This is the title I’ve selected for a program I’ll be presenting in the not too distant future. I was pleased – probably too much so – with myself for coming up with it.
Once the first few moments of self-satisfaction passed, I began casting about for content. I came up with this list:
- Domestic (i.e. psychological) suspense
- Classics reissues and rediscoveries
- International authors and settings
- Use of actual historical personages as detectives
- Historical mysteries
- Regional mysteries (U.S.)
- “Crime fiction is finally getting the critical respect it deserves”
I was immediately filled with unease. Are these trends necessarily hot? Are they especially new? Are they even trends, properly called? And what about that pert little exclamation point? Perhaps I should at least modify the punctuation, e.g. ‘Hot new trends in crime fiction?’ But what a woeful lack of confidence is betrayed thereby!
More often than not, domestic suspense involves a family menaced by a threat from outside (and sometimes, from inside) the family unit. Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me is a good example of the subgenre. Gone Girl, a book I couldn’t get through, is, from what I know of it, yet another, and can possibly be credited with jump starting the present trend.
Another book that could possibly fit into this category is What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross. I’d never heard of this novel until it was chosen by one of my book groups. The plot hinges on a kidnapping rather than a murder. The writing isn’t brilliant, but the story grabbed me. Both the kidnapper and the circumstances are unusual, but the motive behind the crime is all too understandable. The abduction occurs near the beginning of the narrative; the description of the fallout from it is very compelling. My emotional response was unexpectedly strong.
It should be mentioned that domestic suspense is more often written by women, with a woman as the featured protagonist. The Library of America’s two volume edition of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s contains some excellent examples. This collection was curated by Sarah Weinman, whose knowledge of this field is deep, as is her enthusiasm for it. (Last year the Usual Suspects discussed one of the novels included in this collection, Margaret Millar’s Edgar winner Beast in View.)
These mid-twentieth century works provide a neat segue into the subject of crime fiction classics. Stay tuned…
So for once, I turned up in the right place at the right time…
Naturally the primary reason for my weekend visit to Chicago was to spend time with these most excellent people:
We got to preview Etta’s Halloween costume. She’s going to be a fortune teller.
This is a far cry from her first Halloween. At the age of about three weeks, she was a ladybug! As for Welles, he wants only to be Spiderman, his current favorite action hero.
Amidst all the family activities, a great drama was unfolding in the world of baseball: the Cubs were on the verge of winning their first National League Pennant since 1945. I’m not much of a sports fan, but I have a residual affection for the game of baseball. Growing up in northern New Jersey in the 1950s, with the New York Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and he New York Giants nearby, it would have been hard to stay aloof from the National Pastime. My brothers and I didn’t even try. At one point, my older brother actually wrote a letter to the Yankees – the team we rooted for – to tell them of a magical occurrence: every time he wore his Yankee baseball cap, the Yanks won!
My Dad loved baseball too. And Dad, you would have appreciated that game last Saturday. The Cubs hit the ground running, scoring immediately in the first inning. The high octane drama continued, with pitcher Kyle Hendricks keeping the Dodgers scoreless and very nearly hitless (he allowed two). I loved watching him. His form was a thing of beauty; his face an absolute mask of concentration. The game ended with an electrifying double play, clinching a 5-0 win over the LA Dodgers. Then, all you-know-what broke loose:
At 9:45, cheers erupted, not only from our gang but outside too, up and down the street. Car horns honking, fireworks, police sirens (but things did not get out of hand). Chicago is a city that’s taken its lumps in the press lately, so this healthy dose of good news was especially appreciated.
Sunday morning we were greeted by this Chicago Tribune front page story:
Now, two games into the 2016 World Series, the Cubs and the Cleveland Indians each have one win under their respective belts. Of course, I’ll continue to root for the Cubs, but no matter which team wins the championship, there’s no taking away the gift that the Cubs bestowed on the people of Chicago last Saturday.
And as the weekend drew to a close, our dear Etta, who loves to paint and draw, made this gift for Ron and me:
Click to enlarge the following images:
To be continued….
