Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: stellar stories

August 16, 2017 at 5:52 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

    This distinctive collection of short stories, meticulously curated by Sarah Weinman, comes as something of a revelation.

The anthology is subtitled, “Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense.” In her introduction, Sarah Weinman declares her attraction to contemporary crime fiction written by women. She names several: Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame), Tana French, Louise Penny, Sophie Hannah, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott. She avers that in their fiction, these writers and others have in effect taken “a scalpel to contemporary society,” revealing the moral rot lying just beneath the congenial seeming veneer. In particular, they often portray the struggles faced by women trying, in the face of insidious opposition, to lead meaningful lives.

When Weinman went in search of those who may have preceded the current wave of women authors of crime fiction, she made a surprising and disconcerting discovery; namely, that there was “an entire generation of female crime writers who have faded from view.” Troubled, Daughters, Twisted Wives is the start of an effort to rectify that situation by bringing these forerunners – “trailblazers” as Weinman rightly calls them –  and their intriguing, sometimes idiosyncratic works back into public view.

There are some  familiar names here: Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson being among the most notable. Vera Caspary’s fame rests mainly on her novel Laura, which was made into one of the great noir films of the 1940s starring Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, and Dana Andrews. Margaret Millar is known primarily as the wife of the great Ross MacDonald, but she deserves to be recognized in her own right for the fine writer  that she is. The prolific Dorothy B. Hughes, winner of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1978, wrote In a Lonely Place, which also became a distinguished noir film starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

 

Other names in this collection were barely familiar – to me, anyway – or not previously known at all: Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Helen Nielsen, Joyce Harrington, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding. It would be difficult for me to name a favorite or favorites in this collection. I thought they were all, in varying degree, very much worth reading. So much so, in fact, that I intend to read them through a second time. (Weinman provides a page or so of valuable material about the author’s life and work before each story.)

Taken together, these stories evoke a vivid picture of a lost mid twentieth century America. You had to wait around to place a long distance call and then calculate the cost of it. Everyone had servants, even families of modest income. Men oscillated between exploiting women and protecting them (and making a show of protecting them). Men were schemers and so were women. Civilization sometimes seemed a perilously thin veneer, poised on the knife edge, always threatening to topple over into chaos. The past is a different country, for sure, but on the other hand, the more things change….

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives came out in 2013. Two years later, with Sarah Weinman as editor, the Library of America brought out Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s. The authors featured in this two volume collection are Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1940s); Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith, and Dolores Hitchens (1950s).

 

Earlier this month, I had  the pleasure of hearing Sarah Weinman speak at the Sisters in Crime Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration. She spoke about her work as an editor and a critic in the field of crime fiction, where she’s making, as you can see from the above, an outstanding contribution to the field. (With her efforts to bring worthy writers back from undeserved obscurity, I see her as a sort of American counterpart to Martin Edwards.)

In the course of her talk (which alas I had some trouble hearing in its entirety), Sarah Weinman extolled in particular the virtues of the following: Celia Fremlin (in whose Edgar Award winning novel The Hours Before Dawn I’m currently engrossed), Marie Belloc Lowndes, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Lowndes wrote The Lodger, a famously chilling thriller made into a silent film in 1927 by a neophyte director named Alfred Hitchcock.   Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, whose story “The Stranger in the Car” I found especially effective, authored a novel called The Blank Wall. After hearing Weinman discuss it, I’m very eager to read it.

As for Dorothy Salisbury Davis, her story “Lost Generation” was one of the shorter ones in the collection, and also one of  the most powerful. Sarah Weinman enthused about the fact that she’d had the opportunity to meet and talk with Ms Davis. At the time of the publication of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (2013), Davis was 96 years old. She passed away the following year.

Celia Fremlin

Shirley Jackson

Patricia Highsmith

Dorothy B. Hughes

Margaret Millar

Vera Caspary

Dorothy Salisbury Davis

Sarah Weinman at Sisters in Crime

Sarah Weinman in better focus!

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“Flight” by Tessa Hadley – something about this story…

August 11, 2017 at 9:43 pm (books, Short stories)

  Two sisters, Claire and Susan, have been estranged for a number of years. Their lives have evolved very differently. Shuttling between Philadelphia and London, Claire, who is single, is a busy professional woman. Susan, also single since her husband’s desertion, works as a carer for elderly and disabled persons. She has four children, two of whom are grown and living on their own. Ryan, the youngest, still lives at home. So does Amy, who has just had a baby. Also living with all of them is Amy’s boyfriend Ben, the baby’s father.

