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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A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny: a book group discussion

September 22, 2017 at 7:10 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Despite the theme of defiled innocence that makes this such a mournful story, the immense  charm of the Gamache series survives in the magical setting and feisty residents of Three Pines, like the cranky old poet Ruth Zardo (“Bile. She’s pure bile”) and Clara Morrow, the dotty artist (“Have you ever seen  a self-portrait where the person didn’t look just a littlw insane?”).

Marilyn Stasio, from her review of The Great Reckoning in The New York Times.

The series is deep and grand and altogether extraordinary.

From Maureen Corrigan’s review in The Washington Post, entitled “There’s a bit of Nancy Drew in Louise Penny’s masterful ‘A Great Reckoning’”

Finally, there’s a video segment that was aired on CBS Sunday Morning in July, on the occasion of the release of The Great Reckoning. In it, Martha Teichner muses, “There should be a name for fans of Louise Penny’s murder mysteries: The L Pack, or the Penny Posse maybe.” She goes on:

To say they come from far and wide in large numbers to attend her book events is no exaggeration. They’ve come all the way to the Canadian town of Knowlton, in the eastern townships of Quebec, where Penny lives, and her books are set.

Indeed, the mass of fans gathered for this particular book signing event is large and impressive.

If you look at her entry on Stop! You’re Killing Me, you’ll see that her books have garnered numerous awards and nominations.

Critics  and reviewers routinely fall all over themselves in the search for superlatives to apply to the novels in this series. And yet….You probably know where this is heading.

Ably led by Mike, Usual Suspects recently discussed A Great Reckoning, and well, our sentiments were decidedly mixed. There was general acknowledgement of Penny’s skill in creating a world and filling it with memorable characters. However, we were not all unduly fond of those same characters. For myself, I find Ruth Zardo, “the old poet” with the foul mouth and the pet duck named Rosa (who goes around making a sound very like ‘cluck cluck’) supremely irritating. It’s hard for me to believe that a person with such a sour disposition and profane vocabulary could also be the author of beautiful verse. (Yes, I know there was Lord Byron and Dylan Thomas – but even so….) Myrna the bookstore owner is pleasant enough, but I wonder why Penny does not invest her with more of a love and knowledge of literature.

Not having read in this series since the first novel, Still Life, Marge was immediately made aware of a great deal of back story that was alluded to but not elaborated upon. A Great Reckoning is the twelfth novel in the series, and I can well imagine feeling quite lost of you haven’t been reading at least some of the more recent series entries.

And then there’s Armand Gamache, recently retired Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec. Marge felt that as  the book’s plot got under way, his virtuousness and uprightness were stressed ad nauseum. Others among us felt that his nearly flawless goodness was at times hard to believe in and tended to make him seem somewhat two dimensional.

It was somewhere around this point in the discussion that Frances weighed in with a lengthy and entirely eloquent plea in favor of Gamache in particular and this novel in general. My notes on her remarks are rather hasty and fragmented – I wish I could have recorded them so as to have a verbatim record of her spirited disquisition, which was both an analysis and a defense. A Great Reckoning, she averred, was in the nature of a hero’s quest, a journey through difficulties and dangers that at last arrives at a place of peace and enlightenment where, importantly, justice is served. The plot’s structure was elegantly wrought, in her judgment. She likened  the nove to a morality play. (At least, I have that phrase scribbled in my notebook!) We begin in confusion and end in clarity.

Up until the occasion of this discussion, Frances had been absent from our gatherings for quite a while.  By the time she had concluded her incisive and insightful remarks, I was reminded of her keen intellect which, combined with a compassionate heart, serves to make her so valuable as both an interlocutor and a  friend.

Even after Frances vibrantly championed A Great Reckoning, there remained dissenters among us. For the most part, we did not agree with her about the novel’s structure. The plot has numerous threads that were a challenge to untangle; moreover, there is a dauntingly large cast of characters. It was hard to keep all of this straight. It was all over the map.

