I was happy to return to the Lake District Series of crime novels written by Martin Edwards. In The Dungeon House, a cold case casts a sinister shadow over the lives of those who still feel its effects. Meanwhile, the relationship between Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind is getting warmer, albeit rather cautiously.
Twenty years prior to the novel’s main action, Malcolm Whiteley hosted a barbecue for friends and family at his residence, the rather ominously named Dungeon House. This seemingly celebratory occasion ended in terrible violence, but the question of exactly who was responsible has never been resolved in a manner that satisfied everyone. This is the cold case that DCI Hannah Scarlett inherits. As her investigation proceeds, troubling new events occur: disappearances, and even deaths, darken the beautiful Lake District landscape which forms the novel’s setting.
Meanwhile Daniel Kind, a gifted and sought after lecturer, is preparing to give a talk on the history of murder. Daniel has a penchant for choosing provocative topics. In The Serpent Pool (2010), his subject is the mercurial Thomas De Quincey. (I’ve read The Serpent Pool, but I may return to it, my interest in De Quincey having recently been stimulated by Grevel Lindop’s fascinating biography.)
In the words of the Kirkus review of Dungeon House, Martin Edwards “works exceptionally close to his characters.” Because of this, Hannah, Daniel and company are vivid and true to life. The plot is extremely complex – I admit that I lost the thread at several points – but as is invariably the case when I read crime fiction, my connection with the characters more than compensated.
Both Grevel Lindop and Martin Edwards are scheduled to meet with us on our British Mystery Trip in July.
My granddaughter Etta loves to make art:
So I thought she might enjoy a visit to one of our country’s premier Art Museums:
This visit being for Etta, I let her set the agenda. First, we worked on a craft together at the Ryan Education Center. Then we proceeded to wander the galleries. First stop: Asian art, where we encountered many strange and beautiful objects.
(What is it about that celadon green….I can envision an entire room filled with that dreamy color.)
Then, on to European painting and sculpture. As we came through the doors to these galleries, Etta was quite literally stopped in her tracks. “It’s the Little Dancer!” she exclaimed. Her eyes grew round and saucer-wide. “There’s a story about this,” she continued excitedly, “and it’s true! I have a book about it.”
Other attractions in this room:
Renoir’s Two Sisters (On the Terrace), 1881:
Gustave Caillbotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877.
(O painting, so beloved of tote bag makers, there you actually are! You can get this one from CafePress, last I checked.)
And of course, the unutterably wonderful “Sunday Afternoon on la Grande Jatte” (Le Dimanche Après-midi à L’ÎIe de La Grande Jatte”), 1884, by Georges Seurat:
By happenstance, we stumbled into a room full of gorgeous paperweights. This was the Arthur Rubloff Collection:
From time to time we found ourselves wandering through the museum’s modern wing, a structure designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano and opened in 2009. It is wonderfully light and spacious.
Then it was time for the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Etta was enchanted by these, and so was I.
(This was Etta’s day to be pretty in pink. She received several compliments on her outfit from museum staff!)
Of course, no trip to an art museum is complete without a visit to the shop. Etta selected several small decorated boxes. I threw in a book of postcards depicting the Thorne Miniatures. Etta also picked out a gift for her little brother Welles, another budding artist, as can be seen here:
The Art Institute of Chicago is the second largest art museum in the U.S. (New York City’s fabled “Met” is the largest.) What a gorgeous place it is, filled with countless treasures beautifully and accessibly displayed. And to be in such a place with my lovely Etta – well, it was a very special day!
I continue to enjoy Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby novels. There are nine in total; The D.A. Goes To Trial, published in 1940, is the fourth in the series.
Unsurprisingly, this novel is quite plot driven. But there are also descriptive passages like the one with which the story commences:
Streaks of eastern color appeared behind the mountains separating the rich orchard land from the desert. The night had been cold, although not cold enough for smudging. A light layer of frost coated the lower levels where the railroad trestled its way across the dry, sandy wash.
Out on the mesa land could be heard the hoarse bark of tractors as ranchers, bundled against the cold, pulled plows across the fertile soil.
Gardner says a lot with a little, I think. (And how I love all things California, both past and present….)
At any rate, as I said, the Selby novels are primarily plot driven, this one especially so. I have to admit, I got lost around the far turn several times. But it didn’t matter; I was so enjoying the company I was in.
Reminders abounded of how times have changed between now and then. In one scene Sylvia Martin, who is accompanying Doug on a chartered flight to Arizona, makes the following suggestion: “Let’s switch out the lights while we have our cigarettes….”
