Earlier this month, the Washington Post gifted its book-loving readers (whose numbers are legion) with “23 books we’ve loved so far this year.” I’d already seen excellent reviews of most of these titles; nevertheless, it was a pleasure to see them listed together in one place.
And so I would like to emulate the sterling example set by the editors and reviewers of the Post Book World by presenting my own list, in two parts. Here goes:
Fiction & Literature (as termed by Kirkus Reviews): For me, this has been the least rewarding category so far this year. I’ve started several novels and set them aside in fairly short order. Perhaps I’ve been too impatient. A rather large number of story collections have garnered excellent write-ups of late, among them England and Other Stories by Graham Swift, Bitter Bronx by Jerome Charyn, There’s Something I Want You To Do by Charles Baxter (whose 2003 novel Saul and Patsy I very much enjoyed), Get In Trouble by Kelly Link (whose story “The Wrong Grave” I greatly admire), In Another Country by David Constantine, and Honeydew by Edith Pearlman. In my relentless search for excellent writing, bracing wit, and elegantly constructed narrative, I mean to seek these out.
The only “literary” fiction I read from start to finish so far this year is An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. This is a novel I’ve long meant to tackle, but the impetus to finally do so was provided by the true crime course that I taught earlier this year. If the word “tackle” gives you pause, it’s with good reason: at eight hundred plus pages, An American Tragedy is a real doorstop of a tome. But – despite certain slow moving sections – I was mostly riveted. It was well worth the effort. Despite all the reading I was doing for the course, I kept returning – avidly – to Dreiser’s hefty masterwork.
Originally issued in two volumes, An American Tragedy came out in 1925, nine years after the sensational crime that inspired it. In a later post, I’ll have more to say about this mostly absorbing, occasionally maddening novel.
Mystery & Crime (once again, pace Kirkus): A different story here. I’ve had lots of great reading so far this year in this, my admittedly favorite genre.
In February, I posted Mystery Round-Up, in which I warmly recommended Perfect Sins by the greatly under-appreciated Jo Bannister and The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. The latter was an entry in the international reading year of the Usual Suspects. It’s a novel I did not expect to like but did – very much. Endings are often less than impressive in contemporary crime fiction, but The Devotion of Suspect X featured a conclusion that was extremely powerful, almost shattering in its intensity.
In that same post, I gave thanks for Disclosure, the reliably entertaining 32nd entry in the Harpur and Iles series of procedurals, written by the pseudonymous and mysterious Bill James. And finally, I heaped praise yet again on P. F. Chisholm’s wonderfully witty novels set amidst the turmoil and dangers of Elizabethan England. Thus far this year I’ve read A Surfeit of Guns and A Plague of Angels. And I’m about half way through A Murder of Crows.
Historical crime fiction appears to be on a roll. In addition to Chisholm’s above mentioned Sir Robert Carey series, there are the Matthew Shardlake novels of C.J. Sansom and the books featuring Titus Cragg, coroner, and Luke Fidelis, physician. This year’s reading has included Lamentation, the sixth entry in the series featuring lawyer Shardlake, and The Hidden Man, the third in Robin Blake’s Cragg and Fidelis series. I wrote about both books in an April post in which I voiced Some Thoughts on Historical Fiction.
I continue my periodic return to Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. The new translations and reissues add to the enjoyment of this pleasurable reading experience. Most recently read: Dancer at the Gai-Moulin and The Grand Banks Cafe. And two entries in contemporary series that I follow regularly and that almost never disappoint: Falling in Love, the latest Guido Brunetti novel by Donna Leon, and the latest appearance of Bill Slider and company in Star Fall by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.
The Ivory Grin is an early work – 1952 – and is the fourth entry in this series. To my mind, it has some of the characteristics of a journeyman work. Characters swirl about in profusion, and the plot is hard to follow. Still, there are places where the language is riveting, never more than when MacDonald is describing scenes of dereliction:
The road degenerated from broken asphalt to dirt, and the sidewalk ended. She picked her way carefully among the children who ran and squatted and rolled in the dust, past houses with smashed windows patched with cardboard and scarred peeling doors or no doors at all. In the photographic light the wretchedness of the houses had a stern kind of clarity or beauty, like old men’s faces in the sun. Their roofs sagged and their walls leaned with a human resignation, and they had voices: quarreling and gossiping and singing. The children in the dust played fighting games.
