Recently the Usual Suspects enjoyed a discussion of The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin. Set in Istanbul in the early 1800s, this book is by turns exotic and obscure. Mostly it’s just plain fun, so long as you don’t let yourself get tied up in knots over the plot.
I say this because the plot was truly…well, Byzantine.
But despite the challenging story line, we felt that the novel possessed many enjoyable qualities, not the least of these being its engaging protagonist, Investigator Yashim. Here is how Goodwin introduced us to him in the first chapter:
Yashim knew that it hardly mattered what he wore. He was a tall, well-built man in his late thirties, with a thick mop of black curls, a few white hairs, no beard, but a curly black mustache. He had the high cheekbones of the Turks, and the slanting gray eyes of a people who had lived on the great Eurasian steppe for thousands of years. In European trousers, perhaps, he would be noticeable, but in a brown cloak— no. Nobody noticed him very much. That was his special talent, if it was a talent at all. More likely, as the marquise had been saying, it was a condition of mind. A condition of the body.
Intriguing, and beautifully expressed, right? But wait – there’s more:
Yashim had many things— innate charm, a gift for languages, and the ability to open those gray eyes suddenly wide. Both men and women had found themselves strangely hypnotized by his voice, before they had even noticed who was speaking. But he lacked balls.
Not in the vulgar sense: Yashim was reasonably brave.
But he was that creature rare even in nineteenth-century Istanbul.
Yashim was a eunuch.
Over the years, in the course of my compulsive reading of crime fiction, I’ve encountered many different kinds of detectives. This, for me, was a first. But I found, as I got deeper into the novel, that Yashim’s other laudable qualities shone forth. He is indeed brave, also resourceful and perceptive. But he harbors an inward bitterness, which one suspects has its origin in the life-altering thing that was done to him, and could not be undone.
Yashim manages to stay astride the wild horse that is this novel’s plot. I admit, I was at a loss much of the time, due to its complexity. In addition, the cast of characters was large; I had trouble remembering exactly who they were and what function they served in the story. So yes, at times my interest flagged. But Goodwin’s marvelous descriptions and set pieces inevitably brought me back into the action.
Next up for the Suspects is A Possibility of Violence by D.A. Mishani. Set in present day Israel, this police procedural features Inspector Avraham Avraham. One reads on, thoroughly absorbed, as several parallel story lines run their respective courses, erratically and unpredictably, until they inevitably converge.
I finished it last week and all I can say is, I was riveted. This is the best mystery I’ve read this year for the Suspects – the best mystery I’ve read in a long time period.
During our discussion of The Janissary Tree, the question arose (posed by Frank?) as to whether, in the annals of crime fiction, there exists such a thing as a protagonist who is at the same time an action hero – think James Bond – and an introspective individual – think Adam Dalgliesh or Reg Wexford. I personally think it would be hard to cram all that into a single personality. But with Avraham Avraham, D.A. Mishani comes close. Avraham also exemplifies the “secret sorrow” paradigm which Marge and I have noted as a characteristic of quite a few fictional policeman. It’s not so much that the source of the grief is hidden, but rather that it is of a deep and personal nature.
This description does not apply to Peter Diamond, even though in Diamond Dust (2002), he does suffer a devastating loss. Diamond Dust was the seventh entry in Peter Lovesey’s outstanding series. The Amazon.com review of this novel describes Peter Diamond as “combative and curmudgeonly.” It’s a persona that helps him to evade introspection and to generally keep “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” from wounding him too deeply.
At any rate, he’s certainly his old curmudgeonly self in Down Among the Dead Men, the latest series entry. His mood is not helped by the fact that he’s assigned to an internal affairs investigation in the neighboring jurisdiction of Sussex. Worse, he’ll be accompanying the Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore. To say that she’s a woman whose company Diamond does not particularly enjoy is to put it mildly indeed.
As usual, I loved this book from beginning to end. It’s elegantly written, meticulously plotted, and very witty. And Lovesey writes delightful dialog, like this exchange between Diamond and Henrietta Mallin, a policewoman he’s long known and admired:
How’s your head now?” she asked him. “Jesus Christ, you’re looking groggy again. Don’t you think we should call it a day and get you back to the hotel?”
“I’m better than I look.” He was lying, but so what?
“Men have been saying that to me all my adult life and it just ain’t true.”
