“There is evil. And evil is powerful. Sometimes more powerful than good.” – The Pale Horse, by Agatha Christie

November 28, 2010 at 1:12 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Mark Easterbrook is a writer, a specialist in the Mogul period of India’s history. Idling away the time in a coffee bar in Chelsea, he admits to being both preoccupied and unworldly:  “I was oblivious of my surroundings except for the tools of my trade, and the neighbourhood in which I lived was completely indifferent to me; I existed in a world of my own.” Except that at the moment, that world is offering Mark singularly few satisfactions. Work on his book has stalled, and a certain world weariness has set in: “Mogul architecture, Mogul emperors, the Mogul way of life – and all the fascinating problems it raised, became suddenly as dust and ashes. What did they matter? Why did I want to write about them?”

As can happen in moments like these, the external world suddenly comes into sharp focus. Two young couples are sharing another table in the coffee bar, and a dispute has erupted between the two women, respectively named Lou and Thomasina. Suddenly the fight becomes physical: Lou is actually tearing Tommy’s hair out by the roots!

Eventually the uproar subsides and both couples depart the coffee bar. Mark  himself leaves shortly thereafter, intending to put the incident out of his mind. But a week later, while reading a newspaper, he spots an obituary for Thomasina Tucker.  According to the notice in The Times, a brief and virulent illness carried the young woman off.

But Mark does not have time to ruminate on the implications of this sudden and unexpected death. He must attend to his own affairs. Chief among those is the need to pay a visit to a friend of his , the writer Ariadne Oliver, in order to beg a favor on behalf of his cousin Rhoda Despard. Rhoda lives in the village of Much Deeping, where a church fete is soon to be held. Could Mark convince Ariadne Oliver to come and sign her books at this fundraising event?

Ariadne Oliver writes crime fiction, and when Mark first arrives at her flat, she is agonizing over how to advance the plot of her latest novel: “‘But why,’ demanded Mrs. Oliver of the universe, ‘why doesn’t the idiot say at once that he saw the cockatoo?'” She goes on to rail about the difficulties inherent in the writing of murder mysteries:

‘Say what you like, it’s not natural for five or six people to be on the spot when B is murdered and all to have a motive  for killing B – unless, that is, B is absolutely madly unpleasant and in that case nobody will mind whether he’s been killed or not, and doesn’t care in the least who’s done it.’

This interlude serves as delightful comic relief, and it’s hard not to think that Ariadne Oliver is actually a stand-in for Christie herself.

While all of this comparative levity is taking place, events of a decidedly more sinister nature are unfolding elsewhere in the city. Father Gorman, a parish priest, has been called to the bedside of a dying woman. Mrs Davis requires that the last rites  be administered, but that is not all. She also has an urgent need to unburden herself of a terrible secret. She gives Father Gorman a list of names and pleads with him to take action regarding them.The priest’s possession of this information seals his own fate.

When we next encounter Mark Easterbrook, he has been to see MacBeth at the Old Vic, accompanied by his lady friend Hermia Redcliffe. After the performance, Mark and Hermia dine out at a restaurant called  the Fantasie, where they meet up with Mark’s friend David Ardingly, a lecturer in history at Oxford, and David’s date, a seemingly vacuous young woman called Poppy.

There ensues a lively discussion of  MacBeth. David has his own ideas about the witches should be portrayed: “I’d make them very ordinary. Just sly quiet old women. Like the witches in a country village.” There follows a lively debate as to whether there actually are witches in the villages of England. Hermia then comments on what she considers to have been the especially striking aspects of the Old Vic’s production:

“That scene with the doctor, after the sleepwalking scene. ‘Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d?’ He made clear what I’d never thought of before – that he was really ordering the doctor to kill her.  And yet he loved his wife.  He brought out the struggle between his fear and his love.

Shortly thereafter, the subject of how to arrange a murder for hire comes up. David exclaims, “How convenient if you could ring up Harrods and say, ‘Please send along two good murderers, will you?'” This quip causes laughter all around. But then Poppy offers this rejoinder: “But one can do that in a way, can’t one?” This renders the entire party speechless. When David presses her to explain herself, she mumbles something about the Pale Horse. The others remain stupefied. The topic is dropped.