Frequently in MacDonald’s fiction, as in the works of other noir writers (see Raymond Chandler), that there’s a woman in the case who has in some way sold her soul and is probably beyond redemption. Here’s how he describes Archer’s encounter with one such character:
She came out of the car, her body full and startling in a yellow jersey dress with a row of gold buttons down the front. I frisked her on the stairs and found no gun and burned my hands a little. But in the lighted room I saw that she was losing what she had had. Her past was coming out on her face like latent handwriting.
At the conclusion of this novel, there’s a revelation that startled me so much that I cried out with a mixture of horror and amazement. So yes, even in these early days, there were signals of greatness to come.
I am very pleased that this past April, the Library of America brought out a volume of four Lew Archer titles from the 1950s. MacDonald richly deserves this recognition. And I like this picture of him, bathed in the perpetual sunshine of the southern California, whose mid twentieth century zeitgeist he captures so vividly in his novels and stories. (And thanks once again to Helene, one of my closest friends of very long standing, for introducing me to Ross MacDonald all those years ago. She gave me one of his best novels – in fact, still one of the best mysteries I’ve ever read: The Zebra-Striped Hearse.)
The British Library Crime Classics are a joy! Individual entries in this series vary in quality and readability, but my experience of them so far has been very positive. I especially recommend Mystery in White by J. Farjeon Jefferson and the story collection Resorting To Murder. These splendid little volumes with their appealing cover art are being brought out in this country by Poisoned Pen Press.
I was sufficiently intrigued by what Martin Edwards has to say (in The Golden Age of Murder) about Before the Fact by Francis Iles that I downloaded a copy on the spot. Once I’d begun, I didn’t want to read anything else.
Before the Fact (1932) is an unusual little book. It’s not a detective story, or even a mystery in the accepted, conventional sense. Rather, it’s a work of romantic suspense in the tradition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The book is not quite on a par with that masterpiece, but make no mistake: it’s very, very good. Francis Iles (pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley, actually Anthony Berkeley Cox) has a way of setting up the reader’s expectations only to knock them sideways with little or no warning. As with Rebecca, you find yourself rooting for the somewhat diffident protagonist (named Lina in the Iles novel) and at the same time fearing for her (and also, from time to time, wanting to grab her by the shoulders and shake her).
Before the Fact was selected by H.R.F. Keating for inclusion in his book Crime Mystery: The 100 Best Books (1987). He calls it “… one of the key texts in the history of crime fiction.”
On January 5, I posted a review of Ruth Rendell’s novel, The Girl Next Door. I subtitled the piece, “Ruth Rendell at the summit of her powers.” Shortly thereafter came the news that the author had suffered a severe stroke. Then there was no news. Then came the news that we’d all been dreading.
Here’s what I wrote on the extremely sad occasion of losing Ruth Rendell.
I felt an immediate need to read or to reread one of her works. Among the works recommended by The Guardian in Ruth Rendell: Five Key Works is a standalone from 2001 entitled Adam and Eve and Pinch Me. I picked that one and was enthralled. Ah, the old magic….
There will be a final book to be released here in December, a standalone entitled Dark Corners. One is saddened but all the same grateful.
This past Tuesday evening, as my contribution to the ‘international year’ of the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group, I chose to present Temporary Perfections, the fourth entry in Gianrico Carofiglio’s Guido Guerrrieri series.
I began by passing around two maps of Italy. The first shows the twenty regions of which the country is comprised; the second gives the precise location of Bari, the city in which Guido lives and has his law practice.
Next, I recommended Jane Kramer’s recent New Yorker profile of Italy’s new young and dynamic prime minister, Matteo Renzi. Having begun public life as mayor of Florence, Renzi declares:
It has to be said that Merkel flew home to Berlin looking uncommonly reassured that Italy wasn’t Greece.
Next, we zeroed in on Bari, where most of the novel’s key events transpire.
