Feasting on Jane Austen, with a side dish of Archer Mayor to add piquancy

November 30, 2011 at 12:17 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

  Having been invited by my gracious friend Doris to attend a tea given by the Jane Austen Society of North America, I felt it incumbent upon me to take up one of the novels by that worthy author and once again immerse myself in her wonderfully self-contained world. Having recently purchased this anniversary edition of Sense and Sensibility, that estimable work seemed the logical choice.

Imagine my dismay, Dear Reader, when, upon essaying the very first chapter I came a-cropper. So confused was I by Miss Austen’s laying out of the relationships  among the several principal characters that I was stopped in my tracks. (One cause of my perplexity was the fact that Austen referred to Mrs. Dashwood as John Dashwood’s mother-in-law, whereas we would call her his stepmother. At least, I think that is correct. Any Janeites out there, feel free to weigh in on this issue.) Come now, though I to myself, Many years ago you read and enjoyed the entire Austen oeuvre. I pray nothing untoward now afflicts your faculties. (In other words, are my brains turning to mush…?)

I knew that a remedy lay to hand: I needs must read the chapter over again in an effort to fully grasp the author’s meaning. I am pleased to report that this second attempt met with considerable success. In fact, my curiosity was well and truly piqued. What is going to happen to Marianne and Elinor Dashwood,  mutually devoted sisters with such different temperaments, not to mention living in somewhat straitened circumstances? And so I read on…and on…..

As you have no doubt already surmised, I am now thoroughly entranced by Sense and Sensibility. Thoroughly, but not exclusively. For I am also reading Tag Man, the latest entry in Archer Mayor’s superb Joe Gunther series  While I would not necessarily characterize Mayor’s novels as hard-boiled, there is certainly a wide variance in prose style between himself and Miss Austen. To wit:

From Sense and Sensibility:

Elinor could not be surprised at their attachment. She only wished that it were less openly shewn; and once or twice did venture to suggest the propriety of some self-command to Marianne. But Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to common-place and mistaken notions.

This is lovely prose, but let’s face it, the present day reader – at least, this present day reader – must attend carefully while perusing such a quaintly antique style. Where Tag Man is concerned, however, one can be forgiven for picking up the pace to a considerable degree:

Leo Metelica favored a .45 caliber model 1911 semiautomatic. It looked like the one seen in all the World War II movies–big, heavy, black, and ominous–but he’d actually made it himself–in a fashion–assembling it from the best components available, custom fitting them in his kitchen-based workshop. It was beautiful to handle, a perfect fit to his hand with its checkered walnut grips, and a hair trigger and night sights that had set him back a chunk of change.

How grateful I am that the House of Fiction has so many delightful mansions!


Those of you who know Audrey Niffenegger as the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry might be interested to know that she is an artist as well as a novelist. The drawing on the cover of the Penguin’s bicentennial edition of Sense and Sensibility, pictured above, is hers. She has also done the cover for Penguin’s edition of Persuasion

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The Vault: Ruth Rendell’s sequel to A Sight for Sore Eyes

November 23, 2011 at 1:32 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  A Sight for Sore Eyes came out in 1999. It is a novel of psychological suspense, not a police procedural – Reg Wexford does not appear in the narrative. Sight features one of the most genuinely frightening characters I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction. In the more than ten years since I read it, I have not forgotten his name: Teddy Brex.

  The Vault opens with Franklin Merton commenting that although he could afford to buy a particular house, he could not afford to purchase a painting of it. The painting he’s referring to is entitled Marc and Harriet in Orcadia Place. The painter was Simon Alpheton, an artist of considerable note at the time, that time being 1973.

A Sight for Sore Eyes opens with Simon Alpheton in the act of painting Marc Syre, star of the rock band Come Hither, and his girlfriend Harriet Oxenholme as they stand before a house – their house, Orcadia Cottage.

The house they stood in front of was described by those who knew about such things as a Georgian cottage and built of the kind of red bricks usually called mellow. But at this time of year, midsummer, almost all the brickwork was hidden under a dense drapery of Virginia creeper, its leaves green, glossy and quivering in the light breeze. The whole surface of the house seemed to shiver and rustle, a vertical sea of green ruffled into wavelets by the wind.

