“…this strange land they called ‘la France profonde,’ deepest France.” – Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker

August 19, 2018 at 12:52 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is the opening paragraph of Bruno, Chief of Police:

On a bright May morning, so early that the last of the mist was still lingering low over a bend in the Vézère River, a white van drew to a halt on the ridge that overlooked  the small French town. A man climbed out, strode to the edge of the road and stretched mightily as he admired  the familiar view of St. Denis. The town emerged from the lush green of the trees and meadows like a tumbled heap of treasure; the golden stone of the buildings, the ruby red tiles of the rooftops and the silver curve of the river running through it. The houses clustered down the slope and around the main square of the Hôtel de Ville where the council chamber, its Mairie [mayor’s office], and the office of the town’s own policeman perched above the thick stone columns that framed the covered market. The grime of three centuries only lately scrubbed away, its honey-colored stone glowed richly in the morning sun.

This vivid descriptive passage segues nicely into a short lesson on the region’s history:

On the far side of the square stood the venerable church, its thick walls and squat tower a reminder of the ages past when churches, too, were part of the town’s defenses, guarding the river crossing and the approach to the  great stone bridge. A great “N” carved into the rock above the central of the three arches asserted that the bridge had  been rebuilt on the orders of Napoleon himself. This did not greatly impress the town’s inhabitants, who knew  that the upstart emperor had but restored a bridge their ancestors had first built five centuries earlier. And now it had been established that the first bridge over their river dated from Roman times.

Then a final return to the present era:

Across the river stretched  the new part of town, the Crédit Agricole bank and its parking lot, the supermarket ad the rugby stadium discreetly shaded by tall oaks and think belts of walnut trees.

Thus we are drawn into the world of St. Denis, a small, seemingly pristine commune nestled in the verdant Dordogne region of southwestern France. (St. Denis is a fictional town. For more on the sources used to create it, click here.)

The Dordogne department takes its name from the river that runs through it:

France’s green and pleasant land….Don’t know about you, but one look at this picture and I was ready to pack up and move. [Click to enlarge]

The man in that first paragraph surveys the land before him with deep contentment and a certain sense of  proprietorship. He is Benoît Courrèges, known to his fellow townsfolk as Bruno. Having survived a difficult childhood, Bruno fought in Bosnia for a time before joining law enforcement. He chose to live in St. Denis, perceiving it to be “the quiet heart of rural France.”

But alas, as so often happens, there is a serpent dwelling in this Eden, a serpent  that periodically bares its fangs. When an elderly man living alone is brutally killed, it’s up to Bruno to solve the terrible crime.The deeper the investigation goes, the more apparent it becomes that the root cause of this murder lies buried in the old man’s past – in fact, in France’s past.

Ann, our presenter, was particularly fascinated by the role of Algerian fighters in the Second World War. The rest of us shared that interest. But even more, we found the author’s depiction of this region of France, with its distinctive culture, physical beauty, and meticulously detailed cuisine, to be utterly captivating. (Is that too many adjectives? Oh well – that’s what they’re for, n’est-ce pas?)

There was another aspect of the novel that folks were eager to discuss; namely, the civic and social aspects of small town governance. (Here we have one of  the reasons I so appreciate the Suspects: their interest in all aspects of the work being considered – even the wonky ones!)

We also talked about the famous cave paintings that can be found in the Dordogne. I recommended Werner Herzog’s documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams:

Surely one of the major attractions of this novel and succeeding ones is the character of Bruno himself. He is not only a skilled and conscientious policeman, but he’s also deeply embedded in the town’s social and political life. It’s easy to believe in his affection for his fellow citizens of St. Denis; it’s bodied forth in everything he says and does with regard to them. And then there’s his love life….

In Bruno, Chief of Police, we become acquainted with, among others, Pamela, a relocated Scotswoman who’s become an innkeeper, and Isabelle, a rising star in French law enforcement. Bruno is attracted to both women. What will ultimately come of this attraction is anyone’s guess, but I can tell you that they both appear in subsequent entries in the series.

Oh, and Bruno’s love of the Périgord extends to its denizens of the animal world. He owns a horse named Hector, whose stabling is provided by the aforementioned Pamela. And he has a basset hound named Gigi. (Eventually Bruno acquires a basset puppy named Balzac – un nom parfait pour un chien français, je pense (a perfect name for a French dog, I think). And here’s one of my favorite sentences in the novel:

As Bruno fed his chickens, he pondered what to wear fro dinner that evening.

If you follow this series, you’ll find that the present in St. Denis is often shadowed by the events of the Second World War. There were some heroes, to be sure, but there were also some who sought the coward’s way of survival. There were even traitors. There are moments when the past simply refuses to stay buried; when this happens, sometimes crime results, and pain comes along with it. This happens in Bruno, Chief of Police.

And yet, the beauty of the present day can still be celebrated by good and decent people whom it’s a pleasure to know. Chief among them is Bruno Courrèges.

The reaction of the Suspects to this novel was generally positive, I’d say. There were some reservations; for instance, Marge felt that the proliferating involvement of multiple law enforcement entities was confusing. (Hard to argue with that.) And Carol felt that Martin Walker’s writing did not compare favorably with that of one of her favorite writers, Peter May. May is indeed a fine writer; we read The Black House in 2013 and were suitably impressed. Frank observed that Bruno, Chief of Police was not as much a conventional detective novel as it was a story about how things could be resolved for the greatest good of the greatest number of people. That’s actually a good description of the series as a whole, as it happens. (As for me, it’s impossible to maintain objectivity on this subject. I simply love  these  books.)

For whatever reason, our discussion ranged far and wide, often straying from the book itself. We never worry too much about that; we return to the matter at hand, eventually. Our surroundings at Hilda’s house were gracious and comfortable – thanks, Hilda! – and Cookie, the resident canine, was uniformly affectionate and companionable.

I confess that the novels in this series always arouse the latent Francophile in me. While reading one, I tend to wander through the house articulating phrases in that most beautiful of languages. (Luckily my husband gets it, being, like me, a Francophile with a small but carefully tended knowledge of la langue française.)

From top down, left to right: prefecture building in Périgueux, Château de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Lourde River and La Roque-Gageac. [Courtesy of Wikipedia; click to enlarge]

Ah the glories of French culture! Here is one of my favorite music videos:

The biography on Martin Walker’s website states that he and his wife, novelist and food writer Julia Watson, “divide their time between Washington DC and the Périgord region of France.”

In the Acknowledgments at the end of Fatal Pursuit (2016), Martin Walker states the following:

All the Bruno books are indebted to my friends and neighbors in the Périgord and the lovely landscape they nurture. It has fertile soil, wonderful food, excellent wines, a temperate climate and more history packed into its borders than anywhere else on earth. It is a very special place, filled with enchantments.

The bookstore Politics and Prose is something of an institution in Washington DC. The venue has been favored by numerous author appearances. Martin Walker was there on the occasion of the publication of The Devil’s Cave, fifth entry in the Bruno series:

It’s been a pleasure, but I must fly: A Taste for Vengeance (2018) is waiting on my night table.

