Before the Poison: Peter Robinson in top form

July 30, 2012 at 1:05 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Having been a composer of film music in Hollywood for over two decades, Chris Lowndes has decided to  return to his Yorkshire roots. A widower, still grieving and bereft, Lowndes has taken up residence in Kilnsgate House, “a rambling old mansion deep in the countryside.” Perhaps it’s his persistent melancholy that leaves Chris open to the mysterious atmosphere of Kilnsgate. In any event, the house possesses a strange past, much of it cloaked in secrecy. And one of those secrets might involve a murder….

This book is a standalone; our old friend  Alan Banks is nowhere in sight. Furthermore, unlike the excellent series featuring Inspector Banks, the events in Before the Poison are narrated in the first person. It’s a work of psychological suspense rather than a procedural,  strangely evocative and beautifully written. It contains journal excerpts and a novel within a novel.  In the latter, purportedly written in 1953, one finds an especially vivid description of Richmond and the surrounding landscape of North Yorkshire:

The peaceful and picturesque old market town of Richmond stands majestically above the River Swale in one of the most enchanting corners of the North Riding of Yorkshire, commanding a panoramic view of the meadows and hills beyond. Its character and charm are evident in its many quiet wyndes; its quaint riverside and woodland walks; the Friary Tower; its cobbled market square, with Holy Trinity Church at its center; and perhaps most of all, in its ruined castle, begun in the year of our Lord 1071. The castle dominates the town from its steep hilltop above the Swale and offers many remarkable prospects in all directions.

I sighed deeply while reading this, reminded as I was of my revelatory journey to Yorkshire in 2005. I went with  a National Trust tour called ‘Hidden Treasures of Yorkshire.’ Here are just a few of those treasures [Click to enlarge]:


Harewood House

Fountains Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Magisterial York Minster, brooding above the cobbled streets of the ancient city of York

Countryside of intense green and amazing beauty – mile after mile of it!

In Richmond, we were treated to a delightful tour of the Georgian Theatre Royal. The weather that day was rainy and cool, no pictures of note. Here is a view of Richmond Castle, from its own website

Intriguing legends are associated with this place, one of which has to do with King Arthur and his knights. Click here to read about them.

We learn from Peter Robinson’s  own site that Before the Poison has won the 2012 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. This prestigious accolade is bestowed yearly by the Crime Writers of Canada. Also, Watching the Dark, the twentieth DCI Banks novel, is due out in the U.S. in February of 2013.

My friend Marge and I have been reading Peter Robinson’s books since 1987,  when Gallows View came out. What a pleasure it’s been to see his work become fuller, richer, and deeper over the years. Esteem for him as a writer has likewise grown, with every justification.

Peter Robinson

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‘Something has happened to Lucie.’ – People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

July 27, 2012 at 9:05 pm (Book review, books, Crime)

  In July of the year 2000, two young Englishwomen, Lucie Blackman and Louise Phillips, went to Tokyo to work as hostesses in a night club called Casablanca, in the city’s Roppongi district. The girls’ chief duties at the Casablanca involved entertaining  ‘salarymen’ after work: flattering  and cajoling them, mixing their drinks, performing karaoke with them, and just generally helping them relax and let off steam after a presumably hard day at the office. It’s a setup that has no precise equivalent in the West.

Lucie and Louise had several reasons for embarking on this line of work. First, there was the element of adventure. Second, there was the chance to make good money by expending minimal effort. This was especially true for Lucie, who had racked up an impressive amount of credit card debt that she couldn’t seem to get out from under.

Hostesses were expected to go out on dinner dates with the club’s clients. This activity actually had a name: dohan. It brought the club additional revenue, and the women got a free dinner out of the deal. But that is as far as things were supposed to go. Hostesses were not expected to get into the client’s car and go elsewhere with him. Yet that was exactly what Lucie proposed to do on July 1, 2000. She called Louise that afternoon to apprise her of those plans, and to assure her that their own plans for later that evening could still go forward.  Lucie called Louise again early that evening to let her know how her ‘date’ was going. The client had made her a gift of a much-needed cell phone! Sounding excited and happy, Lucie told Louise that she’ll be returning to their apartment within the hour. About ten minutes after that conversation, she left a message on the cell phone belonging to her boyfriend Scott.

That was the last anyone heard from her.

[From this point forward, you may encounter ‘spoilers,’ although I feel that I’m barely scratching the surface of this dense, complex narrative.]

When Lucie Blackman failed to return to the apartment that evening, Louise Phillips knew at once that something was wrong. It wasn’t merely that Lucie hadn’t returned: she had failed to call to say she would be late. This was totally unlike her. She always let people know where she was, always kept in contact. This was especially true where Louise was concerned. The two had been extremely close friends, having known each other since they were girls. Lucie would not fall silent in this way – not unless something were wrong.

Lucie was only an hour late when Louise called her mother in Britain to tell her: “Something has happened to Lucie.” Gradually, ineluctably, this mystery spread outward, engulfing all those who knew and loved Lucie Blackman  in a world of anguish and anxiety, and then almost unimaginable pain and grief. As for her immediate family, already fractured by her parents’ acrimonious divorce, things went from bad to worse.

