I would like to have subtitled this book: “Turmoil, Torment, and Triumph in the Life of Raymond Chandler.” A bit florid perhaps, but accurate, as I think you’d agree if you read it.
Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888; his mother, Florence Dart Thornton, had emigrated to this country from Ireland two years earlier. Florence and her sister had left their native land largely to escape a domineering mother, but with her choice of husband, Florence went from the frying pan into the fire. Maurice Chandler, a railway engineer, was a brute – wife beater and alcoholic. The marriage crumbled; Florence took her son Raymond and fled back to Ireland. The two then settled in London. Ray matriculated in Dulwich College, a respected public school for boys, where he received a classical British education. (In addition to Raymond Chandler, Dulwich numbers P.D. Wodehouse, C.S. Forester, and Graham Swift among its literary alumni.)
Ray excelled at his studies and was highly motivated. He especially enjoyed reading the classics. He would probably have continued to do well at the college level, but there was no money to finance his higher education. After a fruitless search for work that would be both satisfying and remunerative, he decided to try his luck back in his native land. His mother came with him.
The voyage to America proved fateful. On board the ship, Ray made the acquaintance of Warren and Caroline (Alma to her friends) Lloyd.
The Lloyds were intelligent, cultured, glamorous, and very, very rich. Ray quickly became caught up in the young family’s life. The Lloyds, for their part, welcomed Ray— their daughter, Estelle, developed a mild crush on him— and together they talked about France and Germany, Europe and America. Warren and Alma told Ray about the city they were heading back to, their home, and a place that would forever become associated with Raymond Chandler: Los Angeles, California.
Tom Williams adds: “They were obviously proud of Los Angeles and, at one point, suggested that Ray might want to move there.” At that point in his life, Ray did not know what was in store for him or where he would end up living. But the Lloyds’ suggestion stayed with him, and after a restless sojourn through several other parts of the country, he ended up after all in the City of Angels. The Lloyds welcomed Ray and his mother with open arms, even going so far as offering to share their home with the newcomers. Ray and Florence took them up on this extremely gracious invitation.
(You’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve been referring to Raymond Chandler as ‘Ray.’ In so doing, I am following the lead of his biographer. I found this usage disconcerting at first, but I got used to it while reading this utterly absorbing book.)
The Lloyd home served as a sort of moveable salon for artists and writers. It was there that Ray met and befriended Gordon Pascal, with whom he would enlist when World War One broke out. Gordon’s father Julian was a pianist; he occasionally accompanied Alma Lloyd, who had a lovely singing voice. Julian’s wife, and Gordon’s stepmother, was also a pianist. Her given name was Pearl Eugenia, but she preferred to be called Cissy.
When Gordon and Ray returned from the service, Ray had to acknowledge that he had fallen in love with Cissy Pascal. Florence Chandler was outraged by this development; she considered Cissy to be her own friend and an entirely inappropriate love interest for her son. Ray’s mother died in 1923, and he proceeded to marry Cissy, who had divorced Julian, the following year. At the time of the ceremony, Cissy told the pastor that she was forty-three. She was actually ten years older. Ray was thirty-five.
Ever since his time in England, Ray had entertained thoughts of becoming a writer. At the time of his marriage, his output had largely consisted of poetry. In the meantime, he was also very good with numbers and held various positions having to do with bookkeeping and accountancy. He achieved a position of considerable responsibility (and excellent pay) with an oil company syndicate, but his problems with alcohol, bad behavior around female employees, and other difficulties resulted in his being fired. This happened in 1932. Money, or lack of it – always a problem – precipitated a crisis in his and Cissy’s household.
As with most aspiring writers, Ray was also a voracious reader. He was well acquainted with the ‘pulps,’ magazines printed on cheap paper and filled with fast moving action stories. He knew and admired the work of Dashiell Hammett and others who supplied those stories to magazines like Dime Detective and Black Mask. He thought that if he could produce a few of these often lurid tales and get them accepted for publication, he could make some money from the enterprise. In addition, he could hone his writing skills, with a view to eventually producing a serious work of literature.
“Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” appeared in Black Mask in 1933. The rest, in a manner of speaking, is history.
One of the things I really appreciate about Tom Williams’s highly readable biography is that he pays close attention to the evolution of Raymond Chandler as a writer. Writing did not come easily to Chandler; he agonized over every sentence he composed. Yet what comes through to the reader is not agony but artfulness – or just plain art.
There’s much more to this story than I have recounted above. The section on Chandler’s work as a Hollywood screenwriter was particularly fascinating. He hit one right out of the park with his first effort: the collaboration with Billy Wilder on the 1944 film version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Interestingly, Ray was highly critical of Cain as a writer, but that did not interfere with his turning the novel into a cinematic masterpiece. Of course it helped greatly that Wilder co-wrote the screenplay and that the leads were brilliantly played by Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff) and Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson). Here’s one of the films most famous scenes. It contains the kind of rapier sharp dialogue that Ray was becoming famous for:
In 2009, the fiftieth anniversary of Chandler’s death, a remarkable discovery was made almost simultaneously by an American crime writer and a French cineaste: near the beginning of Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler makes a cameo appearance. Sitting outside the office of Walter Neff’s boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing the good guy for once), thumbing through a magazine, he looks for all the world like someone’s filing clerk. Seeing it now, it’s easy to understand how the moment passed unnoticed for so long:
Raymond Chandler was a flawed person. The casual flashes of racial denigration that appear from time to time in both his fiction and his letters do him no credit. Although he loved Cissy, he had frequent affairs. In addition to all this, his struggle with alcoholism was lifelong. With Cissy’s death in 1954, he lost all control. Despite the efforts of friends who cared deeply for him, he entered a downward spiral of alcoholism and depression, culminating in his death five years later at the age of seventy.
Nevertheless, in the teeth of great obstacles, some – but not all – of his own making, Raymond Chandler the writer emerged triumphant.
This passage occurs near the conclusion of The Big Sleep:
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.
From Michael E. Grost, of A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection:
The best part of The Big Sleep is the ending. This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1610). Chandler’s skill with words reached new heights here, a skill that carried over into his next novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940).
And Tom Williams offers this succinct and graceful summation of Raymond Chandler’s writing life:
With each apparently futile attempt to write something other than a crime novel he managed to expand the boundaries of what it was possible to achieve within the genre and, in so doing, turned it into art.
There’s much more to be said about Chandler’s life and career. My copy of A Mysterious Something is bristling with post-it flags. I I hope I have the chance to return to this subject. Meanwhile, here are some sources you may wish to look at:
Tom Williams interviewed on The Rap Sheet
The Raymond Chandler entry on Thrilling Detective
Raymond Chandler on Detnovel.com
Chandler was honored several times over last year in a poll conducted by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain.
Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of Chandler’s works.
…for a besotted grandmother. I simply cannot resist –
Behold, my new desktop wallpaper!
It’s been a while since I read Archer Mayor’s latest, so this will be brief. Mayor upholds his own high standards and then some in this extremely enjoyable novel, the twenty-fourth (!!) entry in the Joe Gunther series. Agent Gunther is once again on the case, ably assisted by Willy Kunkel, Sammy Martens, and Lester Spinney, all working for the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Irene, a woman named Carolyn Barber has disappeared from a state residential facility. It is urgent that she be found quickly. But Gunther and his colleagues are not the only ones with deep concern as to Barber’s whereabouts.
A succinct summary such as that I just wrote fails to convey the special pleasures of this novel. As always, Joe Gunther and his team are front and center, though at the same time they are among the most hard working, self-effacing protagonists in contemporary crime fiction. Willy Kunkel, in particular, is a genuine oddity – a person endowed with almost none of the of the social graces that everyone else takes for granted. Observers marvel that Sammy Martens can actually live with him. In fact, they now have a daughter, Emma, who, to the further amazement of all and sundry, is bringing out a softer side of Willy that no one knew even existed. (The person most surprised by this development is probably Willy himself.)
