This just in from our Society Reporter:
Miss Etta Lin was recently seen at an upscale eatery in Jackson, Wyoming. She was tasked with selecting the proper wine to accompany the evening’s repast. In April, Etta will attain the age of one and a half years.
I knew that our granddaughter was acquiring valuable skills at her Montessori Day Care – but truly, this exceeds our expectations!
(Caption for this photo supplied by her ever helpful father.)
In a previous post, I alluded to a recent week in which I attended a Bach concert, two operas (broadcast in HD), and a play. I have yet to write about one of the operas or the play. Although I saw the play last, I’m going to write about it now, since it’s in the midst of its run at the Folger Theatre and is scheduled to close on Sunday March 4, one week from tomorrow.
Written by Susanna Centlivre in the tradition of the Restoration comedy, The Gaming Table is a frothy confection about a woman who runs a gambling parlor out of her own home. The aptly named Lady Reveller just wants to have fun, and she desires the same for her friends and fellow gamblers. (The Gaming Table was originally titled The Basset Table, Basset being the name of the card game around which the play’s action revolves. Click here to learn more about Basset.)
The Gaming Table features the fiendishly convoluted plot twists that usually characterize British comedy of the late 1600s and early 1700s. I for one never worry over much if I lose the thread. Usually the players are having such a mad cap good time of it that I find myself delighted and amused, even if I’m wondering, Now who exactly is she…?
So: Who exactly is Susanna Centlivre? (Lovely name, that: Susanna hundred pounds – or Susanna hundred books!) Here’s the opening of the Folger’s backgrounder:
Susanna Centlivre (1669?-1723) was the most popular female comedic playwright of the 18th century. Although not hailed by the critics of her day, a time when women writers were an unsettling novelty, she enjoyed a certain celebrity. Accounts of Centlivre’s early years are an intriguing array of rumors and hearsay, but once in London she became a well-known dramatist and respectable wife of a royal cook. A prolific author, she wrote at least 16 plays, in addition to many poems and several collections of humorous letters.
So, where has this gifted and prolific poet and playwright been all my life? Buried in obscurity, alas, like so many other artists of her sex. All praise is due, therefore, to the creative team at the Folger for gifting us with this felicitous (and lavishly mounted) production. In a recent piece in the Washington Post, the Folger’s artistic producer Janet Alexander Griffin said of the works of Susanna Centlivre: “Bringing her back is like a new discovery.”
This past Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects discussed The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. The first general fact to emerge from the discussion was that each of us experienced varying degrees of difficulty getting through this novel. Some had expected a struggle; others hadn’t. I was of the latter camp. I have long loved the works of this great writer, my favorite among them being David Copperfield. In addition, having recently re-read and greatly enjoyed Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, I considered that I was intellectually and emotionally equipped to take yet another plunge into the classics.
In this particular case, however, this presumption proved false. As regards Edwin Drood, I found Dickens’s sentence structure baroque, and his vocabulary antiquated. A large number of characters were introduced one after the other, and I had trouble differentiating among them. Added to these difficulties was my irritation with the character of Rosa Bud. Not only is she called, inevitably, Rosebud, but Edwin Drood calls her by the nickname Pussy – a most unfortunate appellation, in my view. Rosa Bud is one of those excessively sweet, rather simple female types that one encounters from time to time in Dickens’s fiction. (Others, if memory serves, would be Dora in David Copperfield and Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities.)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a fragment; Dickens died before completing the novel. Part way through the existing narrative, the eponymous hero disappears. Carol asked us to speculate on a number of questions, in particular: Is Edwin Drood alive or dead? If dead, then was it a natural death or murder? If the latter, who killed him? My chief problem with these questions was that I did not very much care one way or the other.
At any rate, several us admitted getting valuable help from the Edwin Drood entry on Wikipedia, with its lucid exposition of the plot, comprehensive list of characters, and other helpful information.
