From Jane Austen, to Reginald Hill, to Sir Thomas Browne, and back to Reginald Hill, in one easy leap
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.
(You could say that Emma Thompson – writer, actress, and scholar – is another such polymath.)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Oh, for a different picture of this seemingly reclusive author…)
And these as well:
And love James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
(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….
I’ve gotten caught up in the excitement and enthusiasm that’s been generated by Bodies from the Library, a recent conference held at the British Library.
British Library Crime Classics is a publishing initiative that in a short time has achieved remarkable popularity in Britain.
[Click to enlarge]
Building on this success, the British Library decided to hold a conference on mystery fiction of the Golden Age; i.e., the period in the early twentieth century that fell between the two world wars.
(Lively on the spot coverage of this event may be found at Past Offences.)
Speakers included Simon Brett, Martin Edwards, Dr. John Curran, and Jake Kerridge. Kerridge writes wonderfully entertaining and insightful reviews of crime fiction titles. I especially appreciated his recent piece in the Telegraph on Ruth Rendell, entitled “The Most Astonishing Imagination in British Crime Fiction.”. In an article from 2008 with the rather piquant title of “Efficient Mystery with Light Emotional Wallowing,” Kerridge offers the following observation concerning Scandinavian crime fiction: “The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die….”
This past May saw the publication of The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards. Subtitled “The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story,” this engaging volume (which I’ve just begun reading) tells the story of The Detection Club and its founders – some famous, others not so much.
Edwards serves as consultant for the British Library Classic Crimes series. I’ve just read an entry in that series that I thoroughly enjoyed: J. Jefferson Farjeon, whose name was hitherto completely unknown to me, was an extraordinarily prolific writer. Of course, this does not mean that all his oeuvre is of the same high quality, but judging solely by Mystery in White, I know I’d like to read more.
By herself again, Jessie lay back on her pillow for awhile and stared at the canopy of faded pink above her. She had never lain in a four-poster bed before, and she found the sensation rather singular. At first it was pleasant. She felt herself sinking back into an easy, amiable past, where the fight for bread-and- butter— often so sordid a fight— did not exist. The snow dissolved with the years. Outside was sunny country; inside, slow movement, and ease. Then, gradually, the ease departed, and a strange fear began to invade her. She put it down to natural oppressions— her slightly aching foot, the strain she had been through, worry about her lost chance of an engagement and the difficulty of finding another, and the grunting and occasional coughing of the objectionable man in the adjoining room. None of these causes, however, seemed to fit her new mood. It was a fear to which she could not adjust any coherent cause. It grew until it gave her a definite pain in her stomach. She sat up suddenly, in the grip of a nameless, apprehensive terror. She felt as though the walls and the bed-posts were pressing upon her….
“What’s the matter with you?” she gasped, struggling to regain her normality. “Aren’t you a little idiot?”
Excerpt from Mystery in White
I’m currently reading a story collection (selected by Martin Edwards) entitled Resorting to Murder. I’m slightly more than half way through and having, as I anticipated, an excellent time. The book starts off with a Sherlock Holmes tale, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” which is set in Cornwall. It’s funny how, after an absence from the Holmes canon, you can return to the stories and once again be awash in admiration of Conan Doyle’s superb narrative skills, not to mention his graceful prose style:
On the land side our surroundings were as sombre as on the sea. It was a country of rolling moors, lonely and dun-coloured, with an occasional church tower to mark the site of some old-world village. In every direction upon these moors there were traces of some vanished race which had passed utterly away, and left as its sole record strange monuments of stone, irregular mounds which contained the burned ashes of the dead, and curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife. The glamour and mystery of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations, appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor.
Excerpt from “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.”
From time to time, Carol of our Suspects discussion group forwards to us a grouping of four or five capsule reviews nicely observed and written by one who styles herself “LJ.” (I always think of her as ‘Ms Library Journal,’ having lived with those initials so regularly at the Central Branch.) LJ begins her reviews by quoting the first sentence of the work under consideration, then ends by giving the work a grade of sorts: Excellent, Very Good, etc. I’d like to borrow her method in rating the other stories I’ve read so far in Resorting to Murder, with the slight alteration of using the traditional academic grading system. (Needless to say but I’ll say it anyway: I’d give the Sherlock Holmes story an A plus.)
