Gleanings from the Sunday papers

September 30, 2010 at 2:21 am (books, Magazines and newspapers)

Here are a couple of reasons why I still love the Sunday papers. I mean the real, hard copy newspapers, the ones that rustle and crackle in your hands.

First, from the online magazine Slate, reprinted in the Washington Post:

In his thought-provoking “Death of  a Salesman. Of Lots of The, Actually”, James Ledbetter explains how the loss of sales jobs is contributing to the so-called “hollowing out” of the middle class.

Poor Willy Loman, with his heavy load and sagging shoulders. Written in 1949, Death of a Salesman helped usher in a period of high earnestness and lack of irony that characterized much of American literature  at mid century. It has never been one of my favorite works. But it is hard to look at Willy’s posture of utter defeat and not feel compassion – nor to recall Linda Loman’s wailing cry, echoing down the years: “Attention, attention must be paid to such a person!” – and not be affected.

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The first thing I usually do with my newspapers – Sunday or otherwise – is to consign the sports pages to the recycling pile. (That is, unless there’s news of a major horse race.) Every once in a great while, though, an article on baseball breaks through, as it did on Sunday in the New York Times.  What really caught my eye on this occasion, though, was this picture: . It was John Updike in his youth. I’d know him anywhere.

I have happy memories of baseball fandom from my childhood. My team was the Yankees, but “Tribute to a Hero in Twilight” is about the Boston Red Sox. More specifically, it is about Ted Williams’s last time at bat in 1960, and the essay Updike subsequently wrote about it:

Only 10,455 fans turned up to say goodbye to Williams, who was 42, hobbled by aches and pains. Among them, sitting behind third base, was 28-year-old John Updike, who had actually scheduled an adulterous assignation that day. But when he reached the woman’s apartment, on Beacon Hill, he found that he had been stood up: no one was home. “So I went, as promised, to the game,” he wrote years later, “and my virtue was rewarded.”

Several days later, he wrote “Hub Fans Bid the Kid Adieu.” Appearing originally in The New Yorker, “Hub Fans” was widely reprinted and has since become a classic.

The piece begins wonderfully with Updike’s oft-quoted description of Fenway Park as “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.” It only gets better as it goes along, building in intensity to the final, climactic moment, when Williams achieves his apotheosis at the very end of his Major League career:

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu: John Updike on Ted Williams is published by Library of America.

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Trying to remain calm and composed, in the face of impending grandparenthood

September 28, 2010 at 1:16 pm (Family)

Because Baby Girl Davis had stubbornly remained in the breech position, my daughter-in-law Erica was scheduled  for a C-Section yesterday. She was about to be wheeled into the operating room when a final ultrasound revealed that the baby had in fact turned around. So back home went Erica and Ben, to await further developments.

Parents are calm and centered, grandparents are frazzled to varying degrees – and Baby Girl Davis is already calling the shots!

Here’s what Ben posted on Sunday.

More on this anon…before long…very soon…

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The Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Carnival (and other Agatha-related items)

September 26, 2010 at 6:29 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

The Agatha Christie Blog Carnival is home to a group of monthly postings about Agatha Christie. Reviews, criticism and commentary, media coverage – all these and more appear on the Agatha Christie Blog Carnival. Kerrie Smith of Mysteries in Paradise is the chief host and organizer. This month marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of “the Queen of Crime,” and in her honor, a blog tour was organized on the Carnival site. I am delighted to have contributed  a review of The Labors of Hercules to this effort.

The August issue of the Reading Challenge, to which I have linked above, is divided into the following categories: Featured Blog, General, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple,  Short Stories, Updates, and Discoveries. One of the great pleasures of this site is the chance to connect with other passionate readers of classic crime fiction.

Whether the reviews make you want to read the book (in this case, The Mirror Crack’d) or not (viz. Death Comes As the End), you’ll appreciate these bloggers’ insights as well as their incisive writing. Other posts raise interesting questions concerning Christie’s oeuvre in general. Patti, who blogs as Pattinase, asks some provocative questions of Christie readers:

What strengths do you find in her work? Were her contemporaries any less subject to the prejudices of the time (Tey, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham)? Did they give their characters a firmer underpinning? Did they view the world with less prejudice? Did they play more fair with clues.

(In the main, these queries were prompted by an article in the August 16 & 23 issue of The New Yorker Magazine. “Queen of Crime” by Joan Acocella  raised some eyebrows due to the marked ambivalence of its tone.)

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This article in an August issue of Country Life probes the reason for the perennial appeal of Christie’s fiction. On that intriguing subject, author Matthew Dennison has this to say:

Eighty years after Agatha created Miss Marple, her novels continue to attract new readers not only on account of their unguessable plots, but their evocation of a vanished world of country life that strikes deep chords in the British psyche and reminds readers across the world that at heart this remains a green and pleasant land-albeit one in which, as in Miss Marple’s village, very painful and distressing things can happen.

ABE Books recently treated us to a gallery of original book covers:  

My favorite actors in Christie films are, and always will be, Joan Hickson as Miss Marple and David Suchet as Hercule Poirot.

See my post on The Labors of Hercules for the film clip in which these two venerable performers meet for the first time in Torquay, Agatha Christie’s birthplace.

(Torquay is a lovely town on the south coast of Devon, in Southwestern England. We were there  in 2006; it was the first stop on a Smithsonian tour called Classic Mystery Lover’s England. While we were visiting a church in Torbay, where Christie and her family had often attended services, we met an elderly gent who claimed to have been Agatha Christie’s gardener while she was living in her nearby country home, Greenway. Here he is, with our superb Blue Badge Guide, Rosalind Hutchinson .)

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Alan McKee of The Museum of Broadcast Communications offers an an interesting take on the Miss Marple films with Joan Hickson. He designates them “heritage” productions:

…the BBC’s Miss Marple is a good example of a “heritage” production, with all the pleasures that implies. The term “heritage television” sums up a certain attitude towards the past which developed in Britain during the 1980s, when a mixture of a new Victorianism in moral standards and an increasingly frenetic late-capitalistic commodification led to two tendencies. The first was an attraction to a particularly sanitised version of England’s past. The second capitalized on the first with various moves towards rendering that past easily consumable–in television programs, films, bed sheets, jams and preserves, and so on. The BBC’s Miss Marple stories are prime examples of “heritage” production. They are mostly set in a rural past. English architecture is featured, and country mansion houses proliferate. As is typical for BBC programs, the “production values” are impeccable and the programs look beautiful–costumes, houses and decor, cars, hairstyles and make-up could all be described as “sumptuous”.

McKee shrewdly sums up the special appeal of Hickson’s performance:

…Joan Hickson’s performance is another of the particularly attractive aspects of the series. Her frail physical appearance contrasts with her intensely blue eyes, and the way she dominates the scenes in which she appears. Her apparent scattiness, staring absent-mindedly over people’s shoulders as they talk to her, is delightful. It is believable both that people would ignore her, thinking her to be just “a little old lady”, and, simultaneously, that she is very much in control of the situation

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Keep in mind: The Agatha Christie Blog Carnival is the place to go for All Things Agatha!

