Recent items of interest in the media

December 31, 2010 at 3:21 am (Anglophilia, Blogroll, Film and television, Music)

Last June, when I went to New York to see the ballet, I wrote about the striking changes at Lincoln Center. In today’s Washington Post, in a piece entitled Stepping Up, Philip Kennicott addresses the subject in more detail. He also makes a point of how much Washington’s Kennedy Center could use a similar makeover. More than anything, the Kennedy Center needs to be connected to the rest of the city. As things stand now, driving there is a harrowing experience. There’s no subway stop close by, either. It’s a frustrating state of affairs, because the offerings at the Center are top notch, especially with regard to ballet and the symphony. We’ve decided to go in April, so that we can hear Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony perform Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. I’m eager to hear this glorious music live, but I’m trying not to think about negotiating that tangle of roads!

This year, Christoph Eschenbach became the music director of the National Symphony:


One of my favorite blogs in D.G. Myers’s Commonplace Blog. I especially like a post entitled “Hanukkah,” in which Dr. Myers explains what the expression “Happy Holidays” means to him as an Orthodox Jew. Considering its somewhat dyspeptic opening remarks, the piece concludes with an affirmation that really moved me, and that I agree with wholheartedly.


Rich Cohen’s provocative and fascinating piece of film criticism, “It’s a Wonderful Life”: The most terrifying movie ever,” appeared, somewhat Grinch-like, in the Christmas Eve edition of Salon Magazine. I think he is really on to something here. This movie is frightening in much the same “A Christmas Carol” is frightening. Yes, you get the happy ending, but the dark subtext is still lurking beneath the surface gaiety. Mostly, it is such a relief that things turned out well in the end, as they so easily might not have.


I’ve been enjoying Margaret’s blog Booksplease  for quite some time now. She’s a terrific reader whose reviews and comments are invariably worth reading. And she takes such lovely pictures of the English countryside, once again covered in snow!

Finally, I’d like to recommend two recent documentary films:

. Ron and We knew we would love the Glen Gould film; what we didn’t expect was how moved we were by the Humphrey biography. Some of the images from the sixties were hard to watch. And we learned a great deal about Hubert Humphrey that we did not know, that was worth knowing. He was not a perfect man, but it seems to me that in many ways, he was a great man. It is worth recalling the words of Walter Mondale’s eulogy:

Above all, Hubert was a man with a good heart. And on this sad day it would be good for us to recall Shakespeare’s words:
A good leg will fall. A straight back will stoop. A black beard will turn white. A curled pate will grow bald. A fair face will wither. A full eye will wax hollow. But a good heart is the sun and the moon. Or rather the sun and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps its course truly.
He taught us all how to hope and how to live, how to win and how to lose, he taught us how to live, and finally, he taught us how to die.

As for Glenn Gould, the film gives us a strange, eccentric individual who was also a supremely gifted musician. There’s some priceless footage of the pianist here, and interviews with those that knew him do much to shed light on this complex and secretive man.

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The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hastings.

December 29, 2010 at 3:22 am (Book review, books)

William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris in 1874, the youngest of four boys. While his older brothers were away at boarding school in England, young Willie basked in the exclusive adoration of his beautiful mother Edith. But that idyll was shattered when she died of tuberculosis. Maugham was only eight years old.

The loss was  devastating. Willie’s father Robert, who served as legal counsel for the British Embassy in Paris, tried to make it up to him but only two years later himself died of cancer. Willie was sent to live in England with his uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham, Vicar of Whitstable in the County of Kent, and his wife Sophie.

Willie knew nothing of England; his halting command of the language was made more problematical by a severe stammer. Making matters worse – much worse – was the fact that the vicar was a cold, self-regarding individual, whose high opinion of himself rested on not much discernible evidence.

Eventually, Willie was sent to boarding school,  a situation that presented a whole new set of torments for the boy. Ultimately  he got through it and decamped for London, where he commenced studying for a career in medicine. He successfully completed both his studies and the subsequent training and was offered a position in an established practice. But he turned the offer down. By the time he reached adulthood, Somerset Maugham knew that he wanted to be a full time, professional writer.

