Best reading in 2015: Nonfiction

January 1, 2016 at 9:49 pm (Best of 2015, books, History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Nature, True crime)

My reading in nonfiction this year was heavily influenced – indeed, largely determined, at least initially – by the course in the literature of true crime which I taught back in February and March. This proved to be an exhilarating experience on all levels: the interaction with genuine, enthusiastic, and unapologetic intellectuals, the chance to master new classroom technology with the indispensable help of my (ever-patient) husband Ron, and above all, the research, which took me into new and previously unknown (to me) areas of  American history that proved utterly fascinating.


41HY7VYB7FL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_  I chose for the course’s primary text Harold Schechter’s impressive anthology. I figured if it was good enough to receive the imprimatur of the Library of America, then it would serve the course well. I took the  historical/chronological approach to the material, as Schechter does.

Thanks are due once again to my friend Pauline for making this happen (and giving me plenty of help along the way).

In a post I wrote in August entitled “Six nonfiction titles I’ve read and esteemed so far this year,” four were true crime:

51cgk5tpg2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_ blood_and_money

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The Stranger Beside Me (1980) and Blood and Money (1976) are classics of the genre. I had long wanted to read the Ann Rule title and was glad to finally do so. Her story of the terrifying rampage of serial killer Ted Bundy, a man she actually knew, retains its power to shock and bewilder. For me, these effects were even more immediate in Tommy Thompson’s strange and gripping tale of Texas high rollers and their fateful (and fatal) entanglement.. Blood and Money is one of the greatest exemplars of true crime reportage. I read it when it first came out, and I wondered if it would pack the same punch on rereading. It did – and then some.

This House of Grief by Australian writer Helen Garner is the story of an appalling family tragedy and the accusations that eventually followed, culminating in a trial that was completely riveting. I couldn’t put this book down. In the Wall Street Journal’s Books of the Year feature (Review section, Saturday/Sunday December 12-13, 2015), Kate Atkinson describes This House of Grief as “both scrupulously objective and profoundly personal.” She cites it as one of the best books read by her this year (as does Gillian Anderson, in the same article).

As for Ghettoside, I lack sufficient superlatives in my vocabulary with which to praise journalist Jill Leovy’s achievement in this book. Crime and punishment as played out in South Los Angeles are vividly and disturbingly rendered. What really makes Ghettoside work is the intense focus on individuals caught up in the maelstrom. I was glad to see that this title made onto several lists of best nonfiction of 2015.

The two other titles in the “Six nonfiction” post linked to above are biographies:

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Re the Strauss title: I really enjoyed getting the back story to the Shakespeare play, one of my long time favorites. And as for Joan of Arc, what can one say? As a girl, I was fascinated by her story. These days, I find it even more compelling. And Harrison relates the particulars with clarity and grace.

51UtGfZBDmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  I very much enjoyed David Gessner’s dual biography of Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, two towering greats of twentieth century environmentalism. I hope that description doesn’t make them sound stodgy. They were anything but – especially the cheerfully irreverent Abbey, who lived more or less wild and free, marrying multiple times and hurling rhetorical thunderbolts whenever the mood moved him. He’s best remembered for Desert Solitaire (1968), a memoir of his stint as a park ranger in Arches National Monument, now Arches National Park. In addition, he coined the expression “monkey wrench gang” in his 1975 novel of the same name.

All the Wild That Remains also functions as a travelogue, as Gessner retraces the steps of his subjects and when possible, talks to folks who knew them.

David Gessner

David Gessner

Writing about this book is serving to remind me how much I enjoyed it. I might read it again. I was also delighted to be able to give it as a gift to my dear friend Bonnie, who now resides in nature-friendly Oregon. Bonnie’s  the librarian who first introduced me to the literary stars of the environmental movement. Together we presented a program on this subject at the library.

Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey

Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey [click to enlarge]

(Bonnie, don’t you love this shot of Abbey? The man’s unquenchable vitality shines right through.)

DirdaSplit  This is a delightful romp through the world of used and antique books, with a past master of the art. Michael Dirda is a passionate, compulsive collector and an amazingly knowledgeable person. The only problem with Browsings is that you learn of numerous titles that you’d like to read. And so that list – that fateful (I almost write “fatal”) list – grows by leaps and bounds, while you, poor you, are stuck with your one pair of eyes (which you desperately hope will hold out a bit longer) and one brain (same hope, even more fervent). You can’t read any faster! And nor, really, do you wish to.

Here’s just a small sampling of the titles Dirda mentions in Browsings:

2865598 The-Last-Good-Kiss

3628 Blood

41l0OUH3f+L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_ 1315279f3d960d664b-0

Hemlock&After04 andeas_book

Classics, crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, memoir, swashbuckling adventure – he’s open to all of them. Dirda possesses the most receptive and exuberant mind I’ve ever encountered.

414WkBBWnFL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_  Speaking of recommendations, I’ve gotten plenty of them from Martin Edwards’s delightful history of the Detection Club, which I’ve been absorbing in measured and delicious dollops. Among its other virtues, The Golden Age of Murder is an excellent companion volume to the classic reissues now coming in gratifying numbers from the British Library.

563274521907e-image I recently found Witches: Salem, 1692 to be a sobering reminder of where institutionalized rigidity and narrow mindedness can lead. Read it and weep – but also be fascinated by this recounting of one of the darkest chapters in our history.

1050379  This book was a revelation! Here is history with a truly local perspective – we’re talking about landmarks a mere ten minutes from my front door. Ron and I went scouting locations in Howard County alone and had excellent luck. Then I found another landmark that’s been relocated to the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Alas, still no access to Doughreagan Manor,  not even to gaze upon from a distance.)

Wake also describes in scintillating detail life among Britain’s aristocrats and their newly arrived American counterparts in the early eighteen hundreds. (This was well before the invasion of the so-called “dollar princesses.” later in the same century.)

childrenbooks This is not a book for reading straight through, but one to contemplate with delight. I am in awe of the inventiveness of children’s book illustrators. They are among our greatest artists, and 100 Great Children’s Picture Books is full to bursting with their wondrous works.

