‘…there is a haunted atmosphere, of evil, of struggling good in the ascendant, of the quiet, busy, Englishness of life.’

October 8, 2017 at 8:07 pm (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction)

  While I was sifting through a cache of old papers, a printout entitled “Agatha Christie: Overview” rose to the surface. It is from an article that I found on a Gale database on the library’s site some seventeen years ago.

I find these observations by J.B. Lethbridge to be intriguing and elegantly expressed:

Christie makes effective use of the reader’s unconscious, often making crucial references to its depths, with lines from great literature or nursery rhymes, about which there hovers in the darkness of half-remembered things the suggestion of the answer to the whole mystery….Then, too, she makes use of proverbs, folklore, local legend, Gypsy warnings and prophecies, old-fashioned and forgotten wisdom from nannies and gardeners.

Christie’s characters are always a trifle  thin, for she is not a fully-fledged novelist, but their psychology is convincing and consistent, and this together with her vivid and characteristic descriptions give them the illusion of more rotundity than they possess….

But it is this apparent thinness of characterisation, story, atmosphere, and setting which makes the books so enduring. They have something of the spare style of a more ancient literature: nothing superfluous, nothing irrelevant, just the very basic necessities of storytelling and character: but nothing missing either. And yet in the interstices there is a haunted atmosphere, of evil, of struggling good in the ascendant, of the quiet, busy, Englishness of life. Perhaps this is why her books are so popular world wide; they recall to the English an idyllic lost country, and to the rest, suggest the charming perfection of the English way….

But perhaps what most sets Christie apart from other detective writers is her homely and secure wisdom; never tendentious, Christie is a little like a favourite nanny telling sometimes macabre fairy tales to her rapt charges, interspersed with the quiet, wise, homely but firm advice and wisdom which only an intelligent and acute observer of the ways of men could accumulate and disperse almost unconsciously: rather like her own Miss Marple in fact.

That passage  about “an idyllic lost country” brought to mind these stanzas from “A Shropshire Lad” by A.E. Housman:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

In the past twelve years, ever since my trip to Yorkshire reawakened my dormant love of England, I’ve seen these verses quoted over and over. In addition, I’ve read two crime novels with the same title, possibly drawn from the same source:

      I recommend both, by the way.

For me, the Miss Marple novels and stories most closely epitomize the qualities that Lethbridge enumerates above. I’m especially fond of The Body in the Library.   For one thing, I love the way the novel opens:

Mrs. Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show. The vicar, dressed in cassock and surplice, was giving out the prizes in church. His wife wandered past, dressed in a bathing suit, but as is the blessed habit of dreams this fact did not arouse the disapproval of the parish in the way it would assuredly have done in real life…

Christie then comments that “Mrs. Bantry was enjoying her dream a good deal.” Poor Dolly Bantry! Her happy dream world is about to implode. Naturally, her first thought is to call for help from her most reliable and intuitive friend, Miss Jane Marple.

As for the filmed versions, I love Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. (These were made for television and filmed from 1984 to 1992.) Having none of the clownishness of  Margaret Rutherford, she portrays the elderly sleuth as if she were a kind of seer. She’s as the still center of every mystery she encounters, ranging her fragile physique and powerful intellect against a crime that personifies evil. Her goodness and steady belief in justice carry the day.

In The Body in the Library, retired Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering describes her as follows:

“The finest detective God ever made. Natural genius cultivated in suitable soil.”

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple with Raymond Francis as Sir Henry Clithering, 1984

 

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

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

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

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

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Books read for a trip not taken

July 29, 2017 at 4:23 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

Crime fiction

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves
The Dungeon House by Martin Edwards
The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid
The Hennessy and Yellich series by Peter Turnbull

Nonfiction

The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Grevel Lindop
The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James   Rebanks

  When you get your books from Amazon, you may get some surprises as well. I got one when The Crow Trap arrived: all 535 pages of it. I groaned inwardly (and outwardly too, just ask my husband), but as it turned out, I loved this book right from the get-go. It was eminently readable and completely absorbing. I finished it in a matter of days – would have done sooner, only I didn’t want my enjoyment to end prematurely.

Three women are gathering data as part of an environmental survey being conducted in the north of England. Their results will be crucial in determining whether a quarry can be established in the region.They’re at the center of a crowded canvas featuring people with various problems, motives, and intentions.