“…the glory that was Greece, / And the grandeur that was Rome.” – The Classical World by Nigel Spivey
Freud had followed the excavations at Troy with passionate interest, and eventually came to liken his own methods of psychoanalysis to an archaeological process of ‘peeling away’ layers in quest of some residual ‘truth’ that had become ‘mythical’ over time….the significance of Freud’s reaction to the marble relics of classical Athens lies precisely in the sensation that caused pangs of filial piety. The Acropolis was symbolic not only of Athens at the height of her ancient glory in the mid-fifth century BC, but of civilized values generally. So for Freud, and for many others, it symbolizes a bourn, a destination, for the human spirit, amid the amber glow of columns standing on a rocky mass.**************************
The sources…tell us that Alexander, though well proportioned, was not a physically large man…Yet…by consensus, [he] possessed a commanding presence, radiating from his eyes. These generated much comment, regarding their size, colour and glistening quality, but above all their contribution to a ‘heavenwards gaze.’ Accordingly, many images of Alexander show him as if transfixed by some distant prospect. Admirers took this as a symptom of his ‘divine inspiration’ (enthousiasmos). He appeared superhuman.
The villa of Livia Drusilla, wife of Caesar Augustus
The paintings from this room, relatively well preserved, are among the loveliest pictures from antiquity — at least, in their cumulative effect; they create a vista that seems like an earthly paradise. Only when we peer closer do we notice a strange level of biodiversity here. Flowers that bloom in the spring, such as blue periwinkles, appear with fruit that mature in autumn, such as quince. Birds — quails, thrushes, nightingales — animate the foliage, regardless of their migratory habits. Such is the marvel of the Golden Age created by Augustus.
The commission to compose an epic about Rome’s arch-founder Aeneas was, we are told, reluctantly undertaken by Virgil. He worked upon it for a decade, licking its lines into shape (as he put it) as a mother bear would tend her cubs. He died, in 19 BC, without finishing it to his satisfaction, and asked his friends to burn the manuscript. Fortunately for us, those friends disobeyed the poet’s wishes.The Aeneid survives as proof not only that epic could be written, after Homer, but also that epic could grow, in moral scope, beyond Homer….With Virgil, the epic tradition resonates with concerns of justice and sympathy, earning him the critical accolade of writing ‘civilized poetry’. His capacity ‘to harmonize the sadness of the universe’ – the dictum approved by scholar-poet A.E. Housman as poetry’s purpose – has endeared Virgil to pessimists down the ages; in his time, however, Virgil articulated a vision of Roman identity that made the construction of empire a mission of laborious benevolence.
The Aeneid, Book VI, translated by Seamus Heaney
(excerpt published in the March 7 2016 issue of the New Yorker)
Fatherly and intent, was off in a deep green valley
Surveying and reviewing souls consigned there,
Those due to pass to the light of the upper world.
It so happened he was just then taking note
Of his whole posterity, the destinies and doings,
Traits and qualities of descendants dear to him,
But seeing Aeneas come wading through the grass
Towards him, he reached his two hands out
In eager joy, his eyes filled up with tears
And he gave a cry: “At last! Are you here at last?
I always trusted that your sense of right
Would prevail and keep you going to the end.And am I now allowed to see your face,
My son, and hear you talk, and talk to you myself?
This is what I imagined and looked forward to
As I counted the days; and my trust was not misplaced.
To think of the lands and the outlying seas
You have crossed, my son, to receive this welcome.
And after such dangers! I was afraid that Africa
Might be your undoing.” But Aeneas replied:
“Often and often, father, you would appear to me,
Your sad shade would appear, and that kept me going
To this end. My ships are anchored in the Tuscan sea.
Let me take your hand, my father, O let me, and do not
Hold back from my embrace.” And as he spoke he wept.
Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck.
Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped
Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.
