‘Do your Charlie hits from the jungle, then disappear.’ – In the Absence of Iles by Bill James

April 30, 2010 at 5:59 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

I’m a big fan of Bill James’s Harpur & Iles novels, so I approached In the Absence of Iles, the latest series entry, with the usual sense of happy anticipation. In the event, however, I must pronounce myself not quite satisfied…

As the novel opens, high ranking officials in law enforcement are attending a conference on how to conduct undercover operations both effectively and safely. This is an enormous challenge because of the dangers inherent in this type of police work. Some years  back, Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles had lost an officer in just such an operation. The perpetrators were not only known, they were apprehended and brought to trial, only to be released on a technicality. Strangely, they ended up dead anyway. Shocking? Not to those who know Iles…

Meanwhile, having had first hand experience of the perils of ‘out-location,’ Iles is expected to attend the aforementioned  conference. But he chooses not to:

‘He considered his flagrant, picturesque, non-attendance should be sufficiently meaningful. Mountainously, imperviously, vain, he would naturally think this. Iles expected the stark gap created by his absence to turn out far more significant and vivid than the actual presence of anyone else. He was the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, and this non-bark said a bucketful.

James’s colorful, idiosyncratic language still delights; likewise penchant for far-flung simile and unexpected metaphor. The problem I had with this novel had to do with the story and the choice of main character. Iles does appear in the narrative, but only intermittently, Colin Harpur does not appear at all. The main character is ACC Esther Peterson, whom we (or I, at any rate) have not previously met. James endows Esther with plenty of angst, both on the job and at home. She’s married to Gerald, a highly strung and (very) intermittently employed  bassoonist. Gerald has a jealous nature, and Esther worries about how to defend herself should matters get physical between the two of them. She’s well schooled in self-defense but knows she’d have to proceed with caution, lest she break Gerald’s arm, an outcome that “…might have permanent effects on the bassoonery.” (I do find James’s cheerful tendency to invent new vocabulary very endearing, although it maddens the spell checker!)

Despite the piquant facts of her biography, Esther was not as compelling a character for me as the series regulars. And the novel’s plot was curiously static. This I found frustrating in a series normally characterized by lightning quick bursts of action. So – a bit of a disappointment, but I stand by my affection for this series as a whole, and I look forward to a return to form (and the return of Harpur and his frighteningly knowing teenaged daughters) in the next installment.

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‘How very strange they were, he thought, these people, that they had let eternal life slip through their hands.’ – A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

April 29, 2010 at 1:26 am (Book review, books)

Sophie Topping, wife of a newly elected Member of Parliament, is planning a lavish dinner party. The guest list includes people from all walks of life. Among them are Spike Borowski, a Polish national who plays soccer for a British team; hedge fund manager John Veals and his wife Vanessa;  impoverished barrister Gabriel Northwood; Knocker al-Rashid, a successful entrepreneur, and his beautiful wife Nasim; and R. Tranter, an embittered writer whose lackluster career has fueled his spite and cynicism.

These are  all important characters, but one of the most important – crucial, one would say to this tale of contemporary London –  will not be attending the festivities. This is Hassan al-Rashid, son of Knocker and Nasim. Hassan is British born and raised, but now, in his early twenties, he  feels rootless and without direction.  He falls in with a group of young Muslim men whose love of Islam is coupled with a dismay at the world around them. They are deeply disillusioned by life in a country which, in their view, refuses to take itself seriously. The problem is not the “otherness” of the prevailing faith, but rather, the indifference of the populace to that faith:

‘It was Sunday, Hassan thought; most of these people should have been in church, but these days Christians viewed cathedrals as monuments or works or art to be admired for their architecture and paintings, not as the place where they could worship God. Their final loss of faith had happened in the last ten years or so, yet in the kafir [non-Muslim] world it had passed  with little comment. How very strange they were, he thought, these people, that they had let eternal life slip through their hands.

What a contrast  to Islam and the certainties it offers to believers. Or so it seems to Hassan and his new friends…

Hassan feels the need of such certainties more than ever. His parents, themselves observant Muslims, know that he is troubled. Despite their solicitousness and love, they have trouble penetrating to the source of his discontent. Nasim in particular mourns the loss of the “majestic intimacy” she once shared with her son. Both mother and father are anxious about Hassan, with good reason.

The al-Rashids stand in stark contrast with John and Vanessa Veals. The Vealses have two children, a daughter Bella and a son Finbar. Bella is barely mentioned; Finbar spends most of his time holed up in his room on the top floor, smoking dope and participating in a role-playing video game on his computer. This is the most atomized family unit imaginable. Its four members don’t seem to have any meals together- -in fact, they rarely even see one another. There’s a hilarious scene in which John Veals inadvertently encounters his son on the stairway of their house. For a moment they are trapped, trying to think what to say to each other. Then one of John Veals’s six – yes, six! – cell phones goes off, and the moment, along with the necessity of father and son communication, is over.