 

 

 

 

 

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British Royalty: an AAUW Readers discussion

July 21, 2018 at 4:16 pm (Anglophilia, Book clubs, books)

Inspired by the recent wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry,, we members of AAUW Readers decided to read up on the British royal family. Here’s how the meeting went:

  That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, by Anne Sebba (recommended by Barbara). Just when everyone thought that the subject of Wallis Warfield Simpson had been done to death, along came Sebba’s book, replete with new and intriguing revelations.

I was reminded of a memorable scene described by Selina Hastings in her biography of Somerset Maugham. The year is 1936. Four men are seated a table, hunched over a radio – perhaps I should say “wireless,” this being England – listening to the abdication of speech of Edward VIII. One of the men is Maugham; the identity of two others I don’t recall; the identity of the fourth man was Graham Greene. (Oh, right: I should have designated him The Third Man.)

  Referring to Victoria, the PBS Masterpiece production, Pat filled us in on the culinary aspects of Victoria’s reign, especially as regards Charles Elmé Francatelli,  her chef from 1840 to 1842. I had never heard of this person, but I should have. His books, or versions of them, are available on Amazon. Some of the texts are available online, at Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, and other locations. (See the Wikipedia entry for links to these.)

From The Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s and Butler’s Assistant (1861), here is a recipe for “The Stock Pot:”

Place in a well tinned stock pot, capable of containing about eight gallons, about ten pounds of leg or shin of beef, and an equal weight of knuckles of veal, cut into pieces; to these add the carcass of an old hen and a knuckle of ham; moisten with two quarts of broth or water; set the stock-pot on the fire to boil down sharply until the liquid has become reduced to a glaze .

The heat must then be slackened by placing ashes upon the fire in order to abate its fierceness, so as to allow the glaze to attain a light-brown colour, with out its being burnt and carbonized: if this latter accident happen, it tends considerably to diminish the stomachic qualities and flavour of the stock or consommé.

As soon as the consolidation of the glaze is effected, make up the fire, fill up the stock-pot, and when it boils, skim it thoroughly; after which garnish with six carrots, four onions, three turnips, four leeks, two heads of celery, and an onion in which twelve cloves have been stuck; season with three ounces of salt, and having allowed the stock to continue gently boiling for about five hours, remove the grease from its surface; and then proceed to strain it through a sieve into clean pans for use, as will be directed hereafter.

Charles Elmé Francatelli

Queen Victoria was the subject of several of the group’s selections:

 

Jean recommended Victoria and Albert: A Royal Love Affair, by Daisy Goodwin  and Sara Sheridan, while Sharon favored Her Little Majesty: The Life of Queen Victoria, by Carolly Erickson. Caroline brought We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals, by Gillian Gill. Debbie’s recommendation was Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise of Britain’s Greatest Monarch by Kate Williams

Queen Elizabeth II came in for several mentions. Marge recommended Queen and Country: The Fifty-Year Reign of Elizabeth II, by William Shawcross, while Debbie favored Young Elizabeth: The Making of the Queen by Kate Williams.

You’ll note that two of the recently mentioned titles were authored by Kate Williams. Williams comes trailing numerous accolades from academia (including a PhD from Somerville College, Oxford, alma mater of Dorothy L. Sayers, Iris Murdoch, and numerous additional women of note); she is also a frequent TV commentator (see YouTube). Her biography of Emma Hamilton, the mistress of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, was a great read.

Suzanne recommended the following three titles:

The Royal Family: A Year by Year Chronicle of the House of Windsor, Paragon Books. I had a chance to page through this briefly; the pictures are gorgeous.

Figures in Silk by Vanora Bennett is a novel set in 15th century England. Main characters are John Lambert, a silk merchant with marriageable daughters, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who aspires to be king.

A Short History of England, by Simon Jenkins. Now this one looked familiar to me, so I began searching for it in one of my vast book repositories and lo! It was there. Yet another enticing volume, patiently waiting to be read.

To the right of A Short History of England can be seen additional titles by Sir Simon, plus three titles by my brother, Richard S. Tedlow   (and some health items that sneaked into the picture.)

  I began by recommending Restoration by Rose Tremain and film by the same name. Tremain’s wonderfully vivid and involving novel of late 17th century England centers on one of Charles II’s many peccadilloes and a hapless doctor, Robert Merivel, who is ensnared by  the King’s scheming. I remember really loving the film when it first came out. This trailer, however, makes it appear somewhat over the top, in several respects. It’s got a terrific cast, though, and might be enjoyable viewing, if one is in the mood for it:

 

   To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape, by Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer and younger brother of Princess Diana. The book got off to a slow start but picked up steam fairly quickly, until I didn’t want to read anything else until I’d finished it. Charles’s great escape actually consists of several escapes, made possible by his loyal followers and often just barely succeeding. The forces of Oliver Cromwell hunted the Royalists relentlessly, but Charles and company always manages to stay a step ahead of them. I already knew the general outline of the story, but Spencer puts you right in the thick of events in a breathtaking way. Great story, great book.

 

 

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A Famine of Horses: a book discussion

July 16, 2018 at 12:24 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

Somehow I managed to work myself up into quite a state for this book discussion. There always seemed to be more research that needed to be done, more questions needing to be answered, more tangled webs to untangle…. In the end, though, I was really please with how it went. This is mostly because the group members were simply outstanding. They caught the  ball and ran with it. I didn’t have many discussion questions prepared and as it turned out, for the most part, I didn’t need them.

I began, in the usual way, with author information. P.F. Chisholm is a nom de plume  for Patricia Finney. Born in London in 1958, Finney attended Wadham College, Oxford, earning a B.A. degree  and graduating with honors. According to Biography in Context, she has had an extremely varied work life, having worked as a journalist, a medical magazine editor, hospital administrator, scriptwriter, entrepreneur, and – most intriguing – a “property empress.”

Patricia Finney

(The above information was gleaned from an entry in the Biography in Context database. I highly recommend this research tool, although, at least on the local library’s website, you have jump through several hoops to get to it.)

Along with this wide ranging work experience, Finney’s abiding passion, from youth onward, was for storytelling. I shared  with the group this story, recounted on her blog:

One of my first memories is of being in hospital to have my tonsils out, aged 5 (they did tonsillectomies on youngsters with more enthusiasm then). I was doing what I always did to get to sleep, when a nurse came to me and asked if I was having a bad dream. No, I told her with withering patronage, I was telling a story about a hamster. Why was I shouting, she wanted to know? Because the hamster was being silly and trying to jump out of his balloon basket without his rocket pack and I was warning him. She told me to stop telling stories at once and be quiet. She went away rather hurriedly.

I then moved on to the historical background for the novel. During the late 1590s, the time of A Famine of Horses, the north of England near the Scottish border was a land of lawlessness and depredation. Lawlessness might not be the correct  term: the Borderers did have a sort of homegrown legal system. It was based primarily on tit for tat, an eye  for an eye, thieving and reiving and cattle rustling and endless retribution among powerful warlike clans: the Elliots, the Grahams, the Nixons, and the seemingly always belligerent and bellicose Armstrongs.

