A Story of murder, depravity, and one man’s unshakeable resolve: Midnight in Peking, by Paul French

August 30, 2012 at 12:52 am (Book review, books, Crime, History)

  Pamela Werner lived in the storied Chinese city of Peking, on a street called Armour Factory Alley, with her father E.T. C. Werner, a retired consul and noted expert on Chinese language, history, and culture.  In 1911, Werner had married Gladys Nina Ravenshaw, “a girl of the British Empire.” She was 22; he was 45.

Gladys Nina Ravenshaw and E.T.C. Werner, on their wedding day in Hong Kong

In 1919, they adopted Pamela. Gladys lived a mere three years longer, dying at age 35 and leaving her three-year-old daughter in the care of her husband and various servants of the household.

Gladys Nina Ravenshaw

Paul French sets the stage for a tragedy by describing the strange and exotic world of prewar Peking, a place where men in traditional garb strolled the ancient avenues displaying their song birds in cages, Above the streets there loomed a sinister building known as the Fox Tower, a remnant of the walls that once encircled the city. The Chinese shunned this edifice, believing it to be inhabited by malign spirits. At night, it was populated by bats and wild dogs. It was here, in the early morning hours of January 8, 1937,  in the vicinity of the Tower, that Pamela Werner’s body was first discovered:

When daylight broke on another freezing day, the tower was deserted once more. The colony of bats circled one last time before the creeping sun sent them back to  their eaves. But in the icy wasteland between  the road and the tower, the wild dogs–the huang gou–were prowling curiously, sniffing at something alongside a ditch.

It was the body of a young women, lying at an odd angle and covered by a layer of frost.

The Fox Tower, built as a watch tower in 1439

Paul French describes a murder scene that is acutely horrific. In terms of sheer savagery, it put me in mind of the victims of Jack the Ripper and also of the so-called Black Dahlia murder. I wasn’t prepared for that, and it nearly put me off the book altogether. But as often happens in such situations, there were sufficiently compelling reasons to read on, and so I did.

Pamela Werner in her school uniform, 1936

Studio portrait of Pamela Werner, also taken in 1936

At the age of 19, Pamela Werner was still in school, yet at the same time she was on the brink of womanhood.  A fluent speaker of Mandarin, she came and went from various venues in the city on her bicycle.  She loved to go ice skating with her friends; in fact, this was the activity she was engaged in on the last night of her life. On that  cold, dark evening, as Pamela prepared to cycle back home, one of those friends asked if she was scared to be making the trip all by herself. She responded:

‘I’ve been alone all my life….I am afraid of nothing–nothing! And besides, Peking is the safest city in the world.’

That last statement of course proved to be tragically wrong – at least it was, for Pamela Werner. But what of the first comment, about being alone all her life? At the time of her death, Pamela was just shy of twenty years of age. Her father was in his early seventies. Since the age of three, she’d had no mother.

My initial impression of E.T.C. Werner was that of a fusty old scholar only minimally concerned in the life of his sole offspring. And indeed, he may have enacted that part from time to time. But as Midnight in Peking ultimately reveals, there was a whole other side to the man.  In  the course of the investigation into Pamela’s murder, the seamy underbelly of expatriate life in the Chinese city had been exposed to considerably scrutiny. As a result, several possible suspects were identified,  but there was never sufficient evidence to tie any of  them definitively to the crime. Then, as the tides of history engulfed China, the murder of the young Englishwoman was relegated to the status of one of history’s footnotes. The case went cold. Everyone concerned seemed to give up on it, to be ready to forget about it. Everyone, that is, except her father,  E.T.C. Werner.

ETC Werner at age 60

The Guardian review of Midnight in Peking calls French’s account of the investigation ‘spellbinding.’ I agree completely.  The whole book was spellbinding. Once I started it – and overcame my initial revulsion at  the description of the crime scene – I could scarcely put it down.

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In this video, author Paul French, a resident of Shanghai, talks about how he came to write Midnight in Peking. He also points out some of the locations crucial to the narrative. You may feel that he’s telling you too much, but believe me, he’s only scratching the surface.

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Click here for the full text of Myths & Legends of China, written by E.T.C. Werner and originally published in 1922.

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Peter Turnbull is really good at conjuring bizarre crime scenes…

August 25, 2012 at 10:42 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

…such as the one he describes in The Altered Case.  It consists of five sets of skeletonized remains found in the Vale of York, buried in a remote field belonging to a local farmer. Even the story of their discovery is strange and haunting, a case of delayed reaction if there ever was one. 