But Mark will be hearing more – much more – about The Pale Horse…

And now we proceed to that venerable tradition of rural England, the church fete. In addition to the appearance of Ariadne Oliver, a starlet’s presence adds a touch of glamor to the festivities at Much Deeping. She speaks”…a few moving words about the plight of refugees which puzzled everybody, since the object of the fete was the restoration of the church tower.”

At any rate, the fete is a great success. Mark has been staying with his cousin, and they all decide to visit a few of the village notables. One is a Mr. Venables, a deeply cultured man disabled by polio some years back. The party then proceed to visit three rather strange women who live in a sort of deconsecrated pub.They are Thyrza Grey, Bella Webb, and Sybil Stamfordis. They’re famous, among other things, for the seances they hold. They have retained the name of the former pub as the name of their dwelling place. That name is: The Pale Horse.

Echoes of the three witches from MacBeth? Most assuredly.

It would be hard to say more about the plot without giving too much away. Instead, I’d like to focus on the various aspects of this novel that made it, for me at least, such a terrific read. The Pale Horse comes relatively late in Christie’s oeuvre, having been published in 1961. It seems to me to be informed by a somewhat more worldly sensibility, as  compared to the author’s earlier works. The wit sparkles, and a sense of irony percolates just beneath the surface of the narrative. The allusions to Shakespeare are apt, enriching, and relevant.

But above all, there is the supreme inventiveness of the plot. All along the way, from beginning to end, Christie scatters crucial bits of information like crumbs dropped by Hansel and Gretel. It is only as the action reaches its climax that you fully comprehend their significance.

In the words of John Curran, author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, “The Pale Horse has a horribly plausible plot…”  Curran’s phrase is eerily apt. When the realization dawned on me as to just how a number of seemingly random deaths have been in fact deliberately made to happen, I was appalled. I couldn’t stop thinking, This could work – This awful scheme could actually work!  This realization evokes – again, in the words of John Curran – “…a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.”

He’s hit the nail on the head. There’s a fair amount of discussion in this novel of the nature of evil, and it isn’t merely idle speculation. It is informed, and rightly so, with a sense of urgency. Mark Easterbrook, his friend Ginger Corrigan, Inspector LeJeune, and the vicar’s wife Mrs. Dane Calthrop – all know that they are up against a truly fiendish conspiracy. It will take more than talk to break its back. It will take action, and a willingness to put one’s life on the line.

At one point, as Mark is drawing close to the dangerous truth, he pays a visit to Mrs. Dane Calthrop. Her unwavering support and her equally staunch belief in him have strengthened Mark’s resolve. As he prepares to leave the sanctuary of the vicarage, he takes note of his surroundings:  “I looked out over the richness of the autumn world. Such soft still beauty…” At this moment, all he can think of to say is the prayer with which Hamlet arms himself  as he confronts his father’s ghost for the first time:

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!

To which Mrs. Dane Calthrop can only add: “Amen.”

There were moments in this story when the tension was so great, I was on the edge of my seat. And as if that were not sufficient, there’s another source of suspense: Two people are falling in love. They do not know it  – but we do. (I enjoy my mysteries served up with a generous side of romance – don’t you?)


I actually listened to The Pale Horse before I read it. The superb narration was by Hugh Fraser, well known to us fans of the Poirot films as Captain Arthur Hastings. I highly recommend this recorded book. (And I also recommend this novel to book discussion groups.)

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Song for Etta Lin

November 23, 2010 at 9:56 pm (Family)

To be sung to the tune of “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things:”

Binkies and bottles and iPads and iPhones

Laptops and burp cloths and –

“Wait – Where is my phone?”

Digital cameras and monitors too;

This last, little Etta, to keep tabs on you!

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Amazon’s best history books of 2010

November 22, 2010 at 2:41 am (books)

Amazon has posted its list of  the best history books of 2010. To my delight, I spotted two titles that will definitely make my own list of favorites from this year: The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum, and The Fall of the House of Walworth by Geoffrey O’Brien.


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“His Brattleboro policeman is human and his landscapes are brilliant.” – Red Herring by Archer Mayor

November 19, 2010 at 3:29 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Red Herring opens with the death of Doreen Ferenc,  a seemingly blameless, ordinary woman. Age fifty-four and living alone, she had been getting ready for bed when the bell rang and she opened the door to her killer.