(The Debatable Land was an area in the border country that seemed to belong simultaneously to everyone and no one. It served as a haven for outlaws and for “broken men,” those who had no declared allegiance to a particular lord or sovereign power.)

Patricia Finney has cited her reading of Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser as the inspiration for this series. That book contains a wonderful sentence that boldly sets the scene:

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.

That about sums it up, sure enough. Consideration of the enormous contributions in the spheres of literature, science, medicine, philosophy, etc. made by both England and Scotland over the past centuries is enough to convince anyone that these two small nations have consistently punched well above their weight.

Sir Robert Carey, Chisholm’s chief protagonist in Famine and throughout this series was an actual historical personage. He served at the court of Queen Elizabeth and later, at his Sovereign’s request, as Warden of the Border country, where his efforts to institute the rule of law were eventually proven effective.

Sir Robert’s father, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, was a  favorite cousin of the Queen’s. His mother Mary Boleyn was sister to the Queen’s ill-fated mother, Anne Boleyn. Mary was married twice, but she was also, for a time, mistress to Henry VIII. She supposedly bore him two children, although he acknowledged neither of them.

Carey returned to London in 1603 as Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and her life, were coming to an end. Most importantly, his written memoirs have come down to us. They provide a first hand, eyewitness account of the Queen’s passing:

When I came to court I found the Queen ill disposed; and she kept to her inner lodging; yet she, hearing of my arrival, sent  for me. I found her in one of her withdrawing  chambers, sitting low upon her cushions. She called me to her: I kissed her hand, and told her it was my chiefest happiness to see her in safety and in health, which I wished might long continue. She took me by the hand, and wrung it hard, and said, “No, Robin, I am not well,” and then discoursed with me of her indisposition, and that her heart had been sad and heavy for ten or twelve days, and in her discourse  she fetched not so few as forty of fifty great sighs.

Carey found these sighs particularly disconcerting; he hadn’t heard her sigh like that, he averred, since the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots.

Upon retiring, Carey left word that he was to be notified immediately of the Queen’s death. And so it came to pass, in the middle of the night:

…I entered the gate, and came up to the Cofferer‘s chamber, where I found all the ladies weeping bitterly.

Queen Elizabeth: the Ditchley Portrait

There follows a narration of the exploit for which Sir Robert Carey is best known: His breakneck ride north to Edinburgh to hail the Scottish King James VI as James I of England. (Just before her death, Elizabeth had declared this to be her wish in regard to her successor as ruler of England. It signified the end of the Tudor dynasty, which then gave way to the reign of the Stuart kings.)

Finally – on to A Famine of Horses. I discerned a range of  reactions to the novel among the Suspects. Several were put off by the author’s use of antiquated vocabulary. Terms like dag (early firearm type), caliver (a standardized arquebus), collops (slices of beef), and cramoisie (crimson) were found, understandably, to be bewildering. Others, however, maintained that their meaning, at least generally speaking, could be determined from the context in which they appeared. I admit that I was in that second group. I failed utterly to perceive that the vocabulary used in the novel would serve as a stumbling block. to some readers. (This might be partly due to the fact that so much of what I read, both fiction and nonfiction, historical and contemporary, takes place in Britain.)

We all agreed that a glossary would have been very helpful. Another inclusion that would have helped is a list of the characters – who they are, how they’re related, etc. For one thing, there are a great many of them and they’re hard to keep straight. Of course, this impacts the plot, which, as the narrative progresses, becomes increasingly Byzantine.

The Kirkus review of A Famine of Horses was generally favorable, with reviewer describing the the book as “A briskly paced debut rich in spiky characters, eccentric accents, and, above all, a charismatic hero with a sense of honor and a sense of humor.” On the other hand, the Publishers Weekly reviewer was distinctly underwhelmed. That review concludes thus:

Chisholm’s short digressions on the new concept of due process are thoughtful but blunted by archaic terms. And Carey, an upright courtier with the gift of guile, remains too distant, never fully retaining the reader’s sympathies.

That last sentence left me scratching my head. Did this reviewer read the same book I read? In Patricia Finney’s introduction to the year 2000 paperback edition (published by Poisoned Pen Press), she confesses that she’s fallen “hook, line and sinker, for the elegant and charming Sir Robert Carey.” I felt the same way.

Sir Robert Carey, First Earl of Monmouth

Our discussion ranged freely over various aspects of this book. Frank mentioned the fear felt by ordinary people when venturing out alone, especially at night. Marge said that there was a fair amount of humor in the novel, more, at any rate, than she had expected to encounter. She also reminded us of another historical novelist whom we’ve read enjoyed: Candace Robb.

We talked about the way in which details of clothing and food add greatly to the novel’s verisimilitude. And oh, the fleas! Some of us began to itch with empathy for the beleaguered characters.

I think just about everyone agreed that the plot was very complicated. It was hard not to get lost in the thicket of events, some of which seemed to careen into the narrative with sudden and unexpected force. The murder described at the book’s very outset almost seems to have  been shoved aside by the general melee. The solution almost seems hastily arrived  at, toward the very conclusion of the narrative. I had to reread that section several times to make sure I’d gotten in right. (That ending was not at all satisfactory to Pauline. She found it very dismaying.)

However, the novel has many strengths, one in particular being the creation of especially vivid female characters. Elizabeth Widdrington, Sir Robert’s (unfortunately chastely married) lady love; Janet Dodd, Henry’s fearless wife; and the wonderfully named Philadelphia Scrope, wife of the chief Warden and beloved sister to Sir Robert, will probably stay with you for a while after you’ve finished the book.

In my previous post on Famine, I recounted two of my favorite scenes. I’d like to add another. This one takes place at a banquet at Netherby, stronghold of the Earl of Bothwell:

  As the procession reached the high table and the chief men were served, the Earl stood up and threw half a breadroll at a nervous-looking priest in the corner.

“Say a grace for us, Reverend,” he shouted.

The Reverend stood up and gabbled some Latin, which was in fact a part of the old wedding service, if Carey’s feeble classical knowledge served him right. Everyone shouted Amen, bent their heads and began shovelling food into their guts as if they were half starved.

I can just see this happening. In fact, I found many scenes in Famine exceptionally rich visually. I think the book would make a great movie or television series.

Once more, thank you, Suspects. You make the effort well worthwhile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Working on A Famine of Horses while finishing the latest Bill Slider novel

June 28, 2018 at 2:05 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  My choice for the next Usual Suspects mystery discussion is A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm. I like this book mainly because of the way it brings a distant time so vividly to life. One way Chisholm does this is by weaving particulars about dress, food, and other specifics into a narrative that has an actual historical personage as its hero. I refer to Sir Robert Carey, cousin to Queen Elizabeth I – His father, Lord Hunsdon, was the son of Mary Boleyn, sister to the ill-fated Anne, Elizabeth’s mother.

Sir Robert Carey, First Earl of Monmouth, circa 1591

The historical Sir Robert Carey’s main claim to fame is his breakneck horseback journey in 1603 from London to Edinburgh. His purpose: To inform King James VI of Scotland that he was now King James I of England:

When the Queen died at Richmond Palace Lady Scrope threw the blue ring from a casement window to her brother. Carey, who had previously told King James that he would be the first man to bring the news, set off immediately for London and from there started his epic ride to Edinburgh. He completed the journey in less than three days, and on his way caused King James to be proclaimed by his brother (the governor) at Berwick upon Tweed, the strongest fortress on the road from Scotland. On arrival at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, he hailed King James as King of England and Scotland.