There’s a dark and dirty secret at the heart of Carolyn Barber’s disappearance. The VBI team keeps digging and getting closer and closer to the truth of the matter. Meanwhile, the Governor of Vermont has problems of her own. She’s Gail Zigman, Joe Gunther’s former lover, and she’s faced with the mother of all public relations disasters, engineered by a ruthless power-seeking operative. She’s desperate for some inside information that Joe has access to. But when she asks him for it, he demurs on ethical grounds. As a result, their friendship suffers a blow which might be irreparable.
Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther series is one of the few that I eagerly anticipate and always read. I don’t bother about reviews; I knew each new novel will be worthy of my attention. The scrupulous attention to detail, the believable and engaging characters, the cunning plots, the excellent writing – I know all will be present to add to m enjoyment.
I cannot sing the praises of this series highly enough, and Three Can Keep a Secret is an especially fine outing for Joe Gunther and company.
“What if this present were the world’s last night?” – A discussion of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (with a Downton Abbey digression)
“The cord’s wrapped around her neck. Oh, Mary, Mother of God. She’s been strangled, the poor wee thing.” This is the anguished cry of Bridget, the Irish maid. But Sylvie Todd, the mother, struggles against this outcome. Struggles so vehemently that she manages to outwit Death. And so the infant, christened Ursula, lives. At least, for the time being.
In fact, Ursula is fated to make her way through several different lives. To an extent, these varied trajectories exemplify England’s agonized, war torn progress through the first half of the twentieth century. Yet in another sense, Ursula’s multiple life scenarios are uniquely hers. They are the result of the actions of others as they impinge on her, the circumstances in which she finds herself at a given moment, and the operations of pure chance. Life After Life is the story of individual fate interwoven with the fates of family members, of the country, of a world seemingly gone mad at one moment, entirely sane the next. Throughout all of this seemingly arbitrary chaos – chaos punctuated by calm verging on inertia – Ursula is forced, again and again, to make fateful choices, some of them hurriedly and based on scant evidence: “For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse…”
Rita began this discussion (by AAUW Readers) with a question: Who liked the book? Who did not? A show of hands revealed that the group was evenly divided. Oh, good, thought I. This should be lively! And so it proved to be.
Connie spoke on behalf of the dissenters. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I believe she mentioned that she dreaded having to pick up the book in order to read further. I volunteered to speak on behalf of those who had positive feelings about the novel. First of all, I felt it necessary to state that I’d listened to it, as opposed to reading it. The recorded book, narrated by Fenella Woolgar, is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter.
I’d decided to begin by listening rather than reading Life After Life because of its length – just under six hundred pages in the hardback edition – and the fact that from what I’d read about it, I didn’t expect to like it. I’m a fan of the linear narrative. I like to say that if it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, et. al., it’s good enough for me.
In fact, I did find the opening sections confusing and rather off putting. The start and stop nature of the storytelling was initially exasperating. But the novel gradually took hold for me. I couldn’t wait to get back into the car – my sole venue for listening to audiobooks – and return to the many lives of Ursula Beresford Todd. (Someone in the discussion group commented that Life After Life was like five or six books in one book.)
As sometimes occurs in discussions where the participants begin by differing sharply, we drew together, at least to a degree, as our talk went forward. A section of the novel in which Ursula is living in Germany in the 1930s and becomes friendly with the Nazi elite, including Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, was judged to be the least convincing of the alternate histories – a bridge too far, as it were. (Although I shall never forget Ursula rushing to the British Embassy, desperate to get out of the country, only to find the facility shut up and deserted. I felt a strong empathetic stab of panic at her plight.)
A fairly lengthy section of the novel takes place in London at the time of the Second World War. Through Ursula’s experience in the Home Guard during the Blitz, the full awfulness of living under perpetual bombardment becomes all too real. The suffering, the terrible losses, were limned in dispassionate and compelling prose. It seemed to go on forever yet was totally absorbing. Pretty much everyone thought that this was the mot powerful part of the novel. (I described these scenes to a friend and fellow book lover at a Christmas luncheon. She went home and sent me, as a gift, this Kindle e-book: . I look forward to reading it. Thanks, Kay!)