Doreen’s brutal murder is bad enough. But it is only the beginning…

That crime, and those that follow, are disturbing in the extreme. Even so, I experienced great pleasure in being back in the company of agent Joe Gunther and his team at the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. And yes, that included Willy Kunkel. Pleasure in the company of the irascible, perverse, and supremely rude Kunkel? All things are possible; certainly Sammie Martens, his  fellow officer and live-in girlfriend, has found in Willy some redeeming qualities. Joe himself has fought for Willy’s inclusion in the force, despite the latter’s difficult personality and physical disability. Willy has a withered arm, due to a gunshot wound that never healed  correctly.  This in no way hampers his dexterity with a firearm, however.

The murder of Doreen Ferenc is followed by yet more killings. Again, the victims are seemingly innocent individuals, going about the daily business of their lives. Joe and his fellow investigators are baffled. Is there a serial killer abroad, shattering the pastoral serenity of Vermont? Or are these crimes connected for a very different reason?

Joe has his hands full coordinating this complex investigation. In addition, the state’s political scene is heating up. with Joe’s former girlfriend Gail Zigman running for governor.  This is an occasional distraction, with Joe’s current love interest, Lyn Silva, distracting him even further.

As with all the titles in this terrific series, an ardor for the beauty of the Green Mountain State permeates Red Herring:

From his point on the crest of the hill, Joe could see southward down several miles of gently winding Connecticut River.Near Ascutney Mountain, the Connecticut Valley opened up to offer some of the best that this region had to offer photogenically – rolling farms, silvery ponds, the occasional proud church spire, gleaming white. He’d always thought that if this wasn’t balm for the soul in all of us, the species was indeed in dire shape.

On his site Landscapes of Crime, Dartmouth Professor G. J. Demko has this to say about the Joe Gunther series: ‘Bucolic and lovely Vermont has little crime but a remarkably talented mystery writer in Archer Mayor. His Brattleboro policeman is human and his landscapes are brilliant.’

Mayor’s site offers additional video segments, plus other interesting features.

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“Wow! What a fabulous show!” – Henry VIII at the Folger Theatre, Sunday November 7, 2010

November 15, 2010 at 7:24 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

“All good people, /  Pray for me. I must now forsake ye.” Thus does the Duke of Buckingham go to his ordained end.

The Duke’s deeply moving words of farewell are spoken with a quiet eloquence by actor Stephen Patrick Martin. Although he has been falsely accused and convicted, Buckingham faces death with stoic  courage. He is generous and forgiving, which is more than can be said of his scheming adversaries.

The powerful Cardinal Wolsey is also heading for a fall. It’s the way things go at the court of King Henry VIII – on top of the world one minute, awaiting execution the next. Wolsey cannot but reflect bitterly on the irony of a situation brought about by his own overweening actions, freely chosen:

Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.

Anthony Cochrane, whose sonorous baritone richly conveys the turbulent emotions of Cardinal Wolsey as he contemplates his own ruin

Finally, there’s the noble Katharine of Aragon (Naomi Jacobson), set aside after two decades of marriage so  that the King can marry Anne Boleyn. Like Buckingham, Katharine faces death with a noble mien:

Remember me
In all humility unto his highness:
Say his long trouble now is passing
Out of this world; tell him, in death I bless’d him,
For so I will. Mine eyes grow dim. Farewell,
My lord. Griffith, farewell. Nay, Patience,
You must not leave me yet: I must to bed;
Call in more women. When I am dead, good wench,
Let me be used with honour: strew me over
With maiden flowers, that all the world may know
I was a chaste wife to my grave: embalm me,
Then lay me forth: although unqueen’d, yet like
A queen, and daughter to a king, inter me.
I can no more.

In latter years, Henry VIII has come to be thought of as a problematic play, largely due to its odd structure. In our program, in the “Dramaturg’s Notes,” Michele Osherow informs us that the cast and crew received the good wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury. His Excellency went on to comment that “Henry VIII is a play very seldom performed these days, in this country at least.” (Osherow notes that the play was, in fact, made part of this past summer season at the Globe Theatre in London.)