And maps, as it happens, are a key element in this story. A hundred year old map of Three Pines and the surrounding area is found concealed within the walls of the building that now serves as the village bistro. This map has some very curious features and obviously cries out for investigation. This process is the springboard for much of what subsequently unfolds in the novel’s plot.

Meanwhile, several faithful readers have tried their hands at more conventional re-creations of Three Pines, to wit:

Then there is the matter of Louise Penny’s prose style. It is definitely distinctive. For some readers, it is brimful of charm and a kind of eccentric beauty. For others, not so much. In our group, Pauline found it pretentious. I described it as highly idiosyncratic. Marge said that it simply did not work for her.

It’s my feeling that the style of a written work should serve as a vehicle for the story. This does not mean that it can’t possess a lyrical quality, but it does mean that it shouldn’t call it attention to itself at the expense of that story.

I fear that this write-up is coming across as overly negative. Certainly Louise Penny has created a body of work that resonates powerfully for many people. I think we all felt that she seems to be a lovely person, kind and generous. Recently widowed, she has had to fight through the pain to continue her work. Undoubtedly the devotion of her many readers has been a great help in that effort.

Louise Penny

Of the thirteen novels in this series, I’ve red eight. My favorite is without doubt Bury Your Dead. That book made me want to board a flight to Quebec City tout de suite!

This was a terrific discussion. I was reminded once again of what a pleasure it is to be among lovers of our wonderful crime fiction genre who are both great “discussers” and wonderful people.

 

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“‘The way it’s told,…they’re invisible. But you can see them if you’re about to die.'” – Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman

July 19, 2017 at 2:42 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

On Tuesday of last week, Cheryl, one of the newer members of the Usual Suspects, did our group a very big favor. She selected, for our discussion and reading pleasure, Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman.

And what a pleasure it was to revisit the work of this master storyteller, with his unpretentious style, evocative setting, and intriguing characters. Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) is the second entry in the Joe Leaphorn series; in the fourth, People of Darkness (1980), Hillerman introduces the younger officer, Jim Chee. Leaphorn and Chee are paired as investigators for the first time in Skinwalkers (1986). It was to prove a winning direction in which to take the series.

In Dance Hall of the Dead, the investigation begins with the disappearance of two adolescent boys, Ernesto Cata and George Bowlegs. Ernesto is a Zuni; George is Navajo. They are fast friends are nearly always seen together. Ernesto goes missing first; then George, who flees from his school classroom the following day. The boys had recently been hanging around at an archeological dig in progress nearby

George envied his friend’s Zuni identity and wished to become part of his tribe. He was also said to be embroiled with a kachina, the sight of which supposedly portends death for the uninitiated. In the early part of the novel, Leaphorn himself is unnerved one night by an unanticipated sighting of what seems to be one of these same spirit beings. This occurs when he thinks he spots a youth who’d been part of a group of hippies living in an abandoned hogan:

Was this him standing so silently under  the arbor? But why would he stand there in the icy moonlight? And how had he got there without Leaphorn seeing him? As he considered this, the figure moved. With birdlike swiftness it darted out of the arbor to the side of the hogan, disappearing into  the shadow. It crouched, pressed against the logs….And then the figure straightened, its head moving upward into  the slanting moonlight. Leaphorn sucked in his breath. The head was a bird’s. Round, jaylike feathers plumes thrusting backward, a long, narrow sandpiper’s beak, a bristling ruff of feathers where  the human neck would be. The head was round. As it turned away from profile, Leaphorn saw round eyes ringed with yellow against the black. He was seeing the staring., expressionless face of a kachina. Leaphorn felt the hairs bristling at the back of his neck.

As do I, reading this mesmerizing passage, and as I did when I first read Dance Hall of the Dead over twenty years ago.

Kachina dolls in the Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ

Carol said that she’d forgotten what a wonderful writer Hillerman was. She’s right: there’s more  beautiful prose where the above came from.

Tony Hillerman was born in Oklahoma in 1925. He served with distinction in the Second World War, after which he became a journalist.

