‘Somewhere deep in the soul of the instrument was the indelible memory of that one great man.’ – Paganini’s Ghost, by Paul Adam

December 31, 2017 at 10:38 pm (Italy, Music, Mystery fiction)

This is a great mystery for lovers of both classical music and Italy. Gianni Castiglione is a luthier – a maker of violins and other  stringed instruments. He lives and works in Cremona, a city that has long been the center for this exacting art. Previous practitioners include Antonio Stradivari, Andrea Guarneri, and Andrea Amati. Instruments crafted by these past masters still command steep prices. In the ways that count, though, they are priceless.

Luthiers also condition and repair existing instruments, and it is in this capacity that Gianni has been sought out by Yevgeny Ivanov, a youthful violinist whose career is just taking off, and his imperious and overbearing mother, Ludmilla. The mystery begins with this seemingly straightforward encounter and gains in complexity until, I admit, I was having some trouble keeping track of the cast of characters and the twists and turns of the plot. But as is so often the case with this kind of crime fiction, it didn’t bother me. I was  so thoroughly engaged with the lore of the violin and its fascinating history, especially as it relates to that brilliant and tempestuous legend, Niccolo Paganini. Also helpful is the fact that Paul Adam’s prose is exceptionally fine. In this scene, Gianni is working on a violin that was once Paganini’s. He’s working under time constraints and has to get it right:

I was conscious of the time ticking by as I worked on the violin, but I tried not to let it disturb me. I also tried not to think of the status of the instrument. I had to regard it as an ordinary violin, not the violin that had belonged to the most celebrated virtuoso in history. But it wasn’t easy. Every time I touched it, I was aware that Paganini’s hands had been there  before mine. His fingers had held it; his chin had rested on the front plate; his breath had drifted over the varnish. Somewhere deep in the soul off the instrument was the indelible memory of that one great man.

Handling the violin gave me a strange feeling of transience. It had been made two centuries before I was born and it would survive long after I was gone. It wasn’t passing through my life; I was passing through its life, just as Paganini had passed through it.

Niccolo Paganini, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1819

Paul Adam studied law at Nottingham University before embarking on a career in journalism. He is the author of twelve novels for adults, including the two that currently comprise the Cremona series. He has also written the Max Cassidy Trilogy for young readers.

In the above bio, I could find no indication of where or when Adam’s deep love for, and knowledge of, the violin had come into his life. Fortunately, I found an interview in which he explained that he’d played the violin as a child and long been interested in its history and in the city of Cremona.

Paul Adam

I finished this novel several weeks ago, but it’s been brought vividly to mind by an extremely poignant essay I just read in The New Yorker. Entitled “A Tech Pioneer’s Final, Unexpected Act,” it is also about a young violinist and the power of music to exalt and to heal.


Permalink 2 Comments

London, Day Three: Trafalgar Square

December 30, 2017 at 6:17 pm (London 2017)

I was amazed and gratified to be in Trafalgar Square. It’s been decades since I was last there. I feel like a completely different person now. Gazing up at Nelson’s Column – all 169 feet and 3 inches of it – with the statue of England’s great Naval hero honored at its summit – I wished I could preserve the moment forever.

Wikipedia has an excellent entry about the Column, and terrific visuals to go with it.

Trafalgar Square was a festive hive of activity – some of it rather bizarre – on the Tuesday that Donna and I were there.

A violinist; he was quite good.

The National Gallery, our ultimate destination, faces directly onto the Square. So does this beautiful church.

I later found out that it was the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, familiar to me from The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the distinguished ensemble founded and led for many years by the great Neville Marriner.

Sir Neville Marriner April 15, 1924 – October2, 2016




Permalink Leave a Comment

Sue Grafton

December 29, 2017 at 9:44 pm (In memoriam, Mystery fiction)

Shocked and saddened to hear this: After battling cancer for the last two years, Sue Grafton has passed away. Her daughter Jamie Clark has posted a poignant obituary on Sue’s  home page.

I know I speak for many readers when I say that Sue’s “Alphabet mysteries” have given great pleasure since they debuted in 1982 with A Is for Alibi. We feel as though we know Kinsey Milhone. At least, we  we wish we did. She would have been great fun to hang out with: cheerfully irreverent but always compassionate, ever resourceful, and always good company.

Sue Grafton will be  genuinely and deeply missed.

Sue Taylor Grafton April 24, 1940 – December 28, 2017

Permalink Leave a Comment

Best books of 2017: Contemporary crime fiction, Part One

December 26, 2017 at 1:37 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

A Legacy of Spies. What wonderful work from John LeCarre, a living demonstration that his gifts as a  storyteller and his uncanny feeling for the shadowy world of espionage remain undiminished.