So, to begin:
“A Schoolmaster Abroad” by E.W. Hornung.
It is a small world that flocks to Switzerland for the Christmas holidays.
As Martin Edwards explains in his header notes, “Dollar sees himself as a crime doctor, someone whose mission is to prevent crime by treating prospective criminals by ‘saving ’em from themselves while they’re still worth saving’.”
I’d give this story a B: mildly entertaining without being especially enthralling. Interestingly, E.W. Hornung was Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law; he is best known for his stories featuring Raffles, the ‘amateur cracksman.”
“Murder!” by Arnold Bennett
Instead of just the first sentence, I’d like to quote the entire first paragraph:
Many great ones of the earth have justified murder as a social act, defensible and even laudable in certain instances. There is something to be said for murder, though perhaps not much. All of us, or nearly all of us, have at one time or another had the desire and the impulse to commit murder. At any rate, murder is not an uncommon affair. On an average, two people are murdered every week in England, and probably about two hundred every week in the United States. And forty per cent of the murderers are not brought to justice. These figures take no account of the undoubtedly numerous cases where murder has been done but never suspected. Murders and murderesses walk safely abroad among us, and it may happen to us to shake hands with them. A disturbing thought! But such is life, and such is homicide.
A tight, compelling little tale, driven by a urgent passion and exceptionally well written. I’d give it an A. I intend to seek out more works by this author. Martin Edwards tells us that although Arnold Bennett achieved distinction in his own time, his fame ebbed quickly after his death in 1931. This was possibly due in part to a ‘literary feud’ with Virginia Woolf. Based on this story, I’d say he is due for rediscovery. Time for a swing of the literary pendulum!
“The Murder on the Golf Links” by M. McDonnell Bodkin
‘Don’t go in, don’t! don’t! please don’t!’
The disobedient ball, regardless of her entreaties, crept slowly up the smooth green slope, paused irresolute on the ridge, and then trickled softly down into the hole; a wonderful ‘put.’
This opener typifies the irreverent tone of this thoroughly enjoyable story. Paul Beck is the detective protagonist, but for my money the lovely Mag Hazel, golfer extraordinaire, steals the show. And I love this eloquent statement regarding her father’s feelings for her:
Colonel Hazel’s sallow cheek flushed with delight, for he loved his daughter with a love that was the best part of his life.
“The Murder on the Golf Links” lacks the gravitas of the Arnold Bennett story, but I was delighted with it anyhow. I’m giving it an A minus.
“The Finger of Stone” G.K. Chesterton
Three young men on a walking-tour came to a halt outside the little town of Carillon, in the south of France; which is doubtless described in the guide books as famous for its fine old Byzantine monastery, now the seat of a university; and for having been the scene of the labours of Boyg.
I know that Chesterton is a revered figure in both literary and religious circles – goodness, his sanctification has recently been proposed! – but I’ve always found his prose rather rough going. This is a good story, though; long on atmosphere if a bit abstruse regarding plot – I had trouble getting a handle on who this Boyg person and what was the nature of his significance – beside his disappearance.
This is not a Father Brown story, though there is a tale from that body of work that I cherish. It’s called “The Oracle of the Dog.”
I’d give “The Finger of Stone” a B plus.
“The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser” by Basil Thomson
This is exactly the kind of story I love, where reality seems to bend into an entirely different shape before the very eyes of a completely rational actor. Sort of a locked room puzzle kicked up several notches. I loved it!
On a par with the Conan Doyle story; hence, it too gets an A plus.
“A Mystery of the Sand-Hills” by R. Austin Freeman
Doctor John Thorndyke is a fairly well known protagonist to Golden Age aficionados. Martin Edwards observes that Dr. Thorndyke resembles Sherlock Holmes in some particulars but is lacking in the latter’s charisma. I would agree with that assessment. Edwards adds this, however: “But what he lacked in literary flair, he made up for with meticulous craftsmanship, and his admirers included T. S. Eliot and Raymond Chandler.”