Their endeavors seem somehow to be death haunted. And this propensity brings Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope onto the scene. In a literary world replete with investigators of every type, temperament, and ethnicity, Vera seems to this reader at least to be rather unique. She doesn’t enter the narrative until almost halfway in, and when she does…well, she makes an impression, that’s for sure:

She was a large woman – big bones amply covered, a bulbous nose, man-sized feet. Her legs were bare and she wore leather sandals. Her square toes were covered in mud. Her face was blotched and pitted….Over her clothes she wore a transparent plastic mac and she stood there, the rain dripping from it onto the floor, grey hair sleeked dark to her forehead….

The Crow Trap, which came out in 1998, was the first novel featuring DI Vera Stanhope. There are now seven, with another due out in September.

I hadn’t read anything by Ann Cleeves since Blue Lightning, the fourth in the Shetland series. (I’ve also read  the three predecessors: Raven Black, White Nights, and Red Bones).  I’d forgotten what a terrific storyteller she is, a gift amply supported by the quality of her writing. I won’t forget again, for some time now at least.

Ann Cleeves met with us in Northumberland during a Smithsonian mystery tour in 2007

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I’d had The Dungeon House on my Kindle for quite some time, so I made it my business to read it in advance of the planned meeting with Martin Edwards on this trip. What a pleasure! This may be my favorite of his always enjoyable Lake District series.

  Martin has recently won accolades for The Golden Age of Murder, his meticulously researched (and hugely entertaining) history of the Detection Club. And now he has come out with this gem: . I acquired this last week at Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland – only a short ferry ride from St. Michaels, where we were staying. I’ve been putting off actually having a look inside. Treasures await, I know, in the form of all kinds of titles that I simply MUST READ AT ONCE!
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  I’ve written about The Grave Tattoo, a highly original and intriguing mystery, in a previous post. And finally, Peter Turnbull’s Hennessey and Yellich novels were commended to us. This is a series that I absolutely love, as much for Turnbull’s highly idiosyncratic style as for his appealing characters and strangely original plots.
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  I’ve already written about the two nonfiction titles listed above. Grevel Lindop’s biography of the perpetually fascinating Thomas De Quincey held me in its thrall from beginning to end. The following passage describes De Quincey’s strange out-of-body experience at the death bed of his beloved sister Elizabeth. He was seven years old; she was nine:

After pausing a moment he walked round to the side of the bed. His sister lay there, beautiful and calm, with no sign of her recent illness and pain, but unmistakably different, with a statue-like, frozen look, the lips like marble, ‘the stiffening hands laid palm to palm’ — an awesome being, and not quite his sister any more.
His attention was caught by a low surge of wind outside the open window, and listening to it for a moment he was carried on the sound of the breeze into a kind of trance: his bodily senses were suspended, and ‘A vault seemed to open in the zenith of the far blue sky, a shaft which ran up forever; and the billows seemed to pursue the throne of God; but that also ran before us and fled away continually . . . some mighty relation between God and death struggled to evolve itself until, after what seemed ‘a very long interval’, he regained normal consciousness and found himself standing, as before, by his sister’s bed.

I doubt I will ever again read so poignant a description of a grieving child. Elizabeth had been the only reliable source of affection in Thomas’s love-starved childhood.
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  I had already tried and failed to get into James Rebanks’s  chronicle of a shepherd and the vagaries of sheep herding in the modern world. I mean, slightly over three hundred pages about sheep -really?

The appearance of this title on the trip’s reading list prompted me to try again. Early on, James Rebanks has this to say about his book:

It is the story of a family and a farm, but it also tells a wider story about the people who get forgotten in the modern world. It is about how we need to open our eyes and see the forgotten people who live in our midst, whose lives are often deeply traditional and rooted in the distant past.

Give yourself a little time to get into it – the effort is very worthwhile. And I recommend my post on this delightful book. It contains some great photos as well as links to two memorable video segments. Rebanks, his sheep, and his marvelous sheep dogs – all are wonderfully photogenic.


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Along with several of my mystery-loving friends, Ron and I were all set to take this British Mystery Trip to the north of England, when we were unexpectedly waylaid by a medical situation that had to be seen to in a timely fashion. The outcome, I’m relieved to report, was excellent. I’d been cleared  for take-off, as it were, but the plane had long ago left the airport.