As a wheel-dealer in high finance, operating perilously close to the margin of the law, the John Veals character may be a bit over the top. Yet at the same time, the author provides a window into the way a mind like Veals’s works. The man is quite simply obsessed with making money, to a degree that is positively frightening.

This novel is being called a satire, but at times it is intensely serious and utterly free of irony. This is especially true when Hassan al-Rashid is at stage center. With what seems to me an extremely astute empathy,Faulks depicts what goes on in the mind of a young man tempted to go down a dangerous, destructive road in pursuit of an ideal – any ideal – that hovers dangerously close to fanaticism. What choice will Hassan make? It is this unknown that provides A Week in December with a degree of suspense that at times is downright excruciating.

Whether Sebastian Faulks is being ironic or serious, a sense of loss pervades this novel, a feeling that  the old verities have vanished and replaced by something less worthy. At Sophie’s dinner party, Gabriel is amazed by the high rollers on the scene, with their incessant chatter about matters financial.  He can’t help but wonder: “When had the civilized man stopped viewing money as a means to various enjoyable ends and started to view it as the end itself?” Sometime earlier during the week, Gabriel had been gazing out the window of his chambers down to where the Thames flowed by. He found himself reflecting on the ageless, timeless river that is the very embodiment of London and its turbulent history:

‘Swollen with December rain, it was gliding beneath the lights of the Embankment, under Blackfriars Bridge, above the embedded railway underpass, below Southwark Bridge and over the buried Cannon Street commuter lines–under, over, under, like a liquid weave, thought Gabriel, as it made its way through the old slums of Limehouse and Wapping, where watermen with lanterns in the bow had had once pulled bodies from the water, and on toward the sea–or at least to the tidal barrier at Woolwich, against which the swollen oceans were rising.

Nothing sentimental in this reverie – just a sense that for good or ill, the Thames flows on, transforming the present moment into the irretrievable past.

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I have a friend who used to tell me that science fiction was his favorite reading because the writers not only told stories but also grappled with ideas. In A Week in December, Sebastian Faulks most definitely engages with ideas. At the same time, he tells a gripping story – actually several  artfully interconnected stories –  and he creates a rich and vast panorama of a particular time and place. His characters are fully alive, and if some of them are a bit broadly drawn – John Veals and R. Tranter come to mind – others, like Gabriel Northwood and al-Rashids, possess a fund of genuine goodness. They call on the reader’s sympathies, and this reader, at least, responded in kind.

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I’ve read one other book by Sebastian Faulks. Birdsong is a love story set primarily during the First World War. I read it quite a while ago and I  recall enjoying it very much. That said, I think A Week in December is a more ambitious undertaking. It wasn’t perfect; there was a bit too much detail concerning complex financial transactions and the finer points of the game of soccer. My eyes glazed over at times… No, it was not perfect. But nevertheless, it was terrific.

Sebastian Faulks

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Return to the Lake District: The Serpent Pool, by Martin Edwards

April 25, 2010 at 1:39 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

I’ve been a fan of Martin Edwards’s Lake District mysteries since  The Coffin Trail came out in 2004. In these novels, Edwards makes the most of this setting, which is both picturesque, laden with legend, and  at times a bit eerie. Here among the towns and villages of this fabled region of Cumbria, various dramas play out. Some concern crime; others are about love – or rather, frustrated longing. I liked the way in which the characters, their fates inextricably entwined, shift in and out of focus as the story moved forward.

DCI Hannah Scarlett has been relegated to the cold case squad – or at least, she herself thinks of it in those terms. A misstep earlier in her career is the cause of her current reassignment. While she investigates a murder from the past, murders are occurring in the present. And Hannah is also dealing with turbulence and instability in her personal life. She feels a strong bond with Marc Amos, a rare book dealer with whom she shares a long term relationship. A bond, yes – but are they actually still in love? Hannah has to fight her growing feelings for Daniel Kind, a newly unattached writer and historian. Meanwhile, Marc finds himself drawn to Cassie Weston, the comely new assistant in his shop.

While all this is going on, Lake District literati are getting ready for a festival celebrating the life and work of Thomas de Quincey. De Quincey wrote an amazing meditation on MacBeth, in which he enters into the minds of the hapless king and his scheming wife in a way that is positively unnerving. De Quincey is perhaps best known, though, for two other essays: On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts and Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

Thomas De Quincey

Daniel Kind is researching a  book on De Quincey; here are some of his thoughts:

‘Depressive, impecunious, and brimming malicious wit, De Quincey was a reckless fantasist whose ill-health fed his addiction to drugs and voyeuristic love of violent crime. If he were alive today, he’d never  be out of the tabloid headlines.

