The Death of Virgil

September 28, 2011 at 8:35 pm (books)

This is one of the most beautiful prose passages I have ever read:

Steel-blue and light, ruffled by a soft, scarcely perceptible cross-wind,  the waves of the Adriatic streamed against the imperial squadron as it steered toward the harbor of Brundisium, the flat hills of the Calabrian coast coming gradually nearer on the left. And here, as the sunny yet deathly loneliness of the sea changed with the peaceful stir of friendly human activity where the channel, softly enhanced by the proximity of human life and human living, was populated by all sorts of craft–by some that were also approaching the harbor, by others heading out to sea and by the ubiquitous brown-sailed fishing boats already setting out for the evening catch from the little breakwaters which protected the many villages and settlements along the white-sprayed  coast–here the water had become mirror-smooth; mother-of-pearl spread over the open shell of heaven, evening came on, and the pungence of wood fires was carried from the hearths whenever a sound of life, a hammering or a summons, was blown over from the shore.

In the space of two sentences, an entire world is summoned into being.

It is the opening paragraph of The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch. 

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Brief Lives: Wilkie Collins, by Melisa Klimaszewski

September 26, 2011 at 2:41 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

London-based Hesperus is one of the many fine small presses that have sprung up in recent years both here and in the UK. I’ve just had the pleasure of reading a short biography of Wilkie Collins, one of the titles in the Brief Lives series put out by Hesperus.

  In her traversal of the life of Wilkie Collins, Melisa Klimaszewski places primary emphasis on the works of this great Victorian novelist and playwright. This is not to say that we don’t learn about Collins’s private life – we do, and a most unconventional life it was, at least by the perceived standards of the day. Collins maintained not one but two households. He loved both Caroline Crane and Martha Rudd, and although he had children by both, he never married either one.

This reluctance to wed was born primarily of a dislike of the institution of marriage. I can’t help feeling that Collins’s own home life, with two loving but rather rigid and straitlaced parents, may have also had something to do with his aversion to matrimony.

William Wilkie Collins was born in London in 1824. From the outset, he was an odd looking little chap. On the right side of his forehead was a singularly noticeable bulge. “The firm protuberance, looking something like a tennis ball trying to press its way out of his cranium, is visible in depictions spanning Collins’ life, from an early sketch of him as an infant to photographs of the elderly Collins.”   As the boy grew, another anomaly became evident: his hands and feet did not keep pace with the rest of him, and remained unnaturally small when he had attained adulthood. In order to find shoes and boots that he could wear comfortably, he looked for sizes smaller than those that a woman would require. In some cases, items sized for young children fit him as well.

These irregularities in his physique seem to have troubled him very little:

He admired those with more ideal physical forms, but he did not develop an intense or bitter desire to fit in with the masses.

Klimaszewski adds that “from a young age, Collins was comfortable confronting and disputing social custom.” So in his case, one might almost say that form followed function.

Collins’s first published stories appeared in the early 1840s. Soon he had completed his first novel, entitled Iolani. Collins was never able to find a publisher for that work. In fact, the manuscript disappeared, only surfacing once again in 1991. It was sold to a private collector in New York City and then finally published. According to Klimaszewski, Iolani “…has provided a fresh and amusing look into Collins’ early writing.”

In 1851, an event occurred that influenced Collins profoundly, from both a personal and a professional standpoint, and for the rest of his life. He met Charles Dickens. Though the latter was twelve years his senior, Collins formed a close bond with the great novelist:

They shared an energetic disposition, a passion for detail, a taste for extravagant dress and a creative spark. Both men were also drawn to what others regarded as the seedy underside of Victorian life. Dickens had a lifelong habit of walking for miles, often through the streets of rough neighborhoods, and Collins now joined him in regular jaunts through pub- and prostitute-lined streets….Dickens favoured carousing with Collins above staying home with his nine young children and wife of nearly fifteen years.

They may have celebrated life with a certain abandon, but as writers, they were serious and extremely effective collaborators. They co-wrote and produced dramas based on their own novels; Collins contributed stories to popular literary magazines such as Household Words and All the Year Round, both of which were published by Dickens. 

Klimaszewski is careful to point out the innovations in detective fiction that can be attributed to Wilkie Collins. “The Lawyer’s Story of the Stolen Letter,” written in 1856, “…has the distinction of being regarded as the first British detective story.” That same year, with “The Diary of Anne Rodway,” Collins gave us the first woman detective protagonist to appear in a short story. “Who Is the Thief?” was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1858. Now known as “The Biter Bit,” this was the first comic detective story and also the first to be written in the epistolary form. (“The Biter Bit” can be found in Masters of Mystery, along with a terrific story by Dicken called “Hunted Down.” “A Terribly Strange Bed,” another tale by Collins that’s both highly atmospheric and genuinely frightening, can be found in Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a superb anthology originally published in 1944 and brought back into print by Random House’s Modern Library division.) 

In the 1860s, Wilkie Collins produced his four greatest novels: The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone. The Woman in White, first serialized in All the Year Round and subsequently published in three volumes, was wildly popular from the moment it first appeared on the literary scene. The same happy fate befell The Moonstone.        