From The Great North Ride

P.F. Chisholm’s prose style is uniquely suited to the time and place of which she writes. It helps cast a spell; I feel transported to that era. One of my favorite of her locutions occurs when she’s describing Sir Robert’s fast-growing goatee as “invading upland pastures.”

Then there’s the passage in which he strives to convey to Henry Dodd, his second-in-command, the flavor of the language used by those who wish to survive at the Queen’s court:

“Well,” he said consideringly, “a scurvy Scotsman might say she is a wild old bat who knows more of governorship and statecraft than the Privy Councils of both realms put together, but I say she is like Aurora in her beauty, her hair puts the sun in splendour to shame, her face holds the heavens within its compass and her glance is like the falling dew.”

Dodd, astonished by this recitation, asks if all the courtiers are required to speak in this manner. Sir Robert replies with unaccustomed bluntness:

“If they want to keep out of the Tower, they do.”

Queen Elizabeth I, the Darnley portrait, circa 1575

My favorite scene in Famine is one in which the characters move seamlessly from discussing a murder investigation – the killing of one Sweetmilk Graham –  to making music together:

“And then,” continued Carey, as he dug in a canvas bag for the latest madrigal sheets he had carried with him faithfully from London, “there’s where he put the body. After all, Solway field’s a very odd place. The marshes or the sea would give him a better chance of the body never being found. It’s almost as if he couldn’t think of anywhere else. And how did Swanders come by the horse?”

“Killed Sweetmilk?” asked Henry Widdrington, picking up one of the sheets and squinting at it. “

“Not Swanders. He doesn’t own a dag. A knife in the ribs would be more his mark. Can you take the bass part?”

Henry Widdrington whistled at the music. “I can try.”

Meanwhile Lord Scrope, Chief Warden and husband to Sir Robert’s sister Philadelphia, is hard at work tuning the virginals in a corner of the room they’re currently occupying. Scrope may be a lackluster administrator, but he’s a genuine music lover and an excellent keyboardist.

And so, they’re off and singing! The effect they’re striving for would have sounded something like this:

or, more informally, this (‘O Eyes of My Beloved’ by Orlando di Lasso – such a beautiful song!):

(Now in my youth, I sang with a madrigal group, and I can tell you from experience, it’s a fiendishly tricky business for nonprofessionals.)

Another way in which Chisholm strives to achieve authenticity is through liberal use of vocabulary appropriate to the times. Here I must insert a caveat. Words such as Cramoisie and dag do not trip lightly off the tongue of a modern reader. The author does not provide a glossary; I rather wish that she had. Even a few footnotes at the bottom of the page would have been helpful. The degree to which this is a problem will of course vary from reader to reader. (I put together a brief glossary for my fellow Suspects. It’s available upon request!)

A Famine of Horses is the first in a series that at present comprises eight novels. I have read all of them. In the main, they are quite entertaining. I thought A Murder of Crows (2010) rather sub par, to the extent that I had trouble finishing it. On the other hand, I found A Chorus of Innocents (2015), a real triumph and, in my opinion, the best series entry since the series itself began. A Suspicion of Silver, entry number nine, is due out in December of this year. (P.F. Chisholm is a pseudonym used by Patricia Finney, a writer of historical fiction and children’s books.)

Another series of which I’m inordinately fond is the Bill Slider series written by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. These novels have the same sparkling irreverence and wit that I prize in the Sir Robert Carey novels. The latest, which I just finished, is entitled Shadow Play.

The dialog that characterized Slider’s team is often quite delightful. To wit:

“I’ve never been there,” Atherton said. “Don’t need to. It’s a totally justified irrational prejudice based on subliminal impressions gained over a lifetime.”

“I wish you came with subtitles,” Loessop complained.

And I love this description of a top speed race to capture a suspect on the run, so dizzying it’s positively cinematic:

It was a glorious, adrenalin-fueled chase, through the narrow streets of Soho, dodging the evening revellers and the crawling traffic; down Wardour Street, left into Noel, left again into Poland, across Broadwick Street, into Lexington. Onlookers stepped helpfully out of the way, even when LaSalle shouted, ‘Police!’ In the old days someone would have stuck out a foot. Loessup began to fall behind, but LaSalle had long legs. Where were the two men carrying a sheet of glass, the tottering stack of cardboard  boxes, the young mother pushing a pram, when you needed them?

Having just finished the twentieth installment of the adventures of Bill Slider and company, I find myself so enamored of this series that I’m thinking of going back to the beginning and starting it all over again!

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‘History was never very far away in New Mexico….’ Land of Burning Heat, by Judith Van Gieson

March 18, 2018 at 1:40 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Judaism, Mystery fiction)

This past Tuesday, the Usual Suspects took up Anne’s choice for discussion, a book entitled Land of Burning Heat by Judith Van Gieson. Anne explained that in advance of a trip to New Mexico she had sought out reading that would complement her journey. Van Gieson’s novel, set in Albuquerque,  seemed just the ticket.

Our discussion ranged far and wide. The plot was rather convoluted, and we didn’t spend very much time trying to untangle it. This is because at the center of the novel there resides a fascinating subject: the saga of the Conversos, sometimes called Marranos or more lately, crypto-Jews. These were Jews who escaped the Inquisition by pretending to convert to Catholicism, while all the time practicing their Jewish faith in secret.

Most of us think of the Inquisition as an event – and a despicable one at  that – that happened exclusively in Spain in the late fifteenth century. But as the expelled Jews fled to Portugal and to other Spanish speaking lands, the practices of the Inquisition followed them, first to Peru and then to Mexico City. Eventually some of these superficially converted individuals found their way north of the border.

NPR’s site has an interesting feature piece on this subject. In addition, there’s a first person narrative from a 2009 issue of Harper’s that I simply must link to because it has a title that delights me.   Also, if you’re interested in learning more on this subject, I recommend the book The Mezuzah in the Madonna’s Foot by Trudi Alexy.

We did spend some time talking about the series protagonist, Claire Reynier. Claire is an archivist at the University of New Mexico. As such, she has a natural interest in the region’s varied and colorful past.

History was never very far away in New Mexico, which was one of the things she liked about it. She enjoyed the sensation of moving from one century to another.

This is especially true as regards the rich mixture of ethnicities that have resided in the Land of Enchantment over the course of centuries.

A young woman named Isabel Santos comes to Claire’s office at the University to ask for her help. She has recently moved into the family home in nearby Bernalillo. In the process, she’s made a strange discovery. Under a loose brick in the house’s flooring, she found a wooden cross with a hole in its bottom. From this hole, Isabel extracted  a small piece of paper with writing on it. She has copied  out the text and brought it with her to show Claire. The language was not immediately recognizable, It  seemed to be a mixture of archaic Spanish and Hebrew.