Bari is the capital city of Apulia (or Puglia), the region which encompasses the boot heel of the Italian land mass. (See the maps above.):
Until recently, the southern region of Apulia was often dismissed as the run-down heel of Italy, an undeveloped Spanish-Greek-Italian coastal crossroads of parched landscapes and poverty, its glorious food, wine and architecture known only to hardy adventurers. But under the leadership since 2005 of its charismatic, gay, Berlusconi-busting governor, Nichi Vendola, Apulia has emerged as an attractive, solar-energy-driven destination of choice for green businesses, music festivals and tourism. It even has its own Mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita – smaller than the organised crime outfits of its southern neighbours Sicily and Naples, but lethal nonetheless. And, for nearly a decade Apulia has had its own celebrity crime writer, Gianrico Carofiglio.
From a review of Temporary Perfections written by Rosie Goldsmith and appearing in The New Statesman
A trullo plays an important part in the novel. Trulli are quaint little structures formerly used as storehouses or shelters for farm laborers. They are unique to the region of Apulia. (Those located in the town of Alborabello have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.)
Before getting to our novel, I wanted to address briefly the subject of Italian crime fiction. In a 2009 article in Italica Magazine, Nicoletta Di Ciolla comments on the proliferation of Italian mysteries currently being written in the noir idiom:
The increasing success enjoyed in Italy by the noir genre–evidenced by a variety of indicators including volume of sales, permanence in the best–(and long–) sellers lists, creation of specialised series and/or publishing houses–has been accompanied over the past decade by a concomitant singular phenomenon: the emergence of a new category of writer that could be named ‘the law professional turned noir practitioner’. Senior police officers (Giuttari, Matrone, Di Cara), judges (Cannevale, De Cataldo, Cacopardo, Mannuzzu, Carofiglio, Von Borries) and lawyers (Filasto), whilst fully engaged in the exercise of their principal activities as custodians and upholders of the law, have also become the newest breed of Italian noir authors…. Their novels, often making use of the array of statutory genre conventions that typically include crime(s) and investigation(s), are however different from most, or perceived by readers as such, because of the position of authority from which their discourses are uttered. The “passionate and large public” that, according to Carlo Lucarelli, finds in some writers accurate interpreters of the social dynamics of contemporary Italy, will trust in the knowledge and vision of authors who experience and navigate the dysfunctions of the system in their working life and trust them to shed light on–if not to make sense of–the inconsistencies of Italian society.
Carofiglio has a short – very short – story in the collection entitled Rome Noir. This volume is a good place to go if you’re searching for other Italian crime writers. (The Akashic Noir series spotlights numerous locales, with more to come.)
Carol recently pointed out to me that there’s a piece in the Spring/Summer issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine entitled “Mediterranean Nouveau-Noir.” Nancy-Stephanie Stone begins her article with this observation: “There’s an evolving area of European crime fiction known as Mediterranean Noir that may challenge the Nordic hold on mystery readers.”
She goes on to discuss such French writers as Jean-Claude Izzo, Patrick Manchette, and Pierre Lemaitre. Among the Italians are Maurizio De Giovanni and Massimo Carlotto. (Although I’ve glanced through a couple of titles by Manchette, Izzo, and De Giovanni, I’ve not yet read any of the aforementioned authors.)
At the conclusion, Stone offers this comment:
These French and Italian crime stories present pictures at odds with the Air France and Alitalia travel posters that introduced and enticed visitors to the Mediterranean.
My guess is, that’s probably an understatement.
On Tuesday evening, I recommended an article in an October 2013 issue of Library Journal entitled “Crime Italian Style.” Author David Keymer offers up lengthy annotations of eight novels of crime in Italy – titles which he deems “first-rate.” (One of his selections is a book that I loved: The Silence of the Wave by Gianrico Carofigio.
And speaking of Carofiglio: he was born in Bari in 1961. He was a lawyer and judge before starting a career as a novelist. For a period in the 1990s, he specialized in the prosecution of members of Mafia. This was not an undertaking for the faint of heart:
I had some difficult years. Between 1993 and 1998, I went around with an armed escort, in an armored car, because in those days I was involved with some very dangerous criminal organizations.