I often feel that Ruth Rendell is not given sufficient credit for the vivid beauty of her writing. One is particularly likely to encounter prose of this caliber when she is describing dwelling places. Orcadia Cottage is of central importance in A Sight for Sore Eyes, just as it is in The Vault.

While Marc and Harriet are posing for him, Simon tells them about a painting by Rembrandt called The Jewish Bride:

‘It’s a very tender painting, it expresses the protective love of the man for his young submissive bride. They’re obviously wealthy, they’re very richly dressed, but you can see that they’re sensitive, thoughtful people and they’re in love.’

The graceful image, not to mention the subtle implication conjured by these words is well nigh lost on the rock musician and his preening girlfriend. Her response to Simon’s words is to crow: “Like us. Rich and in love.”

No, not much like them at all, actually….

(Click to enlarge)

The action of The Vault takes place in the present, almost forty years after Simon Alpheton created his iconic image. Marc Syre is dead. Franklin Merton has recently passed away. No one knows what’s become of Harriet Oxenholme. Meanwhile, a terrible secret concealed in the bowels of Orcadia cottage has just come to light.

At the time of these events, Reg Wexford, newly retired, is living with his wife Dora in London, in accommodation provided by their loving (and happily very well to do) daughter Sheila. Wexford is just starting to adjust to his new life when Superintendent Tom Ede of the Met asks for his help. A gruesome discovery has been made in a house in Orcadia Place. Could Wexford assist with the investigation, as a civilian consultant? Wexford could. And does, although working for law enforcement in this singular capacity makes him somewhat uneasy. In conversation with Dora, he can’t help likening himself to some of the great fictional consulting detectives of the past:

‘Every detective-story writer had an amateur detective who was cleverer than the police. Sherlock Holmes, of course. Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey…’
‘Albert Campion.’
Roderick Alleyn.’
‘Alan Grant.’
‘Who on earth was he?’
‘Josephine Tey’s detective. But no, Reg, I forgot. He was a bona fide policeman.’

(In fact, Roderick Alleyn was also a law enforcement professional. His creator Ngaio Marsh was among the pioneers of the British police procedural, beginning with the first Roderick Alleyn novel called A Man Lay Dead, published in 1934.)

Wexford’s peregrinations throughout London are recounted in fascinating detail. I felt as though I were walking along side him. At one point in the investigation, as he checks in via cell phone with Tom Ede, the latter asks if he is anywhere near the West Hampstead cemetery. If so, he should seek out the tomb of Grand Duke Michael of Russia. In 1891, the Grand Duke made a marriage that not only displeased his cousin Czar Alexander III but was also illegal according to Imperial Law. He was sent to live in exile, and after some wandering on the continent chose England as the new dwelling place for his family. That’s where they were – the Grand Duke, his wife Countess Sophie of Merenberg, and their three children – when revolution overtook Russia in 1917. One wonders how they felt, watching from a safe distance, as the imperial regime that had spurned them was annihilated.

This story has nothing to do with the main narrative of the novel. It is yet another instance of Ruth Rendell in digressive mode. As a lesson in the vagaries of history, the story of the Grand Duke and his family is worth pondering.

I love Rendell’s digressions, and as you’ve probably already gathered, I loved this book.

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“‘I think that Helle, she does not know very much,’ Assad replied as they turned on to Bjaelkerupvej….”

November 16, 2011 at 10:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Then there’s this: “‘He came from a children’s home in Tisvildeleje.'”

  And this: “‘The bank robbery on Tomsgardsvej, where a customer was killed.'”

Yes, Denmark’s challenging place names abound in The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen. There are numerous opportunities to wrap your tongue around your tonsils. And then there’s the fun of freaking out your spell checker.

But this is so provincial of me. No doubt  for the average Dane, these terms are well within the realm of normal. In fact, he or she might be genuinely baffled by the name of one of the major east-west routes in these parts: Little Patuxent Parkway. (Come to think of it, in my time at the library I had to spell that one out for people on a number of occasions.)

Ah well. You’ll forgive my having a bit of fun with that linguistic challenge. Now let’s talk about the actual book.