Here’s how the story opens:
I have occasionally wondered how often Mystery and Romance present themselves to us ordinary men of affairs only to be passed by without recognition. More often, I suspect, than most of us imagine. The uncanny tendency of my talented friend John Thorndyke to become involved in strange, mysterious and abnormal circumstances has almost become a joke against him. But yet, on reflection, I am disposed to think that his experiences have not differed essentially from those of other men, but that his extraordinary powers of observation and rapid inference have enabled him to detect abnormal elements in what, to ordinary men, appeared to be quite commonplace occurrences.
We’re at the port city of Sandwich, in Kent. A pile of clothing is found on the rocks at water’s edge. The identity of the owner of the abandoned habiliments is ascertained, yet he himself is nowhere to be found. It’s quite a good yarn, with a twist at the end that I didn’t anticipate. Still, I kept wishing I would encounter just a hint of that sly irony that makes the Conan Doyle stories such a pleasurable read.
You’ll note in the above quoted passage the phrase “my talented friend John Thorndyke.” Yes, here we encounter yet another ‘Watson,’ this one named Christopher Jervis. And like Watson, Jervis serves as narrator of the tale and assistant to his preternaturally gifted companion.
For me, this story lingers somewhere between a B plus and an A minus.
“The Hazel Ice” by H.C. Bailey
Set in the Alps, this is a somewhat convoluted tale of a two mountaineers caught in a rock slide. One of them, injured but still mobile, returns to their hotel; his companion, however, has disappeared. A multiplicity of characters becomes involved in the mystery.
Sprightly writing and a nicely conveyed sense of place made this one an enjoyable read. Grade: B plus.
“The Razor Edge” by Anthony Berkeley
Yet another situation involving mistaken and concealed identity, this is also a case in which the police benefit greatly from the acumen of amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham. Anthony Berkeley is best known as one of the founding members of The Detection Club.
This is an ingenious tale, well told and engrossing. A minus.
Well, as you can plainly see, I’m enjoying this anthology a great deal. I’ve four stories remaining; then it’s on to Capital Crimes, seventeen stories set in London and once again selected by Martin Edwards.
Biographical and literary information about the Golden Age writers can be found at gadetection.
Meanwhile, the Bodies from the Library conference has come out with a terrific list of Suggested Reading. This is both wonderful news and dismaying, because one realizes (deep sigh) how much great material is out there, begging to be read….still….
In his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name, Martin Edwards has been steadily laboring in the cause of bringing Forgotten Books to the attention of crime fiction enthusiasts. To these efforts, he has now added his work with the British Library on their Crime Classics series and his newly published history of The Detection Club and its quirky, brilliant founders.
Add to all this his fine body of work as a writer of crime fiction. I’ve been enjoying The Lake District Series since The Coffin Trail, the debut volume, came out in 2004. (The Dungeon House, the eagerly awaited seventh series entry, is due out in September.)
In the course of my few brief encounters with the British community of crime writers, I’ve been deeply impressed by the kindness and generosity they display toward one another and toward their readers. In addition to his erudition and creativity, Martin Edwards likewise exemplifies these qualities. And so it is small wonder that he has been chosen to be the next president of The Detection Club. This honor places him in some distinctly select company:
G.K. Chesterton 1930-36
E. C. Bentley 1936-49
Dorothy L. Sayers 1949-57
Agatha Christie 1957-76
Lord Gorell 1957-63 (as co-President, because Christie disliked public speaking)
Julian Symons 1976-85
H.R.F. Keating 1985-2000
Simon Brett 2000 to date
Congratulations, Martin – well done!
“‘The triumphal progress of Linnet Ridgeway in her golden car….'” – a discussion of Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway marries Simon Doyle. From this fateful and impulsive act, a world of trouble arises, starting with the couple’s Egyptian honeymoon.