Klimeszewski does a fine job of elucidating the original and distinguishing qualities of each of these four works of fiction. In regard to The Moonstone, she admits that the designation “first” can almost always provoke an argument: “Perhaps it is more useful to discuss The Moonstone as the detective novel whose plot devices, characterisation, and narrative methods would become standards for the form and as the first to achieve such instant and widespread fame.” The Moonstone contained within its pages a synthesis of several literary subgenres: the Gothic, psychological realism, and sensationalism.

I’d like to take a moment to look at that last category, because Klimaszewski offers an excellent definition of the novel of sensation, a designation I’ve run across frequently in the annals of literary criticism but rarely seen pinned down with such clarity. “Sensation fiction,” she explains, “was by no means a discrete entity.”

It regularly overlapped with Gothic fiction, domestic realism, psychological realism, melodrama, and the development of detective fiction. In seeking to categorise a work as as sensational, one looks  for some combination of the elements above, an especially heavy dependence on strained coincidences, and settings where the most shocking of intrigues are discovered within familiar domestic spaces often belonging to the higher social classes.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it became a commonplace trope that in the pantheon of great literature. sensation fiction was of a lower order. It was considered a time waster, and worse: “…a vice akin to addiction that would fuel moral degeneration and vice in impressionable, and mostly women, readers.” According to Klimaszewski, a revaluation of this much maligned subgenre got under way in the late twentieth century. With regard specifically to The Moonstone, the process was kick started even earlier by T.S. Eliot in his 1927 essay, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens.” Eliot declares that work to be “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels…in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe.”

Here’s Klimaszewski on The Moonstone:

The novel’s plot twists are surprising but often so plausible that they do not feel as ‘sensational’ as the shocking developments in many of Collins’ other novels. As Collins’ writing emerged in the detective and mystery form, surprising elements became clues, not simply shock tactics. The revelation of those clues ultimately had much more to do with characters or readers overlooking something than with Collins attempting to produce gratuitous surprise.

In other words, exactly as it should  be in a well wrought mystery.

Serialization of The Moonstone began in 1868. Eight years prior, a terrible murder had occurred in the small village of Road, in Wiltshre in the south west of England. A three year old boy named Saville Kent had gone missing in the night. The next day, an extensive search of the house and grounds resulted in the finding of his small body stuffed down  privy.

It was felt from the outset that some member of the household was the perpetrator. But between the parents, older children, and numerous servants, there was  large cast of characters from which to choose. The Met sent its finest, in the person of Detective Inspector Jack Whicher. to head up the investigation.

Meanwhile there was a major piling on by the press, where speculation was rife as to who had committed this abomination. In a letter to Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens weighed in with his own hypothesis:

‘Mr. Kent [victim’s father], intriguing with nursemaid, poor little child wakes in Crib, and sits up, contemplating blissful proceedings. Nursemaid strangles him then and there. Mr. Kent gashes  body, to mystify discoverers, and disposes of same.’

Very ingenious – one almost wants to say, very Dickensian! But true…? Find out for yourself by reading The Suspicions of Mr.Whicher, Kate Summerscale’s fascinating look at the facts and circumstances surrounding the murder at Road Hill House. ( This article makes me hope fervently that we get the opportunity to view the filmed version of Summerscale’s book here in the States. Rebecca Eaton, are you listening?)

Detective Inspector Whicher’s theory of the crime differed from that of Charles Dickens. Unfortunately, Whicher’s was a voice crying in the wilderness, at least at the time of the initial inquiry. Five years later, by which time he had left the Metropolitan Police Force, the culprit confessed, in the process proving Jack Whicher  right in his belief concerning the case. Whicher was the model for Sergeant Cuff, the investigating officer in The Moonstone. 

Detective Inspector Jack Whicher

(The Usual Suspects book group has discussed  both The Moonstone and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Both are wonderful books; both provided plenty of matter for a lively discussion.)

In the final chapter of her book, Klimaszewski names several works by other authors who have used the writing, or the life, of Wilkie Collins in crafting their own fictions. She’s enthusiastic about Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, whose novel The Little Stranger I so enjoyed. In addition, several of the stories in an anthology called Death By Dickens are warmly recommended.   I was able to get this book from the library and have just read “The House of the Red Candle” by Martin Edwards. This is a locked room mystery – or to be more precise, a locked room-in-a-brothel mystery. Here’s how Klimaszewski describes it: “Concern for a prostitute leads Collins and Dickens to a brothel where a suspected murderess seems to have disappeared impossibly, and their slowly developing detective skills result in an entertaining exposition of the mystery.” In fact, this delightful tale is both entertaining and highly imaginative.

We have just passed the anniversary of the death of Wilkie Collins: he died on September 23, 1889. This is how Melisa Klimeszewski concludes this short but enlightening and highly enjoyable work:

The inclusion of repellent as well as sympathetic misfits throughout Collins’ body of work insists upon a diversity of difference and grants a flawed – and therefore accessible, recognisable – humanity to characters so often drawn in other fiction as one-dimensionally odd. These complexities, in addition to fast-paced and intriguing plots, continue to draw new readers to (and inspire new imaginings of) Collins’ tales. Exploring the power of lust, the inequities of marriage, a mysterious disappearance, or a comic scenario, the works of Wilkie Collins stand as a testament to the lasting and varied legacies of a supreme storyteller.