Having recovered from a gunshot wound, Carl Morck is returning to active duty as a detective with Copenhagen’s elite homicide unit. To hs surprise, he finds himself assigned to head up a newly created entity, to be called Department Q. His brief: to investigate cold cases. The number of people in his unit: one, himself. He does manage to acquire an assistant, who gives his name as, rather improbably, Hafez al-Assad. This is the same Assad whose name appears in the title of this post, and whose presence in this novel provides some very welcome comic relief. Why welcome? Because once Carl and Assad take up the case of the disappearance of Merete Lynggard, vice-chair of the Democrats and spirited speaker in parliament, the tension becomes well nigh unbearable.

So: Is this one for the Dragon Tattoo crowd? The Keeper of Lost Causes does share some commonalities with Stieg Larsson’s series. The writing is brisk but not overly literary – well suited, in other words, to the demands of the thriller genre. The dialogue is snappy; the pacing is break neck. When first making a mental scan of the similarities and differences, I was thinking that there was no character in Adler-Olsen’s novel analogous to Larsson’s rather astonishing creation, Lizbeth Salander. But on second thought, I decided that I was not entirely right about that. We do in fact get to know Merete Lynggard quite well. At first, she comes across as your garden variety ambitious politician. But later on, she displays considerable courage and resourcefulness – a model of grace under pressure (more than one kind of pressure).

  Until I received the Summer issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, I had not heard of The Keeper of Lost Causes. At the very front of the magazine, editor/publisher George Easter proclaimed it his favorite book of the year. “Be prepared to be stunned,” he declared. It will be high up on my list of Best Crime Fiction of 2011 also, along with Gianrico Carofiglio’s Temporary Perfections, Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny, and The Troubled Man by Adler-Olsen’s fellow Scandinavian Henning Mankell.

Oh and by the way, should you find yourself in Denmark’s capital city one of these fine days, stop in at the Snapstinget restaurant (or its real life equivalent). You never know who you’ll see there….

Jussi Adler-Olsen

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Ave Atque Vale, James A.Garfield

November 16, 2011 at 2:01 am (Book review, books, History)

  Alas, the time has come for me to return Destiny of the Republic to the library. Fifty-six eager readers await their copies! (Happiness it is, to dwell among fellow book lovers.) An earlier post only hinted at the riches contained in its pages.

My copy of this superb biography is  festooned with post-it flags. They must now be removed. The only remedy is to read it again. This I plan to do, whether via hard copy as I’ve just done, recorded book – or on my soon-to-arrive Kindle Fire. (O brave new world, that has such devices in it!)

I would like to bid farewell to this man – this noble, courageous, compassionate man – by sharing with you Candice Millard’s description of his inauguration, which took place on March 4, 1881:

At precisely noon, a pair of massive bronze doors opened onto the eastern portico of the Capitol, and the presidential party, which had disappeared inside an hour earlier, could be seen filing out. Although nearly a dozen people stepped onto the portico, all eyes were on only three: Frederick Douglass, who led the procession; the president-elect; and his mother, Eliza. It was an extraordinary scene, a testimony to the triumph of intelligence and industry over prejudice and poverty, and it was not lost on those who witnessed it. “James A. Garfield sprung from the people, a reporter marveled. “James A. Garfield, who had known all the hardship of abject poverty, in the presence of a mother who had worked with her own hands to keep him from want – was about to assume the highest civil office this world knows. As the party so stood for a moment, cheer after cheer, loud huzzas which could not be controlled or checked, echoed and reechoed about the Capitol.”

James A. Garfield: November 19, 1831 - September 19, 1881

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A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers – a book by Michael Holroyd

November 15, 2011 at 6:23 pm (Book review, books, Italy)

  It’s been some weeks since I read this, so I’m going to let New York Times reviewer Dwight Garrner sum up The Book of Secrets for me:

At its heart it weaves together the lives of several not-especially-well-known women, around whom more famous men (Lord Randolph Churchill, Auguste Rodin, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster among them) sometimes revolved.

One of those characters is Eve Fairfax. Her principal claim to fame is that she sat for a bust by the sculptor Auguste Rodin.

In the course of a peripatetic, rather impoverished existence, Eve carried around with her a large book whose pages were blank. Various individuals of note were invited to inscribe something in it. As Holroyd tells us:

Archbishops, generals and royalty filled up the pages and there was a picture of the Prince of Wales fondling a baby kangaroo in Australia (1932). Rosamund Lehmann copied down a page from her novel Invitation to the Waltz describing the seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis running into the sunlight, Hilaire Belloc added a poem and so did Vita Sackville-West’s one-time lover Geoffrey Scott, while John Betjeman, Harold Nicolson and Somerset Maugham contented themselves with signatures.

