A (welcome) return to the Lake District: The Hanging Wood by Martin Edwards

April 30, 2012 at 1:11 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

   The Hanging Wood is the fifth entry in the Lake District series of novels by Martin Edwards. This ongoing narrative features two exceptionally attractive protagonists, DCI Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind. Hannah heads up the Cold Case Team for the Cumbria Constabulary. Daniel is an historian, formerly at Oxford; he has also gained a measure of fame as a television personality. When their story begins in The Coffin Trail (one of my all time favorite series openers), Daniel, having suffered a tragedy in his personal life, has turned his back both on celebrity and on Oxford. With his new girlfriend Amanda, he’s relocated to the Lake District in search of a more serene and less complicated way of life. This being a crime fiction series, however, he doesn’t quite achieve that goal.

Hannah is also in a relationship, a long term one. Her partner Marc is a bookstore owner. As it happens, there is a prior link between Daniel and Hannah: Daniel’s father Ben Kind was a policeman in Cumbria and had acted as Hannah’s mentor when she first joined the force. As the series progresses, we perceive that additional forces are working to create a bond between these two complex, deeply interesting yet fundamentally reserved people.

There are two mysteries at the center of The Hanging Wood. One involves a missing fourteen-year-old named Callum Hinds. Callum has not been seen or heard from for twenty years. The decision of Hannah’s boss Lauren Self to re-open the inquiry into his disappearance causes this cold case to land squarely in Hannah’s lap. Meanwhile, Callum’s sister Orla Payne has been conducting her own investigation. Unfortunately, her actions in this matter lead to tragic consequences. Someone has secrets regarding this matter and will clearly stop at nothing to prevent their exposure.

Meanwhile, we learn that Daniel Kind is researching yet another mystery, one that stretches back into the past: “He was writing a study of Thomas De Quincey’s influence upon the history of murder.”  ( Thomas De Quincey wrote the essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.”) Daniel is conducting the bulk of his research in St. Herbert’s Residential Library.  It so happened that this august institution had also been the scene of Orla Payne’s recent employment.

Here I will pause for a moment to expound briefly on the subject of a residential library. Upon first seeing that locution, I assumed that it referred to a library housed in a larger domicile of some sort. But no: the library and the residence are one in the same, a sort of combined research facility and bed and breakfast.

I was delighted by the notion of such an entity. I had visions of my info-hungry self flying downstairs or through large, spacious hallways in my pajamas and fuzzy slippers toward the stacks in order to verify some point of fact or other.

In his Author’s Note, Martin Edwards informs us that St. Herbert’s as described in the novel does not actually exist. However, there is in North Wales a similar establishment that served as its model: St. Deiniol’s, currently known as Gladstone’s Library at St. Deiniol’s.

The proverbial clean, well lighted place: somewhat spartan, almost monastic, yet possessing a certain charm

I love mysteries that have what I call “added value,” and The Hanging Wood had plenty of that. First, there was the pleasure of discovering the residential library. Then, there’s the encounter with Thomas De Quincey. Finally, there’s the delight of returning to the Lake District, a place of serene beauty which I have not visited for many years. In particular, we get to visit Derwent Water in company with Hannah and Daniel.  The latter remarks: “Ruskin said this was one of the three most beautiful scenes in Europe….” It’s not hard to see why:

Be sure and click to enlarge this gorgeous vista.

( Effie is an excellent new book about John Ruskin, Effie Gray, and John Everett Millais. A film is also forthcoming.)

I very much enjoyed The Hanging Wood, and I look forward with happy anticipation to the next book in this fine series. (Click here for a review of the novel just previous to this one, The Serpent Pool. And you might also enjoy, as I did, Waterloo Sunset, which is set in Liverpool and features a different series character, solicitor Harry Devlin.)

I’d like to take this opportunity to remind  lovers of crime fiction of Martin Edwards’s terrific blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name.  Here you will find reviews and news of the mystery world. (I especially enjoy the recurring feature called  ‘Forgotten Book.’)

Martin Edwards at Crimefest 2011

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Ecalpemos – expulsion from paradise?

April 25, 2012 at 1:57 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

 Under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell has written a series of psychological thrillers which are distinguished by the subtlety with which they draw readers into tangled webs of love, guilt and remorse.

100 Must-read Crime Novels, Richard Shephard and Nick Rennison

A Fatal Inversion came out in the mid 1980’s. Much of the novel’s action takes place during that time period, and also ten years earlier. It is during that earlier period that a 19-year-old boy named Adam Verne-Smith inherits a house. Not just any house – this one is quite grand, with a beautiful garden and an adjacent woodland.  It is all quite idyllic – you could almost say, Edenic.