Portrait of Wilkie Collins by Rudolph Lehmann

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One Was a Soldier; being the seventh entry in the Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne series by Julia Spencer-Fleming

September 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

   Before launching into the main body of this review, I decided to look back at my posts on earlier novels by Julia Spencer-Fleming. It had been a while since I read a novel by this author. What, I wondered, did One Was a Soldier have in common with previous entries in this distinguished and critically well received series?

In March of 2007, when I was yet but a  baby blogger, I named All Mortal Flesh (fifth in the series) as one of my choices for the Best Books of 2006. I then quoted a short review I’d recently placed in Mystery Scene Magazine:

“Julia Spencer-Fleming has taken her superb series to new heights with this novel, which is full of humanity, passion, and anguish. And what a cliffhanger of an ending!! I have no idea what’s in store next for these flawed, all-too-human characters whom she has made me love.”

In a post dated the following month, I cited Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson as being two of my favorite “mysterious” fictional characters.

In October 2008, Marge and I had the pleasure of attending Bouchercon in Baltimore. Julia Spencer-Fleming was among the authors we encountered there. The following month, Marge led the Usual Suspects in a discussion of To Darkness and To Death, the fourth Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne novel. I quote from my post on that discussion:

And then, of course, there’s Clare, the Episcopal priest, and Russ Van Alstyne, the married sheriff. They’re in love, and they shouldn’t be. They can’t be. But they are. Their relationship, if it can be called that, is the chief source of tension in this series, and the main reason that many of us are hooked on it. That – and Spencer-Fleming’s terrific writing and great sense of humor.

I go on to say:

Clare Fergusson is a wonderful creation. Although Marge was somewhat disappointed that we don’t get to witness more of her priestly functions in this novel, it is still readily apparent that she is a caring, spiritual person.

By the time we get to One Was a Soldier, the circumstances surrounding this relationship have changed dramatically. (Please hold the thought concerning Clare’s “priestly functions.”)

Later that month, I wrote about three works of crime fiction that I’d been looking forward to reading and that in the event, had all disappointed me in some way. One of them was I Shall Not Want, the sixth in the Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne series. What were my problems with that novel? The first was that the plot was too complicated, and too much explanatory material was crammed in at the end. This was my second problem:

The book featured several scenes of explicit sex that, for me, read like something straight out of a rather lurid romance novel. I admit, this reflects my own bias against that kind of writing in crime fiction, where I find it jarring and out of place. It definitely struck me that way in I Shall Not Want.

I had forgotten about this completely, and I was deeply dismayed to encounter similar scenes in One Was a Soldier. The first explicitly sexual encounter occurs right at the outset, with Clare and Russ fumbling frantically with each other’s clothing, and more, in a moving car. Yes, they’ve been apart for a lengthy period. And perhaps Spencer-Fleming means to show us that a town sheriff in his early fifties can still feel desperate lust, as can an Episcopal priest (and returning combat veteran) in her late thirties. But to me, the two came across as a pair of sex-obsessed teenagers. I was so annoyed that I nearly gave up on the novel then and there.

But I kept going. I tend to give books in series I’ve previously liked a fairly generous chance to grab me as a reader. And One Was a Soldier did grab me. Spencer-Fleming’s writing is literate; at the same time, her prose flows along easily, drawing the reader into the scenario she’s setting forth. That said, the plot is rather oddly structured, in the sense that the murder does not occur until around the half way point. Predictably, that’s when the focus tightens and the book becomes harder to put down.

In fairness, one of the reasons for the novel’s structure is that Spencer-Fleming takes great care in depicting the challenges that face returning combat veterans. There are a good number of these individuals in Miller’s Kill, and they’re dealing with a variety of difficulties. There is a young man who, as a double amputee, must come to terms with the new reality of his existence. Others are dealing with depression and anger. There’s a therapy group available to them, but the young woman who runs it seems rather unsure of herself and inexperienced; she continually falls back on platitudes and harps so much on “feelings” that group’s participants become impatient with her, as did this reader. (Several of the group members have a connection with the criminal investigation, and at one point they discuss it in such detail that it seemed to me they must  be revealing privileged information. This was one of the novel’s less believable scenes, in my judgment.)

The lives – and deaths –  of members of the armed services is a subject that has deep personal meaning for Julia Spencer-Fleming. The following is from my post on To Darkness and To Death:

The author’s father, an Air Force pilot, lost his life in a plane crash when she was only six months old. Her mother subsequently remarried; this explained the book’s mysterious (not to mention poignant) double dedication: “To my father, Lt. Melvin Spencer, USAF,” and “to my father, John L. Fleming.”

Spencer-Fleming’s description of the veterans’ struggles is infused with great empathy and compassion, heartfelt without being mawkish.

That said, I found it hard to credit Clare’s active – one might almost say, hyperactive – role in the above mentioned investigation. Frankly she came across as an overage, excessively meddlesome Nancy Drew. And this takes me back to the thought that I asked you to hold onto a bit earlier. With everything that’s going on in her life – planning a wedding, readjusting to civilian life, doing the Nancy Drew bit alluded to above – it seemed to me that Clare’s role as a priest was getting short shrift, both in the narrative and in her life in general. I’m no expert on the daily lives of the clergy of various faiths, but it’s my general impression that being a priest, or a minister, or a rabbi, or an imam, is more than a just a job. It is a vocation that takes up a great deal of time and requires a considerable outpouring of personal resources: physical, mental, and emotional. It is much more than dashing off a sermon at the eleventh hour or squeezing in a quick visit to a sick parishioner.