In an essay at the back of the Folger edition of Henry VIII, Barbara A. Mowat explains the two different views that critics hold concerning this vexed question of the play’s structure. The first group see in Henry VII what Mowat calls an essentially “providential” element. In this interpretation, the play’s action follows what Mowat terms a

….comic parabola, a progression of events  leading to the play’s significant moment: the birth and christening of Elizabeth and Cranmer’s prophetic vision – a vision of a new Golden Age when the royal infant will grow up to be a “pattern to all princes” and of an England in which, under Queen Elizabeth, “every man shall eat in safety / Under his own vine what he plants / and sing / The merry songs of peace to all his neighbors.”

(A bit of elucidation here: Archbishop Cranmer, played by Nathan James Bennett, is Wolsey’s more biddable successor. His speech predicting great things for the infant Elizabeth is certainly stirring. The first recorded performance of Henry VIII took place in 1613. By that time, Good Queen Bess had been dead for some ten years, her accomplishments already recorded in history’s ledger. Cranmer’s encomium has, therefore, the benefit of hindsight.)

The play appears to other commentators as exemplifying a pattern known as the Wheel of Fortune:

They argue that the play focuses our attention and our sympathy on three of Henry’s victims in turn – Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey – and that the unifying design of the play is a series of linked circles, a repeated pattern of rises and falls on Fortune’s wheel, a pattern that the still moment of Elizabeth’s christening interrupts only briefly.

(All this talk of Fortune’s inexorable and cyclical motion put me in mind of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. I looked the piece up on Wikipedia and was greeted with the sight of Fortune’s Wheel, in the form of an illustration that appeared on the original score of this highly original and inventive musical meditation on the inscrutable workings of fate: .  Here is the “O Fortuna” from the Carmina Burana:

Click here for the English translation.)

The “providential” school sees the play as essentially a comedy, with England itself as the hero. The Wheel of Fortune critics tend more toward the tragic view.

At the play’s conclusion, Anne Boleyn is in the ascendant, and we all know what eventually happened to her. O Fortuna indeed… 

I came to this performance never having seen or read Henry VIII. For me, one of the great pleasures of the Folger productions has been the opportunity to approach certain of the Shakespeare plays “cold” and evaluate the experience as a neophyte playgoer.  Two of my favorite occasions that took place along those lines were Measure  for Measure and A Winter’s Tale. In both cases, the Bard worked his magic on me, seemingly without effort.

Although I was not especially au fait concerning the niceties of the intrigues at the King’s court, I of course knew the broad outline of the story of King Henry VIII. This is no doubt true of even casual students of English history. The drama inherent in Henry’s  struggle to put by his loyal and long suffering queen so that he can marry his would-be paramour is justly famous. On one level, it is a very human tale; on another, because of the dramatis personae and their importance on the world stage at the time, the outcome was bound to be, as they say nowadays,a  game changer.

Religious conflict was at the heart of this seismic overthrow, but you would not necessarily know that watching this play. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom observes:

Shakespeare, with his customary political caution, avoids any suggestion that Henry is particularly culpable when his favorites fall, though the playwright also never quite exonerates the king. Even the Catholic-Protestant confrontation is so muted that Shakespeare hardly appears to take sides.

I loved this production; so, for the most part, did the reviewers. Mark Lee Adams begins his write-up in ShowBizRadio with the exclamation “Wow! What a fabulous show!” Peter Marks’s review in the Washington Post was somewhat less effusive but still, on the whole, positive. And click here for Robert Aubrey’s enthusiastic rave on About Town.

Fabulous costumes; terrific acting – Ian Merrill Peakes excels once again in the lead role – and of course the inimitable poetry of William Shakespeare made for a wonderful theater going experience.


Thomas Cromwell is a minor figure in this play, but he is the chief protagonist in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Through Cromwell’s eyes we see the destabilising chaos caused by Henry’s obsession with Anne Boleyn and his equally obsessive fixation on the need to provide a male heir to England’s throne. Mantel’s riveting novel was much on my mind as I watched the doings on stage.


