Sometimes it pays to take a deep breath and attack an unruly pile of papers. I did this the other day, and while the vast majority of items ended up in recycling, a few gems did rise to the surface.
First find: this piece from the Sunday New York Times Magazine dated August 20 2015 on the rise of Europa Editions. Originating in Italy, this publishing enterprise puts out books with a distinctive look and feel; their list features lesser known international authors that are worthy of the attention of discerning readers.
Europa has scored a coup with Elena Ferrante’s wildly popular Neapolitan novels. I’m waiting for my reserve on My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the series. I’m currently number sixteen out of sixty-eight names on the list. I have read, and do recommend, the Jane Gardam titles, Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat (see above). These novels seem to me quintessentially English; moreover,Gardam’s a unique and mercurial prose style had me hooked from the get-go.
Second find: Laura Miller on Don Winslow’s The Cartel. This piece, which appeared in The New Yorker last summer, is in my view the high water mark of the reviewer’s art. It’s incisive, beautifully written, and bolstered by the author’s deep knowledge of crime fiction. (I’ve long enjoyed her writing in Salon.com’s book sections.) And the novel? Well, she makes you want to read it – that is, if you don’t scare too easily. This I have not yet done (either read or scare). I have read Winslow’s Savages, though. ‘Twas a memorable experience! Like James Ellroy, Winslow can be rough and uncompromising; his prose is less mannered than Ellroy’s.
I liked this observation by Laura Miller:
Most crime novelists, especially those reaching for a momentous effect, are obliged to turbocharge their villains. The perpetrator of the locked-room mystery is supernaturally ingenious, the serial killer far more baroquely sadistic than his real-life counterparts, the Mob boss too comprehensively powerful to be believed.
She goes on to say that “Mexico’s criminal cartels have never presented such a problem to Don Winslow, who has written two extensively researched sagas about the war on drugs: “The Power of the Dog,” in 2006, and now “The Cartel” (Knopf).”
Third find: “Easy Writers” by Arthur Krystal, an article featured in a May 2012 issue of The New Yorker. (What can I say – this was a very deep pile, deep and sprawling.) Here we have yet another foray into the (seemingly endless) controversy over whether readers of genre fiction, and in particular of crime fiction, are getting any “literary” nourishment or are merely slumming. Krystal leaps fearlessly into the subject matter with both feet and obviously has great fun doing so. That enjoyment is liberally communicated to the reader. (The article is subtitled “Guilty pleasures without guilt.”)
Here’s how Krystal starts out:
When Matthew Arnold keeled over, in April, 1888, while hurrying to catch the Liverpool tram, Walt Whitman managed to contain his grief. “He will not be missed,” Whitman told a friend. Arnold reaffirmed all that was “rich, hefted, lousy, reeking with delicacy, refinement, elegance, prettiness, propriety, criticism, analysis.” He was, in short, “one of the dudes of literature.” Whitman probably figured that his own gnarly hirsuteness would save him from becoming a dude. He was wrong, and therein lies a lesson for all hardworking scribblers: stick around long enough, develop a cult following, gain the approval of one or two literary dudes (in Whitman’s case: Henry James, Ezra Pound, and F. O. Matthiessen), and you, too, can become respectable.
This insouciant tone prevails throughout the piece and bestows great pleasure on the reader – or, it did on this reader, at any rate.
Here are some of the works and authors that receive mention in “Easy Writers:”
The Novel Habits of Happiness is the latest in Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series. It’s not fresh in my mind at this point. I only know that I loved it. McCall Smith’s writing, as always, is precise and lyrical; his wit, gentle. His intellectual world is a place of play and revelation. Most of all, his insight into the human heart – especially into the heart of one woman – continues to amaze me.
She was not sure what she wanted to say about God. She thought that he might be there— embodied somehow in the perfection of the world, or in the sublime harmonies of a great work of music. Of course, if he was anywhere in music, she felt he was in the grave beauty of the motets of John Tavener, or in the more sublime passages of Bach. The architecture of such music was incompatible, Isabel thought, with a world that was meaningless.