There’s a brooding, introspective mood to this novel, but Edwards occasionally lightens the atmosphere with flashes of wit. Here he is describing the glory – and danger! – of the famous full English breakfast:

‘Fern squeezed a sachet of HP sauce over her breakfast. Her plate was as big as a Michelin tyre and crammed to overflowing with eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, fried bread and black pudding. There was something pleasingly shameless about the Bar’s commitment to clogging its customers’ arteries. It was good business, at least in the short term until they were wheeled into intensive care.

Folks, I’ve had this breakfast, and I don’t expect to get closer to Heaven while still residing on this planet. Alas, I only had it the once – then it was back to the thin gruel mandated by my physicians – sigh…

Anyhow – back to the topic at hand: The Serpent Pool was an enjoyable addition to a fine series of crime novels. (I also very much liked Waterloo Sunset, part of Edwards’s  series about Liverpool solicitor Harry Devlin.)

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Martin Edwards’s blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name, is well worth checking out; it is chock full of reviews and fascinating facts about Britain’s vibrant crime fiction scene. And of course, it is wonderfully well written.

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Left to right: Stuart Pawson, Ann Cleeves, and Martin Edwards

Along with Stuart Pawson and Ann Cleeves, Martin Edwards participated in a panel discussion presented for us lucky participants in  Mystery Lovers England and Scotland, a Smithsonian tour which we took in 2006.  I also met Edwards briefly at Bouchercon two years ago.

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The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R King: a book discussion

April 19, 2010 at 4:53 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

On Tuesday evening of last week,  Pauline led the Usual Suspects book group in a discussion of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King.  We were first provided with background on the life and work of the author, then proceeded to talk about the novel itself.

Pauline, always conscientious to a fault as presenter, had prepared several handouts to aid us in our efforts. Main and secondary characters were identified and their roles in the drama described; then we were given a list of discussion questions to consider.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice opens with a short segment called the ‘Editor’s Preface.’ Here’s how it starts off: “The first thing I want the reader to know is that I had nothing to do with this book you have in your hand.”  The writer then proceeds, tongue in cheek one must presume, to disparage the basic premise for the novel that is to follow:

“Ye, I write mystery novels, but even a novelist’s fevered imagination has its limits, and mine would reach those limits long before it came up with the farfetched idea of Sherlock Holmes taking on a smart-mouthed, half-American, fifteen-year-old sidekick. I mean really: if even Conan Doyle hungered to shove Holmes off a tall cliff, surely a young female of obvious intelligence would have brained the detective on first sight.

We then learn the circumstances of the genesis of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. It seems that a trunk arrived, unbidden, at the writer’s home. In it are a host of random objects from all over the world. And at the bottom are pages and pages of manuscript – the manuscript, it turns out, of this book. Its author is Mary Russell, the “fifteen-year-old sidekick” alluded to above. The writer professes complete ignorance concerning this personage: “If anyone out there knows who Mary Russell was, could you let me know? My curiosity is killing me.”

What is the reader to make of this at once coy and baffling disclaimer? King is not the first writer to use this kind of distancing device. One instance that comes to my mind occurs in Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, which begins, “I met a traveller from an antique land /  Who said..”

We of the Suspects were not greatly enamored of the Editor’s Preface. It seemed to us a perverse, even obstructive way to begin the novel. It’s as if the author were  saying, This will make sense to you much later. As of now,  just trust me. As a reader, I felt as though I were being toyed with.  It’s a feeling I don’t much like.

(Each chapter in Beekeeper features a beautifully worded superscription. We are informed in the Editor’s Preface that these quotations are taken from a work entitled The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck.)

The Editor’s Preface is followed by the even briefer “Prelude: Author’s Note,” purportedly written by Mary Russell herself in extreme – though still lucid – old age.  We are told that she wishes her memoir to act as a  corrective to what she considers the often fallacious impression created by the stories of Dr. Watson – “those feeble evocations of the compelling personality we both knew…” (The young Mary Russell calls Dr. Watson “Uncle John,” an appellation that some of us found grating. The novel’s portrait of Watson was of a bumbling albeit good-hearted fool. We Holmes and Watson loyalists were not amused!)