In the prologue to People Who Eat Darkness, Richard Lloyd Parry sets out the basic circumstances of Lucie’s disappearance. This is followed by the story of Lucie’s childhood and youth. Her early history is unremarkable, and for me this was the least interesting part of the book. But in Part Two, Lucie and Louise arrive in Tokyo. Richard Lloyd Parry is the Tokyo Bureau Chief of The Times of London, and when he writes about this fascinating, teeming metropolis, he is clearly in his element. The writing is compelling; the story even more so. Parry has had to sift  through a tangle of material in an effort to present a coherent narrative. He succeeds brilliantly in this effort. Moreover, he renders a society unfamiliar to many of us in vibrant, convincing hues.

In the prologue we’re told that Louise found Lucie’s actions in getting into a car with a  strange man rather peculiar. Parry states that in his experience, Japanese men generally come across, in social situations at least, as more reserved and less aggressive than their Western counterparts. He has a theory about how this difference in temperament  affects the mindset of hostesses from other countries:

The effect of this, for many foreigners, is to disable instincts of caution and suspicion that guide and protect them at home….Japan felt safe; Japan was safe; and under its enchantment they made decisions that they would never have made anywhere else.

One cannot help concluding that this perception – or rather, misperception – made possible the cunning manipulations of Joji Obara and his ilk. (Obara was not the only one to victimize young foreign women, but he seems to have been the most prolific and the most heartless.) A Japanese judge put it succinctly:

‘To violate the dignity of so many victims, in order to satisfy his lust, is unprecedented and extremely evil….There are no extenuating circumstances whatsoever for acts based on determined and twisted motives.’

Richard Lloyd Parry covered this story from its beginning. His book was published in the UK last year. For over a decade, he followed the twists and turns of the Lucie Blackman case: her disappearance, the discovery of her remains, the arrest, the court case, and much else. The crime seems to have acquired a personal dimension for him; he shared, at least to a degree, in the suffering of those who loved this unfortunate young woman. Indeed, what else can one conclude, from a cri de coeur such as this:

What if Obara had admitted guilt, begged  forgiveness, wept out his black heart?…Imagine the most extreme vindication and retribution-nothing that mattered would be alleviated or improved by it. There was no satisfaction that could be imagined, only greater and lesser degrees of humiliation and pain. Lucie had been a unique being, a precious, beloved human creature. She was dead, and nothing would ever bring her  back.

This is not to imply that Parry lost his objectivity. On the contrary, People Who Eat Darkness is a masterpiece of scrupulous reportage, investigative journalism at its finest.

Parry is able to elucidate many aspects of this crime, but not the mystery at the very heart of it, as he himself admits:

Humans are conditioned to look for truth that is singular and focused, hanging for all to see like a clear, full moon in a cloudless sky. Books about crime are expected to deliver such a photographic image, to serve up a story as dry as a shelled and salted nu. But as a subject, Joji Obara sucked away brightness; all that was visible was smoke or haze, and the twinkling upon it of external light. The shell, in other words, was all that was to be had of the nut.

In other words, one gazed and gazed, and beheld only darkness – the heart of darkness embodied in Obara, a darkness that we all hope, for ourselves and our loved ones, never to encounter in this life.


I am aware that this is not a book for all readers. Parts of it are difficult to read. It  kept me up some nights. Yet I am not sorry to have read it. I believe that People Who Eat Darkness belongs in that select pantheon of true crime classics inhabited by books such as Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson, The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, and of course, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.


Below is footage of a talk presented by Richard Lloyd Parry at Temple University’s Japan campus in September of 2011:


Lucie’s father Tim Blackman has established the Lucie Blackman Trust.

Lucie Blackman September 1, 1978 – July 1, 2000

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The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie: a book discussion. Part Two

July 22, 2012 at 9:06 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction) ()

[Click here for Part One of this post.]

The year is 1928. A woman sits on a train. She is alone; her daughter is safely ensconced in a boarding school. Her marriage, to her grief and mortification, has ended. Her beloved mother has died. Why should she not embark on an adventure? She is in need of a change of scene….

The woman is Agatha Christie. The train is the Orient Express. The destination: Baghdad.

Christie had originally planned a Caribbean vacation. But two days before her intended departure date, she happened to have dinner with a young couple just returned from Baghdad. They raved about the exotic, fascinating city. Christie assumed that to get there,  you had to go by sea., but her interlocutors assured her that she could make the journey by train. And not just any train: you could travel on the fabled Orient Express!  As it happened, Agatha Christie loved trains, and it had long  been her desire to travel on that particular storied line. She says in her autobiography:

All my life I had wanted to go on the Orient Express. When I had travelled to France or Spain or Italy, the Orient Express had often been standing at Calais, and I had longed to climb up into it. Simplon-Orient Express-Milan Belgrade, Stamboul…I was bitten.

To us in the twenty-first century, Iraq may seem a strange choice for leisure travel. But as Andrew Eames reminds us in The 8:55 to Baghdad,* the situation was different in the late 1920s: “….at the time the country was a British protectorate and very much in the news thanks to the archaeologist Leonard Woolley’s discoveries, which were being talked up as a second Tutankhamun.”

Travel poster from the 1930s

So revelatory was  that first visit that two years later, Christie decided to go back. On this second excursion, she met a young archeologist who had not been in Baghdad when she’d gone in 1928.  His name was Max Mallowan.

*Many thanks to Ann for reminding me of this title from 2004. In it,  Andrew Eames sets out to recreate Agatha Christie’s journey from England to the Middle East, one which would change her life in ways she could not have anticipated. 


[Spoilers may be present in what follows.]