Gods  I’ve written several posts on this book; or rather, I’ve quoted large chunks from it. Sir John Lister-Kaye’s beautiful descriptions speak for themselves; I could not hope to emulate his eloquence. Here he describes a phenomenon that is nothing short of astonishing:

Sitting at my desk one morning I looked up to see a thin veil of smoke passing the window. Puzzled, I rose and walked across the room to the bay window that looks out over the river fields. Normally I can see right across the glacial valley to the forested hills on the other side, the river glinting in between. That morning I could barely see the far side at all. It couldn’t be smoke, I reasoned, there was too much of it. It must be drifts of low cloud. Then it cleared and handed back the view.

I returned to my desk. A few moments later I noticed it again; another pale shroud passing on a gentle south-westerly breeze, funnelling along the valley. But something wasn’t right. Late summer mists don’t do that, they hang, and anyway, the cloud base was high. Perhaps it was smoke, after all. I got up again and stood in the window just as another cloud closed off my view. I always keep my precious Swarovski binoculars on my windowsill so I took a closer look.

What I saw was a breath-taking spectacle of such overwhelming natural abundance that I was lost for words. I picked up the phone to Ian Sargent, our field officer, who was off duty with his girlfriend Morag Smart, who ran our schools programmes. ‘Come quickly. You must see this.’ As always, when I stumble across some extraordinary natural phenomenon, my first instinct is to share it. But I also wanted witnesses. The world is full of cynics. I knew people wouldn’t believe me if I kept it to myself.

It was neither mist nor smoke. It was silk. Spiders’ web silk. The massed gossamer threads of millions of tiny spiders dispersing by a process known as ‘ballooning’. Every long grass stem, every dried dock head, every tall thistle, every fence post held, at its apex, a tiny spiderling – what we commonly know as a money spider – poised, bottom upturned to the wind in what has been described as the ‘tiptoe position’ and from which single or multiple threads of silk were being spun. Other spiders were queuing beneath, awaiting their turn. As each slowly lengthening thread caught the wind we could watch the spider hanging on, tightening its grip on the stem or the seed head, while the gently rugging threads extended ever longer into the breeze.

For the tiniest spiders lift-off happened when the threads were ten or fifteen feet long, but slightly larger spiders spun for much more – perhaps twice that length. Then they let go. The spiders were airborne, sailing gently up, up and away across the fields, gaining height all the time, quite literally ballooning down the valley with the wind.

Many are the books about nature and natural phenomena that I’ve started with the best of intentions only to leave unfinished. Not only did I finish Gods of the Morning, but I was genuinely sorry to see it end.

Sir John Lister-Kaye with his daughter Hermione

Sir John Lister-Kaye with his daughter Hermione

24642332 And so I come to Murder by Candlelight. Subtitled The Gruesome Slayings Behind Our Romance with the Macabre,  this would at first glance seem to be a catalog of the grotesque, best read in broad daylight if at all. It is true that author Michael Knox Beran recounts some terrible crimes; they date from the early nineteenth century and took place in Britain. But this book is about so much more.

Let me quote myself, from an earlier post:

Murder by Candlelight is not only a true crime narrative – or rather, a narrative of multiple true crimes – it is a work of philosophy, psychology, and history. True, some of it is hard to read – repugnant, even gruesome – but other parts are rich with a profound insight into the human condition. The erudition displayed by Michael Knox Beran is nothing short of amazing. For instance, it is not every day that a book sends me scurrying to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer:

Arthur Schopenhauer 1788 - 1860

Arthur Schopenhauer 1788 – 1860

Yes, I know, he doesn’t look as though he’d be very scintillating at a dinner party, but he’s actually a deeply fascinating thinker. I have in mind specifically a work entitled The World as Will and Representation. Sound dry as dust? Not the portions quoted in Murder by Candlelight – they’re anything but.

I had not previously heard of Michael Knox Beran, but he will most definitely be getting a fan letter from Yours Truly.

Forthwith, an excerpt:

The killings described in this book took place in the high noon of Romanticism, when the most vital spirits were in revolt against the eighteenth-century lucidity of their fathers and grandfathers, those powdered, periwigged gentlemen who had been bred up in the sunshine of the Enlightenment, and who were as loath to descend to the Gothic crypt as they were to contemplate the Gothic skull beneath the skin. The Romantic Age, by contrast, was more than a little in love with blood and deviltry. It was an age that delighted in the clotted gore of the seventeenth-century dramatists, the bloody poetry of Webster and Tourneur and Middleton. “To move a horror skillfully,” Charles Lamb wrote in his 1808 book Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare, “to touch a soul to the quick, to lay upon fear as much as it can bear, to wean and weary a life till it is ready to drop, and then step in with mortal instruments to take its last forfeit: this only a Webster can do.” Inferior geniuses, Lamb said, may “terrify babes with painted devils,” but they “know not how a soul is to be moved.”

And one more:

The keenest spirits of this epoch in murder history— Sir Walter Scott, Thomas De Quincey, and Thomas Carlyle among them— knew a good deal about the horror that moves the soul. In their contemplations of the most notorious murders of their time, they saw “strange images of death” and discovered dreadfulnesses in the act of homicide that we, in an age in which murder has been antiseptically reduced to a problem of social science on the one hand and skillful detective work on the other, are only too likely to have overlooked.

For the student of history, the murders of a vanished time have this other value. An eminent historian has said that were he limited, in the study of a particular historical period, to one sort of document only, he would choose the records of its murder trials as being the most comprehensively illuminating. A history of the murders of an age will in its own way reveal as much of human nature, caught in the Minotaur-maze of evil circumstance, as your French Revolutions, Vienna Congresses, and German Unifications. What a vision of the past rises up before us in these dark scenes, illumined by wax-lights and tallow-dips: and what an uncanny light do they throw upon our own no less mysterious, no less sinful present.

In the course of my reading of Murder By Candlelight, it began to exercise a greater and greater hold on my imagination. I, who have lately been reading multiple books simultaneously (as well as magazines and newspapers), could only read this one book. And yet I slowed down purposely as the end neared, not wanting to finish. I finally did so in October. I am now rereading it, to try and better understand and recapture the effect it had on me the first time. I’m about one third of the way in, and yes, it’s happening again.