When he had returned home on convalescent leave from the Army he came upon a group of Navajos on horseback and in face paint and feathers in Crownpoint, New Mexico They were holding a Navajo Enemy Way ceremony, a curing ritual for a soldier just like himself just back from the war. The ritual exorcises all traces of the enemy from those returning from battle.

He was moved by the ceremony and by the Navajos — “I’m drawn to people who believe in something enough that their lives are affected by it” — and stirred by the vastness of the country to the extent that he resolved to live there.

From the New York Times obituary, 2008.

Hillerman’s experience of encountering the Enemy Way ceremony was key in leading him to write The Blessing Way (1970), first in what became the Leaphorn and Chee series centered on the Navajo Tribal Police. The rest, as  they say, is history.

Several of us long time Hillerman fans agreed that his work is still relevant and deserving of a wide readership. Marge reminded us of another author we’ve read whose work treats with empathy the subject of Native Americans. This is William Kent Krueger, who sets his mysteries in the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota. The tribe about which he writes is the Ojibwe. I’d like to add to that Vidar Sundstol’s The Land of Dreams, a vivid evocation of that same region and its mix of inhabitants.

We did have a  few minor reservation about Dance Hall of the Dead. For a relatively short novel – the current Harper paperback edition runs to 240 pages – there are numerous characters to keep track of. I found that to be especially true of the law enforcement professionals from various agencies who are engaged on the case.Marge felt that the description of the archeologists’ activities and goals became tedious, whereas I found the narration of the Zuni Pueblo religious and ceremonial rites to be similarly over long. Both passages slowed the pace of the narrative almost to a halt.

Yet we all felt that these were minor cavils that were more than made up  for by the privilege of spending time with these intriguing individuals as they go about their business in the exotic landscape they call home. I’d like to add here that I initially revisited this novel through the audiobook narration by George Guidall. I cannot recommend this approach to these novels highly enough; Guidall has a marvelous feel for these characters and places.

Hillerman’s novels were largely responsible for my trips in the 1990s to New Mexico and Arizona. If anything, the vivid immediacy of those experiences exceeded their written description. You have to feel the air, smell the pinon…it really is amazing. New Mexico, “Land of Enchantment” –  rarely has an entity lived up so completely to its sobriquet.

(Judith Van Giesen‘s Neil Hamel novels, written in the 1990s and set in Albuquerque, produced a  similar effect. This is a series that Marge and I were both very fond of, but it never received its due from the mystery-reading public. I tend to blame this sort of failure on weak publisher support – if any.)

Beginning with the publication of Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013, Tony and Marie Hillerman’s daughter Anne Hillerman has been continuing the Navajo series begun by her unassuming yet illustrious father. I’ve not ready up until now, but I hope that will change soon.

Anthony Grove Hillerman May 27, 1925-October 26, 2008

 

 

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The Crossing by Michael Connelly: a book discussion

June 15, 2017 at 12:55 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

  Last night, Frank took the discussion of a specific book – Michael Connelly’s The Crossing – and broadened it until it was about mystery fiction in general: its chief characteristics, what makes it work, why we love it.

An aspiring author himself, Frank tends to approach book discussions from a writer’s point of view. His kickoff question concerned a crucial  aspect of narrative: the Major Dramatic Question. The MDQ, as it’s sometimes called for the sake of brevity, is the story element that initially hooks the reader and keeps him or her committed right through to the book’s end. The hunger for the answer to that question is the chief generator of suspense.

Frank asked us what that question traditionally is in a romance novel. We had no trouble with that one: Will the guy get the girl (or vice versa). With crime novels, the question is more often specific to the situation posited by the author. In The Crossing, we learn early on that defense attorney Micky Haller, Harry Bosch‘s half-brother, needs the help of an experienced investigator to prove his client’s innocence. He appeals to Harry to take on the job.

Will Harry accede to Mickey’s request? He has plenty of reasons not to. He’s retired from the Homicide Division of the Los Angeles PD, utilizing his newly freed up time to restore a vintage motorcycle. More importantly, he’s concentrating on his relationship with his daughter Maddie, soon to go off to college.