During the initial performance of Henry VIII (alternatively titled All Is True), the Globe Theatre caught fire. Several eyewitness accounts of this event survive, probably the best known being contained in a letter from Sir Henry Wotton to a friend:

“… I will entertain you at the present with what happened this week at the Banks side. The King’s players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry the Eighth, which set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty even to the matting of the stage; the knights of the order with their Georges and Garter, the guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within awhile to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the paper or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but idle smoak, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabrick, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale.”

One especially appreciates that last bit. Can’t you just see a contemporary headline: “Man with Pants on Fire Doused with Beer!!”

For more on this – the actual fire, I mean – see the Globe Theatre site.


The Folger production of Henry VIII has extended its run through to November 28. Therefore: hie thee with all due haste to the Folger’s box office! Should you obtain tickets, the schematic below may be of use to you:

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“She is a maestro.” – Jane Smiley on Rose Tremain

November 13, 2010 at 2:51 am (books)

One favorite writer’s praise of another, equally favored, surely represents one of the chief joys of the reading life. In this case I refer to Jane Smiley’s review of Rose Tremain’s latest novel, Trespass.

Jane Smiley

Smiley takes the time to praise The Road Home, a book I thoroughly enjoyed, before going on to extol the virtues of Trespass. Rose Tremain is a novelist that more American readers need to know about. Her literate, graceful prose and gift for creating fascinating, multidimensional characters are firmly in the tradition of the British novel writing.

I greatly look forward to reading Trespass, which was on this year’s Man Booker Prize long list. It sounds unlike this author’s other novels, but then Rose Tremain never writes the same book twice. Jane Smiley says of her: “She seems ready to try any form, any style, even any worldview….” Smiley also offers the following observation: “The sinister mood of ‘Trespass’ is considerably different from the social realist one of ”The Road Home,’ showing once again that Tremain is as ambitious as her better known male compatriots.” The “male compatriots” link will take you to a review of The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis. My guess is that Smiley also has in mind Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan. I’ve not read Amis, but I’m a big fan of both Barnes and McEwan. Nevertheless, Jane Smiley has a point: Rose Tremain is most assuredly in their league.

Rose Tremain

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Portobello by Ruth Rendell, with an admittedly subjective meditation on this author’s peculiar genius

November 8, 2010 at 2:16 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

A physician and an art gallery owner fall in love.

A small time hood nurtures big time dreams.

A young man pulled back from the brink of death nurses an increasingly bizarre delusion.

What can these four people possibly have in common? They all live in the London neighborhood of Notting Hill. Also found in Notting Hill: the famous market in Portobello Road.

Eugene Wren, a fastidious aesthete, has fallen in love with Dr. Ella Cotswold. (Lovely name, that.) She returns his affection and impatiently awaits his proposal of marriage. But Eugene has a problem: he is in thrall to an obsession, one might even call it, as he himself does, an addiction. In his own eyes, it is a shameful thing, and one which he desperately wants to be kept secret – especially from his beloved Ella.

Meanwhile Ella is dealing with a uniquely challenging new patient. Joel Roseman’s weak heart required surgery. Although he nearly dies on the operating table, Joel ultimately pulls through. The procedure is a success – at least, from a medical standpoint. But during that brief time in which he hovered between life and death, something “rich and strange” happened to Joel. Up until the time of his hospitalization, he had been leading a solitary existence. But now he is no longer alone. And he is convinced that Ella is the only person who can help him.

At one point, Ella and Eugene both feel the need to get away from their busy London lives. But Eugene does not take sufficient care to secure his elegantly appointed premises. When he and Ella return, they discover that there’s been a break-in. Some valuable objets d’art are missing; even more distressing, a gold necklace set with green stones, a carefully chosen gift to Ella, is also gone. They can’t imagine who could have perpetrated this outrage.

But we can…

His name is Lance Platt. He lives with his Uncle Gib – not really his uncle, as Gib is always at pains to point out, but it’s a convenient designation all the same. Lance was in need of a place to stay after his girlfriend Gemma kicked him out of her flat. They’d had a fight that turned physical; as a result, Gemma was missing one of her front teeth. Despite this, she softens toward Lance and starts sleeping with him again over at Uncle Gib’s. They can’t get together at her place because she’s got another live-in boyfriend on the premises. To add to the confusion, Gemma also has a baby, inexplicably named Abelard, whose care she’s constantly needing to arrange.