Meanwhile, I’ve been happily traversing the world of British Golden Age crime writing, courtesy of the British Library Crime Classics series and the expert guidance of Martin Edwards. Here’s what Ive read and enjoyed so far in the British Library series:
I’ve almost finished this one , but I confess I’ve been dragging my feet because I don’t want it to end. Like Resorting To Murder (above), Capital Crimes is a story collection edited by Martin Edwards. The stories range from mildly entertaining to outstanding. There’s one that is completely unique, however. It has been placed right at the beginning of the book, and I’m not sure it should’ve been. It’s a shocker written by, of all people, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is not a Sherlock Holmes tale. I think it is more a horror story than a mystery. You can judge for yourself, if you dare. The full text is available online; it is called “The Case of Lady Sannox.”
Another much less unsettling story included in Capital Crimes is “Wind in the East” by Henry Wade. It’s a cunningly wrought little tale. I just finished Mist on the Saltings, a full length novel by this same author. It comes warmly recommended by Martin Edwards, and I can see why. Its atmospheric setting on the East Anglian seacoast, characters both ordinary and enigmatic caught up in a web of lies, deceit, and conflicting passions – all contribute to the making of a first rate crime novel.
Originally published in 1933, Mist on the Saltings is somewhat dated in regard to the condescending comments about women lobbed from time to time like small but stinging missiles into the midst of the narrative. One wishes Wade had refrained from doing this, but for me, these passages, while irritating, constitute the novel’s sole flaw. I find them easier to push aside than the genteel anti-Semitism one occasionally encounters in the fiction of this period.
I loved this book’s title from the first I heard of it, without knowing what the “Saltings” were. Here is Wade’s description of the setting of the setting of his novel:
Bryde-by-the-Sea, though nominally a harbour, lies nearly a mile back from the ocean which surges invisibly against the line of low sand dunes limiting the northern horizon. In between lies a wide expanse of weed-grown mud, intersected by a maze of channels which at high tide are full to the brim of salt water and at low are mere trenches of black and treacherous ooze. These are the Saltings; the home of a hundred varieties of sea-birds, of countless sea-plants, of insects, reptiles, fishes, animals–according to the state of the tides and the time of year; at one time a silvery dazzle of southernwood, at another green with samphire, at another brown with sea-churned mud, and sometimes–at the highest of the ‘springs’–completely submerged under the smooth, swirling waters of the flowing tide.
Wade ends with this observation:
Dreary and desolate though they are, the Saltings have for those who love them a fascination which no written word can describe, a beauty which defies the most skillful brush.
(The brush is a reference to artist John Pansel, who has come with his wife Hilary to Bryde-by-the-Sea to paint, and to recover from the lingering trauma of his service in the First World War.)
As you have probably already surmised, this singular landscape is a crucial component of the strange and tragic story that unfolds in Mist on the Saltings.
Here’s an interesting sideline: When I looked up Henry Wade on Wikipedia, I was startled by this image: There was a good deal of pseudonymous authorship during England’s Golden Age of crime writing. “Henry Wade” was the pen name of Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet.
Meantime, on this side of the Atlantic, crime fiction readers have new reason to rejoice with the release of a two volume boxed set from the Library of America entitled Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s. Here’s the breakdown:
Laura by Vera Caspary
The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding
Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong
The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith
Beast in View by Margaret Millar
Fool’s Gold by Dolores Hitchens
This careful selection, made by editor Sarah Weinman, is winning plaudits from readers and critics alike. In his write-up in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout says of the chosen novels that “…they are all exceptionally fine, as much so as any of the crime novels written by men that were published in this country in the 1940s and 1950s.” Here’s how Teachout concludes his review:
I cannot praise Ms Weinman enough for having collected [these novels] in a single boxed set and for having annotated them with such discreet skill. She has chosen wisely and well–enough so to make me long for a sequel.
In her newsletter The Crime Lady #037, dated September 2, Sarah Weinman exults: “At last, at last, Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, is out in the world.” (She also provides a link to the companion website.) You get the sense that this is the culmination of a labor of considerable duration. Well, she can be proud, and we can be grateful. I can’t wait to dive in to these books!
(If you go to Sarah Weinman’s website, you can find instructions for subscribing to The Crime Lady. I recommend this newsletter highly. It’s chock full of news about crime fiction and true crime; in addition, Weinman provides terrific links and reading and viewing recommendations.)
At this point, I feel as though the work being done by such expert curators as Martin Edwards and Sarah Weinman is opening up new and intriguing vistas of reading for all of us. It is almost as though we’re entering a Golden Age of Looking Back.