While abroad, my friends were wonderfully supportive, sending periodic dispatches and photos.

Interior of Brantwood, John Ruskin’s home, taken by Marge T.

Alnwick Castle, home to the Dukes of Northumberland, taken by Ann R.

British Mystery Trips always provides an annotated reading list that is a very model of erudition as well as pure literary pleasure. The reading I was able to complete represents only a fraction of what was actually on the list. Needless to say, I don’t regret the time spent on it. On the contrary, I’m grateful.

Rumor has it that beautiful Britain will be around for a long time to come, thereby giving me other opportunities to visit in future. I’m already looking forward to the occasion.

 

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The Past, by Tessa Hadley

May 30, 2017 at 10:44 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

At a recent book group planning session with the AAUW Readers, I gave voice to my frustration with much of the recent fiction that I’ve tried – and failed – to read. Where is the elegance of structure, I moaned plaintively? Where is the graceful, eloquently expressive writing? (You’re talking about craft, my dear friend Helene pointed out, when she and I had  this same conversation several years ago.)

As I was concluding my litany of woes, Debbie, a colleague sitting beside me, leaned over and asked in a whisper if I’d read The Past by Tessa Hadley. “It’s only that you’re passionate about good writing; that’s why I ask.” 

Now I had previously read two novels by this author, The London Train and Clever Girl. I recall enjoying them both a great deal. And I actually had The Past already downloaded onto my Kindle. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Debbie’s words resonated with me. I started Tessa Hadley’s book as soon as I got home. And I knew at once that Debbie was right on the mark with this recommendation.

The Past is a family story, and it reflects generously the messy realities of family life. The Crane family have temporarily abandoned their busy city lives and convened at the house of their late grandparents in the country. There is a question before them: Should  they keep and maintain the house, seat of so many of their childhood memories, or should they sell it? If they decide to keep it, they’ll need to arrange to have work done on it, with all the attendant inconvenience and expense. It would be much simpler to sell up. But then something intangible yet terribly vital will be lost to them forever.

Dramatis personae here consists of three sisters, Harriet, Alice, and Fran, their brother Roland, Roland’s new wife Pilar (or should I say latest wife – apparently he’s had several), Fran’s children Ivy and Arthur, Roland’s teen-aged daughter Molly, and Kasim, Alice’s – well, it’s rather unclear, actually. As you may well imagine, the house becomes a veritable laboratory of tension generation, the level rising and subsiding as argument and irritation are followed by a period of (transitory) calm. And there’s a derelict cottage not far away that’s familiar to Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland from their childhood. It catches some of the spillover from the grandparent house.

This is one of those novels in which as you’re reading, the characters become increasingly vivid, to the extent that you feel you must know them, or at least have known them, at some point in your own life. The conflicts and the emotions are that real.

Hadley’s feel for natural surroundings seems, to this reader, profound:

The lane was strewn with branches fallen in the last high wind; huge oaks growing out of the banks were contorted and bulging with age, their grey hides deeply fissured and crusty. In the high hedgerows the delicate flowering plants of early summer had yielded to coarsely thriving nettles and bramble and dock, rank in the heat. She crossed a stile, then climbed a stubble field up to where cylindrical bales of straw were stored in a Dutch barn. At the top of the hill the wide landscape was proffered bleached and basking, purged of its darkness: there were views across the shining estuary all the way to the blue hills of Wales and, behind her, inland to the moors.

She’s also extremely astute in her observations of children. (In this, she reminds me of Joanna Trollope and Ann Patchett.) Fran’s daughter Ivy is at a volatile age, often beset by surging anger and resentment and prone to misinterpret the words and actions of those around her. And yet she’s pretty much allowed the run of the place. Various people are assigned supervision of Ivy and her little brother Arthur, with the result sometimes being they they’re being supervised by no one in particular. It  seems to me only sheer luck that prevents her from precipitating a full blown disaster.

The odd result of all this commotion is that although The Past hasn’t get an especially dynamic plot, it has still got plenty of suspense. Oh – and lest I forget to mention it – Tessa Hadley has a wonderfully wry and subtle sense of humor.

This is a marvelous novel written by a master of her craft. I recommend it highly; I also think it would make an excellent subject for a book discussion group.

