Mystery Round-up

February 27, 2015 at 2:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

The large helpings of the literature of true crime in which I’ve been lately immersed have, at times, made me feel as though I were marinating in sin. So I’ve sought relief in a different kind of reading matter altogether. And what would that be? Why mysteries, of course….

514aFVbukyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  51pBrR7JZFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ In Deadly Virtues, we’re introduced to Constable Hazel Best, one of the Norbold (England) police department’s newest – and greenest  – recruits. She had come to the aid of one Gabriel Ash, a man half destroyed by the disappearance of his wife and sons. In the process, Hazel had proven herself an officer of worth and mettle.

Perfect Sins is Hazel’s second outing. This time, she  becomes embroiled in a situation  involving deeply held family secrets. For Hazel, this is more than just another case: the Byrfields, aristocrats of long and proud lineage, are the employers of Hazel’s father Fred Best. Luckily, she has the help and support of Gabriel Ash – and he has the help and support of Patience, his faithful and preternaturally wise lurcher.

Spending time with Hazel and company is pure pleasure. She is such a fine and decent person, with all the attributes needed to become, in time, a first rate investigator. Her creator, Jo Bannister, has long labored in the field of crime fiction, producing a body of work of continuously high caliber. Yet she is little known in this country. I hope this fine new series changes that.

At one point in the narrative, Gabriel Ash, so grateful to Hazel for her straightforward loyalty and affection, turns to her and says: “I wish I could explain to you how much richer my life is for having you in it.”

Jo Bannister

Jo Bannister


8686068  The Devotion of Suspect X by Japanese author Keigo Higashino is the March selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery discussion group. We Suspects are currently having an international year. This means we read novels set elsewhere than in the US or the UK. We began in January with Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Although I was not crazy about the book, it nevertheless provoked a lively and enjoyable discussion. February’s selection, set in Barcelona, was A Not So Perfect Crime by Teresa Solana. I opted out of this one, due to time pressures occasioned by work on the True Crime Course.

But being intrigued by reviews I’d read – and desperate to resume my normal activities! – I decided I’d make time for the March selection. Initially, I had trouble with  The Devotion of Suspect X. It seemed a curiously glum bit of prose and was not drawing me in. But a few chapters in, that changed. Surprisingly, this novel turned out to be in no small part  a story of thwarted love, and of humans living in isolation, loneliness, and sometimes fear. The picture the author paints of contemporary Japan is a bleak one, with occasional flashes of light. And the ending – well, I won’t say any more. Find out for yourself; it is well worth it.

Keigo Higashino

Keigo Higashino


22273335  I always look forward to  the next Harpur & Iles novel. I know I’ll be equal parts amused and appalled (but in an entertaining way). That’s exactly the effect that author Bill James strives for and achieves so effortlessly. Disclosures, the 32nd (!!) entry in this  series, suffers a bit for having this dynamic duo off stage or much of the book’s action. A fair compensation, though, is the presence of Ralph W Ember, a long running character, owner of the Monty, a social club, and a member – until recently – of the drug cartel called Pasque Uno. (Strange names abound in these novels.)

Ralph aspires to join a better class of people; his ruminations on the subject of high culture can be quite diverting:

Ralph would admit he didn’t know a terrific amount about classical music, but on the whole he was not anti. It could do no real harm. Radio Three was always there, but you could take it or leave it alone.A lot of the stuff had been around for centuries so there must be certain parts that were reasonably OK.

So much for Mozart, Beethoven, etc.

Bill James is a bit of a mystery himself. He was born in 1929 and his real name is Allan James Tucker. He’s an extremely prolific writer and is still at it, apparently. He has no website, and this is the only photo I’ve ever been able to find (although it is usually reproduced in black and white):  JAMESBILL_198

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Surfeit-Of-Guns-A-Med-Res-Front-Cover-183x276  Plague-Of-Angels-A-Low-Res-Front-Cover-184x276

Finally, last but certainly not least, I continue to be vastly entertained by P.F. Chisholm‘s romp through late 1500s with Sir Robert Carey, his faithful and long suffering Sergeant Henry Dodd, his sister Philadelphia, the longed-for but unfortunately (in more ways than one) married Lady Elizabeth Widdrington, and a host of other colorful characters. I’ve already written about A Famine of Horses, the first book of this series, in a post entitled Best Reading in 2014. I felt compelled to go on with the series and am now on number four, A Plague of Angels.