But the great question, the crucial question is…Why should we care?
Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects discussed Death on the Nile, the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie. Led by Frank, one of our newer members and himself an aspiring writer of crime fiction, this proved to be an especially lively session.
Frank got us started by asking up front for our opinions of the novel. In this space, I recently advised against opening a book discussion this way, but on this occasion, the gambit worked exceptionally well. The first few responses were fairly positive, but then Yours Truly, the curmudgeon for the evening, weighed in. Way too plot driven, I complained, at the expense of character development and setting evocation. We’re supposed to be in Egypt, for Heaven’s sake! Where are the descriptions of the wonders of antiquity? Instead, we have a group made up mostly of spoiled rich people and insufferable snobs (the usual suspects, in other words) playing out their petty psychodramas in the cramped confines of a cruise vessel called the Karnak. (Pauline opined that it would have been a good thing if the ship had simply sunk, a view with which I concurred, as did several others.)
Admittedly, the basic murder plot was very cunning, but in order for it to work, circumstances had to obtain which were by no means a sure thing. Meanwhile, readers were tossed enough red herrings to make a large seafood salad, and I admit that in this regard, Christie’s ingenuity positively shone. However, this multiplicity of suspects was made possible by the presence of large number of characters who drifted in and out of focus as the narrative progressed. Also there are secondary plots involving the theft of valuable jewels and a murderer who foments trouble internationally and who, though his identity is unknown, is also on board the Karnak. This is a lot to cram into a novel of about 330 pages in length.
In fairness, it must be noted that this novel contained some memorable passages. I liked the “golden car” conceit, and there were other piquant bon mots as well. Agatha Christie’s primary storytelling strength lies in the creation of clever puzzles that are difficult to unravel before she unravels them for you. In the first Golden Age of British crime writing, this skill was considered a key asset in an author of detective fiction, and Christie did it as well if not better than just about anybody else. (Frank admitted that he’s a great admirer of this kind of plotting – to the extent that he uses a computer to map puzzles like this one.) But it must be said that as crime fiction has evolved over the decades, character creation and evocative setting have become more or less coequal in importance with storytelling.
(Someone observed that for P.D. James, the setting sometimes came first – at least, in her imagination. The characters and their story then emerged from that setting, which remained throughout a powerful element in the story.)
Generally speaking, with regard to the works of Agatha Christie, our groups spans the spectrum from those who are unabashed fans to those who – well, who for the most part are not fans, unabashed or otherwise. Most of us dwell somewhere in the middle ground. There are some Christie works for which I have genuine affection; numbered among them are several of the Poirot novels and stories and just about anything with Miss Marple in it. Among my favorites: The Labors of Hercules, Five Little Pigs, The Body in the Library, and Murder in Mesopotamia. Finally, in my view, some of Agatha Christie’s later works, featuring neither Poirot nor Miss Marple, are among her most powerful. I am thinking in particular of Endless Night and The Pale Horse.
Also we should keep in mind the jewel like quality of many of Dame Agatha’s short stories. Ann mentioned “Philomel Cottage.” This is one of the most chilling narratives in the canon. It can be found in two Christie collections: The Listerdale Mystery and Witness for the Prosecution. (It’s also included in an excellent if obscure collection that I acquired several years ago called Murder Short and Sweet.) “Philomel Cottage” has that atmosphere of dread that was so memorably evoked in The Pale Horse. In fact, my favorite works by Christie have this characteristic, which at times is characterized by supernatural overtones. My favorite story collection is The Tuesday Club Murders, aka The Thirteen Problems. One story in particular, “The Idol House of Astarte,” is especially haunting.
One of the most gratifying aspects of Tuesday night’s discussion was its wide ranging scope. In addition to Death on the Nile, we talked about other works by Christie and about the way in which she handles the various facets of crime fiction: primarily plot, character development, and setting. For the sake of comparison, other authors, such as P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, and Theodore Dreiser, were brought into the conversation. (What this means, of course, is that in this post, I’ve by no means “covered” Tuesday’s discussion in its entirety – just the highlights, and what I’m at present able to recall.)