The house is called Wyvis Hall. It’s a family home and was lived in by Adam’s great-uncle Hilbert until the time of that person’s death. Adam was well acquainted with Wyvis Hall, having gone there as a child with his parents. In point of fact Lewis Verne-Smith, Adam’s father, had expected to be the new owner of Wyvis Hal. However, Lewis’s sycophantic ways got under Hilbert’s skin. The old man willed the property to the son, largely to spite the father.

At the time that Adam comes into his inheritance, he’s the archetypal impoverished student. His first thought is to sell Wyvis Hall, take the money and run. He drives down to the property with his friend Rufus, a pre-med student. And his experience of the place on this particular visit changes everything:

On either side the drift was thick with cow parsley, its powdery white heads coming to an end of their long blooming. It had a sweetish scent, like icing sugar, like childhood birthday cakes, that mingled with the winy perfume of the elders. All the trees were in full leaf but the oaks and beeches had not long so been, so that t heir foliage was still a fresh bright color and the lime trees were hung with pale yellow-green dangling flowers. The pinewood looked just the same as ever, it always did, it was always dark and dense with very narrow passages through it that would surely allow nothing bigger than a fox to weave its way through. Imperceptibly the trees must have grown, yet they seemed to Adam no different from when he was a child coming up to fetch the milk and when, on sunless mornings, he had felt a kind of menace from the wood. Even then he had not liked to look into it too much but had kept his eyes on the ground or straight ahead of him because the wood was the kind of place you saw in storybook illustrations or even in your dreams and out of which things were liable to come creeping.

And then, there is the house itself:

Things, buildings, stretches of land, are said to look smaller when we grow up. And this seems only natural, just what one would expect….Wyvis Hall, logically, should have looked smaller to Adam but it did not, it looked much larger. This must have been because it was his now, he owned it. It was his and it seemed a palace.

Vine/Rendell’s  description of the Hall’s exterior is so richly detailed that it fairly shimmers in the reader’s mind:

The whole area out here was paved and small stonecrops and sedums with white and yellow starry flowers grew up between the tones. In a couple of narrow-mouthed stone vessels grew a conifer and a bay tree. The rose which mantled the house must have put out a thousand flowers and these were at the peak of their blooming, not a petal yet shed, each blossom the pink of a shell within and the pink of coral on its outer side.

And on it goes. Adam fishes the key out of his pocket and prepares to enter his newly acquired domain: “He was aware of a profoundly warm, placid, peaceful silence, as if the house were a happy animal asleep in the sun.”

  Almost from the beginning, this novel exerted exceptional sway over my mental processes. When I wasn’t actually immersed in the text, I was brooding over the direction the narrative was taking. This powerful pull was partly due, I think, to the artful way in which Rendell structured this novel. We follow the action primarily through the eyes of three men: Adam, Rufus, and a third person, Shiva Manjusri. All of these individuals were present at Wyvis Hall during the fateful summer of 1976.  The novel begins in the present time of the mid-1980’s.  A ghoulish discovery has been made on the grounds of the Hall. It threatens to implicate Adam, Rufus, and Shiva in a ghastly event that took place while they were all three living there.  But it is clear that even before the revelation becomes public knowledge, these three men have each been living lives deformed by guilty knowledge.

Here’s the thing, though: Rendell withholds that knowledge from the reader for as long as possible, revealing its contours only gradually, as the novel progresses. At times I found this exasperating, but even more than that, I found it addicting. I simply had to know.

One of the signal triumphs of A Fatal Inversion is the degree to which Rendell takes you inside the minds of her characters. This is often an uncomfortable place to be – even excruciating, Yet in was the only way to understand how the events of the summer of 1976 could ever have taken place. And lest you wonder – there were women at Wyvis Hall. First there was Mary Gage, Rufus’s girlfriend. Then after Mary came Vivien, who arrived with Shiva. And finally, there was Zosie, she of the strange name and even stranger demeanor. What a combustible crew they proved to be, despite the indolent days they spent lying on the back patio on comforters and quilts piled higgledy piggledy, drinking wine and smoking dope, beneath the abnormally hot sun of that fateful summer season.

The plan had originally been for Adam, Mary, and Rufus to spend the summer in Greece, living off the proceeds of the sale of Adam’s property. This never happened, but at least, they thought, they could come up with another name for Wyvis Hall – something that sounded Greek. This they did: by inverting the word “Someplace.” It proved to be a fatal inversion….

