I meant to embed these along with the comments on international crime novels in the post I just finished. From what I can gather, Time Shift is a BBC series that covers a variety of topics. The first one is “Italian Noir;” the second is “Nordic Noir:”
Where crime fiction is concerned, it was a field of amazing richness this year, that is for sure. I decided that it would be easier if I begin by mentioning my favorites according to subgenre, wherever possible. So here goes:
I wrote about this group in a recent post, but somehow managed to cover only Nordic and French titles. And regarding the latter, I managed to omit one of my favorites in this category from this past year: The Bookseller by Mark Pryor. This was Ann’s choice for the Usual Suspects – a very enjoyable novel, redolent of the sights and sounds of present day Paris. Also the protagonist takes a trip to Pau, a town in the Basque region. I’d never heard of it, but I immediately wanted to go there!
Here are five additional titles set outside the U.S. and the U.K. that I recommend:
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan (India)
Hell Fire by Karin Fossum (Norway)
Too Close to the Edge by Pascal Garnier (France)
I Am Your Judge by Niele Neuhaus (Germany)
The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon (Venice, Italy)
Fatal Pursuit by Martin Walker (France)
The unexpected and welcome success of the British Library Crime Classics series has spurred an increased interest in Golden Age mysteries in general – at least, it has for This Reader. I wrote about this phenomenon in a recent post in a series on current trends in crime fiction.
These are the three British Library Crime Classics that I read this year:
The Secret of High Eldersham was a classic English village mystery, with more than a soupcon of the supernatural thrown in, plus a charming love story to sweeten the pot a bit more. Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm takes place in an even more insular community, with a stolid village policeman refusing to accept the prevailing view of a crime borne of a terrible transgression of trust.
In his introduction to this novel, Martin Edwards notes that Cluff “…possesses a deep understanding of human nature, born of years of observing life in a small community at close quarters; in this respect, if in no others, he resembles Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.” Edwards then points out that there’s yet another discernible influence at work in this novel:
The storyline is strong, but this is not a whodunnit; Gil North’s focus is not on mystification for the sake of game-playing, but on the human condition. His work shows the influence of Georges Simenon, and his most famous character, Inspector Jules Maigret.
As much as I enjoyed these two novels, the third, The Murder of a Lady, is probably my favorite. It takes place in the Highlands of Scotland, and is both beautifully written and atmospheric in the extreme.
The Beast in View was Frank’s choice for the Usual Suspects discussion. I’d long wanted to read Margaret Millar’s Edgar Award winner (1956). It proved to be a claustrophobic nightmare of suspense. And for those of you who love “a twist at the end,” this one’s got it – and it’s a corker!
I wrote about the above two in the Book list for a Friend series of posts. Do seek them out; both are excellent. And I don’t remember who first recommended Patricia Wentworth to me, but thank you, whoever you are. Wentworth is probably best remembered for her series featuring Maud Silver. As she sits placidly knitting a garment for a nephew while asking probing questions, Miss Silver is something of a dead ringer for Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. The Clock Strikes Twelve is swiftly moving domestic suspense with bite. I’ve downloaded several more titles by Wentworth and look forward to reading them.
And finally, once more with feeling: thanks go to the Usual Suspects in general and to my friend Mary Michael in particular. Mike loves the classics, especially those written by the redoubtable Dorothy L. Sayers. Her choice this year was a title that many consider to be Sayers’s masterpiece: This was my third encounter with this novel; I admire it more at each reading. This time I was especially struck by the insularity of Fenchurch St. Paul, and by the endearing presence of the Reverend Theodore Venables. His simple, albeit absentminded goodness acts as a powerful counterweight to the evil lurking just below the surface in this seemingly quiet village.
Reverend Venables is purportedly an homage to Sayers’s father Rev. Henry Sayers, who served as Rector of the Church of St. Mary, Bluntisham. Like Fenchurch St. Paul, Bluntisham is located at the edge of fens whose flooding serves so memorably as the high dramatic climax of The Nine Tailors.
I strongly recommend the BBC’s 1974 dramatization of The Nine Tailors starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey.
Christmas music to accompany your viewing:
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa – Happy Everything, and Everyone.