The arrival of the baby represents a tipping point for Claire. It’s time, she believes, to end the hostilities between  Susan and herself. She decides to show up unannounced at the house in Leeds, which had been the childhood home for both of them. (This house, in fact, is at the heart of the dispute between the sisters.)

When Claire arrives, Susan is not at home, but she is warmly welcomed by Amy and Ben, and later by Ryan when he gets home. As for the baby, Claire finds herself gripped simultaneously by feelings of love and pity:

The sight of his weak flailing baby limbs and the reddened swollen navel tugged painfully at Claire – he startled fearfully once, jerking his whole body with grimace and lost cry as if he were falling through empty space.

Meanwhile, all three have been awaiting Susan’s return from work. They do not know how she will react to Claire’s completely unexpected  presence.

They are soon to find out.

Something about this story affected me deeply. Its cumulative power had me suspended in time. I had no notion how things would play out. I only knew that it mattered to me very, very much.

“Flight” can be read online here, but I recommend getting Hadley’s collection Bad Dreams and Other Stories. As a writer of short fiction, she is, in my view, right up there with Alice Munro.

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Say it isn’t so, David Mamet!

August 9, 2017 at 1:23 am (books, Library, Magazines and newspapers)

A piece appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal the title of which was sufficient to make me sit up and take notice:

“Charles Dickens Makes Me Want to Throw Up.”

 

David Mamet

Say it isn’t so, renowned playwright and screenwriter David Mamet! (Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, Wag the Dog, and much more besides.) But, alas, Mamet surely does suffer from a serious Dickens aversion, to wit:

Dickens’s characters are cardboard cutouts, even in their names: Inspector Bucket, the Brothers Cheeryble, Jerry Cruncher. They are mechanicals. His prose is turgid and, less forgivable, tortured. Here’s his rendition, in “Dombey and Son,” of a sea-captain’s dialect: “It’s an almighty element. There’s wonders in the deep, my pretty. Think on it when the winds is roaring and the waves is rowling.”

Mamet sums up: “What a load of bosh.” He adds that in his view, the public’s love for the works of Dickens is “sententious and perhaps even self-congratulatory.”

Well, that’s me, congratulating myself all over the place. Knowing I’m not alone eases the pain, though.

Here’s how Bleak House begins:

CHAPTER I

In Chancery

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting
in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in
the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of
the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus,
forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn
Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black
drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown
snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of
the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better;
splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one
another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing
their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other
foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke
(if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust
of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and
accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and
meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers
of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.
Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping
into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and
hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales
of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient
Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog
in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper,
down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of
his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the
bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog
all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the
misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as
the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman
and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their
time–as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling
look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the
muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction,
appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old
corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn
Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in
his High Court of Chancery.

Turgid? Seems more like magic, to me.

  When I retired in 2007, one of my short term goals was to read Bleak House. I regret that I have yet to accomplish this. In fact, the only Dickens novel I’ve read in recent years is The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It was, I have to admit, a bit of a struggle, though periodically enlivened by sprightly passages like this one, in which the denizens of a pantry are brought vividly to life:

Every benevolent inhabitant of this retreat had his name inscribed upon his stomach. The pickles, in a uniform of rich brown double-breasted buttoned coat, and yellow or sombre drab continuations, announced their portly forms, in printed capitals, as Walnut, Gherkin, Onion, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Mixed, and other members of that noble family. The jams, as being of a less masculine temperament, and as wearing curlpapers, announced themselves in feminine caligraphy, like a soft whisper, to be Raspberry, Gooseberry, Apricot, Plum, Damson, Apple, and Peach. The scene closing on these charmers, and the lower slide ascending, oranges were revealed, attended by a mighty japanned sugar-box, to temper their acerbity if unripe. Home-made biscuits waited at the Court of these Powers, accompanied by a goodly fragment of plum-cake, and various slender ladies’ fingers, to be dipped into sweet wine and kissed.

Charles Dickens  1812-1870

Mamet gives grudging approval to A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol. As for me, the experience of reading David Copperfield – several decades ago, admittedly – was nothing less than life changing. It is a towering achievement in world creation, and will always will be one of my favorite works of art.