The theme of expulsion from the garden of Eden resonates from time to time in this novel. But in the Bible, a right to be present in that blessed place is premised on the possession of an innocent and unsullied nature. Alas, none of these protagonists were possessed of such a nature. They were deeply flawed human beings, before the terrible unraveling ever began. In their youth, they were heedless and arrogant, taking their pleasures too freely, with no thought for the consequences.  They brought the serpent with them, despoiling a place of pristine beauty almost from the moment they arrived there. There were occasional glimmers of humanity and generosity among them – but not many. Mary Gage was, in my view, the best of the lot, and even that’s not saying much.

Nevertheless, I could not put this book down. It had the quality almost of a fable, a morality tale. And  enraging though the characters’ behavior often was, one wanted to know their respective fates. Would they have the chance to redeem themselves?

In A Fatal Inversion, the first book published under the pseudonym, all the qualities which have made the Barbara Vine novels so powerful, were already in place. (100 Must-read Crime Novels.)

Passionate Ruth Rendell fan that I am, I’ve known about this book for a long time, and have always meant to read it. Then last month, I saw it listed in a Wall Street Journal feature piece as one of  “Five Best Psychological Mysteries.”  Time to read it. Maybe it was my mood, but right now I consider A Fatal Inversion to be the best novel of psychological suspense that I have ever read

Even so, I have questions about what happened at the end and would like to talk to someone about them. In point of  fact, I think A Fatal Inversion would be a great book discussion book. Unfortunately, it’s not in print in the U.S. Also it is not owned by the Howard County Library System, although it is available through interlibrary loan. I downloaded it onto my Kindle at a a cost of  $10.08.  .

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‘The sense of being trapped in a box-like compartment….’ – Murder in the First-Class Carriage, by Kate Colquhoun

April 21, 2012 at 9:28 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Crime)

  An empty railway carriage spattered with blood and gore. The body of a badly beaten man lying on a railway embankment. And a mystery….

These are the main elements of a story told with exceptional skill by Kate Colquhoun. The year is 1864. The crime is both violent and perplexing. And one of  its most baffling aspects, both for those who were reading about it and the investigators, is contained in the book’s title. How on earth could such a dastardly deed be done in a First Class Carriage?

Murder in the First-Class Carriage reminded me in many ways of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. As in Kate Summerscale’s fascinating narrative, we learn from  Colquhoun about advances being made in the art and science of police work in mid-Victorian Britain. For instance, in 1842, Police Commissioner Sir Richard Mayne and another highly placed official in the force, Charles Rowan, were tasked with creating a different kind of policeman:

No longer concerned primarily with the prevention of crime and without the visible authority of a uniform, these were the first detectives: eight conscientious men were selected, including Stephen Thornton and Jack Whicher. Encouraged by the adulation of writers like Dickens, Britain had broadly allowed itself to be seduced into a belief in the brilliance of these perspicacious, dogged, plain-clothed detectives.

Colquhoun then appends this cautionary note: “Scepticism…was growing, and admiration was balanced by distrust and delays and irresolution from the elite investigators emphasised their fallibility.” Ironically, it was doubts like these that were responsible for derailing Jack Whicher’s investigation of the murder at Road Hill House. (The suspicions of Mr. Whicher concerning this terrible murder, which occurred in1860, were ultimately proven to be only too well founded.)

Victorians were both fascinated and repelled by the triumphant speed and ruthless efficiency of the railroads:

Woven into the excitement of railway travel, a corresponding nervousness had developed about the loss of individual control. The sense of being trapped in a box-like compartment, whirled along at speed and treated like just one in a stream of disposable, moveable goods was, at best, disorientating and, at worst, threatening.

Colquhoun cites the fears of Dombey, as articulated by his creator Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son:

‘The power that forced itself upon its iron way…defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it…was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.’

Murder in the First-Class Carriage is subtitled, “The First Victorian Railway Killing.” This raised the question in my mind as to how many more such crimes had occurred. Helpful information on this topic is provided by the British Transport Police, in the history section of that organization’s website.  (Really, one can only be grateful to the British for their obsession with the minutiae of their own history. It benefits all of us Anglophiles no end!)

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Murder in the First-Class Carriage lacks the element of pathos that made The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher such a riveting and affecting read. Still, Kate Colquhoun’s writing, by turns incisive and lyrical, is every bit as good as Kate Summerscale’s. In addition to the telling a riveting story, Murder in the First-Class Carriage is a rich compendium of the mores and folkways that characterized the denizens of mid-Victorian England. I loved it.

