An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich

February 27, 2020 at 1:33 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was going to skip reviewing this novel, due to time constraints. But when I picked it up just now, I looked at the passages I marked with post-it flags while reading it, and I felt that at the very least I wanted to quote some lines to indicate how exceptional well written this book is.

Paul Vidich is a name new to me. I first encountered him in Tom Nolan’s column in the Wall Street Journal. Nolan has excellent taste in crime fiction; I’m saying this of course because I mostly agree with his assessments. The review in question is of Vidich’s third book, The Coldest Warrior:

Mr. Vidich, for many years a senior executive in the entertainment industry, proved his talent for noirish spy fiction in two earlier books featuring 1950s CIA man George Mueller. This stand-alone work reaches a new level of moral complexity and brings into stark relief the often contradictory nature of spycraft. Can a covert enterprise survive if it discloses its worst secrets? And can a good cause remain good if it sometimes brings evil?

The Honorable Man is the first of the two novels featuring George Mueller. Mueller is desperate to come in from the cold. He wants – no, needs – to spend time with his young son, who is currently living with his ex-wife. But Mueller’s own skills are partly his undoing. The Agency needs his expertise to  help ferret out a mole in their midst. Reluctantly, he agrees to stay on for this crucial mission.

Now, you’d be forgiven for fetching a deep sigh and saying to yourself, Oh, no, not again, this oft-repeated trope on spy fiction. But it’s not the plot elements that make a novel unique: it’s the specific time and place, the surrounding circumstances, and above all, the characters. Vidich brings postwar Cold War world of the 1950s vividly to life, with all its paranoid urgency. And Mueller himself – well, I felt as though I were inside his skin, an uncomfortable place to be, but necessary. I care about him deeply.

Oh – and a few of the flagged passages:

There is a madness in this country. I can’t bear the name calling the outburst of hatred and vilification, the repulsive spectacle of red baiting, and the way good men’s reputations are tarnished with innuendo.

On his way down the stairwell he felt a stirring of remorse. He felt the burden of what it took to explain a corrupt world to an innocent mind.

His large library, which represented a cornucopia of happy times dedicated to pure thinking, was grouped by topic, and then alphabetically. His jewel among the romantics was a Hawthorne first edition, and the  grouping of popular fiction had an old Eric Ambler, which he admired for its wisdom within a vulgar yarn spun to showcase a clever plot.

Mueller couldn’t tell how much of the man’s worry was for the work, how much for himself. Perhaps there was no difference. The thin line of judgment was porous with error, rank with self-interest. Washington was a terrible place for honorable men to work.

Remember, the events of this novel are taking place during the McCarthy hearings, when fear and hatred of the Communist menace were reaching a fever pitch among the general populace. Still, some of the words quoted above have an uncomfortable  resonance in regard to the present time. At least, it seems so to me.

An Honorable Man has its basis in a factual case. The author offers a brief explanation at the close of the story.







Permalink Leave a Comment

“The revelation that people actually studied ancient Egypt as their job seemed to me both astonishing and wonderful…”

February 23, 2020 at 3:54 pm (Art, Egypt, History)

Retold countless times down the centuries, there are as many versions of Egypt’s story as there are those to tell it. And so this is simply my version, featuring the people, places and events that have fascinated me my whole life.

And it is fair to say Egypt has pretty much been my life. Familiar and accessible through my family’s books, photographs and wartime recollections, the ancient Egyptians were, it seems, always around during my childhood, as the inspiration for my earliest drawings, the way I dressed my dolls, the things I read and collected.

The defining moment came in 1972, when the Tutankhamen exhibition arrived in Britain. His beautiful golden face appeared everywhere in the media frenzy for all things pharaonic, and Egyptologists of the day were regularly asked for quotes by the press. The revelation that people actually studied ancient Egypt as their job seemed to me both astonishing and wonderful – so at the age of six, I announced that I was going to do that too.

Introduction to The Story of Egypt: The Civilization that Shaped the World, by Joann Fletcher

Upon reading this, I identified powerfully with the author. I, too, was around six years old when I first became fascinated by ancient Egypt. But whereas Joann Fletcher went on to forge a distinguished career as an Egyptologist, I went on to live a more or less ordinary life, for which I am profoundly grateful. The   Egypt enchantment stays more or less underground, a stream flowing in the darkness. But every once in a while…

I recently signed up for a course in Egyptian art at a local lifelong learning institute. We had a our first meeting last Monday, and it was wonderful. I have obtained through interlibrary loan The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter. This particular edition, published in 1977, “…is the unabridged republication of Volume I of The Tomb of Tut*ankh*amen Discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter originally published…in 1923….”

The tomb was discovered in November of 1922.

Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Carnarvon’s daughter Lady Elizabeth Herbert, and Carter’s assistant Arthur Callender are gathered before the door to the chamber. Keep in mind that Carter and Carnarvon, his generous patron, had been searching for this burial site for years. This was to be their final effort.