Mamet far prefers Anthony Trollope to Dickens. I too am a Trollope fan. Many years ago I read Barchester Towers and was so vastly entertained that I resolved to read The Barsetshire Chronicles in its entirety. (Of the six novels that comprise the series, I’ve read the three starred below.)

    *

 

*         *

 

  

Again, this was many years ago. I recall Barchester Towers being a bravura performance in novel writing, in equal part hilarious and outrageous, while Doctor Thorne was an exceptionally poignant love story. (For an excellent appreciation of Anthony Trollope, read Adam Gopnik’s “Trollope Trending” from the May 4 2015 issue of the New Yorker.)

Mamet also offers words of praise, albeit somewhat grudgingly, to several other favorites of mine: George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon 1835-1915

George Eliot 1819-1880

 

Anthony Trollope 1815-1882

 

Wilkie Collins 1824-1889

(In my review of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, I make reference to both The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.)

Ah well – enough. Everyone’s entitled to his or her own opinion in these matters – although I do have to consciously remind myself of that truism from time to time…

The Wall Street Journal keeps most of its content behind a pay wall. There is another way to access that content, though, and it’s through the public library database called ProQuest. Allow me to walk you through the process:

First, get on the library’s site: hclibrary.org. Next,  scroll down until you see the words “Stream. Download. Learn.” They’re in a blue rectangle above the picture of a lady gardening. Click on that.

Scroll down to the three green circles. the one in the middle is the one you want. It contains an arrow pointing down, with three terms underneath it. The third is “e-newspapers.” Click on that. Scroll down to  the ‘Wall Street Journal 1986-present.’ You’ll then be required to authenticate yourself with your bar code and pin number.

Voila – you’re in. I strongly advise that you use the ‘advanced search’ option located directly beneath the search box. Type ‘Mamet’ in the  top box and select ‘author ‘(au). In the box below, your need only type in ‘Charles Dickens’ and select ‘title’ (ti) in the box to the right. The article should appear directly.

This is the set-up at Howard County Public Library. Other library systems probably offer similar facilities for online research.

 

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More praise for The Shepherd’s Life, courtesy of a letter to the Washington Post

August 7, 2017 at 8:10 pm (Anglophilia, books, Magazines and newspapers)

Kudos to Ann Massey for her letter which appeared in this past Saturday’s Washington Post. It’s entitled “Add this to your reading list;” in it, she sings the praises of The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.

I’ve done likewise in this space, on several occasions.

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The Templars’ Last Secret by Martin Walker

August 5, 2017 at 12:15 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

  “In Paris you forget that France is like this.”

So exclaims Amélie, special agent sent down by the Ministry of Justice from the City of Light to observe and report on policing in the remote provinces.

In this case, the particular remote province is St. Denis, felicitously located in France’s fabled Perigord region; the person doing the policing is our old friend Bruno Courrèges.

When I say “old friend,” I refer to the nine novels that precede this one in the Bruno Chief of Police series. I’ve read seven of them and have now reached the point that I grab the newest without looking at the reviews first. (This is uncharacteristic of me. Normally I rely on knowledgeable friends and/or reviewers to swiftly steer me away from books that don’t or won’t work for me, so as to save time, currently my most precious commodity.)

The occasion of Amélie’s amazement is the peacefulness and quiet beauty of the Perigord countryside, as exemplified by scenes like this:

It had  become a perfect spring afternoon, bright sunshine with scattered clouds like white puffballs and gentle breezes that set the young green leaves of the willows by the river quivering so that the trees seemed almost to dance on the water. Mother ducks paddled serenely, each with a  row of tiny ducklings behind her like warships in a line of battle.An angler standing in the shallows was castling his fly in a long, flickering curve that just kissed the surface of the river.

Don’t know about you, but I not only want to visit there – I want to live there. And there’s much, much more.

The prehistoric art and archaeology of the region are of paramount importance to the plot of this novel. So, as you’ll have guessed from the title, is the medieval period when the Knights Templar were going about their strange and often secretive business.