[From a 2005 interview with Bloomberg News]
Carofiglio notes that he and others achieved some notable successes during that time, bringing a number of significant malefactors to justice. He adds: “Today, Mafia organizations exist, are dangerous and operational, but, fortunately, they’ve abandoned the frontal clash (with the state), and this reduces the risk for magistrates and policemen who work on these things.”
Gianrico Carofiglio is currently serving in Italy’s senate. He is married and has two children. (If one of his goals is to keep his private life private, I’d say he’s doing an excellent job.)
In addition to the Guido Guerrieri series, Gianrico Carofiglio has wriiten two standalones, The Silence of the Waves, mentioned above, and The Past Is Another Country. He has also collaborated with his brother Francesco on a work entitled La Casa Nel Bosco (The House in the Woods).
The Guido Guerrieri series currently consists of five novels. I only recently discovered that a fifth novel, The Rule of Balance, has already been published in Italy. It came out in November of last year; as of this writing, it has not appeared here and may not yet have been translated into English.
We began our discussion of Temporary Perfections with an assessment of the narrator and protagonist, Guido Guerrrieri. His tendency toward self-deprecation was duly noted by us – first positively, then not so much. Genie and Frank felt it wore thin after a while; I believe others agreed with them. Oddly enough, I did too. It was only one of the several ways in which I felt somewhat let down by the experience of rereading this novel. (In my notes, I wrote that after a while, all that self-abasement began to seem perversely like a kind of reverse egotism.)
Guerrieri’s sense of humor did garner some well deserved praise. And we all appreciated Carofiglio’s sensitive, compassionate portrayal of Antonio Ferraro, a man driven to the extremity of grief and anxiety over his daughter Manuela’s disappearance. This is what goes through Guerrieri’s mind as he sits face to face with this person:
As I looked at him, the words of an old song…floated into my mind: “Do you by any chance know a girl from Rome whose face looks like a collapsing dam?” The face of Signore Ferraro, furniture salesman and desperate father, looked like a collapsing dam.
Guerrieri has been asked by his friend Sabino Fornelli to assist in the search for Manuela. He demurs at first. He is, after all, an attorney and not trained in investigative techniques. But absent some kind of definitive breakthrough, the police are preparing to close the case. The Ferraros and Fornelli see Guido as their last hope. Reluctantly, he agrees to provide whatever assistance he can in the quest for the missing young woman.
I think that despite his tendency to indulge in long bouts of nostalgia, plus certain other reservations, generally speaking the character of Guido Guerrieri found favor with this group of readers. That is, until Caterina Pontrandolfi enters the mix. She’s one of Manuela’s closest friends. Among others, Guido will need to interview her in order to move his investigation forward.
I’m tempted to refer to Caterina as a “beautiful seductress.” Certainly she knows how to use her endowments most effectively. She proceeds to manipulate Guido, using the oldest tricks in the book. Eventually, almost inevitably, he succumbs, all the while berating himself for doing so. (Among other things, he’s old enough to be her father.)
As this aspect of the plot unfolds, Guido sacrifices in some measure the reader’s good will. At least, this was the reaction I detected on the part of our group. (In some cases, ‘detecting’ was not needed. Pauline was clear about her growing aversion to both characters.) In her review of this novel, the author of the blog Petrona voices the same reservations.
I asked how people felt about the novel’s plot. Frank zeroed in on a plot point involving a cell phone in which the author had not played fair with the reader. I agreed with him; I had not picked up on that. Unfortunately, I can’t recall any other specifics of that part of the discussion – I think my brain was getting tired by then – but I will say that for myself, I found the plot singularly weak, insufficiently inventive, and lacking in momentum. In addition, it meandered in and out of focus, partly due to the aforementioned digressions supplied by Guido himself.
This assessment stands in rather stark contrast to my initial reaction to the novel when I first reviewed it in 2011. What accounts for this change? It’s hard to say. Marge and I agree, though, that in regard to books we select for discussion, this change of perception occurs from time to time.