The investigation into these strange circumstances is to be conducted by the York Constabulary, which is headed up by DCI George Hennessey. Hennessey’s right hand man is DS  Somerled Yellich. (That name is pronounced “Sorley,” by the way.)

Other members of the investigative team headed by these two are on hand, as they have been in previous entries in this series: Reginald Webster, Carmen Pharoah, and Thomson Ventnor.  Louise D’Acre is once again on hand as the forensic pathologist. One of the positive aspects of following a series like this one is that the characters that populate the novels come to seem like old friends. The reader is pleased to encounter them yet gain – for the most part, that is. With regard to the Hennessey and Yellich novels, each of the ‘regulars’ has his or her  cross to bear, either in the present or from the past. And then, of course, there’s George Hennessey’s secret lover….

I’ve said before that I like a mystery in which there’s and element of what I call ‘added value’ in the story. A good example would be the role played by the Pre-Raphaelite painters in Barry Maitland’s Dark Mirror. In The Altered Case, a mysterious family is likened to the equally mysterious disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion,  If this reference sounds faintly familiar to you. it’s probably because it’s the subject of last year’s film, The Eagle. (The film was based on The Eagle of the Ninth, a novel by Rosemary Sutcliff.)

In one scene, in connection the current inquiry, Carmen Pharoah interviews a retired officer named Adrian Clough. It is he who likens the disappearance of the Parr family to the unknown fate of the Roman Ninth Legion. He begins the tale thus: “The Ninth Legion left Eboracum to go north to Caledonia….”  Eboracum was the Roman name for the City of York; Caledonia was what the Romans  called Scotland.

 Peter Turnbull previously wrote a series set in Glasgow and is now also writing one set in London. In this space, I’ve reviewed several other novels in the Hennessey and Yellich series: Chill Factor Once a Biker,  No Stone Unturned,  Deliver Us From Evil,  and Turning Point. In my write-up of Chill Factor I spoke about what a thrill it was to be reading one of these novels while I was actually in York. (Please forgive me for quoting myself):

This series by Turnbull benefits greatly by its setting: York, the cathedral city that dates back to Roman times…. For sure, this ancient place is a veritable treasure house. You roam the narrow streets of “the Shambles,” where many of the low structures (kept low by law, I’m told) date from the Middle Ages; then look up! You see the astonishing Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, towering above everything. All passionate readers know the special joy of reading a book set in a place you happen to be in. I had that pleasure with regard to York in the fall of 2005. I don’t remember which book in this series I was reading at the time, but I do remember my delight in reading about “walking the walls” and heading into snickelways (narrow alleys between buildings) while I was actually doing those very things myself.

One of my chief pleasures in reading Peter Turnbull resides in the fact that his prose style is quite unique – wholly his own, I would venture to say.  It has a somewhat antique flair, as when, instead of saying he doesn’t like winter, a  character articulates the sentiment thus: ‘I care not for winter….’ And there are the delightful introductions to each new chapter. Here’s the one for Chapter Four:

…in which Somerled Yellich and and Reginald Webster travel south, Thomson Ventnor meets a lady who is much befitted by means of upward social mobility and George Hennessey is at home to the too kind reader.

Commenting on my review of Turning Point, Martin Edwards says the following:

Peter Turnbull, whom I’ve known for fifteen years or more, is a very self-effacing individual, but a writer (in my opinion) of real quality. I’ve been familiar with his books since I was a student, and the P Division stories were quite prominent in their day. But he never ‘broke out’ and is now relatively little known. But he is a crime writer who deserves more recognition.

I was most grateful for this observation, from this most generous of writers whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. And yes, Peter Turnbull is as elusive as ever. Each time I review one of his books, I start the search anew: perhaps there’s now a website? Maybe even a Wikipedia entry! (There’s a Wikipedia entry for a Peter Turnbull, but alas, it refers to Scottish football player born in 1875.) Peter Turnbull was born in Rotherham, in South Yorkshire, in 1950. In his entry in Contemporary Authors online, a Gale database accessible through the library’s website, he is quoted as follows: “‘I would like my books to be an accurate historical record of UK society at the cusp of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.'”