In PerigordSarlat, medieval town (Dordogne)This town is well known for its medieval heritage, in the heart of a beautiful region and a landscape full of superb feudal castles. The old town has a Templar cemetery, around the cathedral, where you can see a number of tombs marked with the distinctive cross. There is also a curious tower in the form of an arch known as the “lantern of the dead”.
From The Epic of the Templar Knights in France
Having become deeply fascinated by the prehistory of the Perigord, Bruno regrets that he was never able to undertake a formal study of the subject. He wonders:

Why were those supposedly primitive creatures suddenly inspired to start making art that is instantly appealing to modern humans, who recognize instinctively an aesthetic sensibility akin to our own?

Still, he’s able to learn quite a bit from being surrounded by museums and other artifacts, most especially the art in the complex of caves known collectively as Lascaux.  (The French site features a virtual tour  that is exceptionally detailed, not to mention eerie and evocative. Be sure to turn up the sound.)

As you may have already deduced, Bruno himself is one of the chief attractions of these novels. With the chickens out behind his house – he’s always having to rush home to feed them – his endearing and ever-present scent hound Balzac, his horse Hector, his lively and restless intellect, and his maddeningly irresolute love life, he is quite simply a pleasure to spend time with, and never dull. Oh, and might I add, he is a world class cook, whose culinary ventures are set forth in loving detail and  by the author:

His fish stock had almost defrosted, so he cut  the cod he’d bought into small cubes. He put two large spoons of duck fat into the bottom of his favorite flameproof casserole and put it onto the heat. Then he peeled two potatoes and half-a-dozen cloves of garlic. He diced the potatoes and crushed the garlic with the back of his knife, mixed them together and tossed them into  the casserole. He let that cook on low heat while he went out to the garden to pick some salad, washed and chopped it and put it to one side while he added the cubes of cod, the fish stock and a can of tomatoes to  the casserole. He poured a  large glass from the five-liter box of simple white Bergerac that he kept in the pantry, added it to the fish, stirred and tasted. A touch more salt was needed, and he adjusted the heat to a very low simmer.

Surely there should be some sort of award for a recipe description that makes me yearn to partake of a meal featuring fish as the main course, something I almost never experience.

(Recipes can be found at Bruno Chief of Police.   There is a cookbook as well, but as far as I can tell, it’s only available in German. Here are the particulars, courtesy of Martin Walker:

The Bruno cookbook has been named ‘World’s Best Book on French Cuisine’ at the Gourmand International awards, which were held this year in Yantai, China, home of China’s booming new wine industry.

This is a great honour and the credit goes to my wife and co-author, Julia, who is the real cook in the family; to my brilliant German photographer, Klaus Einwanger; to book designer Kobi Benezri (from Israel) and to the glorious production by my Swiss publishing house, Diogenes; and my editor at Diogenes, Anna von Planta.

It says something about globalisation that a book on French cuisine, written by a Brit of Scottish origin who lives in the Perigord and published in German by a Swiss publisher, wins an international prize awarded in China.)

Were you wondering about the plot? There certainly is one, and it begins with a woman’s lifeless body found below a cliff, above which looms the Chateau de Commarque, a former castle stronghold of the fabled Templar Knights.

Chateau de Commarque

She had apparently been trying to climb high enough to daub some sort of graffiti on the structure’s side.But right from the beginning, nothing  is as it appears. They don’t know if her death was an accident or murder. And there is no clue as to her identity.

It’s a fairly straightforward beginning to what becomes an extremely convoluted investigation. The cast of characters seemed to expand exponentially. Matters were further complicated by the involvement of numerous law enforcement entities. Then terrorism suddenly enters the mix.

(Warning to  future readers: there is a truly awful torture scene in this novel. Mercifully it is short, but in my view, it is glaringly out of place and superfluous, not to mention horribly cruel. I wish it hadn’t been there.)

To be honest, with regard to the plot, I got lost around the back stretch. But it didn’t worry me, as I was so absorbed with the doings of the main characters as they went about their business against the back drop of the numberless attractions of the Perigord.


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Kathy, proud proprietor of Mystery Loves Company Booksellers & Chesapeake Books in Oxford, Maryland, went to to Dordogne to see “Bruno Chief of Police” country for herself. She was so enchanted by what she found there that she bought a house! It is now available for rent.   
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Whenever I write about France – or even think about France – two musical compositions come to mind: Les Chants D’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne) by Joseph Canteloube, and the Farandole from L’Arlesienne by Georges Bizet.

 

 

 

 

 

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