This is not to say I’m dismissing Temporary Perfections out of hand. There were still aspects of the book that I appreciated the second time around. I enjoyed the literary references with which Carofiglio salts his narrative. Auguste Dupin appears, as does Sherlock Holmes. And there’s this lovely homage to memory, and to Proust:
It’s not like memories dissolve and disappear. They’re all still there, hidden under a thin crust of consciousness. Even the memories we thought we’d lost forever. Sometimes they remain under the surface for an entire lifetime. Other times, something happens that makes them reappear.
A madeleine dipped in tea, or a huge dog with melancholy eyes that offers you his throat to be stroked, for example.
I’ve by no means covered our entire discussion, or indeed everything I have to say about the book. I am, however, running out of steam, so I’d like to sign off shortly. But, speaking of memory, I’m just now recalling that someone said toward the end that her view of the novel had changed as a result of our discussion. Not surprising, given what terrific talkers and thinkers the Suspects are.
Next up for our group is another volume with much to say about the workings of memory: Suspended Sentences, a beautiful and poignant collection of three novellas written by Patrick Modiano of France, winner of last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Genie will be the presenter.
I’ve gotten caught up in the excitement and enthusiasm that’s been generated by Bodies from the Library, a recent conference held at the British Library.
British Library Crime Classics is a publishing initiative that in a short time has achieved remarkable popularity in Britain.
[Click to enlarge]
Building on this success, the British Library decided to hold a conference on mystery fiction of the Golden Age; i.e., the period in the early twentieth century that fell between the two world wars.
(Lively on the spot coverage of this event may be found at Past Offences.)
Speakers included Simon Brett, Martin Edwards, Dr. John Curran, and Jake Kerridge. Kerridge writes wonderfully entertaining and insightful reviews of crime fiction titles. I especially appreciated his recent piece in the Telegraph on Ruth Rendell, entitled “The Most Astonishing Imagination in British Crime Fiction.”. In an article from 2008 with the rather piquant title of “Efficient Mystery with Light Emotional Wallowing,” Kerridge offers the following observation concerning Scandinavian crime fiction: “The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die….”
This past May saw the publication of The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards. Subtitled “The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story,” this engaging volume (which I’ve just begun reading) tells the story of The Detection Club and its founders – some famous, others not so much.
Edwards serves as consultant for the British Library Classic Crimes series. I’ve just read an entry in that series that I thoroughly enjoyed: J. Jefferson Farjeon, whose name was hitherto completely unknown to me, was an extraordinarily prolific writer. Of course, this does not mean that all his oeuvre is of the same high quality, but judging solely by Mystery in White, I know I’d like to read more.
By herself again, Jessie lay back on her pillow for awhile and stared at the canopy of faded pink above her. She had never lain in a four-poster bed before, and she found the sensation rather singular. At first it was pleasant. She felt herself sinking back into an easy, amiable past, where the fight for bread-and- butter— often so sordid a fight— did not exist. The snow dissolved with the years. Outside was sunny country; inside, slow movement, and ease. Then, gradually, the ease departed, and a strange fear began to invade her. She put it down to natural oppressions— her slightly aching foot, the strain she had been through, worry about her lost chance of an engagement and the difficulty of finding another, and the grunting and occasional coughing of the objectionable man in the adjoining room. None of these causes, however, seemed to fit her new mood. It was a fear to which she could not adjust any coherent cause. It grew until it gave her a definite pain in her stomach. She sat up suddenly, in the grip of a nameless, apprehensive terror. She felt as though the walls and the bed-posts were pressing upon her….
“What’s the matter with you?” she gasped, struggling to regain her normality. “Aren’t you a little idiot?”
Excerpt from Mystery in White
I’m currently reading a story collection (selected by Martin Edwards) entitled Resorting to Murder. I’m slightly more than half way through and having, as I anticipated, an excellent time. The book starts off with a Sherlock Holmes tale, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” which is set in Cornwall. It’s funny how, after an absence from the Holmes canon, you can return to the stories and once again be awash in admiration of Conan Doyle’s superb narrative skills, not to mention his graceful prose style:
On the land side our surroundings were as sombre as on the sea. It was a country of rolling moors, lonely and dun-coloured, with an occasional church tower to mark the site of some old-world village. In every direction upon these moors there were traces of some vanished race which had passed utterly away, and left as its sole record strange monuments of stone, irregular mounds which contained the burned ashes of the dead, and curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife. The glamour and mystery of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations, appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor.