In addition, there are the old fashioned dial telephones without so much as a voicemail service, the cigarettes rolled on the spot with papers and loose tobacco, and the hobos – defined by Wikipedia as “a migratory worker or homeless vagabond, especially one who is impoverished.” – Such individuals are still a presence on the landscape, even as the Depression gives way to the industrial boom brought on by the Second World War.
The publisher provides this handy come-on at the front of the book:
Here you will find a battered body under a railroad trestle…a vanished bookkeeper…a wire from a man who wasn’t there…a girl who fought Doug because she couldn’t have him…a political game with Doug as the goat. And a set of fingerprints that simply had to be where they weren’t–and couldn’t be where they were!
Doug’s on his way again, with the able assistance of Sylvia Martin, the lovely young reporter with a nose for news and an eye for Doug.
Regrettably, in the course of this narrative, Gardner occasionally refers to Mexican laborers in derogatory terms. This kind of heedless denigration is something one encounters from time to time in crime fiction from the 1930s and 1940s. On the other hand, Sylvia Martin, “the lovely young reporter” alluded to above, is a woman whose brains are more than equal to her looks. She’s a welcome contrast to the female characters who frequently populate works in this genre, in the same period. These tend to be either poor broken flowers wholly dependent on a man – or several men – to fix their lives, or else they are dangerous sirens who use their sexual allure to tame and trap the men in their lives.
That said, there is another continuing female character in this series who treads a somewhat odd middle ground. Her name is Inez Stapleton; she’s connected to Doug via common experiences shared in years past. Read the books and try to figure out for yourself what her game is.
Here’s the complete list of novels in this series::
|Doug Selby, the district attorney in fictional Madison County, California:|
|The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937)
The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
|The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)
(Thanks to StopYoureKillingMe.com for this information.)
I’ve recently discovered that two of these books are currently in print courtesy of a small press called House of Stratus:
Why just these two? No idea. However, I’m grateful, anyway.
My copy of The D.A. Goes To Trial, obtained through interlibrary loan, is in a gray library binding. But I had fun looking on line for something more colorful. Here are several that I found:
And now: on to The D.A. Cooks a Goose!
I sang the praises of this book in a post I wrote last year. I’ve recently reread it – the book I mean, not the post – and the effect was the same as it was the first time: riveting and deeply unsettling.
But because of the upcoming discussion, I was having a slightly different reading experience. (This is rather inevitable.) In addition to my admiration for the author’s terrific writing and prodigious research, I was feeling perplexed. Just how was I to organize this brilliant but somewhat oddly shaped narrative?
I struggled. I wrangled. Eventually I reached the point where, as my husband is fond of saying. you stick a fork in it and pronounce it done. I reached that point about an hour before show time.
So: Here, in part, is how it went:
I began with a passage from the Stratford Express, a local newspaper widely read at the time that the crime took place (1895). The reporter, as you will see, does not mince words, referring to the murder as “…the most horrible, the most awful and revolting crime that we have ever been called upon to record.” It goes on:
In the wildest dreams of fiction, nothing has ever been depicted which equals in loathsomeness this story of sons playing at cards in a room which the dead body of their murdered mother filled with the stench of corruption.
Upon my second reading of The Wicked Boy, this passage put me in mind of a work which, although written more than four hundred years ago, remains probably the most harrowing depiction of the effect of murder upon the perpetrators that was ever recorded.
Is this a dagger which I see before me,The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.Art thou not, fatal vision, sensibleTo feeling as to sight? or art thou butA dagger of the mind, a false creation,Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
And afterwards, oh, afterwards…He tells Lady Macbeth that the deed is done. He is nearly incoherent from the horror of it. For some moments, the known world is held in some kind of awful suspension, until a knocking at the gate is heard, a knocking that perversely prefigures a scene of comic relief featuring a porter too drunk to do his job.Thomas De Quincey describes this unholy sequence of events brilliantly in his essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth:”
Here … the retiring of the human heart and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires…. In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers, and the murder, must be insulated—cut off by an immeasurable gulph from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs—locked up and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested—laid asleep—tranced—racked into a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the reestablishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.
This critique is followed by an apostrophe to the greatness of Shakespeare that begins, “O, mighty poet!” Indeed, but be assured, Mr. De Quincey, thou art no slouch thyself in the eloquence department!
After giving a brief backgrounder on Kate Summerscale – necessarily brief, as there’s not much material about her personal life out there, at least not that I could find – I focused on the three books she authored before The Wicked Boy:
I’ve not read The Queen of Whale Cay, but it sounds interesting. “Joe” Carstairs was apparently a rather unique character, in more than one way. I read and very much enjoyed Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Neither of these two works was in the true crime genre, but The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher certainly was. I led a discussion on that title back in 2009. What a rich concoction of a tale that is! It was Summerscale’s breakthrough book, winning the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. (This has since been renamed The Baillie Gifford Prize. Presumably the British penchant for renaming literary awards is meant to keep us book lovers awake and alert.) In 2010, she was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (which appears to retain that name as of this writing.)
