There’s a lot to report; this post will necessarily cover just a small amount of material. Doing the research has been an adventure, and a fascinating one at that. (I am reminded of what Steven Saylor, in the author’s note in Arms of Nemesis, called “a sort of information ecstasy.”)
Starting with Harold Schechter’s remarkable anthology, I’ve traveled down interesting byways, some fairly familiar and others more obscure. As I made my way through this hefty compendium – it clocks in at just under 800 pages – I encountered several unexpected names: William Bradford, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Abraham Lincoln (!), James Thurber. But what’s been especially gratifying is the discovery, or rediscovery, of writers of whom I’d never heard or whose names rang only the faintest of bells. I refer in particular to Miriam Allen deFord, Jose Marti, Celia Thaxter, Lafcadio Hearn, and Edmund Pearson. All are not only excellent writers but fascinating individuals in their own right.
Edmund Pearson, considered by many to be one of the founders of modern true crime writing, was by profession a librarian. His wry and irreverent observations on the foibles of human nature seem strangely apt. Pearson is best known for his work on the Lizzie Borden case. In this passage from The Trial of Lizzie Borden, published in 1937, he debunks the assertion made by commentators that the Borden murders could only have happened in New England, ancestral home of the stern, humorless and unbending Puritans:
“The major events of the Borden case might have happened anywhere. Its chief
personages could have flourished in Oregon, in Alabama, in France or Russia.
Stepmothers, dissatisfied spinster daughters and grim old fathers are not peculiar to
Massachusetts. It is my impression that they appear in Balzac’s novels.
Perhaps this is mere whistling against the wind. We shall never give up the black-
coated scarecrow of the Puritan; throwing stones at him is too much fun. For three
hundred years New Yorkers have intimated, sometimes jocosely, sometimes angrily, that
the folk of New England, or most of them, are sour bigots…. Acquittals or convictions
have been equally wrong and have somehow resulted from “Bostonian snobbishness” or
“fierce puritanical hatred.”
This has become a convention, fostered by many who profess to scorn convention.
The feverish village patriotism of frontier days subsides for a time, but editors whip it up
again to tickle local pride. We pretend that the vinegar-faced Puritan is still bothering us,
just as we cling to our belief in the parsimonious Scot of the anecdotes.”
“It was the consensus among my male colleagues, who either saw Margaret Crain in the flesh or studied her photographs, that she had about as much sex appeal as a pound of chopped liver.”
Making allowances for pre- PC mid-twentieth century America, this is at the very least an attention grabber. I immediately located and purchasd a copy of Murder One: Six on the Spot Murder Stories, a collection of Kilgallen’s crime writing.
Professor Murley defines true crime as “the narrative treatment of an actual crime.” She adds that in the course of constructing these narratives, writers frequently make use of fictional techniques. (This latter practice has been a source of controversy ever since Truman Capote announced the invention of what he called the nonfiction novel.)
The second question is more personal, almost a cri de coeur from the author herself: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”This one is harder to answer, or at least, to answer honestly. You don’t want to think of your interest in this subject as being purely prurient, or worse, deriving from a perverse enjoyment of the misery of others. Those elements may be present in some hopefully small degree, but Murley offers two other possible explanations for why we read true crime:
A desire to make sense of the (seemingly) senseless
A desire to illuminate the sordid with beams of truth
Let’s leave it there, for the time being.
I came up with this list of postwar true crime classics:
Compulsion by Meyer Levin – 1956
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – 1965
The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh – 1973
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry – 1974
Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson – 1976
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer – 1979
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule – 1980
Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss – 1983
Of these eight titles, I have, at one time or another, read five. My plan was to reread In Cold Blood and then read the three that I’d not read before: Compulsion, The Onion Field, and Helter Skelter. Meanwhile I had ordered a copy of Blood and Money, currently available from Carroll & Graf. I vividly recall being spellbound by this book. What was it about this narrative that, on my first reading all those years ago, had so captivated me? I made the mistake of opening it and perusing the first few pages….
You can guess the rest. I came up for air 474 pages later, at the end, feeling slightly stunned. I cannot overstate the compelling nature of this stranger than fiction story, infused as it is with Tommy Thompson’s relentless drive. The last two paragraphs are especially powerful. Some books, fiction or nonfiction, attain a kind of greatness at their closing moments. One thinks of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and The Great Gatsby as well. You can put Blood and Money in that select company.
Thomas Thompson died of cancer in 1982 at the age of 49. We are fortunate that he had the time and the will to write this true crime classic.
“….an existence so so splendid, so compelling, that the paltry realities of this world grew faint by comparison.” – Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison
I’ve never lost interest in the story of Joan of Arc. So when I read of Kathryn’s Harrison’s new biography, I knew I’d want to read it.