Lance lives, as the British say, on the  benefit. He considers himself more or less unemployable and turns to theft and the fencing of stolen goods as a way of making ends meet. But right from the outset, you know this will not work for him. Lance is a bumbler from the get-go. He simply doesn’t have the smarts to make it on the street. In one scene, he spends an inordinate amount of time in an unlawfully entered premises eating a chocolate cake that his victim had placed in the fridge!

These characters’ lives are woven together with a kind of scary randomness. In his review of this novel Stephen King says: “No one surpasses Ruth Rendell when it comes to stories of obsession, instability, and malignant coincidence….” I particular like that last phrase. I guess the other name you could call it by would be bad luck.

In recent days I’ve been indulging, by means of audiobook, in my own personal Rendell retrospective. I’ve listened to two Wexford novels, End in Tears, read by John Lee, and Not in the Flesh, read by Simon Vance. In the process, I was trying  to get at the crux of why this author’s work attracts me so strongly. To begin with,I like Rendell’s deeply ironic world view, which strikes me as quintessentially English. There’s the grim fatalism as well. The characters at times seem like types – the author’s unique types; at other times, they seem more uniquely themselves. I love the way she sets a scene, her economy of expression, the almost pointillist precision with which she describes a feeling or evokes a mood.

Above all, I am awed by Rendell’s ability to portray the human spirit suffering the most abject torment. Here is Eugene Wren, in thrall to that which he cannot do without:

He thought of them this way now, the classic addict’s reaction, needing but hating, longing but loathing. The bloody things.

Luckily for those of us under her spell, Ruth Rendell is extremely prolific. Click here to see the breakdown of her oeuvre on the Stop, You’re Killing Me! site. Contemporary Writers features an insightful essay, biographical information, and a straightforward listing of her works. Finally, Demons in her View is a helpful and informative site. I particularly appreciate the list of  stories. Rendell is a master of the short form; I believe that anyone seeking a full understanding of her art should read them.

As to specific recommendations, I felt confounded as soon as I began trying to winnow out my favorites. Then I decided to try settling on a favorite in each of four categories: the Wexfords; the psychological suspense novels not featuring Wexford (and not, as those books are, primarily police procedurals); books written as Barbara Vine; and the short stories. It should have helped that there is still so much I haven’t read (thank goodness!), but it wasn’t helping much.

The Wexford novels are superb procedurals. Wexford is a refreshingly normal man, with a wife, Dora, and two daughters, Sheila and Sylvia. He adores them, but not ostentatiously. In the  course of the series, the daughters grow up, marry, and in one case, divorce. Wexford finds that his affections flow more easily toward Sheila, the beautiful free-spirited actress. Sylvia tends to be more strict and judgmental. Wexford feels guilty about this unbidden preference and tends to overcompensate for it. My most vivid memory of The Babes in the Wood is that at the novel’s climax, Wexford gets the chance to show by his actions just how much he really does love Sylvia.  Those  actions constitute an instinctual response to a crisis, so he hasn’t thought them out in those terms, but afterward, there is no question in Sylvia’s mind about his devotion – there probably wasn’t, to begin with – but even more important, no question in her father’s own mind and heart either.

I very much enjoyed revisiting End in Tears and Not in the Flesh. John Lee and Simon Vance are  both excellent readers; particularly Lee, who could read the phone book and have me entranced! Of the two, I think Not in the Flesh is the stronger work. The mystery involves trying to match several reported missing persons with two sets of unidentified remains. This was a fascinating case. There is a subplot in which Rendell addresses a subject that most of us would rather not know about: female circumcision. There is a growing population of Somali immigrants in Kingsmarkham, some of whom are known to favor this practice, which is against the law in Britain.

In both End in Tears and Not in the Flesh, we get to know DI Hannah Goldsmith. I find Hannah an intriguing character study. She ‘s a very modern young woman, with firm feminist convictions. She thinks of herself as being in complete control of her emotions, so her powerful attraction to a fellow squad member Baljinder Bhattacharya is most inconvenient. But another of her cherished principles involves being honest with herself, so finally she’s forced to acknowledge her longing for Bal – at least, in her own thoughts:

Oh I do like a thin man with a concave belly and a profile like a hawk winging its way across the plains of the Punjab….