Maugham’s career got off to a rocky start. For a while he was living the classic hand-to-mouth existence of the starving artist, contributing articles  and short stories to various periodicals. By 1902, he had published several  novels as well. But what what he really craved was success in the theatrical world. In 1903 he had written Lady Frederick, a comedy, and had shopped it around to various producers and agents, with no success. The  chief problem was that  the lead character had to make herself deliberately unattractive in front of the audience – and no actress was willing to take on the part. But suddenly Otho Stuart, a theater manager, had a play fail unexpectedly. He had  six weeks remaining until the next dramatic work was  booked to open. Lady Frederick was rushed into production as a last minute substitute. Here’s what happened next:

So great was its success that Maugham became famous almost literally overnight–“England’s Dramatist,” as he was dubbed  by the press. Lady Frederick ran for more than a year, and by the following year, 1908, four of Maugham’s plays were running concurrently in the West End, a record that for a living playwright was to remain unbroken for a generation.

Thus Lady Frederick, a play rejected by seventeen theater managers, ultimately proved to be Maugham’s ticket out of penury and into wealth, fame, and the high life.


I’ve mentioned that Maugham was tormented by a stammer that he controlled only with the greatest effort. He was also deeply troubled  by questions about his own sexuality. As a young man, he came to terms with his homosexual preference. At the same time, propriety in the public view was of paramount importance to him. He was ardent  but discreet. He also had affairs with women, for one of whom he cherished a deep affection. She was a young actress, called by Selina Hastings “the irresistible Sue Jones”:   . Sensuous, empathetic, and free with her favors, she knew and understood Maugham’s nature, and returned his affection. But when, in his late thirties, Maugham asked her to marry him, she turned him down. She was already pregnant by the younger son of an earl, whom she married a few months after declining Maugham’s proposal.

Terribly disappointed, Maugham still craved the outward respectability of marriage and family. For some time he’d been engaged in a desultory affair with Syrie Wellcome, the estranged wife of Henry Wellcome. Syrie was exotic, intelligent, and ambitious. She was also, in contemporary parlance, high maintenance. This relationship had already resulted in the birth of a daughter, Liza.  Maugham, ever correct and duty-bound, felt obliged to marry Syrie. This he did in 1917, as soon as her divorce from Henry Wellcome became final.

From time to time, one hears of marriages in which love has turned to hate. Unfortunately for Maugham, he never loved Syrie to begin with, and told her as much in no uncertain terms. He spent as much time away from her as he possibly could, but when they were together, they made each other miserable. Finally, in 1928, they divorced. Maugham then purchased an enchanting property on the French Riviera. Called the Villa Mauresque, it became his permanent abode for the remainder of his life.  . (Villa Mauresque is now a boutique hotel. Click here for details – and to feast your eyes!)*


In subsequent posts, I’ll be discussing Somerset Maugham’s travels, his works, and the astonishing number of people from all areas of endeavor that crossed his path in the course of a long and eventful life. It is a fascinating story – stay tuned!


*I’ve recently received information indicating that neither of the properties pictured here is actually Maugham’s Villa. Please see the Comments below. (02/18/12)

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Christmas at our house

December 25, 2010 at 9:39 pm (Cats, Christmas)

At our house, Christmas Day has been  spent in morally elevating and intellectually stimulating pursuits, to wit:

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The gift of music, for the season and all year long

December 25, 2010 at 8:55 pm (Christmas, Music)


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A beautiful blog for the season

December 24, 2010 at 3:18 am (Uncategorized)

Dear Reader, I’d like to direct you to the blog “In so many words…(Yvette Can draw). ” It is a true visual feast!

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Books of 2010: The best of the rest

December 23, 2010 at 2:42 am (Best of 2010, books)

In late July, I listed my favorite books of the year thus far.

Here’s the second and final part of  that list:


*Mrs Craddock – W Somerset Maugham
*Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson
Conspirata – Robert Harris
*Short stories by W. Somerset Maugham


*The Pale Horse – Agatha Christie
The Labors of Hercules – Agatha Christie
Red Herring – Archer Mayor
The Dragons of Archenfield – Edward Marston
*Portobello – Ruth Rendell
Red Bones – Ann Cleeves
Bad Boy – Peter Robinson
*The Dark Vineyard – Martin Walker
A Question of Belief – Donna Leon
The Darkest Room – Johan Theorin
Babel – Barry Maitland
Long Time Coming – Robert Goddard
The Instant Enemy – Ross MacDonald
*Deliver Us From Evil – Peter Turnbull
*The Charming Quirks of Others – Alexander McCall Smith

Some day I’ll find another picture of Peter Turnbull. Meanwhile, this tried and true image will have to do: . Turnbull’s prose style is highly idiosyncratic. It may be an acquired taste. If so, I’ve acquired it. I find his procedurals utterly compelling; this latest is no exception:.

