This Year’s Edgar Award Nominees – Some Thoughts

January 22, 2022 at 9:08 pm (Awards, Mystery fiction)

  The redoubtable Mystery Writers of America has announced its picks for this year’s awards. It’s a long list, so rather than reproducing it here in its entirety, I’ll give you the link.

Whenever this list comes out, I like to see how many of  these titles I’ve already read. Well, this year, the result of  this exercise was rather laughable. I had to scroll down to ‘Best Fact Crime’ before I could even come up with one! That one is Two Truths and a Lie by Ellen McGarrahan. To get there, I had to pass by the nominees for Best Novel, Best First Novel by an American Author, and Best Paperback Original.  And yet mysteries and true crime constitute such a large portion of my reading material – in any give year. Go figure.

Continuing to scroll down, I found one title in the Best Critical/Biographical category. This was The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science by John Tresch. Then, down to the Mary Higgins Clark  Award. One of the nominees for that particular encomium is Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara. This is a novel that I absolutely loved – the best mystery I’ve read in a long while. (This category reminds me that Marge T, my fellow mystery lover, once acquired two cats at the same time and named them Simon and Schuster, respectively.)

Finally, there’s the G.B. Putnam’s Sons Sue Grafton Memorial Award nominee, Sleep Well, My Lady by Kwei Quartey. Oh, Sue, how we do miss you. The Letter Z will ever remain mysterious…

This year’s selection for Grand Master is Laurie R. King, which, I think, is an entirely appropriate choice.

So, then: What are my own selections for Best Mysteries of 2021?

Both of the above titles are historical fiction, one of my favorite subgenres. Graham Brack’s Master Mercurius series is outstanding but hard to find, although if you have Kindle Unlimited on Amazon, you can obtain it for free. I believe this is true for every title in the series. Do yourself favor and star with Book One: Death in Delft.



Two of my favorite authors, writing at the top of their game. The novels are set in Australia and Venice, Italy, respectively.


Andrew Mayne is an author previously unknown to me. Black Coral was recommended in one of the specialty magazines to which I subscribe – Deadly Pleasures or Mystery Scene. The protagonist, Sloan McPherson, is a deep sea diver who works for Florida’s Underwater Investigation Unit. Well written and very suspenseful.

Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch novels are among my favorites. Mike is a game warden in the state of Maine. His adventures  are recounted with verve and energy. His personal life figures in as well.


The year 1979 was a pivotal one in Val McDermid’s writing career. This novel exuberantly revisiting that time. (It’s amazing to think how recently it was that people were not in constant touch with one another via social media and cell phones.) As for A Line To Kill, I don’t think it was Horowitz’s best, but it was still great fun.

Peter Lovesey is one of my favorite authors. His novels are both witty and precise, also beautifully structured. I especially love the banter between Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond and members of his team. In this novel, Diamond finds himself forced to work alongside a private investigator (hence, the ‘Eye’ in the book’s title). To say that he is resistant to this arrangement in putting it mildly. Nonetheless, the static between them makes for some memorable dialog.

I wonder if so-called international intrigue or novels of espionage are considered by MWE members. Maybe they need their own category? After all, we are now sadly bereft of the great John Le Carre, and we need to encourage other great writers to explore the themes that were so vital to his works. Fortunately, we have some up-and-coming writers rising through the ranks who are doing just that. I highly recommend Flynn Berry, whose Northern Spy is set in Northern Ireland, and Charles Cumming, whose latest, Box 88, currently has me completely mesmerized.


Another fine writer in this vein, most worthy of your consideration, is Paul Vidich.

Finally, I wish the MWE would create a category for newly reissued classics. I particularly recommend The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. It’s included in the anthology Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s. (There is also a volume  for the 1950s. Both are edited by Sarah Weinman.)   Also, I just finished A.S.F. by John Rhode, which was written in 1924. It concerns the out-of-control spread of cocaine use in London and various other locales. The novel is cunningly plotted, and  fascinating for any one of a number of reasons. It also has a young hero whose fate hangs in the balance, and a love story that achieves a graceful fruition at the end.