Finally – finally! – we get to the heart of the matter. (Or perhaps I should say, The game is a-foot. One of the many interesting nuggets I picked up last Tuesday is that this famous phrase, invariably associated with Sherlock Holmes, was actually appropriated by his creator from Shakespeare – specifically, from Henry IV, Part One, Act One Scene Three: “Before the game is afoot, thou still let’st slip.” [Spoken by Northumberland])

As the action of the novel commences, Mary Russell, a gawky, disconsolate teenager, is wandering the Sussex Downs when she first runs into Sherlock Holmes. Not so much runs into him as nearly trips over him, for he is crouched in the shrubbery observing the activities of the bees in one of the several hives he maintains. From this chance encounter grows a friendship, which evolves into an apprenticeship and ultimately a partnership. Well, ultimately something else…but that’s to be revealed in the next book in the series:

I first read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice when it came out in 1994. My first attempt to get into it failed; I was put off by the material at the beginning. A friend of mine, a crime fiction enthusiast named Katy Evans,* prevailed upon me to try again. I did, and was glad that I had done so. I enjoyed the novel, and liked the sequel even more. However, But the next title,  A Letter of Mary, did not work as well for me. I left the series for a while, jumping back in with Locked Rooms because I like what the reviewers were saying about it. I really loved Locked Rooms,  the eighth book in the Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes series, which thus far  comprises ten titles.

Back to the subject at hand. Things got lively when Pauline asked us how we felt about the relationship between Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes; in other words, did we acknowledge the plausibility of the entire scenario as laid out by King in her novel. This was something I really wanted to talk about. I’ve already mentioned how taken I was with this novel upon my first reading it. I revisited it this time by listening to the audio book, ably narrated by Jenny Sterlin. And I found myself reacting very differently to the book’s basic premise; namely, that the veteran, highly eccentric and highly reclusive detective – retired, and in his mid-fifties – would so admire a fifteen-year-old girl that he would almost immediately take her under his wing and  be desirous of her company (and stroke her hair softly when she was upset).  In short – I found the idea preposterous.

One of the other Suspects professed herself “creeped out” by the age difference between the two protagonists. I agreed with her – in fact, I felt as though I were realizing the extent of the disparity for the first time. To add to that, I did not find Mary Russell herself to be a particularly appealing, or even believable, character. She seemed all head and no heart, an odd amalgam for an adolescent girl. We were reminded that Mary had suffered the tragic loss of her family in an automobile accident for which she felt partly responsible. Adding to that, she was currently living with an aunt whom she despised but to whom she was legally bound until she reached majority and could take control of her parents’ estate. She had undoubtedly put on a sort of emotional armor, in an effort to ward off further “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” I accept all of that. What was harder to accept was that this young woman would manifest so few of the ordinary, expected longings of one her age and instead choose to become the disciple, as it were, of an intensely cerebral gentleman almost old enough to be her grandfather.

I’ve said in the past that I’ve finished some books via the audio version that I would probably not have gotten through had I been trying to read them. This is still true, but at least when you have the physical book in front of you, you can skim passages that you’re impatient with. That’s tough to do with CD’s – particularly when it’s only you in the car! At any rate, the reason I bring this up at this juncture is that there were times when I was listening to Beekeeper when I would have dearly loved to have been able to “page forward.” That whole business with thee missing hams, for instance, became really tedious. Mary may have been thrilled to find matching soil samples, but Yours Truly was truly bored by that entire case. The actual book, in the St. Martin’s Press soft cover edition, is 346 pages long. To me, it felt padded in places; I could wish it had been shorter.

The plot structure of Beekeeper is episodic rather than linear. My favorite episode is one that Pauline rather wonderfully called an “Excursis.” In it, Holmes and Russell adopt disguises and flee Britain for the Middle East. The description of their travels is wonderful. I felt certain that King must have visited these places herself, she captures their exotic fascination so well. Pauline asked whether Mary Russell’s strong identification with Judaism, while she and Holmes were  in the Holy Land, “served any useful purpose in the novel?” I actually thought it did. It humanized Mary, for one thing. It was moving. I love the psalm that she quotes: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem….” I was surprised to learn that Laurie King is not Jewish herself. She apparently threw that element into the mix of Mary’s background -Mary’s mother had been Jewish – to make her seem more exotic. Possessing a similar heritage myself, I rather like that idea!

We were asked to consider the novel’s subtitle: :”On the Segregation of the Queen.”  (The subtitle does not appear on the cover of St. Martin’s Press edition, although it is included on the title page.) In this my second traversal of Beekeeper, I was for some reason much more aware of the significance of the word “queen.” Chess plays a prominent part in the novel, as do bees. In both, of course, queens play a vital role. But why, I wonder, the word “segregation?” I can’t recall whether we talked about that last week.