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The mysteries of 2015; top choices, contemporary, Part Four: the best of the rest, in no particular order

December 27, 2015 at 11:20 pm (Best of 2015, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

51iaIkKhuxL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_  I was especially pleased that Tom Nolan, the Wall Street Journal’s crime fiction reviewer, chose this as one of the ten best mysteries of 2015. You can access the full list of his choices here.

51TKW69FtlL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ I’m mad for this series – devour them as  they come out, knowing each book will be better than the last.



I have not yet read Dark Corners, the final work from Ruth Rendell. I look forward to doing so. I shall always think of her as one of the greatest writers of both psychological suspense and police procedurals. Thank goodness she was so prolific; I’ll never run out. When I’m done reading, I can start rereading.

51unbsoz1rl-_sy344_bo1204203200_  I wrote about this title in Crime fiction: three good ones. The next Bill Slider title, One Under, is due out in February. I await it eagerly; these books always provide deeply satisfying entertainment.

the-ways-of-the-world-682x124 Fast-moving international international intrigue from a master of the genre. First book in The Wide World Trilogy. I wrote about this title (and others) in She Is Too Fond of Books.

I’m pretty sure I’ve left some out, but as they say, it is what it is. Enjoy!

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The mysteries of 2015; top choices: contemporary, Part Three

December 27, 2015 at 4:37 pm (Best of 2015, Book review, books, California, Mystery fiction)

How do I love Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels; let me count the ways…


1. Breezy, snappy dialogue

2. Brisk pacing

3. Fascinating glimpses of the California hinterland

[At one point in the investigation, Kinsey finds herself driving through the Los Padres National Forest:

To speak of the national “forest” doesn’t nearly convey the reality of the land, which is mountainous and barren, with no trees at all in this portion of the interior.

On either side of the road, I could see wrinkled stretches of uninhabitable hills where the chaparral formed a low, shaggy carpet of dry brown. Spring mightt be whispering along thee contours, but without water there was very little  green. Pockets of wildflowers appeared here and there, but the dominant color palette was muted gray, dull pewter, and dusty beige.

She reflects ruefully “I missed the reassuring fft-fft-fft of water cannons firing tracers out over newly sown fields.” (As I read this, I could see and hear the irrigation system at work – in better days. Ah, California, where nothing ever happens by half measures.)]

4. Kinsey’s cheerfully unreconstructed dining preferences

[Here she is contemplating a meal at an eatery called Sneaky Pete’s:

What loomed large in my mind’s eye was the image of the specialty of the house:  sandwich made with spicy salami and melted pepper jack cheese, topped with a fried egg, the whole of it served on a Kaiser roll that dripped with butter as you ate.

Later, she mentions Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies “on which my mental health is so often dependent.” (I felt the same way about that delicious confection, in my pre-diabetes days…sigh…)]

5. The depiction of Kinsey the professional; i.e. how she handles the intellectual and strategic challenges that come her way as the sole proprietor of Millhone Investigations

5. Kinsey’s 89-year-old fit-as-a-fiddle landlord Henry Pitts. In X, Henry’s trying to figure out how to reduce his water usage in advance of mandatory rationing. Possibly he goes a bit overboard…

6. The voice of Kinsey herself. I don’t know of another author who makes better use of first person narration. I feel as though I’m being regaled by a world class raconteur!

6. A certain lightheartedness that expresses itself through irreverence and humor

[Here, Kinsey is making an observation re an opulent hotel room in which she unexpectedly finds herself:

This was a far cry from my usual accommodations, which might best be described as the sort of place where protective footwear is advisable when crossing the room.

Due to the impromptu nature of this overnight stay, Kinsey has to wash out her underwear in the bathroom sink. Her comment on this prosaic necessity: “I can just about promise you Philip Marlowe was never as dainty as I.”]

7. An underlying steadiness and seriousness of purpose – in order to see justice served, the job must be done, and done right

This is the first Kinsey Millhone novel I’ve read in quite some time. When I picked it up a few weeks ago, I was in need of a book that would take me completely out of myself. X was just the ticket.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’d become somewhat dismissive about this series. Oh well, another letter of the alphabet, do I actually care… Well, shame on me! Sue Grafton is a master craftsman at the top of her game. X was  terrific – read it.

Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton

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The mysteries of 2015; top choices: contemporary, Part Two

December 24, 2015 at 9:31 pm (Best of 2015, Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

61aCPfRpA6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  It’s been  a while since I read Martin Walker’s The Children Return, but I remember how much I enjoyed it. As with Until Thy Wrath Be Past as well as  several titles from Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series, the shadow of the Second World War hangs over this narrative. In addition, we get caught up on Bruno Courrege’s ever-changing love life as well as updates on the progress of Balzac, his basset hound puppy who’s a truffle dog in training.

But most of all, you get a rich helping of life in (fictional) St Denis, in the (real – very real!) Perigord region of southwestern France: its people, cuisine, wine making traditions, and beautiful unspoiled surroundings. In this passage, Bruno brings Nancy, his new American friend, to a ‘fete des vendanges,’ or grape harvest festival:

He felt the strange sensation stealing over him of time slipping, of the modern France of high-speed trains and computers giving way to a scene that was medieval or perhaps even older. The setting of stone and fire and meat roasting over open flames could have taken place in this valley in the days when men carried swords and wore chain mail and kept guard against English raiders, or millennia ago when they wore furs and painted prehistoric beasts on the walls of caves.

Every time I read a title in this series, I start googling tours of the Dordogne region. Martin Walker has a place there, where he spends part of every year – lucky, lucky man.

The next entry in the series, The Patriarch (published in the UK as The Dying Season), is already ensconced on my night table.

The Bruno Chief of Police site is filled with music, recipes, and information about local attractions. And here’s the author at Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse in Washington DC:



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The mysteries of 2015; top choices: contemporary, Part One

December 24, 2015 at 2:53 pm (Best of 2015, Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

1041635  I’ll begin with Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson. Wrath was the final selection discussed by the Usual Suspects in this, our international year. Having done plenty of substantive research, my friend Marge led a stimulating discussion of this complex, haunting work. Wrath was voted the “best read” of the year by the Suspects.