As it happens, I had just finished reading “The Diary of Anne Rodway,” a story by Wilkie Collins. This tale is included in an anthology called The Dead Witness, about which I’ve recently written. As its title implies, Collins’s story takes the form of diary entries. Anne Rodway lives in a boarding house and earns her keep as a seamstress. Her dear friend Mary lives there too, and plies the same trade for her living. Mary is despondent about her lot in life. It’s obvious that although she has a good heart, she does not possess Anne’s robust constitution nor her keen intelligence. Mary’s fate, and Anne’s determined resourcefulness and unflagging loyalty, make up the substance of this story. The Mystery of Edwin Drood was written in 1870; “The Diary of Anne Rodway” dates from 1856. I found the latter to be the more readable and compelling of the two. Wilkie Collins writes in the kind of spare, unadorned prose style that later proved so effective in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Also I appreciated Collins’s laser-like focus on the plot’s forward momentum, a quality I expected to encounter in Edwin Drood, but did not.
(Ann, the group member who graciously makes her premises available for our meetings, also attends a Victorian Book Club. She told us they had recently read Barnaby Rudge, a Dickens novel of prodigious length. Getting through it, she averred, took perseverance. Indeed – I just checked the Everyman’s Library edition on Amazon: it clocks in at a whopping 920 pages!)
In his Introduction to Dickens, Peter Ackroyd says of The Mystery of Edwin Drood:
It is written in a spare, almost elliptical prose and there is an economy or restraint about the whole narrative which suggests that [Dickens] was consciously harbouring his strength. Nevertheless none of his imaginative power has diminished and, indeed, he was creating quite a new thing in his own fiction….It is a book about doubles, about unmotivated aggression, about murderous impulses, and there is such an atmosphere of dread and fate around it that it must rank as Dickens’s strangest achievement. The dialogue is different here, also, and is at once so precise and so complex that it bears all the marks of Dickens’s constant, meticulous attention to the effects of his story.
I found this commentary both helpful and frustrating: helpful in that it named at least one source of my difficulty – the dialogue – and frustrating in that Ackroyd got so much more from the novel than I did. I believe a re-reading is in order.
Carol, who read this novel twice, did a terrific job as presenter. Her backgrounder on the life and works of Charles Dickens was a model of clarity. The facts set forth concerning Dickens’s life were fascinating in and of themselves; the portrait they painted of the man himself was not very flattering. When he was twelve years old, his father John Dickens was throw into Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison (like the one so vividly portrayed in Little Dorrit). Young Charles was sent to work in Warren’s Blacking Warehouse. This was such a terrible experience that it seems, at some level at least, to have embittered him for the rest of his life. His marriage to Catherine Hogarth was an unhappy one, despite the numerous children it produced. His conduct toward her was at times reprehensible.
In short, despite the compassion and empathy so evident in his novels, Charles Dickens appears to have been a rather hardhearted man.
But as with most lives, whether the person in question is famous or obscure, the truth is more complex than would appear at first glance. Dickens genuinely cared about the poverty and depravity that existed beneath the genteel veneer of Victorian London. In that day (as in this) it was easy to look the other way until someone took hold of you and made you stare straight at the appalling truth. (Dickens did this with devastating impact in Oliver Twist; after reading it, people could no longer ignore the horrors of the workhouse.) And the fact is, we are eternally indebted to this author for bequeathing to us the astonishing products of his own prodigious imagination. Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Micawber, Fagin, Peggoty, Pip, Scrooge, and dozens more – they belong to us all now, and forever. (And let us not forget that Dickens achieved this apotheosis with almost nothing in the way of formal education.)
Now, to return to Edwin Drood….
Have I nothing to say in praise of this work? Actually, there’s quite a bit. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is studded with memorable descriptive passages. To wit:
There’s this description of Mr. Grewgious, Rosa Bud’s guardian:
Mr. Grewgious had been well selected for his trust, as a man of incorruptible integrity, but certainly for no other appropriate quality discernible on the surface. He was an arid, sandy man, who, if he had been put into a grinding-mill, looked as if he would have ground immediately into high-dried snuff. He had a scanty flat crop of hair, in colour and consistency like some very mangy yellow fur tippet; it was so unlike hair, that it must have been a wig, but for the stupendous improbability of anybody’s voluntarily sporting such a head. The little play of feature that his face presented, was cut deep into it, in a few hard curves that made it more like work; and he had certain notches in his forehead, which looked as though Nature had been about to touch them into sensibility or refinement, when she had impatiently thrown away the chisel, and said: ‘I really cannot be worried to finish off this man; let him go as he is.’
