We have lost a member of our Usual Suspects Mystery Book Club.
Barb has long been one of the group’s most enthusiastic participants. In fact, along with her friend Susan, she was slated to lead a discussion earlier this month. The title they chose was I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman, one of Barb’s favorite authors. In the event, Barb was unable to attend. Susan, a relatively new addition to the group, did an excellent job as solo facilitator, but she made it clear that she was greatly aided by Barb’s insights and suggestions, shared with her prior to the night in question.
We in the Usual Suspects group have always appreciated Barb’s intelligence and perceptiveness, as well as her ready wit and sense of humor. She was with us in spirit the night of the Lippman discussion; in like manner, she’ll be a presence at future gatherings of the Usual Suspects, as the months and years unfold.
She was a good friend and a good person, and will be missed by all of us.
I have, of late, written of my great pleasure in turning once again to the works of Jane Austen. I speak in particular of Sense and Sensibility, an early work by this author. I had read this novel once before – indeed, had read Austen’s entire oeuvre while a besotted undergraduate many years ago. I have, since that time, revisited them numerous times as rendered in filmed versions. Due to time constraints, rereading has been undertaken a good deal less frequently.
I found that on this occasion, reading Sense and Sensibility presented me with certain challenges. In a previous post, I described the first of these, encountered by me in the novel’s opening chapter. The problem centered on Austen’s setting out of the relationships of the various members of the Dashwood family. I reread this chapter, went on to the next, and became well and truly enthralled. The riches of Jane Austen’s tale of love found, lost, and ultimately recovered lay before me and I feasted upon them, with the greatest pleasure imaginable. That is not to say that the challenges disappeared completely….
When reading a novel published in 1811 (the initial work on which was begun even earlier, in the late 1790s), one is bound to encounter some unfamiliar and/or antiquated vocabulary. In the course of one conversation, for instance, Willoughby makes this comment: “Perhaps…his observations may have extended to the existence of nabobs, gold mohrs, and palanquins.”
Puzzlers like this are much easier to research now that we have Google, Wikipedia, and Amazon at our disposal. All three of the somewhat obscure terms uttered here by Willoughby relate to India. Wiktionary informs us that ‘nabob’ derives from ‘nawab.’ the term for a ruler in the Moghul Empire. Thus nabob has come to signify a person “of great wealth or importance,” and or a person who in his style of living exhibits a ‘grandiose’ manner. (And who of my generation can forget “nattering nabobs of negativism,” that triumph of alliterative obscurity coined for Spiro Agnew in 1970 by columnist and speech writer William Safire?)
‘Gold mohrs’ presented more of a challenge. I got the best result from searching inside an annotated text version of the novel on Amazon. A footnote contained the following: “Gold mohrs, or mohurs, were the principal coins used in British India.”
Jane Austen’s sentence structure can take some getting used to, as here, where Marianne’s temperament is subject to her creator’s keen analysis:
…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.
In contemporary parlance, Marianne sees no reason to conceal or temper her feelings for Willoughby. There was no reason that the two should not form an attachment. Why should she strive for a severe comportment? She was young, high spirited, and in love, and she didn’t mind who knew of it.
At any rate, the reward for the reader in overcoming these admittedly minor obstacles is to have Jane Austen’s richly imagined world made real. You enter that world and are filled with delight. (Tis truly a delight, Gentle Reader, despite the presence of certain characters in the narrative whose behavior is so odious that you’d like to smack them! One has only to think of the scheming, tightfisted Mrs. John Dashwood and her milquetoast of a husband….)
I had seen the film version of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslett, and Hugh Grant when it came out in 1995. As I made my way through the novel, I realized that I was recalling the story as told in the film rather than in the novel. Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay, made significant alterations in the plot and eliminated several minor characters from the narrative. Even so, her greatest challenge was in writing the dialog, as she herself explains:
The language in the novel is complex and far more arcane than in the later books. In simplifying it I’ve tried to retain the elegance and wit of the original and it’s necessarily more exacting than modern speech.
All I can say is, watch the movie and see just how brilliantly she has succeeded. (Emma Thompson is a graduate of Cambridge University, where she read English literature.)