A few more words about Mary Russell. There were ways in which she reminded me of one of my heroes, Dorothy L. Sayers. Like Russell, Sayers attended Oxford University. At the close of the First World War, she was among the first in a group of women to be granted a full degree from that august institution. (This would make her roughly Mary Russell’s contemporary.) Sayers was, I believe, beset by some of the same insecurities that troubled Mary. She was fiercely intellectual and quite brilliant, but her relations with men were fraught with difficulty and pain. If I had seen more of  this sort of vulnerability in Mary Russell, I might have warmed to her more readily. Even so, in my mind’s eye, Russell bears a physical resemblance to Sayers

Dorothy L Sayers

The setting of Beekeeper ranges far and wide: Sussex, Oxford, Wales, London, and the Middle East. At the novel’s conclusion, we find ourselves once again back in Sussex. Pauline, our resident “Brit,” gave us some interesting background on that region of England. As it happens, I had recently been reading about the newly established South Downs National Park in one of my favorite magazines, Beautiful Britain.

Much more was discussed in regard to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Pauline did her usual superb job of leading our discussion. We actually had to stop, as we were running out of time. This novel is very discussible and chock full of riches, both historical and cultural. And of course, there’s the phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes himself, about whom an entire college course could be taught –  and no doubt is. (Frances, our resident Sherlock Holmes  specialist, could no doubt enlighten me here. Her expertise was much appreciated at this meeting.)

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We members of the Usual Suspects now have our very own signature tote bags!

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Laurie King is set to appear at Howard County Library later this month, on Friday the 30th to be exact. Click here for details.

Laurie R King

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*My friend Katy Evans passed away three years ago. I was glad for this opportunity to remember her, in a  context that she would have greatly appreciated.

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“The literary couple…is a peculiar English domestic manufacture, useful no doubt in a country with difficult winters.”* — Parallel Lives, by Phyllis Rose (with a brief poetical digression)

April 17, 2010 at 12:43 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, France, Poetry)

This will not – cannot! – be a lengthy review, filled with details and anecdote about Rose’s fascinating subjects. I wish it could be. I read this book several months ago, so even though it is bristling with post-it flags, many of the particulars have faded from memory. What has not faded is the rapturous sense of revelation that I experienced while reading it.

What follows are some of the high points – for this reader, at least – of Parallel Lives:

The b0ok is subtitled “Five Victorian Marriages.” The dramatis personae are as follows: Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, Effie Gray and John Ruskin, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens, and George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. Theses unions range from fraught (the Carlyles) to disastrous (the Ruskins) to radiantly happy (George Eliot and George Henry Lewes).

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Jane Welsh

Thomas Carlyle

After a lengthy courtship, Jane Welsh finally agreed to wed Thomas Carlyle. She had a request, though: Could her widowed mother live with them?  Jane was an only child and did not want to her mother to be bereft when she herself left home to marry. (Her beloved physician father had died when Jane was eighteen.)

Up until this time, Carlyle had been in ardent and tender pursuit of his beloved.  But once Jane had accepted him, his demeanor altered radically. He immediately raised an objection to her entreaty: “Mrs Welsh, as the older party, might think the household was hers to rule, whereas in fact, man was born to command and woman to obey.” The author then comments drily:  “His [Carlyle’s]  metamorphosis from humble suitor to arrogant cock of the walk is distressing.” The reader will agree, this transformation does not bode well. And so it proved.

In a different  source, I found this quotation, attributed to Samuel Butler, concerning the Carlyle-Welsh union: “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”

But there’s worse to come…

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Effie Gray

John Ruskin

Anecdotal evidence holds that when John Ruskin beheld his bride Effie Gray as God made her, on their wedding night, he was so appalled that he was unable consummate their relationship. What did he see that so disgusted him? Apparently, the problem stemmed from the fact that John Ruskin had never before seen a woman nude. Passionate art lover that he was, he’d seen plenty of representations of the female form, both in portraiture and sculpture. But, especially as  regards classical statuary, certain details of the female anatomy tended to be glossed over… or, should I say, smoothed over…

At any rate, one receives a rather astonishing image of Ruskin fleeing the premises  after laying eyes on what was, after all, a perfectly prosaic feature of the female anatomy – and the male’s too, for that matter. (I don’t mean to be coy here – in case you haven’t guessed, we’re talking about pubic hair.)

And so this marriage-that-was-not-a-marriage limped along. Eventually, the Ruskins befriended the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everitt Millais. Millais used Effie as a model for one of his most famous works. In it, he depicts an event  that occurs during the Jacobite Rebellion. A wife is conveying a release order to her husband’s jailer:

The painting’s title, “The Order of Release,” turned out to be prophetic. Eventually Effie divorced Ruskin (though it was technically an annulment) and married Millais. With that act, she went from a frustrating, sexless marriage to one that was rich and fruitful: together, she and Millais had eight children.

(Obtaining a divorce in early Victorian Britain was no easy thing. Until the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act in  1857,  the only legal way to dissolve a marriage was through an Act of Parliament!)

The painting of Effie Gray just above the photo of Ruskin came to light  only recently. Click here for the story.