Then there’s this description of the contents of a pantry:
The upper slide, on being pulled down (leaving the lower a double mystery), revealed deep shelves of pickle-jars, jam-pots, tin canisters, spice-boxes, and agreeably outlandish vessels of blue and white, the luscious lodgings of preserved tamarinds and ginger. Every benevolent inhabitant of this retreat had his name inscribed upon his stomach. The pickles, in a uniform of rich brown double-breasted buttoned coat, and yellow or sombre drab continuations, announced their portly forms, in printed capitals, as Walnut, Gherkin, Onion, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Mixed, and other members of that noble family. The jams, as being of a less masculine temperament, and as wearing curlpapers, announced themselves in feminine caligraphy, like a soft whisper, to be Raspberry, Gooseberry, Apricot, Plum, Damson, Apple, and Peach. The scene closing on these charmers, and the lower slide ascending, oranges were revealed, attended by a mighty japanned sugar-box, to temper their acerbity if unripe. Home-made biscuits waited at the Court of these Powers, accompanied by a goodly fragment of plum-cake, and various slender ladies’ fingers, to be dipped into sweet wine and kissed. Lowest of all, a compact leaden-vault enshrined the sweet wine and a stock of cordials: whence issued whispers of Seville Orange, Lemon, Almond, and Caraway-seed. There was a crowning air upon this closet of closets, of having been for ages hummed through by the Cathedral bell and organ, until those venerable bees had made sublimated honey of everything in store; and it was always observed that every dipper among the shelves (deep, as has been noticed, and swallowing up head, shoulders, and elbows) came forth again mellow-faced, and seeming to have undergone a saccharine transfiguration.
Here, a storm, after reaching its violent zenith, suddenly ceases:
The Precincts are never particularly well lighted; but the strong blasts of wind blowing out many of the lamps (in some instances shattering the frames too, and bringing the glass rattling to the ground), they are unusually dark to-night. The darkness is augmented and confused, by flying dust from the earth, dry twigs from the trees, and great ragged fragments from the rooks’ nests up in the tower. The trees themselves so toss and creak, as this tangible part of the darkness madly whirls about, that they seem in peril of being torn out of the earth: while ever and again a crack, and a rushing fall, denote that some large branch has yielded to the storm.
Not such power of wind has blown for many a winter night. Chimneys topple in the streets, and people hold to posts and corners, and to one another, to keep themselves upon their feet. The violent rushes abate not, but increase in frequency and fury until at midnight, when the streets are empty, the storm goes thundering along them, rattling at all the latches, and tearing at all the shutters, as if warning the people to get up and fly with it, rather than have the roofs brought down upon their brains.
Still, the red light burns steadily. Nothing is steady but the red light.
All through the night the wind blows, and abates not. But early in the morning, when there is barely enough light in the east to dim the stars, it begins to lull. From that time, with occasional wild charges, like a wounded monster dying, it drops and sinks; and at full daylight it is dead.
There’s plenty more. Reading passages like these, I thought to myself, Could anyone have written this but Charles Dickens?
A site on British Studies has this to say about Victorian England: “There are great periods that people will always be interested in, such as Ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance. Victorian England belongs on this list. It was one of those epochs whose look, literature, and culture will always appeal to a substantial number of thoughtful and curious people.”
Finally, I’d also like to recommend Victorian Web, a pioneering site with a fascinating section on Dickens, as well as many other themes, artists, and writers of that era. The following are samples of the original illustrations by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes for The Mystery of Edwin Drood:
This was the first meeting of the Usual Suspects since the loss of our friend Barb. We will be making a donation to the library in her honor, with an accompanying request to purchase books by some of her favorite authors, such as Laura Lippman, Donna Leon, Sara Paretsky, and Andrea Camilleri. In addition, the knitters among the group are knitting scarves to donate to a project called Survivors Offering Support.