In the same year as the film came out, Thompson published a book containing her screenplay and also entries from the diary she kept during production. The diaries are a delight. Here are some of my favorite bits:
After screening a seemingly endless parade of potential cast members, director Ang Lee, in some amazement, asks, “Can everyone in England act?” Thompson and producer Lindsey Doran consult together on this question and decide that the answer is probably yes.
Jane Gibson, whom Thompson describes as “movement duenna and and expert on all matters historical,” served as a consultant. Cast members learned a great deal from her:
The bow is the gift of the head and heart. The curtsy (which is of course a bastardisation of the word ‘courtesy’) a lowering of status for a moment, followed by recovery. [Gibson] speaks of the simplicity and grace of the time, the lack of archness. The muscularity of their physique, the strength beneath the ease of movement.
There’s more. Jane Gibson’s insights exert a subtle but crucial influence on the actors, on how they move and carry themselves.
The possibility is raised that Emma Thompson’s script might be novelized, i.e. made into a book which would constitute another version of Sense and Sensibility. Her reaction to this suggestion: “I’ve said that if this happens I will hang myself.” She adds: “Revolting notion. Beyond revolting.”
The sheep in this film were numerous and photogenic: “Very bolshie ‘period’ sheep with horns and perms and too much wool….Ang wants sheep in every exterior shot and dogs in every interior shot.” To which Thompson added the helpful suggestion that sheep be included in some of the interior shots as well.
In one of the film’s final scenes, Edward Ferrars, played by Hugh Grant, finally declares his love for Elinor (Emma Thomson). Ang Lee’s command to Grant: “‘This is your big moment. I want to see your insides.'” To which Grant replied, “Ah. Right-o. No pressure then….'”
Both Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant played that scene beautifully. I’ve watched it over and over again and I cry every time. In fact, the entire film is ravishing. The costumes are gorgeous; likewise, the magnificent stately homes.* The English countryside, with its breathtaking beauty, seems a veritable Eden. And finally, and most importantly, the acting is superb. I see I have run out of superlatives. How can I help myself? Sense and Sensibility is now my favorite film in the whole universe!
There is one more thing I want to say about The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries, and that is, that Emma Thompson’s book provides a fascinating glimpse into everyday life on a film set. It was not until I perused the diary that I realized just how little I knew about the process. Thompson makes it sound exhilarating, exasperating, and utterly exhausting – but never boring!
Here’s the trailer for Sense and Sensibility:
Emma Thompson won both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for her screenplay. She was also nominated for best actress in both venues. In my opinion, she richly deserved that accolade as well.
In her acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Award ceremony, Emma Thompson paid very special homage to Jane Austen:
For a list of the locations where Sense and Sensibility was filmed, see the “Filming” section in the Wikipedia entry .
One of my favorite authors of crime fiction has passed away.
Reginald Hill was the author of the Dalziel and Pascoe procedurals as well as a number of standalones, and as of 1993, a series featuring private investigator Joe Sixsmith. He also wrote seven thrillers under the name Patrick Ruell. Here’s the complete list.
It’s a large body of work, and its quality was consistently high. I’ve always looked to Hill’s novels for elegant prose, prodigious erudition, ingenious plots, and that wry, biting wit that we Anglophiles so cherish in British writers.
My reading of Reginald Hill’s oeuvre has been pretty much confined to the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. My favorites among them are The Wood Beyond, On Beulah Height, Dialogues of the Dead, Death’s Jest Book, Good morning, Midnight…well, as you can see, I’m having trouble choosing. If I had to pick a masterpiece from the lot, I’d choose On Beulah Height, a crime story which possesses an added dimension of urgency because of a dire situation involving one of the main characters in the series. The psychological acuity at work in this novel took my breath away. In her New York Times review of On Beulah Height, Marilyn Stasio called Reginald Hill “ever the master of form and sorcerer of style.” Click here for an appreciation of Hill’s work that I wrote in 2008.
