Donna Leon’s Venice ambivalence

June 30, 2017 at 9:38 pm (Italy, Mystery fiction)

  Yes – well, this is not news, exactly. That ambivalence is once again present in Earthly Remains, the author’s latest Guido Brunetti novel.

First, there’s this:

They sat in silence for a moment, three Venetians, relatives at the wake of a city that has been an empire and was now selling off the coffee spoons to try to pay the heating  bill.

Then some ninety pages later, there’s this:

Another bridge, then open water on one side. On the other was the Basilica and the Palazzo, and Brunetti had the sudden realization that, though none of this belonged to him, he belonged to all of it.

Illegality, incompetence, indifference, venality, stunning beauty, inescapable history – all there, all part of the rich stew that makes up present day Venice.

And then, there’s that other problem….

Donna Leon’s image graced the cover of the Spring 2017 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine:

The feature piece was written by Oline H. Cogdill, whose reviews and analyses of crime fiction are always a pleasure to read. For me, the surprising nugget here was the news that Donna Leon has shifted her primary residence to a small village in Switzerland that consists, she avers of “a couple hundred people, a couple hundred cows.” Although she still spends a lot of time in Venice, she avoids the city in the summer months. The brutal influx of tourists has at last become intolerable, a sad commentary, I think.

Leon has written about this problem in previous novels. In By Its Cover, she describes Brunetti’s shock when he’s suddenly confronted by an ocean-going behemoth of a cruise ship. Here’s what I wrote in my blog post:

As we loyal readers of this series have come to expect, plenty of social and political commentary finds its way into the story. Early in the novel, Brunetti is in the police launch, piloted by the skillful and reliable Foa, when they round a curve and come upon a scene that leaves them dumbstruck. It’s the stern of a gigantic cruise ship:

Seven eight, nine, ten storeys. From their perspective, it blocked out the city, blocked out the light, blocked out all thought or sense or reason or the appropriateness of things. They trailed along behind it, watching the wake it created it avalanche slowly towards the rivas on both sides, tiny wave after tiny wave after tiny wave, and what in God’s name was the thrust of that vast expanse of displaced  water doing to those stones and to the centuries-old binding that kept them in place?

And that’s not all:

Suddenly the air was unbreathable as a capricious gust blew the ship’s exhaust down on them for a few seconds.

Earthly Remains is not concerned with the tourist scourge per se; rather, it’s about a type of ruination that Venetians themselves bring on their own city. It’s a sad story, replete with the disillusionment that Brunetti, a decent and caring man, all too frequently experiences in the course of his work. The almost total absence of his family  – the astute and shrewd Paola, and their children Raffi and Chiara – from the narrative only serves to accentuate the bleak atmosphere.

I wrote about this novel in a recent post about pacing in crime fiction in general and noir fiction and film in particular. At the time I was about a third of the way in and becoming impatient for the plot to take shape. I was also reading Colin Harrison’s thriller You Belong To Me. The latter really had me in its grip. And yet Earthly Remains ultimately won me over, while Harrison’s book began to pale beside it.

At any rate, time spent with Commissario Guido Brunetti is invariably time well spent. I am grateful that in the crowded world of mystery fiction, both he and his creator persevere.

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More mysterious musings

June 20, 2017 at 10:55 pm (books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

The noir sensibility would seem to having its moment – again…

I like this trenchant observation made by Megan Abbott in her recent New York Times review of You Belong To Me by Colin Harrison:

Noir has always had a complicated relationship with nostalgia, alternately rejecting the past as a psychological prison and romanticizing it as the lost Eden that predated our fallen present. At its heart, however, the hard, hungry gaze of noir has always been fixed instead on the future. It’s a genre filled with the kind of characters the novelist Laura Lippman calls “dreamers who become schemers.” The dedicated employee who decides to steal from the boss, the drifter who wants the rich man’s wife, the low-rent crooks who try to pull off the big con.

  Megan Abbott is the author of the excellent You Will Know Me.   As for the subject of this particular review, I immediately downloaded You Belong To Me and started reading it. I’m now  55 pages in – eighteen per cent, as the Kindle Reader helpfully informs me – and let’s put it this way: it’s not my usual thing. For one thing, the thoughts attributed to various characters can be exceedingly harsh, judgmental, and cynical; I’m not comfortable quoting them here. Nevertheless, assailed by a kind of coruscating wit one moment and provoked to astonishment and dread the next, I can’t seem to put the book down! (Judging by where I am currently in the narrative, the novel can best be described as Henry James on speed. It’s a quintessentially New York novel of manners, all right – but updated to  the twenty-first century. And what manners!)