Agatha Christie............1890-1976

This post on the Golden Age Crime Writers might also be of interest.

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George Sakkal has left the building – alas!

September 24, 2010 at 2:14 am (Food, Mind/body)

For about nine years, I attended an aerobics-cum-conditioning class taught three times a week by George Sakkal. I started doing this not long after receiving my diagnosis of Type Two Diabetes. In addition to drastically changing my diet, I was strongly urged to get more exercise. A better way to put that  is that I was urged to get exercise, period. Up until that time, the only parts of my body getting a workout of any kind were my hands, or more specifically, my fingers, as they turned the pages of the books I devoured. Yes, devoured… along with a generous helping of Doritos, my favorite food group. Then, a terrible reality was borne in upon me: If I wished to continue to gorging myself on these , I would have to stop gorging myself on these . This was a cruel choice to have to make, but there really was no choice. Adieu, my delicious, wonderfully crunchy Doritos… Do I still miss them? You bet I do. In fact, I’m starting to crave them as I write this.

While battling extreme chip withdrawal (along with potato and rice and pasta and bread and dessert withdrawal – pretty much everything that makes life worth living, in other words), I started going to exercise classes. And the most amazing thing happened: I began to have fun. That fun was mostly generated by exceptional teachers – like George Sakkal.

This summer, after teaching aerobics for more than twenty years, George retired. He is still in excellent health – despite some daunting challenges in the past – but he felt that it was time to pursue other passions. I’ve written about George before. In addition to being a fitness instructor, he’s an artist and musician. He’s led a varied and fascinating life.

Those of us who’ve enjoyed George’s classes over the years gave him a little impromptu send-off during his last week. We wanted to thank him for the gifts of health, perseverance, optimism, and humor that he has given us (not to mention invaluable aid in maintaining a healthy weight, at least in my case – I dropped thirty-four pounds on the new regime and have kept it off for ten years.)

Oh – and the music! George took special care in his selection of songs for our workouts. One of his favorites – “Ooh, I love this song!” he would yell out with his customary glee – is “Someday I’m Coming Back.” Here it is, sung by Lisa Stansfield.

There was always plenty of ABBA:

For the cool down, there was often Rod Stewart and his great American songbook:

I’m especially grateful for this rendition of “Once in a While” by Johnny Mathis. And this video is such an affectionate tribute to a bygone era.

Sometimes, with the lights turned down low, we would soar into the stratosphere with the likes of Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman:

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A member of our group came up with this graphic to commemorate the occasion:

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“Roderick Usher as a twelve-year-old boarding school bully, precocious and defensive.” – The Fall of the House of Walworth, by Geoffrey O’Brien

September 22, 2010 at 11:50 am (Book review, books)

Like true crime? Enthralled by American history? Enjoy the high drama of courtroom confrontation? Intrigued by stories of outwardly respectable families with plenty to hide?

Have I got a book for you…

This story really begins with Reuben Hyde Walworth, a lawyer who was the last Chancellor of New York State.

Reuben Hyde Walworth 1788-1867

(The Court of Chancery was a holdover from colonial times and was abolished in 1846.) He was a dour Presbyterian with strict teetotaler convictions. Following a brief foray into politics, Chancellor Walworth – for such he continued to be called – presided as a judge in the district that included Saratoga Springs, New York, where he lived with his family. He had a long and varied career – but in later years at least, an exceptionally short commute. This is because he had the courthouse over which he was to preside built as an addition to his dwelling place in Saratoga Springs. That dwelling place was called Pine Grove. This is one of those books in which a house is almost like another character in the story. Several fateful events occurred at Pine Grove.

(I find myself thinking of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…”)

In 1812, Reuben Hyde Walworth married Maria Averill. Together they had five  children, three daughters and two sons. Maria, pious and devoted, died in 1847. Three years later, Walworth took as his second wife Sarah Hardin, a 39-year-old widow from a distinguished Kentucky family. She and her three children went to live with her new husband and his children at Pine Grove. The result was what we call these days a “blended” family. The word implies a harmonious configuration. And so it seemed at Pine Grove – at first.

Author Geoffrey O’Brien provides a succinct summary of the subsequent unfolding of events:

There were Walworths, with their own peculiar sense of history and identity, their special claims on the world as they found it, and there were the Hardins. The Hardins married the Walworths and that’s where the trouble began.

Did it ever. It was trouble that ultimately culminated in murder.

I don’t want to give away any more of this stranger than fiction story. But  I do want to praise Geoffrey O’Brien’s incisive and evocative writing:

Those self-nominated patricians who had for so long exercised a stranglehold on upstate politics, while flaunting their wizened teetotaling virtue in the face of the vibrant Gomorrah at the mouth of the Hudson, now looked like the creaky figurines in antique woodcuts. There was a certain satisfaction in seeing this foppish mother’s boy from Saratoga, the spoiled product of boarding schools and starched cotillions, tossed among the worldly-wise pimps, whores, and confidence men of Manhattan.

Sounds like schadenfreude run amok, doesn’t it? And who exactly is this “foppish mother’s boy?”  Be patient – all is revealed, in the course of this riveting narrative. I will tell you this – or let O’Brien tell you – the perpetrator was, initially at least, one cool customer:

His oddly matter-of-fact behavior gave just the right seasoning to the event: this was a disturbingly modern crime, in a modern hotel, committed by a modern kind of youth – refined, stylish, in some accounts irresistibly attractive (“He had the prettiest mouth I ever saw on a masculine face,” one correspondent reported) – manifesting “utmost calm” and “utter indifference” amid the bloodiest circumstances.

Thomas Mallon entitles his review of this book in the New York Times, “Saratoga Gothic.” Indeed, The Fall of the House of Walworth is a tale rich in Gothic elements. The title seems a conscious echo of Edgar Allan Poe’s High Gothic masterpiece, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In addition, the book put me in mind of Lady Audley’s Secret, a novel referenced specifically by O’Brien. And Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher almost seems an exact British counterpart. (The latter is currently being adapted for the screen by Britain’s ITVThe Fall of the House of Walworth would likewise make a terrific feature film.)

I have one small cavil. This story covers several generations of the Walworth clan, and I would  have appreciated having a family tree to consult. Books like this usually include such a feature on the flyleaf. Perhaps such a chart can be inserted in a subsequent edition.

At the conclusion of his review, Thomas Mallon says the following:

A century from now, if editors still exist, they’ll be getting pitches for books that promise to reassemble the lives of O. J. Simpson or Bernard Madoff — long-forgotten characters whose discovery has excited some hopeful writer. That aspirant author would be well advised to turn to “The Fall of the House of Walworth” — a first-rate book about a second-degree murder — for lessons in how to do it.