Here is Howard Carter’s description of what happened next:

The decisive moment had arrived. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as  far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gasses, and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle, and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold–everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment–eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by–I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense and longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”


When I was in London a few years ago, I visited Sir John Soane’s Museum. Sir John Soane was a distinguished architect and also a compulsive collector. His house is filled with strange and wondrous objects. Along the way, he managed to acquire several beautiful scenes off Venice by Canaletto.

Canaletto; View in Venice, on the Grand Canal (Riva degli Schiavoni); Sir John Soane’s Museum

But possibly the most astonishing object in this bewildering welter of astonishing objects is this:

Behold! It is the sarcophagus of Pharoah Seti I (1290-1279 BCE).

Here is what the sarcophagus currently looks like in situ:

This fantastical object was discovered in 1817 by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a  freewheeling adventurer and archaeologist sometimes referred to as the Indiana Jones of his day.  Having brought this cumbersome artifact to England, Belzoni offered it to the British Museum. That institution deemed the price – £2,000 – too high. But ut wasn’t too high for Sir John Soane, who snapped it up. Hence, it currently resides serenely on the bottom floor of the museum, being much too heavy to be safely placed elsewhere in the building. You can stand right beside it, walk around it, even touch it. I can attest to this personally.

The mummy of Seti I is exceptionally well preserved. It currently resides in the Cairo Museum.

For more information on the sarcophagus, click on this link to the museum’s website. And don’t miss this ‘digital fly-through’ of the museum.

I want to return briefly to the subject of the discovery of the tomb of Pharoah Tutankhamen. The moment of triumph in November 1922 was followed by a sudden and unexpected tragedy the following April when Lord Carnarvon died unexpectedly. Here is Howard Carter’s supremely eloquent dedication:

…I dedicate this account of the discovery of the tomb of Tut*ankh* Amen to the memory of my beloved friend and colleague

who died in the hour of his triumph.

But for his untiring generosity and constant encouragement our labours could never have been crowned with success. His judgment in ancient art has rarely been equalled. His efforts, which have done so much to extend our knowledge of Egyptology, will ever been honoured in history, and by me his memory will always be cherished.

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon 1866-1923


Howard Carter 1874-1939

Giovanni Battista Belzoni 1778-1823


The Great Belzoni, 1824, by Jan Adam Kruseman


Sir John Soane 1753-1837


Last year, I visited the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington DC to see their exhibit ‘Queens of Egypt.’ This occasioned another eruption of Egypt mania in the heart and brain of Yours Truly. I got rather carried away with the blog post I created to memorialize this splendid experience. Here is a snippet of video by which I, along with other visitors, was transfixed:


Permalink 1 Comment

Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

February 21, 2020 at 4:03 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Having greatly enjoyed Kwei Quartey’s The Missing American, a standalone novel, I decided to read Quartey’s Darko series. First up is Wife of the Gods. It’s a delight! Darko is an appealing protagonist, a policeman working is way up in the force. He has to work to control a quick temper; moreover, his love of marijuana must be indulged in secret. His family, consisting of wife Christine and much loved six-year-old son Hosiah, helps keep him on the  straight and narrow.

Several mysteries unfold in tandem in Wife of the Gods. The plotting is well done and easy to follow, but the real star of the show once again is the country of Ghana. An important element of the story is a rather disturbing custom called Trokosi.  Kwei Quartey observes that “Traditionalists, such as the Afrikania organization in Accra, are in favor of the tradition and deny that slavery is involved.” Well, maybe so, but the way it’s depicted in this novel, Trokosi makes it possible for a man to have numerous wives and to treat them like – well, slaves. And so although the title, Wife of the Gods, would seem to refer to an aspirational state, the reality is decidedly more sinister.

So this is a negative aspect of Ghanaian society and the author is honest in depicting it. But at the same time, there is much about the country that is appealing – in particular, the beauty of the countryside and the kindness and generosity of its people.

In the matter of religion, Ghana is approximately seventy per cent Christian (including a variety of denominations); although there are a number of dialects spoken, the official language is English. (verified by the CIA World Fact Book). These facts apparently give rise to the quirky and rather endearing custom of commercial establishments being named ‘Nothing But Prayer Electrical Goods,’ the “God Is Great Hair Clinic,’ and the ‘Jesus Is Lord Chop House.’ (This immediately put me in mind of Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series set in Botswana, in which Mma Makutsi’s husband is the proud proprietor of the ‘Double Comfort Furniture Shop.’)

I look forward to getting the next Darko Dawson book, Children of the Street.


Permalink 2 Comments

The Missing American by Kwei Quartey

February 8, 2020 at 9:42 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Emma Djian is uninspired – to put it mildly – by her work in the Ghana Police Service’s Commercial Crimes Unit. She longs for the excitement and challenges of the homicide division. She applies for a position in that elite group, but in the course of the interview process, an awful thing happens to her. And it happens deep within the police force itself.

Suddenly Emma is out – sacked. But a kindly soul refers her to a private investigation company, where there may be a position waiting for an enterprising soul such as herself. This, then, is the  opening into the world of criminal investigation that Emma has been seeking.

