“Never have polka dots seemed quite so disruptive.”

July 31, 2013 at 12:33 pm (Anglophilia)

Thus, the first line in Bee Shapiro’s piece entitled “Never Mind the Prince! About the Dress…” The article appeared in the Sunday Styles section of this past Sunday’s New York Times. It was accompanied by this photo:


The caption beneath the photo read: “The Duchess of Cambridge leaves the hospital, wearing blue accessorized with two princes.”

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Cop to Corpse discussion, Part Two: the city of Bath and the county of Somerset

July 26, 2013 at 3:54 pm (Anglophilia, Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Located 97 miles to the west of London, Bath is a very old city. Reference to Bath causes most Americans think of Jane Austen, who lived there for a time with her family in the early 1800s. Yet there is scant mention of her in Cop To Corpse. Instead, Peter Lovesey brings a wealth of other fascinating facts and associations regarding Bath and the surrounding area into his narrative.

Lovesey sticks very close to the facts of the actual city. In this paragraph, he describes Walcot Street, where PC Harry Tasker was patrolling when he was shot:

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. Located outside the old city walls, Walcot was once a village independent of Bath and still has the feel of a place apart. It was always the city’s lumber room, housing in its time, tram sheds, a flea market, slaughterhouses, a foundry, a women’s prison and an isolation hospital for venereal diseases. Now it goes in for shops of character and variable charm such as Jack and Danny’s Fancy Dress Hire; Bath Sewing Machine Service; Yummy House; Bath Aqua Theatre of Glass; and Appy Daze, Bath’s Premium Hemporium.

I googled that last one and yes, it does exist7045512129_f50cc72d0d_z

Here is a map of Bath City Center:

Bath Centre Web

Click twice, and it enlarges nicely. Walcot Street is clearly visible, as is the Manvers Street ‘Nick,’ where Peter Diamond and his team have their headquarters.

The gas holder is a crucial landmark in Cop To Corpse. Most of us had no idea what that was; the exception was our British-born member Pauline, who recalled having seen many of them in the UK.  Wikipedia defines a gas holder as “…a large container in which natural gas or town gas is stored near atmospheric pressure at ambient temperatures.”

Bath's last gas holder

Bath’s last gas holder

As of last year, to the dismay of some, this structure was scheduled for demolition.

One of the smartest, most resourceful members of Peter Diamond’s team is former police reporter Ingeborg Smith. At one point, she and her boss are driving across the Avon River when one of Bath’s more arresting sights comes into view. It’s a railway viaduct built to resemble a castle –  “one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s oddest indulgences.”


It seems to me that the famous epitaph crafted for the great architect Sir Christopher Wren by his son could serve equally for Isambard Kingdom Brunel: “Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.”

The Hobby Horse Celebration, a feature of the May Day festivities, also plays a part in this narrative.

Minehead is located to the west of Bath. Here is a schematic showing the principal cities and towns in the county of Somerset:

somerset_map_472x326Ass you can see, there are many famous places in this county besides Bath: the city of Wells with its incomparable cathedral, the village of Cheddar with its incomparable cheese, fabled Glastonbury…. And then there’s Porlock. When the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was living in the village of Nether Stowey, in Somerset, a knock on the door interrupted him while he was composing one of his greatest masterpieces, Kubla Khan. Coleridge claimed that the poem had come to him in a dream, possibly aided by opium use.

At any rate, his visitor had come from nearby Porlock to ask a quite ordinary favor him. When the business had been transacted, the poet returned to his labors, only to find that the vision had fled. The poem, never completed, is usually referred to as a fragment. It should be noted that not everyone gives credence to Coleridge’s version of events. Still, “the person from Porlock” has come to stand for any unwelcome interruption, especially of someone’s thought processes. I thought I recalled Morse using the expression in one of the TV episodes. Jeanne Matthews recounts the incident in her lively blog Buried Under Books.

Here’s a map of Bath and the surrounding area:

Area Map of Bath 2012

The village of Rode is southeast of Bath. Formerly called Road, the Usual Suspects remembered that place, for it was there that an infamous murder took place at Road Hill House in 1860. In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale tells the story, which is both fascinating and heartbreaking. This book was our discussion selection in October of 2009.