Peter Robinson’s Children of the Revolution more than fulfilled my expectations. Intriguing story, wonderful team of investigators headed up as always by the ever-reliable though sometimes stubborn Alan Banks, nice North Yorkshire atmospherics, and the usual music references. How do I love the British police procedural? Let me count the ways…. (And that goes especially for this long running, very fine series.)
Leave it to me to start with Book Two, then wish I’d read the first one – well, first. I did it with Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful Corduroy Mansions; now I’ve done it again with Slough House, the highly original series penned by Mick Herron. Having read the second, Dead Lions (and inadvertently skipped the award-winning first, Slow Horses), I proceeded immediately to the third, Real Tigers.
Whoever heard of an espionage series in which the dramatis personae almost never get out of London? Usually we have to struggle to keep up with spies as they ricochet from one exotic locale to the next. Not here. The Slow Horses of Slough House are agents who have messed up big time. For reasons best known to their handlers, it would be imprudent to fire them outright. So they’re pensioned off and exiled to no man’s land, in the fervent hope that they’ll stay out of trouble. Fat chance! Jackson Lamb and his ill-sorted, gifted but wayward crew want only to prove themselves worthy of reinstatement in the intelligence pantheon. In pursuit of this elusive goal, they manage to stir up all sorts of fresh trouble.
In Literary Review, critic and novelist Jessica Mann – see my review of A Private Inquiry embedded in this post – had this to say about Real Tigers:
Although this is Mick Herron’s ninth book, and despite the fact that he has won the prestigious Gold Dagger award for his crime fiction, Real Tigers is the first of his books to come my way. What a find!…The story, though good, is not the main reason to read this book. Rather, it is its elegant style, original viewpoint, dry wit and spring-to-life characters, some recognisable.
Mick Herron writes great dialog and is a master storyteller with a sly sense of humor and an ironic world view. He might be the best thing that’s happened to spy fiction since the great LeCarre. Jessica Mann’s prediction: “I think Herron’s is the next big name in crime fiction.”
In the July issue of The Atlantic, Terence Rafferty proclaimed that “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels.” (His article also has the variant title, “‘Gone Girl’ and the Rise of Crime Novels by Women.”) Rafferty is alluding to a specific subgenre of crime fiction, what he calls “tortuous, doomy domestic thrillers.” Women writers, he asserts, are uniquely capable of delivering the goods where these kinds of narratives are concerned.
One of the titles Rafferty mentions is Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. I decided to read this book during the Summer Olympics primarily because it deals with young female gymnasts. It was also getting excellent reviews.
Normally, on the theory that life is too short, I avoid reading anything about sports, with the exception of “The Sport of Kings,” for which I have a lingering fondness from my childhood. But You Will Know Me seemed worth a shot, for the reasons enumerated above. And the fact is, it was good – very good. The crime forms an intriguing subplot, but the novel is really about these young gymnasts, their fierce dedication to the sport, and the cost of that dedication to their minds, bodies, and families. The writing is excellent.
The particular teenage gymnast – and potential Olympian – around whom this novel’s events center is called Devon; the story unfolds from the point of view of her mother Katie. Their relationship is close and intense, and prone to sudden bouts of disequilibrium:
It was remarkable, when Katie thought about it. How her daughter, so strong already, her body an air-to-air missile, had metamorphosed into this force. Shoulders now like a ship mast, rope-knot biceps, legs corded, arms sinewed, a straight, hard line from trunk to neck, her hipless torso resting on thighs like oak beams. Sometimes Katie couldn’t believe it was the same girl.
I recommend reading the Rafferty article referenced above. He makes some interesting points about the history of American crime fiction as well as its current state. As for the ascendant status of domestic suspense, he may be right, but it’s not my first choice in this genre and probably never will be. (I’m a dissenter from the ranks of Gone Girl enthusiasts; Gillian Flynn’s writing rubbed me the wrong way for some reason, and I found the “Amazing Amy” trope contrived and irritating.) Call me old fashioned and/or out of touch, but my favorite mystery subgenre remains the police procedural.
