“…I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a novel.” – A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre

August 31, 2014 at 4:53 pm (Book review, books)

The above quote is from the New York Times review by Walter Isaacson.  Here’s the context:

When devouring this thriller about Kim Philby, the high-level British spymaster who turned out to be a Russian mole, I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a novel. It reads like a story by Graham Greene, Ian Fleming or John le Carré, all of whom make appearances, leavened by a dollop of P. G. Wodehouse. But, in fact, “A Spy Among Friends” is a solidly researched true story. The London journalist Ben Mac­intyre, who has written nine previous histories chronicling intrigue and skulduggery, takes a fresh look at the grandest espionage drama of our era. And like one of his raffish characters relaxing around the bar at White’s, that venerable clubhouse of England’s old boys’ network, he is able to play the role of an amusing raconteur who can cloak psychological and sociological insights with dry humor.

Final jacket.JPG  Well, that pretty much says it all about this riveting story. One of Ben Macintyre’s biggest challenges is to penetrate Philby’s disguise and get to the truth about the complex psyche of a man who fooled just about everyone he met. Underneath the guise of the bon viveur, party going heavy drinker, empathetic friend and confidante, husband to four different women (!), was a man who betrayed those same friends, wives, and colleagues in M16 and other intelligence agencies (including the newly formed CIA) – not once, but over and over again.

Beneath Philby’s golden charm lay a thick substratum of conceit; the charmer invites you into his world, though never too far and only on his terms. The English love their secrets, the knowledge that they know a little more than the man standing next to them; when that man is also a secret keeper, it redoubles what Trevor-Roper called “the exquisite relish of ruthless, treacherous private power.” Philby tasted the drug of deception as a youth and remained addicted to infidelity for the rest of his life.

One of the pleasures of A Spy Among Friends is encountering the famous, and infamous, in its pages. Of course Donald McLean, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt – the other members of the so-called Cambridge spy ring – are present and accounted for. And there’s James Jesus Angleton of the CIA, whose unshakeable belief in Philby’s loyalty resulted in plenty of missteps and damage. But there are many more: not only the distinguished Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper but Graham Greene, Ian Fleming – even German journalist Jona von Ustinov, father of actor and writer Peter Ustinov, and Miles and Lorraine Copeland, parents of Stewart Copeland, drummer for the rock group known as the Police – all appear in these pages.

It’s a tale of daunting complexity, but if you stick with it, the rewards are great. The book eventually becomes unputdownable. I ended by pushing everything else to one side so I could race to the conclusion. Macintyre knows how to tell a story so that you’re kept on the edge of your seat. And all the while, his sense of irony is alive and well. Here’s his description of M15’s surveillance unit, known as the Watchers:

They were expected to dress in trilby hats and raincoats and communicated with one another by hand signals. They stood on street corners, watching and trying to appear inconspicuous. They looked, in short, exactly like surveillance agents.

Sometimes fact really does outdo fiction….


In 2006, William Boyd, whose novel Restless I very much enjoyed, wrote an extremely perceptive article on Kim Philby for The Guardian. I highly recommend A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre.

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Nine hundred!

August 18, 2014 at 2:04 am (Art, Ballet, Blogroll, books)

Recently I’ve written in praise of favorite blogs and bloggers. I can think of no better way to mark my nine hundredth posting on Books to  the Ceiling than by doing more of the same.

A Commonplace Blog is written by D.G. Myers, a man of uncommonly rigorous intellect and great courage as well. Whether he is writing about books, Judaism, current affairs, philosophy, or any other topic, Professor Myers displays the same fluency and erudition. In particular, I owe him a debt of gratitude for his recommendation of The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis. He calls it “the perfect historical novel.” I agree.

Two blogs that take full and rich advantage of the visual component of blogging are In So Many Words and Letters from a Hill Farm. Yvette blogs at the first; Nan, at the second. In both cases, one feels the full force of their love of books, of life and general – and of grandchildren in particular!

Two blogs that I truly cherish are My Porch and The Argumentative Old Git. At My Porch, Thomas chronicles his love of books and the arts with flair and exuberance. Likewise his unabashed affection for his dog Lucy, as delightfully documented in a series of  photos. Oh, and Thomas – thanks for writing in praise of Eric Ambler.  I had the great good fortune to be reading A Coffin for Demetrios when I was in Paris in 1995.