The investigations in Cop To Corpse are fraught with jurisdictional disputes. Per reports of the sighting of a likely suspect in the shootings of police officers, Diamond and members of his team join Jack Gull and his Serious Crimes Unit in a stake out in a place called Becky Addy Wood in neighboring Wiltshire. In this forested area, Peter Diamond pays for his propensity to ignore orders issued by others. What happens to him in Becky Addy Wood comes completely without warning; he is injured but could easily have been killed. It’s one of the most spectacular, originally conceived scenes I’ve encountered in a work of crime fiction.

As a result of this incident, Peter Diamond hobbles through the rest of the book with the aid of crutches he’s “borrowed” from a local hospital. At one point, angered by the actions of DI Polehampton, a subordinate of Jack Gull’s, Diamond grabs a crutch and prepares to unleash his formidable temper. At that moment, he’s described as having “a limp almost as menacing as Anthony Sher playing Richard III.” A google image search yielded this photograph of the actor in that role:  Sheras Richard  ‘Menacing’ does seem an apt descriptor….

At one point, a member of the Wiltshire police force is described as “a moonraker, Wiltshire through and through.”. My curiosity was piqued; to me, that word signified a James Bond film and nothing more. But there is more. The nickname of moonraker originates with a legend, recounted on the Haunted Wiltshire site.

The legend is illustrated on a postcard from 1903:  Wiltshire_Moorakers_postcard_1903

For me, the novels of Peter Lovesey are greatly enriched by allusions such as these. And wouldn’t you know it, in all my travels to Britain, I’ve never yet been to Bath, nor seen any of the other worthy sites in Somerset. With luck, that will change, before long.

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Currently on my to-read list: some tantalizing new titles….

July 22, 2013 at 10:50 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

Last Thursday, while subbing at the library, I came across the June 1 edition of Library Journal. As I began leafing through it, I little anticipated the revelations that would come to light: all kinds of books, soon to be published, by authors that I treasure – books that I simply had to read immediately!

Listed below are some of my felicitous gleanings, plus others that I’ve found about in other publications and online:

Crime and Suspense

 Death-of-the-Black-Haired-Girl-by-Robert-Stone-199x300  Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone. In Damascus Gate, Stone’s vivid evocation of Jerusalem –  beset by factions, inherently dangerous, irresistibly beautiful  – has stayed with me since I first read it in 1998.

Robert Stone

Robert Stone

9780307378415_p0_v1_s260x420  The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith. A new No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novel is always cause for rejoicing. Actually, Alexander McCall Smith himself is cause for rejoicing. With his  fertile imagination, ready wit, and skillfully deployed erudition, he is a priceless gift to discerning readers everywhere.

no-mans-nightingale  No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell. I need add nothing to that author’s name. She is, in my estimation, just plain brilliant! (And I’m eager to discover the meaning of that rather strange title.)

61YIJA1AigL._SL1500_  Eva’s Eye by Karin Fossum. This is the first title in Fossum’s  Inspector Konrad Sejer series, being published here for the first time. I confess I was delighted to see that the Norwegian language titles of these novels are given  on the Stop! You’re Killing Me site. In fact, one of the books is the possessor of  four different titles: Elskede Poona, Calling Out for You, Beloved Poona, and The Indian Bride. As it happens, this is the book that was a finalist for the 2005 Gold Dagger Award. In a very fine series, it is a real standout. (Unless I’m mistaken, Eva’s Eye should provide a welcome chance for readers once again to spend time in the company of Kolberg, Inspector Sejer’s most excellent, not to mention most sizable, Leonberger!)

9781250026132_p0_v1_s260x420  Two writers of police procedurals whose works I greatly esteem (and who could not be more different) have new series entries on offer: Play Dead, a Harpur & Iles novel by Bill James, and Three Can Keep a Secret, the latest in Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther series. One of my most sincere wishes for Gunther, a resourceful and dedicated law man, is that he should finally get lucky – permanently lucky- where affairs of the heart are concerned.

9781780290430_p0_v1_s260x420  As for Colin Harpur, Desmond Iles, and the rest of Bill James’s merry crew of just-barely- under-control police officers: May they stay manic forever!

product_thumbnail.php  In May I wrote a capsule review of A Private Inquiry, a highly enjoyable novel of psychological suspense by Jessica Mann. The author commented graciously on the post and went on to inform me that her latest book, Dead Woman Walking, would be published in August.