“Babar!” demanded Charlie, and snuggled down in his bed, holding his mother’s hand. Isabel felt an overwhelming tenderness. My little boy; this little creature I have created; the person I love more than anything or anybody in this world; who means absolutely everything to me; who provides my answers in the way in which no philosophy, however brilliant, can ever do; mine.
Frequently one reads that Denise Mina is currently one of today’s leading exponents of Tartan Noir. Having recently consumed The Red Road, I can but concur with that sentiment. This is a harrowing roller coaster of a novel. Alongside Detective Sergeant Alex Morrow, one hangs on for dear life! Exceptional writing (especially as regards dialog), cunning (if somewhat Byzantine) plotting, and memorably limned characters combine to make this one outstanding read.
The Red Road is the fourth in the Alex Morrow series. The fifth, Blood, Salt, Water, came out last year. I look forward to reading it – after I’ve fastened my seat belt, that is!
After breezing through the first four novels of P.F. Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey series and enjoying them, albeit in varying degree, I regret to report that the fifth, A Murder of Crows, was disappointing. The London setting does little to enhance the plot, and the story itself was so convoluted that by the time I was about two thirds of the way through the book, I was hopelessly confused. But the most dismaying development in the novel was the gradual disappearance of Sir Robert Carey from the action. I like his second-in-command, Sergeant Henry Dodd, well enough, but for me, Sir Robert is the guiding star of this series. I missed him sorely.
Now this should by no means discourage you from reading the stellar first entry in this series. A Famine of Horses is one of the most original and entertaining historical novels I’ve ever read. Chisholm brings the Anglo-Scottish Border country vividly to life. The action takes place in the 16th century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. In her introduction to the novel, P.F Chisholm (the nom de plume of noted historical fiction writer Patricia Finney) describes the conditions that prevailed at the time:
The Anglo-Scottish Border at that time made Dodge City look like a health farm. It was the most chaotic part of the kingdom and was full of cattle-rustlers, murderers, arsonists, horse-thieves, kidnappers and general all-purpose outlaws. This was where they invented the word “gang”— or the men “ye gang oot wi’ “— and also the word “blackmail” which then simply meant protection money.
Sound like fun? Is it ever. It was the closest thing to a sort of cheerful, robust lawlessness that you can imagine. The austere stateliness and discipline of the Queen’s court – where Sir Robert had previously served Her Majesty – was so remote that it might as well not exist.
The author was inspired to write this novel by her reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s history of the period, The Steel Bonnets (available as a Kindle download for $9.99). I was only a few pages into Fraser’s book when I encountered a sentence that delighted me:
The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.
The sixth novel in this series came out last year and is called A Chorus of Innocents. Kirkus calls it “One of Chisholm’s best Elizabethan mysteries,” so my hopes are again high for this latest entry.
This past Tuesday, the Usual Suspects enjoyed an exceptionally bracing discussion of Learning To Swim by Sara J. Henry. It had been a while since I’d read this novel, and my recollection of details was somewhat hazy. Not so for the others present – they dove in head first, displaying an abundance of both insight and enthusiasm.
It was clear from the outset that the reaction to this book was overwhelmingly favorable. Learning To Swim opens with a high octane drama that grabs the reader right from the get-go. The setting, actually dual settings, both in the Lake Champlain region – and for a few scarifying moments IN Lake Champlain! – and in Ottawa, contribute to the story’s unique flavor. But I think the elements of this novel that were most intriguing reposed in the character and personality of the main protagonist, Troy Chance.
When we first meet Troy, she is attempting to rescue a child, who, without her intervention, would surely have died. The rescue succeeds – and then the mystery takes over. Who is this boy? How did he come to be in such a harrowing circumstance? All she has been able to glean from him is that his name is Paul, and he speaks French almost exclusively.