Excerpt from “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.”
From time to time, Carol of our Suspects discussion group forwards to us a grouping of four or five capsule reviews nicely observed and written by one who styles herself “LJ.” (I always think of her as ‘Ms Library Journal,’ having lived with those initials so regularly at the Central Branch.) LJ begins her reviews by quoting the first sentence of the work under consideration, then ends by giving the work a grade of sorts: Excellent, Very Good, etc. I’d like to borrow her method in rating the other stories I’ve read so far in Resorting to Murder, with the slight alteration of using the traditional academic grading system. (Needless to say but I’ll say it anyway: I’d give the Sherlock Holmes story an A plus.)
So, to begin:
“A Schoolmaster Abroad” by E.W. Hornung.
It is a small world that flocks to Switzerland for the Christmas holidays.
As Martin Edwards explains in his header notes, “Dollar sees himself as a crime doctor, someone whose mission is to prevent crime by treating prospective criminals by ‘saving ’em from themselves while they’re still worth saving’.”
I’d give this story a B: mildly entertaining without being especially enthralling. Interestingly, E.W. Hornung was Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law; he is best known for his stories featuring Raffles, the ‘amateur cracksman.”
“Murder!” by Arnold Bennett
Instead of just the first sentence, I’d like to quote the entire first paragraph:
Many great ones of the earth have justified murder as a social act, defensible and even laudable in certain instances. There is something to be said for murder, though perhaps not much. All of us, or nearly all of us, have at one time or another had the desire and the impulse to commit murder. At any rate, murder is not an uncommon affair. On an average, two people are murdered every week in England, and probably about two hundred every week in the United States. And forty per cent of the murderers are not brought to justice. These figures take no account of the undoubtedly numerous cases where murder has been done but never suspected. Murders and murderesses walk safely abroad among us, and it may happen to us to shake hands with them. A disturbing thought! But such is life, and such is homicide.
A tight, compelling little tale, driven by a urgent passion and exceptionally well written. I’d give it an A. I intend to seek out more works by this author. Martin Edwards tells us that although Arnold Bennett achieved distinction in his own time, his fame ebbed quickly after his death in 1931. This was possibly due in part to a ‘literary feud’ with Virginia Woolf. Based on this story, I’d say he is due for rediscovery. Time for a swing of the literary pendulum!
“The Murder on the Golf Links” by M. McDonnell Bodkin
‘Don’t go in, don’t! don’t! please don’t!’
The disobedient ball, regardless of her entreaties, crept slowly up the smooth green slope, paused irresolute on the ridge, and then trickled softly down into the hole; a wonderful ‘put.’
This opener typifies the irreverent tone of this thoroughly enjoyable story. Paul Beck is the detective protagonist, but for my money the lovely Mag Hazel, golfer extraordinaire, steals the show. And I love this eloquent statement regarding her father’s feelings for her:
Colonel Hazel’s sallow cheek flushed with delight, for he loved his daughter with a love that was the best part of his life.
“The Murder on the Golf Links” lacks the gravitas of the Arnold Bennett story, but I was delighted with it anyhow. I’m giving it an A minus.
“The Finger of Stone” G.K. Chesterton
Three young men on a walking-tour came to a halt outside the little town of Carillon, in the south of France; which is doubtless described in the guide books as famous for its fine old Byzantine monastery, now the seat of a university; and for having been the scene of the labours of Boyg.
I know that Chesterton is a revered figure in both literary and religious circles – goodness, his sanctification has recently been proposed! – but I’ve always found his prose rather rough going. This is a good story, though; long on atmosphere if a bit abstruse regarding plot – I had trouble getting a handle on who this Boyg person and what was the nature of his significance – beside his disappearance.
This is not a Father Brown story, though there is a tale from that body of work that I cherish. It’s called “The Oracle of the Dog.”
I’d give “The Finger of Stone” a B plus.
“The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser” by Basil Thomson
This is exactly the kind of story I love, where reality seems to bend into an entirely different shape before the very eyes of a completely rational actor. Sort of a locked room puzzle kicked up several notches. I loved it!
