‘…Edwards is now the leading English advocate for mystery in all its forms.’

September 18, 2022 at 2:46 pm (Mystery fiction)

Michael Dirda, the voice for literature in the Washington Post, is here speaking of Martin Edwards, whose writing in the history of crime fiction has been so praiseworthy of late. Edwards’s latest effort in this field is entitled The Life of Crime and subtitled Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators.

I was delighted to read Dirda’s glowing review in Thursday’s Post. It’s been a pleasure to watch Martin Edwards’s steady ascent in the rarefied world of crime fiction commentary.

Dirda observes that The Life of Crime spotlights numerous mystery classics that readers will be motivated to seek out. An initiative aimed at making some of these titles newly available has been going on for several years. It could be said to have begun with the issuing of Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon. Subtitled A Christmas Crime Story, this novel was reissued during the 2014 holiday season by the British Library. Finding themselves unexpectedly in possession of a runaway bestseller, the Library proceeded to build on this auspicious beginning. Eight years in, British Library Crime Classics currently features some 112 titles. (Martin Edwards is curator of this series.)

Other publishers have joined in this laudable effort. Here in the U.S., there’s Otto Penzler presents: American Mystery Classics. I was especially taken by The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers. (I think of Otto Penzler as an American counterpart to Martin Edwards. As the site points out out, he has served the crime fiction field in his capacity as “editor, critic, publisher, and bookseller.”) And British Library Crime Classics is now complemented by the Library of Congress’s Crime Classics. I just have to take this opportunity to recommend – very highly – The Dead Letter by Seeley Regester, pseudonym of Metta Fuller Victor.

Finally, there’s a raft of small publishers doing their bit to bring back worthy titles that over the years have fallen into obscurity: Coachwhip Books, Stark House, House of Stratus, Crippen & Landru, and others. I do have one request: Can someone please bring back into print Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby series? Set in southern California, these books have a vivid sense of place, interesting and believable characters, and a very appealing protagonist. There are only nine titles, as opposed to the 82 Perry Mason novels. I like them better than the Perry Mason books, only they are quite difficult to obtain.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, also by Martin Edwards, is an even better place to seek out interesting crime fiction classics. I absolutely loved three titles in particular from that source: Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, At the Villa Rose by A.E.W. Mason, and The Eye of Osiris by R. Austen Freeman. I plan to re-read these three gems, as time permits.

The prolific Mr. Edwards has written a number of other books of commentary on crime fiction. In addition, he has written fiction. I particularly like The Lake District series.

Those of us who love crime fiction owe a serious debt of gratitude to Martin Edwards!

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Cover Her Face by P.D. James

August 18, 2022 at 4:25 pm (Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Here is a novel written in 1962 that reads as if it were written in 1862. You would think that the diction would call attention to itself in an exasperating way. It might. in fact, do that for some contemporary readers.

Not for me, though. I raced through the novel as though it were an up to the minute thriller. Although I’ve read it before – some years ago- I did not remember who the perpetrator was. And I could hardly wait to find out!

I can readily understand a certain impatience being evoked by James’s extremely measured prose style:

There was the sound of slow, careful footsteps and then a knock on the door. It was Martha with the nightly hot drinks. Back in his childhood old Nannie had decided that a hot milk drink last thing at night would help to banish the terrifying and inexplicable nightmares from which, for a brief period, he and Deborah had suffered.

The “he” in this passage is Stephen Maxie, heir to the Martingale estate and surgeon in training at a London hospital. Deborah is his sister, a young widow who also lives at Martingale and has no discernible occupation. Another young woman who frequently turns up at Martingale is Catherine Bowers. She does have a vocation – she’s a nurse – but her true aim in life is to get Stephen Maxie to marry her. Deborah, meanwhile, is spending apathetic time with a smart Londoner names Felix Hearne.

As I was typing in the quoted passage above, I was reminded of the extent to which the residents of wealthy country domains were routinely cosseted by their servants. In fact, Martha fusses over Stephen and Deborah just as she must have done when they were children.