As for the The Argumentative Old Git – well, he most certainly is not that! Concerning the name chosen for his blog, Himadri explains that  “it’s best to be self-deprecating before someone else deprecates you.” So: sense of humor – check! Also deep erudition and love of books and music – in other words, the Things That Matter. I first found this blog when I was writing- -yet again – about reading – yet again – The Turn of the Screw. Himadri had written a wonderful post on Henry James’s infuriating, fascinating novel and on the terrific 1961 film, called The Innocents and starring Deborah Kerr. I then became aware that he’d also written about Wagner’s Parsifal. It seems we’d both seen the HD broadcast of the Met’s production of this opera in March of last year. Himadri described himself as “somewhat shaken by  the experience.” I felt the same. I’ve seen this opera three times, and every time it perplexes me and moves me profoundly. About a week later, I wrote  a post on The Turn of the Screw; in that post I wrote yet again about Parsifal. I linked to Himadri’s blog, and we had a most pleasing exchange in the Comments section of that post.

Anyway, Himadri is unfailingly gracious and learned; I recommend The Argumentative Old Git to all those who value literate discourse (which I fear is becoming increasingly rare).

Before leaving the subject of blogs, I’d like to mention that  Martin Edwards of Do You Write Under Your Own Name recently shared the great news that he has written a book about the history of crime fiction. Called The Golden Age of Murder and focusing in particular on the Detection Club, it is to be published in May of next year by HarperCollins. You can pre-order this book on Amazon – I’ve already done it.
Finally, I’d like to conclude with some things of beauty:


Portinari Altarpiece Hugo van der Goes

Portinari Altarpiece
Hugo van der Goes



Spozalizio Raphael



Svetlana Zakharova and Andrei Uvarov:



And finally…’Beauty too rich for use; For earth, too dear!’

Alessandra Ferri and Angel Corella





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For your reading enjoyment: some recommendations

August 13, 2014 at 12:47 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, True crime)

Lately I’ve been so immersed in True Crime: An American Anthology that I’ve neglected to write about the other reading I’ve been doing. So here goes:

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The two nonfiction titles I’ve recently read are both works of historical true crime, a subgenre of which I’ve become increasingly enamored. Little Demon in the City of Light poses the question: To what degree was the petite, outwardly demure Gabrielle Bompard, responsible for the death of a wealthy widower who was more than happy to pay in order to enjoy her favors? This fascinating story of deception, manipulation, and murder takes place against the backdrop of Paris in the late 1880s, proving once again that at least for some folks, the époque was not quite so belle after all.

In contrast, most of us have few illusions as to what life was like in Depression era New York City. Deborah Blum brought that time to vivid, if gruesome life in The Poisoner’s Handbook. Now Harold Schechter, editor of the above mentioned anthology, weighs in with the story of Robert George Irwin – artist, madman, and heartless killer.

Now, on to crime fiction:

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17286813 Dark Waters

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Martin Walker, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, and Archer Mayor all write series of which I’m inordinately fond. Mayor and Harrod-Eagles in particular are  among the few writers whose latest novels I always plan to read regardless of what the reviewers may say. (The reviews are usually good anyway.) I cherish the Bill Slider mysteries for Harrod-Eagles’s delightful sense of humor and unapologetic love of punning. As for the Joe Gunther novels, I am full of admiration for Mayor’s meticulous description of police procedure; also, I’m very caught up in the lives of his main characters. I always root for Joe, who’s taken some hard knocks in his personal life, and for Willie Kunkel, whose famously dour demeanor has mellowed nicely, if not completely, since he’s become a husband (to fellow officer Sammi Martens) and father to their baby girl.

The chief attraction of Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police novels is the setting. Bruno Courrèges, an affable, conscientious fellow, is a one man police force in the tiny town of St. Denis, in the Périgord region of southwestern France. One look at pictures of this magical place and I wanted to pack my bags and take off.

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Bruno is one lucky guy to live and work here, and he knows it.