Marge recommended the 1978 film version of Death on the Nile, memorable largely because of its cast, among them David Niven, Mia Farrow, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Angela Lansbury, with Peter Ustinov in the role of the imperturbable Belgian detective. I very much enjoyed the 2004 version with David Suchet. It was gloriously photographed, displaying all the wonder of Egypt that was so lacking in the book. (In the Suchet film, Colonel Race is played by James Fox, brother of actor Edward Fox and father of Laurence Fox, who plays Hathaway in the Inspector Lewis series.)
This was Frank’s first time leading a discussion for our group, and to my mind, it went about as well as one could possibly wish. His open mindedness, genuine curiosity, and probing questions resulted in numerous lively and rewarding exchanges. Well done!
After its acquisition by the National Trust, Greenway, Agatha Christie’s country home, was opened to the public in 2009. For those of us who have met Christie scholar John Curran and toured Greenway Estate, any visiting – or revisiting – of her works must invariably evoke memories of these excursions.
Here’s a recently discovered (by me, at least) video featuring David Suchet and Matthew Pritchard, grandson of Agatha Christie, at Greenway:
Finally, in the “Everything is connected to everything else” department:
This article links the Christie novel N or M? with the top secret activities taking place at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Christie’s connection with Bletchley was not through Alan Turing, subject of the current film The Imitation Game,” but through Alfred Dilwyn Knox,at the time a leading British codebreaker. Knox is one of the subjects of The Knox Brothers, novelist Penelope Fitzgerald’s group biography of her gifted father Edmund Knox and his equally gifted siblings. It’s a wonderful, quintessentially British book. Fitzgerald is one of my favorite novelists, and I’ve lately been afraid of her slipping into obscurity. Happily this has been prevented by Hermione Lee’s celebrated new biography, which I very much look forward to reading.
Oh, to be in Oxford….The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh, based on the characters created by Dorothy L Sayers
Visible from the cupola is a southerly vista of extraordinary beauty. Fist the little Gothis lancets on the roof of the Bodleian; then the large rounded mass of the dome on the Radcliffe Camera, which convinces the eye at once that every city should have a dome; then the airy Gothic spire of the university church, St. Mary the Virgin, the square tower of Merton. And Tom Tower off to one side and beyond it all in every direction soft and gently rising vistas of green hills.
This view of Oxford, seen from the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre, is at that moment being taken in by by Harriet Vane and her son Paul. Harriet Vane, that is, aka the Duchess of Denver. Paul is one of two sons she has had with her husband Lord Peter Wimsey.
Peter has been called to St. Severin’s, a (fictional) college at Oxford, to mediate a dispute that has arisen among the fellows of the college. When he arrives upon the scene. one of his earliest discoveries is that the Warden of the college has gone missing. In fact, he has been missing for weeks, and there’s been almost no action taken to ascertain his whereabouts. Ergo, there’s already a mystery brewing. The fellows themselves are evasive; the signs are troubling. In classic detective fiction fashion, things get far more dire before any kind of resolution presents itself.
If you’re thinking that I’m being deliberately vague about this novel’s plot, I plead guilty. I finished several weeks ago, and I would be hard pressed to provide any details concerning the crimes and the subsequent investigation. What has stayed with me, however, is the pleasure I derived from being in the company of Lord Peter and his beloved Harriet. In addition, I enjoyed tracking down the classical and poetical allusions that flowed freely in this novel – even one this poignant:
VEN such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
VEN such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.
Peter was far from immune to this bitterly intense nostalgia; he too had lain in a punt with his friends on more than one dewy morning, and heard the song, and adjourned to eat breakfast cooked on a campfire in the meadow below the bridge. Thinking of punts he remembered sleeping in one, overcome with weariness, while Harriet watched him, and when he awoke something unspoken and irrevocable had happened between them.——————————————————-
The flat setting and fine scroll-work of the ear, and the height of the skull above it. The glitter of the close-cropped hair where the neck-muscles lifted to meet the head. A minute sickle-shaped scar on the left temple. The faint laughter-lines at the corner of the eye and the droop of the lid at its outer end. The gleam of gold down on the cheekbone. The wide spring of the nostril….