I found something curiously bloodless about these characters. They came perilously close to being caricatures. And yet….

Into this attenuated existence is launched a detonator names Sally Jupp. She is everything the other female characters are not – headstrong, willful and devious. She is also an unmarried mother, and if that isn’t scandalous enough, she refuses to identify her child’s father.

Sally had been living at a home for unwed mothers. It was thought that installing her as a servant in the Maxie establishment would be an advantageous placement. We’re meant to see that by accepting her into their household despite her fallen state, the Maxies are behaving in a magnanimous manner.

At one point, Martha is questioned by Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgliesh concerning Sally Jupp’s present employment Martingale, to wit: Had Mrs Maxie ever before engaged the services of ‘an unmarried mother?’

Martha offers this spirited riposte:

“It would never have been thought of in the old days. All our girls came with excellent references.”

Well. In a house full of entitled denizens of the upper class, Martha Bultitaft, maid of all work, may be the most rigidly class conscious of them all.

Right from the start, Sally Jupp is a burr under the saddle of the Maxie family’s aristocratic hauteur. It’s pretty obvious that her presence at Martingale will precipitate some sort of crisis.

And so it proves.

One of the many things I love about P.D. James’s writing is her frequent references to classic literature. Indeed, this novel’s title is taken from a line in John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi:

‘Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.’ (The words cover her face are spoken by an appalled Stephen Maxie.)

[There is an interesting story about the choice of title for this novel. It involves Agatha Christie. See the Wikipedia entry for Sleeping Murder and scroll down to ‘Title changes.’]

I have kept very few texts from my college days, but I was able to unearth a 1959 Folger Library edition of The Duchess of Malfi. Here it is, expertly scanned by the resident IT wizard, aka my husband:

Later, Felix Hearne quotes from The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe:

‘But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.’

[Fans of the Inspector Morse books and TV series will recall the title The Wench Is Dead. In that episode, Morse, confined to a hospital bed, struggles to solve a murder committed in the environs of Oxford in the nineteenth century. It’s a set-up that calls to mind – deliberately, one assumes – Josephine Tey’s classic novel, The Daughter of Time.]

And what of the first appearance on the scene of DCI Adam Dalgliesh? In my view, his is a singularly low key debut. Not much in the way of a distinct personality emerges in the pages of this novel. We do learn two important things about him: First, as Felix Hearne exclaims, he is “A cultured cop!” (Hearne adds that he thought such beings only appeared in ‘detective novels.’ This comment is elicited when Dalgliesh correctly identifies a painting by George Stubbs on display at Martingale.) As the Dalgliesh series unfolds, readers gain further insight into the deeply discerning mind of Adam Dalgliesh.

Secondly, there’s an intensely personal disclosure concerning Dalgliesh’s private life. He rehearses it in his own mind, in response to one of Mrs. Maxie’s imperious declarations regarding her son Stephen:

‘I have no son. My own child and his mother died three hours after he was born.’

A shocking revelation, but one that cannot – must not – be uttered aloud.

In his classic text Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Julian Symons writes of (and quotes) P.D. James:

At first she regarded detective fiction only as a useful apprenticeship for writing novels, but “after I had done three or four [detective] novels, I realized that in fact the restriction…could almost help by imposing a discipline, and that you could be a serious novelist within it.”

And of course, she went on to prove her thesis, many times over.

It has been a pleasure to revisit the work of this exceptional author. Thank you, Hilda, for making this choice for the Usual Suspects discussion group.

The Baroness James of Holland Park OBE, FRSA, FRSL 1920-2014

I have always loved the melancholy theme music, composed by Richard Harvey, that accompanies the Adam Dalgliesh TV series:

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Now more than ever….

August 12, 2022 at 3:43 pm (Poetry)

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

From Ode to a Nightingale

Easeful death did, apparently, come at the very end. Before that came agony. Keats was attended, to the end, by his close friend, the painter Joseph Severn, who had traveled with him to Rome in a last ditch effort to ease his suffering. In the early nineteenth century, tuberculosis was a death sentence. Keats had already lost his nineteen-year-old brother Tom to the ravages of the disease.

