With the passing of P.D. James, the end of an era

November 27, 2014 at 10:16 pm (books, Mystery fiction, Remembrance, The British police procedural)

9781400096473 The first Adam Dalgliesh novel I read was A Taste for Death, published in 1986. I remember little of the actual plot except for the crime described early on in the book. The author’s depiction is both shockingly out of place and totally bewildering. I was later to learn that James makes frequent use of this kind of scenario, to wit:

I think it was W.H. Auden who said that there is the potential for more horror in that one single body on the drawing room floor than there is in a dozen bullet-riddled bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets. That one body is out of place: It’s shocking because it’s in the wrong place. We don’t associate murder with the vicarage drawing room. I use that quite a lot, that contrast between the awfulness of the deed and perhaps the beauty of what’s surrounding it. We get it with the murder in Cambridge in high summer, in “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.” We get the bodies in the church in “A Taste for Death,” brutally murdered in what is, after all, a holy place.

(from a 1998  Salon Magazine interview )

Here is the actual quote from W.H. Auden’s 1948 essay, “The Guilty Vicarage:”

In the detective story, as in its mirror image, the Quest for the Grail, maps (the ritual of space) and timetables (the ritual of time) are desirable. Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder. The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighborhood (but not too well-to-do-or there will be a suspicion of ill-gotten gains) better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.

In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, mention is made of the possibility of W. H. Auden writing some verse especially for James to insert into one of her novels, attributing it to her poet/detective Adam Dalgliesh. The idea never bore fruit, though James notes with justifiable pride that “Auden loved detective stories – he always read my books.”

The other thing I remember from that reading of A Taste for Death is more subtle. I’d describe it as the sense of something more elemental at work in the pages of the novel, a deeper quest into the very essence of human nature. In other words, the mystery was eventually solved, but not the Mystery. (I encountered similar elements in The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie. In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, Christie scholar John Curran says of this novel that it evokes “……a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.”)

At any rate, we who love crime fiction owe a debt of gratitude to P.D. James, a writer whose elegant style, masterful storytelling, and singular characters have for decades kept us engrossed, entertained, and edified. It was a life well lived, and a body of work that will stand the test of time.

A mist lay over the valley, so that the rounded hilltops looked like islands in a pale-silver sea. It had been a clear and cold night. The grass on the narrow stretch of lawn under her windows was pale and  stiffened by frost, but already the misty sun was beginning to green and soften it. On the high twigs of a leaf-denuded oak three rooks were perched, unusually silent and motionless, like carefully placed black portents. Below stretched a lime avenue which led to a stone wall, and beyond it a small circle of stones. At first only the tops of the stones were visible, but as she watched, the mist rose and the circle became complete. At this distance, and with the ring partly obscured by the wall, she could see only that the stones were of different sizes, crude misshapen lumps around a central, taller stone.

(from The Private Patient)

Among my favorites:

Unsuitable  Private Patient

Holyorders  0770429165.01.LZZZZZZZ

41BG9ADJQHL  057120094X.01.LZZZZZZZ

pdjamestalkingabout   29204

Ave atque vale, Baroness James . You will be sorely missed.


Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL  August 3, 1920 – November 27,  2014

Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL August 3, 1920 – November 27, 2014

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More thoughts on book discussion groups – selections, procedures, and title suggestions

November 26, 2014 at 2:30 am (Book clubs, Book review, books) ()

72139-cover heroichistorymain 9780446505291_custom-23fe53489fb5d8b63d49b9438870d36cb5735940-s99-c85 jwhicher3 9780385349581_custom-6cd17e3508ae40b386b510a06e98ad768a110786-s6-c30 sparta-roxana

Having recently attended two very enjoyable book discussions, I’ve decided to voice a few more thoughts on this subject. Two of the book groups I attend (with some regularity) make their choices by means of a  general shout-out. This occurs every few months – both of these groups meet every two months. Gradually the titles are winnowed down to those few that seem to have the most general appeal. (Nevertheless, there may be at least one person in the room thinking, Oh good grief, I do NOT want to read that! I’ve read  bad reviews /  it’s too long/ that author is overrated/I’ve already tried reading it and couldn’t get past page five, etc. etc. I freely confess that I have been that person, more  than once.)