All Summerscale’s books save the first one take place – or, as in the case of The Wicked Boy, have their beginnings – in the Victorian era. In an interview in the Independent, quoted in the September/October 2016 issue of Bookmarks Magazine, she enlarges on her attraction to that particular time in history:
…it feels far enough away to be gripping, like a mystery or an adventure, but near enough to also recognise…..It’s strange on the surface, but you can get it. My sense of what we’re like as English people–the idea of the Englishness I inhabit–I have a sense of it being forged [then].
The subject matter of The Wicked Boy is grim enough. The murdered mother alluded to in the quote at the beginning of this post was done to death by her own son. His name was Robert Coombes. At the time of the murder he was thirteen years old. What made the crime appear even more appalling – then as now – was the fact that once it had been done, Robert, his twelve-year-old brother Nattie, and a somewhat simple minded adult companion named John Fox, whom Robert recruited for various purposes, not only played cards, but also attended cricket matches and amused themselves in various other ways as if they hadn’t a care in the world. (Their father, a merchant seaman, was away from home.)
What was their ultimate plan? There didn’t seem to be one, except to make the most of this hard won freedom for as long as they could. In ten days, the gig was up. When asked, Robert came clean and took the rap.
An even more pressing question involved Robert’s motive. Although he readily admitted to stabbing his mother, he didn’t supply a motive that seemed commensurate with the crime. Their mother thrashed Nattie for stealing food, presumably from their own larder. Adolescent boys develop powerful appetites, and Emily Coombes might not have been making allowances for this. At least one reviewer I encountered felt that this denial of needed nourishment might have been enough to trigger the killing. Neither of the boys was undernourished, though it’s worth noting that neither attained much height in adulthood. Nattie in particular was not much more than five feet tall.
One theory frequently offered was that Robert had fallen prey to the malign influence exerted by the so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’ that he read compulsively. As defined by Wikipedia, these were “cheap popular serial literature produced during the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom.” (America had its own similarly flourishing industry; they were called “dime novels” here.) Summerscale provides an interesting context for this phenomenon:
Between 1870 and 1885, the number of children at elementary schools trebled, and by 1892 four and a half million children were being educated in the board schools. The new wave of literate boys sought out penny fiction as a diversion from the rote-learning and drill of the school curriculum….Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.
Sound familiar? A reviewer in The Guardian called penny dreadfuls “the Victorian equivalent of video games.”
I went off on a lengthy quest to find one of these, or at least a facsimile thereof. This American equivalent, published in 1903, is what I finally came up with, courtesy of eBay:
Inside front cover
Proclaiming the entries in this series to be “excellent books of generous length,” the editor goes on to offer this assurance: “One of the best features about these books is that they are all of the highest moral tone, containing nothing that could be objectionable to the most particular parents.”
Our group went on to discuss the types of emotional and mental disturbances that might have affected Robert. (Thank you, Frank, for your enlightening and professionally informed comments on this subject.) Ultimately Robert was adjudged guilty but insane. John Fox was not made to stand trial. Nattie testified against his brother – he was “flipped,” as they in contemporary police dramas – and was granted immunity.
And Robert was sent off to a rather extraordinary institution called Broadmoor, originally opened in 1863. Under the enlightened regime in place there, he reached a more or less normal and potentially productive adulthood. He learned a marketable skill – tailoring, played in the band, something he loved to do and was good at, and participated in various sports.
In 1912, at age 30, he was released from Broadmoor and went to live at another interesting residential facility, The Salvation Army Farm Colony at Hadleigh, in Essex. Both Broadmoor and the Salvation Army facility are still in existence. The latter, in fact, has been repurposed in a way that truly give one hope for the future.
Robert only stayed a year at the Hadleigh colony before emigrating to Australia. At that point in Kate Summerscale’s research, she nearly lost the plot. She was afraid that Robert Coombes might have changed his name. He hadn’t. She picked up the thread once again when a Google search led her to a database of headstones in Australian cemeteries. Click here for the listing. And here is the inscribed memorial:
So: there was a record of Robert’s military service; in addition, an unknown name of one for whom he had apparently done a good turn. She could pick up her research from that point. And she did. Robert’s life in Australia – including Army service in foreign parts on behalf of his adopted country – occupies the second half of The Wicked Boy. It is a virtually unbroken chronicle of courage, sacrifice, and generosity, freely offered with no expectation of any kind of return.