From a letter by Severn, written to a mutual friend, informing him of the death of their mutual friend John Keats:

My Dear Brown,

He is gone – he died with the most perfect ease – he seemed to go to sleep. On the 23rd, about 4, the approaches of death came on. ‘Severn – I – lift me up – I am dying – I shall die easy – don’t be frightened – be firm, and thank God it has come!’ I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seemed boiling in his throat, and increased until 11, when he gradually sunk into death – so quiet – that I still thought he slept. I cannot say now – I am broken down from four nights’ watching, and no sleep since, and my poor Keats gone. Three days since, the body was opened; the lungs were completely gone. The Doctors could not conceive by what means he had lived these two months. I followed his poor body to the grave on Monday, with many English. They take such care of me here – that I must else have gone into a fever. I am better now – but still quite disabled.

What a deep pleasure it has been to revisit the poetry of John Keats, as presented in Lucasta Miller’s luminous traversal. For instance, in a splendid turn of phrase, she refers to Keats’s “Shakespearean level of verbal fecundity.”

There are generous quotes from Keats’s letters interspersed throughout the text. This one was especially meaningful to me:

The “heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways” if an individual soul is to fulfill its potential as “God’s own essence.”

The letters, I think, are worth seeking out for their own special depth and beauty.

Here is part of Miller’s analysis of Ode on a Grecian Urn:

What he wrote reflects his complex response to the pagan past, which he uses as a springboard from which to interrogate–quite literally, given the number of question marks that punctuate the poem–the relationship between art and reality, immutability and transience, past and present, death and life.

Keats, the author tells us, was criticized for privileging that pagan past over the eternal verities of Christianity. Such cavils seem not to have troubled him, thank goodness.

By the by, the exact Grecian urn that Keats was apostrophizing has not been conclusively identified. It existed in his mind, possibly an amalgam of several of its type, and by virtue of his brilliance, it now exists in ours as well. And I have come to believe implicitly in the poem’s final stanza:

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The poems that form the spine of Miller’s narrative are the three great odes – To a Nightingale, On a Grecian Urn, and To Autumn – two or three sonnets, the strange and enigmatic ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and several others.

To Autumn possesses what, to my mind, is one of the most purely beautiful opening lines in all of literature:

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,…’

Keats packed all this verbal brilliance into a painfully short period: he died in 1821 at the age of 25. He was buried in Rome’s Protestant cemetery. This is his tombstone:

Almost painful in its deliberate obscurity, it does not even divulge his name, asserting only that “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”  

Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, Keats is revered as one of the greatest poets  from a land rich with great poets. The only greater was Shakespeare, whom he revered.

Keats listening to the song of the nightingale, a posthumous painting by Joseph Severn

Keats’s poems can readily be found here.

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Recent Reads: Reviews at Lightning Speed!

July 24, 2022 at 1:10 am (Art, Mystery fiction)

I didn’t think I’d ever read another book about Abraham Lincoln since finishing the elegant, immensely moving Lincoln on the Verge by Ted Widmer. But this volume intrigued me, especially in regard to the history of the Booth family. As Alford succinctly states, “The son of one family killed the son of the other in the most infamous and consequential murder in American history.”

This book is filled with largely anecdotal tales of people possessing knowledge of events that will occur in the future. The accounts are spread out over time and place, giving the book a somewhat confusing structure – at least it seemed so to me.

One event that does loom large is the collapse of the Aberfan Colliery Spoil Tip in October of 1966. (Aberfan is a village in Wales.)

Knight also tells the story of a train wreck. One of the passengers was Robin Gibb, soon to become famous, along with his brothers, as the Bee Gees.

Some years later, the Gibb brothers were at a recording studio when the power suddenly went out. They found themselves sitting in a darkened stairwell, waiting for something to happen.

Barry Gibb recalls:

‘”That song didn’t take a lot of thinking about because it is a catastrophe and catastrophes happen all the time.” He added: “The atmosphere just came and the song just came.’