Dark Waters is the second of Robin Blake’s novels set in Preston, Lancashire, in the eighteenth century. The protagonists are coroner Titus Cragg and his physician friend and colleague Luke Fidelis. These are wonderfully realized characters, alive in a time and place that Blake has rendered in vivid and meticulous detail. This is the only historical mystery series that I’m totally committed to, at the moment. (I’m already looking forward to the third in the series The Hidden Man, due out in March of next year.)

Now off to Scandinavia….

I got tired of being the only sentient being who hadn’t read anything by Norway’s Jo Nesbø, so I downloaded The Snowman and took the plunge. And – well, gosh! Sex, violence, and a story that hits the ground running and never lets up. I get what readers see in his crime fiction; it was a wild ride and fun, but I don’t know if I’ll be back for seconds.

As for Kjell Eriksson, I don’t understand why his work is not more widely known here. I’d read two previous novels by him, The Princess of Burundi and The Demon of Dakar. The latter I remember especially for its compassionate depiction of the immigrant experience.That same compassion is present in Black Lies, Red Blood. Set mainly in Uppsala Sweden, the book begins with an explicit description of a very intense love affair involving Ann Lindell, a commanding officer in the Violent Crime Division, and journalist Anders Brant.  Your Faithful Blogger was in equal parts intrigued and disconcerted by this unexpected opener. But Ann has a rude shock coming: she thought she knew Anders, but in fact she does not – not at all. Suddenly he is gone. She does not know if she will ever see him again.

This novel is made up of equal parts eroticism, anguish, and almost unbearable tension. When, after a lengthy search, the body of a young murder victim is found by a search team in an open field near a wood, time seems to stop. Police, criminalists, the prosecutor – all those present are afflicted with an almost unbearable sadness. It is one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever encountered in crime fiction.

From the deep forest birdsong was heard. The wind was filtered between the tree trunks, made the branches of the sallow bounce, pleasantly turned a  few leaves, brought with it aromas of summer.

Life, unnervingly and with a perverse insistence, goes on. But Ann Lindell has made a solemn vow to this victim; she will not desist until justice has been secured.

Black Lies, Red Blood works especially well as a procedural. The banter and varied exchanges among the members of Ann’s division is witty and real. I kept thinking that it reminded me of something – or someone. And then I realized: I was sensing the presence of Martin Beck and company, brought to such vivid life by the great creative team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I can give a crime writer of any nationality no higher praise. By all means, read Kjell Eriksson!


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In praise of Georges Bizet

August 10, 2014 at 8:33 pm (Music, opera)

Georges Bizet is best known, at least in this country, for the opera Carmen. Carmen is truly wonderful, filled as it is with high drama, passion, and glorious music.

I have two other favorite works by Bizet. One is L’Arlesienne, in particular the Farandole from Suite No.2. I love this spirited performance, by the Deutsch-Niederländische KammerPhilharmonie (German-Dutch Chamber Orchestra) conducted by Otis Klöber.

Bizet has incorporated a medieval French Christmas carol into this music. It is called ” La marche des rois mages” (March of the Kings). Here it is, sung by the Robert Shaw Chorale:

Finally, here is the famous “Au fond du temple saint” from the opera Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers). I don’t really know the opera, but this duet I have long known and loved. I’ve trawled YouTube listening to various performances and have not found one that comes close to this magnificent offering by baritone Alan Titus and the great tenor Jerry Hadley:

Georges Bizet 1838 - 1875

Georges Bizet
1838 – 1875



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Harking back to our nation’s beginnings, Harold Schechter commences his survey of true crime literature in America

August 9, 2014 at 8:26 pm (books, Crime, History, True crime, True crime narratives)

truecrimea  Let’s just stipulate this  up front: the Library of America could not have chosen a better person to edit their true crime anthology. Harold Schechter‘ s deep knowledge of the literature of true crime and his distinguished contributions to the genre are well known, especially to aficionado’s of the genre. His selections for this volume have the power to disturb and to fascinate.

Not to mention, surprise. True Crime opens with an excerpt from William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation. In that famed document, completed in 1651, Bradford relates the story of one John Billington. Although he was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact, Billington was no earnest Puritan, but rather a ne’er-do-well  who fled London with his creditors in hot pursuit. He seems to have been a thoroughly disreputable character.  As he took up life in the New World, his continued bad behavior seemed to presage worse to come. And so it proved: in 1630, in the heat of a quarrel, he shot and killed a man. For this crime, he was executed. His fellow colonists took no pleasure in carrying out the sentence.