The most tantalizing question concerned the structure of Life After Life. Was Ursula conscious of the different paths her life might take? Was she, in fact, deliberately creating and living these alternating scenarios? Or was she solely the instrument of the author’s invention, fated by the imagination of one Kate Atkinson to follow these multiple, mutually exclusive paths through life?
Atkinson’s novel is enriched by many quotations from the great poets. The line quoted in the title of this post is from one of the Holy Sonnets by John Donne. (For the complete poem, click here.) The opening lines of Keats’s “Eve of St. Agnes” also appear in the novel. And, of course, Shakespeare: “Golden lads and girls all must, / as chimney-sweepers, come to dust….” (from Cymbeline). And as I’ve mentioned, Kate Atkinson’s own prose is wonderful:
A tiny hare dangled from the hood of the carriage, twirling around, the sun glinting off its silver skin. The hare sat upright in a little basket and had once adorned the top of the infant Sylvie’s rattle, the rattle itself, like Sylvie’s childhood, long since gone.
Bare branches, buds, leaves— the world as she knew it came and went before Ursula’s eyes. She observed the turn of seasons for the first time. She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring, the fattening of the buds, the indolent heat of summer, the mold and mushroom of autumn. From within the limited frame of the pram hood she saw it all. To say nothing of the somewhat random embellishments the seasons brought with them— sun, clouds, birds, a stray cricket ball arcing silently overhead, a rainbow once or twice, rain more often than she would have liked. (There was sometimes a tardiness to rescuing her from the elements.)
Once there had even been the stars and a rising moon— astonishing and terrifying in equal measure— when she had been forgotten one autumn evening. Bridget was castigated. The pram was outside, whatever the weather, for Sylvie had inherited a fixation with fresh air from her own mother, Lottie, who when younger had spent some time in a Swiss sanatorium, spending her days wrapped in a rug, sitting on an outdoor terrace, gazing passively at snowy Alpine peaks.
One of the downsides of listening to a book as opposed to reading the printed page (or the downloaded text) is that you cannot mark favorite or important passages. So I have in fact downloaded Life After Life, and may also purchase the soft cover edition. I feel a strong need to revisit this extraordinary novel, and hopefully to write about it again.
An especially delightful moment occurred when someone – was it you, Phyllis? – plaintively asked if we could discuss Downton Abbey for just a short while. The two-hour premiere of Season Four of this British blockbuster had just aired, and people had questions to ask and opinions to express. Well, of course we did! This was a fun diversion; among other things, we cleared up the issue of who that insufferable nanny was calling a “half breed.”
In closing, I’d like to express my admiration for the intellectual rigor that characterized this discussion. Yes I do mean that – Downton Abbey and all! It took me back to the heady days of my favorite college classes. Well done, Readers!
Ever since I’ve been a regular member, the Usual Suspects Mystery Discussion Group has held an end of year summit of sorts in which we evaluate various aspects of the past year’s discussions.We vote on our favorite discussion selections and bring one title to recommend to our fellow book lovers – two, if there’s time. This year, that meeting was held on Tuesday December 10.
The results of the voting were as follows: White Heat by M.J. McGrath placed first, with Tana French’s Broken Harbor and Boundary Waters by William Kent Krueger placing second and third respectively. Anne M. was unable to attend, but via email, she named her favorite discussion title as Midnight in Peking. I agree with her assessment; this is a riveting true crime narrative. (I confess to being somewhat surprised that Peter Lovesey’s stellar Peter Diamond novel Cop To Corpse did not place, but this group is all about respecting differences in outlook, opinion, and values, and so one must accept these outcomes philosophically – sigh….)