Ever since she made her appearance in the historical narrative, shaking that narrative to its core, people have longed to know what Joan of Arc actually looked like. The sole contemporaneous likeness we have is a marginal doodle by Clément de Fauquembergue, a clerk in parliament.
He made this drawing in 1429 without actually having seen its subject.But he was correct in making Joan’s hair black. How do we know this? In the mid nineteenth century, a single strand, inky dark in color, was found embedded in the wax seal of a letter she had dictated.
Harrison tells us that
Likenesses made in her lifetime were destroyed upon her being condemned as a witch, rendering them dangerous devil’s currency.
The frontispiece of this book contains a single word: the scrawled signature of the Maid of Orleans:
I was stopped in my tracks. You want to trace the jagged letters with your fingers. (I did.)
‘I was only born the day you first spoke to me….My life only began on the day you told me what I must do, my sword in hand.’
Joan speaking to her voices, in The Lark by Jean Anouilh
Pictorial representations of Joan of Arc have proliferated down through the centuries. And the coming of the motion of the motion picture provided a whole new means of bringing to life her remarkable story.
Harrison quotes liberally from the numerous books and plays in which some version of Joan’s life has been depicted, among them Anouilh’s The Lark (quoted above), George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, The Maid of Orléans by Friedrich Schiller, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, Saint Joan of the Stockyards by Bertolt Brecht, and Joan of Lorraine by Maxwell Anderson. In addition, the author place’s the events of Joan’s life in their proper context. The mindset of the people of Western Europe in the late Middle Ages is of course foreign to us in many ways. This is especially true as regards the intensity of religious feeling on the one hand, and the prevalence of superstitious beliefs and fears on the other. (A good way to get a vivid feel for the period is to watch Ingmar Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal):
Harrison sums up the essence of this stranger-than-fiction individual thus:
Joan’s poise under fire demonstrated what she couldn’t by herself, even had she been erudite as well as literate. It’s one thing to assemble and polish a portrait of oneself, as St. Augustine, a professor of philosophy and rhetoric, and another to demonstrate at nineteen an integrity that a chorus of scheming pedants couldn’t dismantle, their sophistry displaying Joan’s virtues as she could not have done for herself. Few trial transcripts make good reading; only one preserves the voice of Joan of Arc. While the words of the judges are forgettable – all despots sound alike – Joan’s transcend the constraints of interrogation. Even threatened with torture and assaulted by prison guards attempting her rape, she could not be forced to assume the outline her judges drew for her. That was their script, their story of Joan’s life, and, unlike other such medieval documents, it was reproduced, bound, and distributed by her persecutors with the ironic purpose of establishing their punctiliousness in serving the laws of canon.
In other words, she ran rings around her tormenters. Her courage and resourcefulness, both on the battlefield and in court, were almost beyond belief.
It can be seen from the above paragraph that Harrison’s meticulous and powerful prose is more than equal to the telling of this extraordinary story. (I particularly love the locution “chorus of scheming pedants.”) I do have a small caveat, however: Harrison writes this biography from a distinctly feminist perspective, or at least so it seemed to this reader. I was not troubled by this, because while she makes no secret of the gloss she places on certain aspects of this story, she does not harp on ideological convictions. They’re there, in other words, but not to excess. They do not detract – nothing detracts, really – from this incredible tale.
A brief biography of Joan with excellent illustrations can be found at Live Science.
Finally, I recommend the (silent) film The Passion of Joan of Arc. It was made in 1928 by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. The history of this film is in itself rather unlikely. For one thing, it was very nearly lost to posterity. For another its star, Maria (sometimes called Renee) Falconetti did such an uncanny job of bringing Joan to life that it’s almost as though she were channeling rather than acting. Dreyer himself called her “the martyr’s reincarnation.”
Several full length versions of The Passion of Joan of Arc reside on YouTube. The variations have mainly to do with the soundtrack. Voices of Light, a new soundtrack for the film, was written in 1985 by Richard Einhorn. It accompanies the Criterion release of the film.
The version below has no sound at all and French subtitles only. The final fifteen minutes are extremely harrowing and need no words whatsoever.
“‘The triumphal progress of Linnet Ridgeway in her golden car….'” – a discussion of Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway marries Simon Doyle. From this fateful and impulsive act, a world of trouble arises, starting with the couple’s Egyptian honeymoon.
But the great question, the crucial question is…Why should we care?
Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects discussed Death on the Nile, the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie. Led by Frank, one of our newer members and himself an aspiring writer of crime fiction, this proved to be an especially lively session.