The Enchanted Island is essentially a ‘pasticcio,’ or pastiche (or a mash-up, in contemporary parlance), a cobbled together mixture of music by several Baroque era composers with plot by Shakespeare. The Shakespeare component consists chiefly of The Tempest, with a soupcon of Midsummer Night’s Dream thrown in for good measure. Prospero (David Daniels) is marooned on an island, where he practices the dark arts of magic. Not having been a particularly benevolent ruler, he has managed to annoy mightily a sorceress named Sycorax (Joyce DiDonato). She’s pretty ferocious, except when she’s trying to soothe her son Caliban (Luca Pisaroni, in about a gazillion layers of dreadfully grotesque make-up).
Prospero gives a fairly simple assignment to the good sprite Ariel (Danielle De Niese, spectacularly costumed and with a voice to match). She manages to mess it up, and all sorts of mischief results.
The idea for The Enchanted Island apparently came from general manager Peter Gelb. He thought it would be a treat for opera lovers to have a chance to hear the best in Baroque singing. Judging by the astonishing voice of countertenor David Daniels, this goal was certainly achieved. In fact, all of the singing in this production was spectacular, with special kudos going to Daniels, Joyce DiDonato, and Danielle De Niese. And the presence of Placido Domingo as King Neptune was the icing on the cake! And the staging, as you can see, was jaw-dropping. (For a list of the works used in this opera, click here.)
Joyce DiDonato as Sycorax:
Danielle De Niese as Ariel:
David Daniels as Prospero:
Confirmed Romantic that I am, it took me a while to appreciate the special beauty of the Baroque repertoire. But I get it now. Many of my favorite performance videos contain music from that era:
Te Deum, by Marc Antoine Charpentier. (French speakers might enjoy a visit to this site.) The Parlement de Musique is led by their founder, Martin Gester:
Winter, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I Musici, with Federico Agostini:
One piece I recognized in The Enchanted Island was Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest,’ transformed into ‘Neptune the King’ (in honor of Placido Domingo, reigning king of tenors!). “Zadok the King’ is a coronation anthem closely associated with royalty. It was played in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. The BBC Symphony and Chorus are led by Sir Andrew Davis:
Frederik and Mary now have four children – two princes and two princesses – so the Danish succession would seem to be secure, in case you were anxious on that score….)
When Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, decided in 2006 to try broadcasting Met performances in movie theaters throughout the U.S and the world. there were plenty of doubters. But his bold initiative has met with resounding success, as Ann Midgette documents in a recent article in the Washington Post. We saw The Enchanted Island last week in a neighborhood movie theater, about twenty minutes’ drive from our house. Tickets were $24 (including a service charge) as opposed to $250 (or more) at the opera house. The opera house is exciting and glamorous. The movie theater was convenient and inexpensive. And I got to munch on my beloved popcorn while enjoying a fabulous world class production.
Click here for a look at what has been featured and what’s still to come in the Met’s Live in HD 2011-2012 season.
That was the week that was:
It began on Sunday February 5, with Bach in Baltimore. The cantata for the day was No.182. Maestro Herbert Dimmock’s enthusiasm for this music is boundless; his knowledge of it is equally impressive. He conveyed effectively his amazement at the fact that Bach was only 29 when he composed this work.
The opening movement is possessed of a wonderful sweetness and simplicity. It is here performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus Wien, the period instrument group founded by this illustrious maestro in 1953:
Daniel Sansone, Director of Music Ministry at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, played the Prelude and Fugue in b mnor, BWV 544, on Christ Lutheran’s magisterial Andover 114 organ. Here the opening of this piece is performed by Gustav Leonhardt, in costume as J.S. Bach:
Finally, the Dayseye Choir of the Bryn Mawr School sang several songs. I found the the first one exceptionally beautiful. It is called “Dirait-on” – French for “So they Say” – and was written by a composer new to me: Morten Lauridsen.
Here it is, performed by the Chamber Choir of Europe:
Next up for Culture Week: opera on Wednesday and again on Saturday, courtesy of the Met in HD. The Enchanted Island and Gotterdammerung – Wow!