When an attractive young couple goes missing, the hunt is on. Although the whereabouts of Simon Kyro and Wilma Persson is a mystery, it’s suspected that they are drowning victims. When the body of Wilma is discovered, the investigation is kicked into high gear. Strangely, we have already encountered Wilma in another dimension, as it were (or, as I like to think, Rod Serling of blessed memory would have phrased it).

Key roles in this story are played by members of the Krekula family: parents Isak and Kerttu and their  sons Hjalmar and Tore. Kerttu and Isak in particular are fighting to hold on to secrets that date back to the years of World War Two. Should the truth of their activities  at  that time come to light, they would at the very least be vilified, possibly even prosecuted.

The lead characters on the side of law enforcement are Rebecka Martinsson, a lawyer, and Detective Anna-Maria Mella. Both are complex and interesting women. At one point, Anna-Maria travels alone to the Krekula house in the hopes of gathering some useful information. Instead, Tore and Hjalmar play several dirty tricks on her, one involving the safety of her daughter. This astonishing scenario is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in a police procedural.  Those Krekulas, brutal and fearless and utterly repugnant, are a piece of work!

I did have a few issues with this novel. For one thing, the narrative is punctuated by flashbacks that on occasion I found confusing. Also I became impatient with the lengthy passages in italics. The book may have been longer than it needed to be. But these are minor cavils.

I especially liked the way in which  Asa Larsson evokes the atmosphere of rural Sweden – particularly of Kiruna, the country’s northernmost town:

This region, one of Western Europe’s last wildernesses, represents for Swedes what Glenn Gould, in a Canadian context, called “The Idea of North.” Though Kiruna itself is a modern town, with an economy based on iron-ore mining and tourism, its population is small—22,972 in the 2012 census—and the mountains and forests, bordering on Norway to the West and North and Finland to the East, are sparsely populated. In Steven Peacock’s words, north of Kiruna, “there is only roadless, uninhabited land. To the East, boreal forests stretch for hundreds of miles into Finland and Russia” (125). In Until Thy Wrath Be Past, Larsson fully exploits not only the isolation and harsh winters of this region, but its liminality, in a literal and metaphoric sense.

….animals in the novel—reindeer, elk, fox, and above all bear, dogs, and ravens—are important to atmosphere, plot, character development, and symbolism and interact with the human characters.

(The above passage is from an article entitled “Till My Change Come: Nature, Justice, and Redemption in Asa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past.” It appears in a journal called Scandinavian-Canadian Studies. This is an excellent source that you might like to check out; it has other articles on Scandinavian crime fiction. They appear to be erudite yet at the same time quite readable.)

Asa Larsson’s writing is wonderful (and so, by implication is the translation, done by Laurie Thompson.) In the midst of all the turmoil, the tenderer human feelings are not ignored. Here she recounts an exchange between Rebecka and Krister Eriksson, a grievously injured man with a heart of gold:

“Hi,” he says before she has a chance to say anything.
It is such a tender-sounding “hi.” It sounds happy over the fact that she has called him, and ever so intimate. It sounds like a “hi” the second before a man slides his hand under his lover’s hair and around the back of her head.

Are  they falling in love? Could be. Krister is the police department’s canine handler; through him, we get to know some noble, courageous, and lovable dogs.

Until The Wrath Be Past, which came out here in 2011, is the fourth novel featuring Rebecka Martinsson. The Second Deadly Sin, the fifth and final novel in the series, came out last year.

Highly, highly recommended.

Asa Larsson

Asa Larsson

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Once more with feeling: the mysteries of 2015; top choices: classics

December 19, 2015 at 11:28 pm (Best of 2015, Mystery fiction)

One of the raps against Golden Age mysteries is that being all about clever plotting and puzzle solving, they lack psychological depth and subtle characterization. I’ve been reading quite a bit in this area this year, largely due to the appearance of British Library Crime Classics on the publishing scene. In my view, there’s some truth to this allegation, yet some of my recent reading serves to dispute that assumption.

In Before the Fact by Francis Iles, a woman named Lina Mclaidlaw enters into marriage with Johnnie Aysgarth, a feckless charmer who may turn out to be a murderer. Iles throws plenty of curves at the reader before the arrival of the novel’s climax. As with many basic plot devices, this one doesn’t seem at first to be startlingly original, yet in the hands of a skilled writer like Iles, it becomes very compelling. An Amazon reviewer commented that  Iles’s description of Johnnie’s clever wooing of Lina “ startled me with its psychological accuracy.” I agree.

Johnnie could always make her laugh. That, Lina knew, is the greatest bond of all between two people, to be ready to laugh at the same things. And they did laugh, enormously. Lina told Johnnie that he had laughed his way through their honeymoon from beginning to end; as indeed he did, and sometimes in the wrong places.

berkeleycox01  “Francis Iles” was a pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley Cox, a major figure in the pantheon of Golden Age crime writers. Before the Fact served as a the basis for the 1941 Hitchcock film Suspicion. The novel is currently available as a $.3.99 Kindle download on Amazon.


I was intrigued by what crime fiction scholar and novelist Martin Edwards wrote on his blog about Henry Wade:

‘Henry Wade’ was the name under which Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher wrote varied, thoughtful and entertaining crime fiction for thirty years. His career stretched from the 1920s to the late 1950s, when psychological suspense was coming to the fore. He played an important part in the development of the genre, especially but not only in the credible portrayal of the business of detection, and the ordinary people whose lives are changed by crime. I am really not sure why his gifts have long been under-estimated by commentators, who are apt to bracket him with the so-called ‘humdrum’ writers such as John Rhode.

Aubrey-Fletcher had a distinguished military career during the First World War, and several of the Henry Wade novels reflect his understanding of the impact that conflict had on those who lived through it. The Dying Alderman (1930) is a capable whodunit with neat use of a ‘dying message’ clue, but Mist on the Saltings (1933) is even more effective; a study in character that was ahead of its time. The novel also benefited from an evocative setting on the East Anglian coast. Released for Death (1938) presents a sympathetic picture of a criminal exploited after leaving jail by a career villain.

Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, aka Henry Wade

Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, aka Henry Wade

In the opening passages of Mist on the Saltings, as he is introducing the reader to the character of John Pansel, a painter, Wade/Aubrey-Fletcher alludes angrily to the  War and its consequences for the young men who were caught up in it:

The ball had been at John Pansel’s feet, fame beckoned to him with golden finger, the glory and wonder of his art and his opportunity dazzled him–and a group of young firebrands in Sarajevo threw a bomb which shattered the whole firmament of creation into a million fragments and turned all the thoughts and efforts of men for years to destruction, destruction, destruction…

Such bitterness has the acrid tang of first hand experience.

Like so many others, John Pansel emerges from this Hell on Earth wounded in both body and spirit. Eventually he and his wife Hilary take a cottage at Bryde-by-theSea, a small Norfolk village. John hopes to recover his strength, and to be able to make art again; Hilary aspires only to be his help-meet and smooth his way.

The characters in this novel manage to be at the same time ordinary an fascinating. In addition, Wade  effectively evokes the subtle feel of their dwelling place:

Bryde-by-the-Sea, though nominally a harbour, lies nearly a mile back from the ocean which surges invisibly against the line of low sand dunes limiting the northern horizon. In between lies a wide expanse of weed-grown mud, intersected by a maze of channels which at high tide are full to the brim of salt water and at low are mere trenches of black and treacherous ooze. These then are the Saltings; the home of a hundred varieties of sea-birds, of countless sea plants, of insects, reptiles, fishes, animals–according to the state of the tides and the time of year; at one time a silvery dazzle of southernwood, at another green with samphire, at another brown with the sea-churned mud, and sometimes–at the highest of the ‘springs’–completely submerged under the smooth, swirling waters of the flowing tide.

The author concludes this vivid evocation with this observation:

Dreary and desolate though they are, the Saltings have for those who love them a fascination which no written word can describe, a beauty which defies the most skilful brush.

Nevertheless, John Pansel is committed to bringing them to life in his art.  316LLZD6UPL._BO1,204,203,200_

I found this to be a powerful novel, beautifully written. (My paperback copy is replete with Post-it flags.) According to Martin Edwards, Lonely Magdalen by this author is even better. I own it and hope to read it soon, although it clocks in at 350 pages of rather small print. Like Mist on the Saltings, it’s not currently in print, nor is it available as an e-book. I obtained used paperback copies from Amazon.

For reasons which I can’t quite pin down, I’ve not heretofore been a fan of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels. Campion always struck me as a low rent Lord Peter Wimsey; that goes double for his “man,” Magersfontein Lugg (no comparison with the stately Bunter, I mean). But this year I read Police at the Funeral and loved it. It’s the story of a very strange family in a heap of trouble. Some the family members are actually rather  appealing on a personal level; others, not so much.

At any rate, Campion has a good friend whose fiancee lives in the home with these folks, and he comes to Albert entreating him to help. And Albert agrees to do so, getting himself involved clear up to his eyebrows and beyond.

I was delighted with Police at the Funeral from beginning to end. The writing was characterized by the same wit and elegance that we usually associate with Golden Age works:

The room they entered was a typical Cambridge study, aesthetically impeccable, austere, and, save for the two deep arm-chairs before the fire, slightly uncomfortable. As they entered, a wire-haired fox terrier of irreproachable breeding, rose from the hearth-rug and came to meet them with leisurely dignity. Marcus effected an introduction hastily. ‘Foon,’ he said. ‘Written “Featherstonehaugh”.’
Somewhat to his host’s embarrassment Mr Campion shook hands with the dog, who seemed to appreciate the courtesy, for he followed them back to the hearth-rug, waiting for them to be seated before he took up his position on the rug again, where he sat during the rest of the proceedings with the same air of conscious breeding which characterized his master.

There will be more works by Margery Allingham in my reading future. I chose this particular title, by the way, because of its appearance on a list of Suggested Reading generated by The Golden Age of Detective Fiction Conference that took place under  the auspices of the British Library  this past June. (Additional suggestions from my mystery-loving friends would  be most welcome.)

Felony & Mayhem Press have done a great job of bringing the Campion books back into print. thum.php

Margery Louise Allingham 1904-1966

Margery Louise Allingham 1904-1966

The last two titles I want to cite here are part of the much-praised British Library Crime Classics series of reissues. First, J Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story.

J Jefferson Farjeon

J Jefferson Farjeon  1883-1955

A train gets stuck in a snowstorm, and a party of passengers decides to disembark and attempt to reach a railway station on foot.

With renewed hope they resumed their difficult way. They twisted round another bend. On either side of them great white trees rose, and the foliage increased. Once they walked into the foliage. Then the lane dipped. This was unwelcome, for it appeared to increase the depth of the snow and to augment the sense that they were enclosed in it. With their retreat cut off, they were advancing into a white prison.
The atmosphere became momentarily stifling. Then, suddenly, the clerk gave a shout.
“What? Where?” cried David.
“Here; the house!” gulped the clerk.
Almost blinded by the whirling snowflakes, he had lowered his head; and when the building loomed abruptly in his path he only just saved himself from colliding with the front door.

To their astonishment, they’ve come upon a gracious dwelling all lit up and decorated for the holidays. It’s as if a special welcome had been prepared for them. Yet this cannot be: their decision to leave the train could not have been anticipated. Even more bizarre, as they look around the house, they can find no other living being. The place is completely empty. For whom then is this festive reception intended?

It’s a great set-up. The  story takes off from that point, and unlike the aforementioned unfortunate railway transport, never loses its momentum until the full-of-surprises denouement.

mysteryinwhite4        Mystery in White was a surprise hit in the UK last year. It’s a real treasure – and a great Christmas gift for the mystery lover on your list.