At one point, Clare is visiting an elderly woman who serves her some home baked pumpkin bread:

Take, eat, she thought. This is my body, given for you. They ate the bread together. It was warm and sweet on Clare’s tongue.

This scene occurs very late in the novel. I found myself wishing there had  been more like it.

To sum up: In my view, One Was a Soldier is not quite on a par with previous entries in this series. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling read and I do recommend it, especially for those already happily enmeshed in the trials and tribulations of Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson. And as regards this storied couple, their creator discloses a momentous development at the very end of the novel….

Julia Spencer-Fleming

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‘I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman.’ Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

September 17, 2011 at 1:31 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

I’d seen the film several times but never read the book. So I was pleased that Chris of our Usual Suspects discussion group selected Double Indemnity for our September meeting. She got us started with some fascinating background on James M. Cain and his celebrated novel. This done, the discussion took off running (albeit dodging from time to time through a thicket of digressions and non sequiturs!).

My feeling is that this novel of lust, greed, and betrayal packs the same powerful punch today as when it first appeared. (Double Indemnity was initially serialized in a magazine called Liberty; it was not published in novel form until 1943, when it was included with two other works in a collection of Cain’s fiction called Three of a Kind.) I gathered that others in the group were largely of the same opinion.

We talked about the way in which people who are leading seemingly blameless lives can, almost without warning and when exposed to the powerful negative influence of another person, sink into the mire of depravity. This is what happens to Walter Huff (Walter Neff in the film) .

At their first meeting, there’s an instant attraction between Walter and Phyllis Nirdlinger (Phyllis Dietrichson in the film). A simple transaction concerning insurance becomes something else altogether. For his part, Walter gradually becomes aware that Phyllis has a whole other agenda. It involves insurance all right, but it involves other things as well, among them the use of insurance as a means to very sinister end:

A reputable agent don’t get mixed up in stuff like that, but she was walking around the room, and I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.

These thoughts and sensations are coming at Walter fast and furious when Phyllis suddenly  queries him about accident insurance. Talk about sending up red flags!  Walter observes succinctly that “…there’s many a a man walking around today that’s worth more to his loved ones dead than alive, only he don’t know it yet.”

Yes, the beautiful Phyllis Nirdlinger is destined to bring about Walter’s downfall, as well as her own. The inevitability of this outcome seems foreordained.  Anne said it put her in mind of a Greek tragedy. Her comment interested me, as I myself had been thinking of MacBeth: “I am in blood /Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, /Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

No sooner is the deed done then Walter develops a powerful aversion to Phyllis. He would do anything to escape from her clutches. But it is too late. The reality of his dire situation and its inevitable consequence is borne in upon him:

I knew then what I had done. I had killed a man. I had killed a man to get a woman. I had put myself in her power, so there was one person in the world that could point a a finger at me, and I would have to die. I had done all that for her, and I never want to see her again as long as I lived.

That’s all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate.

Barton Keyes, the claims investigator who utters so many truths unknowingly and who could never believe his friend Walter capable of such depraved  behavior, sums it up more prosaically but arrives at the same conclusion:

‘They’ve committed a *murder*! And it’s not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.’

Walter is well and truly “stuck” with Phyllis. Her stepdaughter Lola, whose father they had murdered, belatedly awakens in him a yearning for the simple goodness that she embodies. No matter; it is too late: “I thought about Lola, how sweet she was, and the awful thing I had done to her.”  Walter is acutely aware of the savage and implacable irony of this outcome:

I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman.

(Cain got the idea for this tale of murder and retribution from a real life case that he had covered as a journalist. In 1927, Ruth Snyder, a bored housewife living in Queens, New York,  convinced her lover Judd Gray to assist in the murder of her husband Albert. The previous year, Ruth had talked Albert into purchasing a life insurance policy with a double indemnity clause. Judd and Ruth went to considerable lengths to make Albert’s death look like a robbery gone wrong, but their flimsy staging of the scene and other clumsy maneuvers gave the game away almost at once. Click here for more on this stranger-than-fiction tale.)

Between the short, punchy sentences and the longer ones that seem to wind around a desperate fear at dead center, the writing shows Cain’s mastery of the hardboiled style. There’s not a wasted word anywhere. My Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition of Double Indemnity runs to just 115 pages. Carol praised the novel’s brevity, and I’m with her there. I’ve read too many overstuffed crime novels recently with Byzantine plots I could barely follow and a cast of characters so large that it was hard to feel empathy for any one of them.

There’s no question in my mind that this novel is worth reading. That said, it has to be conceded that it’s very hard to talk about the book without discussing the movie at the same time. As with The Maltese Falcon, the film Double Indemnity has attained an almost iconic status in American film history – in American history, period. Images from films like these burn themselves into your brain and seem to supersede the works of literature on which they’re based. In many cases – certainly in the case of Double Indemnity – it’s both edifying and gratifying to return to the source.

That said, Double Indemnity is a terrific film, which Ron and I recently had the pleasure of viewing once again. Plenty has been written about it; Wikipedia has a comprehensive and fascinating entry.