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits* and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
*According to Wikipedia: “An ait (or eyot) is a small island. It is especially used to refer to islands found on the River Thames and its tributaries in England.”
February 7 marked the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. In honor of the occasion, Carol selected The Mystery of Edwin Drood for discussion at the next week’s meeting of the Usual Suspects. During the run-up to the meeting, she’s been forwarding us some interesting material:
From the New York Times: “The World of Charles Dickens, Complete with Pizza Hut”
A ten question quiz in USA Today.
From NPR Weekend Edition: “A Tale of Two Centuries: Charles Dickens Turns 200”
Dickens 2012 lists a variety of events celebrating Dickens’s birthday. The recently refurbished Charles Dickens Museum is housed in the only extant domicile in London known to have been lived in by the writer.
Oh, to be in London….
The Dead Witness, an excellent new anthology, is subtitled “A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories.” Editor Michael Sims has included the inevitable heavy hitters in the genre, but in assembling this collection, he had an additional purpose: ‘I looked for a lot of forgotten things by big-name writers and lost, wonderful stories by people no one remembers.’ Included in The Dead Witness is a fascinating nonfiction piece by Charles Dickens entitled “On Duty with Inspector Field.” Apparently Dickens frequently toured London’s sordid underbelly by night, in the company of a policeman. Then, as now, the regions of the city blasted by poverty and despair were hidden from the eyes of ordinary people.
In a similar anthology, Masters of Mystery, you’ll find a terrific story called “Hunted Down.” The following brief excerpt demonstrates Dickens’s keen understanding of the subtle nature of criminal investigation. (It’s also a good example of his seemingly effortless yet extremely effective use of figurative language):
An observer of men who finds himself steadily repelled by some apparently trifling thing in a stranger is right to give it great weight. It may be the clue to the whole mystery. A hair or two will show where a lion is hidden. A very little key will open a very heavy door.
In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale, we learn that Dickens joined the fevered speculation concerning the sensational murder at Road Hill House in 1860. (Dickens’s close friend and collaborator Wilkie Collins did likewise.) Jack Whicher is frequently cited as the real life precursor of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, though it’s worth noting that Michael Sims makes a similar claim for Inspector Field.
I love Simon Schama’s tribute in this week’s Newsweek. He begins with a series of questions:
Two hundred years on from his birth, how close is Charles Dickens to you? Do Pip and Peggotty, Carton and Copperfield, Pumblechook, Squeers, and Creakle have a place in your mind? Do you need Dickens as you need food and drink?
He hopes fervently that your answer is yes, He then proceeds to remind us of the linguistic gifts bestowed on us by the author:
We make much of the collapse of English into the squawk of the tweet and the text. To read Dickens, now more than ever, is to experience its opposite: to be caught up in an abundant tumble of words—and in language juicy with the flux of life.
Dickens was great with first lines. My favorite has long been the opening sentence of David Copperfield:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
On February 7, there was a wreath laying ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Dickens is buried there, along with so many of the greats of English arts and letters, in the South Transept, popularly known as Poets’ Corner. Prince Charles and Camilla were in attendance.Ralph Fiennes read the passage from Bleak House in which Dickens narrates the death of Jo, the crossing sweeper.
Here is the video. (A commercial must be viewed first.) Gentle suggestion: Have some Kleenex handy.
‘Everett sat with his back to the window, the cool spring sunshine falling over his shoulder on to the canvas. Effie watched him as he ordered his materials….’
Then he moved towards her. He asked her to sit facing him, and then gradually turned her, so that her face was nearly in profile. A gentle shadow fell across her right cheek and a strand of hair brushed her temple. She went to tuck it behind her ear, but Everett stopped her. It softened her fine features. So they began.
I first encountered the story of Effie Gray in one of my favorite nonfiction reads in recent years: Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose. Effie’s story is the stuff of headlines: beautiful young woman marries distinguished scholar! Wed for five years; marriage never consummated! Resulting annulment causes sensation and scandal!