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Catherine Hogarth

Charles Dickens

Here is Phyllis Rose’s summation concerning Charles Dickens and his numbingly miserable marriage to Catherine Hogarth:

‘…it must be said that Dickens seems to have learned little about himself from his sufferings–and less about the suffering of others. As he transferred all the blame to his wife in the matter of his marriage, he blamed most of his woes in later life on his male children, accusing them of shiftlessness and lack of energy, which they had inherited–as he thought–from their mother. Dickens’s emotional development is not inspirational. It is a story of survival merely and proves only, as Jung said about his own reprehensible behavior to a younf woman, that sometimes it is necessary to be unworthy in order to continue living.

I shared this passage with my husband, who exclaimed in astonishment: “This is THE Charles Dickens?” Alas, yes. Some writers who depict wonderful and compassionate characters so memorably in their fiction are not invariably wonderful and compassionate themselves. The life and work of Tolstoy further illustrate this syndrome.

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George Henry Lewes

George Eliot

The union of Marian Evans (who wrote under the pen name George Eliot) and George Henry Lewes is an altogether different story:

‘If ever a couple was united in purpose it was Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes, dedicated to Duty, to Work, to Love, spreading warmth and light from their domestic hearth in the most approved style of Victorian domestic fiction. They were the perfect married couple.

Only one small technicality mars this otherwise blissful portrait: these two loving individuals were in fact not legally married. It was not possible for them to be wed in the law for the simple reason that Lewes already had a wife. (And his domestic entanglements make for some fascinating reading.) Rose can scarcely stop herself from extolling the virtues of this rare partnership:

‘By turning their backs on the search for happiness in their daily lives, by committing themselves to each other, to their work, and to Duty, the Leweses managed to be as happy together for the twenty-four years they lived together as any two people I have heard of outside fantasy literature.

The author seems to be saying that here, in this exemplary mode of living, lies a lesson for us all.

George Henry Lewes died in 1878 at the age of sixty. But Marian Evans’s marital history does not end at that point.  In her bereavement, and with the usual matters of estate to attend to, she found herself relying increasingly on a forty-year-old banker named John Walter Cross. Their mutual attachment grew: “Cross was young. He was useful. He worshipped her.” And he too was grieving, having recently lost his mother to whom he’d been deeply attached. Despite the age difference – Marian Evans was nearly sixty years old – she married John Cross in 1880.

In her youth, Marian Evans believed herself to be homely and unattractive. She never expected to find fulfillment in love, so the flowering of her relationship with Lewes must have seemed something of a miracle. It was in part due to his support and encouragement that we have some of the great masterpieces of Victorian fiction:

Although Daniel Deronda not usually ranked with the three works pictured above, I’m  partial to this novel for two reasons. First, it has a Zionist theme, rather unusual in the mainstream fiction of the time (although one also encounters it is Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe).  Secondly, one of the novel’s centerpieces is a  marriage founded on deceit and lies and described in excruciating and memorable detail.

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In Parallel Lives, Phyllis Rose writes from an acknowledged feminist perspective, but I am deeply impressed by the evenhanded treatment of her subject matter. She states that her aim “…has not been to show that Dickens or Ruskin or Carlyle were ‘bad’ husbands, but to present them as examples of behavior generated inevitably by the peculiar privileges and stresses of traditional marriage.” In her summing up at the book’s conclusion, she evokes Erik Erikson’s concept of ‘mutuality:’

‘Erikson warns that to approach any human encounter in a demanding spirit is to solicit disappointment. We can never be given enough. But if we ask only to give, to nurture and strengthen someone else, we will find ourselves strengthened in the process. In a marriage that works well, one person’s needs strengthen–do not deplete–the vitality of the partner who responds to them….”

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Parallel Lives was published in 1983. I’ve known about it since then and have always meant to read it. So why now? Professor Patrick Allitt includes it in his bibliography for Victorian Britain, an audio course from The Teaching Company. Thank you, Professor Allitt, for your lively and engaging narration! Here is the teacher we all wish we could have had in college (though graduate of Goucher College that I am, I did have several professors of that caliber: Barton L. Houseman for chemistry; Wolfgang Thormann for French; William Mueller and Brooke Peirce for English…ah, those were the days…O I have fallen into a reverie, have I not – please excuse…Ah well, if you’ll indulge me just a moment longer, Dear Reader…

When I was studying French in college, I carelessly remarked to the aforementioned Professor Thormann that I had never really been moved by French poetry. He looked at me  with disbelieving eyes and then proceeded to recite from memory this poem by Paul Verlaine:

Il pleure dans mon coeur.

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur ?

Ô bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits !
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
Ô le chant de la pluie !

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?…
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C’est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi
Sans amour et sans haine
Mon coeur a tant de peine !

I was, of course, duly chastened, an experience much needed by your basic undergraduate!

Click here and scroll down for the English translation of this poem.)