A major character in the first half of the book is a not-especially -well-known man: Ernest Beckett, second Lord Grimthorpe. (And isn’t that name like something straight out of a Dickens novel.) Beckett was at one point Eve Fairfax’s fiance, though they never actually wed.

Eventually two women move to the fore of this narrative and occupy center stage in its second half. Violet Trefusis was the daughter of Alice Keppel,  mistress to King Edward VII. Mother and daughter had an extremely fraught relationship. Violet and Vita Sackville-West were lovers; their affair is chronicled in a series of passionate letters from which Holroyd quotes liberally. The author makes a good case for Violet as a writer of distinction, although nowadays her novels seem to be little read and not readily obtainable, at least in this country.

Violet Trefusis, left, and Vita Sackville-West

Michael Holroyd is a wonderful writer. I have to admit, though, that I wasn’t sure why I should interest myself in the doings of the large and somewhat confusing cast of characters that dominates the first half of this book. When Holroyd ultimately brings a laser-like focus onto Violet Trefusis and her extravagant passions, things got more interesting. The fact of the matter is, though, that I picked up this book in the first place for a very specific reason; namely, that the aforementioned Ernest Beckett was for a time the owner of what is, for me at least, possibly the most beautiful place on the planet. It’s on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, and it is called the Villa Cimbrone. Here’s how Michale Holroyd describes it in his preface to A Book of Secrets:

High above the Gulf of Solerno, some fifty miles south of Naples, is the medieval town of Ravello. Higher still and at thee end of two meandering roads from Ravello, you find yourself in a place of fantasy that seems to float in the sky: a miraculous palazzo, now called Villa Cimbrone, which answers the need for make-believe in all our lives.

So poetic – and so true. I was prepared for more on the subject, but in fact,  there wasn’t much more. And this is probably what made me somewhat impatient with this quirky, admittedly intriguing little volume.

Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer. George Bernard Shaw, Augustus John, and Lytton Strachey have been among his subjects. At one point in The Book of Secrets, he makes an interesting observation concerning his craft:

Biographers often struggle to escape from the prison of chronology before resigning themselves to opening with a birth.

This statement affords some insight into why, in this book,  Holroyd chose this somewhat sidelong approach to his subject matter. In the epilogue, he concludes thus: “Now, as in a film, I can bring back the characters who occupy  the pages of  this, my last book.”

Michael Holroyd


The website of the Villa Cimbrone includes a fine video gallery. Click here for the general introduction. This clip on the Villa’s history features a photograph of Ernest Beckett.

I took these pictures of the gardens of the Villa and of its famous “Terrazzo dell’infinito” (Terrace of Infinity) when I was in Italy in the Spring of 2009. The spot is aptly named. Time does indeed seem to stand still there.

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Beware the green-eyed monster! – Othello at the Folger Theatre

November 15, 2011 at 2:25 am (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

Owiso Odera as Othello and Ian Merrill Peakes as Iago

The exact words spoken by Iago, as provided by M.I.T.’s Shakespeare site, are

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on….

What a pleasure to hear once again Othello’s extravagant tale of his wooing of Desdemona, culminating in two of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare:

She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I loved her that she did pity them.

All of this, to be systematically destroyed by one of the most coldly calculating characters in all of literature. In Shakespeare After All, Marjorie Garber says this of Iago:

Hate for hate’s sake. Motiveless malignity. Iago is successful precisely because he has no second dimension, no doubt, no compassion. From the start he is all action, and he is everywhere. Flattering Othello, and then Rodrigo. Shouting out of the darkness, and calling for light. Yet notice that in fact he does nothing himself.

Indeed not. He goads, he taunts, he mocks, he inflames passions, he poisons true feeling.

In the play’s final scene, after Othello has been made aware of Iago’s perfidy, he looks down to see if Iago has cloven hoofs instead of the feet of a human being.. It was a moment that cast me back to my college days and a Shakespeare  class I took at Goucher College with the wonderful Brooke Peirce. He explained that according to legend, the Devil possesses cloven hoofs. But Iago displays no such blatant badge of infamy. He has the feet of a man – an unspeakably evil man.