It never fails: when I re-read a book in preparation for leading a discussion, certain aspects of the work strike me differently than they did not on my first reading. Additionally, I’m always amazed at what I’ve forgotten, even if  I completed that reading a relatively short while ago. So it was with The Pale Horse, which I read (after listening to Hugh Fraser’s superb narration) in November of 2010. At the  moment, I’m referring specifically to the very first page of Christie’s novel. The Pale Horse does not begin with the scene in a Chelsea coffee bar in which two young woman come to blows over a man. Rather, it begins with a brief  rumination by   Mark Easterbrook. Wondering at what point in time his narrative should commence, he asks a provocative question: “At what point in history does one particular portion of history begin?” Now he himself is a historian by profession, so this is a natural question for him to be asking. After pondering several possibilities. he decides that his strange tale should take as its point of origin “,,,a certain evening in Chelsea.”

(As it happens, Mark Easterbrook’s Foreward provides yet another example of a phenomenon I encounter frequently on these occasions. I wanted to bring up this short half page with the group, and I never did.  I’ve found that no matter how much preparation I do, no matter how meticulous my notes, list of questions, outlines, etc. – the thing rarely goes as planned. But there is almost always rich compensation for the omissions; namely, the questions and observations that, in the course of the discussion, come from the group members themselves.)

With Mark Easterbrook’s brief reflection, a mood of unease is created, a mood that gradually and ineluctably gathers strength. Nothing is wasted – absolutely nothing. For me, this tightness of structure combined with a heightened intensity of feeling is one of this novel’s most admirable qualities.

Mark Easterbrook is the chief protagonist, but there’s a significant array of supporting players on either side of the dividing line between good and evil. There’s Mark’s cousin Rhoda and her husband Major Despard. There’s the somewhat mysterious Mr. Venables, a man of considerable wealth, whose use of a wheel chair is crucial to the plot. There’s Mr. Osborne the pharmacist and Mrs. Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife. Inspector LeJeune and Dr. Corrigan the police surgeon are the official investigators. There’s Poppy, a young woman who’s both witless and knowing.  There are the three women residing deep in the countryside in a sort of deconsecrated pub called  The Pale Horse. There’s Mark’s steady, reliable, and rather boring girlfriend Hermia Redcliffe, whose inability to empathize with Mark’s struggle to uncover the truth about The Pale Horse conspiracy signals the doom of their relationship. On the other hand, art restorer (and comely redhead) Ginger Corrigan most definitely does empathize.

And then there’s Ariadne Oliver.

A writer of detective fiction and inveterate hoarder of apples, Ariadne Oliver is best known as the friend of Hercule Poirot. She appears with the Belgian sleuth in several of his detecting ventures. She’s also part of the cast of characters in two non-Poirot tales: The Pale Horse and “The Case of the Discontented Soldier,”  a short story in the collection Parker Pyne Investigates. (Click here to download this story for 99 cents!) Ariadne Oliver is one of my favorite Christie creations. Christie seems to have invented her in order to poke fun at herself. We first encounter her when Mark goes to visit her. He’s on a mission, on behalf of his cousin Rhoda, who would like Ariadne to take part in a fête in her village of Much Deeping. When Mark enters Ariadne’s workroom, he finds her at her wit’s end over a plot point in a novel she’s currently engaged in writing:

‘But why,’ demanded Mrs. Oliver of the universe, ‘why doesn’t the idiot say at once that he saw the cockatoo? Why shouldn’t he? He couldn’t have helped seeing it! But if he does mention it, it ruins everything. There must be a way…there must be….’

Mark is finally able to bring Ariadne around to the question of putting in an appearance at the Much Deeping fête. At first, she adamantly refuses. She’s got her reasons: “You know what happened last time? I arranged a Murder Hunt, and the first thing that happened was a real corpse. I’ve never quite got over it!” This is a reference to the events of Dead Man’s Folly, a Poirot novel and a very enjoyable read. (Greenway, Agatha Christie’s holiday home, furnished the model for the house and grounds wherein the novel’s events take place. Last year, I purchased the paperback at Greenway’s splendid gift shop. The kind lady at the cash register stamped it for me.) 

While it’s true that the Ariadne Oliver character provides some welcome comic relief, it should  be remembered that she possesses a very astute intelligence. Late in the progress of The Pale Horse, she supplies a desperate Mark with some crucial information, arrived at through her own shrewd observation and deduction, that literally enables him to save a life. (In recent films of the Poirot novels, Ariadne Oliver has been played by Zoe Wanamaker, who seems ideally suited to the part.)

Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver, with David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

It was Charles Osborne in The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie who informed me where to look for Ariadne Oliver’s first appearance in the Christie oeuvre. He provided further information about other characters in The Pale Horse who appear elsewhere. Mark’s cousin Rhoda appears in Cards on the Table as Rhoda Dawes; she eventually marries Colonel Despard who was actually a suspect in the murder of the strange Mr. Shaitana. The Reverend Caleb Dane Calthrop and his wife appear alongside Miss Marple in The Moving Finger (1943). (I’m intrigued by the way in which Wikipedia presents this information, and the conclusion that’s drawn:

Mrs Oliver often assists Poirot in his cases through her knowledge of the criminal mind….

In The Pale Horse, Mrs Oliver becomes acquainted with the Rev and Mrs Dane Calthrop, who are friends of Miss Marple (The Moving Finger); thus establishing that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot exist in the same world.)