The December meeting is also the deadline for choosing the title you plan to present to the group in the coming months, and it already looks as though 2014 will be an excellent year. Marge has chosen Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, a book I absolutely love; next month, Ann R. will be leading us in discussing China Trade by S.J Rozan; Gone Baby Gone by the reliably good Dennis Lehane is in the mix, as is Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood and The Haunted Monastery, one of Robert Van Gulik’s beguiling Judge Dee stories. Carol has Chosen The Blackhouse by Peter May, an impressive novel that I’ve reviewed in this space. Mike has made a wonderful choice: Bones and Silence, Reginald Hill’s Gold Dagger winner. We’ll be discussing Carved in Bone by Jefferson Bass, an author whose acquaintance I look forward to making. I was pleased to see another true crime on the list: The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, by Charles Graeber. As for me, after much gnashing of teeth and vacillating among three or four contenders, I selected A Murder of Quality by John LeCarre.
Each year, Pauline prepares a comprehensive handout for this session. It contains information about the ten books we’ve read this year: whether each title was part of a series, year of publication, awards won, and who led thee discussion. Pauline also provides a recap of the previous year’s reading, for the purpose of comparison.
Here’s how 2013 looks:
January 8: Boundary Waters, by William Kent Krueger, 1999. A series set in present day Minnesota and featuring former sheriff Cork O’Connor and estranged wife, lawyer Jo as the investigators Anthony and Barry Awards for Best 1st novel Iron Lake, 1999; Anthony Awards for Blood Hollow, 2005, and Mercy Falls, 2006. This discussion was led by Marge.
February 12: The Blooding, by Joseph Wambaugh, 1991. A work of nonfiction set in 1980s Midlands, England. Story of the 1st use of DNA to solve a criminal case. The awards were numerous:
Edgar, Special Award for Nonfiction, The Onion Field, 1974
Edgar Award for Best Screenplay, The Black Marble, 1981
Rodolfo Walsh Prize, Investigative Journalism, Lines & Shadows, International Association of Crime Writers, 1989
Edgar, Best Fact Crime, Fire Lover, 2002
Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award, 2004
Strand Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award, 2012
The discussion was led by Chris. (As I knew I’d be out of town for this one, I skipped reading the book. It’s worth mentioning, though, that Suspects often do read titles scheduled for discussions thy know they won’t be able to attend. To my mind, this is testimony to the level of commitment of members of the Suspects.)
March 12: White Heat, by M. J. (Melanie) McGrath, 2011. This is a series set on present day Ellesmere Island, Arctic Canada. Protagonists are Edie Kiglatuk, a tourist guide, and Derek Palliser, police sergeant. Awards: John Llewelyn-Rhys Award for Best New British and Commonwealth Writer under 35, 1995. Finalist for 2011 Gold Dagger Award. Discussion led by Carol.
April 9: Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L. Sayers, 1933. This series, set in London and its suburbs in the 1930s, features Lord Peter Wimsey, an amateur sleuth. In this novel he is asked to investigate a suspicious death. Written before mystery awards were instituted. Other awards: Music (2005), Actors (2006), Young Ringers (2009) named in her honor. Discussion led by Mike.
On May 18, the group celebrated its fourteenth anniversary with lunch at my favorite local restaurant, Tersiguel’s.
June 11: Breakheart Hill, by Thomas H. Cook, 1995. Stand-alone, first person narrator but no designated investigator, takes place in Alabama 1962, 1992. Cook has been nominated for 7 Edgars – he won for The Chatham School Affair. Martin Beck Award, Herodotus Prize, Barry for Red Leaves. Discussion led by Frances.
Cook is a highly respected author; nevertheless, there’s something about his writing that does not work for me. I do want to mention, though, that in the most recent issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery magazine (Fall 2013), critics and reviewers paid him extremely gracious tribute.
July 9: Cop to Corpse, Peter Lovesey, 2012. This entry in the Peter Diamond series of police procedurals takes place primarily in the stories city of Bath, with excursions to nearby localities and also to Vienna, Austria. Gold and Silver Daggers of CWA, Barry and Macavity Awards. Cartier Dagger Award for Lifetime Achievement , 2000. Many more awards—too numerous to list. Led – and loved! – by Yours Truly.
August 13: Pardonable Lies, by Jacqueline Winspear. This novel, third in the series, takes place in London and surrounding area in UK; and in France, 1930. Maisie Dobbs, psychologist/investigator, is the protagonist.. Agatha Awards for 1st Novel, Maisie Dobbs and 2nd novel Birds of a Feather; Agatha nomination for Pardonable Lies. Led by Reed.