The song was odd and somewhat haunting.”

This was fun! I learned a lot, too. Heller introduced me to a number of interesting artists. Admittedly, some of these works didn’t do much for me, but I was pleasantly surprised by others.

Like this one, by Frank Stella:

Quaqua! Attaccatai La!

The story of the nineteenth century obsession with finding the source of the Nile River. The expeditions undertaken into Africa are good examples of a trip you would never wish to take, unless you are confirmed masochist. Millard’s focus is on two explorers who did in fact undertake it: Richard Burton and John Speke.

That’s Burton on the left. This visual makes them look like great buddies. In reality, they were anything but.

Candice Millard is the author of Destiny of the Republic, a book which made a powerful impression on me and on many others as well. She admits that it was a difficult story to write, and I can understand why. It was difficult to read, too. But people need to know about the quiet heroism of James A. Garfield. He was shot by an disappointed office seeker who was clearly insane. Garfield endured months of acute misery before finally passing away at the age of 49.

The plot of Swanson’s thriller is exceptionally cunning and fast moving. Nothing too profound here, but good fun and excellent escapism.

A primer on the ecology of the Southeast, a subject about which I knew next to nothing. I know more now, but the book is so rich with anecdote and evocative description, I fear I have retained very little of its riches. A Road Running Southward is a prime candidate for rereading, I think.

The author’s choice to anchor his own experience to that of John Muir is a device that works beautifully. Many people know of Muir’s explorations of Northern California, especially his adventures in the High Sierras, his “range of light.” But before heading West, Muir headed South, and kept a detailed journal of his observations while traveling – on foot, naturally.

“‘Today, emerging from a multitude of tropical plants, I behold the Gulf of Mexico stretching away unbounded,except by the sky,’ he wrote in A Thousand Mile Walk. ‘What dreams and speculative matter arose as I stood on the strand, gazing out on the burnished, treeless plain!'”

Comparisons between what Muir saw then and what the author sees now are inevitable, and often deeply dismaying.

Dan Chapman has produced a marvelously informative work. A world unknown to me came vividly to life. Highly recommended.

The first part of this book reads more like an exposé than anything else. Most of us know about the lobotomies, but not about the furious rate at which they were performed in the early years of the twentieth century, and the inadequacy with which the outcomes were made known. Then of course there is electroconvulsive therapy, the results of which were also rather horrific, at least when it first came into use.

That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. This is a complex subject, but Scull treats it in a lucid manner. One thing is made clear: Treating mental illness is a very perplexing undertaking. That is as true today, as it was a hundred years ago:

“Mental illness remains a baffling collection of disorders, many of them resisting our most determined efforts to probe their origins or to relieve the suffering they bring in their train.”

This book is filled with fascinating revelations. I found it a mesmerizing read.

And now: Even in a field of such superior works , this one stands out.

The Goldenacre is many things at once: a thriller complete with a cunning plot and a twist at the end that I, for one, did not see coming; a terrific sense of place, that place being Edinburgh, a compelling cast of characters whose motives are not always obvious, and finally, writing that absolutely soars.

The title refers to a painting attributed to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Here is how it is described:

“Mackintosh had painted a blaze of white sky, and, within that blaze, something living and diaphanous. In the distance sat the black of the Pentlands. They had been rendered as if they were not bare hills stripped of their native trees but two giant legs and a mammoth body: a distant giant cut from the landscape. The perspective of The Goldenacre was unnerving: the field was both flat and three-dimensional, and the height down to the foreground was precipitous. Throughout, the colours were bold and watery, as rich as a passing reality, as sorrowful as a dream departing upon waking.”

The story involves a young man with the improbably name of Thomas Tallis whose job it is to verify this attribution.

Anyway, just take my word for it. The Goldenacre gives proof that people can still create works of this caliber. I’m deeply grateful to Philip Miller, a writer whom I did not know. I know him now. And on the strength of this novel, I am deeply, deeply impressed by him.