One of my favorite scenes in The Pale Horse occurs early in Chapter Four. Mark and Hermia have just been to see Macbeth at the Old Vic. From there, they proceed to a restaurant for brunch, where Mark spots fellow historian David Ardingly. David, a lecturer at Oxford, introduces them to his date Poppy, whom he calls “my particular pet.” They get to talking about the various productions of ‘the Scottish play.’  David remarks that he has his own ideas about how the three witches should be portrayed:

‘Id make them very ordinary. Just sly quiet old women. Like the witches in a country village.’

Poppy challenges him regarding that last bit, exclaiming that there are no witches in their modern world. David retorts: “You say that because you’re a London girl. There’s still a witch in every village in rural England.” And he begins ticking off examples of the phenomenon! This is a nifty bit of foreshadowing. And there’s more, when the party gets onto the subject of murder for hire….

This lead inevitably to a discussion of the major theme of good versus evil. I’ve always felt that much of the power of Macbeth resides in the swift ascendancy of evil over good, an evil that seems to encounter no opposition from an equally powerful force. But in The Pale Horse, despite the presence of what John Curran called “a horribly plausible plot”  – and a fiendish and secretive thing it is, too – there is push back from people who know evil when they see it and believe in their ability, indeed their duty, to put a stop to it. This aspect of the novel – the sense of a desperate battle under way, even a sort of Armageddon – over and above the actual events and the people involved, made a deep impression on me when I first read it. I was interested to see that it had a similar effect on Frances, for whom The Pale Horse was her introduction to the work of Agatha Christie. In a subsequent e-mail to me, Frances commented:

Human nature is well examined in the book, and on a first reading I had the distinct feeling that to thoroughly grasp what the mind of an older, wiser, brilliant storyteller is talking about one would have to read and reread the story several times.

Having now read the novel twice and listened to it once, I can confirm that Frances is right. And as she is our resident Sherlockian, I am tempted to echo the words of the Great Detective: “These are very deep waters….” (Research just now conducted leads me to believe that this line originated in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” for my money the most purely frightening tale in the Holmes canon. It was brought vividly to life in the 1984 film starring Jeremy Brett.)

Frances expressed interest in the way in which Christie dealt with the question of good versus evil in her other works. The book that immediately sprang to my mind was Nemesis,. Published in 1971, this was the last Miss Marple novel written by Christie. (Sleeping Murder, though published later than Nemesis, was actually written earlier.) At the heart of the mystery limned in Nemesis is an ancient country house, where three elderly sisters live in deep seclusion, hoarding their secrets….

(I cannot recommend highly enough the BBC film version of this novel starring the inimitable Joan Hickson.) 

In her novels and stories, Agatha Christie does not as a rule expend a great deal of energy in describing her characters’ surroundings, opting instead to use her authorial capital in writing crisp and engaging dialog that advances the plot at a fairly brisk clip. When she does write descriptively, she’s very effective, conveying much in just a few words. In one of my favorite scenes in The Pale Horse, Mark has been conferring with Mrs. Dane Calthrop. She has been a great source of strength to him as he sallies forth, like a knight of old, to do battle against the forces of evil.  As he prepares to take his leave of her, he pauses at the vicarage door:

I looked out over the richness of the autumn world. Such soft still beauty….

‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us,’ I said.

‘Amen,’ said Mrs. Dane Calthrop.

(‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ is Hamlet’s exclamation upon beholding the ghost of his father for the first time.)

There is plenty of discussion of death in this novel, and of what used to be called ‘the death wish’ or ‘the death drive.’ This concept apparently derives from Beyond the Pleasure Principle by Sigmund Freud. It’s well to be reminded that at the time of the writing of The Pale Horse, in the middle of the twentieth century, the theories and ideas of Freud were still very much common currency, and were influential in all areas of the arts, both in Britain and in the U.S. And of course the novel’s title derives from the Book of Revelations:

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him….

This excerpt is quoted by Mrs. Dane Calthrop near  the novel’s conclusion.

I’d like to go back to Macbeth for a minute. I had with me a paragraph from Thomas de Quincey’s essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.” I wanted to read it aloud but there was not time to do so. But you can read it in my post on a performance of Macbeth that I saw at the Folger Theatre four years ago. (The paragraph in question is at  the bottom of the post.)

As a meditation on the way in which evil deeds cut the doer (or doers) off from the everyday world in which goodness and grace may at least be hoped for if not readily attained, that passage has, for me, no equal. As I write this, I am thinking of the horrible events of this past Thursday night, in Colorado.

Toward the conclusion of The Pale Horse, there’s an interesting exchange between Mark Easterbrook and Inspector Lejeune:

‘One imagines a mastermind,’ I said, ‘as some grand and sinister figure of evil.’

Lejeune shook his head. ‘It’s not like that at all,’ he said. ‘Evil is not something superhuman, it’s something less than human. Your criminal is someone who wants to be important, but who never will be important, because he’ll always be less than a man.’

Lejeune here seems to be restating the concept of  ‘the banality of evil,’ the locution famously coined by Hannah Arendt to describe of Adolph Eichmann. (I’ve never been sure that I agree with this. Again, at this moment in time, in light of the horrors of this past Thursday night, evil and its perpetrators seem gigantically awful and possessed of  limitless power to do harm, while ordinary people – people of good will – stand by helplessly.)


Carol remarked that for a person with little in the way of formal education, Agatha Christie certainly knew her Shakespeare. I had the same thought. I think that at the time of Christie’s growing up, Shakespeare’s works were still ubiquitous, part of the air breathed by Britons, and an acknowledged part of their birthright.