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Better To Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville, by Akash Kapur

January 16, 2022 at 8:51 pm (Book review, books)

This book tells an intriguing story. It is by turns hopeful and tragic. But mostly it is strange. It is a story in which adults make decisions that are sometimes hard to understand. These decision have long range consequences for their children, and it is two of those children who set out to uncover the facts that underlie their fateful legacy.

Auroville is what is termed an intentional community. It is located in Southeastern India. The nearest established city is Pondicherry.

The following video conveys  a sense of what Auroville means to those who have chosen to live there:

Auroville was established in 1968, in accordance with the vision of Sri Aurobindo.   Mirra Alfassa, who became known simply as The Mother, was his spiritual collaborator, and it was she who was the guiding spirit of Auroville from its inception to her death in 1973, at age 95.

Sir Aurobindo


Mirra Alfassa, aka The Mother


The death of The Mother precipitated a crisis for Auroville. Akash Kapur tells us:

The residents of Auroville are confronting a quandary that has faced intentional communities throughout the ages. What happens when the founder  dies? What structure, what kind of governance, can replace the charismatic authority that has initiated and  held these places together?

Upon the demise of The Mother, Auroville entered a period of darkness and confusion. Eventually it emerged into the light: order and purpose were restored once again.

One of The Mother’s chief mandates for Auroville was the bringing into being of a structure called the Matrimandir. She pronounced it to be “the soul of the city.”

It’s difficult to describe exactly what the purpose is of this strange edifice, so I’ll quote from Wikipedia:

In the middle of the town is the Matrimandir, which was conceived by Alfassa as “a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection”. Silence is maintained inside the Matrimandir to ensure the tranquility of the space, and the entire area surrounding the Matrimandir is called the Peace area. Inside the Matrimandir, a spiraling ramp leads upwards to an air-conditioned chamber of polished white marble referred to as “a place to find one’s consciousness”.

Matrimandir is equipped with a solar power plant and is surrounded by manicured gardens. When there is no sun or after the sunset, the sunray on the globe is replaced by a beam from a solar-powered light.

Radiating from this center are four “zones” of the City Area: the “Residential Zone”, “Industrial Zone”, “Cultural (& Educational) Zone” and “International Zone”. Around the city or the urban area, lies a Green Belt which is an environmental research and resource area and includes farms and forestries, a botanical garden, seed bank, medicinal and herbal plants, water catchment bunds, and some communities.

Kapur’s chief purpose in penning this volume is to relate the story of two denizens of Auroville: Diane Maes and John Walker. Diane was originally from Belgium; John was American, the scion of a wealthy and distinguished family. Akash Kapur and his wife Auralice both grew up in Auroville. Diane was Auralice’s mother; John was, in effect, the stepfather who was devoted to her. In 1986, when Auralice was  fourteen years old, Diane and John both died. Auralice was sent to live with relatives in America. Akash Kapur had gone there as well. The two eventually married. Auralice was haunted by the tragic and premature deaths of her parents; neither she nor Akash knew exactly what had caused them. Better To Have Gone was born of the search for answers to these questions.

This is a complex and disturbing story, but it is also deeply compelling. I haven’t wanted to give away too much in this review. But I must make one point. The Matrimandir – “the soul of the city” – was the site of a terrible accident that befell Diane Maes. I for one could never have warm, reverent feelings about the place.

Akash Kapur readily concedes that this story of the search for a utopia on Earth has “some dark corners.” But it also has bursts of bright light. Read it, and you will perceive both. Some books have the power to haunt the reader long after they’ve been read. About Better To Have Gone, I feel this sensation myself, especially when I gaze upon the book’s cover and the beautiful Diane Maes gazes, enigmatically, back at me.

Akash and Auralice Kapur






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Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe

January 2, 2022 at 8:25 pm (Book review, books)

  I figured this would be one heck of a story. I was right. – it is.