Isabel Santos wanted to know what it all meant. She felt that as an archivist, Claire might be able to assist her with this conundrum. Claire is clearly intrigued. But before she can take even the smallest step toward investigating this possibly valuable find, murder rears its ugly head. And the cross and its precious secret disappear.

Rather than being the end of Claire’s involvement in the case, this turns out to be just the  beginning.

Anne provided us with a list of probing discussion questions. Here is the first:

Did you find Claire Reyner an unusual detective? What attribute equipped her for solving this case when the police and everyone else believed it was a simple interrupted burglary?

The short form answer would be that in light of her training as an historian, Claire tends to take the long view, placing that alongside factors that are more immediately relevant. As for Claire herself being an unusual detective, we thought she was, for several reasons. First of all, as an academic with a decidedly intellectual bent, she seems an unlikely person to get involved with some of the vain and venal characters she encounters as the plot unfolds. But on a more personal level, she does not come across as a strong, aggressive distaff version of the classic male tough guy cop or private eye. Nor is she as matter-of -fact, (relatively) nerveless, and upbeat as say, Kinsey Millhone. On the contrary, she seems clear-headed, thoughtful, and a bit unsure of herself. Why doesn’t she just pull out? Because she has a very clear concept of right and wrong; in other words, a conscience that won’t let her off easily, if at all.

Currently in early middle age, Claire lives alone but is kept intermittent (and not always welcome) company by her cat, Nemesis. She’s divorced and has two grown children, a son and a daughter. Neither of them lives locally, and they don’t seem to figure very prominently in her emotional life. Although she enjoys her work and has plenty of friends and colleagues in Albuquerque, she seems to be in the grip of an inchoate yearning. In other words, she’s  prey to loneliness. At least, she seemed so to me.

I found her believable, likable, and admirable.

How great it was to come back to Judith Van Gieson, a writer who so effectively evokes the otherworldly magic of New Mexico.

  I’ve been a fan of this author since I first read The Other Side of Death when it came out in 1991. The protagonist of that series is Neil Hamel, a twice divorced attorney living, like Claire Reynier, in Albuquerque. At the time the events in this series take place, Neil has a younger lover whom she calls the Kid,  an auto mechanic by day – he has his own shop – and a musician at night.

The first two pages of this novel are…well, let me quote some of it for you:

Spring moves north about as  fast as a person on foot would–fifteen to twenty miles a day. It crosses the border at El Paso and enters New Mexico at Fort Bliss….following the twists of the Rio Grande, it wanders through Las Cruces and Radium Springs, bringing chile back to Hatch. A few more days and it has entered Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte. The whooping cranes leave Bosque del Apache, relief comes to Socorro….By mi-March the season gets to those of us who live in the Duke City, Albuquerque. On 12th Street fruit trees blossom in ice cream colors. The pansies  return with purple vigor to Civic Plaza.The Lobos are eliminated from NCAA competition. The hookers on East Central hike up their skirts. The cholos in Roosevelt Park  rip the sleeves off their black T-shirts, exposing the purple bruises of tattoos….

This intense and lyrical description is in the first paragraph on the first page. It goes on for  a while, and then becomes more specific on page 2. Now we see that there’s another kind of magic Van Gieson is equally good at summoning up:

At my place in La Vista Luxury Apartment Complex, the yellow shag carpet needed mowing; the Kid’s hair was getting a trim. His hair is thick, black and wound tight and the way to cut it is to pull out a curl and lop off an inch. The hair bounces back, the Kid’s head looks a little narrower, the floor gets littered with curls.

He sat, skinny and bare chested, in front of my bedroom mirror, and I took a hand mirror and moved it around behind him so he could see the effect of the trim. “Looks good, Chiquita,” he said. I vacuumed up the curls and helped him out of his jeans, then we got into bed.

The afternoon is the very best time: the window open to the sound of kids playing in the arroyo, motorcycles revving in the parking lot, boom box music but not too close, the polyester drapes not quite closed and sunlight playing across the wall and the Kid’s skin. Warm enough to be nice and sweaty, but not so hot as to stick together. And in the breeze the reckless, restless wanderer— spring.

“Oh, my God,” I said in a way I hadn’t all winter.

Chiquita mia,” said the Kid.

I was a real fan of the Neil Hamel novels, having read all eight of them, when the series ended – abruptly, I thought – in 1999 with Ditch Rider. The new series featuring Claire Reynier began the following year with The Stolen Blue. I read it but I remember being underwhelmed at the time, most likely because I was missing the wisecracking,  free spirited Neil Hamel. Reading Land of Burning Heat has changed my mind and made me more receptive to the Claire Reynier series. That said, The Shadow of Venus, the fifth and last entry in the series, is dated 2004. Van Gieson’s present efforts would appear to be centered on publishing. ABQ Press is an initiative aimed at promoting and sustaining New Mexico writers. What the future holds for her as a writer remains unclear – at least, to me. I’ve examined her website for clues but found none. (For a complete listing of the books in both series, see Stop! You’re Killing Me.)

Judith Van Gieson

I corresponded briefly with Judith van Gieson in the early 1990s, when I was preparing a presentation and discussion of The Other Side of Death. I recall that she was generous in providing me with background information on herself and her books. This was all done via snail mail. I may still have those notes and articles, but I have no idea where to look for them. With luck, in the course of the Great Clean-up that looms in my future, they will turn up.

Judith Van Gieson in her home in Albuquerque’s North Valley. I seem to recall reading that she was able to purchase this lovely domicile when one of her novels – or perhaps the whole series – was optioned for either film or TV by a production company. Alas, as so often happens, those plans never materialized.

One more point concerning our discussion of Land of Burning Heat: Prompted by Marge’s curiosity, we explored the subject of what it means to be Jewish; specifically, why being Jewish is different from being, say, Presbyterian or Catholic. I, for instance, tread very lightly when it comes to the observance of the Jewish religion (and that includes even the High Holy Days). Yet I consider myself unquestionably Jewish. It is an identity, in fact, of which I am singularly proud. In 2010, David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times in which he cited the following:

Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates.

Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38 percent of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.

All of this is quite splendid, but it still doesn’t answer Marge’s question. (By the way, I remember this same subject being raised when I was in Religious School: “Is being Jewish a religious identity? An ethnic identity? A nationality?” I remember being very impatient with the whole topic and just wanting to get home so I could have some Matzoh Brei.)

Finally Hilda observed: “You don’t ever hear of someone being a ‘lapsed Jew.'” Somehow that seemed to sum things up. It was a bracing discussion; it’s nice to have one of those in connection with the reading of crime fiction.

When I got back from New Mexico (the first time? second time?), I listened to Ottmar Liebert’s “Santa Fe” over and over again.

 

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When to the sessions of sweet silent thought…

January 27, 2018 at 3:08 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Family, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  So there I am reading this mystery set in New Jersey in the year 1914, when I come across the following:

Deputy Morris went first and cut to the left, which would take him down a narrow street occupied mostly by cobblers and tailors and other such shops whose doors had closed hours ago.

Constance Kopp, the main character, is headed for a potentially dangerous rendezvous. She’s being discreetly shadowed by members of the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department, including Sheriff Heath himself. (This novel is, in fact, based on a true story.)