I had nearly forgotten, until Pauline’s timely reminder, to mention that the line “The dog it was that died” turns up in Chapter 21 of The Pale Horse. This is the same line quoted in very poignant circumstances, in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil, which several of us had recently read and discussed at a different venue. It’s the last line of the poem “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog” by Oliver Goldsmith. (It’s also the title of a play by Tom Stoppard, which was subsequently made into a movie.)

Mike recollected that Dick Francis used the same poison that features in The Pale Horse, in his own novel Banker. (Dick Francis was yet another born storyteller, sorely missed.)

I owe thanks to Carol, for pointing out a passage in Laura Thompson’s biography in which the model for the pharmacist Mr. Osborne is identified. Christie knew him at the Torquay dispensary, where she worked during the First World War:

This man – who carried a lump of curare in his pocket  because it made him feel powerful – reappeared more than forty years later in her book The Pale Horse, transmuted into the chemist Mr. Osbourne [sic].

(The exact title of this book is Agatha Christie: An English Mystery. Carol recommends it.) 


Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan were married in 1930. The marriage was apparently a happy and companionable one, enduring up until Christie’s death in 1976. (Max died two years later.)

Max Mallowan and Agatha Christie in 1946


Don’t forget to visit the Agatha Christie Blog Carnival, where you’ll find numerous reviews and lots of additional information about Christie. (Updated monthly)


I owe a debt of gratitude to the outstanding group of book lovers who comprise the Usual Suspects. Special thanks go to Ann, Carol, and Mike: their in depth knowledge of the life and works off Agatha Christie was both helpful and impressive.

Frances ended one of her e-mails to me with this statement: “I love our book group.” I couldn’t agree more.


I’d like the final words of this post to be from Mike Grost, whose Guide To Classic Mystery and Detection has been such a superb source since my earliest days online:

For many years I have had a dream, one that repeats itself quite regularly. I am in a library, and I find an Agatha Christie novel that I have never read before. I always wake up happy after this dream.

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À la recherche du yeti perdu; and also: Long live Freddie de la Hay!

July 18, 2012 at 1:14 pm (Book review, books)

Possible yeti sighting?

Freddie de la Hay

Yes I know: a word of explanation is in order….

“A la recherche du yeti perdu”  is a chapter heading in The Dog Who Came In from the Cold by Alexander McCall Smith. This is the second entry in this prolific author’s Corduroy Mansions series. (Corduroy Mansions is the first; A Conspiracy of Friends is the third and most recent.)  For those of you for whom high school and/or college French is but a dim memory, the aforementioned locution is a reworking of the title of Marcel Proust’s turn of the century magnum opus,  A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. This work is currently known in English as In Search of Lost Time. (When I was coming of age in the early 1960s and studying literature at Goucher College, it was still known as Remembrance of Things Past, a phrase borrowed from Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 30, the one that begins, ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past….’ Now I ask you, could anything be more  beautiful?)

That’s all very well, you may say, somewhat impatiently, but…yeti? Why insert ‘yeti’ in that manner? The Dog Who Came in from the Cold is constructed as a series of  stories in which the lives of the residents of an apartment complex in London – Corduroy Mansions – play out in unique and interesting ways. One of these individuals, Rupert Porter, is a principal in the Ragg Porter Literary Agency.  Rupert nurses a grudge against Barbara Ragg, his opposite number in the agency, for several reasons.  And he seriously questions her professional judgment in taking on a client whose book is called Autobiography of a Yeti. This work purports to be an “as told to” tale that comes straight from the mouth of an actual Himalayan yeti, who, among his other distinctions, has worked as a teacher in a remote village in that storied region.

And then there’s the story thread concerning Freddie de la Hay and his owner William French.

I first heard of Freddie when his creator gave a talk at the Howard County Library. Freddie is a Pimlico Terrier, so named for the London neighborhood in which Corduroy Mansions is located. McCall Smith cheerfully admits to inventing this canine classification, describing it as “…an unusual breed obtained through the judicious crossing of an Airedale with a Border Collie, and perhaps just a touch of something else  about which the breeders themselves were now hazy.”

This novel’s structure undoubtedly owes much to the fact of its first appearing in serialized form in the I almost invariably find when I ‘m reading a novel in which a number of plot lines are moving forward more or less concurrently, that some are rather more compelling than others. And so it is in The Dog Who Came in From the Cold. The yeti is always tantalizingly just out of reach. The love story of Barbara Ragg and Hugh Macpherson is surprisingly moving. But that feckless little canine and his harrowing adventure as an agent for MI6 – they pretty much steal the show. To my mind, McCall Smith has done something truly rare here. He has penned a tale that contains a finely calibrated mix of sweetness and danger, rather like the classics of children’s literature. The saga of Freddie de la Hay is a children’s story written for adults. 

I never cease to be amazed byAlexander McCall Smith’s sheer inventiveness and his ability to surprise the reader with plot twists that nonetheless seem believable – or very nearly so- because he narrates them in such measured cadences and with the authorial version of an absolutely straight face. To wit, who would have expected this kind of quiet eloquence from a yeti:

     ‘My earliest memory…is of being taken by my uncle to a place just outside one of the highest villages in a remote part of the country. There was a monastery outside this village, a square stone building with a commanding view of the valley below….
I heard the monks chanting within, and the sound seemed to me to bee beautiful beyond imagining….Hearing the chants of the monks filled me with excitement. It seemed to me that I was being addressed, personally and directly, and that if I did not respond this mournful, moving sound would disappear from the face of the earth.’