The Girl in the Ice and The Night Stalker – Bryndza. After The Girl in the Ice, I knew I’d be coming back for more – the second is, if anything,  better than the first.

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

The Crow Trap and The Seagull by Ann Cleeves. I’m now happily working my way through the Vera Stanhope series. What an original and oddly appealing protagonist she is.

The Templars’ Last Secret – Walker. I read each new Bruno Chief of Police novel as it comes out, not waiting on the reviews – I know I want to spend time with Bruno and the other denizens of the village of St. Denis. And I always want to be updated on his never-quite-successful love life. (Bruno earnestly desires a wife and children:  I’m rooting for you, Bruno!)

Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson. Ordinarily I’m not drawn to mysteries featuring real historical personages as protagonists, but I’d been hearing and reading good things about this series; this is especially true of Jessica Mann’s review of this novel (among others) in the October issue of Literary Review Magazine. Being a staunch fan of Josephine Tey’s mysteries, I decided to give it a try. I liked it a great deal, for its depiction of the interwar years, the Cambridge setting, and the portrayal of Tey as a resourceful, courageous woman of great integrity. (This is precisely  how I prefer to think of her factual counterpart.)

The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid. A rich mixture of history and literature made this somewhat lengthy mystery well worth the effort.

Dance Hall of the Dead. What a pleasure it was to return to the works of Tony Hillerman; his mysteries brought the Native American culture of New Mexico to such vivid life. In fact, he and Judith Van Gieson both made the state itself seem so special and exotic that I felt I had to go there. I did – twice – and I fell in love with the place. It is truly the Land of Enchantment.

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon. Not my absolute  favorite from the Guido Brunetti series, but being in the company of the urbane and compassionate Commissario  always results in time well spent.

The Crossing and The Late Show by Michael Connelly. As good as The Crossing was – it was voted best ‘read’ of 2017 by the Usual SuspectsThe Late Show was even better. Michael Connelly has given us a terrific new protagonist – Detective Renee Ballard – provided her with an intriguing back story, and then summoned up a rich brew of murder, departmental backstabbing, and fiendishly complicated criminal enterprise with which to contend. And boy, does she contend!

When I started reading The Late Show three days ago, I was  daunted by its length – 400 pages. I’m hopping on a plane next week and can’t possibly schlepp such a weighty tome along with me. As it turns out – no worries; I finished it this morning. Among its many other virtues, it is quite the page turner.

(A slightly altered version of my blog post on the Suspects’ discussion of The Crossing appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Mystery Readers Journal.)




Permalink Leave a Comment

For Christmas, in 2017

December 25, 2017 at 3:05 pm (Christmas 2017)

Sending some beautiful things your way, on this Christmas Day:

Maesta, by Duccio


Nativity, by Rogier van der Weyden


Adoration of the Kings, by the Master of Perea


Nativity, by Conrad von Soest


procession of the Magi, by Gozzoli


Adoration of the Magi, by Botticelli



Adoration of the Shepherds, by Murillo


Journey of the Magi, by Sassetta

This is a painting I have loved since I first saw it in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was a child. It makes me think of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims.


Portinari Altarpiece, by Hugo van der Goes


The Nativity at Night, by Geertgen tot Sint Jans














Permalink 1 Comment

Best Books of 2017, Part Two: Crime fiction and suspense: older and classic titles

December 24, 2017 at 9:25 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

I’ve already written a post on the classic mysteries I’ve consumed with gusto this year. I’ve also read other older mysteries that might not rightly be termed classics but that nevertheless made for enjoyable reading.

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer (1941)


Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, a landmark story collection edited by Sarah Weinman

The Hours Before Dawn – Celia Fremlin’s 1958 Edgar Award winner is a novel of domestic suspense well ahead of its time. An exhausted mother of three demanding children takes in a lodger and comes to wish she hadn’t.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Fergus Hume’s 1886 runaway bestseller set in Melbourne, Australia. (This is a book about which a book has been written: Blockbuster! by Lucy Sussex.)


Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham (1931). Thanks to a perceptive article by A.S. Byatt, I finally “get” Albert Campion and Company – even Magersfontein Lugg! This one was a twist on the country  house murder trope: elegantly plotted and witty to boot.

Dead Letter and The Figure Eight (1866 and 1869 respectively) by Metta  Fuller Victor. If you’re going to read one, make it The Dead Letter.

