. Once inside the hut he finds himself the guest of the woman’s various female relations. Surrounding him in the firelight, they begin to sing. To his amazement, he finds that he is able to understand the words of their sweet, sad song: “‘The winds roared and the rain fell.  The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under our tree.  He has no mother to bring him milk; no wife to grind his corn. Chorus: Let us pity the poor white man, no mother has he….'”

Richard Holmes continues:

‘The women reversed all Park’s assumptions about his travels in Africa. He realized that it was he–the heroic white man–who was in reality the lonely, pitiable, motherless and unloved outcast. It was he who came and sat under their tree, and drank at their river. He found it hard to sleep that night, and in the morning he gave the woman four brass buttons from his coat before he left, a genuinely precious gift.


And now we meet Humphry Davy, whose remarkable, turbulent life is in some ways the centerpiece of this book. This is a name I barely knew, and yet Davy’s accomplishments are nothing short of epochal. Davy was from Cornwall; he studied with Dr. Thomas Beddoes in Bristol.( This was the father of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, who spent some twenty-five years penning a long, strange narrative poem called Death’s Jest-Book. I first encountered  this oddity as the title  of the 2003 entry in the Dalziel/ Pascoe series written by Reginald Hill. It’s one of the longest mysteries I’ve ever read, but it’s by a master of the genre, and I was heartily sorry when it ended.)

Humphry Davy

Davy’s earliest experiments involved studying the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide. In the process, he pioneered the ‘blind’ study. One of the people who had several “inhalation sessions” with Davy was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who pronounced himself greatly intrigued with the effects of the gas. He was stimulated to further observations on science in general: “[Coleridge] thought that science, as a human activity, ‘being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, it was poetical.'” Richard Holmes adds,

“Science, like poetry, was not merely ‘progressive’. It directed a particular kind of moral energy and imaginative longing into the future. It enshrined the implicit belief that mankind could achieve a better, happier world. This is what Davy believed too, and ‘Hope’ became one of his watchwords.

Of course, there is the other side of that coin, perhaps best epitomized by Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. This is the subject of the chapter entitled “Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul.” In the early 18th century, a debate raged concerning ‘vitalism.’ What exactly was the life force? Scottish physician John Abernethy defined it as a ‘subtle, mobile, invisible substance, super-added to the evident structure of muscles, or other form of vegetable and animal matter, as magnetism is to iron, and as electricity is to various substances with which it may be connected.’  But William Lawrence, a physician and anthropologist, heaped  scorn on this formulation and in a famous lecture on the subject, proclaimed that the human body is simply “a complex physical organization” and that “…the development of this physiological organization could be observed unbroken, ‘from an oyster to a man.'”

Wow – That’s a shot fired across the bow! That last bit about the oyster and the man became instantly notorious. Already we see the notion of the divine spark being pushed aside as irrelevant; Lawrence was, not surprisingly, decried as an atheist. Now, all of this is occurring before 1820. As a point of reference, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. But before that came Mary Shelley’s frightening, hallucinatory vision of scientific ambition taken a step too far:

‘Mary’s brilliance was to see that these weighty and often alarming ideas could  be given highly suggestive, imaginative and even playful form. In a sense, she would treat male concepts in a female style. She would develop exactly what William Lawrence had dismissed in his lectures as a ‘hypothesis or fiction’. Indeed it was to be an utterly new form of fiction–the science fiction novel….She would pursue the controversial–and possibly blasphemous–idea that vitality, like electricity, might be used to reanimate a dead human being….She would invent a laboratory in which limbs, organs, assorted body parts were not separated and removed and thrown away [as in the dissection process], but assembled and sewn together and ‘reanimated by a ‘powerful machine’, presumably a voltaic battery. Thus they would be given organic life and vitality. But whether they would be given a soul as well was another question.

Holmes goes on to recount the now-famous story of what happened at the Villa Deodati on Lake Geneva in 1816. A group staying at the Villa was comprised of Mary, her husband Percy, her half-sister (and Byron’s some time lover) Claire Claremont, Lord Byron himself, and his physician John Polidori. In order to pass the time, they challenged one another to come up with a ghost story. This was the setting for the genesis of Frankenstein. It actually took Mary some fourteen months more to complete the manuscript. (For a more detailed and very sympathetic treatment of Mary Shelley’s life and work, I recommend The Monsters: Mary Shelley & the Curse of Frankenstein by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler.)