There’s yet another reason to refuse this request, and it has to do with Harry’s identification as a law enforcement professional. Among his cadre of fellow police, it is considered traitorous to work in any capacity for a legal defense team. It is tantamount to going over to the dark side. This is the prevailing perception, even when there are indications that the defendant in question is innocent. Harry’s internal struggle with this dilemma is the chief element that propels the story forward right from the beginning.

Frank also brought up the concept of the sympathetic character. How does an author create such a character, and what’s the advantage of having him or her having a part in the narrative? We responded that a sympathetic character is one that you feel a bond with and whose values you as a reader can identify with. You become invested in that person’s fate, and so you feel compelled to stick with the story.

We Suspects were not in complete agreement as to whether there was such a character in Connelly’s novel. The closest we came to one was Bosch’s daughter Maddie.

Frank also brought up  ‘free indirect style’ or ‘free indirect discourse.’ As best as I can make out, this term refers to instances in which the author describes a character’s inner thoughts and/or feelings while continuing to tell the story in the third person. Wikipedia calls it ‘free indirect speech’ and defines it as “a style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech.”

Harking back to my English major instruction in literary terminology, I recall this mode of writing being called ‘third person limited,’ as opposed to ‘third person omniscient.’ All of this comes under the rubric  ‘point of view,’ as explained here:

Point of view: the perspective from which the story is told.

The most obvious point of view is probably first person or “I.”
The omniscient narrator knows everything, may reveal the motivations, thoughts and feelings of the characters, and gives the reader information.
With a limited omniscient narrator, the material is presented from the point of view of a character, in third person.
The objective point of view presents the action and the characters’ speech, without comment or emotion. The reader has to interpret them and uncover their meaning.

Taken from “Literary Terms,”  a very helpful list on the Brooklyn College site

(I recall first learning of the way in which Henry James made brilliant use of  the limited omniscient narrator. Since my college days, I’ve had numerous occasions to observe with wonder as the master plies his trade, both in full length novels and  short stories.)

Commenting that to him, The Crossing seems more of a thriller than a murder mystery, Frank pointed out the element of banter that one encounters in the novel’s dialog. This is just one way of keeping the plot moving briskly. I was immediately put in mind of  Old Bones, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s latest Bill Slider procedural. Harrod-Eagles makes liberal use of banter; it ricochets among members of Slider’s team and veers from laugh out loud funny to insightful and reflective.

Several of us recalled fondly how well Robert B Parker deployed this technique of dialog construction in the Spenser novels. (Has it actually been seven years? You are still much missed, Mr Parker.)

The Harry Bosch novels are  set in greater Los Angeles, and Connelly displays a nice feel for the region. I wondered aloud at how Southern California has been used repeatedly and effectively in crime fiction by Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanlety Gardner, Ross MacDonald, Sue Grafton, James Ellroy, and Connelly, among others. Someone suggested that the presence of the entertainment industry might have something to do with this phenomenon. Frank oberved that whereas films require the viewer’s unwavering attention for some two hours, the novel reader may stop at any point and take time to reflect on what has taken place, and what may follow. (I don’t believe  that any of us present last night had watched any episodes of Amazon’s Bosch series. I listened to this novel narrated by Titus Welliver, who plays the title role in the TV series. He does an excellent job.)

Ross MacDonald’s take on the City of Angels  and its environs can be pretty devastating:

MacDonald’s depiction of mid-twentieth century southern California as a land of material riches and moral and spiritual bankruptcy has rarely been equaled. His mix of noir cynicism with an empathetic view of human vulnerability makes for a strangely heartbreaking reading experience.

(Penned by Yours Truly, in a letter to the Washington Post)

We talked about the way in which mysteries are often, at least in part, about a hero’s journey: from innocence to experience, ignorance to knowledge, naivete to a kind of knowingness that will make it possible for him or her to survive in an often hostile word. At some point, Frank mentioned – or someone else did – that in the course of the narrative, the protagonist ought to change in some way. And yet, in crime fiction, that often does not happen, at least not in an overt manner, especially if you’re reading about a character in a series. In fact, some of us don’t want that protagonist to change. (Please stay just as you are, noble Commissario Brunetti!)