Reading the book, I was surprised to find that whole sections of the movie’s dialogue did not originate with the novel. The screenplay was  written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Their collaboration was apparently fraught with conflict, but one instance where Chandler won out was when he insisted that the portions of the dialogue composed by Cain would not work on film. (He had a couple of actors read it in front of Wilder in order to drive  the point home.)  Thus, much of the snappy repartee exchanged by Phyllis and Walter as the film gets sunder way was actually written by Chandler:

The passages of introspection, the plumbing of the soul, the evocation of the descent into a kind of Hell on Earth – these came from the pen of James M. Cain. 


In 2009, it was discovered that Raymond Chandler appears in a cameo in Double Indemnity. The scene occurs sixteen minutes into the film. Here it is:

It seems rather amazing that film scholars missed this for decades. Apart from a brief snippet from a home movie, it’s is the only film footage of Raymond Chandler known to  exist.

Our group spoke  for a while about the characteristics of noir, both in film and in fiction, where the style is usually referred to as hardboiled. A cogent analysis of these features as they appear in both the movies and the novels and stories can be found in the book A Girl and a Gun by David  N. Meyer

Here’s how Meyer describes the “fortuitous clash of cultures” that gave birth to noir:

As purely an American art form as jazz or the Western, noir sprang from a specific set of social and creative circumstances: the end of World War II, the impact of European refugees on an American art form, the mainstream film studios’ need for a steady supply of low budgets, lurid pictures, and the ascendance of a particular writing style….The hard-bitten, American pulp energy of James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, B. Traven, Raymond Chandler, and others was filtered through the refined, ironic sensibilities of cultured European directors.The writers created heroes who dealt with spiritual crisis (caused by the emptiness of Amercian middle-class life) by alternating between emotional withdrawal and attack. The refugee directors preferred a more sardonic, alienated approach.

Meyer sums up: “The combining of these sensibilities helped create one of the great creative outpourings in American history.”

The title of Meyer’s book is taken from a quote by Jean Luc Godard: “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.”

So – Does that mean that a girl and two guns would be even better?

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Reading California: John McPhee’s “Los Angeles Against the Mountains”

September 11, 2011 at 7:32 pm (books, California)

I love California. And I love reading about California.

Last June I spent several days visiting family members in the South Bay Area. I stayed in their home in Los Altos Hills, a place I’d never heard of before they moved there last year. I had almost no familiarity with that part of the state. But when I got there, I felt as though I had landed in paradise. The enchantment began on the way back from the airport and became more potent in the ensuing days. It did not lessen when I returned home on the east coast but only grew in retrospect. “Everything is larger than life out there,” a friend recently observed. Exactly.

The Golden Gate Bridge

A stand of redwoods

Alcatraz Island

A cell phone tower in disguise!


Once back in Maryland, the need for some California-based reading asserted itself. Although I had been in the northern part of the state, it was Los Angeles I wanted to read about. This is because my recent sojourn had brought vividly to mind a piece entitled “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” by John McPhee Having first appeared in the New Yorker, this remarkable  essay was subsequently included in a collection called The Control of Nature. 

I read this book when it came out in 1989. “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” has stayed with me since then, largely because of the story with which McPhee begins the piece:

One night in February, some years back, the Genofile family – Bob, Jackie, and their two teenaged children – were awakened by a thunderous crashing sound:

Ordinarily, in their quiet neighborhood, only the creek beside them was likely to make much sound, dropping steeply out of Shields Canyon on its way to the Los Angeles River. The creek, like every component of all the river systems across the city from mountains to ocean, had not been left to nature. Its banks were concrete. Its bed was concrete. When boulders were running there, they sounded like a rolling freight. On a night like this, the boulders should have been running. The creek should have been a torrent. Its unnatural sound was unnaturally absent. There was, and had been, a lot of rain.

There were, then, two ominous sounds: loud noise and silence.

Jackie and the children, Kimberlee and Scott, gazed up the street from a window in Scott’s bedroom, which was located at the back of the single story structure. This is how Jackie describes what they saw:

“It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.”

What happened next happened very fast. John McPhee is such a terrific storyteller, and the story he tells here is so harrowing, it beggars belief. Events are extremely compressed, taking just under four pages to relate.

The phenomenon being described is called a debris flow.


Then, of course, there is fire….

Here, McPhee explain the origin and nature of the famed Santa Ana winds, and the effect they have on the city’s mountainous ecosystem:

In the long dry season, and particularly in the fall, air flows southwest toward Los Angeles from the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range. Extremely low in moisture, it comes out of the canyon lands and crosses the Mojave desert. As it drops in altitude, it compresses, becoming even dryer and hotter. It advances in gusts. This is the wind that is sometimes  called the foehn. The fire wind. In Los Angeles, it is known as Santa Ana. When chamise and other chaparral plants sense the presence of Santa Ana winds, their level of moisture drops, and they become even more flammable than they were before. The Santa Anas bring what has been described as “instant critical fire weather.”

McPhee quotes Charles Colver of the Forest Service: “‘…moisture evaporates off your eyeballs so fast that you have to keep blinking.'”