Interviewed in the latest issue of Mystery Scene Magazine, writer and critic Eddie Muller offers these thoughts on the essence of noir:

It was the artists who created it and fostered it, not the executives….Some of the films made money, sure–but this had more to do with artists feeling a sense of liberation after the constraints that the Depression and World War II put on them to be “uplifting.” Now they could write adult stories that didn’t have to end well. And that often meant making “bad guys” of the protagonists, which was really the revolutionary, subversive aspect of these films. The central character didn’t have to be a good guy–but he or she was relatable and even someone with whom you could empathize. That’s sort of how I define noir, both literary and cinematic.

  Meanwhile, while trying to control my compulsion to devour You Belong To Me in several gargantuan gulps, I’m also reading Earthly Remains, the latest entry in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series.   From the standpoint of pacing, this novel is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Harrison’s mile-a-minute thriller. I’m a third of the way in – sorry not to be more specific, I’m reading it the old fashioned way – and almost nothing has happened. Brunetti is taking a solo vacation in a house owned by his wife Paola’s wealthy relations. So far, he’s done a lot of rowing, bicycling, reading, and eating. Sounds pleasant, but it doesn’t exactly make for riveting reading.

Still, I’m inordinately fond of Guido Brunetti, so I don’t mind hanging out with him in this way – for a while. And I was deeply moved by the novel immediately preceding this one: The Waters of Eternal Youth.And I do sense the presence of something indefinably ominous in the air. Ah well – pazienza….

  Meanwhile, I shall make it my business to get hold of Dark City, Eddie Muller’s highly praised book on noir. And I want to take this opportunity to remind those who have an interest in the subject of David Meyer’s terrific work A Girl and a Gun. I shall here quote Meyer as well as myself, from a post I wrote in September 2011 on the occasion of a discussion of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity.

Here’s how Meyer describes the “fortuitous clash of cultures” that gave birth to noir:

As purely an American art form as jazz or the Western, noir sprang from a specific set of social and creative circumstances: the end of World War II, the impact of European refugees on an American art form, the mainstream film studios’ need for a steady supply of low budgets, lurid pictures, and the ascendance of a particular writing style….The hard-bitten, American pulp energy of James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, B. Traven, Raymond Chandler, and others was filtered through the refined, ironic sensibilities of cultured European directors.The writers created heroes who dealt with spiritual crisis (caused by the emptiness of Amercian middle-class life) by alternating between emotional withdrawal and attack. The refugee directors preferred a more sardonic, alienated approach.

Meyer sums up: “The combining of these sensibilities helped create one of the great creative outpourings in American history.”

The title of Meyer’s book is taken from a quote by Jean Luc Godard: “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.” 




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The Crossing by Michael Connelly: a book discussion

June 15, 2017 at 12:55 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

  Last night, Frank took the discussion of a specific book – Michael Connelly’s The Crossing – and broadened it until it was about mystery fiction in general: its chief characteristics, what makes it work, why we love it.

An aspiring author himself, Frank tends to approach book discussions from a writer’s point of view. His kickoff question concerned a crucial  aspect of narrative: the Major Dramatic Question. The MDQ, as it’s sometimes called for the sake of brevity, is the story element that initially hooks the reader and keeps him or her committed right through to the book’s end. The hunger for the answer to that question is the chief generator of suspense.

Frank asked us what that question traditionally is in a romance novel. We had no trouble with that one: Will the guy get the girl (or vice versa). With crime novels, the question is more often specific to the situation posited by the author. In The Crossing, we learn early on that defense attorney Micky Haller, Harry Bosch‘s half-brother, needs the help of an experienced investigator to prove his client’s innocence. He appeals to Harry to take on the job.

Will Harry accede to Mickey’s request? He has plenty of reasons not to. He’s retired from the Homicide Division of the Los Angeles PD, utilizing his newly freed up time to restore a vintage motorcycle. More importantly, he’s concentrating on his relationship with his daughter Maddie, soon to go off to college.