The above quoted sentence, however, plucked me out of that scenario and hit me in the face with another – one that, for this particular reader, was very close to home.

But first – a bit of background:

My father was  born in Westfield, in Union County, New Jersey in 1914. Shortly thereafter, the family moved one county north to Maplewood, in Essex County. (My grandparents had immigrated from what was then called Russia, now the Ukraine. They came through Ellis Island, where immigration officials struggled with foreign names written in unknown alphabets. What they came up with for my father’s family was ‘Tedlow.’ ‘Tevelov’ might have been closer. As best I’m able to reproduce it, it might have looked like this in Cyrillic: ‘Тевелов.’)

My grandfather Jacob Tedlow had a small tailoring business in Maplewood. He named the establishment The New York Tailoring Company, or something like it. I know that the name contained “New York” because I recall my father commenting that the choice of moniker revealed “delusions of grandeur” on his father’s part. (This was said in jest, but it was a sort of poignant jest.)

Below is a map of the counties that make up the state of New Jersey:

It can be readily seen that Essex County is just below Bergen County, with a section of Passaic County inserting itself in between the two. (Some of the action in Girl Waits with Gun takes place in Passaic County.) So you see, the mention of shops occupied by tailors and cobblers in the city of Paterson, in Bergen County in 1914, caused the personal association  to spring immediately to mind.

In the early 1990s, when my parents were  still active and healthy, Ron and I went with them to a restaurant in Maplewood. If recollection serves (which it often doesn’t), this small eatery was across the street from the building in which my grandfather’s tailoring business was located. The family, consisting of my grandparents, my father, and his two sisters, also lived in that building. (This was not an unusual arrangement in those days. My mother’s parents had a candy store – or confectioners, as it was officially designated – in Montclair, also in Essex County. They, my mother, and my uncle resided in an apartment on the premises.)

After we’d finished our meal and gone outside, my father pointed to the building’s top floor and told us that as a boy, he used to carry coal up to an elderly lady who lived there.

My father was a handsome and reserved man, not given to revealing his feelings or indulging in recollections of the past. The only other childhood memory that I remember him sharing was  of standing outside with a crowd of people who were cheering the soldiers who’d come back from the First World War. That would have been in 1919; at the time, he would have been five years old.

(I’m digging deep into the past here, and I hope I haven’t made any egregious misstatements. If I have, I apologize.)

Girl Waits With Gun is our next selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Group discussion.At present, I’m about two thirds of the way in, for the most part, I’m enjoying it, especially as regards the novel’s historical aspect.  For me, it has certainly summoned up “remembrance of things past,” and I’m grateful to Carol for choosing it for us.

I admit, though, that I was made somewhat uneasy at first, as there were several disparaging references to those of the Jewish faith made at the outset. For instance, here is Constance Kopp relating some of her family’s history:

My grandfather—an educated man, a chemist—liked to say that he brought his family here to give them a more stable and certain future, and to keep his boys out of the endless wars with France and Italy, but my grandmother once whispered that they moved to get away from the Jews. “After they got to leave the ghettos they could live anywhere,” she hissed, and glanced out the window as if she suspected they were moving to Brooklyn, too, which of course they were.

However, thus far there’s been no recurrence of this kind of casually tossed-off antisemitism, and I can only conclude that it’s been made a part of this narrative for the sake, alas, of verisimilitude. (Although my parents and grandparents rarely spoke of it, they had from time to time encountered the expression of this prejudiced attitude firsthand.)

Some years ago, my son Ben made me a gift of a beautifully framed photograph of my father. It enjoys pride of place on our living room wall. When I’m reading on the couch – a favorite place for that activity – I can look up and see it. In this way, he keeps me company during this solitary pursuit.

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‘The clear waters of the channels ran over golden sands….’ – “St Clair Flats,” by Constance Fenimore Woolson

January 21, 2018 at 3:29 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Short stories)

  Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson was my choice for our discussion, but I was having a very difficult time getting the presentation to come together in a satisfactory manner.

This volume consists of a foreward by Colm Toibin, an introduction by the editor Anne Boyd Rioux, and a selection of seven  stories. The stories were carefully chosen to represent the different aspects and settings of Woolson’s oeuvre: “St. Clair Flats”(1873)  is set in the Great Lakes Region; “Solomon”(1873), in eastern Ohio; “Rodman the Keeper'(1877), in North Carolina; “Sister St. Luke”(1877), in Florida; “‘Miss Grief'”(1880) in Rome; “A Florentine Experiment”(1880) in Florence, Italy; and “In Sloane Street”(1892) in London.

I asked the group – AAUW Readers by name – to read the foreward, the introduction, and four of the stories: “St. Clair Flats,” “‘Miss Grief’,” “A Florentine Experiment,” and “In Sloane Street.”

In her introduction, Anne Boyd Rioux reveals enough of Woolson’s biography for us to know that she lived a somewhat peripatetic, restless life, always trying to stay true to her writer’s art while fighting off the wolves of encroaching penury. Rioux’s final paragraph made my heart ache:

Woolson’s works deserve wider attention today, not only for the way they broaden our understanding of late-nineteenth-century American literature, but also for the way they capture both the social texture of her time and the inner emotional lives of her characters. Her works contradict our assumptions about women’s writing from that era, for Woolson did not seek recognition as a woman writer but as a writer. Thus she often tread on masculine territory in her work, while never trying to simply mimic the successes of her male peers. She sought instead to show them what was missing from their views of humanity, broadening the scope of literature to include the heartaches and triumphs of those most often overlooked, such as impoverished spinsters, neglected nuns, self-sacrificing wives and widows, uneducated coal miners, and destitute Southerners. Most of all her writings reflect what is deeply human in all of us, particularly our need to be loved, to be understood, and to belong, none of which are easily accomplished in her stories, or in life.

The most famous of the ‘male peers’ Woolson was trying not to imitate was Henry James. They met when both were living in Florence. James was generous and companionable with his fellow writer, even though Woolson’s encroaching deafness made it difficult for her to socialize. (Included in their close Florentine circle were composer Francis Boott, his daughter Lizzie, a painter, and her husband Frank Duveneck, also an artist. I began our discussion by recounting the way in which I most unexpectedly encountered a scion of the Duvenecks this past November in Northern California. For more on this curious confluence, read “The Nature of California.”)

“St.Clair Flats” was the first story I ever read by Constance Fenimore Woolson. (And yes she came by that middle name honestly: James Fenimore Cooper was her great-uncle.) I fell under its enchantment at once.

The year is 1855. In the course of their search for a congenial place to hunt and fish, two men find find themselves boating through a region of the Great Lakes known as the St. Clair Flats. The place is both bleak and beautiful, depending on whom you ask, and when:

The word “marsh” does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind, and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen,— an enchanted land, whose memory haunts me as an idea unwritten, a melody unsung, a picture unpainted, haunts the artist, and will not away. On each side and in front, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores. In and out, now running into each other for a moment, now setting off each for himself again, these many channels flowed along with a rippling current; zigzag as they were, they never seemed to loiter, but, as if knowing just where they were going and what they had to do, they found time to take their own pleasant roundabout way, visiting the secluded households of their friends the flags, who, poor souls, must always stay at home. These currents were as clear as crystal, and green as the water-grasses that fringed their miniature shores.