William Bradford writes:

This, as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a mater of great sadnes unto them. They used all due means about his triall, and tooke the advice of Mr. Winthrop and other the ablest gentle-men in the Bay of Massachusets, that were then new-ly come over, who concured with them that he ought to dye, and the land to be purged from blood.

It turns out that numbered among the descendants of John Billington is James A. Garfield, twentieth President of the United States. What an irony that from the line of such a rough character eventually issued a man of great courage and nobility of spirit – in every way a supremely admirable human being. I recommend – very highly – Candace Millard’s biography, Destiny of the Republic.  garfield2

uewb_07_img0467  Here’s how Harold Schechter describes the next author to appear in the anthology; “Unfairly or not, Cotton Mather (1663-1728) has come to epitomize many of the least attractive traits of the colonial Puritan, from excessive self-righteousness to persecutive zeal.” Well, that about sums it up, except that there is more to Mather than meets the eye (or was presented to us in those long ago interminable high school history classes ). It turns out that he was something of a polymath, and an industrious one at that:

….he published as many as 17 books and pamphlets a year – an estimated 4,444 bound volumes all told – while turning out five sermons a week, conducting countless fasts, devoting himself to causes ranging from penal reform to the education of slaves, and raising 15 children by three wives.

Among the sermons Mather preached was one of  particular type. The so-called execution sermon was preached on that very occasion, to provide a vivid illustration of the wages off sin. Mather’s execution sermons were published under the rubric Pillars of Salt.

Before the sentence was carried out, the malefactor was expected to express remorse and repentance, in his or her own words . These utterances would be incorporated into the sermon, to give it added power.This happened frequently, but not invariably. One who refused to follow the script was Margaret Gaulacher, condemned to hang in the 1715 for the crime of infanticide. The fact that she was bitter rather than penitent demonstrated to Mather that she had not made her peace with God.

Be that as it may, Pillars of Salt stands as a founding document of the literature of true crime in America. Cotton Mather’s signal contribution is commented on in this rather piquantly entitled essay, Cotton Mather…Pulp Writer?

Harold Schechter

Harold Schechter

There’s more to come, in subsequent posts.

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Bloggers and books, Part Two: crime fiction classics

August 2, 2014 at 12:17 am (books, Mystery fiction)

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Wednesday on his blog, author Martin Edwards posted his choice for the Ten Best novels of  the Golden Age of crime writing. This generated considerable buzz among the Usual Suspects. Mystery aficionados that we are, some of us had to admit that we’d not even heard of several books on the list, much read them. And when you start trying to hunt them down, as I did, you find,  precious few in print, at least here in the U.S. Even used copies are not exactly thick on the ground, and as far as finding them in e-book format – well, good luck with that.

I’ve had some little experience with a couple of these titles. The Suspects discussed Murder Must Advertise a while back; that is not the Sayers title I would choose. Trent’s Last Case I read years ago and enjoyed a great deal. That would make it onto my own list of Golden Age favorites. And what else would be on my list? Ah well, I might as well succumb to the temptation:

1. Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh
2. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
3. Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
4. The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
5. Dancers in Mourning by Margery Allingham
6. Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
7. The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
8. Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley
9. The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie (Miss Marple short stories)
10. The Labors of Hercules by Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot in a series of linked stories)
11. The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

Yes I know; it’s supposed to be the top ten, not the top eleven. And I have multiple entries for several authors, nearly all of them fairly well known. But you see, I am nowhere near as well read in Golden Age crime fiction as Martin Edwards is. I look forward to improving the situation.

Martin did an additional post on Agatha Christie. I understand why;  she really is in a class by herself. I didn’t do that here, but I would liked to have added The Body in the Library, A Caribbean Mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Five Little Pigs to my own list. ( As regards And Then There Were None, I’m a dissenter, for various reasons.)

Meanwhile, Martin’s selections and his pithy annotations have evoked in me that well known hunger. I’m supposed to be purchasing only e-books at present, but I sense that resolution faltering….

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