Meanwhile, a world away in the U.S., Gordon Tilson, a widower, has been corresponding with a Ghanaiain woman via social media. She identifies herself as Helena Barfour. A romance develops, in the course of which Tilson sends money to Helena, to help her with a family emergency. At length, the lovers affirm  their desire to be together. In pursuit of this goal, Gordon Tilson boards a plane that will take him to Ghana, and to his love.

As you have probably guessed, things do not go as planned. Or at least, not as Gordon had planned.

The Missing American provides a rich immersion in the culture of Ghana, a country about which I know very little. And Emma Djian is a wonderful character – bright, personable, and in her own quiet way determined to make  career in law enforcement. I’m hoping we’ll see more of her in the future.

A character in The  Missing American disguises himself in the same manner as the man in this photo:

Kwei Quartey has written five novels featuring Darko Dawson, a CID detective in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. I was sufficiently taken with The Missing American that I am now reading the first book in this series, Wife of the Gods.

Kwei Quartey’s dedication at the front of this novel reads as follows:

To Ahmed Hussein-Suale, a Ghanaian journalist martyred on Wednesday, January 16, 2019

You can read about this in a BBC article entitled Murder in Accra.


Permalink Leave a Comment

‘Early one morning of an exceptionally beautiful day….’

February 1, 2020 at 8:20 pm (Art, books)

I am always on the lookout for exceptional writing on art subjects. I’ve known about this particular book for a long time, but as I don’t currently own it, I haven’t actually read any part of it for quite a while.

Thomas Hoving  frequently styled Thomas F.P. Hoving – ‘P’ for Pearsall, ‘F’ for Field – was the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art  from 1967 to 1977. (Hoving was succeeded by ‘Le Roi Philippe’ – Philippe de Montebello, that is, who reigned unopposed at the Met from 1977 to 2008.)

In 1997, Thomas Hoving published The Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization. Illustrating that title on the cover, one beholds the following: the Funerary Mask of King Tut, The Starry Night by Van Gogh, Michelangelo’s David, the Bohemian Madonna…and the proud, even autocratic visage of Thomas Hoving himself!

Credit where it’s due, Hoving knew his art. And he writes about it beautifully and with great authority. (At times, a bit too much authority? Ah, well…) In the introduction, he states his rationale for coming out with this volume:

Early one morning of an exceptionally beautiful day, I got the idea of retracing every step of my life as an art expert – from 1951 – and writing down the works of art that had bowled me over visually and emotionally, the ones that after years I could describe down to the tiniest details, as if standing in front of them.

He concludes by saying

The order in which [the works] appear in this book is a fantasy order, precisely the one I”d prefer to see them again, shock after  beautiful shock.

The result of this organizing – or disorganizing – principle can be seen early in the book when, between this:

Resurrection, by Piero della Francesca, late 1450

and this:

Zeus or Poseidon, artist unknown, 5th century BCE

We behold this:

Bed, Robert Rauschenberg, 1955

On first seeing Bed, not long after its creation, Hoving describes his reaction:

I was bowled over by the shock of it, its impudence, its strength, and the sense of bewildered impotence and rage that it communicated.

He goes on:

Part painting, part sculpture, part  found object, and part detritus, it seemed very courageous at the time and seems even more so today.

Okay, well, he is eloquent in defense of this work, as he certainly has every right to be. Perhaps you like it, Dear Reader; alas, it doesn’t do much of anything for me.

On the other hand, I love the Piero della Francesca. This is how Hoving transcribes his thoughts on the occasion of his first encounter with this masterpiece, in company with his wife,  in the town of Sansepolcro, the artist’s birthplace in Tuscany:

Alone in the room where it is on display, with no other people in the way, and no other works of art to diminish its grandeur, we stood in awe of the frightening image confronting us of a risen Christ triumphant–no. more than triumphant, a Christ both victorious and enraged. It is a vision of Christ the Avenger who will rid the world of sinners, the Christ of Saint Michael, the killer of monsters and satans, the demiurge of the Second Coming who looks you square in the face, who locks his blazing eyes with yours and asks, “Are you a sinner or among the blessed?”

I read this, and then gazed at the painting again, and it took on new meaning for me. And those soldiers – I mean, get with it guys!

The colloquy is strictly between Christ and the onlooker, for the magnificent four soldiers are completely unaware of the momentous event that is taking place.

It is harrowing to think that we almost lost this great work to the depredations of war:

Sansepolcro was spared much damage during World War 2 when British artillery officer Tony Clarke defied orders and held back from using his troop’s guns to shell the town. Although Clarke had never seen the fresco, his diary records his shock at the destruction in Monte Cassino and, apparently remembering where he had read of Sansepolcro, ordered his men to hold fire just as methodical shelling had begun. Clarke had read Huxley’s 1925 essay describing the Resurrection, which states: “It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.” It was later ascertained that the Germans had already retreated from the area — the bombardment had not been necessary, though Clarke had not known this when he ordered the shelling stopped. The town, along with its famous painting, survived. When the events of the episode eventually became clear, Clarke was lauded as a local hero and to this day a street in Sansepolcro bears his name.

This is from the Wikipedia entry for this painting. For more on this, see the BBC News commentary.

More will be coming on this book in subsequent posts.

Permalink 1 Comment