Lovely flight of fancy, that. By this time, I too was ready to fall in love (vicariously, of course) with Bal Bhattacharya!

Hannah’s judgmental tendencies reminded me of Mike Burden, Wexford’s longtime right hand man.  The two have been working together for so long that despite a fairly wide disparity in temperament,  they’ve become close personal friends. In his youth, Mike suffered the loss of his wife. As a result, his life is thrown into a chaotic state. Among other considerations, he’s had to arrange care for his small children, but the chaos extends beyond domestic difficulties. In No More Dying Then, Mike behaves in a manner completely out of character and rife with risk.  Wexford’s unstinting empathy and loyalty during this period is instrumental in cementing their friendship. 

Of  the twenty-two novels in this series, I’ve read eleven and enjoyed all of them. Special mention should be made of Simisola, with its unflinching look at racial prejudice and social dysfunction in the England of the mid 1990’s. ( The book also has the distinction of depicting what is surely one of the most egregious, shocking errors ever perpetrated by a fictional police force.) Kudos too to Harm Done, with its subtle and graceful homage to Josephine Tey.

Washington Post writer Michael Sims began his review of last year’s Wexford, The Monster in the Box, with this statement: “One of the best-written detective series in the genre’s history is ending.” While I am saddened by this revelation, readers have no choice but to accept and respect such decisions. (Colin Dexter’s conclusion of the Morse opus is another case in point.) It’s the old adage: Quit while you’re still at the top of your game. In my view, The Monster in the Box was as good as any novel in the series.  And now perhaps I’ll have a chance to read the earlier entries, and of course, to revisit my favorites via audiobook.


I read my first Rendell work shortly after coming to work in the library in 1982. It was Make Death Love Me, a non-Wexford that came out in 1979. Sadly, the library no longer owns this title; moreover, it is currently out of print. (You can get it on the Amazon Kindle, though. Oh dear…I may be weakening…)

Other standouts in this group:

But the masterpiece – an almost perfect novel from its famously confounding first sentence  to its shattering conclusion – is Judgement in Stone. No one is better than Ruth Rendell at showing the corrosive effects of  a secret shame (a theme she revisits once again with great success in Portobello). In my opinion, Judgement in Stone is destined to join the ranks of the great classics of psychological suspense.

Ruth Rendell


More on the short stories and the Barbara Vine novels in a subsequent post.

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The Columbia Pro Cantare greatly dares – and greatly triumphs

November 1, 2010 at 8:27 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

For their October program, the Pro Cantare Singers of Columbia usually present a large scale choral work. In recent years I’ve had the pleasure of hearing them perform the Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, the oratorio Elijah by Mendelssohn, and Requiem masses by Faure, Verdi, and Mozart.

This year, for the season opener this past Saturday night, the Pro Cantare went with an eclectic mix of shorter works, calling the program Fall Festival of Favorites. First up were a motet and a cantata by Bach. This made me very happy, especially since I’ll be missing my monthly pilgrimage to the Bach performance at Christ Lutheran Church in Baltimore. The next date is Sunday November 7, and I have tickets for Henry VIII at the Folger Theatre in the District. (Ah, the trials and tribulations of a Culture Vulture.)

First, Dr. Barbara Renton enlightened us as to what we were about to hear. Dr. Renton is one of the best pre-concert lecturers I’ve heard: lively, witty, and knowledgeable. Her love of the music shone through her graceful words. At one point, she played a few opening measures of one of the Mahler lieder; then she exclaimed, with real yearning in her voice: “I hated to stop that.” Well, of course, Mahler will do that to you. Dr. Renton also wrote the evening’s program notes.

The Bach motet was entitles, “Singet Dem Herrn Ein Neues Lied” (BWV 225).  This translates as “Sing to the Lord a New Song.” Here is an excerpt, sung by the Gachinger Kantorei and directed by Helmuth Rilling:

The second piece was “Ich Habe Genug”  – “It Is Enough” (BWV 82).  This cantata for solo voice takes its text  from the gospel of Luke, It has been revealed to the elderly Simeon that before he dies,  he will behold the Messiah. This does indeed come to pass when Mary and Joseph, carrying the infant Jesus, enter the temple where Simeon is waiting. Overjoyed, Simeon takes the child in his arms and exclaims, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation…”

What a beautiful and moving story.