The final scene in its entirety was so intense that my eyes were stinging. Emerging into the light afterward, I said to my companion, “I feel shattered.”

I want to say a word about the set. At the beginning of the play, the stage resembled a seraglio, with billowing fabrics shot through with color. Later this same material became the sails of a ship in peril. The mariners were pulling at lines that seemed anchored in the theater’s  far upper reaches.

Oweso Odera and Ian Merrill Peakes were both terrific. Odera was born in Khartoum, Sudan, and began his acting career in Kenya. Peakes has several Folger triumphs to his credit. The review in the Washington Post hails him as “one of the finest Shakespearean actors regularly appearing in Washington.”

The run for this production has been extended through December 4. Here’s the trailer:

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‘It was his words that stuck in my memory, and when I think back on them I feel something ambiguous, a mixture of tenderness and horror, at how those naive aspirations were swallowed whole by the voracious crevasses of life.’ – Temporary Perfections, by Gianrico Carofiglio

November 11, 2011 at 11:06 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

I usually wait until I have finished a book to write about it. In fact, I have a fairly large stack awaiting my attention.

They’ll have to wait a bit longer.

  Defense attorney Guido Guerrieri has been asked to look into the disappearance of a young woman named Manuela Ferraro. It has been six months since Manuela, age 22, was last seen. A thoroughgoing investigation  by the Carabinieri, one of Italy’s national police forces, has turned up nothing. As all avenues of inquiry seem to have been explored, an assistant district attorney has requested that the case be closed. Manuela’s parents are understandably desperate.

Guido is not a trained investigator. But the lawyer for the Ferraro family is a  friend of his. And  besides, he finds himself empathizing deeply with the parents of the missing woman.

And so begins Guido Guerrieri’s involvement in the case. Currently I’m about two thirds of the way through this novel, and so far this genial ‘avvocato’ hasn’t made any discernible headway. But I’ve had a wonderful time getting to know him.

This is not a plot driven novel. Its richness lies in its character creation, vivid sense of place – the place being the city of Bari, in Italy’s Puglia region – and terrific writing.  Temporary Perfections is the fourth in the Guido Guerrrieri series. The previous three have been translated and published in this country. I’m shaking my head and asking myself: How have I managed thus far to completely miss this author?

brief piece on Carofiglio appeared in The New Yorker in 2005. In it, we learn that Gianrico Carofiglio began his career as a judge but then became a prosecutor “‘because I’m kind of a cop in my soul.'” (As a prosecutor, he specialized in going after the mob bosses of Puglia.) The Guido Guerrrieri series has been filmed for Italian television. Just going by appearance, the author himself could have taken the lead: .

I plan to go back and read the other Guerrieri novels. I absolutely love this book!

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I recommend these titles for book group discussions, and for the enjoyment of solitary readers as well

November 7, 2011 at 10:32 pm (Book clubs, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

This is a revised and updated version of a post I did last year.


The Ghost at the Table – Suzanne Berne
The House on Fortune Street – Margot Livesey
The Promise of Happiness, Other People’s Money, and To Heaven By Water – Justin Cartwright
Intuition – Allegra Goodman
The Photograph – Penelope Lively
Prospero’s Daughter – Elizabeth Nunez
Digging To America – Anne Tyler
The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud
The Other Side of YouSalley Vickers
Elephanta Suite – Paul Theroux
On Chesil Beach, Saturday, Enduring Love – Ian McEwan
Trauma – Patrick McGrath
Cleaver – Tim Parks
The Northern Clemency – Philip Hensher
The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa
The Human Stain, Everyman – Philip Roth
Hotel Du Lac – Anita Brookner
By the Lake – John McGahern
The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters
Love and Summer – William Trevor
Unfinished Desires – Gail Godwin
The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
State of Wonder and Bel Canto – Ann Patchett

Historical fiction

Land of Marvels – Barry Unsworth
The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate
The Fall of Troy and The Lambs of London – Peter Ackroyd
Arthur & George – Julian Barnes
Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
An Imperfect Lens – Anne Roiphe