September 10: Midnight in Peking, by Paul French, 2011. This true crime narrative takes place in Peking, China, 1937. Police investigators and father of victim, (E.T.C. Werner) and his private investigators. Awards: CWA Non-fiction Dagger, and Edgar Best Fact Crime Award, 2013. Led by Pauline. A terrific story, an exotic locale – this book had everything, although I do wish that People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, a true crime narrative set in present day Japan, had received equal recognition.
October 8: Broken Harbor, by Tana French, 2012. Series set in a present day Dublin suburb. Police detective Kennedy and partner. Part of Dublin Murder Squad series. L.A. Times Book Prize 2012. 2008 Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Barry Awards for best 1st novel, Into the Woods. Led by Susan.
November 12: Christmas Stalkings: Tales of Yuletide Murder, Charlotte MacLeod, editor, 1991. Thirteen short stories by well-known writers. MacLeod was co-founder of American Crime Writers League. Awards: Boucheron Lifetime Achievement Award; 1 Nero; 5 American Mystery Awards; 1986 Anthony Award; Malice Domestic Lifetime Achievement Award. Nominations: 2 for Edgar Award; 1992 for Best Short Story Collection.
These tales were light but for the most part pleasing and fun to read. I was reminded of two authors whose books I had enjoyed in the past but hadn’t thought about for some time. The first is Eric Wright, author of the Charlie Salter procedurals set in Toronto. The second was John Malcolm, whose series featuring Tim Simpson is set in London and revolves around the two worlds of art and finance. I learned a great deal about twentieth century British art from Malcolm’s novels. Howard County Library no longer owns them, but Felony & Mayhem Press has reissued the first, A Back Room in Somerstown. I hope they do the same for the other books in this extremely appealing series. (John Malcolm is the pen name of John Malcolm Andrews.)
This collection, originally published in 1992, provided some unexpectedly poignant moments by reminding us of some of the authors of note whom we’ve lost fairly recently: Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels/Barbara Mertz (1927-2013), Robert Barnard (1936-2013), Reginald Hill (1936-1012), Patricia Moyes (1923-2000),and Charlotte MacLeod (1922-2005) all wrote stories for inclusion in this anthology. This discussion was led by Louise.
(December 10 was the end of year summary which is the subject matter of this post: bring-a-book session, favorite book vote, and annual review.)
We then moved on to a comparison of this year and last year with regard to various criteria. This also was prepared by Pauline and interspersed with occasional questions to stimulate discussion:
CATEGORIES FOR 2012 BOOKS AND COMPARISON WITH 2013 BOOKS:
Male authors: Charles Dickens, Harlan Coben, Per Wahloo (3)
Female authors: Laura Lippman, Elizabeth Peters, Dana Stabenow, Deborah Blum, Agatha Christie, Maj Sjowall, EllyGriffiths, Rebecca Pawel (8)
Authors’ Nationalities: 6 American, 3 English, 2 Swedish
Series vs. Stand-alones: 5 series, 5 stand-alones
Investigators: No investigator, TV investigative reporter, 2 archaeologists, amateur investigators, police procedurals, medical examiners. What other categories do the investigators in the 2012 books fall into?
Period: Contemporary, historic. How would you divide the 10 books we read in 2012 into these periods?
1. USA: Md, and W.Va; Alaska; NJ; NYC;
2. Europe: UK—Kent, Norfolk; Sweden—Stockholm; Spain— Madrid;
3. Africa: Egypt
Categories: Psychological suspense, police procedurals, historic, nonfiction, an unfinished serialized novel, any others?