Philip Miller

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Nonfiction, Part the First, Art: Hans Holbein the Younger

July 13, 2022 at 3:54 pm (Art)

The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein, by Franny Moyle

A fascinating, eminently readable biography. I learned, among other things, that Holbein, born in Switzerland, made many more works than the (justly famous) portraits of King Henry VIII and Thomas More.

Henry VIII
Sir Thomas More

Holbein also painted this strange and somewhat disturbing yet riveting image:

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb
The Ambassadors
Erasmus

What a great portraitist Holbein the Younger was!

The Last Supper
The Solothurn Madonna

Oh – and Holbein the Elder was no slouch, either:

Portrait of a Woman
The Dormition of the Virgin

Ambrosius Holbein, brother of Hans the Younger, was also a painter:

Portrait of a Young Man

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Who Killed Jane Stanford? by Richard White

July 4, 2022 at 2:34 pm (California, History, True crime)

Who even knew this was an issue? The main reason so few people knew is that from the moment of her demise in Hawaii in 1905, those who were associated with Jane Stanford fought desperately and cunningly to have her death ruled as natural. This included her family, her friends, her servants, and others who were part of her circle at the fledgling university founded by her late husband and herself.

They each had their reasons.

The Stanfords had one child, Leland Stanford Junior, born in 1868 when Jane was 39 years old. While they were vacationing in Florence, Italy, Leland Junior died of typhoid fever. He was fifteen years old.

His parents were devastated. Their grief gave rise to a desire to memorialize their deceased son in a way that would be meaningful and enduring. Leland Stanford Junior University opened on October 1, 1891.

Leland Stanford’s enormous wealth derived from his initial investment in the Central Pacific Railroad, followed by his acquisition of the Southern Pacific Railroad. There’s more – Stanford’s rise to power and fortune is a complex story. When he died in 1893 at the age of 69, he left an extremely well-off widow. This book is her story.

Actually, it’s the story of the last years of her life, those that culminated in the act that caused her death. Jane Stanford was poisoned. The attempt was made twice. The first time, in California, it failed. The second time, in Hawaii, it succeeded. Both times the agent used was strychnine.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this book was the story it told of the early days of Stanford University. It was a surprisingly rocky beginning. Jane Stanford’s domineering presence on the scene was not helpful. Somehow, from the turmoil of a constant power struggle, Stanford ultimately emerged as a world class institution of higher learning.

Not long after Jane’s death, William James arrived at the university. His brief while there was to teach a course in philosophy to a group of relatively clueless undergraduates. “James was attracted to Stanford University by an easterner’s fascination with California, but mostly he came for the money.” He had some things in common with Jane Stanford: he too had lost a child, and he was also drawn to the practice of spiritualism. But James was possessed of a towering intellect which Jane, for all her affluence, could not even approach.

As for Jane Stanford herself, she is not an especially sympathetic person. Her obsession with the memory of her husband and even more powerfully with that of her son should have made her more so, and yet, for this reader at least, by and large they did not. She adhered to a confused mixture of fervent Christianity and spiritualism in a desperate attempt to obtain solace for her profound losses. And her interference with the running of the university was frequent and unhelpful.

At times, White’s narrative drags. The reporting on the wrangling among Jane Stanford’s servants and among various luminaries in the university’s administration at times seemed positively granular. Admittedly, true crime maven that I am, I was chomping at the bit as I awaited the climactic story of the murder of Jane Stanford. But somehow, when it finally came,it seemed a bit of an anticlimax. But…the description of death by strychnine poisoning is harrowing. In her last moments, Jane cried out that “This a horrible death to die.” Events bear out her final cry of agony.

No one deserves to die in so terrible a manner. And yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Jane Stanford’s demise was judged to be by natural causes. The title of this book tells you right away that the author Richard White does not accept this ruling. In fact, in the epilogue – entitled “Who Killed Her?” – he offers a solution to the mystery. I won’t reveal the name here, but I will say that, given all that went on before the event, it was not at all surprising.