By the way, For my money, where You Will Know Me is concerned, I found Devon’s sweet younger brother Drew to be the unsung hero of the whole scenario. Read it and see if you don’t agree with me.
Maria Oakey Dewing and her husband Thomas Wilmer Dewing were both American Impressionist painters. Both are represented in The Artist’s Garden.
Certain of Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s paintings have a dreamy, otherworldly quality that I find quite intriguing. These particular works often feature lovely young women moving languorously through a pastoral landscape.
In an essay in The Artist’s Garden, James Glisson, makes the following observations about the work of William Merritt Chase and Charles Courtney Curran:
What sets Chase’s and Curran’s work apart from much of the work in this exhibition is not that they depict women being looked at…but that movement and, therefore, time has entered the garden. They do not picture sempiternal moments of perfect efflorescence, like Philip Leslie Hale’s The Crimson Rambler [pictured above on the book cover] or winter senescence, like John Henry Twachtman’s winter landscape Snowbound….
I especially like that part about time entering the garden, and I think it applies equally to the paintings of Thomas Wilmer Dewing.
(I think you’ll agree that this writer must have aced every vocabulary test he ever took!)
Here is a portrait by Thomas Wilmer Dewing of his wife, Maria Oakey Dewing.
Born in New York City in 1845, Maria Richards Oakey came from a cultured family. At first, she thought she would be a writer, but by the age of seventeen knew that her chief desire was to paint. Her specialty was the depiction of flowers.
In her day, Maria Oakey Dewing became quite well known and appreciated. But she had her struggles:
Despite the success, her career held disappointment. As the wife of one of the most prominent figure painters of the day, she felt unable to compete with her husband, substituting her flower painting for the figure compositions she had exhibited in her student days. At the end of her life, Dewing expressed doubt in her accomplishments and regret for what she had given up: “I have hardly touched any achievement,” she wrote in a letter the year she died. “I dreamed of groups and figures in big landscapes and I still see them.”
There’s an interesting piece on Dewing on an excellent art site which I only just discovered, called Art Inconnu (Unknown Art). In commenter Jane Librizzi’s view, “There is something unutterably sad about the career of Maria Oakey Dewing.” (To read the entire article and comments, click here.)
Maria Oakey Dewing’s essay “Flowers Painters and What the Flower Offers to Art” appeared in the journal Art and Progress in June of 1915.
Quite an opener, that. Right up there, I’d say, with Kafka’s metamorphosed insect.
And it strikes just the right note from the outset, since this testy speaker is in fact a late-term male fetus, impatient with his cramped and watery surroundings, more than ready to be born, to claim his right to a life. “I’m owed a handful of decades to try my luck on a freewheeling planet,” he proclaims.
We aren’t given a name for this rather unique narrator. But wait: his mother’s name is Trudy; her lover is called Claude. Together they are conspiring to cause the death of John, Trudy’s estranged husband and Claude’s brother. Oh – and the biological father of our pre-born raconteur. He is the silent witness to these machinations, helpless save for his ability to deliver, from time to time, a well placed kick.
This quotation appears in the book’s front matter:
“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet, II.ii
I’ve worked out what’s meant by most of the dialog in that play – but I’ve never understood this particular line. Ah well, no matter – McEwan has here put it to very cunning use.
In many ways, this is a strange and wondrous novel, a bravura performance. The fireworks and provocative observations that characteristically enliven McEwan’s prose are everywhere on display. These thoughts, for example, are entertained by the little mini-Hamlet (micro-Hamlet?) in response to a podcast filled with bleak thoughts and bleaker predictions. (Trudy had listened to it and he – inevitably – had overheard):
Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions….Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived? When fewer die in wars and childbirth than ever before – and more knowledge, more truth by way of science, was never so available to us all? When tender sympathies – for children, animals, alien religions, unknown, distant foreigners- swell daily?…When smallpox, polio, cholera, measles, high infant mortality, illiteracy, public executions and routine state torture have been banished from so many countries? Not so long ago, all these curses were everywhere….what of the commonplace miracles that would make a manual labourer the envy of Caesar Augustus: pain-free dentistry [and this, from a little guy who doesn’t even have teeth yet!], electric light, instant contact with people we love, with the best music the world has known, with the cuisine if a dozen cultures?
