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.