[excerpt from Autobiography of a Yeti, as told to Errol Greatorex]

McCall Smith is obviously a deeply learned person, yet he wears his erudition lightly. The Dog Who Came In from the Cold is studded with effortless allusions to Dante, Shakespeare, and  Norman MacCaig. (The latter, a Scottish poet, must be one of  McCall Smith’s personal favorites; he also pays him a lovely homage in The Careful Use of Compliments.) Toward the novel’s conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a reference to a novella by Daphne du Maurier. This work leaps unbidden into Rupert’s mind as he follows the yeti – or the supposed yeti – though the streets of London: “…Rupert could not get out of his mind that terrifying scene in Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now where the art historian pursues a tiny red-coated figure through the streets of Venice, and, in a petrifying denouement, is suddenly confronted by….” McCall Smith completes the sentence but I think I’ll leave the ellipsis there instead, in case you’re sufficiently intrigued to read it yourself. Be warned, though; Don’t Look Now every bit as frightening as Rupert Porter remembers it being.

Obviously I’m giving The Dog Who Came In from the Cold an enthusiastic thumbs up. I’d also like to mention that in addition to reading the book, I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble. I recommend this recording highly, as well.


Click here for Freddie de la Hay’s vital statistics (the sort of information that might be of interest to his handlers at  MI6).  And in this video, you can join Alexander McCall Smith for a walk through London’s Pimlico neighborhood, the setting for Corduroy Mansions:

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The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie: a book discussion. Part One: background (but first – a heartfelt digression)

July 15, 2012 at 1:52 pm (Anglophilia, Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, Travel) ()

As last Tuesday night’s meeting got under way, we members of Usual Suspects were treated first to a recap of Marge’s recent and  rather fabulous trip to England. Not only did she savor the many joys of literary London, she  also attended a star studded Crimefest Convention in Bristol. This is the same event that we both enjoyed last year, but this year’s Crimefest was truly stellar: Lee Child! Sue Grafton! And most amazingly, the reigning queen of British crime fiction, P.D. James! Marge’s tour also took her to Oxford, where she fell in love with the city of the dreaming spires and  got to spend some time in the company of Colin Dexter, author of the peerless Inspector Morse novels.. (Ron and I enjoyed this same memorable experience in 2006, while on the Smithsonian Tour, Classic Mystery Lover’s England.)

Colin Dexter signing a copy of The Jewel That Was Ours in 2006

All right – I must stop myself getting sad and dreamy-eyed, as I invariably do when remembering this, and proceed to the matter at hand…. Oh but first, I really must offer up a soundtrack. This video tribute to Barrington Pheloung begins with music he composed for the film Shopgirl. You’ll hear the Morse theme at about two minutes and twenty seconds in:


I began Tuesday night’s discussion of The Pale Horse began with a brief survey of the life of Agatha Christie. It was not my intention to delve into too much detail, as the general  facts of her life are fairly well known and easy to access. Still, I admit I was knocked sideways by the fact  that Carol rattled off from memory the name Roedean, this being the boarding school attended by Agatha’s older sister Madge. She was also well up on the arcana of Agatha’s complex familial antecedents. Well done, Carol!

Agatha Christie was born in 1890 in Torquay,on Devon’s south coast.

Lovely Torquay – Ron and I were first there in 2006, and then again, last year.  (The first photo is of the lobby of  the Imperial Hotel, where we stayed in 2006.)     

Madge was eleven years older than Agatha; brother Monty was ten years older. So in some respects, Agatha’s upbringing resembled that of an only child. In addition, her father, the American born Frederick Alvah Miller, died in 1901, when Agatha was eleven years old. As a result, she and her mother Clara, already close, grew even closer. Clara had some eccentric notions concerning education; hence, Agatha’s was something of a catch-as-catch-can affair. As Agatha grew to young womanhood, her chief aim was to get married. As Joan Acocella tells it in her 2010 New Yorker profile: “All she wanted was a husband, and when she was twenty-four she got one: the dashing Archie Christie, a member of the Royal Flying Corps.” After a rather turbulent courtship, Archie and Agatha were wed. Archie went off to fight in France; Agatha went off to work in a hospital dispensary in Torquay, a fateful job choice as it later turned out.

The young Agatha Christie

When Archie came back from the war, he and Agatha at first settled into a comfortable domesticity. Agatha gave birth to their daughter Rosalind. But Archie was proving to be a less than ideal husband.  In her autobiography, Agatha quotes him as saying : ” I did tell you once, long ago, that I hate it when people are ill or unhappy-it spoils everything for me.” Unfortunately for both of them, Agatha’s mother Clara died in 1926. As Joan Acocella wryly observes, this devastating loss had the effect of “…plunging her daughter into the kind of sorrow that Archie found so obstructive to his happiness.”  Sure enough,Archie sought consolation elsewhere. He soon informed Agatha that he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. This crisis in her personal life prompted Agatha Christie to decide on a  strange course of action, one which has been endless scrutinized and analyzed for decades: she disappeared.

She was gone for eleven days. Eventually it transpired that she had absconded to the Old Swan Hotel in the spa town of Harrogate, in Yorkshire. She checked in under an assumed name, giving as her surname ‘Neele,’ the last name of Archie’s new love. Her disappearance was sensational.