In Part One, we are introduced to Jan Aertson van der Bilt. (He was born in the village of Bilt, in the Netherlands near the Belgian border.) From the beginning, from his home base on Staten Island, Jan was a dynamo. He entered the ferry business, became a success, and from there there was no stopping him. It was the classic American immigrant story, in which the newcomer starts with almost nothing and gradually, by way of relentless drive, achieves the summit of success:

The last of the protected Dutch-era monopolies were washed away in the unfettered competitive churn of steamboats plying between New York and New Jersey. That seawater churn would froth higher and higher, heaping up great clouds of profit around the descendants of Jan Aertson van der Bilt, to a level that a seventeenth-century indentured servant or an eighteenth century farmer who owed one horse to his militia could never have possibly imagined.

Born on Staten Island in 1794, Cornelius Vanderbilt began his business enterprise by working in his father’s ferry business. He then started his own ferry business. From there, he went on to acquire great wealth in the railroad and shipping industries. His sobriquet “Commodore” came about because of his unstoppable acquisition of wealth and status, and the iron hand with which he ruled – or attempted to rule – his large family (thirteen children).

Cornelius Vanderbilt, ‘The Commodore’ 1794-1877

Anderson Cooper and his co-author Katherine Howe cover the Vanderbilt story by highlighting its most memorable moments. We learn of the ferocious rivalry between Alva Vanderbilt and Caroline Astor for the (unofficial) position of Queen of New York Society. One of Alva’s trump cards was marrying off  her daughter Consuelo to the Duke of Marlborough. It was a union between  two people who not only did not love each other but could barely stand to be in the same room together. Consuelo was in love with someone else, but her mother’s relentless pressure won out. Consuelo and the Duke married in 1895 and separated in 1906. They divorced in 1921; the marriage was ultimately annulled at the Duke’s request in 1926. (They had two sons.)

The Duke of Marlborough, Consuelo, and their sons

The story of the sinking of the British luxury liner Lusitania in May of is recounted in fascinating detail; Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt perished in this catastrophe, after committing numerous acts of heroism, as recounted by survivors.

The 1934 battle between Gloria Vanderbilt’s mother and her aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney for custody of ‘Little Gloria’  was one of the sensations of its day. (At the time, ten-year-old Gloria was referred to as ‘Little Gloria,’ because her mother had the same first name.)  There was a TV miniseries in 1982 that told the story; it was entitled Little Gloria…Happy at Last, based on the book by the same name by Barbara Goldsmith. (I read the book, but didn’t see the miniseries.)

The one section in this  book that I found rather tedious was the description of the America’s Cup yacht race that took place in 1934 (an eventful year for the Vanderbilt clan, for sure). Harold Stirling Vanderbilt won the trophy in that contest. I think that Anderson Cooper and his co-author Katherine Howe were trying to portray this as a suspenseful event. No doubt it was, for the participants and those cheering them on from the sidelines. But for this reader, there was simply too much minutiae about yacht racing. It just did not translate well onto the page.

One chapter that definitely did shine was entitled “Gloria at La Côte Basque.” This was a famously upscale restaurant in mid-twentieth century Manhattan. A group of wealthy and glamorous women used to dine there regularly, frequently accompanied by Truman Capote, who called them his ‘Swans.” Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Lee Radziwill, Gloria Vanderbilt – all were part of  this charmed circle.

The women confided in Capote rather recklessly. (Their husbands did not begrudge them the time they spent with him, as he was gay and thus presented no threat.) Eventually, he made use of their confidences in a notorious essay entitled “La Cote Basque 1965” It was published in Esquire Magazine in 1975. Their deepest secrets betrayed and exposed to the world, the Swans turned their backs on their erstwhile confidante.

This story is told in meticulous and – I just have to say it – delicious detail in the recently published Capote’s Women by Laurence Leamer.   Here you will encounter not only a festival of gossip, but also a portrait of a time and a way of life that is truly gone with the wind. (As I eagerly devoured the pages of this, I  kept thinking, what planet are these women from? Exactly what are we to make of a world in which, by tying her scarf around the strap of her handbag, a woman starts a style revolution?)

I’d like to recommend a documentary called Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper.  This film was made in 2016 and contains some fascinating footage; it also provides a glimpse into a vanished world. But most of all, it recounts moments of reckoning and reconciliation between a mother and her son. Those moments culminated in an affirmed bond of affection.  I found this depiction intensely moving.

The Howard County Library owns this DVD.


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