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For more information about the individuals discussed above – and for a rich source on all things Victorian – go to The Victorian Web.

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I wonder if Katie Roiphe used Rose’s book as a model for her own highly engaging work, Uncommon Arrangements.

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*Phyllis Rose is here quoting Elizabeth Hardwick, from the latter’s essay, “George Eliot’s Husband.”

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April 4: Easter Sunday

April 12, 2010 at 1:27 am (Music, Spiritual)

All thanks are due to my friend Emma, through whose kindly offices I experienced an Easter Sunday filled with prayer and gorgeous music.

For two years now Emma and I have regularly attended the concerts presented by Bach in Baltimore at Christ Lutheran Church. I have come to love  this church. It was built in 1955, but the interior resembles a church built in 1555. If Martin Luther himself were to come striding down the center aisle, it would seem entirely right and proper.

In his welcome message, the pastor wrote: “Whether you are a committed Christian or someone searching for deeper spiritual roots and a closer connection with God, we are delighted that you chose to worship with us today.” The part after the “or” – that’s me. So I was very grateful for this.

And then: what a splendid celebration! Not just heartfelt prayers – but glorious music – Drums! Trumpets! Timpani! And of course, the mighty Andover 114, the organ that at its most fulsome seems to be “playing” the entire sanctuary.

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Afterward, Emma and I had a delicious brunch. We then sat for a time in a small, lovely park at the Inner Harbor. The sun shone brightly; the air was delicious. Folk frolicked, rejoicing in the ability to get outside and have fun after the punishment of this past winter.

(The ship is the USS Constellation.)

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And then, back to Christ Lutheran for yet more music, this time courtesy of Bach in Baltimore…

First on this afternoon’s program was an aria from Bach’s Easter Oratorio, beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Blades. Here is the same excerpt performed by Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale. The soloist is German countertenor Andreas Scholl:

The Bach Cantata for Easter Sunday was BWV  67: Halt inGedachtnis Jesum Christ (“Hold in Remembrance Jesus Christ”). Here is the opening chorus, with Helmuth Rilling conducting:

Then it was time for organist Jonathan Parker to astonish us once again with the might and power of the Andover114. He played a piece that fascinated me. It’s got rather a long name:  Choral-Improvisation sur le Victimae paschali, written by Charles T0urnamire  (1870-1939) and transcribed by Maurice Duruflé. I have found a video of a young organist named Jean-Baptiste Robin playing this piece on the organ of  L’Eglise Saint Eustache in Paris.

Decades ago, I wandered into this  church, not knowing anything about it. I was stunned. Looking up, I saw into a vastness that seemed to extend up to the heavens.

Maestro Dimmock pronounced himself delighted at the treat in store for us at the concert’s conclusion: a performance  of four Hebrew songs by HaZamir. This was in recognition of the recent celebration of Passover. This lovely bit of ecumenism proved a terrific bonus  – these young singers were simply great!

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A welcome reappearance: Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard

April 10, 2010 at 1:42 am (books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Patrick Anderson, veteran reviewer of crime fiction for the Washington Post, has written a delightful piece on the latest Richard Jury novel from the pen of Martha Grimes.

One of the first contemporary mysteries I read when I came to work at the library in 1982 was  The Man with a Load of Mischief, Martha Grimes’s first Richard Jury novel, which had been published the previous year. This was followed by The Old Fox Deceiv’d, which I found equally enjoyable.  Grimes had assembled a quirky, offbeat group of characters; it was fun to hang out with them and eavesdrop on their conversations. (The titles of the novels in this series all refer to the names of British pubs – or latterly, to wine bars and other varieties of hostelry.)

As the series progressed, however, some readers, myself included, lost interest. For me, at any rate, that interest came roaring back four years ago with The Old Wine Shades. Here was a novel with a cunning puzzle plot and an intriguing cast of characters. And that cast included a non-human player, a most important one, a most intelligent and irresistible one. This would be a small white dog named Mungo. You can just about make him out in the middle of  the book’s cover:

Dust followed Wine shades and was, IMHO, just as good. The plot involves Lamb House, the former residence of Henry James. And now we have the twenty-second entry in the series, The Black Cat.

My reserve just came in – What joy!

Here’s a profile of the author that appeared two years ago in the Washingtonian Magazine.

Martha Grimes and friend

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In a race to the finish line, I finish The Girl Who Played with Fire…

April 7, 2010 at 1:13 pm (Book review, books)

And what a wild ride that was!

The Girl Who Played with Fire features one of the most deeply shocking, utterly stunning, and completely unanticipated plot twists I have ever encountered in a work of crime fiction. In fiction period, for that matter. i am not supposed to be liking Stieg Larsson’s millenium novels. Too plot driven! Too violent! Too extreme! Too incredible!