Thus does the narrator reflect on his surroundings. Later, he has an exchange with a boatman that portrays things in a different light:

“It is beautiful,— beautiful,” I said, looking off over the vivid green expanse.

“Beautiful?” echoed the captain, who had himself taken charge of the steering when the steamer entered the labyrinth,—“ I don’t see anything beautiful in it!— Port your helm up there; port!”

“Port it is, sir,” came back from the pilot-house above.

“These Flats give us more trouble than any other spot on the lakes; vessels are all the time getting aground and blocking up the way, which is narrow enough at best. There’s some talk of Uncle Sam’s cutting a canal right through,— a straight canal; but he’s so slow, Uncle Sam is, and I’m afraid I’ll be off the waters before the job is done.”

“A straight canal!” I repeated, thinking with dismay of an ugly utilitarian ditch invading this beautiful winding waste of green.

“Yes, you can see for yourself what a saving it would be,” replied the captain.

The narrator and his friend have a somewhat surreal time of it, enveloped by the strange beauty of this region and moreover, finding a place to stay with two unusual individuals: a man called Waiting Samuel and his wife Roxana. What Samuel appears to be waiting for is what we now term the End Times. He is a thoroughly otherworldly visionary. Roxana mainly acts the part of his submissive helpmate; at the same time, she’s the one that takes care of practical matters and keeps their dwelling afloat and viable.

After a particular glorious day spent enjoying the unique and seductive beauty of the Flats, the two men receive news of a sad and urgent nature. They are forced to return home with all due haste. The parting with Roxana is especially poignant:

At the turn I looked back; Roxana was sitting motionless in her boat; the dark clouds were rolling up behind her; and the Flats looked wild and desolate. “God help her!” I said.

Years passed quickly. In 1870, the narrator has occasion to revisit the Flats. He finds them, not unexpectedly, much changed:

“It is beautiful, beautiful,” I thought, “but it is passing away.”

This vision of a paradise lost in our own country is one of the most affecting passages of fiction that I have ever encountered. Affecting – and strangely unique in our literature.

As our discussion of this story was reaching its conclusion, Doris asked, “Is this a metaphor?” A metaphor, perhaps, for the waywardness of our journey through this life? And also, perhaps, for the sudden and unexpected turnings of that journey. (And by the way, the perceptive observations made by this excellent group of book lovers made this discussion a real pleasure – at least, I thought so!)

When I returned home from this discussion -more specifically, from our subsequent lunch out as a group, always a pleasant follow-up activity – I did something I hadn’t done before: I did a Google Image search for Lake St. Clair:

Canal leading to Lake St. Clair

Constance Fenimore Woolson was living alone in Venice, Italy in 1894 when she passed away. Although it is not known for certain, the manner of her death would seem to indicate that she died by her own hand. She was 53 years old.

When Henry James heard this news, he was devastated. Asked to help dispose of Woolson’s effects, he had himself rowed out to the depths of a lagoon in order to push her voluminous garments under the water. In The Private Life of Henry James, author Lyndall Gordon describes the scene:

In April 1894, a middle-aged gentleman, bearing a load of dresses, was rowed to the deepest part of the Venetian lagoon. A strange scene followed: he began to drown the dresses, one by one. There were a good many, well-made, tasteful, and all dark, suggesting a lady of quiet habits and some reserve. The gondolier’s pole would have been useful for pushing them under the still water. But the dresses refused to drown. One by one they rose to the surface, their busts and sleeves swelling like black balloons. Purposefully, the gentleman pushed them under, but silent, reproachful, they rose before his eyes.

“….they rose before his eyes.” As a remonstrance, even a rebuke? In an article in The New Republic entitled “Betrayed by Henry James,” author Max Nelson might agree with that assessment.

I was so taken by the life and works of Constance Fenimore Woolson that I went on to read this biography: Concerning her work as a scholar of literature,  the following appears on Anne Boyd Rioux’s  website:

In her teaching and writing, Rioux is passionate about the recovery of 19th-century American women writers who wrote fascinating, sometimes provocative, and often daring works that have been unavailable and unread for generations.

I am deeply grateful to Boyd Rioux for rescuing this worthy artist from obscurity and placing her front and center in the ranks of great American writers. She has every right to be there. And next, I’d like to see more re-issues of her works along the lines of Miss Grief and Other Stories. Meanwhile, Amazon has on offer quite a few of Woolson’s works in e-book format.

Constance Fenimore Woolson 1840-1894

(And one more thing: I’d like to suggest that Professor Boyd Rioux have a look at the life and work of Metta Fuller Victor.)

 

 

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The 2017 year end meeting of the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion group

December 19, 2017 at 4:56 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

I always look forward to the Usual Suspects’ end of year meeting. It’s a time and place where we talk about the books and authors we’ve read during the year, both for group discussion and for individual reading pleasure.

Pauline always sends us material in advance of this meeting. She creates a grid in which the following material about each book appears: title and author, the month that the discussion took place, comments/awards for author, and the name of the discussion leader. Then there is a further breakdown containing information as to setting and time period, type of investigator (e.g. lawyer, detective, private investigator), and finally, sex and nationality of the authors we read. (That last is always interesting and sometimes surprising: in our 2017 discussion year, there were three male authors and seven women. Six of the authors were American, three were British, and one was Canadian.)

Here are the books:

 

 

 

Pauline also provided us with the following discussion questions:

1. Which is the most impressive book? What did you like about this book? What did you dislike about the book?

2. Did you notice anything in particular about the author’s writing style in any of the books? Which is the best-written book? Which has the best-developed characters?

3. What new things did you learn about the world from a particular book and subsequent group discussion? Which book provided the best treatment of a location?

4. Which author(s) would you like to read more of? Is there a particular type of mystery you’d like to read in the future?

5. Which book has the best puzzle?

6. Which book(s) deserve or do not deserve the awards they received?

7. Are there any other books that we should comment on that have been left out of today’s discussion?

Frank added these questions to the mix:

For each of the books please answer, if you can, the following questions:

  1. What did you like about the book?
  2. What did you dislike about the book?
  3. What new things did you learn about the world from the book and/or subsequent group discussion?
  4. What new things did you learn about the art of writing from the book and/or subsequent group discussion?

As usual, we dove with zest into the discussion. Several of us expressed our gratitude for the chance to revisit the works of Tony Hillerman. We appreciated the Washington DC setting of Hagar’s Last Dance; even more so, the setting of Wilde Lake – right here in Columbia! Marge felt that she got a sense of what World War Two was like for Parisians in Murder on the Quai.

I think that we were all impressed by Jade Dragon Mountain, with its setting so remote in time and place and yet so vividly brought to life by author Elsa Hart. Frances reiterated her praise for Louise Penny. It interests me that while Penny’s Three Pines novels are so widely loved by readers – both here and in Penny’s native Canada –  and are so highly praised by reviewers, several members of our group have reservations about them. I’m one of them. Although there have been a number of books in this series that I’ve genuinely enjoyed, I found A Great Reckoning hard going.