The third book group – The Usual Suspects, frequently referenced in this space, employs a different procedure for the selection of titles. Just before Christmas, each person chooses a month in the coming year when they’ll be responsible for leading the discussion. That same individual chooses the book to be discussed at that session. Whether or not others approve is immaterial, at least at this stage of the proceedings. We read the book, show up at the appointed time and place – and let fly! (Actually, we’re very civil.)

Of these two methods of choosing, I favor the one practiced by the Usual Suspects. It guards against haggling and impulsive decisions, possibly regretted at a later time. Oh, and one other suggestion: If it’s your selection that’s so to speak under the microscope, don’t start by asking people if liked the book. Instead, dive right in with the particulars. Sometimes a reader who’s formed a not especially favorable opinion of a book finds that same opinion being modified as the discussion goes forward. (This, too, has happened to me.)

Below is a list of books I’ve read in recent months that I enjoyed a great deal and that, in my view, would be good book group choices (or in my case already have been, as indicated by an asterisk):


The Unknown Bridesmaid – Margaret Forster

Stoner – John Williams

*Sparta – Roxana Robinson

*The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd

The Children Act – Ian McEwan

The Weight of Water – Anita Shreve

American Romantic – Ward Just

Some Luck – Jane Smiley

Clever Girl – Tessa Hadley


*An Officer and a Spy – Robert Harris

Sandrine’s Case – Thomas H. Cook

After I’m Gone – Laura Lippman


The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia

– Candace Fleming

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal – Ben Macintyre

*The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder – Charles Graeber

JaneSmiley   It’s been a while since I read anything by Jane Smiley. I had a feeling I would like her latest. “Like” is too weak a word. I thought it was terrific. Some Luck is the first in a projected three volume saga of the Langdon family. It begins on a farm in Iowa in 1920. The rural life there is described with such loving care that I wished things could stay the same forever. But of course they can’t – and they don’t.

There was nothing extraordinary about these characters except that they spring from the fervent imagination of a master craftsman. I care so much about what happens to them! I look forward eagerly to the next installment.

{EC75824D-EB1E-4D4D-B9C3-CDAD55D25451}Img400  The Unknown Bridesmaid seems, indeed, to be all but unknown. I sought it out on the basis of a review in The New York Times. The reviewer, Michelle Wildgen, calls it “a mesmerizing, unsettling novel.” Forster tells the story of Julia, beginning with her girlhood, as she becomes increasingly at odds with her loving yet strangely uncommunicative family. I can’t describe the hypnotic effect this story had on me any better than Wildgen does, so I’ll let her do it:

One isn’t always certain what, exactly, there is to fear in the middle-class environs in which Julia grows up, but no matter how mundane the event, the atmosphere is electric with significance.

(Click here for the full text of the review.)

I’d love to lead a discussion of this novel. This would give me a perfect reason to reread it, which I want to do anyway.


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A Tale of two book discussions

November 16, 2014 at 2:47 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)


heroichistorymainFirst, AAUW Readers:

Sue Monk Kidd’s luminous novel opens with this sentence:

There was a time in Africa the people could fly.

And  how, in the early 1800s, the blacks of South Carolina wished they could take wing and escape their imprisonment in that cruelest of conditions,  chattel slavery. This “peculiar institution” – what an absurd euphemism! – is justly loathed for its forced labor, debased living conditions, and a host of other terrible impositions on the human spirit.

This novel is based on the true story of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two sisters from antebellum South Carolina. Raised in opulent surroundings, they rebelled against a way of life that depended for its very existence on the work of slaves. Eventually they broke with their family and headed north, seeking shelter and making common cause with Quakers and other staunch abolitionists.

But this novel is equally the story of the daily lives of the slaves themselves. Hetty – also known as Handful, because she is one – is Sarah’s counterpart in the world of bondage. This is a spirited young woman, whose spirit is tested daily by the oppression which she has no choice but to endure. There are many reasons to be outraged by the living conditions imposed by slavery, but what The Invention of Wings also makes painfully clear is how circumscribed the life of a slave was, how devoid of meaningful occupation, how constricted the horizon. Enforced illiteracy was the capstone on this cruel edifice.