Chisholm knows how to conjure up a scene, as in this description of an encounter in the countryside:

For a moment it was hounds only, the horses heralded by sound. The, like the elven-folk from a poet’s imagination, they cantered out of the tree shadows, three, four, eight, twelve of them, and more behind, some carrying torches, their white leather jacks pristine and lace complicating the hems of their falling bands and cuffs, flowing beards and glittering jewelled fingers, with the plump flash of brocade above their long boots.

(From A Surfeit of Guns, third in the series)

Chisholm has an in depth knowledge of the clothing and weaponry of the period, but her scholarship is never intrusive. Instead, it serves to make her evocation of a past time almost unnervingly vivid.

Oh – and she displays great helpings of wit, often of the most irreverent kind and therefore all the more welcome to a reader desperately in need of some comic relief.

P.F. Chisholm (Patricia Finney)

P.F. Chisholm (Patricia Finney)

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“Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks”

February 21, 2015 at 9:31 pm (Art, Music, Russophilia)

This picture of a triumphant troop of Russian-backed Ukrainian soldiers appeared in this weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal:

Russian Rebel Troups (600dpi)-L

The photo, with its air of exuberant comradeship, reminded me of The Reply of the Zaporoshian Cossacks, a painting by Ilya Repin:


A Wikipedia entry tells of how this monumental work was created, and also the story behind it. (Click twice on this image to achieve maximum enlargement.)

In the video below, the painting serves a backdrop for a  haunting aria from The Lieutenant Kije Suite by Sergei Prokofiev:

Sergei Prokofiev, born in the Ukraine (as were all four of my grandparents).


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True crime research: discoveries made along the way

February 15, 2015 at 3:33 pm (Poetry, True crime)


Internet Archive maintains  a digitized (and searchable) pulp magazine archive:




Google Books has digitized some interesting (and quite old) titles, such as The Record of Crime in the United States and The Triumphe of God’s Revenge Against  the Crying and Execrable Sin of Murther.

In an interview with The Library of America, publisher of True Crime: An American Anthology, Harold Schechter refers to a poem by Emily Dickinson called “One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted”

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Material Place—

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase—
Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter—
In lonesome Place—

Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.

The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O’erlooking a superior spectre—
Or More—

Once again I am stunned by the brilliance and audacity of Dickinson – but should I be? This is, after all, the woman who wrote “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -”

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –

And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through –

And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –

Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –

For me, the meaning of  this poem is somewhat opaque, yet there is no mistaking the power of those last two lines.
Before I close, some words of praise for Harold Schechter: Not all academics write in a way that is appealing and accessible to the common reader. Harold Schechter can and does. His writing is a felicitous combination of erudition, grace, and wit
And so here I am, down to the wire in regard to “Stranger Than Fiction: The Literature of True Crime.” I’m teaching this class for Osher at Johns Hopkins University, a lifelong learning institute with three campus locations in this region. Fortunately, one of them is right here in Howard County.  (Click here to view the course catalog that includes the course to be taught by Yours Truly.)

I feel as though it’s taken a veritable army of supporters to assist me in this endeavor. Thanks to Pauline for recruiting me and offering me constant help and encouragement. Deep gratitude is due my husband for helping with the technology. Classroom teaching has undergone a quiet revolution in that sphere since my absence from the scene, and I’ve had to learn a great deal in a relatively short time span. Ron has been the most tireless and patient of teachers.

Barring any weather-related problems, I make my ‘debut’ tomorrow morning. Wish me luck.

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“….an exploration of deadly and sensational interpersonal betrayal, experienced on a very personal level.” – The Stranger Beside Me, by Ann Rule

February 14, 2015 at 4:02 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

51CgK5tPG2L  I’ve already written about rereading the terrific Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson. I did this in conjunction with preparing to teach a course entitled “Stranger Than Fiction: The Literature of True Crime.” The next classic of the genre that I tackled was Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me.