He could go on – and believe me, he does – yet he ends on this plangent note:
We’ll always be troubled by how things are–that’s how it stands with the difficult gift of consciousness.
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all….
The background presence of Shakespeare’s masterpiece is at times even more powerfully resonant. Here the fetus has retreated into a decidedly more melancholy disposition:
But lately, don’t ask why, I’ve no taste for comedy, no inclination to exercise, even if I had the space, no delight in fire on earth, in words that once revealed a golden world of majestical stars, the beauty of poetic apprehension, the infinite joy of reason. These admirable radio talks and bulletins, the excellent podcasts that moved me, seem at best hot air, at worst a vaporous stench.
And here is the Prince of Denmark’s famous “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy:
I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so.
(This passage contains what is, for me, the single most astonishing locution in all of English literature: ‘…a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” Amazing!)
I don’t want to give the impression that Nutshell is an exercise in dreary pessimism. Quite the opposite: It’s alive with sheer inventiveness. In the course of its short duration – just under two hundred pages – you rarely know what’s going to happen next, or if you do, you still don’t know how it’s going to happen. From time to time, the author’s mordant wit enlivens the proceedings. Even given its brevity, the novel is an exceptionally fast read – at least, it was for me.
I have to admit that when I first learned of the novel’s premise, I thought, well, this is rather bizarre! And more than one book-loving friend has admitted to finding it rather off putting. Having now read it, I have to say that I enjoyed it. It seems to have been undertaken in the spirit of, Can I pull this off? A literary sleight of hand, in other words. Very clever. But not especially deep.
When Ian McEwan told his editor his new novel would be told from the point of view of a foetus, fully inverted in his mother’s womb, “I got a rather glassy look. He [the editor] said ‘Oh, great’ in a rather flat tone; he was not sort of throwing his hat in the air,’’ McEwan recalls with a chuckle so dry and light, it barely registers down the phone line.
I would love to discuss this novel, but possibly with just one other person, and I’d be more comfortable if that person were a woman. You see – and I haven’t got around to mentioning this yet – Nutshell contains the most explicit sex scenes that I’ve encountered since On Chesil Beach.
I really love Ian McEwan’s work. I consider him brilliant. So, while this book was fun, I’m ready for a return to profundity. Ready, in other words, for another novel like The Children Act.
In honor of her approaching birthday, we present Etta, her parents, her brother, and any other interested parties, with The Book of Etta!
From an early age, Etta has loved to travel with the family. She enjoys their frequent visit to the beautiful mountains of Jackson, Wyoming. Here she is with her Dad. At an early age she became an avid beachcomber. Here she is, fashionably attired as always, enjoying the sun and sand. (Once again, Dad’s along for the ride!)
Etta takes just as much pleasure in local outings with family and friends. Here we all are last year at a picnic to celebrate the end of the school year. It was a typical Spring day in beautiful Chicago: mid fifties, spitting rain, high winds… But we had fun anyway! (The company was excellent.)
Etta’s always ready to cut a rug while playing at home. Little brother Welles – himself a recent birthday celebrant – often joins in the fun.
Etta likes a variety of sports. Here she instructs her Mom in the fine art of wielding a lacrosse stick while playing defense: Etta is bold in the pursuit of athletic achievement: And then, of course, there was the famous ski adventure. (She was only four years old!)
Whether it’s the first day of the new school year or on the trail in Jackson, Etta always has time for her little brother.
I could go on – what grandparent couldn’t – but I’m sure you get the idea. As you turn six, Dearest Etta, may you discover more and more people and things in the world to bring you joy!
The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
Robert Louis Stevenson
With love from Grandpa Ron and Grandma ‘Berta