Kate Colquhoun, with a copy of Mr. Briggs’ Hat, the British title of Murder in the First-Class Carriage.

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The Baroness channels Jane Austen in Death Comes to Pemberley

April 18, 2012 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

  Baroness James of Holland Park, better known as P.D. James to detective fiction aficionados, has gifted us with a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. This is how it begins:

It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters.

I am pleased to report that matters continue pretty much in the same vein. In Death Comes to Pemberley, the Baroness emulates Austen’s gracefully antique prose style with nary a lapse.

Before launching into the main body of  the work,  James brings us up to speed on the doings of the Bennet family.  Then the action of the novel commences with a description of the preparations for Lady Anne’s Ball. This is a lavish celebration traditionally given at Pemberley, the great estate belonging to Mr. Darcy. He now shares this fabulous domicile with his wife Elizabeth, nee Bennet. (Darcy is considered to have married beneath his station; neither Elizabeth nor the reader can long remain oblivious to this glaring and, to the modern reader at least, irritating prejudice.)

Death Comes to Pemberley gets off to a slow start. Actually, glacial might be a more accurate description of the pacing of the narrative in its early stages. Had it been anyone but P.D. James, I might have thrown in the towel early on. But this is an author whose work I revere, and besides, where books are concerned I’ve been doing so much towel-throwing lately that it behooved me to stick with this one a bit longer. And the fact is, the Baroness’s novels are wont to be somewhat measured in their approach to storytelling, especially as regards their first few chapters. And sure enough, around page 51 of the hardback, things began to happen. The pace quickened; my interest was piqued. Why was this so? A murder happened, of course!

Elizabeth’s sister Lydia is now married to George Wickham.  In Pride and Prejudice, these two precipitate a crisis by their impulsive and ill considered behavior. In James’s novel, they are once again at the center of the storm. Yet oddly, the reader spends relatively little time in their company. I found this particularly frustrating with regard to Lydia. I was surprised that James did not allow that feckless and foolish young woman more opportunity to vent her spleen in reaction to the dire situation in which she and her husband find themselves. I am sure that she would have been deliciously outrageous!

This is not to say that Death Comes to Pemberley is without comic relief.  Particularly in the early parts of the novel, James’s sly wit is a delight and very much in keeping with the spirit of Jane Austen. Some instances:

…if Miss Elizabeth had entertained any doubts about the wisdom of her scheme to secure Mr. Darcy, the first sight of Pemberley had confirmed her determination to fall in love with him at the first convenient moment.

This is said of Mary, another of Elizabeth’s sisters:

An assembly ball was a penance to be endured only because it offered an opportunity for her to take centre stage at the pianoforte and, by judicious use of the sustaining pedal, to stun the audience into submission.

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P.D. James has always had an almost uncanny ability to set a scene:

Entering the library, Darcy saw that Stoughton and Mrs. Reynolds had done their best to ensure that the colonel and he were made as comfortable as possible. The fire had been replenished, lumps of coal wrapped in paper for quietness, and added logs lay ready in the grate, and there was a sufficiency of pillows and blankets. A covered dish of savoury tarts, carafes of wine and water and plates, glasses and napkins were on a round table some distance from the fire.

She also can’t resist slipping in an intriguing bit of  information about a singular innovativion in English country houses in the early nineteenth century:

‘…Mason complained that his legs were stiff and he needed to exercise them. What he probably needed was to visit the water closet, that newfangled apparatus you have had installed here which, I understand, has caused much ribald interest in the neighborhood….’

What do you know: indoor plumbing comes to Pemberley! A reference this specific would surely not have made it into an original Austen novel; nevertheless it was enjoyable to encounter it in James’s narrative. For the most part, James manages to steer clear of glaring anachronisms. But there are times when the writer of detective fiction trumps the novelist of manners. I’m thinking in particular of a scene in the woodlands belonging to Pemberley . When several persons find some letters carved in a tree, they fall into speculation as to what kind of instrument was used to do the carving. The scene began to resemble something out of CSI rather than a novel of manners from the early 1800’s.

In point of fact, those very woods hold more than one secret concerning the mystery of the murder at the Pemberley estate. Toward the novel’s climax, there is a veritable cascade of revelations. I found these late-breaking developments at times hard to follow. For me, the best “”Aha!” moment actually had nothing to do with information concerning  the crime and everything to do with an almost offhand mention of the cast of characters from another Austen novel.  James pulls this off seamlessly; it is probably my single favorite moment in the book.