As has been the case for This Reader for the past few years, the pickings in fiction were slim. I picked up several highly touted new titles, only to put them down, with a sigh of frustration. Nonetheless, there were several that made the grade.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue was a pleasant surprise. I wrote about it in a post entitled Book list for a Friend, Part One: Fiction. As I recounted therein, I expected to dislike this book and wouldn’t even have picked it up were it not book club ‘assigned reading.’ At any rate, I was glad to have read it. It has a narrow focus: the female elite, or “swans,” as their friend and acolyte Truman Capote dubbed them, who dominated the social scene in mid-twentieth century Manhattan. But give author Melanie Benjamin her due: she really nailed the zeitgeist and its principle agents.
I was living in Manhattan with my family at this time – though mostly away at college – so I actually have some memory of the comings and goings and general notoriety generated by this wealthy and idle cohort. There was copious news coverage, never more so than for Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. (Interestingly enough, on its fiftieth anniversary, this famous occasion has once again been deemed news worthy.)
Oh, and the discussion was excellent.
With Dictator, Robert Harris concludes his trilogy based on the life of Cicero. As with Imperium and Conspirata, Harris has given us a riveting account of a complex, fascinating human being navigating his way through turbulent times.
Where historical fiction is concerned, he has risen to the top of my list of favorite novelists. Hail Robert Harris!
I loved Ian McEwan’s wickedly witty Nutshell. Leave it to this inventive, amazingly gifted writer to turn an outrageous conceit like the premise of this novel into high art!
Two short story collections won me over completely this year. The first, Tongues of Flame by Mary Ward Brown – known to her friends and neighbors in Alabama as “Mary T’ – was published in 1986. I first heard of this author from Paul Theroux in his superb book Deep South. Theroux himself had never heard of her until his travels in Alabama led him to a meeting with her. Shortly before that meeting, he read Brown’s stories for the first time.
I told Mary T how pleased I was to meet her. As a short story writer she was the real thing, with a perceptive view of the South today. She wrote about the new tensions, her neighbors and her town, without affectation, in the clearest prose….
Her writing was direct, unaffected, unsentimental, and powerful for its simplicity and for its revealing the inner life of rural Alabama, the day-to-day, the provincial manners and pretensions, the conflicts racial and economic. No gothic, no dwarfs, no twelve-year-old wives, no idiots, no picturesque monstrosities, nothing that could be described as phantasmagoric.
(That last bit, an allusion to Faulkner, among others.)
In “The Amaryllis,” a retired judge, newly widowed, has been given this flower as a gift. Alone in the house, he is increasingly taken with the amaryllis’s showy, assertive beauty. As its blossoms strive toward full maturity, he finds himself yearning to share the sight with others.
He didn’t look at the amaryllis again until after supper, when he went up and turned on all the lights in the front of the house. He turned on crystal chandeliers, table lamps, all. In his mind’s eye he could see the house as it looked from the street, an 1850 colonial cottage in its original setting of trees and boxwoods, all lit up as though guests were expected….
In the handsome room, in artificial light, the amaryllis seemed to have taken on glamour, like a beautiful girl all dressed up for the evening. All dressed up and no place to go, he thought.
The strange thing was, he’d never “felt” anything for a plant before. On the contrary, he’d dismissed them all as more or less inanimate like potatoes and turnips, not animate in the way of cats and birds. He had bought dozen of hospital chrysanthemums, often delivering them himself in their foil wrapping and big bows, but they had seemed more artificial than real. The amaryllis was different, entirely. He liked just being with it. Because of its size, he supposed, it seemed to have individuality, and then he had watched it grow daily, with his naked eye. Looking at the blooms, he thought of words like pure and noble, and old lines of poetry like “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.”
The other collection is by Constance Fenimore Woolson. Written in the latter half of the 1800s, these stories have been gathered together in a single volume entitled Miss Grief and Other Stories, edited by Anne Boyd Rioux, who has also penned a biography of this inexplicably forgotten author. I’ve written about Woolson and her immaculately crafted tales in a recent post. I’ll probably write about her again. I’ll certainly be reading the stories again.
In part two of Best Fiction Reads 2016, I’ll be discussing yet another gem by Alexander McCall Smith, and a highly original and immensely powerful novel by Argentine writer César Aira.
[Click here for part one.]
I always return to books about the classical world. This year I read three: Searching for Sappho: the lost songs and world of the first woman poet, by Philip Freeman; The Classical World: the foundations of the West and the enduring legacy of antiquity, by Nigel Spivey; and Dynasty: the rise and fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland. All excellent, highly readable, and recommended.