There’s yet another reason to refuse this request, and it has to do with Harry’s identification as a law enforcement professional. Among his cadre of fellow police, it is considered traitorous to work in any capacity for a legal defense team. It is tantamount to going over to the dark side. This is the prevailing perception, even when there are indications that the defendant in question is innocent. Harry’s internal struggle with this dilemma is the chief element that propels the story forward right from the beginning.

Frank also brought up the concept of the sympathetic character. How does an author create such a character, and what’s the advantage of having him or her having a part in the narrative? We responded that a sympathetic character is one that you feel a bond with and whose values you as a reader can identify with. You become invested in that person’s fate, and so you feel compelled to stick with the story.

We Suspects were not in complete agreement as to whether there was such a character in Connelly’s novel. The closest we came to one was Bosch’s daughter Maddie.

Frank also brought up  ‘free indirect style’ or ‘free indirect discourse.’ As best as I can make out, this term refers to instances in which the author describes a character’s inner thoughts and/or feelings while continuing to tell the story in the third person. Wikipedia calls it ‘free indirect speech’ and defines it as “a style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech.”

Harking back to my English major instruction in literary terminology, I recall this mode of writing being called ‘third person limited,’ as opposed to ‘third person omniscient.’ All of this comes under the rubric  ‘point of view,’ as explained here:

Point of view: the perspective from which the story is told.

The most obvious point of view is probably first person or “I.”
The omniscient narrator knows everything, may reveal the motivations, thoughts and feelings of the characters, and gives the reader information.
With a limited omniscient narrator, the material is presented from the point of view of a character, in third person.
The objective point of view presents the action and the characters’ speech, without comment or emotion. The reader has to interpret them and uncover their meaning.

Taken from “Literary Terms,”  a very helpful list on the Brooklyn College site

(I recall first learning of the way in which Henry James made brilliant use of  the limited omniscient narrator. Since my college days, I’ve had numerous occasions to observe with wonder as the master plies his trade, both in full length novels and  short stories.)

Commenting that to him, The Crossing seems more of a thriller than a murder mystery, Frank pointed out the element of banter that one encounters in the novel’s dialog. This is just one way of keeping the plot moving briskly. I was immediately put in mind of  Old Bones, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s latest Bill Slider procedural. Harrod-Eagles makes liberal use of banter; it ricochets among members of Slider’s team and veers from laugh out loud funny to insightful and reflective.

Several of us recalled fondly how well Robert B Parker deployed this technique of dialog construction in the Spenser novels. (Has it actually been seven years? You are still much missed, Mr Parker.)

The Harry Bosch novels are  set in greater Los Angeles, and Connelly displays a nice feel for the region. I wondered aloud at how Southern California has been used repeatedly and effectively in crime fiction by Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanlety Gardner, Ross MacDonald, Sue Grafton, James Ellroy, and Connelly, among others. Someone suggested that the presence of the entertainment industry might have something to do with this phenomenon. Frank oberved that whereas films require the viewer’s unwavering attention for some two hours, the novel reader may stop at any point and take time to reflect on what has taken place, and what may follow. (I don’t believe  that any of us present last night had watched any episodes of Amazon’s Bosch series. I listened to this novel narrated by Titus Welliver, who plays the title role in the TV series. He does an excellent job.)

Ross MacDonald’s take on the City of Angels  and its environs can be pretty devastating:

MacDonald’s depiction of mid-twentieth century southern California as a land of material riches and moral and spiritual bankruptcy has rarely been equaled. His mix of noir cynicism with an empathetic view of human vulnerability makes for a strangely heartbreaking reading experience.

(Penned by Yours Truly, in a letter to the Washington Post)

We talked about the way in which mysteries are often, at least in part, about a hero’s journey: from innocence to experience, ignorance to knowledge, naivete to a kind of knowingness that will make it possible for him or her to survive in an often hostile word. At some point, Frank mentioned – or someone else did – that in the course of the narrative, the protagonist ought to change in some way. And yet, in crime fiction, that often does not happen, at least not in an overt manner, especially if you’re reading about a character in a series. In fact, some of us don’t want that protagonist to change. (Please stay just as you are, noble Commissario Brunetti!)