The Surrey constabulary, enlarged to five hundred men, combed the downs and dragged the ponds in the area around her abandoned car. When the weekend came, they were joined by a mob of volunteers, plus bloodhounds. Ice-cream venders set up stands to serve the crowd. Most of the major newspapers carried a daily story on the matter. Christie’s fellow-guests at the hotel looked at the photos of her in the papers, but none of them made the connection. Indeed, she later recalled playing bridge with them and discussing the strange case of the missing novelist.

Christie was eventually identified by members of the hotel’s band. What followed was a great deal of speculation. Had Christie experienced some kind of amnesia? Was this a desperate bid to regain Archie’s affection? Or was it a publicity stunt, pure and simple? Again, Joan Acocella:

….if Agatha’s flight was an effort to get the attention of the public, it was successful. She had produced six detective novels by that time, the last of which, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” (1926), was extremely popular. That success, in part, was why her disappearance received so much attention. Conversely, her disappearance, with its interesting link to detective fiction, made her a celebrity. Her earlier novels were reprinted, and they sold out.

Christie makes no mention of this notorious episode in her autobiography. 

(The publicity stunt rationale was deemed unlikely by the Suspects. The feeling was that Agatha’s natural shyness would have prevented her embarking on this gambit with such a calculating purpose in view.)

A word about Harrogate before we leave this subject: I’ve visited there twice. once in 2005 and again in 2007.  It’s a lovely place in and of itself, and also an ideal base for investigating the nearby attractions of  North Yorkshire:     

Valley Gardens in Harrogate, one of the most beautiful city parks I’ve ever seen:       

Naturally I wandered through the lobby of the Old Swan Hotel, soaking up the ambiance, as Agatha Christie must have done all those years ago….    


More about the life of Agatha Christie in a subsequent post. For now, I’d like to make a start on:  . I first read this novel (and wrote about it in this space) in 2010. When I asked the Suspects if they’d discussed a Christie work lately, they replied in the negative. The Pale Horse struck me as a good bet for a discussion – though just how good, I hadn’t anticipated.

    In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran states that The Pale Horse is one of the high marks of the last fifteen years of Christie’s writing life. He goes on to say that the novel “…has a horribly plausible plot, a very unusual poison and a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.” And in The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, Charles Osborne comments: “The Pale Horse is a remarkably fresh and imaginative creation for a writer entering her seventies.”

The Pale Horse possesses a beautiful structure, like an edifice rising in a slow and stately manner from bare ground. This dark tale of a fiendish conspiracy involves numerous disparate players, and Christie places the various components before the reader with extraordinary skill and timing. She’s certainly an expert at misdirection, but here she does something even more subtle: she embeds crucial facts in the most prosaic statements and situations. The names of characters who will ultimately play a major role in the story are sandwiched between those of comparative unimportance. Vital clues appear right from the beginning, in the most innocent-seeming settings. It’s so easy to miss them. I certainly did, on my first encounter with this novel.

A word at this juncture about the “very unusual poison” alluded to above by John Curran.  In an effort to avoid ‘spoilers,’ I’m not going to name it here. I will say that it occupies an entire chapter in Deborah Blum’s terrific  book The Poisoner’s Handbook. (We Suspects had a great time discussing this work at our June meeting.) In addition, on her blog Speakeasy Science, Blum tells the fascinating story of a crime committed just last year in Princeton, New Jersey, that involved the use of this same substance.

There’s quite a bit more to be said about our discussion of The Pale Horse. Part Two of this post will, I hope, not be long in coming. Meanwhile, I’d like to say a bit more at this point about sources and background.

The full text of Joan Acocella’s New Yorker piece on Agatha Christie can be found at Gale’s Biography in Context. This database can be accessed through the library’s website. Go to the home page; there, you will see the ‘How Do I’ drop box’  at the upper right, beneath ‘New & Hot Items’ and ‘Classes & Events.’ Click on the downward arrow and select ‘Use Electronic Resources.’ (You’ll find it about halfway down the list of options.) Select ‘List of Databases’ near the top of the page.  Select ‘Biography’ at top left. Then select ‘Biographies’ at the top of the page. Type ‘Agatha Christie’ into the search box. Joan Acocella’s article is entitled “Queen of Crime;” the link to it is in the left hand column, second from the top. At some point in this process, you may need to enter your library card number. (One must jump through all these hoops, alas; the New Yorker keeps nearly all of  its content behind a pay wall.)

What you won’t see is the rather startling photo that accompanied the article. It was taken by Lord Snowden in 1974, two years before Christie’s death:

There are other items of interest at Biography in Context’s Agatha Christie page. Right under ‘Queen of Crime’ you’ll find a link to the NPR piece about the tapes made by Christie that were found at Greenway in 2008 by her grandson Matthew Prichard. (What treasures were unearthed while Greenway was being readied to hand over to the National Trust!)  You can go directly to the NPR segment, where you can listen to portions of those tapes. If you do so, you’ll note that the possibility is raised of a meeting between Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. One senses that the very idea irritated Dame Agatha. “But why should they meet?” she exclaims indignantly. ” I’m sure they would not like meeting at all.” Commentator Lynn Neary adds: “And no doubt, Agatha Christie knew exactly what she was talking about.”