I must say, I found some fabulous images for the post I wrote on A.S. Byatt’s Peacock & Vine. Have a look!
Pursuits of both an intellectual and an amorous nature are gracefully intertwined in John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story. And in The Vanishing Velasquez, author Laura Cumming, motivated by the need to escape the pain of a deep personal loss, embarks on an investigation into a fascinating mystery of the art world.
A Thousand Hills To Heaven by Josh Ruxin is a book I’d planned to read out of a sense of duty. But it turned out to be a joy and an inspiration. From the horrors of genocide, Rwanda is emerging as a country ready and eager to enter the modern world. Help from committed individuals like Josh and Alissa Ruxin combined with the resilience and resourcefulness of the native population is creating a wondrous new reality. (Be sure to watch the video embedded in this post – it is heart-lifting.)
Finally, two biographies and one travel book – all three absolutely super.
It’s been a while since I read Andrea Wulf’s revelatory life of Alexander Von Humboldt. I can only say that while reading this book – mesmerized by it – the ‘new world’ of this brilliant scientist became my new world as well. I feel deeply grateful to Andrea Wulf for this gift. (Calling this work a “thrilling new biography,” the write-up in The New York Review of Books pretty much says it all.)
“Erased from history: Too many women writers — like Constance Fenimore Woolson — are left to languish in moldy archives. What will it take to bring them back?”
Thus did Anne Boyd Rioux title an article she wrote for Salon earlier this year. Rioux herself has done yeoman work in restoring a worthy author to her rightful place in the history of American literature.
I began this particular reading adventure with the short stories featured in Miss Grief. Woolson was writing about post-Civil War American, in particular the Great Lakes Region and then the South. It seems to me that she was writing about people and places that had been overlooked by others. And having lived in both regions, she wrote about them knowledgeably and beautifully.
The word “marsh” does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind, and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen,— an enchanted land, whose memory haunts me as an idea unwritten, a melody unsung, a picture unpainted, haunts the artist, and will not away. On each side and in front, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores. In and out, now running into each other for a moment, now setting off each for himself again, these many channels flowed along with a rippling current; zigzag as they were, they never seemed to loiter, but, as if knowing just where they were going and what they had to do, they found time to take their own pleasant roundabout way, visiting the secluded households of their friends the flags, who, poor souls, must always stay at home. These currents were as clear as crystal, and green as the water-grasses that fringed their miniature shores. The bristling reeds, like companies of free-lances, rode boldly out here and
there into the deeps, trying to conquer more territory for the grasses, but the currents were hard to conquer; they dismounted the free-lances, and flowed over their submerged heads; they beat them down with assaulting ripples; they broke their backs so effectually that the bravest had no spirit left, but trailed along, limp and bedraggled. And, if by chance the lances succeeded in stretching their forces across from one little shore to another, then the unconquered currents forced their way between the closely serried ranks of the enemy, and flowed on as gayly as ever, leaving the grasses sitting hopeless on the bank; for they needed solid ground for their delicate feet, these graceful ladies in green.
From “St. Clair Flats” in Castle Nowhere:Lake Country Sketches, 1875
At first, I thought Anne Boyd Rioux’s introduction to this volume would satisfy my curiosity about Constance Fenimore Woolson. Informative as it was, however, it proved inadequate, for this reader, at least. I decided to read Rioux’s full length biography of this unaccountably neglected writer. It proved fascinating. As with most really good biographies, it opened a window onto a whole period of history; namely, post-Civil War America and the European expatriate scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Born in New Hampshire in 1840, Woolson grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where her family moved after the death of three of her sisters. Her father died in 1869, at which point she began publishing stories and essays in various magazines. She felt called to be a writer but money was also a very present problem.
As her story unfolds, Woolson’s life seems more and more poignant. Despite her obvious literary gifts, she had to struggle for recognition. She was befriended and aided by many, most notably Henry James. In fact, I ‘d heard of her previously through my reading about James. Her relationship with him is a very intriguing subject, one not easily resolved. I believe she was rather overshadowed by him; his attitude toward her authorial endeavors was distinctly ambivalent.
Woolson endured a lifelong struggle with encroaching deafness. She never married, and died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 53.
Reading these two books in tandem provided yet another example of the enriching experience of paired reading. Highly recommended, both for solitary readers and for book groups.