A fair number of the British Library Crime Classics are short story anthologies. These give the reader a chance to sample the works of a number of distinguished writers of the crime fiction of the past. Thus far I’ve read two of these collections all the way through: Resorting To Murder and Capital Crimes.

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Skillfully curated and annotated by Martin Edwards, both were very enjoyable. The latter seemed somewhat meatier to me; it’s my next selection for discussion with the Usual Suspects when my turns comes around again (July 2016). Most (not all) of the authors included in Capital Crimes were not known to me, or barely known: John Oxenham, Richard Marsh, Ernest Bramah, Edgar Wallace, Thomas Burke.

There are seventeen stories in all; Margery Allingham makes an appearance, as does the aforementioned Henry Wade. Just looking through the book again makes me realize I’m going to have to reread it in order to refresh my memory. Such a pleasing task. Well – pleasing in general, the exception being the first story in the collection. This is one of the most genuinely shocking tales I’ve come across in a long time; it’s  at least as much a horror story as it is a crime story. For me, this was especially true, given the identity of the author. Hint: it is not a Sherlock Holmes tale.




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Best reading in 2015: Mysteries, Part one

December 15, 2015 at 4:42 pm (Best of 2015, Mystery fiction)

I had exceptionally good reading in mysteries this year. I didn’t realize just how good until I started looking back and putting this post together. The following, in varying degree, were good, solid reads, with much to recommend them:

Crucifixion Creek by Barry Maitland

The Company She Kept by Archer Mayor

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[I reviewed both of the above titles in a recent post.]

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin* [reviewed in The Golden Age of Looking Back]

Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards for the British Library Crime Classics series.

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Hush Hush by Laura Lippman

The Butchers of Broken Hill by Arthur Upfield*

The Youth Hostel Murders* by Glyn Carr

 51jNaTzadhL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_  The Ivory Grin by Ross MacDonald [reviewed briefly, along with other mysteries, in a post entitled Twenty fiction and mystery titles I’ve Loved (or at least liked) this year]. I am an ardent fan of Ross MacDonald. This is an early entry in the Lew Archer series and not quite the equal of the stellar later novels. But there’s a revelation at the very end that really stunned me. Possibly I should have anticipated it, but I didn’t. Part of the genius of this author.

 25673180  Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts. Another entry in the pantheon of British Crime Classics. I expected to like this book more than I did. It got off to a terrific start, but then about half way through began to drag, partly I think because it was encumbered by an overly complex plot device. Still, I enjoyed the ingenuity and the richness of the period details.

Lamentation by C. J. Sansom. I commented on this title in two posts: Some thoughts on historical fiction and Crime fiction: three good ones. The post on historical fiction also features reviews of A Plague of Angels by P.F. Chisholm and The Hidden Man by Robin Blake.

A Plague of Angels features series protagonist Sir Robert Carey. Carey is equal parts fearless and feckless and is often a trial to his Sergeant-at-arms Henry Dodd. Keeping Carey out of harm’s way is Dodd’s remit, and it’s a full time occupation. The exploits of these two are very entertaining. Chisholm – pen name for Patricia Finney – is a marvelous writer who has deeply researched the Elizabethan era in which she sets this series. Her plots are much enlivened by the intermittent presence of Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe, who flit in and out of the narrative like colorful exotic birds.

PF Chisholm (Patricia Finney)

PF Chisholm (Patricia Finney)

Chisholm’s main inspiration for this series was a volume of history entitled The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers, written in 1971 by George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman novels. Here’s a quote from that book:

The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history. Any number of factors, including geography, race movement, and the Romans decided where the line should be, and once it was there, on the map, on the countryside, and in men’s minds, the stage was set. Possibly English on one side and Scots on the other could have lived peaceably as national neighbours—indeed, for long periods they did; but it was not in the nature of either of the beasts to stay quiet for long. No doubt they ought to have done; successive English kings thought so, and did their utmost, by fair means and foul, to bring about the amity and unity which eventually prevailed At least, unity prevailed; amity is a more questionable commodity, especially north of the Border, even today.

(That agglomeration of adjectives at the beginning of the paragraph delights me!)

The Hidden Man is the third entry in Robin Blake’s series featuring coroner Titus Cragg and his colleague and friend Luke Fidelis, a physician. These novels are situated in a precise time and place: Preston, Lancashire, in the 1740s. Blake is yet another author who knows his historical venue intimately but who never lets that knowledge crowd out a good story.

I tend to get very invested in the personal lives of the protagonists in my favorite series. In the post Some thoughts on historical fiction, I wrote the following:

….having recently finished The Hidden Man, I feel firmly rooted in the world that Robin Blake has created. It’s an extremely interesting world and it feels utterly real. I feel as though I actually know Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis. Titus is married to the sweet and empathetic Elizabeth; Luke is single. (I am most eager for Elizabeth to become pregnant and for Luke to find a soul mate.)

False Tongues by Kate Charles. In 2011, we had  the pleasure of meeting Ms Charles in Ludlow, in the Welsh border  country. Her novel Appointed to Die had been on our reading list, and I had enjoyed it immensely. False Tongues is part of a different series, one that features Callie Anson, a recently ordained Anglican cleric. With her hesitancy and her soft heart, Callie is one of the most genuine – and genuinely appealing –  protagonists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in a long time. (There’s more on this title in the above mentioned post, Crime fiction: three good ones.) This nugget of biography appears on Kate Charles’s site:

Kate Charles, who was described by the Oxford Times as “a most English writer”, is in fact an expatriate American, though an unashamedly Anglophilic one. She has a special interest and expertise in clerical mysteries, and lectures on crime novels with church backgrounds. After more than twenty years in Bedford, Kate and her husband now live on the English side of the Welsh Marches with their Border Terrier, Rosie.

I can’t help reflecting, albeit with some envy, that for years I’ve had a fantasy of living this life – and here is someone who has gone ahead and done it.

Kate Charles

Kate Charles

Falling in Love won’t go down as my favorite Guido Brunetti novel, but in the main, Donna Leon never disappoints. I also enjoyed rereading The Girl of His Dreams for the AAUW Readers. Usually if I’m the facilitator, I’m too worried about keeping track of things – and keeping things on track – to actually relax and enjoy the discussion. But this one was the exception.