The annulment was granted in 1854. The following year, Effie Gray and the painter John Everett Millais were married. (They’d already been in love for some time; she had been modeling for him while she was still married to Ruskin.) Effie eventually had eight children by her new (and obviously far more satisfactory) husband.
My impatience was amply rewarded. Told here in greater depth than in Rose’s survey-style volume, it’s a cracking good story, as I suspected it would be.
Here are the main dramatis personae:
In her book, Suzanne Fagence Cooper provides a window into the most intimate aspects of Victorian domestic arrangements. This fascinating era in British history and social life, which would seem to have already been so thoroughly parsed and anatomized by historians and novelists as to have yielded up nearly all of its secrets, is still a repository of further unexpected revelations. Cooper tells us in her acknowledgments that in January of 2009, Sir Geoffroy Millais, a descendant of John Everett Millais, made available a fairly large portion of the family’s papers by lending them to the Tate Gallery Archive. “For the first time in a century, Effie’s letters from her father and mother, her sisters and her children could be seen by someone outside the family.” Cooper adds, with gratitude, that she was given “privileged access” to these documents. (Every biographical researcher’s dream, I would imagine….)
I assume that the availability of this new information is at least partly responsible for the UK artistic community’s renewed interest the turbulent lives of this extraordinary trio. In addition to Cooper’s book, we have not one but two films on this subject in the works. The first out of the starting gate (UK release date June 2012) will be Effie, written by Emma Thompson and starring Dakota Fanning as Effie, Tom Sturridge as John Everett Millais, and Greg Wise as John Ruskin. A terrific cast has been assembled for this production. In addition to these three stars, the film will feature Derek Jacobi, Robbie Coltrane, Claudia Cardinale (!), and David Suchet. Emma Thompson herself takes the role of Lady Eastlake, Effie’s enlightened and supportive friend in the latter’s time of troubles. Here’s the full line-up for Effie. (Greg Wise, who played Willoughby in the 1995 production of Sense and Sensibility, is currently married to Emma Thompson. This is the sort of celebrity factoid greatly beloved by Your Faithful Blogger.)
Also in the pipeline is the aptly titled Untouched, due out next year. This version will star the almost-too-beautiful Keira Knightley and Rufus Sewell, the latter day heartthrob – he sure made my heart throb, anyway! – of the three Aurelio Zen films.
Obviously the subject of the marriage-in-name-only between John Ruskin and Effie Gray gives off tantalizing, titillating sparks. But there’s much more to this story, incorporating as it does the Pre-Raphaelite sensibility and a number of other aspects of the world of the arts in Victorian times.
Having said that, I cannot resist quoting John Ruskin’s statement to his lawyer regarding the source of his trouble with Effie:
“It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.”
Well, golly; how’s that for a vote of no confidence! (See my post on Parallel Lives for Phyllis Rose’s speculation as to the possible cause for Ruskin’s repugnance at the sight of Effie’s “person.”)
For your viewing pleasure: a John Everett Millais gallery:
Sometimes you ponder the meaning of life….
Sometimes you worry about the state of your soul….
Sometimes you wonder about the nature of love….
And sometimes you just want to hear the Beach Boys sing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice:”
I’m still melancholy about the loss of Reginald Hill. The following tributes are testimony to the high esteem in which many readers and fellow writers held him:
No matter which genre he worked in, Mr. Hill was a master of form and style, writing with grace and wit and embellishing his cerebral puzzle mysteries with playful literary allusions and clever wordplay.
From Marilyn Stasio’s article in the New York Times. (Marilyn Stasio is the long time reviewer of crime fiction for that newspaper.)
Martin Edwards wrote a lovely appreciation on his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name. (Edwards epitomizes the generosity I’ve come to admire in the community of British crime fiction writers.)
On receiving the news, George Easter of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine wrote this:
It’s a very, very sad day for me. I just received the news that Reginald Hill has passed away at the age of 75. He has been one of a handfull of my very most favorite authors since I first read RULING PASSION in the early 1980s. I considered Reginald Hill and Michael Connelly as the two greatest living mystery writers until today. The King is dead — Long live the King. In retrospect I am very pleased that DP readers voted Reginald a Barry Award last year for THE WOODCUTTER. A fitting send-off for an exceptional artist.