Mary Shelley

For me, the real gift here is the science background the author provides. It places Frankenstein in a recognizable context, showing the novel to have been conceived at least partly in response to the discoveries and controversies of the day.


There are so many more riches in this book – I have barely scratched the surface here. when I finished my library copy of The Age of Wonder,  I went out and bought my own. I also bought it as a holiday gift for several people.

I recommend the review in the New York Times. Click here to read Richard Holmes’s introduction.


At this point, I can only wonder if I will ever again encounter such a treasure trove.

Richard Holmes

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Randal Keynes, his book, and its multiplicity of titles – and now, the film

January 24, 2010 at 2:57 am (Anglophilia, books, Film and television, Music)

Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution was first published in this country in 2002. Randal Keynes paints an appealing picture of Charles Darwin as a young man, living the English country house life with his wife and children. But a life of relative ease and comfort could not shield the family from terrible loss: the central event in the book is the death, at age ten, of Darwin’s daughter Annie.

Randal Keynes is the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin. While was going through some material belonging to his illustrious forebears, he came upon a writing box containning various keepsakes. The box, about 150 years old, had belonged to Annie Darwin. This fortuitous discovery was the genesis of Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution.

And about that rather clunky title… It was actually the subtitle of the original British publication:  . To complicate matters further, a recently released film version film version is entitled Creation. The book has been duly re-issued with that title:  .

Randal Keynes is the scion of more than one distinguished family. He is the great nephew of economist John Maynard Keynes and is descendant from the Wedgwoods through both Charles and Emma Wedgwood Darwin. (The two were cousins.)

Randal Keynes

And there’s more: in addition to being the grandson of Josiah Wedgwood,  Charles Darwin was also the grandson Erasmus Darwin, the famed 18th century philosopher, physiologist, abolitionist, botanist, poet, and all around polymath.

Finally, I think it worth mentioning that the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was Charles Darwin’s great nephew! Got all that ? Me neither…

Here’s the Wikipedia entry on the subject. And here’s a family tree (click to enlarge):


Here is an excerpt from Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The video was made with loving care, as befits its subject. As it begins, look carefully at the photograph on the album cover; then watch what happens at the end. In the meanwhile, you will hear sublime music.


I read Randal Keynes’s book shortly after it came out. It was extremely readable and very poignant. Click here to read Darwin’s eulogy for Annie.

Anne Elizabeth Darwin: 1841-1851

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Robert B. Parker

January 19, 2010 at 4:02 pm (books, Mystery fiction, Remembrance)

Robert B. Parker, one of the giants of contemporary crime fiction, has passed away.

Somehow I never thought this would happen. Sarah Weinman says she does not know how to process this sad news. I could not agree with her more.

Many of us owe Parker a debt of gratitude for the hours of highly enjoyable reading with which he provided us. For all his success in the field, he always came across as a regular, unpretentious person, able to laugh at himself and to appreciate the worth of others.

Requiescat in pace, Mr. Parker; you will be much missed.

Robert B. Parker: September 17, 1932 - January 18, 2010

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Evgeny Svetlanov (1928 – 2002)

January 19, 2010 at 2:12 am (Music, Russophilia)

This is a tribute to one of Russia’s greatest conductors.

Here is Evgeny Svetlanov conducting the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony. Because it features Ukrainian folk tunes, this work bears the sobriquet “Little Russian.”  (This is – was? – the Russian nickname for the Ukraine.)  The State Symphony Orchestra of Russia, formerly the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, is closely associated with Svetlanov.  He was its conductor from 1965 to 2000, a remarkably long and fruitful tenure.

What a joy it is to see the assurance with which Maestro Svetlanov leads this superb ensemble!

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The Price of Malice: another outstanding entry in Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther series

January 14, 2010 at 2:10 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Archer Mayor has done it again: The Price of Malice features the great sense of place (that place being New England in general and Vermont in particular), the intriguing and believable characters, and the solid plotting that typically characterize the novels in this series.

In Brattleboro, Wayne Castine has been found  brutally murdered. His body was discovered in an apartment whose tenant claims complete ignorance of the victim’s identity. From there, things get even stranger. (Pay close attention to Joe Gunther’s interview with this tenant, a woman named Elisabeth Babbitt. It is a great illustration of his masterful technique, paired as always with humanity and compassion.)