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Jo Bannister’s crime fiction is meticulously plotted and peopled with interesting, believable characters. I’m particularly liking her new Hazel Best series. The first in the series is Deadly Virtues; Perfect Sins is the second. Hazel, who’s just learning the ropes as a constable, is a very appealing protagonist. She has befriended Gabriel Ash, a man driven half mad by the disappearance of his wife and sons. In her turn, Hazel gets unflagging support from her  father; their relationship makes these novels shine. (The third in the series, Desperate Measures, has just come out.) despmeasures

I gather that Keigo Higashino’s Inspector Galileo series is gaining traction world wide. Based on my reading of The Devotion of Suspect X*, this acclaim is deserved. I didn’t think I’d like this novel of contemporary Japan, but I did, quite a bit. It provided an interesting window on a place not well known or understood by me. I always find that with books like this, the particulars (of the culture) and the universal emerge, and merge, in surprising and distinctive ways. And this book had one of the more powerful endings I’ve encountered in crime fiction in quite some time. 866068

*indicates a book read for a Usual Suspects discussion

There’s more to come on the mystery front – stay tuned….

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Six nonfiction titles I’ve read and esteemed so far this year

August 1, 2015 at 11:01 pm (Best of 2015, Book review, books, France, True crime)

51CgK5tPG2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  My nonfiction reading this year was heavily influenced by the presence of the true crime class in my life. Among other readings, I finally got around to reading The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule‘s classic account of her strange and curiously compelling friendship with serial killer Ted Bundy.

And so this seems like the appropriate time and place to acknowledge Ann Rule’s recent passing and pay tribute to her remarkable achievements in the field of true crime authorship. Several of Rule’s family members were involved in law enforcement and various other aspects of the criminal justice system. Thus her interest was piqued at an early age. Among her earliest achievements, she became the youngest policewoman ever hired by the Seattle police department. she also obtained a degree in creative writing from the University of Washington. Thus, in regard to her future career, the stage was set.

And yet…What were the odds that while volunteering at a crisis hotline in Seattle, a woman with a background in both law enforcement and creative writing would find herself seated next to an apparently congenial, unquestionably nice looking young man who ultimately proved to be one of the most terrifying serial killers of all time? That chance juxtaposition determined the course of Ann Rule’s professional life.

Truly, in the lives of certain people, the workings of the hand of Fate seem clearly discernible. Of course, it helps greatly when the individual in question recognizes the unique set of circumstances and is prepared to act on them.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…



Ann Rae Rule October 22, 1931 – July 26, 2015

The other true crime classic I read that  directly related to the class is one that I had read once before, when it first came out in 1976. I had a feeling Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money would be worth revisiting. Boy, was it ever. (See the link above to the true crime class.) blood_and_money_dj

So far  this year, I’ve read two additional books in the  true crime genre: This House of Grief by Helen Garner and Ghettoside by Jill Leovy.. Both were gripping narratives replete with tension and heartbreak. Beautifully written, too – that’s true especially of the Garner title. I’ve reviewed both in this space; click on the titles to read those posts.

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I used Harold Schechter’s True Crime: An American Anthology as the basic text for the true crime course. In preparation for teaching the class in February of this year, I read nearly all of the selections in this 772 page tome, including Schecter’s helpful and illuminating introduction.  Although I’d completed this reading by late fall of 2014, I found that as February drew near, I had to reread everything I’d chosen for the syllabus in order to refresh my memory. (This is part of what made the course prep seem so labor intensive.) So perhaps this particular book does not rightly belong on this list. Yet it so dominated my thought processes over the winter and early spring that I can’t omit mentioning it in this context.  truecrimea1

Two biographies round out my list of great reading in nonfiction: The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss and Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison.

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So, what’s up next for me in nonfiction?  joanofarccastor1 What can I say? I’ve been mesmerizedby this woman’s life story since I was a girl. I date that fascination from the time I first stood before this painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (I was eight years old; my mother could hardly wait to show it to me.)


Joan of Arc, by Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879 [Click to enlarge]


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Twenty fiction and mystery titles I’ve loved (or at least liked a lot) so far this year

July 26, 2015 at 8:33 pm (Best of 2015, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Earlier this month, the Washington Post gifted its book-loving readers (whose numbers are legion) with “23 books we’ve loved so far this year.” I’d already seen excellent reviews of most of these titles; nevertheless, it was a pleasure to see them listed together in one place.

And so I would like to emulate the sterling example set by the editors and reviewers of the Post Book World by presenting my own list, in two parts. Here goes:

Fiction & Literature (as termed by Kirkus Reviews): For me, this has been the least rewarding category so far this year. I’ve started several novels and set them aside in fairly short order. Perhaps I’ve been too impatient. A rather large number of story collections have garnered excellent write-ups of late, among them England and Other Stories by Graham Swift, Bitter Bronx by Jerome Charyn, There’s Something I Want You To Do by Charles Baxter (whose 2003 novel Saul and Patsy I very much enjoyed), Get In Trouble by Kelly Link (whose story “The Wrong Grave” I greatly admire), In Another Country by David Constantine, and Honeydew by Edith Pearlman. In my relentless search for excellent writing, bracing wit, and elegantly constructed narrative, I mean to seek these out.

The only “literary” fiction I read from start to finish so far this year is An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. This is a novel I’ve long meant to tackle, but the impetus to finally do so was provided by the true crime course that I taught earlier this year. If the word “tackle” gives you pause, it’s with good reason: at eight hundred plus pages, An American Tragedy is a real doorstop of a tome. But – despite certain slow moving sections – I was mostly riveted. It was well worth the effort. Despite all the reading I was doing for the course, I kept returning – avidly – to Dreiser’s hefty masterwork.

Originally issued in two volumes, An American Tragedy came out in 1925, nine years after the sensational crime that inspired it. In a later post, I’ll have more to say about this mostly absorbing, occasionally maddening novel. 17142

Mystery & Crime (once again, pace Kirkus): A different story here. I’ve had lots of great reading so far this year in this, my admittedly favorite genre.