As Troy struggles to comprehend the situation, we get to know her better. She’s a free lance journalist, living in a house in Lake Placid, New York with several male renters. Except for a brother who’s a policeman in Florida, she’s not close to her family. She’s not especially close to her (supposed) boyfriend either. But in a very short time, she finds herself becoming deeply attached to little Paul.
Troy’s character and proclivities were a major topic of discussion. To begin with, she endeared herself to me by being named (by her father) after Agatha Troy, the society painter who is the love interest and then wife of Roderick Alleyn, the protagonist featured in Ngaio Marsh’s series of detective novels. Troy observes:
I liked the character I was named after: slim, thoughtful, graceful, a talented painter and a watcher of people.
(Interestingly, Agatha Troy was initially reluctant to enter fully into a relationship with Alleyn. It took the traumatic events of Death in a White Tie – a novel I love – to make her finally willing to commit to him.)
We mainly had a positive view of Troy. However, Frank dissented from that view, and the reasons for that dissent were interesting. As I understood it, he felt that in the depiction of Troy, Sara J. Henry failed to make her character sufficiently womanly. At first, he averred, he felt uncertain even as to whether she was male or female. He attributed this impression partly to her lack of strong commitment to, and feelings for, her friends and family. She seemed to him like a person floating through life, with no particular aspirations either of a professional or personal nature.
Other group members received this pronouncement with some perplexity. I think that by and large, most of us accepted Troy Chance as a woman, albeit one who is keeping the world at arm’s length. Of course, this stance is suddenly and radically altered by the entry of Paul into her life. Frances suggested that Troy, still young, was in the process of becoming – “learning to swim,” in other words. Moreover, we’re given hints that her upbringing gave cause for wanting to preserve a distance between herself and the world: “…I’ve often wondered if my mother would have liked me better if I had been a Christina or a Sharon or Jennifer.”
Frank also found a number of “plot holes,” points on which he elaborated. We agreed with him about some of these, but not all. My own feeling about the novel is that from the point of view of structure, it’s somewhat problematic.After a highly dramatic opening that provided plenty of momentum, it sagged somewhat in the middle. (I think some of the others agreed with that assessment.) Frank, himself an author, commented that this is a common problem in crime fiction, one that sometimes requires the addition of a sub plot in order to keep things moving.
(At one point, someone asked Frank whether writers necessarily know from the outset how the plots of their novels are going to unfold. He then introduced us to the concept of “plotters and pantsers,” an expression new to me.)
Published in 2011, Learning To Swim is the first in what I assume will be a series featuring Troy Chance. It was a winner of multiple awards:
2011 Agatha Award for Best First Novel
2012 Anthony Award for Best First Novel
2012 Mary Higgins Clark Award
Finalist 2012 Barry Award for Best First Novel
Finalist 2012 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery
(With thanks to the entry on Stop! You’re Killing Me!)
Our presenter for this book discussion was Louise. We owe her thanks for making such a good choice to begin with, and then leading a fine session in which we were allowed to give full vent to our opinions – something we rarely have trouble doing!
The second novel, A Cold and Lonely Place, came out in 2013. I believe that Frances mentioned having already read it.
If you look at the author information provided on Sara J. Henry’s website, you’ll readily perceive that she has quite a bit in common with Troy Chance.
I’ve only touched on certain points in this discussion; it was actually quite wide ranging and lots of fun. Judging by the strength of Learning To Swim, Sara J. Henry has a definitely got something going here. I’d be interested in reading the next in the series.
[As always, comments, corrections, etc. from the Suspects – indeed, from any reader of this blog – are most welcome.]
I’ve written a great deal on true crime in the past year, and it was my intention to stay away from the subject for a while – really! – but I wanted to write about the presentation I made for my AAUW branch this past Saturday. It was entitled “Time for Crime: True and Imagined.” This was a rather outrageous attempt on my part to condense twelve hours of instructional material – assembled for the course I taught last year – into a fifty-minute program of book talks interspersed with other items of interest.