Two superb novels from Ruth Rendell this year: Portobello and The Monster in the Box (How do I love her; Let me count the ways...)

Some great reading courtesy of Donna Leon as well: A Sea of Troubles and A Question of Belief


The Hare with Amber Eyes – Edmund de Waal
*The Fall of the House of Walworth – Geoffrey O’Brien
*The Last Empty Places – Peter Stark
*The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham – Selina Hastings

Comments and observation:

For the sake consistency, I placed an asterisk by certain titles I particularly enjoyed. I did this with the first post on my favorite books of 2010, but it seemed more difficult this time, as though I were making hair’s breadth distinctions between books when I got so much pleasure out of each of them.

Back in October I described a visit to Books with a Past and my purchase while there of a volume of works by Somerset Maugham. This acquisition was prompted by a conversation I had recently had with a library patron and my subsequent decision to read a new biography of this author:   At this writing, I have only some sixty pages left in this 549-page work. I’m dragging my feet about finishing it, as it is one of the most enthralling reading experiences I’ve had in years. (Am I always saying that? Well, but it’s really true this time!) As is bound to happen when you’re reading an author’s biography, that author’s works come under scrutiny as well as his or her life. Mrs. Craddock was Maugham’s second novel, written in 1900. I had never heard of it, but Selina Hastings’s praise of that work  made me want to read it. It was marvelous. (There’s a link to my review above.) As for the short stories, they too are terrific. Many critics believe that this was the form in which Maugham truly excelled. I’ll have more to say about the stories in a subsequent post.

Two of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels made the cut this year. This prompts me to recount my Archer Mayor story. The day after posting my review of Red Herring, I was scheduled to fly out to Chicago for the purpose of seeing (yet again!) this excellent small personage: . While browsing at an airport newsstand, I found myself standing next to a tall, slender man wearing a checked shirt and a knit vest. His brow was furrowed in concentration as he jotted down some notes on a scrap of paper. I looked at him – then looked again. Be darned, I thought, if that is not the spitting image Archer Mayor. Oh well, I thought, you watched a video of this author just yesterday. (See the Red Herring post, linked to above.) You’ve simply got Archer Mayor on the brain. And so I didn’t say anything to the gentleman at the time. But days passed and I couldn’t put the (alleged) sighting out of my mind. Finally I e-mailed Mayor from his website, detailing the exact time and venue, and asking him if he was in fact, at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport at the date and time specified. Long story short: It was him, all right, on his way to an appearance at the venerable Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ. (I took the opportunity to tell him how much I admire the Joe Gunther novels, for which he thanked me graciously.)

Archer Mayor


Digression on the Subject of Travel Plans (Trust me – this is relevant): This coming May, I plan to return to Britain. I’ll be taking a tour entitled, “From Brother Cadfael to Lydmouth: The Welsh Borders through Time.” We’ll also be attending Crimefest 2011 in Bristol. Our culminating activity will be a visit to Greenway, Agatha Christie’s country home, where we’ll meet with John Curran, authority on Agatha Christie’s life and works and author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. When Ron and I visited the south coast of Devon in 2006, Greenway was still being readied by the National Trust for viewing by the public. (This goal was achieved in February of 2009.) As we sailed up the Dart estuary, we gazed at the house from afar; ever since, I have longed to go inside. It is the opportunity to finally do so that the tipped the balance for me with regard to signing up for this tour.

Greenway, glimpsed from a distance in 2006

Naturally, a tour like this comes with a reading list. One of the titles on that list is The Dragons of Archenfield by Edward Marston. Though a mere 242 pages in length, I found the novel slow going. This was mainly due to the multiplicity of characters, the complexity of the plot, and the difficulty experienced by this reader in keeping track of the doings of the various warring factions. Despite all this, I liked the book, finding it an enjoyable romp through early medieval Britain. We all remember from our long-ago history lessons (not to mention Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe) that following the Battle of Hastings, there was considerable enmity between the victorious Normans and the defeated Saxons. But did you know that one of the reasons the former disdained the latter was that  they drank ale instead of wine? And were you aware that women were often in charge of brewing that ale? Soldier Ralph Delchard, an emissary from King William the Conqueror, tosses off the phrase “this disgusting English ale” when he first meets a lovely widow named Golde. Unfortunately for Ralph, Golde herself runs a brewery with her sister. No worries; a romance develops anyway. I wasn’t quite sure of its likelihood, but it certainly added spice to the proceedings!