I agree absolutely!

Geoffrey O'Brien

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Madeleine Albright invites us to Read Her Pins

September 19, 2010 at 8:18 pm (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music, opera)

On Tuesday September 14, I traveled with a small group to the Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC to see  an exhibit entitled “Read My Pins.” The pins in question were collected over the years by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in the course of her long and varied career in public service. We went to see the pins in the morning, as the Secretary herself was schedule to speak at the Baird Auditorium in the National Museum of Natural History at noon.

This was scheduled as a cultural outing for our AAUW chapter. Left to my own devices, I would not have attended, but I’m very glad I did – for several reasons.

Tickets to this event – modestly priced at twelve dollars per person – had  been unobtainable for weeks. Sure enough, by noon the place was packed. When Secretary Albright strode onto the stage, the capacity crowd rose as one and accorded her a  joyous and boisterous ovation. Madeleine Albright, the rock star!

I mean to tell you, it was one of those lump-in-the-throat Proud To Be an American moments – at least it was, for me.

Secretary Albright has led a fascinating life. Her astute intelligence and passion for issues affecting foreign policy have helped place her very close to the seat of power in this country for several decades running, starting with her 1972 involvement in the presidential campaign of Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine. In the  course of her talk, which took the form of a conversation with Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough, she spoke of the many distinguished – in some cases, notorious – individuals that she came to know over the years.

At the outset, she cheerfully informed us that the pin collection came into existence because of Saddam Hussein. During Clinton’s first term (1993-1997), Albright was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Following the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was required to allow the U.N. to inspect the country without hindrance and to disclose tghe presence of any nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons on Iraqi soil. This, Saddam Hussein refused to do.

Albright then criticized his failure to comply. (Voicing this criticism, she explained, was part of her brief as ambassador.) In response to her comments, a derogatory poem about her appeared in the Iraqi press. Among other things, she was termed “an unparalleled serpent.”

Soon after this poem was published, Albright was scheduled to meet with Iraqi officials.  As she brooded over what to wear, she recalled that in her jewelry arsenal, she possessed this pin:

Albright admits that she does not know quite why she ever purchased this bauble. Like many people, she has an aversion to snakes. Nevertheless, there it was, reposing serenely in her jewelry box, its potential symbolism unmistakable…

And so, on the occasion of this meeting, she wore it on the lapel of her suit. When asked later by a reporter about her choice of adornment, she responded that it was “…just my way of sending a message.”

This, then, was  the genesis of the now the legendary pin collection. The accompanying book (see the cover above) is opulently illustrated and beautifully written. A copy currently reposes on the desk beside me.

(The Daily Beast features a gallery of the pins, paired, in some cases, with pictures of the occasions on which they were worn.)

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At the conclusion of her question and answer session with Wayne Clough, Secretary Albright took some questions from the audience. A woman asked which pin Albright wore to the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky. While I didn’t catch the specific reply to that question, I did hear Albright remark that she had a wonderful time at the wedding. Apparently she danced up such a storm that she was invited to appear on “Dancing with the Stars!” She added that her children were appalled at the idea. Apparently she wasn’t crazy about it either, as she declined the invitation. As far as I can tell, this little morsel was the only item from the program to be picked up by the press: This just in…Madeleine Albright turns down “Dancing With the Stars” appeared in the Washington Post the next day.

Interestingly, this questioner prefaced her query with the phrase, L’Shanah Tovah. This is the traditional greeting associated with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which fell on September 9 and 10 of this year. Madeleine Albright was born in Prague in 1937. She and her  parents fled Czechoslovakia shortly before it was overrun by the Germans. They spent the war years in England, returning to their native country in 1945. They left again, three years later, to come to the U.S., where they applied for and were granted political asylum.

Albright was raised Catholic and later became an Episcopalian. In 1997, while researching her family’s experience during the war years, she discovered that both her mother and her father had been  born into the Jewish faith. Moreover, many of her relations perished in the Holocaust. I was wondering whether this rather sensitive subject would arise during her time on stage, but it never did. Other than the above cited rather oblique allusion, no one made reference to her personal religious beliefs or history.

I seem to remember that when these facts initially came to light, some controversy arose. I believe this had to do with whether this information was in fact as complete a surprise to Albright as she claimed it was.

Wikipedia has an extensive entry on Albright’s life. Michael Dobbs wrote “Albright’s Family Tragedy Comes To Light” for the Washington Post in 1997. “The Thread of Time,” a thoughtful meditation by Kitty La Perriere, appeared in The Atlantic in 1998.

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Secretary Albright’s appearance was the highlight of a busy day in what we locals call “the District.” The pins themselves – some two hundred of them! –  were on display at the Smithsonian Castle. This was my first visit to that storied venue. Completed in 1855, the Castle was the first building in what became a complex of buildings that today constitutes the Smithsonian Institution.

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After the Secretary’s talk, we went up to the Natural History Museum’s wildly popular Gem Gallery. The star performer here, of course,  is the Hope Diamond Aside from its intrinsic, almost unearthly beauty, this jewel comes freighted with a fascinating history, including a legendary curse. (Wilkie Collins used this trope to wonderful effect in his path breaking novel The Moonstone.)

As beautiful as the Hope Diamond is, there were other gems on display that in my opinion were its equal.

Amethyst necklace

Sapphire and diamond ring

Topaz and diamond earrings

Click here to see and learn more.

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Madeleine Albright was unhesitating in expressing her gratitude to her adopted country. Before a large audience, she was wonderfully frank, colloquial, and witty.  And of course, those of us  who belong to AAUW can feel a special pride in her accomplishments.

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For a musical interlude to accompany this post, I’ve selected one of the great soprano arias in the repertoire: the Jewel Song, from Faust by Charles Gounod. Here it is sung (rather spectacularly, I think) by Angela Gheorghiu:

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“An ingenious and amusing conceit!” – The Labors of Hercules, by Agatha Christie

September 12, 2010 at 10:59 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

The Labors of Hercules is a story cycle comprising twelve tales. These are preceded by a foreword which is a must-read, as it sets up the premise of all that is to follow.

Hercule Poirot and his friend Dr. Burton are taking their ease in Poirot’s flat. Poirot is discussing his plans to retire to the countryside. The following exchange is initiated by a seemingly idle query from Dr. Burton:

“Why Hercule?”
“You mean, my Christian name?”
“Hardly a Christian name,” the other demurred. “Definitely pagan. But why? That’s what I want to know. Father’s fancy? Mother’s whim? If I remember rightly – though my memory isn’t what it was – you also had a brother called Achille, did you not?”
Poirot’s mind raced back over the details of Achille Poirot’s career. Had all that really happened?
“Only for a short space of time,” he replied.
Dr. Burton passed tactfully from the subject of Achille Poirot.