I then spoke of some of the more intriguing aspects of true crime:
1. The influence of actual crimes on crime fiction (see the post Further Adventures in True Crime for more on this.)
2. Crimes that resonate down through the years
3. Writers whose lives have been personally impacted by crime:
4. Murders that have never been solved:
5. The emergence of the subgenre of historical true crime:
Guiteau is a cold, demonic, livid figure. He resembles nothing so much as a wild pig: he has the gleaming eyes, full of hatred, the thick, bristling hair, the same way of charging to the attack, taking fright, running away. It would be impossible to imagine him any uglier than he is–he is a fantastical creature out of the tales of Hoffmann.
included in the Schechter anthology (course text cited above)
American Experience on PBS recently featured Murder of a President, based on Candice Millard’s book.
Finally, there is the question of why we are fascinated by true crime. Or, as Professor Jean Murley of Queensborough Community College rather plaintively asks: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”
Professor Murley, author of The Rise of True Crime: Twentieth Century Murder and American Popular Culture, offers some interesting insight on this question. I like her simple and forthright summation:
A desire to make sense of the (seemingly) senseless
A desire to illuminate the sordid with beams of truth
After reading briefly from William Bradford’s “The Hanging of John Billington” (1651), I proceeded to Celia Thaxter and “A Memorable Murder.” I was amazed never to have heard of this terrible crime, the murder of two innocent young women, part of a group of five Norwegian immigrants living on Smuttynose Island, one of The Isles of Shoals, a group of islands located off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. In 1873, when the Smuttynose murders occurred, Celia Thaxter was living on nearby Appledore Island. She knew the victims, as well as the alleged perpetrator, Louis Wagner. Here she depicts him making his way to Smuttynose from the mainland:
A terrible piece of rowing must that have been, in one night! Twelve miles from the city to the Shoals,– three to the light-houses, where the river meets the open sea, nine more to the islands; nine back again to Newcastle next morning! He took that boat, and with the favoring tide dropped down the rapid river where the swift current is so strong that oars are scarcely needed, except to keep the boat steady. Truly all nature seemed to play into his hands; this first relenting night of earliest spring favored him with its stillness, the tide was fair, the wind was fair, the little moon gave him just enough light, without betraying him to any curious eyes, as he glided down the three miles between the river banks, in haste to reach the sea. Doubtless the light west wind played about him as delicately as if he had been the most human of God’s creatures; nothing breathed remonstrance in his ear, nothing whispered in the whispering water that rippled about his inexorable keel, steering straight for the Shoals through the quiet darkness.
I also wanted to cover the murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette – again alleged, but almost certainly he was the cause of her death, as they were out rowing on a lonely lake in upstate New York in 1906. (More rowing, strangely – at this point, I am thinking of the poetry collection by Anne Sexton entitled The Awful Rowing Toward God. Alas – as Celia Thaxter would say – these rowings were going in a quite different direction.)
Twenty years later, Theodore Dreiser made the murder of Grace Brown the centerpiece of his monumental novel An American Tragedy. As a result of my involvement with this subject, I finally read this book. Although it dragged in some places, and Dreiser’s writing can be exasperating, it was also powerful enough to keep me up at night and in a deep state of dread. I ended up loving it.
This crime is also depicted in a 1951 movie of excruciating tension and uncommon beauty: A Place in the Sun starred an impossibly good looking Montgomery Clift, an equally impossibly beautiful nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters as the hapless victim in this classic love triangle.
An operatic version of An American Tragedy by American composer Tobias Picker was premiered in New York City in 2005:
I wanted to be sure to touch on story of the murder of white physician Clifford LeRoy Adams Jr. by Ruby McCollum, a comfortably off African American housewife. The killing, which took place in Florida in 1952, was covered by Zora Neale Hurston for the Pittsburgh Courier. As fascinating and strange as this case was, I found the life and work of Hurston even more fascinating. Raised in poverty in Florida, she left her family home at the age of fourteen and worked her way north. After a fruitful stop in the Washington area – she attended Morgan Academy, later Morgan State, and Howard University – she made it to New York City.