Male authors: Wiliam Kent Krueger, Joseph Wambaugh, Peter French, Peter Lovesey, Thomas Cook (5)
Female authors: MJ (Melanie) McGrath, Dorothy L Sayers, Jacqueline Winspear, Tana French, Charlotte MacLeod (5)
Authors’ Nationalities: American, British, Irish
Series vs. Stand-alones: 6 series, 3 stand-alones + anthology (short stories)
Investigators: ex-sheriff/lawyer, police officers, tourist guide/investigator, amateur sleuth, psychologist/investigator, author/private investigator, no investigator
Period: Contemporary, period: 1930s, 1962-1992, 1980s
1. North America: USA—Minnesota, Alabama; Canada: Arctic North (wilderness)
2. Europe: UK—Midlands, Bath, London; Eire—Dublin;
3. Asia: China—Peking;
Categories: Police procedurals, nonfiction, fiction, other categories?
It was generally agreed upon that there was more geographical diversity in 2012 than 2013. Carol suggested that we consider making it a goal to increase the diversity in our reading choices in the future. I immediately thought of Giancarlo Carofiglio, whose Temporary Perfections I came very close to choosing for my 2014 discussion title. As I’ve previously indicated, I chose A Murder of Quality by John LeCarre instead, but Carofiglio is definitely in the running for 2015.
I think we all agreed in general with Carol’s idea. Marge voiced the caveat that while seeking out diversity is all well and good, we should also continue to insist on quality. I shared that sentiment, as, I think, did everyone else.
Questions on 2013 Books
It’s now one week since this meeting, and I confess I haven’t got detailed recall of this part of the discussion, only that it was both lively and substantive:
1. What was the best book for discussion? Why do you think so?
2. Which book had the most compelling plot? Which was the best page turner? Which book had the most plausible/implausible plot?
3. Which was the most surprising book—your expectations, either good or bad, were not realized? For instance, on re-reading a book for a discussion, did you change your mind about it—either positively or negatively? Which was the most disappointing book (e.g. well-reviewed but didn’t live up to its press, or disappointing for other reasons)?
4. Which books did you learn from? Why do you feel this way? What did you learn? Would you have preferred not to have learned it?
5. Which authors would you like to read again? Which authors don’t you want to read again?
6. Which character(s) was/were the most memorable? Which were the most likable/unlikable characters?
7. Which was the best written book? Worst written book? Were any books too gory?
8. Which book had the most memorable setting? Was there enough geographical diversity in the books we read this year with only American, British, Irish and French locations? Which locations should we include in 2014? How does 2013 compare with 2012 in terms of the variety of locations?
9. Were there any books that could only have been written by a male writer? Female writer? Why do you think so? There was an equal distribution of male and female writers—5 of either gender. Does that matter?
10. Were there any books you couldn’t finish? If so, why was that the case?
11. Which writer do you wish we had read in 2013? Which writers would you like to read in 2014?
12. Your turn—what other questions should be listed here? Which questions should not have been listed here? (I’m serious—in order to improve the questions next year).
I seem to recall that the third question elicited several spirited responses. Marge confessed that she’ had a great deal of trouble with Murder Must Advertise and found herself pretty much immune to the charm of Lord Peter Wimsey. In addition to reading the book, she also viewed the BBC version featuring Ian Carmichael. In other words, she strove mightily to “get it,” but had to admit that honestly she did not. (This well nigh Herculean effort by Marge exemplifies the degree of commitment often demonstrated by the Suspects.)
On the other hand, Marge did like Tana French’s Broken Harbor, which I most decidedly did not. French has won numerous accolades for her series of novels set in Ireland, and I was eager to find out what all the fuss was about. Alas, I emerged from the arduous experience of reading Broken Harbor dismayed and unconvinced. The novel has its good points, but in my view it was way too long. This was mainly due to the witness and suspect interviews, which were recounted in excruciating detail and seemed interminable.
As for the novel’s protagonist, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, scourge of the Dublin Murder Squad, I found his arrogance and smugness rather hard to put up with. Mick has a Sister, Dina, who has a good heart and genuinely cares about Mick. But Dina has some serious psychiatric problems, and her screaming matches with her brother got old fast – at least, they did for this reader. I will say this: Broken Harbor‘s setting amidst Ireland’s recent real estate crisis rang absolutely true and certainly added to the novel’s overarching sense of social desolation. (A very interesting article on this subject appeared recently in The New York Times.)