From that same article, we learn that Peter Turnbull has had a most varied work life: trained as a social worker, he pursued that profession from 1978 to 1995, at which time he decided to become a writer full time. He has also been a steelworker and a crematorium assistant.  Also, at some point, he did a stint as a social worker in Brooklyn, New York. (I would really like to know more about that particular experience.)

I was delighted to learn that this author won an Edgar this year for his short story “The Man Who Took His Hat Off to the Driver of the Train.” Not sure how to get my hands on this, but will let you know when I do. Meanwhile, do pick up this or one of the other Hennessey and Yellich novels.  You’ll enjoy the best in British police procedural writing.

Peter Turnbull

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Crime fiction titles destined for classic status

August 21, 2012 at 11:00 am (books, Mystery fiction)

What would such  a list look like?

 

  

The July 27 Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition featured John Lanchester’s selection of five mysteries that will stand the test of time. (You’ll have to take my word for it that that was the exact title of the article – the online iteration rather annoyingly bears only the title “Five Best.”) Mr. Lanchester, a British journalist and writer, is obviously a man of strong opinions bluntly expressed. His method of praising Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is to slam the author rather strongly -” Her prose is flat and formulaic, her plots are lavishly riddled with holes….” –  before making a grudging allowance for her cleverness.

He then goes on to mete out more or less the same treatment to the author of his second selection, Gaudy Night: “When I say that some of Agatha Christie’s more ambitious contemporaries wrote prose that has gone stale, Dorothy Sayers is a prime example.” As for the novel itself, it is, in his estimation, “a fascinating and at times fascinatingly bad book….”

Lanchester’s third choice is Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. There’s nary a putdown in his annotation of this title. (What a relief!) I’m a great fan of the ten procedurals crafted by this gifted duo, so I was glad to see Roseanna on this admittedly quirky list. Frances has chosen The Terrorists for our next Usual Suspects discussion. I just finished it and liked it a great deal.

The next novel selected by Lanchester is Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith. I haven’t read this; in fact, I haven’t read anything by Martin Cruz Smith, an omission that I should probably remedy.

Last but least is The Broken Shore by Australian novelist Peter Temple. I wrote about this book shortly after reading it in 2007. I recalled liking it despite some reservations, so I went back and reread that entry. Lanchester praises The Broken Shore in particular for its  vividly rendered Down Under setting, rightly observing that  “As the audience for the genre has become more and more global, the books that have done best are those with the strongest and most particular sense of place.”

Now it seems to me that with regard to the first two titles on Lanchester’s list, classic status has already been achieved. (As for me, I’m still reeling from that slap at Gaudy Night, one of my all time favorite novels.) Probably the same could be said of Roseanna, written in 1965 and published here in 1967. The site for the Salomonsson Agency, Swedish publisher of the Martin Beck procedurals, features a tribute to Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

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So, moving on from John Lanchester’s somewhat eccentric take on the genre, what titles would figure on a predictive list of future crime fiction classics? Speaking for myself (and who else would I be speaking for in this space?), I nominate the following, in no particular order:

Cop To Corpse and Skeleton Hill by Peter Lovesey (Really, almost any novel by this master could be creditably placed on the list.) 

Before the Poison and In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson

The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter (Several other titles in the Morse series would do equally well. This one was his 1992 Gold Dagger winner.)

Judgement in Stone and A Sight for Sore Eyes by Ruth Rendell (What no Wexfords? I love them all equally and could not decide….)

A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine

A Certain Justice and A Taste  for Death by P.D. James

The Zebra-Striped Hearse and The Underground Man by Ross MacDonald

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

Suffer the Little Children and The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon

   The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith – Also just about any of the Precious Ramotswe novels.

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

The Piper on the Mountain by Ellis Peters 

Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio

An Air That Kills and The Mortal Sickness, the first two novels in the Lydmouth series by Andrew Taylor (They’re the only ones I’ve read so far. I hope to read all of them, in time.)

The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell

Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly

One of the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker (How I do miss him! Ace Atkins is stepping in to continue the Spenser series, though, and I hear good things about his first offering, Lullaby.)

He Who Fears the Wolf and The Indian Bride by Karin Fossum 

Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block 

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard

Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor     

The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin, a terrific novel that came out in 1946 and should be brought back into print and read and enjoyed by all right thinking fans of crime fiction!

I know – I’ve left out plenty of worthy titles. But this is as  far as I’m going with this for now. I’d be happy to hear from other crime fiction fans on this subject.