Into the mix of Normans and Saxons, Marston adds the Welsh, who of course have their own claims to the land. And conflicting claims of land ownership are at the heart of the action in The Dragons of Archenfield.

In London, at the conclusion of the aforementioned 2006 trip – a Smithsonian tour, by the way – Edward Marston hosted a panel of authors. When I chatted briefly with him afterward, he was delighted to learn that I live in Maryland, the state in which one of his favorite authors, Barbara Michaels, also resides.  . We’ll be having lunch with Edward Marston, at which time he’ll talk to us about his novels set in the Welsh borders.

It will be a pleasure to once again encounter Mr. Marston.


Finally, I have to say how much I’ve enjoyed my reading in nonfiction this year. Alas, I’ve never done a proper review of Lyndall Gordon’s eye-opener, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds. I loved this book so much I bought it. So perhaps at some point I will get around to writing about it in some depth.

I haven’t written about The Last Empty Places at all, though I also loved (and bought) that book. Peter Stark writes marvelously about places in this country that I thought I knew about and didn’t. He makes four richly described pilgrimages into the American interior; on two of those occasions, he wife and children come with him. What a great gift to give to your kids! More to come on this very special chronicle – I promise!

Peter Stark

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December 21, 2010 at 9:13 pm (Family, Poetry)

These words from William Wordsworth’s magnificent poem have been with me constantly since the birth of Etta Lin:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

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The Mad Aggregator strikes again! A bevy of Best Books lists for the year 2010

December 20, 2010 at 2:20 am (Best of 2010, books)

I used to dread the yearly appearance of these lists:  “Oh no – look what I haven’t read and should have!” (This, after months of intense, nay compulsive book consumption.) But this year, as my interests became more esoteric and I began to focus more on classic novels and short stories, my fears pretty much evaporated. It’s a good thing, too, as I’ve read very few of  these titles, and that includes the “Best Mysteries” lists. I have no immediate plans to remedy  this situation, as I’ve been so deeply gratified by the path I’m currently following (about which more in a subsequent post). But enough about me! On second thought, can that ever  be – enough about me, I mean? Should the title of this post be “The Mad Egomaniac strikes again”?

Nay – enough of these errant and rambling ruminations – Here are the lists. I’ll start with The New York Times and the Washington Post. I’m always on the lookout for these come December. The Times first compiles a list of One Hundred Notable Books for  the year, from that list, the ten best are culled. This year the Washington Post more or less followed suit. The first part of the list, in the online iteration, is called “The best novels of 2010.” This is an awkward heading as it makes no provision for short story anthologies, although William Trevor’s Selected Stories is on the list. The print version is called “Fiction & Poetry,”  the same heading used by the Times. Here’s the Post’s nonfiction list. And here is the list of   Ten Best, presented for some reason in the form of a slide show. (These titles do not appear on the longer lists.)

A few observations: two novels made the top ten for both the Post and the Times. One is Room by Emma Donoghue. Room also appears on numerous other lists this year. I admit to being daunted by the subject matter; however, critics and reviewers alike have been singing its praises for months, so I will probably give it a try. The other novel that achieved this distinction is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I haven’t read this either; the reviews make it sound rather experimental for a lover of the traditional chronological narrative like myself.  Joanne, another savvy reader friend from the library, liked it with some reservations. I might give it a go – we’ll see…sigh… I really am trying to keep an open mind…

I tried The Big Short and it did not work for me. This happened with quite a few of this year’s titles: read a few pages, sigh, read a few more pages, think about my age (66), the longevity (or lack of same) of my eyesight – and put the book aside. I began listening to The Likeness by Tana French a while back, but lost interest after the first disc. And there were nineteen more! This has been one of my problems with French; her books tend to be very long. But Faithful Place has turned up on so many  best-of  lists – and my discriminating friend Cristina is such a fan of this writer – I’ll probably give it a go.