Ah, but we Agatha aficionados know differently. They did meet – in Torquay in 1990, at the Agathe Christie Centenary Celebration. You can see for yourself. The meeting of the two famed fictional protagonists occurs about eighteen minutes in on this promotional video:

This video also made we wonder whether an annual Agatha Christie Festival has in fact been successfully established at Torquay. Judging by this next video, the answer is yes:


Greenway, glimpsed (with longing) as we sailed up the River Dart estuary in 2006

It’s 2011, and we’re about to enter Greenway. With our group are Adrian Muller, far left, one of the chief organizers of Crimefest; author and Agatha Christie scholar John Curran, standing beside Adrian; and farthest to the right, in the pink and white print dress, Blue Badge Guide extraordinaire Roz Hutchinson

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Magnifique! Giselle, the Paris Opera Ballet’s rare gift to the nation’s capital

July 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm (Ballet, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

   Thursday night was opening night at the Kennedy Center for the Paris Opera Ballet. In their performance of Giselle, this renowned company combined grace, precision, and pathos to produce a thing of transcendent beauty.

The first act is festive and filled with light and color.        (Isn’t that set marvelous – like something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. It was designed in 1924 by the artist Alexandre Benois.)

Alas, all ends in tragedy. The beautiful young Giselle has fallen in love, but she has been wooed under false pretenses. She goes mad with grief, and dies.

Aurelie Dupont as Giselle

The second act provided a stark contrast. It is night. All gaiety has fled. And sylph- like beings appear, clad all  in white. They are the Wilis.  As young girls, their hearts had been broken and death had overtaken them, putting an end to their dreams of love. Now they haunt the graveyard, seeking vengeance on the men who wronged them.

(At the beginning of this excerpt, the Wilis appear veiled. They then discard those veils, which seem literally to fly offstage into the wings. I saw this happen live Thursday night; I have no idea how it was done.)

What made this performance so moving, so riveting?  In“Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle Soars at the Kennedy Center,” veteran dance critic Sarah Kaufman, brings her deep love and knowledge of the ballet to bear on that question:

Bright, fresh energy coursed through the entire cast. It has been 19 years since the Paris Opera Ballet last performed here, and I have relished the memories of the dancers’ willowy physiques, beautifully shaped feet and musical sensitivity ever since. All that is present, but the dancers’ buoyancy surprised me. How uniformly light and airborne they were, from the corps dancers to the stars.

There was an extraordinary level of excellence in all ranks and a thorough familiarity with the romantic ballet style: the suppleness of the torso; the softened, modest proportions. The sheer human grandeur, expressed in the simplest ways, had this hardened critic near tears at several points. One of them was a choreographic feat I’ve seen a hundred times, yet never seen before: A pinwheel suddenly materialized out of interlacing rows of dancers like the wind lifting from a field.

I have sometimes felt that perfection is inimical to beauty. This was most emphatically not the case Thursday evening. Instead, Romeo’s exclamation upon first seeing Juliet came to mind: “…I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”

Did I mention that this performance played to a packed house Thursday night?  At the end, the applause was thunderous, the company called back for numerous curtain calls. I turned to my cousin Stephany, my  companion for the evening, and said, “We’re incredibly lucky to have been here tonight!”


Here is the video trailer for the Paris Opera Ballet’s 2012 U.S. tour:

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July 2, 2012 at 1:36 am (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Weather)

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines  derecho as “…a widespread, long-lived wind storm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms.” The rest of us here in the mid-Atlantic region are calling it one heck of a storm. (I like to keep this blog family friendly.) Think of it as a thunderstorm on steroids.

There’s a  photo on the NOAA site that speaks volumes. It was taken by Brittney Misialek, a former WGN weather intern. Here’s the caption:

Photo of the gust front “arcus” cloud on the leading edge of a derecho-producing storm system. The photo was taken on the evening of July 10, 2008 in Hampshire, Illinois as the derecho neared the Chicago metropolitan area. The derecho had formed around noon local time in southern Minnesota.

In an article in today’s print edition of the Washington Post, Jason Samenow states: “Only a meteorologist was likely to have made the right guess about the violent storm system that hit the Washington area Friday night.” With respect, I’d like to offer a small amendment to that statement. Readers familiar with Northwest Angle, a 2011 work  of crime fiction by William Kent Krueger, will also have heard of derechos.

Although I very much admire the work of this writer, I have not yet read this recent entry in his Cork O’Connor series. I did, however, read the Author’s Note that precedes the text a couple of weeks ago. In it,  Krueger offers the following as background to his novel:

On July 3, 1999, a cluster of thunderstorms developed in the Black Hills area of South Dakota and began to track to the northeast. On the morning of July 4, something phenomenal occurred with this storm system, something monstrous. At the edge of western Minnesota, the storm clouds gathered and exploded, creating what would become one of the most destructive derechos ever to sweep across this continent.

A derecho is a unique storm system, a bow-shaped formation of towering black clouds that generate straight-line winds of hurricane force. The derecho that formed on July 4 barreled across northern Minnesota.

Krueger goes on to describe the devastation wrought by the derecho on one of his favorite places, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, “…a land so beautiful it’s as near heaven as you’re likely to find anywhere in this earth.”

The Author’s Note concludes:

I have always known that such a storm would play a part in one of my stories. This is the story. 


Click here for Jason Samenow’s account of Friday night’s storm.

There are plenty of people in this area who are still without power. Our local power company, BGE, has put a Storm Center on its website. In addition, the Washington Post has some useful information concerning numbers to call, if you need further assistance.

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