A great idea for a book discussion group would be to read Pride and Prejudice and follow that meeting with a discussion of Death Comes to Pemberley. Indeed, I felt somewhat hampered by the fact that at the time I was  reading James’s novel, Pride and Prejudice was not at all fresh in my mind.

I’ve talked to a number of people who did not care for Death Comes to Pemberley. They found it labored and/or unconvincing. On the whole, I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I would place it in the front rank of my favorites in James’s oeuvre. At this point in time, that accolade goes to A Certain Justice.

There can be little doubt that Death Comes to Pemberley was an enjoyable exercise in authorship for the Baroness, a lifelong devotee of the works of Jane Austen:

Indeed, the novel was a pleasant romp, but I found it neither profound nor especially thought-provoking. I felt keenly the absence of a brooding and introspective, not to mention deeply attractive  (especially as portrayed by Roy Marsden in the TV version) central character. In other words, I missed James’s superb series creation, Commander Adam Dalgliesh.

 

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A pleasant surprise, courtesy of the Washington Post and my friend Ann

April 17, 2012 at 1:09 am (California, Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

Today I had lunch with my intellectual buddies.  At one point in our always lively conversation, one of the group, Ann, turned to me and remarked: ” I read your piece in the Post yesterday.” I looked at her in astonishment. My…what? She went on to explain the subject matter, and then the nickel dropped, though I was still amazed: “You mean, they printed it?”

In fact, the reference was to a letter I’d written to the Washington Post about five weeks ago in connection with an article on literary landmarks in Los Angeles that appeared in the March 11 Sunday magazine. I received no acknowledgement from the paper – not so much as an auto-responder – and so I assumed that my missive had fallen into the proverbial bit bucket, never to be seen from that time forth.

I was away this past weekend, and although I did receive yesterday’s paper, I hadn’t had a chance to read it. Hence, my bewilderment at Ann’s comment.

The column in which my letter appears is called, “Your Turn: Reader reactions.” It contains two letters; mine is the second.  Newspapers and magazines always warn you that letters sent to them might be edited, and so it was in this case. Here’s the full text of what I actually wrote (should you be interested):

I very much enjoyed “City of Angles” Bill Thomas (WP Magazine, March 11, 2012). I do wish, though, that Thomas had mentioned Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer series. MacDonald’s depiction of mid-twentieth century southern California as a land of material riches and  moral and spiritual bankruptcy has rarely been equaled. His mix of noir cynicism with an empathetic view of human vulnerability makes for a strangely heartbreaking reading experience. Here’s a quote from The Zebra-Striped Hearse:

“The striped hearse was standing empty among some other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.”

Your readers might also be interested to know that in 2009, two American mystery writers and a French journalist made a starting discovery:: Some sixteen minutes into Double Indemnity, Raymond Candler makes a brief uncredited appearance. How strange it is that some sixty-five years after the film’s initial release (and after years of intense study of this landmark film noir), the presence of this cameo should first be detected and reported by two unrelated parties in different countries. Follow this link to an article in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jun/05/raymond-chandler-double-indemnity-cameo

Also, the scene in question appears in a YouTube video, at normal speed and in slow motion: http://youtu.be/vN9THMXxndw

Ross MacDonald 1915-1983

Still, all in all, I got a chance to sing the praises of Ross MacDonald, a writer whose work I deeply admire.

I also took the opportunity to present my own take on literary Los  Angeles in a post entitled Los Angeles in literature.

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A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow: a book discussion

April 12, 2012 at 1:15 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

  It is unusual, though not unheard of, for a novel to win the kind of unanimous approbation that was expressed Tuesday night for A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow. Ms Stabenow, a lifelong resident of Alaska, is fiercely loyal to her natal state. That does not lead her whitewash its tribulations, however.

Kate Sugak had been investigating sex crimes for the Anchorage DA’s office when she was savagely attacked and almost killed. In her struggle to recover, she has withdrawn to an isolated homestead deep in the Alaskan bush. But her skills as an investigator and her intimate knowledge of the Aleut community – she’s related by blood to a goodly number of its members-  are desperately needed to advance an FBI case. So desperately that an agent shows up at her front door, accompanied by her former boss and ex-lover Jack Morgan.