Jane Stanford 1828-1905

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Question of the Day

June 29, 2022 at 6:59 pm (Family)

How did the above Excellent Personage

Become the Excellent Personage below, fixing us with an enigmatic gaze:

And, here, staring winsomely from behind the family’s newly acquired Excellent Canine:

This Excellent Personage, aka Etta Lin, will be entering middle school in the fall.

*******************

And coming right behind her, Little Brother Welles (also an Excellent Personage, doubt not), who has gone from infancy (seen here with his beautiful Mom):

with seemingly lightning speed to ace softball player:

And possessor of an ever-growing collection of Matchbox Cars:

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The Summit of Beauty in Art

June 16, 2022 at 12:24 pm (Art)

On my art-cluttered coffee table, this gorgeous volume currently takes precedence. It is a birthday gift from Ron – my most splendid husband.

Giotto’s O is about the great painter Giotto de Bondone. His genius pointed the way forward from the art of the Middle Ages to the triumph of the High Renaissance.

From Andrew Ladis’s Introduction:

The tale of Giotto’s O is a story of magical technical mastery and the most unassuming interpretive intelligence, an extraordinary combination of hand and mind. The painter transforms himself into a human compass, but in addition to mechanical precision there is a diagnostic dimension behind the mark that is equally astonishing, an idea that informs and elevates the painter’s manual dexterity….

The murals by Giotto in the Arena Chapel…constitute the greatest pictorial cycle of fourteenth-century Europe. Above all, what elevates them to the realm of the universal and timeless is their profound humanity. In a series of images whose subtlety, truthfulness, and dramatic range anticipate Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Giotto explored the world of the human heart and mind in such a way that, as the nineteenth-century English critic John Ruskin put it, he “defines, explains and exalts every sweet incident of human nature; and makes dear to daily life every mystic imagination of natures greater than our own. He reconciles, while he intensifies, every virtue of domestic and monastic thought. He makes the simplest household duties sacred, and the highest religious passions serviceable and just.”

Recently, I’ve taken a Lifelong Learning class entitled The Giotto Revolution. I’ve had this instructor before, but this time she really outdid herself. The course was not only about Giotto; several other great artists were covered. Among the most notable, Duccio di Buoninsegna. ( I love his name):

Rucellai Madonna, ca. 1285
Meleager Sarcophagus, 220-230 AD
Cimabue Madonna and Child
Giotto, Ognissanti Madonna ca. 1310
Pulpit of the Pisa Baptistry, Nicola Pisano

Ducci, Maesta ca.1308-1311

Duccio, Maesta, reverse

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Recent Reading in Crime Fiction

May 13, 2022 at 8:46 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Of late, I’ve read much and written little. So here’s a corrective, of sorts.

This one was a bit of a hyperintellectual brain teaser, infused with mathematical theorizng ad literary speculation. The plot revolves, almost inevitably, around Lewis Carroll and the questions surrounding his affinity for young girls. Recommended, if you desire a brisk workout for your ‘leetle gray cells..’

And this is quite the opposite. Alexander McCall Smith is incredibly skilled at writing about the human side of his characters without waxing sentimental. Theft of painting, a terrible injury to Ulf’s dog Martin – the only dog in Sweden that can lip read, by the by – these stories and more are interwoven seamlessly in this novel. Ulf is a detective with a heart as big as the great Scandinavian outdoors, yet with it , a brain as sharp and knowing as any policeman could need or desire.

C.J. Box is on a roll, with his Joe Pickett series now being made for television. These novels combine fast moving plots with characters you care about. The writing about the West, with all its problems and promises, is outstanding. Shadows Reel is a worthy addition to this series. And if you’ve never been to Wyoming…well, drop everything and go. What a gorgeous place!

DI Vera Stanhope is driving home in a blizzard when she spots a car at the side of the road. It appears to be empty. The driver’s side door hangs open. She pulls over and stops for a closer look. Suddenly she hears a soft, mewling noise from the back of the vehicle. Like a kitten. But not a kitten. A baby.