On a par with the Conan Doyle story; hence, it too gets an A plus.
“A Mystery of the Sand-Hills” by R. Austin Freeman
Doctor John Thorndyke is a fairly well known protagonist to Golden Age aficionados. Martin Edwards observes that Dr. Thorndyke resembles Sherlock Holmes in some particulars but is lacking in the latter’s charisma. I would agree with that assessment. Edwards adds this, however: “But what he lacked in literary flair, he made up for with meticulous craftsmanship, and his admirers included T. S. Eliot and Raymond Chandler.”
Here’s how the story opens:
I have occasionally wondered how often Mystery and Romance present themselves to us ordinary men of affairs only to be passed by without recognition. More often, I suspect, than most of us imagine. The uncanny tendency of my talented friend John Thorndyke to become involved in strange, mysterious and abnormal circumstances has almost become a joke against him. But yet, on reflection, I am disposed to think that his experiences have not differed essentially from those of other men, but that his extraordinary powers of observation and rapid inference have enabled him to detect abnormal elements in what, to ordinary men, appeared to be quite commonplace occurrences.
We’re at the port city of Sandwich, in Kent. A pile of clothing is found on the rocks at water’s edge. The identity of the owner of the abandoned habiliments is ascertained, yet he himself is nowhere to be found. It’s quite a good yarn, with a twist at the end that I didn’t anticipate. Still, I kept wishing I would encounter just a hint of that sly irony that makes the Conan Doyle stories such a pleasurable read.
You’ll note in the above quoted passage the phrase “my talented friend John Thorndyke.” Yes, here we encounter yet another ‘Watson,’ this one named Christopher Jervis. And like Watson, Jervis serves as narrator of the tale and assistant to his preternaturally gifted companion.
For me, this story lingers somewhere between a B plus and an A minus.
“The Hazel Ice” by H.C. Bailey
Set in the Alps, this is a somewhat convoluted tale of a two mountaineers caught in a rock slide. One of them, injured but still mobile, returns to their hotel; his companion, however, has disappeared. A multiplicity of characters becomes involved in the mystery.
Sprightly writing and a nicely conveyed sense of place made this one an enjoyable read. Grade: B plus.
“The Razor Edge” by Anthony Berkeley
Yet another situation involving mistaken and concealed identity, this is also a case in which the police benefit greatly from the acumen of amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham. Anthony Berkeley is best known as one of the founding members of The Detection Club.
This is an ingenious tale, well told and engrossing. A minus.
Well, as you can plainly see, I’m enjoying this anthology a great deal. I’ve four stories remaining; then it’s on to Capital Crimes, seventeen stories set in London and once again selected by Martin Edwards.
Biographical and literary information about the Golden Age writers can be found at gadetection.
Meanwhile, the Bodies from the Library conference has come out with a terrific list of Suggested Reading. This is both wonderful news and dismaying, because one realizes (deep sigh) how much great material is out there, begging to be read….still….
In his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name, Martin Edwards has been steadily laboring in the cause of bringing Forgotten Books to the attention of crime fiction enthusiasts. To these efforts, he has now added his work with the British Library on their Crime Classics series and his newly published history of The Detection Club and its quirky, brilliant founders.
Add to all this his fine body of work as a writer of crime fiction. I’ve been enjoying The Lake District Series since The Coffin Trail, the debut volume, came out in 2004. (The Dungeon House, the eagerly awaited seventh series entry, is due out in September.)
In the course of my few brief encounters with the British community of crime writers, I’ve been deeply impressed by the kindness and generosity they display toward one another and toward their readers. In addition to his erudition and creativity, Martin Edwards likewise exemplifies these qualities. And so it is small wonder that he has been chosen to be the next president of The Detection Club. This honor places him in some distinctly select company:
G.K. Chesterton 1930-36
E. C. Bentley 1936-49
Dorothy L. Sayers 1949-57
Agatha Christie 1957-76
Lord Gorell 1957-63 (as co-President, because Christie disliked public speaking)
Julian Symons 1976-85
H.R.F. Keating 1985-2000
Simon Brett 2000 to date
Congratulations, Martin – well done!