And so, at the end of this sad and tragic narrative, one question looms over all. At first, I phrased the query in terms of atonement or redemption. Frank however felt that the real question was whether, over the course of his life, Robert Coombes had changed in a fundamental way. But that begs the question as to what exactly was the make-up of his nature on that fateful day in 1895? And anyway, a 13-year-old is a half formed thing. Anyone would change from that point in time up until he or she reached adulthood. Of course, most 13-year-olds, whatever the conflicts with their parents, do not up and kill one of them out of spite, frustration – or whatever it was. Was there a deadness in Robert’s heart where at least some degree of regard for his mother should have reposed? Frank thought there was.
One of the things that those attempting to adjudicate Robert’s case had to grapple with was the fact that at the time he committed the crime, he was no longer really a child but not yet an adult. The identification of adolescence as a distinct stage of development was only just then gaining acceptance in the literature of psychology and child rearing. (Wikipedia has an interesting post on the subject.)
In talking this over with my husband, he pointed out that a person who atones or genuinely repents a past act has by definition changed from what he or she was when the act was first committed.
At any rate, in this case of Robert Coombes, these questions must remain at least to some extent speculative. Summerscale not only did not unearth a journal or diary of any kind, she did not even find any letters. We can only judge him by his outward actions. And in his adult life, those belonged to a human being who was almost desperately striving toward goodness.
In an interview with Publishers Weekly. Kate Summerscale was asked whether she was concerned about being pigeonholed as a true crime writer. This was her response:
No. I think it’s a fascinating genre. True crime is ethically kind of precarious, often uncomfortably close to voyeurism, prurience, a fascination with violence, transgression, and pain—but it can examine the dark traits that it panders to, and for just this reason it has an unusual capacity to engage with questions about psychology, cruelty, culpability, emotional disturbance, damage, injustice, restitution, fear, pity, grief.
The Wicked Boy has been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime Book of 2017 by the Mystery Writers of America. Winners will be announced later this month.
‘Metta Fuller Victor was the first writer, male or female, to produce full-length detective novels in the United States….’
There is something unearthly in the scream of the “steam-eagle,” especially when heard at night.
Indeed: a train roars into Peekskill, New York, and with it comes heartbreak.
Metta Fuller Victor evokes fear, anxiety, and above all, compulsive curiosity in The Dead Letter. Right at this remarkable novel’s outset, a blameless young man is found brutally murdered. Lives are upended; one in particular, devoured by grief, will never recover. It is left to others to solve this baffling crime.
Here the mansion lay, bathed in the rich sunshine; the garden sparkled with flowers as the river with ripples, so full, as it were, of conscious, joyous life, while the master of all lay in a darkened room awaiting his narrow coffin. Never had the uncertainty of human purposes so impressed me as when I looked abroad over that stately residence and thought of the prosperous future which had come to so awful a standstill.
I am much drawn to the loveliness and grace of this writing, and it is here present in abundance. If at times it shades into melodrama, no matter. The core sentiments are real and moving.
The edition pictured above comes from the Duke University Press; as you can see, it includes a second work by Victor, The Figure Eight. This I have not read yet but am greatly looking forward to doing so. I strongly recommend Catherine Ross Nickerson’s highly informative and enlightening introduction to this volume, from which the title of this post is taken. She offers this pithy summation of Victor’s life:
We do not have a great deal of information on the life of Metta Fuller Victor, though we do have her prolific legacy of fiction. Born in 1831, she grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio and attended a female seminary. She began to write poetry as a teenager, often with her sister Frances Fuller, and the two published a volume of poetry when Metta Fuller was twenty.
She went on to a remarkable career in the dime novel and was successful in several genres for both children and adults: the western, the romance, temperance novels, and rags-to-riches tales. She wrote relatively little under her own name and chose different pseudonyms for different genres, a practice that allowed her to develop a following among several sectors of readers. When she was twenty-five, she married Orville Victor, editor of Beadle and Adams, and it seems fair to say that she built the Beadle empire of publications with him. She was editor of Beadle’s Home and Beadle’s Monthly, in which The Dead Letter first appeared in serial form in 1866. Victor was best known for an abolitionist dime novel (which she published under her own name) called Maum Guinea and Her Plantation “Children” (1861). Alongside this highly productive career in letters, she raised nine children.
As for Victor’s work, Nickerson is of the opinion that Victor was instrumental in
…creating an identifiable tradition of women’s detective fiction that extends well into the twentieth century. The close association of that tradition with an earlier body of popular women’s writing, the domestic novel of the 1850s, produced a style we can call domestic detective fiction because of its distinctive interest in moral questions regarding family, home, and women’s experience.
The Dead Letter held me from beginning to end. The characters were believable and sympathetic; the plot was elegantly constructed and at the same time gripping. As a window on a past world, it was particularly appealing.
Hard to believe that this eminently readable novel was published in 1867.