Madame Maigret’s Friend by Georges Simenon (1950). Read this during insomniac moments in London. Good, but not , methinks, the best of the Maigret novels.


The DA Cooks a Goose and The DA Goes To Trial (1942 and 1940 respectively). Still working my way through the hugely enjoyable (for this reader, at least) Doug Selby novels.


Permalink 1 Comment

London, Day Two: the British Museum, second post

December 23, 2017 at 3:54 pm (Art, History, London)

If you have only one hour to spend in the British Museum, these are some of the objects you’re advised  not to miss:

In this space, there will be more on the British Museum. In the meantime, here is a video on the Parthenon Sculptures:


Permalink 1 Comment

Best Reading in 2017, Part One: Fiction and Nonfiction

December 21, 2017 at 3:07 pm (Best of 2017, books)

We’ve already had the lists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Kirkus…. And now the one you’ve all been waiting for breathlessly:

Roberta’s Favorite Reads for 2017, Part One


Improvement by Joan Silber. A terrific writer hits it out of the ball park yet again.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy. Suspense? ‘Literary’ fiction? However you categorize it, a gripping, unputdownable novel.

The Past, and Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley. The only author this year to appear twice on my list. She’s officially one of my absolute favorite writers.

Trajectory by Richard Russo. Four long stories – more like novellas – comprise this slender and powerful collection. I haven’t read anything by Russo since Empire Falls; I’d forgotten what delight his work can provide.

Conclave by Robert Harris. I couldn’t imagine how this novel set in the claustrophobic environs of the Vatican could possibly interest me. But how, after the Cicero Trilogy, The Fear Index, Pompeii, An Officer and a Spy, and The Ghost, could I ever have doubted this gifted novelist’s transfixing powers?

One thing I really appreciated about Conclave as the way in which the intense faith of the priests and cardinals was bodied forth in prayer, both in formal occasions and in moments of private urgency.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Reservoir 13 by Jon MacGregor. I am somewhat ambivalent about listing this novel.  Yes, the writing is lyrical, the evocation of rural Britain is striking, the critics mostly raved – and yet….Maureen Corrigan’s review summed it up for me exactly:

….as admirable as McGregor’s achievement is, I frequently found myself looking for excuses to stop admiring it and read something else.

And finally, News of the World by Paulette Jiles, a slim triumph of a novel. I don’t often finish a work of fiction with a feeling of such deep gratitude for  the gifts it bestowed.



I had great reading in this category  this year, as you will see:


Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City, by Kate Winkler Dawson. I never go a chance to blog about this book, but trust  me – it’s a terrific story.

Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards. This book is responsible for greatly enriching my reading of crime fiction this year.

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls. And what a life it was: edifying and enriching, and way too short.

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, by Monica Hesse

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, by James Rebanks. Okay, so for a while, I got kind of obsessed with Mr. Rebanks and his pastoral life in the north of England. Blame it mostly on those wonderful border collies.

The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas de Quincey, By Grevel Lindop

The Witness Tree: Seasons of Change with a Century-Old Oak, by Lynda V. Mapes

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation,  by Brad Ricca

Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling, by Michael Cannell

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, by John Preston

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. What can I say? I felt a need for a change of pace. And yes, I did read every word of it. How much I actually understood is open to question, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is such an entertaining raconteur, it didn’t really matter:

   As the universe continued to cool, the amount of energy available for the spontaneous creation of basic particles dropped. During the hadron era, ambient photons could no longer invoke E=mc^2 to manufacture quark-antiquark pairs. Not only that, the photons that emerged from all the remaining annihilations lost energy to the ever-expanding universe, dropping below the threshold  required to create hadron-antihadron pairs. For every billion annihilations–leaving a billion photons in their wake–a single hadron survived. Those loners would get to have all the fun: serving as the ultimate source of matter to create galaxies, stars, planets, and petunias.

At this point I find I must give a shout-out to the Wall Street Journal for its selection of the Ten “Books of the Year.”  In Fiction, the editors included, among others, Joan Silber’s Improvement; in Nonfiction, both Laura Dassow Walls’s biography of Thoreau and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann made the cut. (To access the full text of Wall Street Journal articles, use the Proquest database. It can be accessed on the Howard County Library site, and at other academic and public libraries.)

Part Two of this post will be forthcoming – but first I must return to London….




Permalink 1 Comment

The 2017 year end meeting of the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion group

December 19, 2017 at 4:56 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

I always look forward to the Usual Suspects’ end of year meeting. It’s a time and place where we talk about the books and authors we’ve read during the year, both for group discussion and for individual reading pleasure.