Scent-of-Death  The appearance of a new work by Andrew Taylor, winner of the 2009 Cartier Diamond Dagger, is always cause for rejoicing. The Scent of Death takes place in a newly born America, shortly after the Revolutionary War. The author told us about working on this novel when we saw him in England in 2011. I’m a big fan of the Lydmouth novels, sadly not in print in this country, and also of Taylor’s standalone historical novels, which are more readily available. The American Boy (alternatively entitled An Unpardonable Crime), Bleeding Heart Square, and The Anatomy of Ghosts were all excellent.

This year, the Crime Writers Association bestowed its prestigious Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award on The Scent of Death.

51Lvh9vf8ZL._  Children of the Revolution, a DCI Banks novel by the reliably engaging Peter Robinson, will be published in the UK next month. Not sure when it will appear here.

816fUUYkWdL._SL1215_  I’m greatly intrigued by Charles Palliser’s Rustication. I remember a period of happy immersion in Palliser’s Unburied, some years back. What is it about the Victorian era that lends itself so well to these dark and sinister tales?

Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser

Dark_Waters_Small  Finally, those who have  browsed this blog in recent weeks will know that I can’t stop singing the praises of  A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake. Set in Lancashire, England in the year 1740, this novel provides a vivid recreation of that time and place, combined with a ripping good story. I’m delighted to learn that  there is  a sequel due out here next month. It’s entitled Dark Waters and features once again coroner Titus Cragg and physician Luke Fidelis.

Robin Blake

Robin Blake

There is lots more to come  in the crime fiction genre. More title and author information is available in the ‘New Hardcovers’ section of Stop! You’re Killing Me. And an even more exhaustive list can be found at Bloodstained Bookshelf.

Four Welcome Returns

Four authors whose works I’ve greatly admired in past years have new books coming out. They are:

Salley Vickers

Salley Vickers

  Salley Vickers. The Other Side of You, a novel of psychoanalytic insight, was exceptionally poignant and moving. The characters were decent people trying to live meaningful lives and to avoid injuring others in the process. The title is taken from “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

16158583  Salley Vickers’s new novel is called The Cleaner of Chartres.
Ann Patchett. The two novels I’ve read by Patchett – Bel Canto and State of Wonder –  are among my very favorites. Patchett’s style is distinctive; her imagination, remarkable. In addition to all that, there’s the story of Parnassus Books, the Nashville book emporium she co-founded in 2010 and helped nurture to prosperity because she couldn’t stand the thought of her home town being without a  bookstore.

Ann Patchett’s new novel is This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage9781408842409
Catherine O’Flynn. One day when I was in need of a book to listen to, I grabbed The News Where You Are and was instantly enchanted. In fairness, John Lee could read a phone book and make it sound like high art, but in this luminous novel, he had a real winner. It numbers among its characters Mo, one of the most appealing and believable fictional children I’ve ever encountered.

Catherine O’Flynn’s new novel is Mr. Lynch’s Holiday17930681
Jhumpa Lahiri. My library buddies and I have been waiting patiently – or perhaps, as of late, not so patiently – for something new from this immensely gifted writer who hit pay dirt with her first book, Interpreter of Maladies. (To Lahiri’s astonishment, this short story collection was awarded the Year 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.) Interpreter was followed by the novel The Namesake, which was in turn followed by another terrific story collection, Unaccustomed Earth.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel is The Lowland. 17262100

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Cop To Corpse by Peter Lovesey: a book discussion: Part One

July 14, 2013 at 1:49 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

corpselovesey2  Wednesday morning of last week, I found myself dwelling in the pleasant afterglow of the previous day’s Usual Suspects discussion, which I had led. At first, I was not disposed to do much of anything – anything, that is, that would tax my poor brain….

And yet – I kept reviewing various aspects of our session: facts that came to light as well as those that were never expressed, and items that got lost in the shuffle as we went along. Ergo, this post.

I’ve read twelve novels by Peter Lovesey and not been disappointed by any of them. As indicated by the review I posted in this space in August of last year, I thought that Cop To Corpse was among his best.  Well, submitting what’s essentially a beloved object to the scrutiny of the Usual Suspects can be, shall we say,  a bracing experience. I’m happy to say that in general, the discussion went well. But flaws in the novel that I’d not noticed – or had not necessarily thought of as flaws – were exposed to light. This is always done with shrewd and intelligent analysis. I remain in awe of the Suspects’ powers of detection!