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For quite a few years now, I’ve been consulting the list of the 50 best mystery novels compiled by Wyatt James, who wrote under the rather quaint nom de plume of Grobius Shortling. ( While at this location, be sure to click on Desert Island mysteries as well. The annotations are brief but insightful.)

Louise Penny

Gianrico Carofiglio

Colin Dexter inscribing my copy of The Jewel That Was Ours at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford, 2006

Baroness James of Holland Park (P.D. James)

Robert B. Parker

Tribute was paid to the life and work of Robert B. Parker in a memorial at Boston University. I would like to have seen this exhibit.

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Discussing Harlan Coben; or, the Usual Suspects get ‘Caught’

August 17, 2012 at 8:56 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

     Wendy Tynes is a crusading TV reporter whose specialty is exposing pedophiles. When social worker Dan Mercer walks straight into one of her sting operations, he’s caught on camera. Mercer was supposedly on his way to molest a teenaged girl in her own home. But there is something wrong with this scenario right from the get go. And  the consequences, for Mercer, Wendy Tynes, and a host of other people, are dire in the extreme.

It’s an explosive opener that certainly got my attention right from the start. But as the narrative progressed, problems arose. For one thing, there’s a whole other storyline unspooling. It involves the disappearance of Haley McWaid, a high achieving high school senior with nary a blemish on her character. Eventually – and inevitably – the two stories coalesce. But in the mean time, there’s a lot to keep track of: a burgeoning cast of characters, a variety of plot twists, and two separate investigations headed up by two different sets of investigators. And, of course, there’s Wendy Tynes, conducting her own investigation.

This past Tuesday night, Louise, the discussion leader, began our discussion of Caught by asking each of us to say what we liked and/or did not like about the book. As a method of kick starting a discussion, this  gambit does not always  work. But it worked quite well this time. It was interesting to hear the widely varying reactions to the novel. Several among us enjoyed it and declared themselves well disposed toward this author and willing to read more of his books. His pacing  and inventive plotting won praise. But others in the group did not share this enthusiasm. They found the story convoluted and the profusion of characters confusing. Susan found the plot farfetched; others thought it spilled over from drama into melodrama. Finally some readers straddled the fence, liking some aspects of the novel and not others. (I was one of that group.)

Two of the novel’s characters were singled out as possessing an especially strong capacity to annoy. One was Hester Crimstein, a lawyer, TV personality possibly modeled on Judge Judy, and all around loud mouth. The other was an unemployed father who hung around with his buddies in a local bar and styled himself a rapper performing under the moniker ‘Ten-A-Fly’  (I learned from the blog Reading for the Joy of It that regarding Coben’s oeuvre, Hester Crimstein is a returning character . Yikes!) A reviewer in the media disliked Wendy Tynes, and if memory serves, one or two in our group felt likewise. Now this surprised me. I found her believable and appealing. I especially enjoyed her interactions with her adolescent son Charlie. Like any teenager, Charlie could be exasperating, but you never doubt the genuine love and protective instinct that subsists on both sides of the relationship. In a video interview on the subject of this novel, Harlan Coben describes, among other things, the way in which the character of Wendy Tynes  grew in importance as he was writing Caught:

Harlan Coben lives in northern New Jersey, a region which furnishes the setting for this novel. This was a source of pleasure for Yours Truly, being as North Jersey is my ancestral homeland. The mention of South Orange, Livingston, and the South Mountain Reservation filled me with delight!

As so often happens at Suspects’ discussions, we attempted to properly classify this novel. Eventually we agreed that Caught should  be considered a thriller as opposed to a mystery. Marge commented that the British designation ‘crime novel’ is useful in a case like this, in that it provides broader coverage  and a more inclusive category. (The British also favor the term ‘detective fiction,’ which is somewhat narrower and more specific. P.D. James’s used it in the title of her delightful survey of the genre, Talking About Detective Fiction.)

After someone said that Caught read like a story destined for the movies, Louise made a suggestion that I found intriguing: she averred that some writers of crime fiction can be thought of screenwriters; others, as poets. This is the kind of observation that makes you want to start making lists. P.D. James? Poet. Harlan Coben? Screenwriter. But for me, at least, this attempt at classification broke down almost immediately. There were too many writers known to me whose work partook of the characteristics of both camps, by which I mean they are both fine writers and great storytellers. One thinks of Ruth Rendell, Peter Lovesey, Peter Robinson, Craig Johnson, etc.