Tessa Hadley

 

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‘…Thomas began to learn how to apply the ointment of dreams to the wounds inflicted by experience.’ – The Opium Eater by Grevel Lindop

May 17, 2017 at 12:36 am (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

  The Opium Eater is subtitled, A Life of Thomas De Quincey. It was a deeply turbulent and difficult life. As an adult, De Quincey was chronically short of funds and relentlessly hounded by creditors, frequently needing to flee from them and find repose in the homes of friends or in designated sanctuaries like Holyrood House in Edinburgh. His health was frequently poor, with problems exacerbated by his use of opium.

All of this was preceded by a childhood positively Dickensian in its cruelty. That the cruelty was in the main psychological made it no less devastating to Thomas, a child in desperate need of warmth and encouragement. His mother Elizabeth Quincey, a domineering woman with a heart of flint, believed that praising children promoted vanity and this refrained from demonstrating any kind of approval or even basic kindness toward her children.

De Quincey’s father, a successful merchant, was often absent. He finally came home for good, to die of tuberculosis at the age of 40, as Thomas was approaching his eighth birthday. Shortly prior to this, Thomas had lost the one bright light of his chilldhood: his sister Elizabeth, who died at the age of nine.

What a catalog of miseries! The burden of sadness must have been nearly intolerable. And as for the mother in the case, I found her conduct so enraging that I had to stop reading from time to time, to give myself a chance to simmer down.

Despite the absolute lack of maternal love and support, De Quincey began to exhibit signs of an insatiable intellectual curiosity. These were accompanied by unmistakable signs of brilliance. His scholarship in the fields of the classics and philosophy was deeply impressive.

At thirteen he wrote Greek with ease; at fifteen he not only composed Greek verses in lyric measures, but could converse in Greek fluently and without embarrassment; one of his masters said of him, “that boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.”

From NNDB.com

De Quincey attended Oxford but does not seem to have derived much joy from the experience. He began his writing career as a journalist, editor, and reviewer. He earned a precarious living in that manner  for the rest of his life. He married Margaret Simpson, a farmer’s daughter whom he loved dearly.

To this superb young woman . . . I surrendered my heart forever almost from my first opportunity of seeing her; for so natural and without disguise was her character and so winning the simplicity of her manners, due in part to the deep solitude in which she had been reared, that little penetration was required to put me in possession of all her thoughts and to win her love.

Quoted by Grevel Lindop from “The Household Wreck,” a story by De Quincey

They had a large family, though a number of the children did not survive to adulthood. The saddest story on that subject involves their son William. He contracted a rare and particularly cruel cancer called chloroleukaemia and died at the age of eighteen. He was the firstborn of Margaret and Thomas; they were devastated by the loss.

Somehow, amidst all the pain, loss, and hardship, De Quincey persevered. In September 1822, “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” was published in London Magazine:

The Confessions were instantly famous and have remained so ever since. Between 1821 and 1823 some fifteen reviews appeared, nearly all of them enthusiastic about the book’s style and imaginative power, though a few thought the author vain or immoral and there were doubts about the truth of his story. Imitations and parodies abounded, and before long De Quincey’s literary influence, unknown to him, was spreading abroad. In 1828 his work was introduced to France by Alfred de Musset in L‘anglais, mangeur d’opium, a very free adaptation; in 1860 a better version was to be made by Baudelaire in Les paradis artificiels, and by then the Confessions had reached Edgar Allan Poe and contributed an important element to his style and vision. vision. De Quincey had written a classic work.

I cannot praise this biography too highly. Grevel Lindop’s writing is wonderful; his research, exhaustive. This was obviously a labor of love, and I, for one, loved it.

Grevel Lindop

Here, from Lindop’s site, is the story of his thorough-going involvement in the life and work of Thomas De Quincey:

In the late 1970s I became interested in Thomas De Quincey, ‘the English Opium-Eater’, essayist and friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge. I wrote a biography of him, published in 1981 as The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. Later I edited his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings for the Oxford World’s Classics series in 1985, and later still I piloted The Works of Thomas De Quincey, a 21-volume complete edition of his writings, produced by a team of eleven editors under my direction and published in 2000-03.

There’s much more in this biography that what I’ve described above. Of especial interest is De Quincey’s relationship with Wordsworth and his family. Anyway, read it, for that and for so much more.