For the 2007 Smithsonian Tour “Mystery Lovers’ England and Scotland,” Recalled To Life was on our list of suggested reading. This is my brief review, including a lengthy quoted passage:
I had deliberately saved Recalled To Life, a nicely compact mass market paperback, to read on the plane. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would still be reading it on the way back! I am a dedicated reader of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels, but I found this one, published here in 1992 and located about half way through the series, to be exceptionally dense and complex. It’s a country house murder, all right, but with an enormous cast of characters; I had trouble keeping track of who was who. Nevertheless, it has all the trademarks of Hill’s wonderful writing. Dalziel in particular is in exceptionally fine fettle here: pushy, coarse, low class – sometimes rather deliberately so – but also capable of compassion and insight. He’s a real brawler, too when the occasion calls for it, which it does several times in this book.
Recalled to Life is named for the title of the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. Quotes at the head of each chapter are taken from the Dickens work. Hill’s novel is indeed about people being “recalled to life” in various ways: released from prison after over two decades, in the case of one character; given a new, if brief, lease on life as in the case of Ellie Pascoe’s aging mother. Towards the conclusion, as Dalziel and Peter Pascoe are heading north on the A 1, Hill treats us to this poignant, eloquent paragraph, as good an illustration as any of the way in which the British are never very far from an awareness of their rich, extraordinary, and sometimes brutal history:
“This was the Great North Road, or had been before modern traffic made it necessary for roads to miss the townships they had once joined. Hatfield they passed, where Elizabeth the First learned of her accession, and Hitchin, where George Chapman translated Homer into English and John Keats into the realms of gold; Biggleswade where the Romans, driving their own road north, forded a river and founded a town; Norman Cross, near which a bronze eagle broods over the memory of eighteen hundred of Napoleon’s dead, not on a field of battle but in a British prison camp; then into what had been Rutland before it was destroyed by little men whose power outstripped their vision by a Scotch mile; and now began the long flat acres of Lincolnshire, and the road ran by Stamford, once the busy capital of the Fens and later badly damaged during the Wars of the Roses; and Grantham, where God said, ‘let Newton be,’ and there was light, though in a later century the same town ushered in some of the country’s most twilit years…”
Dwelling in his Cumbrian fastness, Mr. Hill has always avoided the limelight. (This short, lively bio has been on the Random House site for as long as I can remember.) His books will stand as a fitting monument to a life well lived in the realm of literature.
This was the original title of this post:
‘Catherine the Great vs Guido Brunetti; or an illustration of the way in which suspense is inherent in the narrative, both its presence and is absence being of a surprising nature’
I don’t know if this title will make it past the draft stage of this post….Does it make any sense at all, I wonder?….
Some days later…in which time the above title has been unceremoniously scrapped.
Alors – let me explain. I’ve just read four mysteries in fairly quick succession: Well – as quick as possible, since the pacing of each of them varied from, shall we say stately, to downright glacial.
Karin Fossum is an author I very much esteem, and I enjoyed Bad Intentions, although “enjoy” is possibly not the appropriate word. Once again, the reader is faced with the unrelieved bleakness of much Scandinavian crime fiction, and once again one is reminded of critic Jake Kerridge’s observation: ” The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die.” Bad Intentions is about unremitting grief and the refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions. It s about weak willed young people with no firm sense of morality. They drift into evil deeds and then can’t understand how they arrived at such a terrible place:
How quickly it can change, the life we think has been marked out for us. We start the journey with good intentions, the gift our parents bequeathed us. And then someone snaps their fingers and we find ourselves sidetracked; we end up in a foreign country.
Up close, we see the corrosive effect of guilt on sensitive souls. Sensitive – and weak. The only thing that moves with any speed is the characters’ increasing sense of hopelessness.
Karin Fossum writes beautifully. Bad Intentions has its poetic moments. But scarcely a ray of light penetrates that northern gloom.
Drawing Conclusions was yet another slow mover. There are always pleasures to be found in Donna Leon’s Venice, even while the author points out flaws in the governance of her adopted city. I always enjoy the lively exchanges that occur at mealtimes in the Brunetti household. Children Raffi and Chiara are engaging without being cloyingly sweet. Paola the fiery intellectual always adds spice to the mix. Brunetti himself is something of a peacekeeper though no pushover in that role.