Shrewsbury was the stand-in for Somerville College in Gaudy Night. (Dorothy L Sayers earned her degree from Somerville.) Early in the novel, as Harriet Vane is arriving at her alma mater, she reflects on the terrible ordeal of having being tried for murder some years earlier (as described in Strong Poison). Her graduation from Shrewsbury is an immense source of comfort, pride, and strength:
They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University (statutem est quod Juniores Senioribus debitam et congruam reverentiam tum in privato tum in publico exhibeant); a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.
Jill Paton Walsh has thus far written four novels that serve as a continuation of the story of Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey:
Of these, I’ve only read the first and the most recent. You can probably gather from what I’ve written that I thoroughly enjoyed The Late Scholar, and I recommend it, especially to those who, like me, relish crime fiction that hearkens back to a more genteel era.
I seem to recall Jill Paton Walsh stating that after reading Gaudy Night, she was fired with a desire to attend one of the Oxford Colleges. (She graduated with honors from St. Anne’s College in 1959.) She’s also the author of mysteries featuring Imogen Quy, a nurse at St. Agatha’s College, Cambridge. There are only four entries in this series, the last, The Bad Quarto, having been published here in 2007. I wish she’d write more; I really enjoyed them.
“She had come alive for him, a recognizable human being from seven centuries ago.” – The Stone Wife, by Peter Lovesey
I finished this a while ago, but the pleasure of Peter Lovesey’s ingenious plotting and witty dialog has stayed with me. As is frequently the case with books in this series, the opening scene delivers a palpable shock, with sudden violence erupting in an ultra civilized venue.
The novel is enriched with the lore and legend of Geoffrey Chaucer. The eponymous stone wife is, in fact, a sculpted figure purportedly of the Wife of Bath, one of the more memorable, one could say more colorful, of the pilgrims who inhabit The Canterbury Tales. As Peter Diamond’s investigation progresses, one of the more important witnesses to emerge is the murder victim’s ex-wife. She proves to be a multiply married woman who, as she approaches late middle age, is yet possessed of a healthy libido. She is, in other words, something of a modern day Wife of Bath.
For me, one of the special pleasures of this book was the fact that although most of it takes place in Bath, excursions are made to Bristol. At least one scene takes place at he Clifton Suspension Bridge. I was privileged to see this engineering marvel for myself in 2011. The day was windy, so I declined the guide’s invitation to walk across, but my game husband and several others in our group made the trek.
With every new entry, this series just gets better and better. Skeleton Hill, Stagestruck, Cop To Corpse, The Tooth Tattoo – all were excellent. With The Stone Wife, Peter Lovesey has once again surpassed himself. As if you hadn’t guessed by now – highly recommended!
While preparing background material for a discussion of Brat Farrar with AAUW Readers, I found myself falling once again under the spell of the author. For Josephine Tey, possessor of not one but two pseudonyms, an almost phantom presence on the literary scene, author of eight superbly crafted crime novels, was herself something of an enigma.
In her book Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists, Martha Hailey DuBose observes:
Of all the Women of Mystery, Elizabeth MacKintosh is the most deserving of the title. She never published under her own name, hiding her identity behind first the male pseudonym Gordon Daviot and then the pen name by which she is recognized today, Josephine Tey. She never submitted to press interviews, shunned all forms of personal publicity, and was guarded even with close colleagues. No one has yet collected her letters or edited her papers, if there are any around, and she never, so far as we know, chronicled her life beyond the most basic details. She left behind only the bare outline of a mystery whose clues must be extracted from her fiction.
(DuBose’s book came out in 2000; as far as I know, this assessment remains accurate.)