Castine is a tough character to care about: a certified low life and suspected child abuser. What’s interesting here is the course the investigation takes, and the investigators themselves. Joe Gunther leads a team from the  (relatively) newly formed Vermont Bureau of Investigation. Besides himself there’s Lester Spinney, a family man, Willy Kunkle, and Sammie Martens. Sammie is actually Samantha, a savvy officer with a very direct approach to crime solving. As for Willy Kunkle, he’s a sour, embittered man with virtually none of the usual social graces. He has a withered arm, the result of a gunshot injury sustained some years ago. With his disability and his foul temperament, he would have been long gone from active duty were it not for the staunch support of his boss. Joe Gunther has consistently fought to keep Willy on his team, believing him to be a first rate officer with exceptional skills.

One of the big surprises of this series has been the linking up of Sammie and Willy.  Sammie is capable of giving her cantankerous partner as good as she gets. It’s a strange basis for a relationship, but in their case, it seems to work.

Meanwhile, Joe has a problem with his new girlfriend Lyn Silva. On her own, Lyn has launched an investigation into the mysterious death some years ago of her brother and father. Both were  Maine lobstermen, so Lyn goes to Maine looking for answers. Heading into dangerous waters, she’s both gutsy and  foolish. And she’s put her lover in an excruciating position: he’s in the midst of a murder inquiry, but he feels compelled to aid Lyn in her mission – and somehow to insure her safety in the process.

This passage describing Joe’s journey from Brattleboro to Maine says a lot about him and the state he serves and loves:

The trip is a soothing, picturesque, graceful, two-and-a-half-hour offering of some of the best that Vermont has to offer, from serpentine rivers to granite-capped mountains. Fields, farms, covered bridges, low-head dams, railroads paralleling rocky streambeds–all of it rendered in a seamless slide show. Joe was a native Vermonter, the older of two sons of a Thetford Hill farmer. The values, traditions, and life lessons of that heritage always played in concert with the scenery to lift his spirits.


Here is the first of a six segment interview of Archer Mayor by Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. (The remaining segments can be accessed at the bookstore’s site.)

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The earthquake in Haiti: one way to help

January 13, 2010 at 9:56 pm (Current affairs)

Toward the end of this post, I mentioned Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains. In it, he describes the efforts made by the remarkable Dr. Paul Farmer to deliver quality health care to some of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people. Dr. Farmer’s organization Partners in Health maintains a clinic in Haiti; the staff there are currently engaged in helping the victims of the earthquake that has devastated that  island nation. To assist them, you can make a donation here.

Kidder’s book takes its name from the Haitian proverb, “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” As you solve one problem, another one presents itself and must also be dealt with. At present,  Haitians are dealing are dealing with a catastrophe almost beyond imagining. One hopes that the compassion and outreach of fellow citizens of the world will provide help and consolation.

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Wycliffe, book and film

January 8, 2010 at 11:22 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Ron and I are always questing after good British mysteries on DVD, so we were delighted to discover the Wycliffe series. Like the books upon which they are based, these films benefit greatly from their setting in Cornwall. Jack Shepherd is most appealing as the eponymous and somewhat enigmatic Detective Inspector. He possesses the craggy physiognomy of one who has seen it all – perhaps, too much so.

I’ve long been aware of W.J. Burley’s Wycliffe novels but had never actually read one. After viewing the films that comprise Season One, I decided to remedy the omission. The Howard County Library still owns six entries in this series. (There are twenty-two Wycliffe novels, with the last appearing in 2000.)

Despite having already seen the film version, I selected Wycliffe and the Tangled Web. I was rewarded with an immensely satisfying reading experience. Tangled Web has everything I look for and  crave in a British mystery: solid plotting, an interesting cast of characters, atmosphere and a sense of place, and writing whose grace of expression allows for the occasional ironic aside.

Wycliffe is a compelling protagonist, always aware of life’s pitfalls and uncertainties and all too often plagued by feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy. Here he compares himself with the police physician:

‘The two men could hardly have been more different: Franks had an acceptance philosophy; he was at home in the world, and rather liked it, while Wycliffe had an uneasy feeling that he was picking his way, blindfold, across a tight-rope.

I was, however, happy to find that like Colin Dexter’s inimitable Inspector Morse, Wycliffe is an avid reader, even a closet intellectual. In this passage, he is seeking relief from the turmoil engendered by the case under investigation – one that thus far involves two murders:

‘The answer was a book before bed; biography is the best sedative, a dose of proxy living. Wycliffe hoarded his biographies, journals, diaries, and published letters as a hypochondriac hoards his pills–two whole shelves of the big bookcase in the living-room. He pondered his choice, from Shonagon’s Pillow Book to Liane de Pougy, from Trajan to Czar Nicholas II, he hesitated over Marie Bashkirtseff but decided that she was for emergencies only.