I was hoping that he would be very long-lived and productive. Now I’ll just have to satisfy myself with re-reading his most excellent body of work. I can only hope that there is a book in the pipeline. January 13, 2012.
The fine folks at Felony and Mayhem Press have done a great job of bringing Hill’s earlier novels back into print. Maggie Topkis, the house’s founder and “editrix,” posted these gracious sentiments concerning the passing of this author.
Yesterday, in desperate need of a real live bookstore experience, I visited our local Barnes & Noble. (We’ve been informed by a recent article in the Business section of the New York Times that Barnes and Noble is now the last bastion in which a nervous publishing industry has placed its hope and trust.) Despite the annoying presence of non book items – toys and such, and even boxes of Godiva Chocolates in anticipation of Valentine’s Day – I was able to recapture some of the old, perennial pleasure of such a sojourn. I was especially pleased to see several Felony & Mayhem titles stocked among the mysteries. I picked up Deadheads, pictured above, and Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham.
I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman was a recent selection for discussion by the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Group. The choice of this particular title was a problem for me. I had recently had occasion to revisit What the Dead Know via audiobook. My reason for doing so was that the AAUW Readers were set to discuss it last November. I first read What the Dead Know when it came out in 2007, and I remember liking it a great deal. But somehow I was enjoying it a good deal less the second time around. The story seemed padded and convoluted; the prose rather humdrum when not downright clunky. So the prospect of engaging with yet another Lippman title did not, for the moment, have much appeal.
A big part of my problem stemmed from the audiobook itself. The reader was adequate to the task, but no more. In several sections of the narrative, she needed to assume a Southern accent, and for me at least, her efforts to do this were labored and unconvincing (not to mention irritating). Lippman’s novels are mainly set in Baltimore and the surrounding area, so it’s natural to encounter allusions to local landmarks. The audiobook reader was clearly unfamiliar with these. One particularly egregious example involved the name of a department store. Hochschild Kohn & Company was at one time a well known retailer in this area. “Hochschild” is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable. It sounds like “hoe.” The second syllable rhymes with “filled.” The audiobook reader pronounced it as though it were spelled “hock child.” Aargh!!!
My dismay at this performance was all the more acute since I had just listened to two wonderful readings of Golden Age classics. The first was Look to the Lady (aka The Gyrth Chalice) by Margery Allingham, read by Francis Matthews; the second was Singing in the Shrouds by Ngaio Marsh, read by James Saxon. I’m familiar with both these readers but I’d forgotten just how superb they both are.
Margery Allingham is the one Golden Age author whose works I’ve had trouble warming to. Listening to Look to the Lady reminded me of one reason why: she repeatedly describes her protagonist Albert Campion as peering “foolishly” from behind his spectacles. I found this – and still find this – annoying. And yet Look to the Lady was a delightful tale, replete with gypsies on the heath, a visiting American professor and his feisty daughter, a semi-decayed family of aristocrats and their most precious possession (an ideal MacGuffin if there ever was one!) and, inevitably, Albert Campion, who’s oh so smart though you’d never know it from the way he peers through those coke bottle lenses!
Ngaio Marsh has been a favorite of mine ever since I read Death in a White Tie. That novel chronicles a London season in 1930s and brings that high society ritual vividly to life. Marsh provides a varied and engaging cast of characters, one of the most appealing of which is her series protagonist, Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Singing in the Shrouds, as its title implies, takes place almost entirely aboard a ship. It is like a country house mystery, with a limited pool of suspects and a steadily accumulating sense of dread. As a reader, James Saxon produces a somewhat more plummy sonority than Francis Matthews, but no matter. They’re both outstanding examples of exactly the right voice and inflection for the material.
A final word on I’d Know You Anywhere: much of the action of the novel takes place here in Howard County. The local references are fun but would not alone make for a worthwhile reading experience. That said, I liked this book more than I thought I would – more, in fact than What the Dead Know. Laura Lippman is not a great prose stylist, but she is an excellent storyteller, and her occasional touches if irreverent wit are a pleasure to encounter.