John McPhee


Much has been written about California and its varied landscape, its cities, its people, its singularity, strangeness, and  beauty. I found these recommendations in a guidebook:    


I love  crime fiction set in the L.A. region. Ross MacDonald is one of my perennial favorites. And I just had a darn good time with Double Indemnity by James M Cain. (The Usual Suspects are discussing  this taut little noir gem Tuesday night.) Ron and I just watched the film – yet again, and yet again it was terrific.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

In “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” John McPhee introduced me to a rather singular scholar. British by birth, architectural critic Reyner Banham cherished an extravagant love for the City of Angels. He’s the author of a book to which I’ve seen the adjective “seminal” applied more than once:  An outfit called Esotouric offers a Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles Bus Tour. And the BBC made  a documentary of the same title in 1972. Here’s a short video from that production:

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No light

September 9, 2011 at 8:30 pm (Family, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Weather)

On August 28 I wrote a post entitled “First an earthquake, then a hurricane…” The first line of the post is “What next?”

I now have the answer that question: what has come next is rain – drenching, deluging, unremitting, unceasing rain.

The historic district of Ellicott City is five or six miles away from us It consists of a few blocks antique stores, eateries, and various other independently owned small retail establishments. There’s the B&O Railroad Museum and a recently opened hotel, the Obladi.

Most importantly to Ron and me, it is home to our favorite restaurant, Tersiguel’s.

Old Ellicott City is bordered by the Patapsco River; a smaller river, the Tiber, runs behind some of the shops. Nestled in a valley, it is  in its way quite picturesque, and normally a pleasant place to stroll, dine, and shop. However,Old Ellicott City can also be described as geographically unfortunate. Over the years it has  been plagued by both fire and floods, making it a somewhat Biblically resonant place. On Wednesday it got walloped yet again, as shown in this video, which was apparently screened as far away as Brisbane, Australia:

(Tersiguel’s can be seen intermittently; it’s the white building in the far left corner.)

We’ve been lucky so far – no loss of power, no leaks or floods. But because of uncertainty and continuing rain, we had to cancel our trip to see the excellent small person and her equally excellent Mom and Dad:

Instead, we will go next month and help celebrate her first birthday.

Going without the sun for days on end has been one of the hardest aspects of this siege of stormy weather. Day after day of waking up to a sky the color of dirty dishwater can be profoundly depressing. Meanwhile, they’re calling for more precipitation. As one forecaster plaintively put it: Somebody turn off the rain machine! Actually as I write this, the Blazing Orb, so long hidden from view, is trying to emerge from its cloudy obfuscation. (Well, really, I have to have just a little bit of fun with this!) Go Sun, go! We’ll take what we can get. But alas, it is already in retreat….

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In the New York Times Sunday Review section, a gracious tribute to a beautiful book

September 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm (Uncategorized)

In “The Netsuke Survived,” Roger Cohen pays tribute to a poignant, beautifully written family memoir. The Hare With Amber Eyes was reviewed on Books to  the Ceiling in October of last year. 

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“The feeling of growing old was oppressive. He quickened his pace, in order to get away from himself.” – The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell

September 6, 2011 at 2:14 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is one of the most death-haunted books I have ever read.

As the novel opens, Kurt Wallander’s daughter Linda is living with Hans von Enke, scion of one of Sweden’s most distinguished military families. To Wallander’s delight, Linda has recently given birth to a daughter, Klara. All seems golden – for the moment.

But such moments, alas, are fleeting, in fiction as in life. Following a celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday, Hakan von Enke, a retired submarine commander and Hans’s father, drops out of sight. Family, friends, former naval colleagues –  all are clueless as to his whereabouts. For Linda Wallander and her father, both police officers, cluelessness is a condition that cannot be tolerated – especially when the mystery strikes so close to home.

Wallander is on vacation; his daughter is on maternity leave.  The police, they are assured, have the matter of Hakan von Enke’s disappearance well in hand. But that’s not enough for father and daughter. Wallander begins delving into the mystery on his own, with Linda helping when and where she can. Their investigation has barely begun when yet another family member goes missing. A bizarre set of circumstances has become even more baffling. The inquiry widens and goes deeper. Ultimately it is about much more than one family’s tragedy, involving as it does Sweden’s recent history, its civic and military institutions and the country’s relations with Russia and the U.S.

This was an extremely compelling story on every level. But I wouldn’t want to give the impressions that Kurt Wallander and Linda worked together in frictionless harmony. Theirs is a very fraught relationship. Both have hair trigger tempers, and Linda is blunt to a fault. In addition to the static between the two of them, they have to deal with Linda’s mother Mona. She and Kurt divorced years ago, but she is still a presence in Linda’s life, and to a lesser extent in Wallander’s as well. She too is prone to fits of anger and has a drinking problem to boot. Her second marriage is in the process of disintegrating.

But more than anything, this novel is about one man’s reckoning with his own mortality. At the age of sixty, Kurt Wallander sees himself as a man whose powers, both physical and mental, are in decline. He broods upon this frequently, one might almost say obsessively. The fact is that Wallander does have some serious health problems. Most notably he is diabetic. He does not take care of himself as he should, not getting enough exercise, eating the wrong food, and drinking more than he ought to. He falls in to the all too common pattern of resolving to do better and then reneging on that resolution. Of more immediate concern are the occasional memory lapses he’s been experiencing.

And yet, and yet…he forges ahead doggedly, determined to solve the mystery of Hakan von Ende’s disappearance. And every once in a while, he feels a return of his former vitality: “He paused in the parking lot and breathed in the summer night. He was going to live for a long time yet. His will to live was still strong.”