The question arises as to what to read by De Quincey himself. I won’t deny that I find some of his writings abstruse. For one thing, his prose is liberally sprinkled with quotations from the Latin and Greek. For another, there is an antiquarian aspect to his prose that can  be rather daunting for the modern reader – or this reader, at any rate. Be that as it may, there are works that Lindop really made me want to read: The Avenger, The English Mail Coach – and of course, The Confessions. I’m currently rereading On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts and finding it tougher going than I did this first time; don’t ask me why. I do, though, have to share this quote from it:

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.

The tone, I think, is what makes On Murder especially memorable. A good place to start, though, would be On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth. It’s short, powerful, accessible, and deeply profound.

Thomas De Quincey 1785-1859

 

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From Jane Austen, to Reginald Hill, to Sir Thomas Browne, and back to Reginald Hill, in one easy leap

March 19, 2017 at 3:28 pm (Anglophilia, books, Mystery fiction)

  The March 13 issue of The New Yorker featured a delightful piece by Anthony Lane about Sanditon,  Jane Austen’s final unfinished novel. By the time I finished reading it, I was scrambling to find a downloadable version. I’ve read all the other Austen novels – more than once, in some cases – but like many, I’ve always assumed that ‘unfinished’ meant ‘not worthwhile.’ Not so, avers Mr. Lane:

Although—or precisely because—“Sanditon” was composed by a dying woman, the result is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness. It brims with life.

This encomium put me in mind of Reginald Hill’s novel The Price of Butcher’s Meat, in which Dalziel goes to a seaside resort called Sandytown, ostensibly to recover from wounds received in a recent attempt on his life. The place name is an homage to the fictional Sanditon of Austen’s invention. Hill says he got the idea when he had the pleasure of attending a conference of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Here are his prefatory notes to the novel:

To Janeites everywhere

and in particular to those who ten years ago in San Francisco made me so very welcome at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s AGM, of which the theme was “Sanditon–A New Direction?” and during which the seeds of this present novel were sown. I hope that my fellow Janeites will approve the direction in which I have moved her unfinished story; or, if they hesitate approval, that they will perhaps recall the advice printed on a sweatshirt presented to me (with what pertinence I never quite grasped) after my address to the AGM

–Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint–

and at least agree that, though from time to time I may have run a little mad, so far I have not fainted!

(AGM stands for Annual General Meeting.)

Reginald Hill passed away in January of 2012 at the age of 75. Later that year, the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain posted a memorial page in his honor on their site. I was deeply honored to be asked to contribute to this project. Click here to read what I wrote.

This might be a good time to revisit one of my favorite YouTube clips: Emma Thompson’s acceptance speech at the 1995 Golden Globe Awards for best screenplay for Sense and Sensibility:

The Price of Butcher’s Meat is the penultimate Dalziel and Pascoe novel, and this bit of reminiscence reminds me how much I loved those novels and how much I miss the presence on the mystery scene of the erudite and witty Reginald Hill.

The novel’s title is taken from a passage in Sanditon:

Aye–that young Lady smiles I see–but she will come to care about such matters herself in time. Yes, Yes, my Dear, depend upon it, you will be thinking of the price of Butcher’s meat in time.

But  the British edition has a far more euphonious title: A Cure for All Diseases. The phrase originates in this apt and wry comment from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici:

We all labour against our own cure, for death is the cure of all diseases.

Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a physician and author of works in a variety of fields. He was one of those admirable polymaths who frequently spring up in the course of British scientific and literary history.

Statue of Sir Thomas Browne in Norwich City Center

(You could say that Emma Thompson – writer, actress, and scholar – is another such polymath.)

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The Price of Butcher’s Meat is followed by Midnight Fugue, the last novel the Dalziel and Pascoe series. Here is rare footage of Reginald Hill discussing that book:

 

 

 

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Three Mysteries and a Scandal

March 16, 2017 at 12:01 am (Anglophilia, Book review, books, California, Mystery fiction)

First, the scandal:

If Jeremy Thorpe were a character in a novel of political intrigue, reviewers and readers alike would cry out, “Oh, that’s so over the top!” For an excellent summing up of the intricacy and sheer weirdness of this story, read this write-up in the Guardian.

At the time that I picked this book up, I was in need of something that would hold my interest – with little or no effort on my part –  from first to last. A Very English Scandal – sometimes sordid but never dull –  proved to be just the ticket.