(Want to know more about the mysterious Achille? Click here.)

Dr. Burton inquires of Poirot as to whether he is conversant with the classics. When his interlocutor admits that he is not, the good doctor holds forth on his love of the literature of that period. Almost inevitably, he makes mention of the famous twelve labors of Hercules.

After Dr. Burton has left, Poirot admits to being intrigued by the subject. He sends Miss Lemon forth to obtain a reference work on classical mythology. At first, after studying this  famous legend, Poirot is at first dismissive: “Take this Hercules – this hero! Hero indeed? what was he but a large muscular creature of low intelligence and criminal tendencies!”  (Can’t you just picture David Suchet spluttering indignantly?) And yet, and yet…a seed has been planted…

Poirot decides to take on twelve more cases before he retires. Each one of these must in some way be analogous to a Herculean undertaking from classical literature. Each story title corresponds to one of the labors. In each case, I’ve linked to an explanation of what that labor consisted of.

1. The Nemean Lion.

The “lion” in this story is actually a Pekingese dog, or more accurately, several Pekingese dogs.  Someone is kidnapping the little darlings and holding them for ransom. It’s a clever scheme, and it takes a sleuth with Poirot’s resourcefulness to work out how it is being pulled off – and who is behind it. A cast of spoiled and doting upper class ladies and their hapless “companions,” enlivens the scenario:

Lady Hoggin was a stout, petulant-looking woman with dyed henna red hair. Her companion, the fluttering Miss Carnaby, was a plump, amiable-looking creature between forty and fifty. She treated Lady Hoggin with great deference and was clearly frightened to death of her.

This one of my favorite tales in the collection.

(“Lady’s companion” –  an odd designation, isn’t it? It invariably puts me in mind of a far darker scenario limned in such compelling fashion in the Daphne DuMaurier classic, Rebecca.)

2. The Lernean Hydra.

Dr. Charles Oldfield lives and practices his profession in the small village of Market Loughborough. His wife has recently passed away, having been an invalid for some years prior. Unfortunately, rumors are running rampant in the village as to the cause of her death. It is being whispered that she was poisoned – by none other than her husband, with the possible collusion of his lover. Poirot observes: “Rumor is indeed the nine-headed Hydra of Lernea which cannot be exterminated because as  fast as one head is cropped off two grow in its place.”

The desperate doctor could not agree more. He swears he is innocent and begs Poirot to help him prove it before his livelihood and life are destroyed. As it happens, there are several suspects to hand. Poirot pronounces himself game:

“I have no doubt that the nurse companion talked, that the servants talked, that everyone talked! You have all the materials there for the starting of a very enjoyable village scandal.”

He naturally goes on to save the day – not to mention Dr. Oldfield’s reputation.

3. The Arcadian Deer.

It is winter. Poirot’s  car having broken down on a journey to the countryside, the Belgian detective is obliged to spend the night at an inn while repairs are being effected. Ted Williamson, the garage mechanic, comes to see him with good news about his vehicle. But there’s more. Young Williamson has a request for Poirot.

It seems that in the Spring of that year, he had had occasion to render a service at a nearby country estate called Grasslawn. A famous Russian ballerina, Katrina Samoushenka, was visiting there at the time; she had with her a lady’s maid, a young girl named Nita. When Ted arrived at the estate, Nita was the only person there, all the guests and their host being out for an excursion on the river. Ted and Nita connected. They went for a walk. When they returned to the house, Nita told Ted that her mistress would be returning in two weeks, and she with her. Katrina Samoushenka did indeed  return, but Nita was not with her. Ted has since been unable to learn anything concerning her whereabouts. He wants Poirot to find her for him.

Talk about a needle in a haystack! This will involve traveling to the continent, for Nita is French – or is she Italian? And all this for a young man of exceedingly modest means. But Poirot loves nothing more than a challenge of this nature. And he is touched by Ted’s simple and sincere ardor. He decides to take the case.

Late into this endeavor, Poirot suddenly recalls having once seen Samouchenka perform. The ballet told the story of a Hunter, danced by Michael Novgin, pursuing a Deer. This was Samouchenka:

…he remembered the lovely flying Hind, eternally pursued, eternally desirable – a golden beautiful creature with horns on her head and twinkling bronze feet. He remembered her final collapse, shot and wounded, and Michael Novgin standing bewildered, with the body of the slain Deer in his arms.

“The Arcadian Deer” is an amazing story, with more momentous  events and plot twists crowded into it than some novels I’ve read. It tugs deeply at the heartstrings and is almost unbearably poignant. A masterpiece in miniature.

4. The Erymanthian Boar.

Poirot is supposedly vacationing in Switzerland but finds himself enlisted by the local police in their effort to capture a notorious criminal. Poirot’s former colleague Lementeuil warns him: “It is important, my friend, tht Marrascaud should be taken – and taken alive. He is not a man – he is a wild boar – one of the most dangerous killers alive today.”

Before long, Poirot finds himself marooned at a ski resort high up in the mountains with a curious  cast of characters, one of whom is Schwartz, an overly friendly American. It is the off  season. The funicular, the only means of reaching the resort, has been disabled. And somewhere, possibly hiding in plain sight, is Maarascaud.

5. The Augean Stables.

Of all the labors of Hercules, this is probably the best known. It has given rise to the expression “cleaning the Augean stables,” meaning the cleaning up of a mess of historic proportions (your teenager’s bedroom, for instance).

(In Donna Leon’s latest Guido Brunetti novel, A Question of Belief, Toni Brusca, a friend of Brunetti’s who works for the municipal government, hands him some potentially troubling court documents. When Brunetti asks his friend to what purpose he’s being shown the papers, Brusca replies that he hopes Brunetti will be outraged enough to take some kind of action: “Perhaps that’s what I admire in you, that you can  still hope that things can turn right and Augean Stables will be cleansed.”)

In the highest echelons of government, there is extreme anxiety. The office of the Prime Minister is about to be engulfed in scandal. A scurrilous  rag called the X-Ray News is about to print a damning story about the former Prime Minister, John Hammett. How to counter the outrageous charges – especially when they are, in the main, based on fact? What makes this turn-up especially awkward is the fact  that the current Prime Minister, Edward Ferrier, is John Hammett’s son-in-law.

To the British, John Hammett is a veritable icon:

He represented every quality which was dear to Englishmen….Anecdotes were told of his simple home life, of his fondness for gardening. Corresponding to Baldwin’s pipe and Chamberlain’s umbrella, there was John Hammett’s raincoat. He always carried it – a weather-worn garment. It stood as a symbol – of the English climate, of the prudent forethought of the English race, of their attachment to old possessions.

So the question is: can Poirot possibly do anything to avert this looming disaster? Can he, in other words, cleanse the Augean Stables of this messy confluence of personal malfeasance and journalistic rapacity? Can he save John Hammett’s reputation?