I was riveted…And I was angry. I wanted the perp, or perps, well and truly run to ground. And punished, as severely as possible.

Well, okay, I wasn’t riveted every second. With a book that’s just over 500 pages long, there are bound to be some slack passages. But they were few – very few and far between. Yes, there’s a fair amount of geeky computer stuff, but I enjoyed that aspect of the book – I’m not sure why. (Maybe because I actually understood some of it!)

Several people have told me that they thought this book was even better than the first one, the now world-famous (infamous?)  Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I agree with that assessment, though my admiration for Dragon Tattoo as a piece of bravura storytelling remains undiminished.

In The Girl Who Played with Fire, we encounter many of  the same characters we met in the first book. Investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist, his boss (and sometime lover) at Millennium Magazine, Erika Berger – and of course, the one, the only, the inimitable Lisbeth Salander. This is a woman who knows the meaning of loyalty. She has her own moral code, as Blomqvist is at pains to explain to people – especially to the police, who begin a murder investigation in which Lisbeth is involved by assuming that she is some kind of whacked-out psycho. She isn’t really. But you can’t blame them for the deductions they reach based on her checkered history. One of the gratifying aspects of this sequel is that you there are fascinating revelations about that history and how it came to portray Lisbeth Salander in the way that it does.

At any rate, certain evil people have made of Lisbeth Salander an implacable enemy. Ooh, will they be sorry!

Amazon gives May 25 as the release date for the third novel in the Millennium Trilogy. I was tempted to say, “third and final,” but it would not surprise me if this lucrative franchise were picked up and continued by another author, Stieg Larsson having passed prematurely from the scene. (I find myself thinking of the sad and wistful locution one encounters in the No.1 Ladies’ Detective series: “He is late.”)

This gives me about two months in which to catch my breath – thank goodness.

One of the attractions of this series is the mordant wit of the author. It tends to surface at unexpected times and serves, to a degree, to break the tension. In this regard, Larsson sometimes reminds me of Ruth Rendell and Reginald Hill, although in most ways he could not be more different from these two favorites of mine in the crime-writing pantheon.

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Addenda: The Millennium Trilogy in the news:

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Frank Rich has an interesting take on Dragon Tattoo.

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In his review in The New Yorker of the film Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Anthony Lane makes some provocative observations about the phenomenon of the Millennium Trilogy. And I do love this opening sentence: “If only Miss Marple had been a bisexual biker with multiple piercings, a criminal record, and a long lick of oil-black hair over one eye, she might have solved a few more crimes.”

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When my friend Joanne presented her fascinating “double discussion” of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she referred to an article in which Stieg Larsson’s authorship of the trilogy was questioned. I have been able to find only one allusion to this claim, in an article on the BBC site. I’d be interested to know if anyone  has encountered any similar statements elsewhere, or has any further information about this rather startling, not to mention disturbing, allegation.

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The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum

April 3, 2010 at 1:34 am (Book review, books)

What a terrific idea for a book!

In The Poisoner’s Handbook, Deborah Blum chronicles the transformation of the New York City coroner’s office from a den of slovenly corruption to world class investigative organization. This dramatic change was effected primarily through the efforts of two men: chief medical examiner Charles Norris and forensic toxicologist (and brilliant chemist) Alexander Gettler.

Most of the events described in this book take place during Prohibition. I was astonished by Blum’s revelations about this era in American history. Illegal alcohol flowing like a river in full spate! The incidence of alcoholism rising to new heights! The government deliberately poisoning illegal alcohol and folks drinking it anyway and being blinded and/ or killed as a result!

Then there’s the story of the U.S. Radium Corporation‘s factory, where watch dials were made with paint specially formulated to glow in the dark. The young women who worked there were taught to shape the paint brushes with their lips, so that the tips were sharp enough to do fine work.  (This plant, which opened in 1917 and closed ten years later, was located in Orange, New Jersey. Though I was born there – in 1944 – I had never heard of U.S. Radium until I encountered it in this book – not at all a pleasant encounter, as you’ll find if  you read it.)

The mind boggles… it’s a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction – far stranger. Blum here recounts some astonishing tales of true crime. And there are other, even more poignant stories of ordinary people driven by desperation to do terrible things:

‘In his annual report, issued that spring [of 1931], Charles Norris announced that New York City had reached a new high in violent deaths the previous year–6,525 across the five boroughs, driven by the leaping suicides that followed the economy’s downward spiral. Self-terminations totaled 1,471, an average of three deaths per day. That meant that nearly one fourth of the city’s violent deaths could be attributed to despair.

Click here for the review posted on NPR, plus an excerpt from The Poisoner’s Handbook. And here’s Sarah Weinman’s review for Barnes and Noble.

Deborah Blum

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