Jeremy Thorpe: A politician to his marrow (and several other things, besides)

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Now, the mysteries:
  In his informative and entertaining Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, Barry Forshaw describes Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target as “…vintage MacDonald and one of the best post-Chandler private eye novels, with a palpable sense of evil.”

So that naturally sent me back to one of my favorite writers of crime fiction. The Moving Target was one of the few Lew Archer novels I’d never read. Published in 1949, it’s the first in the series. I thought it might be too obviously a journeyman effort. As I began reading, I thought my fears were  confirmed. He’s toiling too much, I thought, in the dark, dark shade of Raymond Chandler.

And yet, and yet…as the narrative developed, the prose took flight, out from behind the Chandler shadow and into the brilliant sun of southern California:

The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon’s mouth, bright blue and polished like a stone. Private property: color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small.

There is an element of bitterness, even at times self-loathing, that emerges from time to time in the character of Lew Archer. We don’t know where it comes from; we’re told very little, if anything, about his background and personal life. I would have liked to know more. I was in a state of heightened intrigue as I read this novel, and the others. I’ve always wanted him to fall in love, but the women that he meets in the course of his investigations are either unworthy of him or unavailable, for one reason or another.

The Moving Target has its moments, but I think for those new to the oeuvre, it can be safely passed over in favor of later works, in particular The Doomsters, The Far Side of the Dollar, The Galton Case, The Underground Man, The Chill, and of course, The Zebra-Striped Hearse. Then, of course, you can do as I’ve done and  go back and read them all.

‘Ross MacDonald at 100,’http://www.independent.com/news/2015/nov/19/ross-macdonald-100/ from the Santa Barbara Independent on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth in 1915

Sue Grafton on Ross MacDonald:

If Dashiell Hammett can be said to have injected the hard-boiled detective novel with its primitive force, and Raymond Chandler gave shape to its prevailing tone, it was Ken Millar, writing as Ross Macdonald, who gave the genre its current respectability, generating a worldwide readership that has paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps.

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This next is going to be a very short review of a very long book – well, maybe not very long, but in my view, rather longer than it needed to be. In regard to my current reading life, the chief virtue of The Grave Tattoo (2006) is its setting in the Lake District, an area of preternatural beauty in the far north of England. God willing, and I fervently hope that He will be, we are set to go there in July, and to York as well.

This trip comes accompanied by a marvelous reading list. Those of us who love to travel and love to read know well that combining these two activities is one of life’s great pleasures. (Thanks are due for the trip’s literary component to Kathy of British Mystery Trips.)

The plot of Val McDermid’s novel concerns the doings of a Wordsworth scholar, a forensic anthropologist, a dealer in rare documents, a precocious and endangered adolescent girl, various law enforcement personnel, and others. It’s a densely woven narrative. At  the outset, we are treated to a lengthy disquisition on the life and mystery surrounding Fletcher Christian, of all people. I almost gave up at that point, but I persevered, and actually I am glad that I did. Val McDermid has woven rather a fabulous tapestry here – if you can stick with it.  And once the Fletcher Christian connection becomes clear, we’re treated to a very intriguing historical mystery. And I’m grateful to McDermid for her depiction of this special landscape:

[River] loved the place names too, with their echoes of another wave of invaders. The Vikings had left their mark on the places they occupied with suffixes–Ireby, Branthwaite, Whitrigg. And there were other wonderful names whose origins she knew nothing of–Blennerhasset, Dubwath and Bewaldeth. Driving from Carlisle to Keswick wasn’t just pretty, it was poetry in motion.

I have to say, though, that so far the most wonderful discovery gleaned from that reading list is The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.

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Peter Turnbull writes like himself and nobody else.

George Hennessy knocked reverentially on the blue-and-green painted door of the modest bungalow on the outskirts of Fridaythorpe. He had never been to the village and found the name as pleasing as the appearance. “Thorpe” he knew to be an ancient Norse word for settlement but ‘Friday’ was unexplained. There was, he thought, probably a interesting story to the name.

(If you’re wondering whether there actually is such a place as Fridaythorpe – there is.)

Novels comprising the Hennessy and Yellich series used to arrive fairly regularly each year, Gift Wrapped having been the entry for 2013. When none arrived in 2014 or 2015 I became concerned…Was one of my favorite series now discontinued? Ergo, I was especially pleased to greet the appearance of 2016’s A Dreadful Past.