It seems that a Park Ranger has been missing for six weeks. The FBI had sent in an agent two weeks ago to search for him. Now both the agent and the ranger have disappeared. With great reluctance, Kate is drawn into the investigation. And it is the quest for these two missing men that provides the framework and the momentum for a novel that is just as much about the state of the state of Alaska as it is about the solving of  a particular mystery. Family obligations set against a desire for freedom of movement, tradition as opposed to change, environmentalists against – well, just about everyone: these conflicts are vividly depicted here. But the author never gets doctrinaire; she prefers to allow the characters’ passions, convictions, and anxieties to speak through their words and actions.

In A Cold Day for Murder, Dana Stabenow presents an entire world – her world. As one of the Suspects observed Tuesday night, Alaska itself is a character in this novel. But as such, it exists alongside real flesh and blood human beings, among whom Kate Shugak, the series protagonist, stands out as an especially compelling creation. A Cold Day for Murder, the first in the Kate Shugak series, came out in 1992. The following year, it won the Edgar for best paperback original. (When her editor called to tell her she’d been nominated for the award, Stabenow’s response was: “Great! What’s an Edgar?”) Last year, the novel reissued in hardback by Poisoned Pen Press. (And Kindle owners: it is available for downloading free from Amazon.)

Toward the evening’s conclusion, Mike, our presenter, asked us if we’d be interested in reading more of Dana Stabenow’s fiction. That’s the acid test for us choosy readers. As far as I could discern, we all answered in the affirmative.

Thanks to Mike for being an effective  and enlightening discussion leader. And thanks to the Usual Suspects for being such a great group of mystery lovers!

Dana Stabenow

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Dana Stabenow comes across as a person with whom it would be enjoyable to spend time. Here she is. holding forth on the subject of the Kate Shugak novels:

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O Brave new world, that has such Kindles in it!

April 9, 2012 at 11:04 pm (books, Technology)

Part the First: In which I learn to stop worrying and love my Kindle

I was greatly intrigued by an article by Cecilia Kang in Sunday’s Washington Post about the reading habits of people who use e-readers. It seems that these individuals are consuming books at a substantially greater rate than those who read only what Kang terms “physical books.” And there’s more:

Even as e-readers are downloading books on computers, tablets and smartphones, they are also checking out more books at libraries and buying more at bookstores and online. About nine in 10 e-book readers said they have also read printed books in the past year, Pew reported in its survey of about 3,000 people 16 and older.

As it happens, the above quote describes Your Faithful Blogger very neatly. It took me a while to make friends with my Kindle. But it has happened – boy, has it happened!

Many, many titles are available for downloading onto the Kindle. When you line up your purchase, you are informed that you can “Start reading [Title of Book] on your Kindle in under a minute.” It was not until I actually observed this lightning-swift phenomenon with my own eyes that I truly appreciated the momentous nature of this paradigm shift. It seems miraculous – almost like magic.

Actually, the scales were tipped for me when I began exploring the world of lesser known short story classics. While reading Michael Dirda’s On Conan Doyle, I became interested in the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that were outside the Sherlock Holmes canon. These were tricky to locate in hard copy. But voila! Look what  I found available for downloading on Amazon:      The Captain of the Polestar cost $2.99;  For Tales of Terror and Mystery, there was no charge.

Then, preparing for a trip, I downloaded some travel guides. I was particularly delighted with this one, which contained live links to places and attractions that might be of interest.   Cost: $4.99.

I’ve mentioned that the January selection of the Usual Suspects was The Mystery of Edwin Drood. When I found that the print in the library copy of this title was uncomfortably small for my no-longer-young eyes, I downloaded a copy onto the Kindle. I could have opted for a free version, but instead got one that cost $0.99, because it featured illustrations. (Several of these appear in my post on the Usual Suspects discussion of Edwin Drood.)

In the course of my reading, I came across a reference to a monograph on Nathaniel Hawthorne written  by Henry James. In the course of my English major days and a subsequent lifelong interest in the works of both of these great writers, I had never heard of this work. I was able to obtain it instantly from the Kindle store. Cost? $0.00. 

Packing for a recent solo trip to New York, I struggled to minimize the weight and bulk of the reading matter in my luggage. I also wanted to finish Dana Stabenow’s A Cold Day for Murder, the next selection of the Usual Suspects Mystery Group. I was able to downloaded the novel onto my Kindle and leave the hardback copy at home. Cost? $0.00. (Great book, by the way. More on this after tomorrow night’s discussion.) 