In February, I posted Mystery Round-Up, in which I warmly recommended Perfect Sins by the greatly under-appreciated Jo Bannister and The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. The latter was an entry in the international reading year of the Usual Suspects. It’s a novel I did not expect to like but did – very much. Endings are often less than impressive in contemporary crime fiction, but The Devotion of Suspect X featured a conclusion that was extremely powerful, almost shattering in its intensity.

In  that same post, I gave thanks for Disclosure, the reliably entertaining 32nd entry in the Harpur and Iles series of procedurals, written by the pseudonymous and mysterious Bill James. And finally, I heaped praise yet again on P. F. Chisholm’s wonderfully witty novels set amidst the turmoil and dangers of Elizabethan England. Thus far this year I’ve read A Surfeit of Guns and A Plague of Angels. And I’m about half way through A Murder of Crows.

Historical crime fiction appears to be on a roll. In addition to Chisholm’s above mentioned Sir Robert Carey series, there are the Matthew Shardlake novels of C.J. Sansom and  the books featuring Titus Cragg, coroner, and Luke Fidelis, physician. This year’s reading has included Lamentation, the sixth entry in the series featuring lawyer Shardlake, and The Hidden Man, the third in Robin Blake’s Cragg and Fidelis series. I wrote about both books in an April post in which I voiced Some Thoughts on Historical Fiction.

I continue my periodic return to Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. The new translations and reissues add to the enjoyment of this pleasurable reading experience. Most recently read: Dancer at the Gai-Moulin and The Grand Banks Cafe. And two entries in contemporary series that I follow regularly and that almost never disappoint: Falling in Love, the latest Guido Brunetti novel by Donna Leon, and the latest appearance of Bill Slider and company in Star Fall by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

I enjoyed The Youth Hostel Murders by Glyn Carr and The Bachelors of Broken Hill by Arthur Upfield.  Both were selected for discussion by The Usual Suspects.

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51jNaTzadhL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_  I grabbed Ross MacDonald’s The Ivory Grin off a display at one of my favorite hangouts, the Miller Branch Library. Could it be time to read another Lew Archer novel? Turned out the answer was yes.

The Ivory Grin is an early work – 1952 – and is the fourth entry in this series. To my mind, it has some of the characteristics of a journeyman work. Characters swirl about in profusion, and the plot is hard to follow. Still, there are places where the language is riveting, never more than when MacDonald is describing scenes of dereliction:

The road degenerated from broken asphalt to dirt, and the sidewalk ended. She picked her way carefully among the children who ran and squatted and rolled in the dust, past houses with smashed windows patched with cardboard and scarred peeling doors or  no doors at all. In the photographic light the wretchedness of the houses had a stern kind of clarity or beauty, like old men’s faces in the sun. Their roofs sagged and their walls leaned with a human resignation, and they had voices: quarreling and gossiping and singing. The children in the dust played fighting games.

Frequently in MacDonald’s fiction, as in the works of other noir writers (see Raymond Chandler), that there’s a woman in the case who has in some way sold her soul and is probably beyond redemption. Here’s how he describes Archer’s encounter with one such character:

She came out of the car, her body full and startling in a yellow jersey dress with a row of gold buttons down the front. I frisked her on the stairs and found no gun and burned my hands a little. But in the lighted room I saw that she was losing what she had had. Her past was coming out on her face like latent handwriting.

At the conclusion of this novel, there’s a revelation that startled me so much that I cried out with a mixture of horror and amazement. So yes, even in these early days, there were signals of greatness to come.

I am very pleased that this past April, the Library of America brought out a volume of four Lew Archer titles from the 1950s. MacDonald richly deserves this recognition. And I like this picture of him, bathed in the perpetual sunshine of the southern California, whose mid twentieth century zeitgeist he captures so vividly in his novels and stories. 41DoGOZnfsL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_  (And thanks once again to Helene, one of my closest friends of very long standing, for introducing me to Ross MacDonald all those years ago. She gave me one of his best novels – in fact, still one of the best mysteries I’ve ever read: The Zebra-Striped Hearse.)

The British Library Crime Classics are a joy! Individual entries in this series vary in quality and readability, but my experience of them so far has been very positive. I especially recommend Mystery in White by J. Farjeon Jefferson and the story collection Resorting To Murder. These splendid little volumes with their appealing cover art are being brought out in this country by Poisoned Pen Press.

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I was sufficiently intrigued by what Martin Edwards has to say (in The Golden Age of Murder) about Before the Fact by Francis Iles that I downloaded a copy on the spot. Once I’d begun, I didn’t want to read anything else. Before+the+Fact1

Before the Fact (1932) is an unusual little book. It’s not a detective story, or even a mystery in the accepted, conventional sense. Rather, it’s a work of romantic suspense in the tradition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The book is not quite on a par with that masterpiece, but make no mistake: it’s very, very good. Francis Iles (pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley, actually Anthony Berkeley Cox) has a way of setting up the reader’s expectations only to knock them sideways with little or no warning. As with Rebecca, you find yourself rooting for the somewhat diffident protagonist (named Lina in the Iles novel) and at the same time fearing for her (and also, from time to time, wanting to grab her by the shoulders and shake her).

Before the Fact was selected by H.R.F. Keating for inclusion in his book Crime  Mystery: The 100 Best Books (1987). He calls it “… one of the key texts in the history of crime fiction.”

On January 5, I posted a review of Ruth Rendell’s novel, The Girl Next Door. I subtitled the piece, “Ruth Rendell at the summit of her powers.” Shortly thereafter came the news that the author had suffered a severe stroke. Then there was no news. Then came the news that we’d all been dreading.

Here’s what I wrote on the extremely sad occasion of losing Ruth Rendell.

I felt an immediate need to read or to reread one of her works. Among the works recommended by The Guardian in Ruth Rendell: Five Key Works is a standalone from 2001 entitled Adam and Eve and Pinch Me. I picked that one and was enthralled. Ah, the old magic….

There will be a final book to be released here in December, a standalone entitled Dark Corners. One is saddened but all the same grateful.

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