Finally there’s Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s eagerly awaited new novel. It placed among the top ten in the Times but did not make the cut at all at the Post. I’ve rarely seen such a polarized – and polarizing – reaction to a work of fiction. Freedom made many other best-of lists, but opinions on this novel remain sharply divided. It has received numerous accolades from critics and readers who consider it on a par with The Corrections, if not better. But it was also the object of a withering take down by B.R. Myers in the October Atlantic Magazine.

I loved The Corrections. I was one of the readers waiting in hopeful anticipation for Freedom. And well, you guessed it – several pages in, I put the book down, feeling deeply disappointed. I have not picked it up again, but I don’t rule out the possibility.

Of the eighteen different titles on the two top ten lists, the only one I consider myself to have already read is Selected Stories by William Trevor. I say this because I’ve been reading his collected stories as they’ve come out for several years now. They are, of course, wonderful. As for nonfiction, where I’ve lately had some of my best reading,  I haven’t read any of the titles named, but I have a reserve on, and am eagerly awaiting, Stacy Schiff’s biography of  Cleopatra and Apollo’s Angels: A history of Ballet by Jennifer Homans. (I put the covers at the top of the post – they’re so gorgeous!)

I recently read in the New Yorker Magazine a lengthy and  fascinating review of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I commend it to you. I have no doubt that this is an outstanding book, but I don’t plan on reading it. At my age, one must struggle not to live in constant fear of this disease, and not to be angry and bitter over loved ones lost to it. (I gather that that Mukherjee  explores these issues with great insight and sensitivity.)

Any and all comments, suggestions, and/or recommendations concerning my thoughts and yours on the year in books are most welcome. Meanwhile, here are more lists: Best fiction, from Salon’s Laura Miller; also her selection of the best nonfiction.  Best of 2010 from Kirkus Reviews. Same from Publishers Weekly.

NPR went about the task in what I think is a different and creative way. The Daily Beast did some aggregating of its own. And finally, Largehearted Boy really went to town!

I’ve already posted a Best of 2010 list of my own that goes through July. I’ll soon be posting my picks for the remainder of the year. Be on the lookout…

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As Christmas draws near, remember the animals

December 18, 2010 at 9:48 pm (Anglophilia, books, Cats, Photography)

I’m deeply grateful for “Think before you buy that puppy,” an article by artist and writer Betsy Karasik. It appears on the Op-Ed page of today’s Washington Post. This is the concluding sentence:

Saving an animal from starvation and homelessness is its own reward, but the beauty of rescuing an animal is that from an emotional standpoint, it turns around and rescues you right back.

Some of us know the truth of this from experience.


And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to sing the praises of one of the most precious books I own:

The pictures are marvelous; the stories, simply told and charming. The “cover cat” is named Blackie. In 2005 she went to live at Burford Priory in Oxfordshire, England, having been given up for adoption by a hairdresser who had developed an allergy to her fur. Author and photographer Richard Surman tells us what happened next:

She is a rather grand cat, more used to the scent of hairspray and pomade than rigours of community life, and thoroughly resistant to the allure of the Priory’s wild woodland. It certainly took some time for Blackie to settle in: carefully guarding a pink ball that was her treasure, she was very wary of this radical change of environment, and for a while all that could be seen of her was a pair of startled eyes staring from the undergrowth in the garden, or from deep in the shadows in the priory entrance hall. But both the present Abbot, Father Stuart, and Sister Mary Bernard, devoted a great deal of time and patience in encouraging Blackie to be more at ease, and little by little she came out of her shell.

Richard Surman’s work is beautiful. To see more of it, click here.

We find Blackie’s resemblance to our own Miss Marple rather striking:

(Research on Burford Priory revealed that it has passed into private ownership. I hope and trust that provision was made for Blackie.)

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The Usual Suspects hold their end-of-year summit

December 17, 2010 at 5:12 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

In recent years, the Usual Suspects, a mystery book discussion group, has concluded each year by examining how that year went with regard to choices of title and quality of discussion. We also hold a vote on the members’ favorite book; in addition, each person brings a book to recommend to the group.