Pauline always sends us material in advance of this meeting. She creates a grid in which the following material about each book appears: title and author, the month that the discussion took place, comments/awards for author, and the name of the discussion leader. Then there is a further breakdown containing information as to setting and time period, type of investigator (e.g. lawyer, detective, private investigator), and finally, sex and nationality of the authors we read. (That last is always interesting and sometimes surprising: in our 2017 discussion year, there were three male authors and seven women. Six of the authors were American, three were British, and one was Canadian.)

Here are the books:




Pauline also provided us with the following discussion questions:

1. Which is the most impressive book? What did you like about this book? What did you dislike about the book?

2. Did you notice anything in particular about the author’s writing style in any of the books? Which is the best-written book? Which has the best-developed characters?

3. What new things did you learn about the world from a particular book and subsequent group discussion? Which book provided the best treatment of a location?

4. Which author(s) would you like to read more of? Is there a particular type of mystery you’d like to read in the future?

5. Which book has the best puzzle?

6. Which book(s) deserve or do not deserve the awards they received?

7. Are there any other books that we should comment on that have been left out of today’s discussion?

Frank added these questions to the mix:

For each of the books please answer, if you can, the following questions:

  1. What did you like about the book?
  2. What did you dislike about the book?
  3. What new things did you learn about the world from the book and/or subsequent group discussion?
  4. What new things did you learn about the art of writing from the book and/or subsequent group discussion?

As usual, we dove with zest into the discussion. Several of us expressed our gratitude for the chance to revisit the works of Tony Hillerman. We appreciated the Washington DC setting of Hagar’s Last Dance; even more so, the setting of Wilde Lake – right here in Columbia! Marge felt that she got a sense of what World War Two was like for Parisians in Murder on the Quai.

I think that we were all impressed by Jade Dragon Mountain, with its setting so remote in time and place and yet so vividly brought to life by author Elsa Hart. Frances reiterated her praise for Louise Penny. It interests me that while Penny’s Three Pines novels are so widely loved by readers – both here and in Penny’s native Canada –  and are so highly praised by reviewers, several members of our group have reservations about them. I’m one of them. Although there have been a number of books in this series that I’ve genuinely enjoyed, I found A Great Reckoning hard going.

Even people who did not for the most part care for Envious Casca agreed that its locked room puzzle was a cunning contrivance. Finally, Frank’s  choice of Michael Connelly’s The Crossing has caused several of us to want more of the same from this distinguished author of American police procedurals set in – where else? –  Southern California.

At this year end meeting, we always vote for our favorite “read” from among that year’s selections. This year’s winner was The Crossing; Dance Hall of the Dead came in second.

As is the custom, we were asked to bring a book to share with the group. If there’s time, you can mention a second title. Here’s how that worked out this year:

Frances: A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock Series) by Sherry Thomas
Frank: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury
Anne M.: The Inheritance by Charles Finch
Roberta: Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City by Kate Winkler Dawson; and Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller
Cheryl: Blood on the Water by Anne Perry
Pauline: My Darling Detective by Howard Norman; Maggie Hope mystery series starting with Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
Marge: The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman; Fatal by John Lescroart
Ann R.: Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adam
Mike: The Chessmen : The Trilogy by Peter May
Louise: Design for Dying by Renee Patrick
Carol: The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Carol has been gently but firmly coaxing us towards declaring our choices for next year. Here’s how that list is currently shaping up:

(The process of choosing your title for the coming year can be tortuous. Sometimes one becomes afflicted with analysis paralysis. You want the book to be enjoyable to read and also to lend itself to a good discussion. Something that’s not too heavy but not too lightweight either. At times, this can seem like a tall order. Then of course it’s a tricky business trying to anticipate the reaction of others to what you’re presenting. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s preferable to pick something that you’re not extremely emotionally attached to. )

I was pleased to see that we’re doing another Erika Foster novel by Robert Bryndza, as I very much enjoyed Girl in the Ice. And after starting with the second book in Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series and reading pretty much every entry thereafter, I’m at last going to get around to reading the first! The Crow Trap I read this summer and loved. It made me into a Vera  Stanhope groupie! And finally I’m pleased and delighted that we’ll be reading a Judith Van Gieson novel. For years, Marge and I have lamented the fact that this fine writer never found a wider audience. We especially like her earlier series featuring Albuquerque lawyer Neil Hamel, but really, any and all of her books are worth reading.