One last word about the plot of Caught: at the conclusion, Coben did manage to generate some genuine suspense. Thus this somewhat flawed novel did succeed, at least to a degree, where much of contemporary fiction tends to fall short.

Before I myself conclude, I want to mention a fact about our discussion leader that is rather distinctive: she has lent her name to characters featured in several mysteries. Louise has been a frequent attendee at the Malice Domestic Convention, which takes place quite nearby every year. It is customary at these events to pick a charity to support, one that is often connected with the cause of promoting literacy. One of the ways tht authors raise money for the cause is to auction off the names of characters in their novels. Here’s what Louise told me:

I was able to get the high bid for a Donna Andrews book because it was a silent auction prize. Toward the end of the auction, I stood a few yards from the sign-up sheet so I could raise the bid on anyone who tried to outbid me. At the live auctions I set a maximum amount since these are the ones where folks get carried away.

Some bookstore owners and others who help out the authors often get a free character. I remember one year where half the current mysteries I read had the name Maggie Mason in them. The best one was a woman wrestler who was going to open a bookshop when she retired. Since that wouldn’t make her any money, she planned to run numbers.

In addition to the novel by Donna Andrews, Louise’s namesakes have appeared in books by Sharon Fiffer, Lillian Stewart Carl, Carole Nelson Douglas, and Jane Cleland. I found a column from last year’s the Richmond Times- Dispatch in which four mysteries are reviewed. In one of them, The Real Macaw by Donna Andrews, Louise’s namesake character is singled out for mention in the plot summary. (The next author to feature her moniker will be Charles Finch.)

So let’s hear it for Louise. She led an excellent discussion, and she’s a generous and warm-hearted person into the bargain. But then, we who are her fellow Suspects already knew that!

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To quote the late, great Peter Falk as Columbo, just one more thing: We ended the evening by wishing Carol and Ann bon voyage. They’re off to Scotland next month for a mystery themed tour which will feature, among other activities, attendance at the first ever Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival.

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‘The Terrible beside the Beautiful, the Beautiful beside the Terrible….’ – Goethe on Naples

August 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm (Art, Book review, books, Italy) ()

  Benjamin Taylor begins his book about Naples by describing two miracles that he he witnessed there. One involves the liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro (Januarius), the city’s patron saint. The other has to do with the author’s lost passport.  The stories are connected, and he tells them both in this video:

I love the way Benjamin Taylor describes the geographic and geological attributes of Naples:

What has escaped no traveler is that this oval bay, arms reaching out irregularly into the Tyrrhenian, islands beautifully situated to either side of the mouth of the harbor, makes the loveliest of geologic settings–not least because it is equipped with a reminder of how provisional all loveliness is: Vesuvius, this coast’s incomparable emblem of uncertainty, in whose shadow a hundred fifty generations have lived: ‘Vesuvius, which again and again destroys itself,’ as Goethe says, ‘and declares war on any sense of beauty.’

(British paleontologist Richard Fortey writes with great eloquence of the significance of Naples in his book Earth: An Intimate History. “The Bay of Naples,” he informs us, “is where the science of geology started.”  He is referring to the precise and dispassionate eyewitness account given by Pliny the Younger of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.)

In the front of Naples Declared, Taylor has placed a detailed chronology of the city’s chaotic, eventful, and often harrowing history. When I began my reading about Naples in preparation for my journey thence in 2009, I recall being astonished to learn that it was first settled by the Greeks around 600 BC (although there’s evidence that other Greek explorers reached the islands as early as 1800 BC). I like Taylor’s wry observation:  “The wonder of the place is that it has not been annihilated by so much history.”  His deep admiration of the ancient Greeks informs his love for ‘Neapolis:’

At Naples, from which it spread to Rome, the Greek response to life–natural, canny, sensate, disabused–persists in subtle and overt ways, despite the centuries of permutation.There is, in Naples, a living interdependence between Christian and pagan emotions. It is said that the land is Christian but the water pagan. On land, the Mother of God has her dominion; but Sirens rule the Bay.

(I recently encountered a very similar sentiment, expressed in an almost flippant manner, in the short story “The Lotus Eater” by Somerset Maugham. The events of the story take place around the turn of the last century, on the Isle of Capri. A visitor to the island asks a long time – and rather world weary and cynical –  expatriate resident about a street festival that appears to be some sort of religious celebration:

‘Oh, it’s the feast of the Assumption,’ he said, ‘at least that’s what the Catholic Church says it is, but  that’s just their hanky-panky. It’s the festival of Venus. Pagan, you know. Aphrodite rising from the sea and all that.’)