Frank had each of us weigh in on what we liked or didn’t like about the book. I mentioned the two elements of a novel that I consider supremely important: structural excellence and good writing. He challenged me to define what I meant by ‘structure.’ This made me realize that I have to think and read some more about this subject! I do think that The Crossing was structured in an unusual and very effective way. For me. this element of the narrative ratcheted up the suspense a great deal. As for the writing, I thought it was extremely good. Connelly is not trying to compose a literary masterpiece, but rather heart stopping thriller. In this, he succeeded.

(Here’s an illuminating piece on story structure in Writer’s Digest Magazine.)

Toward the conclusion of this extremely invigorating exchange of ideas, I found myself scribbling fragments in my notebook: life is a mystery…shades of gray…intellectual morality plays…start with confusion and end with clarity…ambiguity…legal response…justice?

In a subsequent email, Pauline used the word ‘erudite’ to describe our discussion. She further complimented Frank on his “unique and creative approach” to the material.

I wholeheartedly agree.



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Inez Milholland Boissevain, Sophie Irene Loeb, and Grace Quackenbos Humiston

June 12, 2017 at 9:50 pm (books, History, True crime narratives)

  I am learning a great deal from Brad Ricca’s fascinating book. Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is chiefly the story of Grace Quackenbos Humiston, attorney at law and crusader for the oppressed and maltreated, especially those found among the immigrant population in this country in the early years of the last century. Peonage, a cruel system that kept workers in debt and tied to their employers indefinitely, was bad enough – but there’s more. Grace also worked to free those wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The case of Charles Stielow in particular is a real cliff hanger. As with all the cases that came her way, Grace worked tirelessly on this one. She was helped in her efforts by two equally extraordinary women: Sophie Irene Loeb and Inez Milholland Boissevain. Plagued by ill health and prone to push herself to the limit, Inez died in November of 1916 at the age of thirty.

Sophie Loeb wrote a eulogy in the Evening World titled “The Example of Inez Milholland.” Loeb wrote of her “dear, dear friend” by telling readers that you could always find her not in the usual spots for women, but in asylums, Sing Sing, and political marches. “How easy it might have been for so lovely a creature as she to sit idly by,” Sophie wrote. “But no. She could not enjoy the world while it suffered … she went forth to fight and used every asset to gain something for others, even unto the very end.” Inez, according to Sophie, was

An example for the idle rich girl who is poor indeed, whose time hangs heavy because it is full of nothingness. An example for the pretty girl who believes that all life means is to smile and dress. An example of the woman of brains who hides them under her marcel wave because she has become a parasite. An example for the woman who thinks that she can gain love when she acquires a man’s bank account. An example for all womanhood.

Grace Quackenbos Humiston 1869-1948

Sophie Irene Loeb 1876-1929

Inez Milholland Boissevain 1886-1916

How I wish I could have known them!


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Mysterious Musings

June 10, 2017 at 10:49 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Slider moved quietly until he could see into the room, and watched for a moment as the cars and plastic marines bounced and jerked to the murmuring narrative. Then George sensed him, turned, and his face lit in a ravishing smile.

No one who has ever been greeted by that ‘ravishing smile’ will ever forget it. In DCI Bill Slider’s case, it’s his second time around – in a second marriage –  with an infant to rear.

A pang of absolute love gripped Slider, making it for a moment hard to breathe. This intensity of feeling and minuteness of observation belonged to second families, and what made it worthwhile while starting all over again in middle age.

I and many of my friends have had a similar experience upon becoming grandparents. My younger grandchild is now three years old – ‘a big boy,’ as he will solemnly remind you – and those same moments, although still vividly recalled, are now consigned to the past. (They are preserved, as never before, in a profusion of photos and videos. I look at them often.)

This passage is yet another example of why I love this series.

Have just finished Doug Selby novel number six: The D.A. Calls a Turn.The plot was exceptionally convoluted; nevertheless, I enjoyed spending time with Doug and company. I especially like the continuous sparring between reporter Sylvia Martin and Attorney Inez Stapleton, as they vie for Doug’s favor and attention. As usual, Sylvia would seem to have the edge, but in this series, as in life, you cannot be sure of the ultimate outcome. Another interesting feature of The D.A. Calls a Turn is the depiction of forensic investigation as it was done in the 1940s. In particular, the use of “a shaded light which gave a brilliant, slightly bluish illumination” to detect trace evidence on items of clothing brought to mind the use of luminol for a similar purpose.

Series entry number seven, The D.A. Breaks a Seal, is even now on its way to me.

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