Finally, there is Deep South. There are simply not enough superlatives in the language for me to summon up in praise of Paul Theroux’s marvelous travelogue. He himself did not indulge in such language, describing his experiences with the places and people of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas in prose at once artless and powerful.
I just finished rereading Deep South in preparation for presenting it for a book group next month. At that time, I’ll write about it in more detail. Meanwhile I have already spoken of it, albeit briefly, in a post entitled Book list for a Friend, Part Two: Nonfiction.
In that same post, I wrote about some of the gorgeous art books that I’ve recently either acquired or obtained through interlibrary loan. These have been a big part of my nonfiction immersion this year. This trend continues, with these two titles from the library:
And finally, there’s this gift to myself, the Mother of All Art Books!
If you happen to be in the market for a gift for an art lover, this weighty tome is brand new and really quite sensational.
Meanwhile, I shall return, before too long, to Paul Theroux. In my opinion, with Deep South, he has written his masterwork.
Okay, here goes:
I had a great reading year in nonfiction; in fact, it’s probably accurate to say that this is where most of my 2016 reading joy resided.
The true crime subgenre came through for me as it almost always does. In The Midnight Assassin, Skip Hollandsworth tells the harrowing story of a serial killer, all the while bringing late nineteenth Texas history vividly to life. Hollandsworth writes for Texas Monthly Magazine, which has for some time featured exceptional true crime reportage.
True Crime Addict differs from most books in this genre that I’ve heretofore read in that journalist James Renner’s obsession with the case of young woman’s baffling disappearance results in his personal life becoming hopelessly entangled in the investigation.
In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale once again proves herself a master of the true crime narrative. As with the award-winning Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), meticulous research combined with a compelling story results in yet another outstanding book. There are more questions than answers in The Wicked Boy, and there is one questions that, when all is said and done, hangs over this whole affair of a misbegotten son and his fatally impulsive act: one of the profoundest questions we humans can ask of ourselves, or of one another.
In 2009, I chose The Suspicions of Mr Whicher to present to the Usual Suspects. In April of next year, I’ll be doing the same with The Wicked Boy. (I recommend Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, also by Kate Summerscale. Not exactly true crime, but the book provides a fascinating window onto the mores of Victorian Britain.)
This particular trend may not be as hot as it was in the heyday of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (published posthumously in 2005), but it’s still with us. For one thing, we continue to be fairly inundated by the Scandinavians. My long running favorites among them are Karin Fossum of Norway and Kjell Eriksson of Sweden. Jo Nesbo, also of Norway, is a perennial favorite of many crime fiction readers.
Icelandic authors have been receiving favorable notices: Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Arnaldur Indridason. And I’ve just learned of yet another from the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine: Ragnar Jonasson. Author of the Dark Iceland series – consisting so far of Snowblind and Nightblind – Mr. Jonasson is the recipient of the 2016 Mörda Dead Good Reader Award.
Currently I’m intrigued by a new (or newly translated) series written by Harri Nykänen. It’s set in Finland and features Inspector Ariel Kafka of the Violent Crime Unit; he’s identified by StopYoureKillingMe.com as “one of only two Jewish cops in the country.” Thus far, the first two series entries, Nights of Awe and Behind God’s Back, have been translated into English. I’ve just started Nights of Awe and it looks promising. Right off the bat it provides a vivid illustration of the challenges to English-speaking readers that can be posed by novels such as this:
Around eight I headed into town. I always took the same route: Fredrikinkatu to Iso Roobertinkatu, and once I hit Erottaja I headed past the Swedish Theatre down Keskuskatu to Aleksi, where I jumped on a tram.
Well, I’m glad he caught that tram; the spell checker was about to have a breakdown!
Last year, the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group focused mainly on international titles. As a result, we had some exceptionally good reading. My favorites were The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Japan), Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson (Sweden), and A Possibility of Violence by D. A. Mishani. I’m especially eager to read Mishani’s next entry in the Avraham Avraham series. The title in the States is The Man Who Wanted To Know Everything; it was released in this countryr on November 8 of this year.