Since its initial publication in 1980, this seminal true crime narrative has been re-issued a number of times. In a 2008 preface to the latest edition, Rule writes, “I never expected to be writing about Theodore Robert Bundy once again.” Didn’t she? From the time of their fateful first meeting as workers at the Seattle Crisis Clinic in 1971, Ted Bundy has haunted Rule’s life, even commandeered her dreams, turning them into nightmares on frequent occasions. But at the beginning, they were friends, even confidants. Or so she thought.

Her determination to write about this experience in clear, honest prose probably saved her sanity; ironically, that same determination turned out to be the making of her as a successful author of true crime books.

There’s very little explicit violence in The Stranger Beside Me until about the book’s half way point. Until he went to Florida, Bundy’s murderous rampage was an oddly shadowed thing. His victims often seemed to disappear into thin air; some were abducted in broad daylight with other people not far distant. There was, in other words, no crime scene – or none until the body was discovered, weeks or even months or years after the commission of the crime. Some of the victims were never found. It was one of the reasons he was so difficult to identify and apprehend.

But once in Florida, the fever seems to have seized Bundy with an overmastering force. On one awful night in Tallahassee, he invaded a Florida State University sorority house and viciously attacked four young women as they slept in their beds. Two were killed; two more, severely injured. He then proceeded to an off campus residence and attacked another female student. The crime scenes were ghastly, and Rule describes them in precise detail. It was horrible, and I could not stop reading.

Professor Jean Murley descibes this phenomenon in her book The Rise of True Crime.  In the introduction, she states that as a teenager, her reading of The Stranger Beside Me sparked a life long fascination with the true crime genre. But alongside that fascination came the insistent question: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”

There is something uniquely dreadful about Ted Bundy. That a person who faces the world with such an easygoing, pleasant demeanor, and is nice looking to boot, could be so innately evil seems almost beyond comprehension – well, it is beyond comprehension.

Ted Bundy

Ted Bundy

In an interview with Library of America, Harold Schechter observes the following:

Our fascination with psychopathic killers derives in no small
part from their outward appearance of normality. Their atrocities provoke in us a
powerful need to comprehend an ultimate human mystery: how people who seem
(and often are) so ordinary, so much like the rest of us, can possess the hearts and minds of monsters.

Hamlet puts it even more succinctly: “The devil hath power / To assume a pleasing shape.”

As I read Rule’s book, I had the sense of following two parallel mysteries. The first concerned the nature of Ted Bundy himself – how such a person could even exist, could conceal his unspeakable compulsions and actions behind a veneer of affability and genuine intelligence. The second mystery resides with the author herself. Rule kept up her acquaintance, if not friendship, with Ted Bundy even when the murders came to light and he went on trial for his life. True, she was writing and publishing about him all the while. But it seemed to me that her feeling of connection with him went deeper than that. It’s  as though she were compelled to continue the work of reconciling in her mind the friend she’d known with the monster he was now known to be.

The last part of the book is occupied with Bundy’s seemingly endless legal maneuvering. Sometimes, when Rule would describe Bundy’s annoyance with a lawyer or judge, I would want to scream out loud, “Who cares how you feel, you horror!!”

Jean Murley observes that “Rule’s description of Bundy as sociopath is classic, and the insights she discovered though him form the basis of contemporary understandings about killers:

On the surface Ted Bundy was the very epitome of a successful man. Inside, it was all ashes. For Ted has gone through life terribly crippled, like a man who is deaf, or blind, or paralyzed. Ted has no conscience.”

Ted Bundy was  electrocuted in Florida in January of 1989. I remember the television footage of the scene outside Florida State Prison in Raiford. People were carrying placards and yelling, “It’s Fry-day, Ted!”

“One purpose of true crime writing is precisely to provide
decent law-abiding citizens with primal, sadistic thrills—to satisfy what William
James called our ‘aboriginal capacity for murderous excitement.’ The worst
specimens of the genre may not rise above that quasi-pornographic level. But
the best—like those exquisitely ornamented warclubs, broadswords, and flintlocks displayed in museums—are a testimony to something worth celebrating:
the human ability to take something rooted in our intrinsically bloodthirsty
nature and turn it into craft of a very high order, sometimes even into art.”

From Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, as quoted by Harold Schechter


Ann Rule

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