Encouraged by novelist Fanny Hurst, who had employed her as an assistant, Hurston attended Barnard College on a scholarship. She completed a BA degree in anthropology in 1928. She was 37 years old and had been the only African-American student on campus.
Hurston went on to do some graduate work at Columbia with the distinguished anthropologist Franz Boas. He it was who urged her to return to Florida and collect the folk tales that she’d heard growing up there. Reflecting later on this directive, she wrote:
I was glad when somebody told me, “You may go and collect Negro folklore.” In a way it would not be a new experience for me. When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism. From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top. But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.
Obscure and impoverished, Zora Neale Hurston died in Florida in 1960. Inspired by her example, author Alice Walker made it her mission to resurrect Hurston’s life and work. With some difficulty, she located Zora’s final resting place and caused this headstone to be placed there:
At this point, I was running out of time – and breath! – so I did several rapid fire book talks on titles drawn from this handout which I’d prepared:
POSTWAR CLASSICS OF THE TRUE CRIME GENRE
POSSIBLE FUTURE CLASSICS OF THE GENRE
- DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC: a tale of medicine, madness and the murder of a president, by Candice Millard
- BLOOD ROYAL: a true tale of crime and detection in medieval Paris, by Eric Jager
- THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF: the story of a murder trial, by Helen Garner (Australian)
- GHETTOSIDE: a true story of murder in America, by Jill Leovy
- WITCHES: SALEM, 1692, by Tracy Schiff
- MURDER BY CANDLELIGHT: The Gruesome Crimes Behind Our Romance with the Macabre, by Michael Knox Beran
- MY DARK PLACES: An L.A. Crime Memoir, by James Ellroy
- JUSTICE: Trials, Crimes, and Punishments, by Dominick Dunne
- THE GOOD NURSE: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, by Charles Graeber
- THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK: Murder and the birth of forensic medicine in jazz age New York, by Deborah Blum
- THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF WALWORTH: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America, by Geoffrey O’Brien
- SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER: A shocking murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective, by Kate Summerscale (British)
Nomination for pre-war classic:
GANGS OF NEW YORK: an informal history of the underworld, by Herbert Asbury
As much as Thoreau, [Thomas] De Quincey believed that there is “a chasm between knowledge and ignorance which the arches of science can never span.” The same conclusion was reached by the physicist Max Planck. Having devoted, he said, “his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter,” he concluded that science “cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” The solution to the ultimate mystery of evil is perhaps no less elusive.
Murder by Candlelight, Thomas Knox Beran
‘Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.’
Thomas De Quincey, On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts
[End of handout]
I’m glad I had the chance to talk about James Ellroy’s quest for his mother’s killer. I find Ellroy’s fiction nearly impossible to read – short, staccato sentences and lots of profanity – but My Dark Places was extremely poignant and moving.
An apostrophe to his mother prefaces this memoir:
A cheap Saturday night took you down. You dies stupidly and harshly and without the means to hold your own life dear.
Your run to safety was a brief reprieve. You brought me into hiding as your good-luck charm. I failed you as a talisman–so I stand now as your witness.
Your death defines my life. I want to find the love we never had and explicate it in your name.
I want to take your secrets public. I want to burn down the distance between us.
I want to give you breath.
This combined power of anguish and rage is also present – very much so – in the first piece in Dominick Dunne’s collection. The title says it all: Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of His Daughter’s Killer.
When you have read this, you will know that the word “Justice” fairly drips with a kind of savage irony.