Short story collections

It’s Beginning To Hurt – James Lasdun
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It – Maile Meloy
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders – Daniyal Mueenuddin
Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro
Cheating at Canasta – William Trevor
Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories – Joan Silber
Little Black Book of Stories – A.S. Byatt
My Father’s Tears – John Updike
Walk the Blue Fields – Claire Keegan


The Professor’s House – Willa Cather
Lady Audley’s Secret – Elizabeth Braddon
The House in Paris – Elizabeth Bowen
Washington Square – Henry James
The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald
The Kreutzer Sonata, Family Happiness, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Tolstoy

Henry James, by John Singer Sargent

Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy

Mystery and Suspense

The Coffin Trail – Martin Edwards
The Indian BrideBlack Seconds, and Water’s Edge – Karin Fossum
Monsieur Monde Vanishes – Georges Simenon
The Ghost – Robert Harris
Blue Heaven – C.J. Box
Suffer the Little Children, A Sea of Troubles, Girl of His Dreams – Donna Leon
Careful Use of Compliments and novels in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series – Alexander McCall Smith
Price of Malice – Archer Mayor
The Armand Gamache series – Louise Penny
Minotaur and  The Birthday Present – Barbara Vine
Seven Lies – James Lasdun
Once a Biker – Peter Turnbull
Water Like a Stone – Deborah Crombie
Christine Falls – Benjamin Black
The Tinderbox – Jo Bannister
Raven Black and White NightsAnn Cleeves
What the Dead KnowLaura Lippman
On Beulah Height, and other Dalziel & Pascoe novels – Reginald Hill
The Pure in Heart – Susan Hill
The Godwulf Manuscript and The ProfessionalRobert B. Parker
The Remains of an Altar and Midwinter of the Spirit– Phil Rickman
The Chameleon’s Shadow – Minette Walters
The Way Some People Die and The Zebra-Striped Hearse – Ross MacDonald
Simisola, and Judgement in Stone– Ruth Rendell
The Accomplice – Elizabeth Ironside
The Suspect – L.R. Wright
Finding Nouf – Zoe Ferraris
Bleeding Heart Square and The Anatomy of Ghosts – Andrew Taylor
Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith
The Girl with the Dragon TattooStieg  Larsson
The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson
The Laughing Policeman – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Hit Parade and Hit and Run – Lawrence Block
Thunder Bay – William Kent Krueger
The Demon of Dakar – Kjell Eriksson
Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair – Josephine Tey
The Maltese FalconDashiell Hammett
The Keeper of Lost Causes – Jussi Adler-Olsen
(Also see the post entitled “Great Classic Mysteries To Read and Enjoy.”)


The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft – Ulirch Boser
The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography – Graham Robb
American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau – Susan Cheever
City of Falling Angels – John Berendt
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War – Nathaniel Philbrick
Archie & Amelie: love and madness in the Gilded Age – Donna Lucey
Monsters: Mary Shelley & the Curse of Frankenstein – Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – Michael Pollan
The Girls Who Went Away: the hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade – Ann Fessler
Uncommon Arrangements: seven portraits of married life in London literary circles, 1910-1939 – Katie Roiphe
Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: madness, murder, and the collision of cultures in the Arctic, 1913 – McKay Jenkins
A Venetian Affair and Lucia: a Venetian life in the age of Napoleon – Andrea Di Robilant
Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: a shocking murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective – Kate Summerscale
Zeitoun – Dave Eggers
The Age of Wonder:  how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science – Richard Holmes
Parallel Lives: five Victorian marriages – Phyllis Rose
The Art of Time in Fiction: as long as it takes – Joan Silber
May and Amy: a true story of family, forbidden love, and the secret lives of May Gaskell, her daughter Amy, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones – Josceline Dimbleby
The Last Duel: a true story of crime, scandal, and trial by combat in medieval France – Eric Jager
Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face—and What to Do About It – Richard S. Tedlow
Nothing To Be Frightened Of – Julian Barnes
Destiny of the Republic – Candice Millard
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris – David McCullough


If you live locally and are in a book club, you might want to stop by one of the Howard County Library System’s branches and pick up their newly updated list of suggested titles for book clubs. Click here for book club tips, FAQ’s, and other useful information concerning how the library can help your group.


Carol and Pauline, both members of the Usual Suspects, do a great job of keeping in frequent e-mail contact with members between meetings. This practice is great for promoting and maintaining cohesion within the group.