We had quite a few laughs, a welcome and desirable component of any social or intellectual gathering. Most of the humor was supplied by the author, both in his novel and in remarks and interviews. Lovesey’s website is a goldmine of information. His autobiographical essay, a real treasure, starts out thus:

I was born at home, a suburban semi in Whitton, Middlesex, in 1936, “with instruments”, as my mother used to say, and it didn’t mean violins playing. In midwife-speak, I was turned down, a salutary experience for a future writer.

I actually began my presentation by recounting an experience I’d had recently while subbing at the Central Library. A patron came in grumbling about the poor quality of recent fiction and asking for a recommendation. “I want,” she declared forcefully, “a book with genuine literary merit and a plot that’s really tight and engaging.”  As this happened during the run-up to my book discussion, I had Peter Lovesey on the brain. When I asked my interlocutor if she’d read that author’s work, she exclaimed, “Oh yes – I think he’s excellent!” She added that in general she preferred the British writers because of the way they handled the language and their wit and sense of the ironic. Then the fun actually began. It consisted of me rattling off the names of my favorite Brits and the patron responding in the affirmative, every time. Big names –  P.D. James, Dick Francis, Colin  Dexter, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Reginald Hill – and lesser known – Peter Turnbull, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, W.J. Burley, M.C. Beaton, John Harvey – she’d read them all. (You’ll note the absence of two of my favorites: Ruth Rendell, who she deemed “too cynical,” and Barry Maitland, whom she disliked for no specific reason.) Now this does not happen very often when I’m doing Readers’ Advisory, and so chalk up yet another humbling experience for Your Faithful Blogger.

Finally she threw me a lifeline in the form of C.J. Sansom’s superlative Matthew Shardlake novels. Not only had I read several of them, starting with the first, Dissolution – I had handy what seemed to me the exact right recommendation: a marvelous new historical mystery by Robin Blake entitled A Dark Anatomy. a-dark-anatomy-by-robin-blake-98-p  Aha: a “gotcha moment!” She’d never heard of it. And naturally, I couldn’t find it. The customer chose not to reserve the book, but she was intrigued – I could tell. I’d been consulting a printout of my recently assembled annotated list of “Best Books so far of 2013,” and when she asked if she could have it, I handed it over. She has some great reading in store – at least, I hope so….

But I digress. (Did I ever!) My opening remarks passed from Lovesey’s quite interesting life on to his body of work. Peter Lovesey entered the field of crime writing quite simply, for the money. In 1969, he and his wife Jax spotted a newspaper ad offering a thousand pound prize for a first work of crime fiction. Now Lovesey was an avid sports buff with a particular interest in track and field. In fact, the previous year he’d published The Kings of Distance: A Study of Five Great Runners (published in this country as Five Kings of Distance). 81QzVUmNLYL._SL1500_ In  the course of his research, he’d developed an interest in athletics in the Victorian era. Jax encouraged her husband to enter this writing contest and he did so, setting his story in 1879. At that time, race walking competitions called “wobbles” were all the rage. Lovesey made one of these events the centerpiece of his novel, which he called Wobble To Death. He states the outcome succinctly: “Off-beat, with a catchy title, it won.” wobbletodeath

The investigating officers in Wobble To Death were Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray. There followed seven more novels featuring this crime fighting duo. They were made into films, as well.  cribb_

(The DVD’s are owned by our local library; the novels; alas, are not. They are, however, in print, courtesy of  Soho Constable, an imprint of Soho Press.)

In the years that followed, Peter Lovesey has proved an inventive and prolific writer. He’s written numerous short stories, eight standalone novels, three books featuring Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and has recently published The Tooth Tattoo, the thirteenth entry in the Peter Diamond series. In addition to Cop To Corpse, I’ve reviewed three other novels from this series: Stagestruck, Skeleton Hill,  and The Secret Hangman; also Headhunters, one of the two novels featuring DI Henrietta “Hen” Mallin.

(The best place to examine Lovesey’s body of work is on Stop! You’re Killing Me. The way that information is displayed on that site is wonderfully helpful and informative. In addition to a list of titles, you’re given the name and profession of the chief protagonist, the date of publication, alternate titles if there are any, and information concerning awards. In Lovesey’s case, these last are quite numerous.)