No sooner has Poirot agreed to this undertaking than yet another scandal threatens to blacken the name of an even more unlikely target: John Hammett’s daughter – and Edward Ferrier’s wife – the heretofore immaculate Dagmar Ferrier.

What is going on? Poirot is more determined than ever to serve his adopted country by rendering aid to the besieged. He resorts to a  daring act of subterfuge. Can it possibly succeed? Stay tuned…

6. The Stymphalean Birds.

Harold Waring is in a good place, both physically and metaphorically. His political career is in the ascendant. He is treating himself to a vacation at Lake Stempka, in scenic Herzoslovakia (what a delightful coinage!). And he might be falling in love.

The object of his growing affections is Elsie Clayton. Elsie, who’s  traveling with her congenial mother, is desperate to escape the clutches of an abusive husband. Delicate and vulnerable, Elsie commends herself to Harold’s protective instincts.

Understandably, Harold has taken little notice of the hotel’s other guests. That is until he beholds these two, approaching toward him:

Surely there was something odd about these two women? They had long curved noses, like birds, and their faces, which were curiously alike, were quite immobile. Over their shoulders, they wore loose cloaks that flapped in the wind like the wings of two big birds.
Harold thought to himself:
“They are like birds -” He added, almost without volition, “birds of ill omen.”

But what, if anything, are they harbingers of? That question would seem to have been answered by the unwelcome arrival of Elsie’s estranged – and enraged – husband.

Luckily for Harold Waring, Poirot appears on the scene – late, but still in time to set things aright.

This probably my favorite story in this collection. It is a masterpiece of misdirection, an exceptionally cunning construction even from the Master Plotter herself. “The Stymphalean Birds” is atmospheric and extremely suspenseful; its clever use of doubling and mistaken identity brought to mind one of the most genuinely frightening tales I have ever read: “Don’t Look Now,” by Daphne Du Maurier.

7. The Cretan Bull.

Diana Maberly and Hugh Chandler are deeply in love and planning to be married. But Hugh suddenly breaks off their engagement. The reason? He believes he is going mad.

It seems there’s a hereditary “taint” on Hugh’s father’s side of the family. Some ominous, disturbing acts have lately been committed on or near Lyde Manor, the family estate. Evidence points to Hugh having done these things, either while sleepwalking or in some kind of fugue state. Either way – he certainly cannot marry, and more certainly, cannot father children who could very well inherit this propensity. Hugh’s father, Admiral Chandler, intends to keep his son at the family estate, under lock and key. If the authorities get wind of Hugh’s possibly violent tendencies, they might insist that he be institutionalized.

This state of affairs is devastating not only to Diana but to the Admiral. Hugh is the last of the Chandler line. He had been hoping for grandchildren to carry on the family name and estate, but that can never happen now.

Thing is, though, Diana is a fighter. She’s not accepting this fatalistic conclusion or her broken engagement lying down. She entreats Hercule Poirot to look into the situation. When Poirot arrives at Lyde Manor, he is at once impressed with the fine physique and the virile good looks of Hugh Chandler: “He is the young Bull – yes, one might say the Bull dedicated to Poseidon…A perfect specimen of healthy manhood.” Can this be the same person who is about to descend into the pit of insanity?

It was interesting to encounter, in this story, the peculiar horror of hereditary mental illness that seemed to haunt people of Agatha Christie’s generation. Ngaio Marsh, another Golden Age mystery writer, makes very effective use of this aversion in an early novel called The Nursing Home Murder.

8. The Horses of Diomedes.

In this story, these wild and ungovernable animals are personified by the wild, ungovernable daughters of General Grant of Ashley Lodge in Mertonshire. At the urging of Dr. Stoddart, a young physician friend, Poirot goes to Mertonshire to investigate matters. The girls have gotten involved with drugs and drug dealers, and both Stoddart and Poirot want to put a stop to this dangerous, not to mention illegal, activity.

Before presenting himself at Ashley Lodge, Poirot decides to see what kind of intelligence concerning the Grant family he can obtain from one Lady Carmichael, a friend who lives nearby. He tells her the following: “I emulate my great predecessor Hercules. One of the Labors of Hercules was the taming of the wild horses of Diomedes.”

Now Lady Carmichael is a rather literal soul; at first, she takes it into her head  that Poirot has come into the country in order to train horses! Once reassured that this is not the nature of his errand, she launches into a rant on the subject of classical literature, especially as it is made use by the local clergy:

“I always do think these ancient Greeks and Romans are very unpleasant. I can’t think why clergymen are so fond of quoting the classics – for one thing one never understands what they mean and it always seems to be that the whole subject matter of the classics is very unsuitable  for clergymen. So much incest, and all those statues with nothing on – not that I mind that myself, but you know what clergymen are – quite upset if girls come to church with no stockings on….”

This is Dame Agatha at her most delightful, employing the sly wit that enlivens so much of her work.

“The Horses of Diomedes” has a particular cunning twist at the end – the kind of thing that makes you exclaim, “What? WHAT??”

9. The Girdle of Hyppolita.

This time it’s a case of a purloined painting. Rubens is by no means a favorite artist of Poirot’s; nonetheless, it is a highly esteemed and very valuable work of art, stolen in broad daylight  by means of an audacious ruse. Poirot is about to begin his investigation into the  crime when he is deflected from this course by a more  urgent dilemma: the need to locate a missing schoolgirl. Like the painting, Winnie King had disappeared in broad daylight – and from a train carriage locked at both ends! Here is a classic locked room mystery, given a new twist by the endlessly inventive Dame Agatha.

But what of the painting? Has Poirot forgotten about it, in the rush of activity connected with the search for Winnie King? By no means…

Hyppolita’s hand was on her girdle – she was wearing nothing else…Hercules had a lion skin thrown lightly over one shoulder. The flesh of Rubens is rich voluptuous flesh…

10. The Flock of Geryon.

Miss Carnaby of “The Nemean Lion” makes a return appearance, as does her Pekingese dog, Augustus. Before divulging the essence of her problem to her old friend, Miss Carnaby cannot resist offering this anecdote illustrative of the sheer brilliance of little Augustus:

“We say ‘Die for Sherlock Holmes, die  for Mr. Fortune, die  for Sir Henry Merrivale, and then die for M. Hercule Poirot’ and he goes down and lies like a log – lies absolutely still without moving until we say the word!”

But on to more serious matters…

It seems that her friend, a widow by the name of Emmeline Clegg, has become involved with a fringe religious sect. On the surface, it all seems quite  correct, if a bit eccentric. But the sharp-eyed Miss Carnaby is not fooled. She is determined to rescue Miss Clegg from the clutches of The Flock of the Shepherd and their leader, a Dr. Andersen who styles himself the Great Shepherd.