Not surprisingly, our discussion of this novel was impassioned. Some in the group had, in the past, lived in the Carolinas; their observations were illuminating, even surprising. Related reading was suggested; Jean’s mention of Song Yet Sung by James McBride sparked an interest in almost all who were present. Just before coming to the meeting, I’d found a program on the Abolitionists that can be viewed on the PBS site. The film opens with the (briefly told) story of Angelina Grimké.

This novel left me sadder and wiser; in addition, reading it was also an enraging experience. I’m at a loss to understand how a purportedly civilized people could ever have convinced themselves that it was acceptable to live this way.

Slavery tainted and debased all who were confined within its strictures. During a fraught interaction with Handful, Sarah experiences this unwelcome flash of self-knowledge:

I saw then what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost  the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at  the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it.

This is what she and her sister had to battle against, both in the world around them and in their own hearts. And as for Handful, she had her own battles to fight. When she sees herself and fellow slaves listed as possessions – with dollar amounts beside their names! –  in the record books of her “Masters,” she reflects:

Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head.We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledge people. I didn’t believe this, never had believed it a day in my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beaten-down part of you starts to wonder. All that pride about what we were worth left me then. For the first time, I felt the hurt and shame of just bring who I was.

Thanks are due to the AAUW Readers for a lively and stimulating afternoon. As for The Invention of Wings, it’s great book for discussion. A great book, period.

Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Invention of Wings


72139-cover  Second, the Usual Suspects:

Published in 1961, The Haunted Monastery is the fifth entry in Robert  van Gulik’s Judge Dee series. The character of Judge Dee is based on an actual person. From Wikipedia:

The Judge Dee character is based on the historical figure Di Renjie (c. 630–c. 700), magistrate and statesman of the Tang court. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) in China, a “folk novel” was written set in former times, but filled with anachronisms. Van Gulik found in the 18th century Di Gong An (Chinese:狄公案 Pinyin: dí gōng àn, lit. “Cases of Judge Dee”) an original tale dealing with three cases simultaneously, and, which was unusual among Chinese mystery tales, a plot that for the most part lacked an overbearing supernatural element which could alienate Western readers. He translated it into English and had it published in 1949 under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.

The subsequent (and original) Judge Dee tales took their impetus from van Gulik’s initial act of translation.

Anne M., our discussion leader, provided us with this fascinating background material and much else besides. To begin with, Robert Hans van Gulik was an extremely gifted and accomplished individual. Born in the Netherlands in 1910, he spent his  early years in the Dutch East Indies, where his father served in the army as a physician. In 1923, his family returned to the Netherlands, where he completed high school, went on to university and eventually obtained a doctorate. His areas of specialization were all located in East Asia.  His professional life was spent in the foreign service. In fact, he had come to love all things Chinese, mastering the language and learning to play the guqin,  described as “a zither-type stringed instrument dating back to remote antiquity.” (See R.H. van Gulik and the Qin for more on this.) In 1943,  he married Shui Shifang, a college educated typist at the Dutch legation in China and the daughter of an imperial Mandarin. (More information about the life and work of Robert van Gulik can be found at Judge-Dee.info.)

As The Haunted Monastery opens, Judge Dee and his entourage are traveling through the mountainous region of Han-yuan. Soon they are overtaken by a violent storm and the axle of their coach vehicle is broken. Judge Dee sees no recourse but to seek shelter in a nearby religious community. This is Morning Cloud Cloud Monastery, a Taoist establishment. The Judge’s First Lady Wife – there are three of them – opines that it will be interesting to see the interior of the monastic complex. Her husband replies dismissively: “There isn’t much to see….It’s just an old monastery.” Needless to say, events prove otherwise.

When the party present themselves at the entrance, albeit unannounced, the Judge and his party are courteously received by the Prior. They are provided with nourishment and rooms in which to stay the night. And almost at once, mysteries begin to unfold, beginning with a bizarre scene  inadvertently witnessed by Judge Dee:

The window in the wall of the building opposite stood open; across the dividing space of six feet or so he looked into a dimly-lit room. He saw the broad back of a man wearing a close-fitting iron helmet who was trying to embrace a naked woman. She covered her face with her right arm, where the left should have been there was only a ragged stump. The man let go of her and she stumbled back against the wall. Then the wind tore the hooks of the shutters from Judge Dee’s hands, and they slammed shut in his face.With an oath he pushed them open again, but now he saw nothing but a dark curtain if rain.