I added that for my part, I was pleasantly surprised by Jacqueline Winspear’s Pardonable Lies. I read the first Maisie Dobbs novel when it came out in 2003, and while I found it enjoyable, I was not motivated to read any further in the series. Meanwhile, Maisie Dobbs garnered numerous awards and nominations, and the series went on to win more accolades. (See the entry in Stop! You’re Killing Me.) I did not have high hopes for Pardonable Lies, the third in the series, but I actually liked it quite a bit. The protagonist seemed more appealing and sympathetic than she had in the first book, and I thought that Winspear’s evocation of the era between the two World Wars, both in England and France, to be quite compelling.
We all agreed that both White Heat and Midnight in Peking featured settings that for us, were quite exotic. But a locale does not have to be distant and remote in order to be memorable. I love the vivid depiction of Minnesota’s Iron Range in the novels of William Kent Krueger and the colorful evocation of Bath and the surrounding areas in Somerset that Peter Lovesey treats his readers to in his Peter Diamond series. And the precise depiction of London advertising agency in the 1930s would be hard to find anywhere except in Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers. (One could possibly find such material in a biography of Sayers; she worked in just such a place.)
Question 9 elicited a lively response. The group as a whole did not feel that any of the books we read this year were characterized by an exclusively male or female sensibility. This is an interesting question in general, though. I was put in mind of a novel I recently read: Crimes of Privilege, a legal thriller by Walter Walker. In my view, this book actually did reflect a male sensibility at work. Why do I have that feeling? Because of the way Walker describes women’s appearance and demeanor – and oh well let’s just come out and say it – women’s bodies. I don’t mean anything crude or disrespectful. It had more to do with choice of words and certain observations. In this particular case, I did not consider this to be a sexist manifestation – it’s more subtle than that. One encounters something similar, but in my recollection more blatant, in the Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald.
I must apologize for not remembering more, and for leaning so heavily on my own contributions to the proceedings. It really was a great discussion. And I certainly commend Pauline’s questions, or some version of them, to other book groups.
The bring a book (or books, if you have trouble controlling yourself on this subject) part of this meeting is always fun. Here’s the list. Most, but not all, of the books were mysteries. Here’s the list:
Villa Triste by Lucretia Grindle (Carol)
A Wrinkle inTime
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
An Acceptable Time — All by Madeline L’Engle (Frances)
Dark Road To Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn (Louise)
The Crypt Thief by Mark Pryor (Ann R)
No Time for Goodbye (a stand-alone) by Linwood Barclay (Pauline)
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Mary Edna)
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (Susan)
There Was an Old Woman by Hallie Ephron (Marge)
A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller (Marge)
Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell (Roberta)
On Murder by Thomas de Quincey (Roberta)
A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake (Roberta)
Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane (Reed)
Rotten Lies by Aaron and Charlotte Elkins (Anne M.)
Shining Through by Susan Isaacs (Hilda)
This is a great group of book talkers, and by the time we’d gone the rounds for this part of the evening, all of us had substantially enlarged our already substantial to-read lists.
I had an interesting experience talking about the David Morrell title. I recounted how I’d been skeptical about this novel. How could the man who created Rambo possibly pull off an historical novel of this degree of complexity? Well!! I was immediately told a thing or two by people who knew better than I. (Trust me; their number is legion.) Pauline had read at least one and possibly more – I don’t recall – of the Rambo books and said that they were actually very good, far better than the films made from them. And Marge recalled reading a Christmas themed title by Morrell that was set in Santa Fe and that she very much liked. At the time she couldn’t recall the title; subsequent research leads me to think it’s The Spy Who Came for Christmas. I was appropriately chastened by this new information. David Morrell currently resides in Santa Fe – lucky, lucky man. I would definitely read another of his books.
After this extremely bracing meeting, a contingent of us adjourned to a nearby restaurant, where we enjoyed a hearty meal. The Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group grew out of a program on mystery fiction that Marge and I presented at the library. Since then, it has grown in stature and substance, greatly aided by the careful stewardship of Carol and Pauline. I feel fortunate indeed to be part of this very special gathering of book lovers.