Taylor’s sojourn on Capri was, for me, a revelation. (A short time after you arrive in the Campania, you’ll be pronouncing ‘Capri’ with the accent on the first syllable.) I now fully realize how much I did not see in 2009, and how much of the island’s fascinating history I was ignorant of. I particularly regret missing the Church of San Michele Arcangelo, with its spectacular majolica floor:    

I knew that I wanted to see if the Villa Rosaio, a house once lived in by Graham Greene, was still there. I did not get to do that either. Basically, we tour members were deposited in the shopping district and left free to roam. Not that that in itself is a bad thing; it’s just not the only thing. I was pleased to read of Taylor’s conversations with Shirley Hazzard, whose Greene on Capri  I loved.

Shirley Hazzard accepting the 2003 National Book Award for her novel The Great Fire. She has lived intermittently in Naples and Capri for many years.

For anyone who’s  writing about Naples, quoting  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is virtually inevitable. The great German polymath first arrived in Italy in 1786. He spent two years there and was especially taken with Naples, writing innumerable letters about his experiences there and his impressions of the place. These were later collected, along with his other Italian correspondence, to comprise the book Italian Journey. (The blog The Solitary Walker graciously provides some direct quotes from this volume.)

Goethe in the Roman Campagna, by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm von Tischbein, 1786

Of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Taylor tells us: “This artist, nowadays equal in interest to Rembrandt or Vermeer, Monet or Cezanne, went all but forgotten for three hundred years, his art a comet that astonished and then disappeared.” He goes on:

Still, Caravaggio’s heightened chiaroscuro, somber glowing blueless palette, concentrated action, and meaty naturalism persisted thereafter in painting as a kind of underground song, anonymously nourishing artists who did not know they were his legatees.

(I love “meaty naturalism.”) Caravaggio was rediscovered in the early twentieth century when his praises were sung by English painter and critic Roger Fry.

Three great canvases by this master are to be found in Naples:

The Seven Acts (or Works) of Mercy was painted circa 1607 expressly for the Pio Monte della Misericordia, a church located in the historic center of the city. The church was founded in 1602 by  group of young noblemen, as a charitable enterprise. The painting still hangs in that church. 

The Flagellation, circa 1607-1608,  resides in the Museo di Capodimonte. (When I realized what treasures were housed in that edifice, originally a palace built  for King Charles VII of Naples and Sicily in 1738, I was amazed anew at what we did not see in 2009.)

The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, painted in 1610, was one of Caravaggio’s last completed works. It is currently housed in the Banca Intesa  in Naples. There’s an interesting story about how it got there.

Taylor’s ability to discourse with equal eloquence on history, music, art, and other subjects is one of this book’s most appealing qualities. In Naples Declared, he’s packed a great deal into a relatively short space. Even so, there was a bit more about the city’s convoluted history than I could readily take in. In addition, Benjamin Taylor recounts his personal struggle with religion and spirituality. Some readers might find these passages irrelevant. I did not, being a veteran myself of similar struggles. And finally, his author is a man of strong opinions, freely expressed. Although I found this startling at times, it did not really distract from my overall enjoyment of the book.

Taylor addresses the question of why tours and tourists tend to give Naples a miss. The fall of the Bourbon dynasty in 1860 was followed by an appalling cholera outbreak in 1884. From that time to this, Naples was increasingly left off travelers’ itineraries:

Called the most beautiful of cities in Greco-Roman antiquity, in the High Middle Ages,  and again in the eighteenth century, Naples will never again exercise its old allure. Venice must have ten thousand sightseers for every independent soul who seeks out the inner secrets of this place.  It is Capri, Ischia, Sorrento, Positano that are the shining destinations. Naples hides its glamour from the hordes on their way to such watering places….Here is a metropolis that has not become a boutique of itself–for painful reasons, it must be said: underemployment, bureaucracies of legendary ineptitude, widespread exactions by the criminal rackets (the ubiquitous and damnable Camorra).