It is our custom to dine together at a congenial venue before getting down to business. I say “business,” but it is really pleasure, this end of year summit. A comfortable quorum of ten members was present. Pauline, our resident intellectual (and statistician!), provided an overview of the year. (A comprehensive handout accompanies this activity.) First, we  review the titles we read. Starting in January, these were:

The Cold Dish, by Craig Johnson
The Suspect by L.R. Wright
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King
The Corpse in the Koryo by James Church
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie By Alan Bradley
Any Maigret title by Georges Simenon
The Keepsake by Tess Gerritsen
Kahawa by Donald Westlake
The Last Child by John Hart

We reminisced about each of  these meetings, with the leader, if present, offering his or her thoughts as to how the discussion went and how the various group members seem to feel about the book (or books). Then everyone chimed in. (There’s always plenty of “chiming” at our gatherings!)

This is an activity that I highly recommend to book groups. This end of year backward glance proved  fascinating. There’s invariably a divergence of viewpoint regarding the quality of one title or another. Everyone, however, strives to be the veritable soul of tact. Best to keep the more strident opinions, if one is entertaining them, to oneself! (And doesn’t that sound just like Isabel Dalhousie?)

In 2010, six of the authors we read were male, and three were female. This proved to be almost the exact obverse of last year, when the ratio was seven females to three males. We looked  at the nationality of the authors as well as the setting of their works. There’s invariably a lively discussion as to which subgenre the books belong to. Was The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie a cozy? Was Kahawa hardboiled? a thriller? Pauline provided definitions of the subgenres gathered from various books and articles that treat of the mystery genre. They were so useful, I’m going to partially transcribe them here:

“Cozies…usually take place in an orderly world where the violence takes place off-stage….” This subgenre often features an amateur sleuth.*
“Hard-boiled novels are violent, with sexual content, and protagonists are usually morally conflicted.”*
“Noir: Subset of hard-boiled, with protagonist usually not a detective and often a victim, suspect or perpetrator who is tied to the crime. Sexual relationships and self-destructive elements used to advance the plot. Lean, gritty writing style.” This definition comes from an article entitled “What Is Noir?” by George Tuttle. It appeared in a 1994 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine. (In this context I highly recommend this list of the basic characteristics of film noir, formulated by David N. Meyer in A Girl and a Gun:

No good deed goes unpunished.
A detached, ironic view is the only refuge.
Crime doesn’t pay, but normal life is an experiential/existential straitjacket.
Character determines fate.
Though love might seem to be the only redeeming aspect of human existence, it’s not.
Kicks count for something.
Alienation rules.)

“Humorous: usually cozies, but many genres have humorous elements.”  (I would add here that if you widen the category to include black and deeply ironic humor, there’s plenty of it in noir and hard-boiled fiction.)
“Suspense: Page-turner, keeps reader waiting for a particular outcome, often has a character in danger. The read has a sense of constant or nearly constant fear and tension….”*
“Thrillers use a high degree of action, intrigue, adventure, and suspense. Involves reader emotionally.”*
“Classic: Mysteries of the highest quality, of enduring appeal.”

Asterisks designate material adapted from Read ‘Em Their Writes by Gary Warren Niebuhr.

Pauline quoted an interesting definition of historical fiction found in the Spring 2008 issue of Mystery Readers Journal: “A book…written at least 50 years after the events described, or…written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research.)” The Mystery Readers International site is a veritable goldmine. For instance, here’s an interview of William Kent Krueger, conducted by Craig Johnson.

Last year the group read three novels featuring private investigators; this year we read none. No one was quite sure why this should be so. Are there fewer mysteries with private eye protagonists being written?  Do those that are being written have less appeal? (The titles we read last year that fell into this category were A Is For Alibi by Sue Grafton, The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker, and The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The most recent of the three, Grafton’s first Kinsey Millhone novel, came out in 1982. So we’re not talking new releases here. And who would have thought that we’d be saying goodbye to Robert B.Parker this year? For over three decades, his Spencer series was an endless source of delight!)

The topic of cultural and geographic diversity was touched upon. Someone mentioned a liking for American Indian lore, and we reminisced for a bit about the excellent career of Tony Hillerman, whose chronicles of the Hopi and Navajo nations of the Southwest are so compelling. The point was made that the crime fiction of William Kent Krueger and Craig Johnson is similarly enriched with a Native American presence.

Pauline’s handout also contained information as to which of “our authors,” in recent years, have received award recognition from the various mystery and crime fiction organizations and publications. Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, Patricia Highsmith, Louise Penny, and Ann Cleeves were among those receiving accolades. While these particular writers are certainly deserving, we nonetheless agreed that award designation is no guarantee of  a correspondingly great read. (For myself, I’m beginning to think that a great reading experience depends completely on the mood I happen to be in.)