The fact that Peter Lovesey published his first mystery in 1969 places him firmly within the range of what may be called the Second Golden Age of British crime fiction. You’ll recall that the First Golden Age is usually located between the two world wars. This fertile period of creativity saw the debut efforts of such stellar talents as Dorothy L. Sayers. Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, and of course, Agatha Christie.

deadcert  n24004

By my reckoning, the Second Golden Age began in 1962. In that year, Dick Francis hit the ground running with Dead Cert, while P.D. James weighed in with the first Adam Dalgliesh title, Cover Her Face. Although firmly ensconced in the country house mystery tradition, Cover Her Face stood out for its superior writing, plotting, and character creation. As for Dead Cert, I first read it several years ago and was amazed by the assured writing and the compelling storytelling. It was on the reading list for the Smithsonian’s Mystery Lover’s England Tour,  which we had the great good luck to take in 2006. Although we didn’t actually meet Dick Francis, we did visit a race track in Yorkshire. This proved a memorable and worthwhile experience. (It was on this same tour that we had the great pleasure of meeting Colin Dexter – at the Randolph hotel in Oxford, no less.)

Colin Dexter signs my book - Randolph Hotel, Oxford, 2006

Colin Dexter signs my book – Randolph Hotel, Oxford, 2006

Agatha Christie was all set to use the title Cover Her Face for one of the Miss Marple novels when P.D. James unexpectedly beat her to the punch. Christie eventually settled on the title Sleeping Murder instead. There’s actually more to this story, a full recounting of which  can be found in the “Murder in Retrospect” section of John Curran’s book Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.    The phrase itself comes from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster: “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.”

From-Doon-with-Death-9780345498458  9781933397931_p0_v1_s260x420


In 1964, Ruth Rendell’s From Doon With Death appeared. This procedural marked the debut of Inspector Reginald Wexford, my personal all time favorite fictional British police officer.. Then, in A Clubbable Woman, Reginald Hill sprang the cheerfully coarse Andy Dalziel and his cerebral second in command Peter Pascoe upon unsuspecting but delighted readers. This burst creativity and innovation is nicely bracketed at the other end in 1975 by the first novel in a series held in deep reverence by many of us: in Last Bus To Woodstock, Colin Dexter gifted crime fiction aficionados with the inimitable Inspector Morse, portrayed so superbly on television by John Thaw, of blessed memory.

We Suspects noted that nearly all of these books, including Peter Lovesey’s Wobble To Death, are police procedurals. The notable exception is Dead Cert. Dick Francis had such a rich fund of material from his racing and sports writing days that he was able to fashion one engaging narrative after another without the benefit of the procedural’s  structure or of the presence of a continuing character (although occasionally a character does crop up more than one novel)

It would seem that Peter Lovesey’s muse is now firmly centered in the here and now. When asked if he intended to set any more novels in the Victorian era, he replied that this was unlikely. Although he’d become deeply knowledgeable about the period, by 1990 he felt in need of a new challenge. Besides, there was an additional problem:

Television is a powerful medium. I was delighted by the casting of Alan Dobie as my detective, Sergeant Cribb, but in a strange way he inhabited the character so powerfully that when I came to think about further books all I could see was Alan’s face. I’d lost my original character somewhere in the process…. The cupboard was bare.

Sue Grafton interviewed Peter Lovesey in February of 2011. At the time, she’d read novels from the Peter Diamond and Sergeant Cribb series, as well as one featuring “Hen” Mallin. Here’s what she has to say on the subject of television and film adaptations of an author’s work:

Since I only have the one series, I can’t afford to sell the film or television rights. In this country, a producer buys the rights to the character, not the book itself, which gives him the right to do anything he pleases. When Lawrence Block sold the rights to his Bernie Rodenbarr series … the role of Bernie … a white, male Jewish burglar…was given to Whoopee Goldberg. So, of course, I worry that the part of Kinsey Millhone would go to Eddie Murphy. Please believe me, even when I get to “Z” I won’t sell the rights. I’ve made my children and grandchildren take a blood oath to that effect. I’ve sworn if they ever go up against my wishes in that regard, I’ll come back from the grave. They know I can do it, too!

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