Whew! I don’t know about you, but I got lost around the back stretch of that catalog. It happens that on this particular occasion, Wycliffe ends up selecting the diaries of Samuel Pepys for his bedtime reading. (Here are links to Pillow Book, Liane de Pougy, and Marie Bashkirtseff.)


An exceptionally fine site is dedicated to the life and works of W.J. Burley. Be sure to read his son Alan’s moving tribute. There’s also an appreciation written  by Martin Edwards, whose generosity toward his fellow writers always impresses me. (Currently I have Dance for the Hangman and The Serpent Pool by Martin Edwards on reserve at the library:   The latter is the fourth entry in the excellent Lake District series.)


In Wycliife and the Tangled Web, I encountered my first word in Cornish: “emmet,” meaning “summer visitors.” Wikipedia has an extensive entry on the Cornish language.

This novel has several lovely vignettes like this one:

‘Wycliffe was looking out of the little window, trying to get  the feel of the place. On the quay a couple of fishermen squatted, mending their nets, like James and John, the sons of Zebedee, two thousand years ago, except that their nets were orange and green nylon and there was little chance of Jesus happening along.

If not Jesus, then perhaps Joseph of Arimathea? “And did those  feet in ancient times…”

Joseph of Arimathea, by William Blake

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The Shooting Party

January 6, 2010 at 3:14 am (Anglophilia, books, Film and television)

In August of 2008, in response to one of Jonathan Yardley’s Second Reading feature pieces in the Washington Post,  I wrote Six Gifted Englishwomen. Shortly thereafter, I read Isabel Colegate’s luminous novel The Shooting Party. I had seen the cinema version in the 1980s, shortly after its release, and was eager to see it again. I finally did so several days ago.

Made in 1984, this is a film of almost painful beauty. Its evocation of Edwardian England, a world about to be lost forever, is both vivid and poignant. Some would say of that world, one of privilege and presumption, that it is one we are well rid of. But seeing the elegance of its people and the beauty of their surroundings – well, it is hard to be so dismissive.

Of course, what these people are doing in these beautiful surroundings is killing birds at an incredible clip. I gave the numbers in my review of the novel, calling it carnage on an incredible scale. Actually seeing it makes it seem even more brutal. Also hearing it: there’s a point at which you simply want to flee from the sound of gunshots.

Of course, there is an awful irony always present in these scenes. What was once merely a  sport engaged in by gentlemen of a certain rank in society (and facilitated by a veritable army of servants and others from the lower classes) will soon be transformed into something horrible and deadly.  We know this; they do not – although some can see the clouds gathering on the horizon…

The house party takes place at the Oxfordshire estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby. He is played by James Mason, in one of his final screen roles. It’s a superb portrait of a man who seems somewhat tired of life – or at least, of the role he is called upon to play in it. What a perfect match of actor and part!  After Mason/Nettleby had spoken some especially moving lines, we took a brief break from our viewing. On the screen, the men and women of  the party, making their way slowly toward a noonday repast, were frozen in time. I found I had tears in my eyes.


In a career that spanned nearly five decades, James Mason made an enormous number of films. I particularly recall him as Norman Maine in A Star Is Born (1954), seen by me at the (very impressionable) age of ten, and as Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Lolita. But I believe that henceforth, I will think of  him in the role of Sir Ralph Nettleby in The Shooting Party.

James Neville Mason 1909-1984


The Shooting Party was filmed at Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. Knebworth has been home to the Lytton family since 1490. One of the most famous members of that family was Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), author of the novel The Last Day of Pompeii. The Honorable Henry and Martha Lytton Cobbold are the current residents.


Finally, this is probably as good a place as any to thank Jonathan Yardley for the Second Reading series, which he has recently closed out. Click here for the list of books featured in this series, and here for the articles.

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More best mysteries of 2009

January 3, 2010 at 4:29 pm (Best of 2009, books, Mystery fiction)

On her blog Mysteries in Paradise, Kerrie is asking people to contribute lists of ten favorite reads to the comment section. So far, she’s got over forty comments! I’m number forty-one. Naturally, I had trouble whittling my list down, so it consists of twelve titles rather than ten. (It also differs in some particulars from the list I posted on December 20.)

Kerrie’s goal is to collate the lists and publish her  findings. We look forward to seeing the results of your labors, Kerrie.  Thanks for your services to us (devoted) readers of crime fiction.

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