But in Drawing Conclusions, I didn’t get nearly enough time with the family. I got more than enough time with the dramatis personae involved in the crime under investigation. The idiocy of Brunetti’s superiors is verging on the cliche. The crime itself never really pulled me into the narrative.
Like Karin Fossum, Donna Leon writes beautifully. I kept wishing she were writing about people I cared about – or cared more about.
There is one scene in this novel that is so deeply felt that it moved me to tears. Commissario Guido Brunetti has been interviewing one Dottor Grandesso, an elderly man in a care home, or casa di cura, run by an order of religious sisters. As it turns out, this man has almost nothing of substance to contribute to the inquiry at hand. But while they discourse, he is fighting for breath, fighting for life, and fighting for dignity and repose. In addition, he is desperate to stay out of the hospital. After an episode of extreme agitation, Dottor Grandesso finally lapses into a slumbrous state:
For an instant, Brunetti feared that the man had died before his eyes, he helpless to prevent it; then he heard another of those long breaths, but softer. He sat motionless and watched until he was sure the doctor was asleep. As quietly as he could, Brunetti got to his feet and backed towards the door. He went into the corridor, leaving the door open so that the sleeping man could be seen.
The corridor was empty; the clink of plates and the rushing sound of water came from behind the closed door of the kitchen. Brunetti leaned against the wall. He put his head back until it touched the wall and stood like that for a few minutes.
I wonder if t here is an investigator in all of crime fiction with as deep a well of empathy and compassion as that so consistently evinced by Commissario Guido Brunetti….
Black Diamond is the name of a highly prized truffle. It is also the title of Martin Walker’s latest Bruno Courreges mystery. I knew I’d want to read this novel, as I was so captivated by Walker’s depiction of life in France’s Perigord region in The Dark Vineyard. Walker works a similar magic in this novel. Here’s Bruno, Chief of Police in the village of Saint-Denis, making a venison casserole:
Gigi [Bruno’s basset hound] looked hopeful at his feet as Bruno took down the large ham that hung from the beam that supported the kitchen roof. He sliced off some of the dense fat with the meat, chopped it into lardons, tossed them into his big casserole dish, and lit the gas. He pulled down six shallots from the string that hung from the beam and began to peel them. The roast was ready, and he and Gigi ate slice and slice alike before he began cutting the venison into rough cubes.
It gets better:
From his larder he removed a large glass jar of the mushrooms he had dried in September. Then he began to peel heads of garlic. When the venison was well browned, he sprinkled flour onto the meat to soak up all the juices and then tipped in the shallots and added half a dozen cloves of garlic, salt and pepper. He took a bottle of the Bergerac red he bought for everyday drinking and poured a splash into the pan where the onions had been and grated what was left of the baguette into the glaze. He then took a fat blood sausage, made from last year’s pig, squeezed out the rich, black contents from its skin and added them to the pan, crumbling the sausage meat that would help thicken the sauce, and then scraped the rest into the casserole. He added the rest of the bottle of wine, added the dried mushrooms and closed the lid.
Imagine the rich aromas filling the house! Mon Dieu!!
These elaborate preparations are for a dinner given in memory of a dear friend. The ceremonial meal itself is an intensely vivid and moving scene.
It seems churlish to criticize a novel that offers such riches, but detailed descriptions like the one above, delightful though they may be, do slow the pace of the novel considerably.
Black Diamond deals with a growing problem concerning the quality of the truffles sold in French markets. Buyers at these markets are not only private individuals but also representatives of high end restaurants, Lately there have been allegations that the batches of truffles have been adulterated with inferior products, probably originating in China.
Martin Walker is writing about an actual crisis. Large amounts of money are involved. As it happens, Sixty Minutes had a segment on this subject this past Sunday night. Click here for the video.
(And for the record: Gigi the basset hound is a superb truffle hunter.)