Crime solving is very much a group effort in these novels; George Hennessy’s team is comprised of a fairly stable cast of characters – stable both in their regular reappearance and their conduct. Their back stories are reiterated in each new novel. Some readers have complained about this, but I like it very much. It’s a sort of reaffirmation. Somerled Yellich is Hennessy’s second in command. Then there is Carmen Pharoah, a striking woman of West Indian heritage whose husband, also in law enforcement, was killed in action before she joined Hennessy’s team. Rounding out this tight knit group are Detective Constables Reginald Webster and Thompson Ventnor. They work together like the proverbial well oiled machine.

(From time to time, the reader will come upon a  chapter heading like this:

In which a man becomes a woman, a name is mentioned and Carmen Pharoah and Somerled Yellich are severally at home to the most charitable reader.)

The particular case treated in this narrative is a cold one, twenty years of cold having accrued on the case of a triple homicide that nearly wiped out an entire family.. The only surviving member had been away at university at the time of the killings, and it is he, one Noel Middleton, who arrives at the police station with a very telling piece of evidence in the form of a Wedgwood vase. The piece had been stolen from his home at the time of the murders and has now turned up in an antique shop.  While idly browsing some shop windows, Middleton had spotted it and known it for what it was.

I was amazed by what then happened as a result of this singular discovery. Read the book; I think you will be likewise astonished.

As they are set in the great and ancient city of York, these novels are also featured on the reading list for the trip. I was there for a day in 2005, and of course it was not nearly long enough. I was reading a book from this series, though I’m not sure which, at the time of my visit.

The mighty York Minster, second largest (or largest? – depending on whom you ask) Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe

 

Peter Turnbull

(Oh, for a different picture of this seemingly reclusive author…)

 

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English interlude; or, sheep on my mind

February 21, 2017 at 10:31 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

Love these:

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Herdwick sheep, a heritage breed native to England’s Lake District

And these as well:

Floss and Tan, essential helpers

Floss and Tan, dear ones as well as essential helpers

And love James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life.

61tkocp-pll-_sx328_bo1204203200_Ever since Rebanks’s book hit the bestseller list in Britain, he’s become something of a celebrity. It’s easy to see why:

As a celebration of an ancient way of life that persists despite the odds, The Shepherd’s Life is incomparable.

You could bring a Viking man to stand on our fell with me and he would understand what we were doing and the basic pattern of our farming year. The timing of each task varies depending on the different valleys and farms. Things are driven by the seasons and necessity, not by our will.
Sometimes I am left alone somewhere on the mountain, waiting for the others, alone in the silence. Skylarks rise, ascending in song. Sometimes there are moments when not a sheep or a man can be seen. Away in the distance I can see the main roads and the villages. No one really knows how long this fell gathering has happened, but it is quite possibly as much as five thousand years.

With The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks has given us a priceless gift. If you need to feel better about a beautiful landscape preserved as well as a way of life enriched with animals, children, and nature’s joys and rewards, read it.

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“‘What species of utterance is this?'”

August 30, 2016 at 11:43 pm (Anglophilia, Poetry)

On Saturday August 27, this letter appeared in the Washington Post:

While reading the first paragraph of Michael Dirda’s review of Edwin Greenwood’s “The Deadly Dowager” [“The largely forgotten mystery that should be in your beach bag,” Style, Aug. 18], I slipped the sordid and mundane bonds of the present. The distant life of ideas, which brings solace and meaning to a brutish world, peeked for a moment over the dark horizon like an unannounced sunrise.

Most of us leave that life behind when we leave school. We forget about poetry and literature and lofty thoughts; we forget how much they lighten the load of being and bring order to chaos; we become poorer.

For a few moments, I felt rich and young again. “What species of utterance is this?” Ode or elegy, it is the only one that lasts.

Thanks go to Dirda for that tiny glance back to the ivory tower, a relic of which I still carry near my heart.

Lynn Peterson Mobley, Great Falls

My first thought was that the phrase “the sordid and mundane bonds of the present” had a familiar ring. It put me in mind of Ronald Reagan. Research took me to Reagan’s address to the nation on the occasion of the Challenger tragedy. The President concluded that speech with the following words:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Those phrases are taken from a poem entitled “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee June 9, 1922 – December 11, 1941

John Gillespie Magee June 9, 1922 – December 11, 1941

Reagan’s address on that terrible occasion was a model of grace and clarity. The story of how it came to be written – under pressure and at a moment of extreme urgency – is quite interesting. It made a star out of the (young and inexperienced) woman from whose pen it issued.