Each participant was asked to bring a book to share with the group. This part of the evening is always fun and intriguing; you never know who’s going to bring what:

Frances brought . Marge remembered reading this when it came out in 1993 and liking it. I had started it and not cared for it, but Frances’s book talk made me want to try again. (The book’s Chicago setting  is, for me, another point in its favor.) Anne recommended .  Malliett is a fairly new author; this title, first in a series featuring DCI Arthur St. Just, appeared in 2008. This also sounded good to me, especially since the setting is Cambridgeshire, in the East of England, a region of that country that I hope one day to visit. Louise presented . This is the second in a well received series set in India. The protagonist is Vish Puri, who runs a private detective agency in Delhi. Mary Edna  shared her enthusiasm for . I’ve been wanting to read something by this writer, whose books have been recommended to me by several enthusiastic thriller readers. (Mary Edna said it was a real edge-of-your-seat reading experience.) Ann, who particularly favors historical mysteries, told us about . The group discussed an earlier title in this series, Ragtime in Simla, and enjoyed Cleverly’s vivid depiction of the British Raj in the years following the First World War. We stayed with historical fiction, this time going back to endlessly fascinating medieval England with Carol’s selection, . The group previously read a Dame Frevisse novel by this author; A Play of Isaac is the first in another series by Frazer featuring Joliffe, leader of a troupe of traveling players. On behalf of Barb, Pauline presented these titles: , , and. All three of these women, Barb enthused (vicariously), are  currently writing at the height of their powers. Interestingly, several members who had read Body Work and  considered themselves to be fans of Sara Paretsky’s work, expressed some reservations about this particular novel. Nevertheless, we agreed in general with Barb’s assessment. (In recent months, Barb has not been able to attend our meetings. Nevertheless, she has followed our progress and read our selections. I know I speak for everyone when I say that she’s been with us in spirit, and that we look forward to her return.)

Ellen recommended . This the first in Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler series. (Don’t you wonder why a writer would choose a hard-to-pronounce names for a character?) I’ve been meaning to get to this book ever since reading its stunning follow up, The Pure in Heart. Ellen commented that the ending of Various Haunts “freaked me out.” That’s the sort of remark that really piques my curiosity!

Marge had great praise for. She found the characters richly drawn and the Kansas setting, especially with regard to a huge ranching enterprise, vividly rendered. Finally, I concluded this segment of the evening with . Pauline informed us that Martin Walker, who lives in Washington a good part of the year, has been interviewed on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.  (Click here for my review of this title.)

Marge and I had offered to prepare a list of books to be considered for discussion. We were looking for titles that were well written, interesting in and of themselves, and finally, in our estimation at least, discussible. We did not include authors whom we’ve read fairly recently. (Additionally, copies of each title needed to be obtainable without too much difficulty.)

Here’s what we came up with:


Kate Atkinson – Case Histories
Robert Barnard – A Stranger in the Family
Louis Bayard – The Pale Blue Eye
C.J. Box – Open Season (first in a series), Blue Heaven (standalone)
Agatha Christie – The Pale Horse
Gabriel Cohen – The Ninth Step
Michael Connelly – Nine Dragons
Deborah Crombie – Water Like a Stone
Paul Doiron – The Poacher’s Son*
John Dunning – The Bookwoman’s Last Fling
Martin Edwards – The Coffin Trail
Kjell Eriksson – The Demon of Dakar
Elly Griffiths – The Crossing Places*
Martha Grimes – The Blue Last
Cynthia Harrod-Eagles – Fell Purpose
John Harvey – Cold in Hand (Charlie Resnick series),
Flesh and Blood (Frank Elder series)

Susan Hill – The Pure in Heart
Morag Joss – Half Broken Things
William Kent Krueger – Boundary Waters
Dennis Lehane – Gone Baby Gone (first in a series), Moonlight Mile
Donna Leon – Acqua Alta, About Face
John Lescroart – Second Chair
Michael Malone – First Lady
Sharyn McCrumb – The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, She Walks These Hills
(Ballad series)
Ruth Rendell – Road Rage (Wexford series),
The Birthday Present (written as Barbara Vine), Portobello

Peter Robinson – Bad Boy
Priscilla Royal – Wine of Violence (additional copies to be ordered by HCL)
Andrew Taylor – Bleeding Heart Square
Johan Theorin – The Darkest Room
Charles Todd – A Duty to the Dead
Peter Turnbull – Informed Consent, Deliver Us From Evil

Nonfiction (True crime)

The Poisoner’s Handbook – Deborah Blum
The Gardner Heist – Ulrich Boser
The Fall of the House of Walworth – Geoffrey O’Brien

*Named by Kirkus as one of  the fifteen best mysteries of 2010.