Poirot devises a plan whereby Miss Carnaby penetrates the Flock by going undercover. Ostensibly, she has come around to her friend’s point of view and is now a committed follower. As such, she takes part in a ritual called the Festival of the Full Pasture. The faithful gather in a group. They wear blindfolds. They extend their arms. Miss Carnaby feels a prick “…a sharp stinging pain like the prick of a needle…”

And then:

She felt suddenly uplifted, happy. She sank down on a soft grassy bank. Why had she ever thought she was a lonely, unwanted middle-aged woman? Life was wonderful – she herself was wonderful! She had the power of thought – of dreaming. There was nothing she could not accomplish!

Just what is going on here? Poirot is pretty sure he knows just what this self-styled “Great Shepherd” is up to. But the proof? Ah, that is another matter…

11. The Apples of the Hesperides.

Poirot’s services are engaged by one Emery Power, a wealthy art collector. Power had paid handsomely for a finely wrought goblet dating from the Renaissance. But before he could take possession of this priceless objet d’art, it was stolen from its owner, the Marchese di San Veretrino. That gentleman had immediately offered Power his money back, but Power does not want the money: he wants the goblet. Why?

“The workmanship is exquisite (it is said to have been made by Benvenuto Cellini). The design represents a tree round which a jewelled serpent is coiled and the apples on the tree are formed of very beautiful emeralds.”

Well heck – I want it too! And to add to its intrinsic beauty: “It is said to be the goblet used by Pope Alexander VI – Roderigo Borgia.” Borgia was apparently in the habit of offering drink to certain of his guests in this lovely vessel. It was often, alas, the last liquid quaffed by said guest in this life.

At its conclusion, “The Apples of the Hesperides” veers off in a direction that for this reader was totally unexpected, more than a bit ironic, and at the same time strangely uplifting.

12. The Capture of Cerberus.

After an absence of some twenty years, the  inimitable Countess Vera Rossakoff reenters Poirot’s life. The Countess made her first appearance in the story “The Double Clue.” (This story first came out in the U.S. in Blue Book Magazine in 1925; it was later anthologized in the collection Double Sin.)

In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson has this to say of Irene Adler: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” One could say the same of Poirot’s feelings for Countess Vera Rossakoff – though in the case of Poirot, those feelings are more overtly tender, if not downright amorous. In “The Double Clue,” the Countess, a member of the dispossessed Russian nobility, is found to be a jewel thief. This discovery is made by none other than Poirot himself. Instead of informing the authorities, however, he facilitates her egress from the country. (The film version features a poignant final scene in which Poirot waves farewell to the Countess’s departing train.)

Eh, bien! To return to the present: just what is the canny and charming Countess up to now? Initially, it’s a hard question to answer. Her surprise meeting with Poirot takes place on opposing escalators: he is heading up; she is heading down. When he calls after her, begging to know where she can be found, her response is beyond enigmatic: “In Hell…”

“Hell” turns out to be a night club currently being run by none other than the Countess herself. But who is financing this audacious high end venture? This and other questions present themselves to Poirot’s ever restless mind. And so he takes himself off to Hell itself, where he finds a veritable constellation of fascinating characters, from the innocently carefree to the distinctly suspect. Among the club’s more distinctive features is the “ruddy great dog” that guards the premises. His name is – what else? – Cerberus.

On the surface, all seems festive and carefree. But Poirot detect sinister undercurrents. He fears that the club and the Countess along with it are being used as a front for a  criminal enterprise. His old friend Inspector Japp validates his suspicions.

Poirot’s task his clear: he must expose the evildoers as quickly as possible. The Countess – the dear Countess! – may herself be in mortal danger.

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These stories work beautifully as cunning little puzzles and masterpieces of misdirection, but in a larger sense, they recreate an entire world. We are back in the early years of the twentieth century. England retains a certain smugness regarding its perceived superior status in the world. The aristocracy still holds sway, but the nouveau riche are fast encroaching on their territory. The revolution in psychiatry and the introduction of psychoanalysis, so revolutionary at the beginning of the century,  still have considerable influence on the way human nature is perceived.

Certain minority groups can be denigrated with impunity. (This criticism is often leveled at the Golden Age writers. It is a whole other subject and is, I believe, reflective of society as a whole in that particular era, not just in Britain but in America as well. Fortunately very little of this offhand verbal cruelty appears in these tales.) Drugs and excessive alcohol consumption were a blight on the landscape, as  they still are.

The stories in The Labors of Hercules are like twelve tiny novels. They are richer in content and character creation than many a full length novel I’ve read, particularly contemporary ones. Each time, the reader is drawn in and riveted – at least, this reader was, even on the second reading.

Michael E. Grost, whose Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has long been my go-to site for information and astute commentary, calls this collection “one of Christie’s most delightful books.” I agree.

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Bonus Features

Readers looking for more information about Agatha Christie’s short stories have a fine new resource to turn to:

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If you’re a long time viewer of the Poirot films starring David Suchet, you may be familiar with a country house that appears repeatedly in the series. The house, called High & Over, is in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. It was built in 1929 by the architect Amyas Connell for his friend Bernard Ashmole. According to the August 4 edition of Country Life Magazine, it is for sale!

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I enjoyed The Tuesday Club Murders, also known as The Thirteen Problems, as much as I did The Labors of Hercules. These stories feature Miss Marple and a circle of her friends, including  her ever solicitous nephew the writer Raymond West, and the retired head of Scotland Yard, Sir Henry Clithering.

If you’ve never seen the film clip in which David Suchet as Poirot and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple meet for the first time in Torquay, Agatha Christie’s birthplace – it appears on this video, about eighteen minutes in:

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“We pass through centuries, and we learn nothing.” – A Question of Belief, by Donna Leon

September 9, 2010 at 1:06 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

It’s summer in Venice. Things are slow at the questura. The heat is so intense, even the criminal element is completely enervated. Commissario Guido Brunetti cannot wait to escape from the city with his family. It will be a well earned vacation, far from the tourist crowds, the oppressive temperatures, the evil-smelling waterways. They are going to the mountains! Cool air, gorgeous scenery, time to relax and read…

Such a beautiful dream.

At times, though, the rank of Commissario places a heavy load on Brunetti’s shoulders – never more so than when a murder occurs on his beat, at a most inopportune moment. The beautiful dream must, alas, be deferred.

The victim, Araldo Fontana, is a mild-mannered civil servant, a man in his fifties who works at the law courts and lives with his mother. A seemingly innocuous individual. Who would desire the death of such a person? Meanwhile there’s another problem. It involves the aunt of Brunetti’s second in command and close friend, Isspettore Lorenzo Vianello. It seems that Vianello’s beloved aunt has lately been pulling large amounts of money out of her savings and giving it to some sort of New Age Healer. You’re a policeman, Lorenzo, his cousins plead with him – do something!