After I returned from the tour of Naples and the Amalfi coast, I wrote about the experience. The title I gave to my first post about Naples was “Chaotic, anarchic, harrowing, defaced…and sublime.”   The place frightened me. At one point my friends and I decided to slip into an building with an odd and forbidding facade, just to get away from the noise and chaos in the streets:  . Once inside, we heard beautiful music – if memory serves, it was the Miserere by Allegri – and we saw this:  . (We were inside La Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo.)

Well, that is Naples in a nutshell, a city of vast contradictions that most assuredly has not, as Benjamin Taylor so sagely put it, become a boutique of itself.

Here are some of my photos from the trip:               

All my posts on the trip can be accessed via this link.

All in all, Naples Declared – subtitled ‘A Walk Around the Bay,’ – is a fascinating read, and I recommend it highly.

I will close by saying this: I have a powerful longing to return to Naples and the Campania of which it is the capital city.

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Three book covers, three paintings

August 11, 2012 at 3:47 pm (Art, books)

Portrait of M Fitzgerald, by Joseph Lefebvre, 1889

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View of Covent Garden with St. Paul’s Church, ca. 1750, by Balthasar Nebot

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Kranzwinderin (A woman weaves a garland for a hero), by Georg Friedrich Kersting, 1815

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Cop to Corpse: another triumph for Peter Lovesey

August 2, 2012 at 1:57 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Hero to zero.

Cop to corpse.

This is how the latest Peter Diamond novel begins….

While on foot patrol, a young beat cop named Harry Tasker is picked off by a sniper. This would be awful enough if it were an isolated instance. But it is not: Tasker is the third member of the Avon and Somerset force to be killed in this manner in the past twelve weeks.

Located in the South West of England, the police force known as The Avon and Somerset Constabulary covers the county of Somerset as well as the cities of Bath, Bristol, Wells, and several other  jurisdictions. The Peter Diamond series is set primarily in Bath, where Peter Diamond makes his home – less of a home to him, sadly, since the loss of his wife Steph. (See Diamond Dust, 2002.)

One of the many joys of this series is the sense of place with which Lovesey endows his narratives. History is ever present, as here when an ambulance and police cars rush to the scene of Harry Tasker’s  murder. As the emergency vehicles converge on Walcot Street, time stops for a moment, as we learn just what this place is:

Walcot street was created by the Romans. It is believed to have formed a small section of the Fosse Way, the unswerving road that linked the West Country to the Midlands. It runs north to south for a third of a mile, parallel to the River Avon, from St. Swithin’s Church – where Jane Austen’s parents were married in 1764 – to St. Michael’s, where it morphs into Northgate Street.

There’s more, but you get the general idea. Later, as Diamond and others are attempting to track a suspect, this happens:

The static alerted him again. ‘Sierra Three at Barton Bridge, repeat, Barton Bridge. We have a sighting.’

Barton Bridge, another of Bradford’s ancient structures, seven hundred years old, spanned the Avon only  a few hundred yards from where Diamond was.

As Diamond and one of his team approach yet another bridge over the Avon, they find themselves approaching “…one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s oddest indulgences, his railway viaduct disguised as a castle wall.”

(Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but to me it seems that dwellng in a landscape so rich in literary and historical associations would be very heaven!)

Cop To Corpse is not merely a travelogue; on the contrary, it’s a terrifically plotted mystery, a veritable page turner, with all the suspense one could desire from such a novel. There are some truly memorable set pieces, too. One involves Peter Diamond deep in a wood where the suspect has been sighted. What happens to him there is so sudden and bizarre – it had me gasping!

Lovesey writes great dialog, much of it spiked with sharp observation and wit. On one occasion, because both of his good suits are at the cleaners, Peter Diamond shows up for work in a rather quaintly rural get-up. Turning toward him to make a comment, one of his fellow investigators takes one look and asks in astonishment if he’s auditioning for a part in Midsomer Murders.

Since its inception, with The Last Detective in 1991, the Peter Diamond series has gotten better and better. If memory serves (which it doesn’t always), I’ve read all of them, plus two excellent standalones, The Reaper and Rough Cider. I’ve reviewed the following in this space: The Secret HangmanThe HeadhuntersSkeleton Hill, and Stagestruck.

I owe many hours of great reading pleasure to Peter Lovesey. His procedurals are on a par with those of Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter. Yes – he’s that good, and Cop to Corpse may be his best yet.

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A feature on this author appeared in the May 11 issue of Publishers Weekly. And Tom Nolan reviewed Cop to Corpse in a recent Weekend Edition of the Wall Street Journal.

Peter Lovesey

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