For me, the biggest disappointment in this group of mysteries was A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny. Generally speaking, I’m a great fan of this series, but for me, this novel really dragged. It felt padded; the plot seemed overly convoluted. It did have some of this author’s invariably pleasing stylistic touches; moreover, I have become very fond of Armand Gamache and his team. In fact, I am very curious as to whether something will develop between Gamache’s trusted second in command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, and a certain young woman. I found myself much more interested in that tantalizing possibility than I was in the main thrust of the plot.
I thought Bury Your Dead, the predecessor to this book, was superb. It made me want to pack my bags and head for Quebec City immediatement! A Trick of the Light never grabbed me that way.
Having said this, I really do feel that all of these writers are in the main producing wonderful novels. I absolutely plan to return each of these four series. And I’m willing to entertain the notion that my problem had more to do with my own mood than I’ve hitherto acknowledged. I remain amazed, though, that I was having more of a “glued to the page” experience with Catherine the Great than I was with the crime fiction I was reading at the same time. (I am still having that experience. I am almost finished with Robert K. Massie’s stupendous biography. I deeply regret that it must come to an end.)
Finally, it’s worth considering what are the elements that make for a page turner. Some would say that chief among these is a plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat. I agree – that is one factor, but certainly not the only one. and in fact, some fast moving narratives sacrifice depth of characterization for swiftness of plot. In my view, the greatest suspense is created by presenting a terrific story populated by richly drawn, deeply interesting characters. These qualities can inhere in any literary genre, in fiction or nonfiction. They are present in abundance in the life story of Catherine the Great, a German princess who became Empress of Russia almost by force of will, not to mention great audacity and courage, and continued to display these attributes throughout her long and turbulent reign.
Setting is also vitally important. Russia fascinates and mystifies, as it has done down through the centuries. I love a book that attempts to penetrate a mystery, even if the author does not quite succeed – perhaps especially if the author does not quite succeed. I love a novel with great dialog; equally, I love eavesdropping on the ruminations of a first rate mind. I am once more reminded of each of these pleasures as I return to Edinburgh via the latest entry in the Alexander McCall Smith‘s Isabel Dalhousie series. Already we’ve had Isabel thinking deep thoughts about the nature and purpose of art, conversing with a new acquaintance about the role of religion in contemporary life, and sparring with her housekeeper Grace about who should iron Jaimie’s shirts (Jaimie being Isabel’s live-in lover, father of her child, and soon-to-be husband) All this and much more, and I’m only on page 57.
I picked up The Forgotten Affairs of Youth two days ago and have been happily immersed therein ever since. Eureka! I have found my page turner, just as I thought I would.
I am currently reading, in discreet chunks, a most fascinating book of art history by Andrew Graham-Dixon, an art critic and historian who first came to my notice with his BBC documentary The Art of Russia. Graham-Dixon had a new book out on Caravaggio. While I was awaiting my reserve on that title, Amazon helpfully informed me that this author had also written a book on the history of British art. This proved a somewhat tough “get,” as it is out of print. I obtained a used copy somewhat the worse for wear but acceptable condition (and enhanced here by Ron’s artful camera work):
This is from the introduction: “An air of abjectness and a consciousness of failure has for centuries hung over the discussion of art not just in England but in Britain as a whole.” The author then adds, “Perhaps this partly explains the curious fact that no-one , to my knowledge has, until now, attempted a general history of the subject in one book.”
Right at the outset, Graham-Dixon insists on confronting head-on the crucial importance of the massive destruction of religious art which was the concomitant of Henry VIII’s separation from Rome:
The radical leaders of the new Protestant church were vigorous and determined opponents of all Roman Catholic rituals and imagery. Under their direction thousands upon thousands of works of religious art were burned and smashed. Throughout Scotland, Wales and England cathedrals and churches were emptied of sculptures, paintings and stained glass. Grimy festive bonfires were lit, and the common people were encouraged to warm themselves as their religious past went up in flames.
As regards the teaching and the discussion of British history, especially British art history, the extent of this destruction has not been acknowledged. But it must be, Graham-Dixon insists, if a true understanding of that history is to be attained.