If you scroll down “Categories” on the right, you’ll see “Book clubs.” There, you will find posts in which I describe a variety of book discussions in which I’ve participated in the past several years.

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Hotbed: another splendid entertainment from the pen of Bill James

November 3, 2011 at 11:19 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  The theories of Karl Marx get a highly unorthodox working over in Bill James’s Hotbed. Two competing drug lords, Ralph Ember and Mansel Shale, have declared a truce. Rather than do battle over the available territory, their “firms” have elected to simply carve it up between them. The agreement includes the prevention of any third party interlopers from gaining a a foothold.

As Hotbed opens, suspicions are being voiced that the surface amity between Manse and Ralph is just that: surface, and fraying dangerously at the edges. (This ominous observation is made first by Colin Harpur’s precocious daughter Hazel.) Does this portend the return of violence to the patch ruled with such  a firm hand by Harpur’s boss, the always impeccably turned out ACC Desmond Isles? It might do just that….

Either way, the reader need not worry. The cheerfully irreverent wit and wisdom of Bill James are back in full force here: Iles’s snarling insults; the manic dialog laced with non sequiturs and alternately studded with lofty philosophizing and savage profanity; the seemingly omniscient adolescent daughters of Harpur and Ember – all are on full glorious display.

In the not-so-distant past, Harpur had an affair with Iles’s wife. Iles is a brilliant policeman with a spot-on intuitive sense, but he has to work hard to keep the memory of Harpur’s perfidy from hijacking his thought processes:

‘I cannot – absolutely cannot and must not – let unpleasantness from some way back affect my mentality. In fact, I will tabulate for you what I’m absolutely determined to avoid, because it would be pervy, prurient, brain-corroding, Othello-like.’

Iles then proceeds to obsess over the very thing he claims he is struggling to forget. He repeats this performance compulsively throughout the novel – in fact, throughout the entire series.

As for Ralph Ember, he has other irons in the fire in addition to his lucrative business as a drug dealer. He’s also the owner / proprietor of the Monty, a club that caters for his colleagues in the underworld. The police also put in frequent appearances on the premises, so as to keep informed on what those same colleagues are  getting up to. Ralph has dreams of a loftier destiny for the Monty, but those dreams must be put on hold while the facility serves as a venue for more immediate occasions of importance, such as:

(a) wedding, divorce and christening parties,
(b) jail releases,
(c) helpful parole or bail decisions,
(d) enemy deaths or major disablings, and turf battle triumphs in general,
(e) charity cabarets and strip shows,
(f) acquittals,…
(g) successful Appeal Court judgements,
(h) knockabout comics,
(i) loot share-outs after extremely unnamed jobs,
(j) suspended sentences due to full prisons,
(k) births,
(l) and…the traditional drinks session following a funeral….

It is at one of these last events that a character called Unhinged Humphrey nearly lives up to his name by attempting to assault Manse Shale’s fiancee Naomi. Ralph is on him like lightning, with Shale subsequently administering an additional drubbing of his own. Unhinged is borne away, only to reappear later in the evening:

Humphrey Maidment-Fane returned to the bar through the kitchen door walking unsupported. He didn’t look too bad. The pad and bandages had been removed and his collar and jacket. Someone had lent him an old blue sweat shirt with ‘Phi Beta Kappa, University of Life’ printed in white capitals across it. His hair seemed to have been rinsed. The cuts had stopped gushing and Ember saw no blood anywhere on him, but his cheekbone under one eye was blue-bruised, though maybe not broken.

Ralph pours him a stiff one and everybody’s friends again – sort of….


Hotbed is the 27th entry in the Harpur and Iles series. I’ve been reading them more or less regularly since Take (1990). (Several years ago I reached back to The Lolita Man, from 1986, after reading this post on D.G. Myers’s Commonplace Blog.)  This is a series that is most rewarding the earlier you start it. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the characters grow and change, but their histories build in an interesting way. If anything, they become more and more themselves, which is strange enough.

In this space I have reviewed Girls, Pix, and In the Absence of Iles. In one post, I wrote about The Girl with the Long Back and Wolves of Memory together.

Bill James writes like no one else I know. I’d give him what our British friends would term full marks for originality combined with a sense of sheer manic fun.

Bill James

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