After perusing, at the local Barnes & Noble, the first few pages of Richard Mason’s The Memoirs of a Pleasure Seeker , I decided that I wanted to read it as soon as possible. I was relatively well positioned on the library’s list of reserves, but that simply was not good enough – I wanted the book at once. You’ll know by now what I did.   Cost: $9.99

After recent being waylaid by the Egyptian antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I found myself possessed of a strong urge to revisit in literature the story of that illustrious ancient civilization. This topic has held a lifelong fascination for me  – ever since, as a child, I received this most singular little gift:

I wanted a history that was eminently readable and well written. But I hadn’t been paying attention to recent publications on this subject. So I went on the Kirkus site and searched for “Egypt.” I then refined the search to display only starred reviews. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt  by Tony Wilkinson seemed like the best bet.  Although it was a bit of splurge from Amazon – $18.99 – I went for it anyway. I should mention at this juncture that this title was available for free download on the library’s site. I have not gone that route as of yet, but might do so in the future. One consideration, though: titles downloaded from the library are on loan, and I was pretty sure that I would want the Wilkinson title for keeps. And BTW, no regrets – I’m loving the book. It was worth price of admission alone to be reading about the Narmer Palette, which I’d never heard of, and then next, to see the images sharp and vibrant on the Kindle’s screen.   (I’ve not used Kirkus for this purpose before, but I certainly will in the future.)

Part the Second: Instantaneous access to content

So, what was it that caused me to change my attitude toward the Kindle? Lately, the need to know more about a given subject has, for me, become increasingly urgent.  The same impulse is operating with regard to works of fiction, though it is more muted because I have been so disappointed with a number of new works that Ive tried to read. For me, of late, short stories have been better than novels and crime fiction has been better than ‘literary’ fiction, which often seems to me to be striving too mightily to be literary. Unfortunately, a number of my favorite contemporary mystery authors have produced new works that have struck me as singularly lackluster. So, where fiction is concerned, I’ve been returning to the classics. And this, of course, is where the Kindle shines, providing instant access to obscure yet worthy works that  stand a chance of ameliorating my literary malaise.

Department of cavils, complaints, and lingering reservations

In the early days of our Kindle ownership, Ron and I were having a number of problems with the device. First of all, the touch screen technology was far more difficult to master than I had anticipated. Accustomed as I was to the precision of the mouse, I found it extremely difficult to hit with your finger the precise the spot you were aiming for on the little screen (with its tiny print). Operations I could perform with ease on my beloved Sony Vaio* proved very tricky on the Kindle. I’d touch the screen inadvertently – a hard thing to avoid doing – and the screen would jump to a different display, and I would not know how to get back to where I’d been. My son suggested that I make more use of the pinch to zoom gesture; this advice helped, somewhat.

In short, I could have used a tutor, standing helpfully at my shoulder. (I’ve recently found out that Barnes & Noble provides this service for Nook users.) And yes, I looked at the online manual. It was but moderately helpful.

My friend Angie recently commented that you can’t riffle through the pages of a book when you’re reading it on an e-reader. (she was having trouble finding the table of contents for a lengthy work she’d recently downloaded.) I loved her use of ‘riffle,’ and her point is, of course, a good one. Finally, there’s no getting away from the fact that all this ready accessibility to content is exacerbating my already nearly out-of-control tendency to read several books simultaneously. This is most emphatically not a fault owing to the Kindle, but rather, a fault – if such it is – owing to me.

So to sum up, all in all….

The good far outweighs the bad

Precious books, swiftly acquired; back lit text and the ability to change the font size, both so helpful for these aging eyes;  extreme compactness for traveling….these are just some of the reasons I’ve come to love my Kindle. Shortly after purchasing it, I bought a case made by Marware. This acquisition has made handling the Kindle and keeping it safe a lot easier.

It’s still true for me that late at night, while reading in bed, I crave a physical book. My whole history as a passionate reader is bound up in that timeless format. So at this point in my life, I’ll take both, thank you, and be very grateful.

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*While I was gallivanting  ’round New York City two weeks ago, Ron was hard at work executing a hard disc replacement for the Sony Vaio. A corrupted hard disc was increasingly disabling this best of computers. It took Ron pretty much the entire weekend to set things right – but he did it! (“Its pieces are all over the kitchen table!” he informed me on the phone, cheerfully. Just as well I was not there….)

The Sony Vaio, renewed, restored - and resplendent!

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Colum McCann attains the summit of eloquence in “What Baseball Does to the Soul”

April 3, 2012 at 1:42 am (Uncategorized) (, )

American literature is replete with paeans to baseball. Over the years, they’ve appeared in the sports pages, in novels, and in stories. But Colum McCann’s essay in this past Sunday’s New York Times is so moving and beautifully expressed, I want to share it with you.