Even people who did not for the most part care for Envious Casca agreed that its locked room puzzle was a cunning contrivance. Finally, Frank’s  choice of Michael Connelly’s The Crossing has caused several of us to want more of the same from this distinguished author of American police procedurals set in – where else? –  Southern California.

At this year end meeting, we always vote for our favorite “read” from among that year’s selections. This year’s winner was The Crossing; Dance Hall of the Dead came in second.

As is the custom, we were asked to bring a book to share with the group. If there’s time, you can mention a second title. Here’s how that worked out this year:

Frances: A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock Series) by Sherry Thomas
Frank: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury
Anne M.: The Inheritance by Charles Finch
Roberta: Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City by Kate Winkler Dawson; and Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller
Cheryl: Blood on the Water by Anne Perry
Pauline: My Darling Detective by Howard Norman; Maggie Hope mystery series starting with Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
Marge: The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman; Fatal by John Lescroart
Ann R.: Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adam
Mike: The Chessmen : The Trilogy by Peter May
Louise: Design for Dying by Renee Patrick
Carol: The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Carol has been gently but firmly coaxing us towards declaring our choices for next year. Here’s how that list is currently shaping up:

(The process of choosing your title for the coming year can be tortuous. Sometimes one becomes afflicted with analysis paralysis. You want the book to be enjoyable to read and also to lend itself to a good discussion. Something that’s not too heavy but not too lightweight either. At times, this can seem like a tall order. Then of course it’s a tricky business trying to anticipate the reaction of others to what you’re presenting. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s preferable to pick something that you’re not extremely emotionally attached to. )

I was pleased to see that we’re doing another Erika Foster novel by Robert Bryndza, as I very much enjoyed Girl in the Ice. And after starting with the second book in Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series and reading pretty much every entry thereafter, I’m at last going to get around to reading the first! The Crow Trap I read this summer and loved. It made me into a Vera  Stanhope groupie! And finally I’m pleased and delighted that we’ll be reading a Judith Van Gieson novel. For years, Marge and I have lamented the fact that this fine writer never found a wider audience. We especially like her earlier series featuring Albuquerque lawyer Neil Hamel, but really, any and all of her books are worth reading.

The only problem with this meeting is that I always end up with more titles to add to my must-read list – not exactly what I need, at the moment! But I am genuinely grateful to the Suspects for a year of excellent reading, with more to come. I devour book reviews in magazines and newspapers, but the really memorable reading experiences I have usually come via recommendations from fellow book lovers.

So thank you Suspects for yet another year of fine reading, stimulating conversation, and fast friendship.

 

 

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‘See what a rent the envious Casca made…’ (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)

October 18, 2017 at 7:57 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

To find that his own ill-humour had quenched the gaiety of his guests appeared to afford him considerable gratification.

Thus does Nathaniel Herriard derive smug satisfaction in Envious Casca (1941), Georgette Heyer‘s gleeful send-up of the upper class guests and denizens of Lexham Manor. If he sounds an unpleasant creature, well, that’s more or less on the mark.

The situation is this: Joseph, Nathaniel’s brother, has planned a good old fashioned Christmas celebration  to take place at Lexham Manor. Joseph and his wife Maud also live at the grand establishment, though one does not detect an particular amity between the brothers. In fact, as has already been noted, there’s no particular amity between Nathaniel and anyone else. He’s a solitary curmudgeon, best left to his own devices. But he’s  also heir to Lexham, and thus a wealthy man.

Inevitably , a murder takes place, this muting the gaiety of the  occasion – not that there was much of that in evidence to begin with. (A more mutually ill-suited gathering would be hard to find.) This is a locked room mystery, and a particularly cunning one at that. It’s also a classic country house murder, although perhaps spiked with more venom that is usually present in such scenarios. On the other hand, there’s a most welcome romance that blossoms late in the narrative.

Envious Casca was Ann R.’s choice for the August discussion meeting of the Usual Suspects. Reaction to it was for the most part rather tepid, if not downright negative. I initially had some trouble getting into the novel, but once I did, I really enjoyed it. Heyer’s sparkling wit added greatly to my reading pleasure. There are three other Inspector Hemingway novels; I hope to read another before too long.

Georgette Heyer 1902-1974

 

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Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza: a book discussion

October 14, 2017 at 9:10 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Before Chris G. put this on the reading list for Usual Suspects, I had not heard of this author. I read Girl in the Ice some two months ago and was pleasantly surprised by the experience. I was initially daunted by the novel’s length, but it was such a compelling read that I fairly raced through it. Bryndza writes great dialog; his characters were interesting, if not always likeable; he had an intriguing, if complex tale to tell, and he told it well – or so I thought, at the time, at any rate.

As last Tuesday evening’s discussion progressed, it became clear that others did not share my enthusiasm. Several gaps and inconsistencies  in the plot (not to mention a disappearing subplot) were pointed out. Procedural matters were deemed to be flawed. Frank N. felt that due to the paucity of clues, Girl in the Ice did not play fair with the reader.

But the most glaring criticism was reserved for the main protagonist, DCI Erika Foster. She was described by several Suspects as “over the top” and as a result, not likable. By the time our discussion took place, I was too far removed from my actual reading of the novel to be able to clearly recall the plot issues that were brought up, but I did retain a vivid memory of the character of Erika Foster.

I concede that Foster could be strident and blunt to a fault. But she was also a person of firm convictions and great integrity. Even though she was warned to go “softly, softly” with the victim’s upper class and influential parents, she would not let this deter her in the search for the truth about the death of Andrea Douglas-Brown. Fairly early on, we learn that Erika Foster’s life had been shattered not that long ago by a shooting that was both personally and professionally devastating. (This material is related as back story; Girl in the Ice is the first book in the series.) To my mind, this accounts at least partly for her difficult, rather unyielding persona – a brusque facade  that conceals pain that’s still sharp and deep. For this reader, it made her seem more real.

Erika Foster put me in mind of Helen Mirren’s  brilliantly realized portrayal of DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect.

Robert Bryndza himself comments on this here:

(This has to be one of one of the most  self-effacing, downright endearing  promotional videos I’ve ever seen!)

When I first saw the title The Girl in the Ice, I immediately thought of The Virgin in the Ice, a Brother Cadfael novel by the late, lamented Ellis Peters.

Ellis Peters, with Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael

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The Usual Suspects are currently making their selections for next year’s discussions. Unlike many book discussion groups which rely on consensus to decide on titles, we have each member choose a title to present to  the group. My choice for next year is A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm, one of my favorite historical novels and first in a series that is, for the most part, both meticulously researched and wonderfully entertaining.   It’s always interesting to see what each of the Suspects selects for the coming year. I feel lucky to be a part of this group, where people can express their views openly in an atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship.
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Before I conclude this post, I have to deliver a shout-out for a terrific mystery that I just finished: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. Horowitz has written six episodes of Midsomer Murders; in addition, he created Foyle’s War and wrote twenty-five episodes for that outstanding program. There’s much more.   If there were an Anthony Horowitz fan club, I’d be in it.

There will be more about Magpie Murders in a later post. 

 

 

 

 

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