Once he’s fairly launched into the body of this work, Graham-Dixon presents us with some stunning images from pre-Reformation Catholic Britain. Most of these have survived by having been deliberately hidden or simply overlooked. The author laments:
The Middle Ages in Britain have become the Missing Ages, and British churches and cathedrals have become the graveyards or excavation sites of the art produced during the long centuries of Catholic belief….But there are certainly enough remains to refute the eccentric and still often repeated notion that the British have never proved themselves to be an especially exuberant or self-expressive nation. The British were once a zealous, convulsive, rowdy, colourful and superstitious people, possessed by consoling dreams of other, brighter worlds and by nightmares of death and damnation, living their painful and devoted lives in a world of smoke and incense and music and hot, hot colour.
(I find that last sentence amazing. It contains an entire ethnography of the British people of the Middle Ages. And so beautifully expressed. I love the way this man writes.)
In 1892, the Church of St. Peter in Wenhaston, Suffolk, was being restored. Workmen had taken the tympanum – a painted backdrop for a carving of Christ on the cross – out of the building and laid it on the ground. (The crucifix itself was long gone.)
At the time these events occurred, the painting on the tympanum was covered with whitewash that had been applied centuries before. Was the plan to paint it afresh? to burn it? No one knows for sure. What is known is that during the night, while the tympanum lay outside, it rained. The whitewash dissolved and ran off. When the workmen returned the next day, this is what they saw:
Ranworth, a village in Norfolk, is home to St. Helen’s Church, which dates from the fourteenth century. The church keeps within its premises a medieval Latin antiphoner dating from the 1400’s. This type of illuminated prayer book, used in the Catholic worship service, was banned in 1549. The Ranworth antiphoner, consisting of 285 vellum pages, was undoubtedly slated for destruction. Yet miraculously, down through the ages, it has survived:
According to Wikipedia, The Worshipful Company of Mercers is “…the premier Livery Company of the City of London.” We are further informed that “It is the first of the so-called “Great Twelve City Livery Companies.” First constituted 1394, the Mercers are based in Mercer’s Hall. This edifice is now in its third iteration, having first been destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and then again in the Second World War.
I think it’s fair to say that this is one of those entities whose historic function is somewhat hard to grasp for those not intimately familiar with English history. Its present function, or at least one of them, however, is easier to understand:
‘This exclusive hall has now opened its doors to the corporate market for the first time in its 500 year history and is perfect for all evening dinners, receptions or conferences.’
In the 1950s, while digging under the Hall’s foundation, builders discovered this:
Here is Graham-Dixon: “Art was the sympathetic handmaiden of a faith rooted in sympathy for the sick and the dying, whose God had Himself experienced human pain and an excruciating death through the person of Jesus Christ. There is no more moving meditation on this theme than the Mercer’s Hall Christ.”
It is here, while discoursing on this work which dates from the early 1500s, that the author gives a free reign to his frustration with the state of British art history scholarship as regards this particular period:
The fact that its existence has been known to only a handful of people until now makes it one of the most compelling instances of the black hole of amnesia and ignorance into which so much of the medieval art of Britain has been allowed to fall….It should be on public view but is to be found, instead, lying on the floor of the Mercer’s Hall boardroom. Time has lent the work additional pathos and now this marble corpse of Christ proclaims two deaths, the death of God and the death of an entire tradition of British art.
(A History of British Art was published in 1996. One wonders if this situation has since been addressed.)
In the Renaissance wing of London’s National Gallery can be found the Wilton Diptych (ca. 13395-9): “…the most beautiful dream of heaven to survive in all British art: a paradise garden think with fat, bright blossoms, occupied by a lethargic, almond-eyed Virgin and crowded round with long-necked, sleepy angels with flowers in their golden hair.”
In this gallery filled with the art of the great Sienese painters, the Wilton Diptych is the sole work by a British artist.
Walking through the rest of the museum, the visitor passes all that never took place in British art. There was to be no British Titian, no Tintoretto, no Raphael, no Michelangelo, no Caravaggio, no Velasquez.
Taking a leap forward in time: “It took two foreigners to repair the wreckage of the British visual tradition and to lay the foundations of a recognizably British way of making and thinking about painting.” They were:
Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), of Augsberg, in Bavaria;
Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), of Antwerp;
There’s more to come on this fascinating subject.