It is about our National Pastime, and much more.

Here is “What Baseball Does to the Soul.”

Colum McCann, photo by Brendan Bourke

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‘Turn left at the Temple of Dendur.’

April 2, 2012 at 4:38 pm (Art)

Thus was I directed by the museum guard when I inquired the way to the New American Wing. Duly following his instructions, I arrived at the Temple.

The Temple of Dendur was one of several monuments of antiquity threatened with permanent submersion by the construction of the Aswan high Dam in Egypt. Work on this massive project was begun in 1960; the Dam was officially opened in 1970.

Meanwhile, Egypt had requested aid from the world’s nations in saving some its most precious monuments. The U.S. gave 16 million dollars. The reward for this generosity was a gift to the nation of the Temple of Dendur. The Metropolitan Museum was chosen to receive it, as the Met had the necessary resources for preserving and displaying the structure; the museum also already had substantial holdings of Egyptian antiquities and so could provide the structure with a  context.

Click here for the specifics of the Temple of Dendur at the Met’s site.

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This is the fourth and final pre-American Wing post. To read the preceding three, click here, here, and here.) But before we leave Ancient Egypt behind (as have so many others!), I’d just like to add this small postscript. Among the Met’s ancient Egyptian treasures is a small faience figurine of a brilliant blue color. Known colloquially as ‘William the Hippopotamus’, this diminutive object is the Met’s unofficial mascot. I found to my delight that a stuffed iteration of said hippo was available in the “Met Kids’ section of the Met’s vast gift shop (possibly my favorite retail establishment in the world). Accompanying this plush toy is a board book entitled One Blue Hippo.

There was no question but that this excellent merchandise must be acquired for an equally Excellent Little Person:

Miss Etta Lin, in her rather fabulous hot pink bathrobe

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Egyptian Fayum or mummy portraits

April 1, 2012 at 8:20 pm (Art, Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

[This post is the third in a series on the Egyptian Art Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click here for the first post, and here for the second.]

Man with the mole on his nose

Woman with a gold wreath

Portrait of the boy Eutyches

(It seems almost miraculous that Eutyches has been rescued from anonymity by the barely decipherable Greek writing near the top of his tunic….)

These portraits date from the Coptic period, roughly one hundred years BCE to the third century CE. Although the method originated with the Greeks, it would appear to have been perfected by  the Egyptians in late antiquity, while the kingdom was under Roman rule. From the Wikipedia entry:

The portraits covered the faces of bodies that were mummified for burial. Extant examples indicate that they were mounted into the bands of cloth that were used to wrap the bodies. Almost all have now been detached from the mummies. They usually depict a single person, showing the head, or head and upper chest, viewed frontally. In terms of artistic tradition, the images clearly derive more from Graeco-Roman traditions than Egyptian ones.

 

Portrait of a Youth with a Surgical Cut in one Eye

Here’s the (rather astonishing) explanatory comment on this portrait from the Met’s site:

The faint growth of hair on the jaws and upper lip identify the subject of this painting as a youth. Remarkably, his right eye seems to show signs of an abnormality that has been treated. The grayish fold of skin below the lower lid, the lack of lashes, and the slightly slack right cheek may be traces of the abnormality; the straight line on the lower lid suggests a surgical cut to relieve the condition.

Portrait of a thin faced, bearded man

(This portrait is accompanied by a lengthy description of how this art was created; click here to read.)

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At our last Usual Suspects meeting, we discussed Crocodile on a Sandbank, the first entry in the Amelia Peabody series written by Elizabeth Peters.   This delightful novel features two men and two women – convenient elements for the potential formation of two couples – who are faced with various perils while on an archaeological expedition in Egypt. The action takes place in the late nineteenth century, when exciting developments in archaeology were taking place. ( ‘Elizabeth Peters’ is a pseudonym for Barbara Mertz, who holds a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago. In addition to the mysteries she has written pseudonymously, she is the author of two nonfiction works about ancient Egypt.)

The reason I bring this up here (yes – There is a reason!) is that I believe that this recent pleasant experience of rereading and discussing Crocodile on a Sandbank  got me into an Egyptian mood, as it were. Thus, these objects exerted an exceptionally powerful attraction upon my imagination. This was especially the case with the people depicted in these funerary portraits, with their direct, unblinking gaze and vivid features. They possess an immediacy that is haunting and unnerving, and also poignant. They have been gone so long – and yet, by means of these portraits, they still, in some sense, dwell among us.

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