In the best crime fiction, minor characters are delineated with the same care as their main counterparts. This is nowhere more true than where witness interviews are concerned. In one of my favorite scenes in The Troubled Man, Wallander goes to interview an elderly widow who used to wait tables at exclusive venues catering to high ranking members of the military. Her name is Fanny Klarstrom. She lives by herself in a senior living facility:

When Fanny Klarstrom opened the door–immediately, as if she had been standing there for a thousand years, waiting for him–she gave him a broad smile. He was the longed-for visitor, he just had time to think before she ushered him into her room and closed the door.

This,despite the fact that he has arrived unannounced.

We learn more about Fanny – and inevitably, about Wallander and his own worries:

Fanny Klarstrom had wavy blue hair, and was tastefully made up–perhaps she was always ready to receive an unexpected visitor. When she smiled she displayed a beautiful set of teeth that made Wallander jealous. His own teeth had  begun to need filling when he was twelve, and since then he had been fighting a constant battle with dental hygiene and dentists….At the age of eighty-four, Fanny Klarstrom had all her teeth, and they shone brightly as if she were still a teenager. She didn’t ask who he was or what we wanted, but invited him into her little living room, where the walls were covered in framed photographs. Well-tended potted plants and climbers stood on windowsills and shelves. There’s not a single grain of dust in this apartment, Wallander thought.

A classy lady, in other words, who copes with loneliness in a dignified and courageous manner.

Wallander proceeds with the interview. His business with Fanny Klarstrom concluded, he takes his leave of her:

She waved as he drove away. That’s a person I will never see again, he thought.

(There’s a great deal of dental anxiety in this book. Sure enough, as he’s conversing with Fanny Klarstrom over coffee and cookies, Wallander loses a  filling!)

At 367 pages, The Troubled Man ran a bit long; at least, it seemed to for this reader. The problem may have been that I was getting somewhat exasperated with the unrelenting gloom. (I may not have mentioned  that there’s  plenty of description of the weather, nearly all of which is bad.) I would have been grateful for some comic relief. About three years ago, Telegraph  reviewer Jake Kerridge commented that “The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die.” That bon mot was firmly lodged in my brain as I worked my way through some of the darker passages in The Troubled Man.

Yet I do not want to discourage you from reading this novel. True, it is suffused with melancholy, but it is beautifully written (and by implication beautifully translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson). The plot unfolds in a tantalizing manner, revealing once again Henning Mankell‘s masterful storytelling technique.  The characters are vivid and very engaging. I especially loved the relationship of Wallander and Linda, sparring partners who are also fiercely loyal and loving. And there is one light, constantly shining for Kurt Wallander despite the encroaching darkness: the presence in his life of his granddaughter Klara.


He was surrounded by silence. At submarine depth, where the restless movement of the ocean was undetectable.

Author photo of Henning Mankell that appears on the inside jacket cover of The Troubled Man

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Steven Saylor, Peter James; and further recollections of Crimefest 2011

September 3, 2011 at 12:32 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

In a recent post about lunch with some book-loving friends, I mentioned having recently read a new Gordianus the Finder story that appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction.   I first heard about this story at Crimefest in May, specifically at a panel discussion entitled “An Affair To Remember: A Walk Through History.” During the question and answer period, I asked Steven Saylor when we might expect the next Gordianus the Finder novel to appear. I got a most unexpected response: Gordianus would be appearing next in a series of short stories. His creator would be taking him back to his youth, age eighteen to be exact. Along with Antipater, his (older and wiser) traveling companion, Gordianus will visit the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as well as certain other venues.

These stories are slated to appear in various publications throughout the coming year. They’ll ultimately be collected and published in a single volume in the summer of 2012.

The story that I read, entitled “The Witch of Corinth,” possesses the sprightly dialogue, fast moving action, and vivid recreation of the ancient world that we Steven Saylor fans have come to cherish. In 146 BC, the Roman army laid siege to the Greek state of Corinth. They ended by destroying the place utterly, slaying all the men and selling the women and children into slavery. Fifty-six years later, in the course of their travels,Gordianus and Antipater find themselves on the Isthmus of Corinth, at the heart of the what remained of that once great and wealthy city.

Click to enlarge

As Antipater dozes in the midday heat, Gordianus wanders off among the ruins:

Heat and thirst made me light-headed. The piles of rubble all looked a like. I became disoriented and confused. I began to see phantom movements from the corners of my eyes, and the least sound–the scrambling of a lizard or the call of a bird–startled me. I thought of the mother who had killed her daughter and then herself, and all the countless others who had suffered and died. I felt the ghosts of Corinth watching me, and whispered words to placate the dead, asking forgiveness for my trespass.


In addition to the Crimefest panel on historical fiction, Steven Saylor also took part in a panel discussion called “Born To Be Bad: The Nature of Evil.” Appearing with him on that occasion were Peter James, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Andrew Taylor, and Steve Mosby. I was full of admiration for their willingness to tackle a Big Subject in a serious way.  Of course, the panelists knew that they were limited in the number of profound insights they’d be able to offer up in the fifty minutes allotted them.