Much have I traveled in the realms of  Leon’s Venice…always this storied city comes alive in her writing. Donna Leon has lived in La Serenissima for over twenty years. Her take on her adopted home is striated with ambivalence. On the one hand, she is angered by corruption, incompetence, and indifference; on the other, she’s inspired by beauty, singularity, and history. And of course, there’s the fabulous food, loveingly described – no ambivalence there!

In Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon has created a modern day knight: a man of goodness, decency, and compassion who strives daily with bureaucratic rigidity, self-indulgence, and downright wickedness. One senses that for him, loving his natal city is akin to loving a wayward but irresistibly charming child. Its virtues outweigh its defects. But not by much. And Brunetti’s situation is made all the more trying by his immediate superiors, who are in thrall to Venice’s high and mighty and who, instead of trying to help him, seem at every turn to make his job more difficult.

But still he perseveres. He does have sources of support. At work, he can always rely on the staunch Vianello and the incredibly resourceful, exotic, and faintly mysterious Signorina Elettra. At home, he is truly blessed. His wife Paola, a university professor and ardent Henry James reader, is astute, passionate, and utterly loyal. Children Raffi and Chiara are every parent’s dream: not perfect – but very, very good.

Guido Brunetti is a philosopher-detective, a genuine intellectual whose idea of leisure reading includes Tacitus and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. He has a wonderful mind; I love the way Leon makes us privy to his ruminations:

He had read so widely in the Greek and Roman historians that he found nothing strange at all in the desire to consult the oracles to fin some way to decipher the messages of the gods. Whether it was the liver of a freshly killed chicken or the patterns made in the air by a flock of birds, the signs were there for those who could interpret them: all that was necessary was someone willing to believe the interpretations, and the deal was done. Cumae or Lourdes; Diana of Ephesus or the Virgin of Fatima: the mouth of the statue moved, and the truth came forth.

Brunetti can seem cynical and world weary, not without cause. But he is also respectful of people’s needs, in particular their need to believe in something larger than themselves. He himself has the same need.

In an effort to find out more about Araldo Fontana, Brunetti and Vianello talk to his cousin Giorgio. This interview brings forth one of the saddest, most poignant conversations I have ever encountered in fiction, rendered as it is in Leon’s flawless, pointillist prose. Once again I was put in mind of Virgil’s phrase lacrimae rerum – the tears of thing, tears of the world – tears for the world, perhaps – our fallen but still striving world.

Donna Leon

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While reading A Question of Belief, I was reminded of Joan Silber’s short story “Gaspara Stampa” (in Ideas of Heaven) and Andrea di Robilant’s tale of his illustrious forebears, A Venetian Affair.

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The soundtrack suggestion for this post is the music of  one of the greatest composers of the Italian Baroque period, Antonio Vivaldi.

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End of summer crime fiction roundup: some good reading here

September 5, 2010 at 1:13 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Poetry, The British police procedural)

A shocking death occurs on the island of Oland, off the coast of Sweden. The death is quickly followed by a case of mistaken identity – or rather, a case of  bad information that  the police should have flagged before it was divulged, causing further damage and pain.

When last I wrote about Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room, I was about half way through the book and found myself spellbound by its strange admixture of dread and grief. As I read on, though, I found that the concentrated force of the first half of this narrative was diluted by the complexity of subsequent developments. In addition, there were numerous flashbacks to earlier events in the lives of various players in the drama. I have to say up front, I’m not a great fan of time shifts in fictional narratives. I prefer straight ahead storytelling. I always think, if it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope – it’s definitely good enough for me! (Yes, I admit there are exceptions…but not many.)

My final verdict is still positive. The evocation of atmosphere, the twists and turns of the story, the vividness of the characters who people this bleak yet compelling landscape – all these qualities ultimately overcame the novel’s deficiencies. And I simply must add: in The Darkest Room, Johan Theorin evokes the specter of human suffering with the deepest compassion and empathy. It is a portrayal on a par with the greats of the nineteenth century mentioned above.

[Kalmar County,  on the southern tip of Oland, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.]

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There are some authors whose books I read regardless of what the reviewers have to say about them. Two of these are skilled practitioners of the police procedural, John Harvey and Barry Maitland. The latter is a fairly recent discovery for me and a I must say, a most welcome one. I’ve been reading the Brock and Kolla novels in no particular order, though I’d rather be reading them in sequence. This is a series in which the characters’ situations, both personal and professional, change and evolve over time. Nevertheless, I am such a fan of Maitland at this point, I intend to read all his books, in whatever order they come my way!

Most recently, I read Babel. Max Springer, a professor of philosophy at a London university, was unalterably opposed to any form of religious extremism. His position included, but was certainly not limited to, Muslim extremists. Springer was not afraid of controversy, nor was he shy about making his views known. So when he is shot dead on the crowded steps of one of the university buildings, it is assumed that his unyielding position on hot  button issues has gotten him killed.

But is it really that simple? Of course not.

Meanwhile, Kathy Kolla is recovering from the traumatic events of Silvermeadow. She’s considering leaving the force – the profession, actually – for good. But  this multilayered case, with its odd implications and complications, and her undiminished bond with her boss and mentor David Brock, still work powerfully upon her.

Many mystery fans, including myself, are delighted to find what I call “added value” in the novels they read. Dick Francis was well known for providing this entertaining diversion in his work. (We miss you, Dick!) I’ve been pleased to encounter it in Maitland’s books. A student working with Professor Springer was doing her doctoral dissertation on Hannah Arendt. In Babel, we learn some interesting things about this seminal figure in twentieth century philosophy. (This is a timely reference; in March, a new book came out whose subject is the relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger: . How’s that cover for an image to haunt your dreams…two people – both brilliant scholars – at a supremely turbulent moment in history, who should never have become lovers – but did.)

Babel is also concerned with the Yemeni community in London. At one point, a character tell David Brock: “‘Did you know that the Yemenis are the oldest Muslim residents of London?'” (This assertion also appears in Wikipedia.) As you may have surmised, Babel takes as its subject matter the presence of Muslim communities in England’s teeming metropolis. This book was published in 2002 but was completed earlier. The following statement by the author appears in the “Acknowledgements” preceding the text:

This book was written before the terrible events of 11 September 2001, at a time when the story of Islam in Britain was less widely discussed than today.

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Other Brock and Kolla novels I’ve enjoyed:

This is my favorite, so far.

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I’ve long been a fan of the novels of John Harvey. Harvey first gained a following in this country with the series featuring Charlie Resnick.  A policeman in Nottingham, Resnick is a most appealing fellow, with his passion for jazz and his four cats named for various jazz greats. Harvey had ostensibly closed out that acclaimed series with Last Rites (1998), but Charlie had a welcome return engagement in 2008’s outstanding Cold in Hand. Meanwhile, Harvey had created a new protagonist, Frank Elder, a retired detective living in Cornwall. Finally, in Gone to Ground (2007), we were introduced to Detective Inspector Will Grayson and Detective Sergeant Helen Walker of Cambridge. Far Cry is the second outing for this pair. (Having trouble keeping track? You’re not the only one. Thanks goodness for Stop! You’re Killing Me, and Harvey’s own website.)