Frank got us started by asking up front for our opinions of the novel. In this space, I recently advised against opening a book discussion this way, but on this occasion, the gambit worked exceptionally well. The first few responses were fairly positive, but then Yours Truly, the curmudgeon for the evening, weighed in. Way too plot driven, I complained, at the expense of character development and setting evocation. We’re supposed to be in Egypt, for Heaven’s sake! Where are the descriptions of the wonders of antiquity? Instead, we have a group made up mostly of spoiled rich people and insufferable snobs (the usual suspects, in other words) playing out their petty psychodramas in the cramped confines of a cruise vessel called the Karnak. (Pauline opined that it would have been a good thing if the ship had simply sunk, a view with which I concurred, as did several others.)
Admittedly, the basic murder plot was very cunning, but in order for it to work, circumstances had to obtain which were by no means a sure thing. Meanwhile, readers were tossed enough red herrings to make a large seafood salad, and I admit that in this regard, Christie’s ingenuity positively shone. However, this multiplicity of suspects was made possible by the presence of large number of characters who drifted in and out of focus as the narrative progressed. Also there are secondary plots involving the theft of valuable jewels and a murderer who foments trouble internationally and who, though his identity is unknown, is also on board the Karnak. This is a lot to cram into a novel of about 330 pages in length.
In fairness, it must be noted that this novel contained some memorable passages. I liked the “golden car” conceit, and there were other piquant bon mots as well. Agatha Christie’s primary storytelling strength lies in the creation of clever puzzles that are difficult to unravel before she unravels them for you. In the first Golden Age of British crime writing, this skill was considered a key asset in an author of detective fiction, and Christie did it as well if not better than just about anybody else. (Frank admitted that he’s a great admirer of this kind of plotting – to the extent that he uses a computer to map puzzles like this one.) But it must be said that as crime fiction has evolved over the decades, character creation and evocative setting have become more or less coequal in importance with storytelling.
(Someone observed that for P.D. James, the setting sometimes came first – at least, in her imagination. The characters and their story then emerged from that setting, which remained throughout a powerful element in the story.)
Generally speaking, with regard to the works of Agatha Christie, our groups spans the spectrum from those who are unabashed fans to those who – well, who for the most part are not fans, unabashed or otherwise. Most of us dwell somewhere in the middle ground. There are some Christie works for which I have genuine affection; numbered among them are several of the Poirot novels and stories and just about anything with Miss Marple in it. Among my favorites: The Labors of Hercules, Five Little Pigs, The Body in the Library, and Murder in Mesopotamia. Finally, in my view, some of Agatha Christie’s later works, featuring neither Poirot nor Miss Marple, are among her most powerful. I am thinking in particular of Endless Night and The Pale Horse.
Also we should keep in mind the jewel like quality of many of Dame Agatha’s short stories. Ann mentioned “Philomel Cottage.” This is one of the most chilling narratives in the canon. It can be found in two Christie collections: The Listerdale Mystery and Witness for the Prosecution. (It’s also included in an excellent if obscure collection that I acquired several years ago called Murder Short and Sweet.) “Philomel Cottage” has that atmosphere of dread that was so memorably evoked in The Pale Horse. In fact, my favorite works by Christie have this characteristic, which at times is characterized by supernatural overtones. My favorite story collection is The Tuesday Club Murders, aka The Thirteen Problems. One story in particular, “The Idol House of Astarte,” is especially haunting.
One of the most gratifying aspects of Tuesday night’s discussion was its wide ranging scope. In addition to Death on the Nile, we talked about other works by Christie and about the way in which she handles the various facets of crime fiction: primarily plot, character development, and setting. For the sake of comparison, other authors, such as P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, and Theodore Dreiser, were brought into the conversation. (What this means, of course, is that in this post, I’ve by no means “covered” Tuesday’s discussion in its entirety – just the highlights, and what I’m at present able to recall.)
Marge recommended the 1978 film version of Death on the Nile, memorable largely because of its cast, among them David Niven, Mia Farrow, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Angela Lansbury, with Peter Ustinov in the role of the imperturbable Belgian detective. I very much enjoyed the 2004 version with David Suchet. It was gloriously photographed, displaying all the wonder of Egypt that was so lacking in the book. (In the Suchet film, Colonel Race is played by James Fox, brother of actor Edward Fox and father of Laurence Fox, who plays Hathaway in the Inspector Lewis series.)
This was Frank’s first time leading a discussion for our group, and to my mind, it went about as well as one could possibly wish. His open mindedness, genuine curiosity, and probing questions resulted in numerous lively and rewarding exchanges. Well done!
After its acquisition by the National Trust, Greenway, Agatha Christie’s country home, was opened to the public in 2009. For those of us who have met Christie scholar John Curran and toured Greenway Estate, any visiting – or revisiting – of her works must invariably evoke memories of these excursions.