As for Lynn Peterson Mobley’s letter, I am in awe of the beauty of expression that she summoned therein. I could not agree with her more about “poetry and literature and lofty thoughts.” I too had a college experience in which those values were paramount. At Goucher College, I was fortunate enough as an English major to have world class professors to teach and inspire me:

Professor William Hedges on American Literature
Professor William Mueller on Existentialism
Professor Brooke Peirce on Shakespeare and poetry of the English Enlightenment

Decades later, I remain deeply thankful for this experience.

The poetry  that resonates most deeply with me right now (as I seek  for ways to return to Great Britain) is A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

I’ve read two novels entitled An Air That Kills. One is the first entry in Andrew Taylor’s fine Lydmouth series; the other is by Margaret Millar.

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Having traveled to Shropshire and the incredibly beautiful Welsh border country in 2011, I gained a vivid appreciation of how much A Shropshire Lad means to the British people. While in a bookshop in one of the towns we passed through, I bought a beautiful new edition of the poem.

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Is My Team Ploughing

By A. E. Housman

“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”

Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.

“Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?”

Ay the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.

“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”

Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.

“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.

The Poetry Foundation site has an excellent biography of Housman.

Alfred Edward Housman 1859-1936

Alfred Edward Housman 1859-1936

This edition of A Shropshire Lad was published by Merlin Unwin Books in 2009 on the occasion of 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth.

I like the short commentary on the Naxos Audiobook site:

In A Shropshire Lad, A.E. Housman recreates a nostalgic world of lost love, lost youth, thwarted friendships, unfaithful girls, male bonding, untimely death and the uncertain glories of being a soldier. The poems deal with the exuberance of youth – its aspirations and disappointments, its naïve certainties and tragic mistakes. Though written in 1895, it struck a chord with the generation of young men who fought in World War I. It was said that every ‘Tommy’ had a copy in his knapsack. It has never been out of print.

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“fresh data on what it’s like to be human”

August 10, 2016 at 1:44 am (Anglophilia, Art, New York City)

Peter Scheldahl writes about art for the New Yorker. The short piece in the August 1 issue of the magazine is entitled “Young Master.” Here’s how it begins:

Seeing an unfamiliar painting by Rembrandt is a life event: fresh data on what it’s like to be human.

The Rembrandt in question is called “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver:”

rembrandt-first-masterpieceRembrandt painted this when he was twenty-three years old. It is considered to be his first masterpiece, and is currently in the news because it has been lent to the Morgan Library and Museum, one of my favorite places in New York. The Morgan will exhibit it until September 18, at which time it will presumably be returned to the private collection whence it came.

I thought that finding out where that private collection is would be a deep dark secret, but I had very little trouble discovering it. Both the Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons identify it as Mulgrave Castle in Lythe, Yorkshire.

But that’s where the confusion begins – at least, for me it does. Wikipedia explains that Mulgrave Castle actually refers to three separate structures: an ancient ruin supposedly built in the sixth century, a later castle probably of Norman origin, and a country house built by one Lady Catherine Darnley presumably in the late 1600s. In 2003, supermodel Elle Macpherson comes into this mix! (check out  the aforementioned Wikipedia entry for details.) The Wikipedia entry contains no mention of the Rembrandt.

The estate is currently owned by Constantine Phipps, Fifth Marquess of Normanby. It is situated near Whitby in North Yorkshire. Whitby is a storied place. We were there in 2007. The town has interesting shops; when you’re walking along the commercial avenue and you look up, you behold, high on a distant hill, the ruins of Whitby Abbey, originally established in AD 657 and destroyed in the mid 800s by the Vikings. A Benedictine monastery was established there in 1078. This in turn fell to ruin after King Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic religious houses in 1539. And that is what you see after you put your wallet away, secure your purchases, and turn your gaze upward.

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(This almost supernatural collision of past and present is one of the reasons why I love England so much.)

When you go  to the website for the Mulgrave Estate,  it’s all business – not a hint of poetry anywhere. And once again, not a word about the Rembrandt….

 

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