Londoners Ruth and Simon Pierce are devastated by the murder of their teenage daughter Heather. The tragedy destroys their marriage. Ruth, desperate to start over, moves to Cambridge and gets married again, to the solid, dependable Andrew Lawson. Together they have a daughter, Beatrice. A passionate book lover, Ruth is also studying for a degree in library management. On the surface, her life looks good – very good. But the grief is still there. In point of fact, Ruth is haunted – and in more ways than one.

I found Ruth a very appealing, utterly believable character. (And she has excellent literary taste: one of her favorite authors is Rose Tremain.) The same is true for Will Grayson. He is that rara avis in crime fiction: a happily married family man deeply in love with his wife Lorraine. Monogamy suits Will; it brings out the shine in him.

I enjoyed Far Cry, as I’ve enjoyed John Harvey’s other novels.  Although this one ran a bit too long, I recommend it nonetheless. Here’s how Marilyn Stasio begins her review for The New York Times:

A bleeding-heart sensibility isn’t the first thing you expect from a thriller. Unless, of course, the author happens to be John Harvey, whose boundless empathy imparts a grave and tender tone to his bleak crime novels.

Exactly.

One final observation: there’s a bit of misdirection toward the novel’s climax that really threw me off the scent – very cunning!

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Other favorite novels by John Harvey:

I particularly enjoyed this standalone about crime in the art world.

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In a recent post on thrillers, I praised The Silver Bear by Derek Haas. I’d like to take this opportunity to enlarge on those comments.

In this novel, Haas has created a truly fascinating character, a killer for hire whose inner conflicts and propensity for deep thinking make him an intriguing protagonist. He is known only by his adopted name, Columbus.

Columbus has become a contract killer almost by accident. To begin with, he is given the  chance to put to death an individual by whom he has been extremely ill used.  Events are arranged so that the crime goes unsolved. From there, he proceeds to murder for hire. In other words: first, it’s murder for intensely personal reasons; then, it’s murder for money. And of course, once you’re in, you’re in.

Columbus makes some shrewd observations about his almost inadvertently chosen occupation:

To hunt a human being, it is not enough to plot from afar, externally. An assassin must understand his prey by storming the target’s mind the way an army storms enemy territory. He must live, sleep, eat, breathe as the target does, until he has merged with the target, until they are one. To kill a man, he must become the man, so that he can live as himself beyond the man.

Then there’s this:

How does an assassin bring down a good man? He summons up his own iniquity; he measures himself against the man and feeds on the distance he falls short. And where would that road lead, when there was no connection to sever?

Finally, he asks himself this question: “What price would I pay for focusing my hate on myself?” This puts me in mind of Graham Greene’s explanation of why he became a Catholic: “I had to find a religion…to measure my evil against.” In a sense, by choosing the religion of killing and death, Columbus has done the same. Graham Greene’s situation contained within itself the potential for absolution; such is not the case for Columbus.

I could not help comparing Derek Haas’s portrayal of a hit man with that of Lawrence Block in the Keller stories. In Hit Parade, Block went for the subversive and irreverent; the stories  were at times quite humorous. But in Hit and Run, the tone becomes more somber. Keller is faced with an agonizing dilemma, one which Columbus also faces in The Silver Bear; namely, can I have love in my life and still be who – and what – I am?

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I read Robert Goddard’s first book, Past Caring, when it came out in 1986. What I chiefly remember about it was the wonderful writing, the exotic atmosphere, and the intriguing plot. Two years later came In Pale Battalions. This is both  a love story and a tale of suspense; it begins during the First World War. I recall being enraptured by this novel and have long intended to re-read it. This review has reawakened that resolve.

I’ve been returning to Goddard’s elegant thrillers off and on for over twenty years. Just recently I read Long Time Coming. This is a story that moves back and forth in time, primarily from 1976 to 1940. Having ditched both a career and a fiancee in Houston, Texas, Stephen Swan has returned home to live with his widowed mother while he decides what  to do next. To his surprise, he learns that an uncle he had thought was long dead is not only alive but is currently living in his mother’s house. Eldritch Swan, now in his late sixties and wheezing with smoker’s cough, also needs to figure out his next move.  But unlike Stephen, Eldritch is nearly destitute. Why? He has just been released from an Irish prison, where he spent the last 36 years. Eldritch has a score to settle and reparations to claim. And before he knows what’s happening, Stephen gets drawn in to his uncle’s schemes – and into his past as well. That past involves a shady diamond merchant and stolen (and possibly forged) paintings by Picasso. And this is just the beginning.

Long Time Coming is a fiendishly complex novel full of unexpected twists and turns. Clocking in at over 400 pages, it ran a bit long. The time shifts could be confusing. But overall I enjoyed it, as I have every novel I’ve read by this fine writer.

Here’s Part One of an interview with Robert Goddard by Barbara Peters of the legendary Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Click here for the second and third parts of the interview.

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I’ve always meant to seek out the source of the title In Pale Battalions. It comes from a poem entitled, “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead:”

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the overcrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all this for evermore.

The author, Charles Hamilton Sorley, was killed in World War One. This poem was found among his belongings after his death.

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In Other Rooms, Other Wonders – a book discussion

September 1, 2010 at 11:40 am (Book clubs, books)

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a story collection by Daniyal Mueenuddin, elicited a spirited discussion at a recent gathering of the Literary Ladies. Nancy provided us with fascinating background on this author. Son of a Pakistani father and an American mother, Mueenuddin obtained a creme de la creme education in the U.S.:  B.A. with honors from Dartmouth, law degree from Yale. He has lived alternately in this country and in Pakistan, where currently resides on his family’s farm. There’s more about this author on Wikipedia.

We agreed that in these compelling tales,  Mueenuddin effectively depicts the inner workings of Pakistan’s landed gentry and its choke  hold on that country’s social apparatus. Mobility, Nancy told us, is virtually impossible. If you are poor, you stay poor. The goal is not to become utterly destitute. There are signs, however, that  this ossified system is in the process of giving way, under pressure from the younger generation. “Upstarts Chip Away at Power of Pakistani’s Elite,” a story in this past Sunday’s New York Times, addresses just this subject.

What a pleasure to engage in vigorous discourse with fellow book lovers! A number of additional recommendations were made in the course of this discussion. These are  the titles I can specifically recall:

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

Each of these novels was thought to have some bearing on the content of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders:

Pakistan has been much in the news lately because of the terrible floods that are occurring there. Nancy’s husband was born in the Sindh region, much of which is now tragically inundated.

Click here for a video featuring Daniyal Mueenuddin and Mohsin Hamid. (A brief ad precedes the content.)

Below is an interview that appeared on India’s NDTV:

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