Here’s a recently discovered (by me, at least) video featuring David Suchet and Matthew Pritchard, grandson of Agatha Christie, at Greenway:
Finally, in the “Everything is connected to everything else” department:
This article links the Christie novel N or M? with the top secret activities taking place at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Christie’s connection with Bletchley was not through Alan Turing, subject of the current film The Imitation Game,” but through Alfred Dilwyn Knox,at the time a leading British codebreaker. Knox is one of the subjects of The Knox Brothers, novelist Penelope Fitzgerald’s group biography of her gifted father Edmund Knox and his equally gifted siblings. It’s a wonderful, quintessentially British book. Fitzgerald is one of my favorite novelists, and I’ve lately been afraid of her slipping into obscurity. Happily this has been prevented by Hermione Lee’s celebrated new biography, which I very much look forward to reading.
This past Sunday, Ron Charles of the Washington Post enumerated the books he’s looking forward to reading in the coming year. The column was squeezed into a tiny space. I almost missed it, and in case you actually did miss it, click here.
Ron Charles, Michael Dirda, and Jonathan Yardley, all of the Washington Post, are the most wonderful and perceptive book reviewers. Together these three have continually promoted and celebrated the reading life on behalf of those of us who live in the greater Washington area. Just last month, Jonathan Yardley announced his impending retirement. Oh, no! One hopes that he’ll still grace the pages of Book World from time to time and share his literary knowledge and boundless enthusiasm with us.
As a gift to us on the occasion of his farewell, Mr. Yardley composed a list of titles that have become, over the years, his personal favorites. Like a little kid who does well on a test, I was delighted to find that out of the fifteen fiction titles on his list, I’d read eleven!
From 2003 to 2010, Jonathan Yardley wrote a column called Second Reading, which he describes as “an occasional series in which the Post’s book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.” One of my favorites from among these essays is entitled “Six Gifted Englishwomen.”
Mr. Yardley’s Second Reading pieces have been collected in a book by the same name.
I was waiting for something – anything! – to fire me up again, in service to Books to the Ceiling. This did it:
In the waning years of World War Two, a group of children discover a series of tunnels near their neighborhood. Originally intended as part of a new housing development, they lay abandoned in the earth when the onset of war delayed the projected buildings.
The children find these subterranean passages to be ideal places to play. Far from the prying eyes of adults, they construct their own world there. One of the girls rather mysteriously dubs the tunnels ‘qanats.’ A term of Middle Eastern origin denoting “a series of well-like vertical shafts, connected by gently sloping tunnels,” qanats is a lovely word, one that effortlessly breaks the ironclad rule that decrees that the letter q must always be followed by a u.
Eventually the children are chased out of the tunnels and banished from playing there by John Winwood the father of one their number, Michael. In those days, one of them later reflected, children did as they were told by the adults in their world. None of them ever went back.
The years passed and they grew up, and away from one other. Decades pass. Then, from deep inside their old hiding place, an ugly secret is disgorged, and they are once again thrown together. It proves to be highly combustible reunion.
The Girl Next Door contains a love story mesmerizing in its intensity, and also the most affecting description of a cruel and loveless childhood that I’ve encountered outside of Charles Dickens. (And yes, I am putting Ruth Rendell in that rarefied company.)
More than anything, this novel is about old age and its inevitable mixture of dread and hope, fragility and strength, anger and passivity, the frustration of feeling outdated and irrelevant at war with an equally defiant determination not to care, sadness, resignation, acceptance – and the strange and unexpected apparition of what I would call a kind of grace.
I was gripped by the whole scenario, from beginning to end.
Here is the meditation of one character who is forced, by circumstances beyond her control, into a profound and essential change:
Now Alan’s gone, said Rosemary to herself, I don’t much care. I did at first but now I don’t. That’s how it is with me. Calm, at peace, thinking ahead to all the clothes she would be able to make uninterruptedly, she began to pin the velvet pieces together. Tomorrow she would go to the shop which had reopened when knitting became fashionable again two or three years ago and buy enough wool to make herself a twinset. Something for the new baby too? I don’t think so. Freya wouldn’t appreciate it, so why bother?
Why do anything at all I don’t enjoy? I won’t. That’s how it is for me now.
One caveat: the cast of characters is rather large, and you may initially have trouble separating out the various strands of the narrative. Don’t worry; they’ll fall into place fairly quickly.
In an article in the London Evening Standard, Mark Sanderson declares The Girl Next Door to be equal in greatness to Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis and Memento Mori by Muriel Spark: “Rendell’s novels, for all their aberrations, establish a sense of order that is deeply satisfying.” How true. I cherish those ‘aberrations’ as much as I appreciate – deeply – the underlying sense of order. Well put, Mr. Sanderson.
As i began reading this novel, I was reminded of this author’s A Fatal Inversion, which she wrote under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. My first thought was – oh, surely, this won’t be that good. Ah, but it was.
Well done – very well done indeed, Baroness Rendell of Babergh.