Vera gathers the child in her arms and trudges to the nearest dwelling. And here, more surprises await…

Ann Cleeves is a wonderful writer, And the Vera Stanhope series has been brought vividly to life on television. I highly recommend it.

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Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

April 10, 2022 at 8:12 pm (Art, books)

To begin with, the word ‘Secret’ should have been plural: Lady Audley had several, any one of which, if revealed, could have torpedoed her status as ‘My Lady’ within the staid rigors of Victorian society.

I first encountered information on this novel in the pages of Kate Summerscale’s riveting book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. One of the things that made that book so fascinating was the telling of the various ways in which the contemporary culture reacted to news of the grotesque murder at the center of Summerscale’s narrative. During the heat of the high profile investigation, both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins caught ‘detective fever’ and found themselves speculating on possible solutions. Meanwhile, Mary Elizabeth Braddon‘s response to the hubbub was to write Lady Audley’s Secret.

From the viewpoint of plot, the two books have very little in common. But from the standpoint of character, they have one commonality: both feature a woman at the center of a maelstrom, a woman whose moral compass has malfunctioned, with predictably disastrous results. Braddon’s novel falls into the category of literature called ‘novels of sensation.’ Allow me to quote myself, from the post I linked to above:

‘According to Henry James, works of this type dealt with “‘those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries that are at our own doors…the terrors of the cheerful country house, or the busy London lodgings.’” Summerscale elaborates: “Their secrets were exotic, but their settings immediate – they took place in England, now, a land of telegrams, trains, policemen. The characters in these novels were at the mercy of their feelings, which pressed out, unmediated, onto their flesh: emotions compelled them to blanch, flush, darken, tremble, start, convulse, their eyes to burn and flash and dim.”‘

In other words, if your feelings are somewhat numb – try one!

This was actually my second reading of Lady Audley’s Secret. Why did I decide to reread this novel at the present moment? I was having trouble finding reading matter that adequately matched my mood. In particular, I was experiencing one disappointment after another with new so-called ‘literary fiction.’ I’m sure some of it is very good; it just did not seem to be written for me.

When I descend into doldrums of this sort, I tend to reach back to the classics for consolation – and inspiration. My first attempt was a novel I’ve always meant to read but have never gotten all the way through: Crime and Punishment. I’ve always found Dostoevsky tougher going than Tolstoy. I recently read, for the first time, the latter’s short story “Master and Man” and found it powerfully moving. So, how did I do with Dostoevsky this time around? Better…but not completely. These days, due to the magic of Kindle, I could tell precisely how much of the novel I got through: eighty-one percent. I was reading the Constance Garnett translation; possibly a more recent one would have worked better for me. At any rate, I may go back to it, at some future time….

In contrast, reading Lady Audley’s Secret was a breeze. I was engrossed from the outset and stayed that way until the end. In addition, at the time of this reading, I was taking a most pleasurable Lifelong Learning class on the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Just before the final session of this course, I happened upon a passage in which the author describes a portrait of Lady Audley:

Yes, the painter must have been a pre-Raphaelite. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait. 

It was so like, and yet so unlike. It was as if you had burned strange-colored fires before my lady’s face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of coloring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint mediaeval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend. 

Her crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of color as if out of a raging furnace. Indeed the crimson dress, the sunshine on the face, the red gold gleaming in the yellow hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips, the glowing colors of each accessory of the minutely painted background, all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one.’

I immediately copied this text and sent it to our instructor. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848. Lady Audley’s Secret came out in 1862. The edition at the top of this post features a painting by Dante Gabriel Rosetti entitled Monna Vanna.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Monna Vanna, 1866.

Meanwhile, I had recently read of a new book by Christine Emba, one of my favorite Washington Post columnists. Here it is:

The cover image is by yet another Pre-Raphaelite painter, Frederick Sandys. It is called Love’s Shadow.

Love’s shadow *oil on panel *40.6 x 32.5 cm *1867

There really is something witchy about the way in which the Pre-Raphaelite painters depict certain women…

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