Our soloist was the dependably wonderful MaryAnn McCormick.

Here is the opening section of the cantata, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

The second part of the evening’s offerings began with five selections from Romanzen und Balladen III by Robert Schumann. These lovely songs were sung a cappella by the Pro Cantare Chamber Singers. Here is “Die Nonne” (The Nun), sung by the choir of the Hochschule Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt:

In this poignant lyric, a young woman laments her betrayal by the man she loves. As the title indicates, she has retreated to a convent. One wonders what her story is, but one will never know. In the program notes, beneath the title, are the words, “Poet Unknown.” It is a sad but not uncommon story, and it put me in mind of the British folk song “Early One Morning,” sung so memorably by the King’s Singers on one of my all time favorite albums:  .

Next, three selections from the Ruckert Lieder by Gustav Mahler. In her introductory remarks, Dr. Renton explained that Friedrich Ruckert wrote these poems in part to demonstrate that intense lyricism could be conveyed in the German language as well as in Italian and French. Once again, MaryAnn McCormick sang, accompanied on the piano by Alison Matuskey

At the conclusion of the final song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I have  become lost to the world), my friend Emma leaned over and whispered to me, “I was holding my breath!” I knew what she meant. Mahler’s long, slow melodic lines engender the feeling that time itself is about to stop.

Here is Jessye Norman, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic led by Zubin Mehta in this performance from 1989:

Click here for the original German and the English translation of this poem.

Next, another change, and an always welcome one at that: Mozart. First we heard Regina Coeli K. 276. This is Mozart at  his most exuberant. The work is sung here by the Vienna Boys’ Choir; it also features four soloists:

During the applause, Ron and I turned to each other, our eyes shining. This is why we love Mozart, I said, and he agreed.

Then came the beloved Ave Verum Corpus, K. 618. This is the other Mozart: meditative and reverent. Here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and chorus. The tempo is somewhat eccentric, but the playing and singing are beautiful nonetheless. I find this clip very moving. The performance took place in 1990, in the final year of Bernstein’s life.

Next on the program was Agnus Dei by Samuel Barber. Dr. Renton had told us that we’d recognize the melody: it was  the composer’s famous Adagio for Strings. Ron has always preferred the original string quartet version of this, and we weren’t sure how we’d feel about this reworking for large chorus. In the event, we both thought it sublime. (The next day, I spoke with an acquaintance if mine who sings with the Pro Cantare. She said she was so moved by the beauty of the Agnus Dei that she was hard put not to weep during the singing of it.)

The Agnus Dei is here performed by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK:

Now there came a pause in the music making, made necessary by the need to rearrange the furniture onstage. This was not the first time this had to be done, but at this particular juncture, there seemed a prodigious amount of work to do. The performance venue has no curtain, so what could we in the audience do but watch the hustle back and forth, the pushing of ranks of chairs and music  stands. Off went an organ;on came a piano! It was a spectacle in and of itself – so much so that at one point, the audience broke into a round of applause for the stage hands. I can state with confidence: that was a first in my concert-going experience.

The evening’s final two selections were both by Barber. First was “I Hear an Army.” The text is a poem by James Joyce that appeared in a 1907 collection entitled Chamber Music. Dr. Renton informs us: “The words of all the poems resonate with Joyce’s own experience as a prize-winning tenor.” Joyce expressed the hope that at least a few of the poems might eventually be set to music.

Baritone Randel Wagner provided a  fine rendition of this propulsive, rather spiky song. (Ron loved it.  “My kind of thing!” he exclaimed in delight.) Here it is, sung by Gerald Finley, with Julius Drake at the piano:

If you watch this video on YouTube, you can read the poster’s comments and the full text off Joyce’s poem.

The evening closed with the lovely “Sure on this Shining Night,” the poem in this case written by James Agee.


The sole disappointment of  the evening was the sparse attendance. In an era when the major symphonies in their opulent downtown venues feature programming that is so predictable it almost seems chosen by rote – here is an organization that presented a program characterized by daring originality. Our musical vocabulary has been greatly enriched by what the Pro Cantare presented Saturday night.

Bravi tutti!

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