Here’s a tantalizingly brief snippet of video from this session. The subject was evil tyrants. Andrew Taylor speaks first; then Seven Saylor. (Peter James is seated to the left of Andrew Taylor.):

My notes from this session are scattershot; nevertheless, I’m going to transcribe them here as best I can, with clarification and attribution where possible:

Peter James spoke of his experience in visiting Broadmoor, a high security psychiatric hospital. About half the patients are schizophrenics, he told us; the other half are sociopathic.

One panelist referred to a Japanese book whose title was along the lines of: How To Test Your Sword on a Chance Wayfarer. (Further investigation suggests that this phrase is actually the translation of a Japanese verb. See “A Test Case for Moral Relativism,” an entry on a blog called The Constructive Curmudgeon – a name I wish I had thought of.)

Steven Saylor warned against glamorizing the great and powerful people of the past. To that end, he proffered a piece of advice ascribed to the writer L. Sprague de Camp: ‘Great leaders should be viewed through stout bars!’

Andrew Taylor spoke of the notorious Fred West, whose career as a child molester and serial murderer began in the early 1970s. (He had told us about this person when our group lunched with him at Speech House.) Being something of a student of true crime, both here and in the Britain, I was amazed not to have heard before this of this truly appalling man. Taylor assured us that Gloucester and the surrounding countryside were paralyzed by fear during the rampage of West and his equally coldblooded wife Rosemary. This placid region is the last place where you’d expect such horrors to occur.

As often happens in cases like this, the recitation of terrible events was punctuated at intervals by outbreaks of black humor.At one point, Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir commented that Iceland has only one recorded instance of a serial killer: his victims numbered two!

After that, my notes from this session contain only random snippets, unattributed:

Serial killers are characterized as lacking in empathy and being on a power trip.

The crime fiction genre is possessed of a remarkable elasticity. (I like the use of that word in this context.) It ranges from stories of violent crime to “cozies.” In crime fiction, evil exists to be punished, and the situati0n surrounding it somehow resolved. Is this wishful thinking? Mention was made of the cathartic aspect of crime fiction.

The perception of the nature of evil is wide ranging and changes over time. In addition, evil is culturally dependent. Children ask why, as do adults: Why are people evil? Crime fiction often deals with these issues (as does true crime, I might add).

The murder clear-up rate in the UK is 93 per cent. For rape, that percentage is two. Being raped change one’s life for the worse and forever. It is like being in a car crash from which you never fully recover.

These two phrases stand by themselves in my notes: “The routinizing of evil,” and “The socializing of evil.” With regard to the routinizing of evil, the Stanford Prison Experiment was mentioned. This was carried out  in 1971; I had not heard of it previously. Wikipedia has an entry on the subject, and the study has its own website.

My final entry for this session is this: “The capacity for hate is tied into the capacity for evil.”

The rest is silence…

Well, these are very deep waters, as you can see. I for one am ready to clamber out of them! Still, I wish I could rewind the session and play it through once more. And the same holds true for “An Affair To Remember: A Walk Through History.”


At this juncture I’d like to say something about about Peter James, who was one of the Featured Guest Authors at Crimefest 2011. (The other was Deon Meyer.) James writes a series of procedurals set in Brighton and featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. The first title in the series is Dead Simple. Things gets off to a terrific start in this novel with a drunken bachelor party that gets out of control. Just how out of control – well, read it and find out for yourself. Roy Grace is an immensely appealing protagonist, and although I found the book’s climactic action scenes somewhat over the top, I nevertheless enjoyed Dead Simple and look forward to reading more Roy Grace procedurals.

Peter James at the podium, on the evening of the Crimefest Gala Dinner and Awards Ceremony

[One of the reasons why you gotta love Wikipedia:  Here’s the opening sentence of the Peter James entry: “James is the son of Cornelia James, the former glovemaker to Queen Elizabeth II.” ]


One of the best things about crime fiction conventions is that they afford writers and readers a chance to get to know one another. It was a great pleasure to see Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves, and Andrew Taylor once again. But I was especially pleased to meet Steven Saylor for the first time. I’ve been an enthusiastic reader of his Gordianus the Finder novels ever since Roman Blood, the first in the series, came out in 1991. These novels served to reawaken my interest in ancient history and its literature. That interest culminated in a journey to Italy in the Spring of 2009. This was a return, actually. I had not been there for forty years. (How was it? Every bit as fabulous as I’d hoped it would be.)

I’m often impressed by the rapier-like wit and the verbal thrust and parry employed by the British in settings that are unrehearsed and conversations that are completely spontaneous. Thus it proved with the panel discussions at Crimefest. But one  of my chief sources of delight was that Steven Saylor was able to thrust, parry, and crack wise with the best of them! He has, it turns out, a terrific sense of humor, which he can deploy at a moment’s notice and to great effect.

The last Gordianus novel, The Judgment of Caesar, came out in 2008. Click here to read my review.  Steven Saylor has been doing plenty since then. Be sure and look at his website. You’ll find not only information about all of his books but also links to sites with more information about ancient history and literature.

Steven Saylor


I’m not sure if I will ever have a chance, in this space, to do justice to Bristol, a city rich in history and fascinating architecture, and boasting the world famous Clifton Suspension Bridge 


Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man of small stature and enormous accomplishment

We stayed at the Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel, right next door to Bristol’s beautiful Cathedral.


Ron had the inspired idea to cue the video while the cathedral bells were in full cry (as was the wind):

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