The list was  received with approbation and provoked several questions and comments. Someone asked me about The Pale Horse, and I promptly had one of my notorious enthusiasm attacks. Marge reviewed our selection criteria and emphasized that this was a list of suggestions and in no way mandatory. I spoke of my admiration for the work of Andrew Taylor and my frustration concerning the lack of availability of the novels in his Roth Trilogy and Lydmouth series. I had wanted to place the first Lydmouth novel, An Air That Kills, on the list but forbore from doing so when I found that  the local library possesses only one copy. Furthermore, this title is out of print, at least in this country. I also briefly book talked the nonfiction titles. They are all three great reads and eminently discussible. (Both The Poisoner’s Handbook and The Fall of  the House of Walworth made Amazon’s list of the year’s Ten Best History books of 2010.)I was pleasantly surprised by the group’s enthusiastic reception last year of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Since we did not discuss any nonfiction in 2010, perhaps we might consider doing so in the coming year. (Britain’s ITV is reportedly in the process of  adapting Mr. Whicher for television, with actor Paddy Considine in the lead role.)

We were running out of time or I also would have taken the opportunity to sing the praises of Peter Turnbull. I’m currently reading the latest Hennessey and Yellich title, Deliver Us From Evil, and enjoying it tremendously, as I do all of this author’s finely crafted procedurals

Oh – and the vote for 2010’s favorite? There was tie, with The Cold Dish and The Suspect each getting two votes. (The voting was  carried out via secret ballot, of course. Luckily there were no hanging chads – remember them? – or other impediments to the fairness of the process!)


There’s  been a larger than usual flurry of post meeting e-mail, understandable considering the rich content of the meeting. There is Carol’s traditional summing up of the proceedings; she deemed the proceedings “very successful,” a judgment in which I believe we can all concur. Carol also informs us that a pilot episode of  Longmire has  been given the green light by  the A&E network. Yes – this is the Walt Longmire who’s the protagonist in Craig Johnson’s series. Apparently casting is still being worked out. I for one would love to see Johnson himself in the title role. With his genial manner,  folksy delivery, and  slightly rumpled Western duds, he’d be a natural! (See the video in my review of The Cold Dish.)

Frances sent an interesting interview by Dennis Collins of with Michael Allen Dymmoch. Collins also reviews  The Man Who Understood Cats, even while confessing that he himself does not understand  cats, poor benighted fellow!

Frances posed the question as to how  members decide what they’re going to read in the first place. The answers varied: some are drawn to a certain setting or time period; others are returning to an author they already know they like. Several people said they get great ideas from the “What We’re Reading” section of the newsletter put out by the folks at the Stop! You’re  Killing Me site. (Subscribe to that newsletter here.) For my own part, I rely primarily on reviews in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Publishers WeeklyBooklist, Mystery Scene Magazine, and Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine. I’m also very fortunate to have friends (like my fellow Suspects) who are discerning readers of crime fiction and provide me with great suggestions.


While I was writing about Robert B. Parker, it occurred to me that it might not go amiss to remember other writers of distinction to whom we’ve recent bid farewell. Dick Francis and Ralph McInerny come to mind, as does Donald Westlake, who passed away on December 31, 2009. (He was on his way to a New Year’s Eve dinner, where he would likely have had everyone in stitches with his gently irreverent humor.)

Ralph McInerny

Robert B. Parker

Donald Westlake

Dick Francis - yes, that's him, as a young jockey


I’ll let Frances have the last word: “Thank you all for being the wonderful group I am so glad I found several winters ago.” Frances, we’re glad to have you, and glad to have one another as friends and staunch proponents of crime  fiction.


Fellow Suspects, please feel free to offer comments and corrections in the Comments section. And please forgive me if this post is rather too “Roberta-centric.” One does tend to recall one’s own thoughts and bon mots more clearly than the equally worthy ones made by others.

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