Elizabeth MacKintosh/Josephine Tey was born in Inverness, Scotland. The year of her birth has been disputed in the past, but it’s now generally accepted as being 1896. The eldest of three girls, she appears to have had a happy childhood. She attended Inverness Royal Academy and later, during the years of the First World War, traveled south to matriculate in the Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham. She enjoyed athletics and was able to put this academic background to use as a teacher in secondary level schools. But all this time, ever since her girlhood, she had been writing, mainly short stories and poetry. Some of her early work was published in Scottish newspapers and in the English Review.
(At this point I’d like to interpose some intriguing information concerning the future so-called “Grande Dames’ of British crime fiction’s first Golden Age. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Josephine Tey were all four born between 1890 and 1897. Talk about an auspicious decade! Margery Allingham lagged behind somewhat, the year of her birth being 1904.)
Using the pseudonym Gordon Daviot, Josephine Tey published her first crime novel in 1929. Written as a contest entry, it was called The Man in the Queue and featured Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard.
Tey also wrote plays, also under the name Gordon Daviot. The first and most memorable of these efforts was entitled Richard of Bordeaux. Premiering on stage in 1932, this drama about King Richard II provided John Gielgud with his first starring stage role. The play was a hit, thus launching Gielgud on what eventually became one of the most illustrious acting careers of the twentieth century.
Meanwhile, under the name Josephine Tey, seven more novels of crime appeared, starting with A Shilling for Candles in 1937. Tey published nothing during the war years; then came more plays and the remaining six crime novels, starting with Miss Pym Disposes in 1946 and ending with The Singing Sands in 1952. Alan Grant appears in six of the eight novels, being entirely absent only in Brat Farrar and Miss Pym Disposes.
At some point in late 1950 or early 1951, Tey learned that she was seriously ill. She kept her condition a secret from all but those closest to her. When she died in February of 1952, probably of cancer, many who knew her were shocked. Her memorial service was attended by Sir John Gielgud and Dame Edith Evans. At the time, the papers were full of news of the passing of King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II. He had died just days earlier.
In his memoir, Sir John Gielgud hints that the playwright whom he esteemed and admired might have suffered a bereavement as a result of World War One. If so, then Tey was one of many women who suffered a similar loss.
At the time of her death, Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot, aka Josephine Tey, was 55 years of age. She willed her entire estate to England’s National Trust.
Since 1926, Josephine Tey had been keeping house for her father in Inverness, her mother having died a few years previous. Colin Mackintosh died in 1950 at the age of 86, predeceasing his gifted and intensely private daughter by a mere two years.
Thursday’s discussion of Brat Farrar was both edifying and stimulating. I’ve now read this novel four times, and yet points were brought forth and questions raised that I’d not heretofore considered. How could the young Brat have traveled so freely during the war years? When exactly are the events of the novel supposed to have occurred? It was published in 1949, so one supposes the time frame to be postwar. Yet there is barely any mention of the seismic, six year long agony that had ended so recently. One reads of the bleak impoverishment of British life during this period, yet Latchetts (the country seat of the Ashby family) and its surroundings seem bathed in fruitful prosperity. (One thinks of the novels of Jane Austen, with their sense of the wider world kept almost completely at bay while their author examines the niceties of provincial country life.) Emma observed that Tey seemed to have deliberately evoked a timeless setting in which her characters could work out their respective fates.
Rita was the most seriously critical of the novel, especially of the ending. Too much happened too quickly, she averred. Many of us agreed with her. We found ourselves having to thrash out some of the plot points, such as how Simon knew that Brat was going to try to descend that fatal cliff face where Patrick Ashby had met his end. We also tried to clarify the issue of the consanguinity of Brat and Eleanor. First cousins? Second? After all, the assumption is that they intend to marry; Eleanor declares her intention in no uncertain terms.
Finally, someone commented on the loveliness of the scene, earlier in the novel, in which Brat takes Timber out for a run. I think it’s worth quoting at some length:
Timber seemed as well acquainted with gates and their uses as a cow pony was with a rope, but never before had Brat had so delicate and so well-oiled a mechanism under him. Timber obeyed the slightest indication of hand or heel with a lack of questioning and a confidence that was new in Brat’s experience. Surprised and delighted Brat experimented with this new adaptability. And Timber, even with the turf in front of him, with the turf practically under his feet, moved sweetly and obediently under his hands.