I had every intention of extolling the virtues of Thomas Thompson’s terrific Blood and Money. I didn’t get to it then, but you can read about it, and much else besides, in a post entitled A great deal of work with abundant rewards: the True Crime class concludes.
Finally, I said a few words on the vast subject of crime fiction. I wanted to make everyone aware of the delightful new series British Library Crime Classics. I’ve already read several of these reissues. While they’re not all uniformly engaging, there are some that are veritable treasures. My favorites so far:
Then I said a few words in praise of the late and very much lamented Ruth Rendell. My favorites: they are too great in number to enumerate here. But I will say this: A Fatal Inversion, published in 1987 under Rendell’s nom de plume Barbara Vine, is as powerful a work of psychological suspense as any I’ve ever read.
And on a completely different note, there’s the ever dependable Sue Grafton and her equally dependable creation Kinsey Millhone. I thoroughly enjoyed X!
And I thoroughly enjoyed this get-together with my AAUW colleagues. These intriguing titles proved the springboard for a lively give and take among group members. In a spirited discussion, we covered both books and recent media related to true crime.
In particular, we wanted to know more about the root causes of murder, the most evil of acts. What about guilt and remorse – what role do they play in the grimmest of scenarios? Someone mentioned the role of forgiveness, and I think everyone agreed that if this could be achieved by those most affected, perhaps a sort of grace could be attained.
I recommend the interview with Harold Schechter that appears on the Library of America’s website.
It was great to have Jennifer back with us, working hard for the branch, as always. And we wish Diane a full and speedy recovery.
Finally, I’d like to mention Kathy, who revealed that she’s read everything she could find on the subject of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. The riddle of this man and his horrible acts is one she has long been trying to understand. At the end of my talk – during what I call the “post-presentation shmooze” – she came up to me and confided that when she was ten, she read two books that changed her life: In Cold Blood and The Diary of Anne Frank. Her eyes were shining as she was telling me this. I was delighted: look what books have been able to do for people! Hopefully they still can, and always will, no matter the time, place, or the format.
It’s always exciting to discover a new writer whose work you deeply admire. At least, that’s how I felt upon finishing I Am Your Judge by Nele Neuhaus. Granted, I’m basing this rave on just one book – but what a book! At the moment, it is right next to me on my desk, and I’m gazing at it with rapt approbation.
In this German police procedural, a sniper is targeting a variety of seemingly random individuals. Fear grips the populace at large. There is something especially unnerving about the presence on the scene of a malevolent sharpshooter who seems to vanish after his every hit. (Those of us who were living in the greater Washington DC area in 2002 will remember the frightening sense of vulnerability brought about by the depredations of the ‘DC Sniper.’ The case is cited early in this novel.)
It is the job of Chief Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff and Chief Superintendent Oliver von Bodenstein to identify this nefarious predator and run him to ground. Fairly early on, they and their team of investigators are able to determine that the targets are actually not all that random. What then constitutes the shooter’s motivation? Is it some sort of retribution? And if so, what was the offense – and who were the offenders? As Pia and Oliver struggle to find the answers to these questions, the killings continue.
The plotting is cunning; the characters, fully realized. I very much liked the two leads. We learn just enough about their private lives to make them interesting – no over-the-top soap opera scenarios. (In my view, these have become depressingly familiar in certain works of contemporary crime fiction, perhaps helping to account for their unwieldy heft.)
By my estimate, I Am Your Judge is the seventh book in this series. If you look at the listing on Stop You’re Killing Me, you’ll see why I’m hedging my bets. Dates of original publication in Germany, then dates of translation into English – somewhat confusing. (We dealt with a similar situation when Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels were first released in this country.) Another interesting fact about I Am Your judge: its original German language title is Die Lebenden und die Toten, which translates as The Living and the Dead. The English language title differs quite bit. I like it much better; it is powerful and sinister and gives the reader an accurate, if disturbing, idea of what’s about to unfold.
Will I experience another read as riveting as this was any time in the near future? O God of Literature, please say that I will.