The international crime fiction scene can be roughly divided into two categories: novels in translation and novels written in English and set in a foreign land. With regard to this latter category, the author is often one who over the years has acquired a deep knowledge of the locale in which his or her stories unfold. My favorite example of this scenario is Martin Walker’s series, Bruno, Chief of Police. As each of these novels unfolds, the reader is transported to the beautiful Perigord region in the south of of France. Indeed, while immersed in these delicious entertainments, I often give myself over to transports of delight: the scenery, the history – starting with the prehistory, the intriguing characters – oh, and the food!
The latest in the series is entitled Fatal Pursuit. As always, the communal life of the village is vividly depicted; it make one envious of what these people possess.
“Crepuscule, one of the loveliest words in our language, for one of the loveliest times of the day just as it gives way to night,” the baron said softly, gazing at the shifting planes of red and crimson light on the river. “Sitting here with wine and food and surrounded by friends as generations must have done before us in this very place, makes all the world’s troubles seem very far away.”
Immersed in the rich history of the region, the baron adds:
“Sometimes I imagine the prehistoric people sitting here on the riverbank, sharing their roast mammoth or whatever it was and watching the sun go down just like us.”
Concluding his reverie, the baron raises his glass in a toast: “‘I drink to them, whoever they were’.”
The baron has been conversing with Bruno, who knows hinself to be lucky to work and live in this caring and vibrant community. Among his many tasks, he’s in the process of training up his basset puppy, the wonderfully named Balzac, to hunt for black truffles, the diamonds of the Perigord.
Young as he was, Balzac seemed fearless, ready to chase away even a big fox. Feeling a sudden burst of affection, Bruno knelt down to stroke him and tell him what a fine hunting dog he would be.
A scene that encapsulated in a nutshell why I love both Bruno and Balzac.
With regard to French crime fiction: on the other hand…
Pascal Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge opens with a sympathetic portrait of a recently widowed woman in her sixties. Eliette Velard finds herself unexpectedly alone in the country house in which she and her husband had planned to live for the duration of his retirement years. She is melancholy but determined to make something meaningful of the years remaining to her. The pace of novel’s plot is at first quite leisurely, with Eliette meticulously preparing a jardiniere, a dish of thickly cut fresh vegetables. Cooking is followed by eating, which in turn is followed by a nap. Meanwhile, the nature of the countryside exerts its beneficent influence:
By the time she woke up, the rain had stopped. A baby-blue sky extended as far as the eye could see. There was a smell of washing powder in the air, of sheets drying on the breeze. In the garden the bay leaves were fringed with water, each droplet holding a ray of sunshine within it. All around, the mountains were steaming, streaked ochre and purple and foaming minty green to freshen the wind’s breath.
Oh, good, I thought: a slow-paced, reflective character study with, as Dorothy L. Sayers would say, ‘detective interruptions.’
Boy, was I wrong! First, there’s the apparition of sudden passion, followed by a neighbor gone inexplicably rogue, and…well, I invite you to read it and find out for yourself (available as a Kindle download for $8.99).
Of course, we cannot leave the subject of crime fiction in La Belle France without a nod and a salute to Georges Simenon. I’ve read and liked several of the so-called romans durs – Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Act of Passion – but the go-to books for me are the Maigret titles. I find it oddly consoling to spend time with L’Inspecteur and his team, all steady workers not prone to hysterics or high drama. And then there’s Madame Maigret, so low key she is almost no key, cooking and cleaning in their apartment on Boulevard Richard le Noir, cosseting her husband as if he were the child they never had.
Penguin’s reissues of these treasures, with newly commissioned translations, continue to appear with gratifying regularity. The latest one I’ve read is Maigret Gets Angry (Maigret Se Fâche), translated by Roz Schwartz. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself in Meung-sur-Loire, at the Maigret’s country house, where they’ve begun spending summers since his recent retirement.
It was cool inside the house, where there was a pleasant smell of wax polish, cut hay, ripening fruit and food simmering on the stove. It had taken Maigret fifty years to rediscover that smell, the smell of his childhood, of his parents’ house.
Inevitably, as with so many fictional detectives, retirement proves temporary. Maigret is soon summoned back into the thick of things, this time with a troubled family where death has paid a highly suspicious call.
I’ve only skimmed the surface of this subject in this post. The most comprehensive list of international crime fiction that I know of can be found on the StopYoureKillingMe site. Similar information can be found on Eurocrime. For several years now I’ve enjoyed G.J. Demko’s Landscapes in Crime. Demko, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Dartmouth, passed away in 2014; nevertheless, his site is still accessible online and is well worth visiting.