“You wonder!” said Brat softly.
The ears flicked at him.
“You perishing marvel,” he said, and closed his knees as he turned to face the down. Timber broke into a slow canter, headed for the clumps of gorse and juniper bushes that marked the skyline.
So this was what riding a good English horse was like, he thought. This communion, this being one half of a whole. This effortlessness. This magic.
The close, fine turf slipped by under them, and it was odd to see no little spurt of dust coming up as the shoes struck. England, England, England, said the shoes as they struck. A soft drum on the English turf.
I don’t care, he thought, I don’t care. I’m a criminal, and a heel, but I’ve got what I wanted, and it’s worth it. By God, it’s worth it. If I died tomorrow, it’s worth it.
Brat is soon to find out that Timber’s docility is a sometime thing. But how beautifully Tey conveys this moment of ecstatic communion between man and horse!
I think that among those who were present at Thursday’s discussion, the general feeling was that although Brat Farrar has its flaws, these are far outweighed by the many qualities that make it shine. In his introduction to the Scribner paperback edition of 1997, Robert Barnard extolls “…Josephine Tey’s brilliant storytelling: her varied, loving characterisation; above all, her control of reader sympathies.” This last is especially evident in Brat Farrar, as the reader comes to share in Brat’s life and death struggle with his conscience, his obligations, his very soul.
Somehow I’ve managed to do a fair amount of writing about Josephine Tey without mentioning the novel for which she is most famous. In The Daughter of Time, Alan Grant finds himself laid up in hospital with a broken leg. In desperate need of mental stimulus, he takes it upon himself to investigate the case against King Richard III, a man who’d been reviled for centuries as the murderer of the Princes in the Tower. They were the true heirs to the throne, and he is supposed to have done away with them so that he might be the sole unopposed ruler of England.
I read The Daughter of Time many years ago. In fact, for a long time, it was the only work of detective fiction I’d ever read. (Hard to believe, I know! You can see, I’ve had lots of catching up to do.) In some quarters it’s considered to be Tey’s masterpiece. I really do need to reread it, but for now, in my view, that designation belongs either to Brat Farrar or The Franchise Affair – or to both, jointly.
(Colin Dexter paid homage to The Daughter of Time in his novel The Wench Is Dead. Like Alan Grant before him, Inspector Morse finds himself immobilized in a hospital and in need of diversion of an intellectual nature. He finds it by investigating the real life murder of one Christina Collins in 1839. The Wench Is Dead, long one of my favorites among Dexter’s oeuvre, won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 1989.)
The only other crime novel I’ve read by Tey is the last one, The Singing Sands. Again, it’s not fresh in my mind, although I do recall enjoying the vividness of the Scottish setting. As it has finally occurred to me that some of the best exemplars of the British police procedural, my favorite genre, have been right under my nose for quite some time, I’ve just begun reading A Shilling for Candles and am already enjoying the lucid prose and engaging characters.
The manuscript for The Singing Sands was found among Tey’s papers after her death, and was published posthumously.
As far as I can determine, the best online source of information on Josephine Tey resides on a site called Josephine Tey – A Very Private Person. Not only is the biographical article quite enlightening, but if you work your way down the buttons on the left, you’ll find video of Brat Farrar, The Franchise Affair – two versions, no less – and some delightful photos like this one taken at the Anstey Physical Training College, Elizabeth MacKintosh’s alma mater.
I’d forgotten that the urbane Vincent Price hosted Mystery! in the 1980s. Click here to see him introduce a Josephine Tey segment to the television audience. I love the way he casually mentions the fact that he actually saw the original 1933 production of Richard of Bordeaux, starring John Gielgud!
Finally, my heartfelt thanks go out to the seventeen or eighteen Readers – a great turnout! – for one of the most exhilarating book discussions I’ve ever been lucky enough to be part of.
Please click here for additional information on Josephine Tey.