The Haunted Monastery, with its plethora of dramatis personae,  its tangled plot – or should I say, plots – and the complex yet claustrophobic setting, was a challenging read.  For our edification, Anne provided us with a comprehensive list of characters; in addition, she had formulated wise and provocative discussion questions. She seemed to have an almost effortless command of every twist and turn in the story.

Our discussion ranged far and wide, in some cases raising questions that could only be answered by further research. We were particularly interested in Taoism and Confucianism, both of which play an important part in the narrative. The monastery is Taoist; the Judge is Confucian. Here are his ruminations on the Taoist faith:

“The question is, Tao Gan, whether we are meant to discover the mystery of life, and whether that discovery would make us happier. Taoism has many elevated thoughts; it teaches us to requite good with good, and bad also with good. But the instruction to requite bad with good belongs to a better age than we are living in now, Tao Gan! It’s a dream of the future, a beautiful dream — yet only a dream. I prefer to keep to the practical wisdom of our Master Confucius, who teaches us our simple, everyday duties to our fellow-men and to our society. And to requite good with good, and bad with justice!”

I liked Frank’s comment to the effect that while reading The Haunted Monastery, he had the feeling that the prose style was in some way distinctively Chinese. A reviewer on Goodreads makes a similar observation with regard to The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee:

One aspect of books and reading that I don’t often consider is the extent to which storytelling is a cultural form, often arising out of long-standing tradition. Modern American writing has such an emphasis on telling a good story as well as innovation in characterization and world-building that I forget about traditional forms. The manuscript of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee is the product of an extensive tradition in Chinese detective storytelling.

In his Translator’s Preface to The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee,  Robert van Gulik enumerates the characteristics of that tradition. I’ve not been able to find this Preface online, but I did find a helpful summary of van Gulik’s main points on Wikipedia:

  • the detective is the local magistrate who is usually involved in several unrelated cases simultaneously;
  • the criminal is introduced at the very start of the story and his crime and reasons are carefully explained, thus constituting an inverted detective story rather than a “puzzle”;
  • the stories have a supernatural element with ghosts telling people about their death and even accusing the criminal;
  • the stories are filled with digressions into philosophy, the complete texts of official documents, and much more, making for very long books;
  • the novels tend to have a huge cast of characters, typically in the hundreds, all described as to their relation to the various main actors in the story.

Very few of these tales have been translated into Western languages. It was Robert van Gulik’s wish to remedy this situation to some small degree by his own efforts. Wanting very much to bring the character of Judge Dee to life for readers in the West, he then set about writing original stories that would achieve this goal. In the process he brings to life a time and place so remote as to seem like the stuff of dreams. And yet these people, with their dreams, desires, and disappointments, seem to some extent not so very different from us. (In The Haunted Monastery, one must make an exception, of course, for the last character on Anne’s list: “A Bear.”)

I highly recommend the spoken word version of the Judge Dee mysteries as performed by

Frank Muller. 51QAvvfwmaL._SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ I listened to them quite some time ago on audiotape, and I don’t know if they’ve ever been made available on a more current format. If not, tant pis; they are quite wonderful. (I own The Phantom in the Temple and would be happy to loan it out. Remember, though: you’ll need a cassette player!)

**Thanks once again to Anne for her lucid and meticulous presentation. It was masterful.**

Robert van Gulik illustrated the Judge Dee novels with his own line drawings. These two appear in The Haunted Monastery:

Judge Dee 2-M

Judge Dee 1-M


van Gulik plays Qin

Robert van Gulik plays the guqin



Robert Hans van Gulik 1910 – 1967




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Tis the season to be thankful…

November 4, 2014 at 9:33 pm (Family)

And I have so much to  be thankful for:



Etta as Red Riding Hood


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Welles Samuel passed the one year mark in September; Etta Lin turned four last month.

These videos, taken recently at a playground in Chicago on a beautiful sunny day, seemed to me to constitute an apt metaphor for the tricky art of parenting: When to help, when to hold on – and when to let go.


And my wonderful son and daughter-in-law make it look easy!



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