The only problem with this meeting is that I always end up with more titles to add to my must-read list – not exactly what I need, at the moment! But I am genuinely grateful to the Suspects for a year of excellent reading, with more to come. I devour book reviews in magazines and newspapers, but the really memorable reading experiences I have usually come via recommendations from fellow book lovers.

So thank you Suspects for yet another year of fine reading, stimulating conversation, and fast friendship.



Permalink 4 Comments

London, Day Two: The British Museum, first post

December 16, 2017 at 2:28 pm (London 2017)

So I’ve  been cudgeling my brain for the right adjectives to describe this singular house of treasures….But in the end, I’ve decided to let this mighty institution, repository of riches going back millennia and stretching all the way to the present day, speak for itself. (Oh well, I’m drowning in superlatives after all – inevitably!)

First, a brief but meaningful prelude: several months prior to my making this trip, Ron and I watched a set of Great Courses DVD’s entitled 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World. Our lecturer was Professor Diana K. McDonald, Ph.D, of Boston College. We both thought she was excellent; she brought a rather arcane subject to vivid and colorful life.

One of the first objects that Professor McDonald introduced us to was the Standard of Ur. I recalled Ur from my Sunday School days – Ur of the Chaldees, birthplace of the patriarch Abraham – but neither of us had ever heard of this particular object. At once it exerted a strong fascination for both of us.

Possibly in the course of her talk on this subject, Professor McDonald informed us that the Standard of Ur resided in the British Museum. At any rate, I had no recollection of her having done so. As luck would have it, upon entering the first of many rooms containing untold treasures of the ancient world, the Standard was one of the first things I came upon.

Few experiences can equal that of seeing with your own eyes something that has mesmerized you in a more remote medium. You can well believe it – I pretty much jumped out of my skin! “Oh, my God – It’s the Standard of Ur!” I exclaimed, probably too loudly for the sake of decorum. (My dear sister-in-law Donna kindly indulged me in this moment.)

Herewith the description of this object from the British Museum website:

“The Standard of Ur”, decorated on four sides with inlaid mosaic scenes made from shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli, set in bitumen. One side shows a war scene; a Sumerian army with wheeled waggons and infantry charges the enemy; prisoners are brought before a larger individual, who is accompanied by guards and has his own waggon waiting behind him. The reverse shows scenes of men are bringing animals, fish etc, possibly as booty or tribute; at the top the same large individual banquets with other men; they are entertained at the right by a singer and a man playing a lyre. The triangular end panels show other scenes; the object was found crushed but has since been restored, and samples retained.

The Standard is approximately 8.5 inches high, 20 inches long, 4.5 wide at its base, and slightly over 2 inches at the top. (The sides slope inward as it reaches upward; Wikipedia likens the shape to that of a Toblerone candy bar.) It was found in the course of an excavation of royal tombs in the city of Ur, in what was once lower Mesopotamia.

The excavation was undertaken jointly by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It was led by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. The time period stretched from 1922 to 1934. (For more information, and some striking photos, click here.) On the Pennsylvania Museum website, there’s a lengthy and illuminating appreciation of Woolley written by M.E.L. Mallowan. (‘Max’ Mallowan, himself a distinguished archaeologist, was the husband of Agatha Christie.)

Here, in Leonard Woolley’s own words, is what happened at the dig in January of 1928:

The whole tomb had  been cleared except for this corner, where  there seemed small probability of anything being found, for the south corner and the south-east generally had produced nothing at all. The discovery of the bead “head-dress” put the workmen on their guard  and involved special care; then amongst the heads appeared a few minute squares and triangles of shell and lapis lazuli mosaic, after them two or three figures silhouetted in shell.

They had uncovered the first fragments of the Standard of Ur.

Much work of careful excavation and reconstruction lay ahead. When they had finished this labor, their meticulous efforts were rewarded thus:

(The quotation above is taken from The Standard of Ur by Sarah Collins. This booklet, about sixty pages in length, is part of a series published by the British Museum Press entitled Objects in Focus.)

Donna can be faintly discerned behind the display case above. Below, you see her more clearly, enraptured by this object:

In the lengthwise picture below, you may catch a glimpse of yet another ancient masterpiece: the Ram Caught in the Thicket.

When Dr. McDonald presented this object in her lecture, I got chills. I’d never seen it before yet I knew  – or felt that I knew –  exactly  what it was: The entangled ram whose sudden appearance saved the life of Isaac, who was about to be sacrificed by his father Abraham.   (Genesis 22)

Once again, seeing the actual piece was a tremendous thrill.



Permalink Leave a Comment

Next page »