Frank had each of us weigh in on what we liked or didn’t like about the book. I mentioned the two elements of a novel that I consider supremely important: structural excellence and good writing. He challenged me to define what I meant by ‘structure.’ This made me realize that I have to think and read some more about this subject! I do think that The Crossing was structured in an unusual and very effective way. For me. this element of the narrative ratcheted up the suspense a great deal. As for the writing, I thought it was extremely good. Connelly is not trying to compose a literary masterpiece, but rather heart stopping thriller. In this, he succeeded.

(Here’s an illuminating piece on story structure in Writer’s Digest Magazine.)

Toward the conclusion of this extremely invigorating exchange of ideas, I found myself scribbling fragments in my notebook: life is a mystery…shades of gray…intellectual morality plays…start with confusion and end with clarity…ambiguity…legal response…justice?

In a subsequent email, Pauline used the word ‘erudite’ to describe our discussion. She further complimented Frank on his “unique and creative approach” to the material.

I wholeheartedly agree.

 

 

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The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale: a book discussion

April 13, 2017 at 11:51 pm (Book clubs, books, True crime)

 I experienced the usual angst in preparing to lead a discussion of  The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale. Well, perhaps more than the usual angst.

I sang the praises of this book in a post I wrote last year. I’ve recently reread it –  the book I mean, not the post –  and the effect was the same as it was the first time: riveting and  deeply unsettling.

But because of the upcoming discussion, I was having a slightly different reading experience. (This is rather inevitable.) In addition to my admiration for the author’s terrific writing and prodigious research, I was feeling perplexed. Just how was I to organize this brilliant but somewhat oddly shaped narrative?

I struggled. I wrangled. Eventually I reached the point where, as my husband is fond of saying. you stick a fork in it and pronounce it done. I reached that point about an hour before show time.

So: Here, in part, is how it went:

I began with a passage from the Stratford Express, a local newspaper  widely read at the time that the crime took place (1895). The reporter, as you will see, does not mince words, referring to the murder as “…the most horrible, the most awful and revolting crime that we have ever been called upon to record.” It goes on:

In the wildest dreams of fiction, nothing has ever  been depicted which equals in loathsomeness this story of sons playing at cards in a room which the dead body of their murdered mother filled with the stench of corruption.

Upon my second reading of The Wicked Boy, this passage put me in mind of a work which, although written more than four hundred years ago, remains probably the most harrowing depiction of the effect of murder upon the perpetrators that was ever recorded.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
It is Act Two, Scene One of Macbeth, in which the eponymous protagonist anticipates the terrible crime he is about to commit.

And afterwards, oh, afterwards…He tells Lady Macbeth that the deed is done. He is nearly incoherent from the horror of it. For some moments, the known world is held in some kind of awful suspension, until a knocking at the gate is heard, a knocking that perversely prefigures a scene of comic relief featuring a porter too drunk to do his job.Thomas De Quincey describes  this unholy sequence of events brilliantly in his essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth:”

Here … the retiring of the human heart and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires…. In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers, and the murder, must be insulated—cut off by an immeasurable gulph from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs—locked up and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested—laid asleep—tranced—racked into a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the reestablishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.

This critique is followed by an apostrophe to the greatness of Shakespeare that begins, “O, mighty poet!” Indeed, but be assured, Mr. De Quincey, thou art no slouch thyself in the eloquence department!

(I am at present reading a fascinating biography of Thomas De Quincey: The Opium Eater, by Grevel Lindop.)

After giving a brief backgrounder on Kate Summerscale – necessarily brief, as  there’s not much material about her personal life out there, at least not that I could find – I focused on the three books she authored before The Wicked Boy:

I’ve not read The Queen of Whale Cay, but it sounds interesting. “Joe” Carstairs was apparently a rather unique character, in more than one way. I read and very much enjoyed Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Neither of these two works was in the true crime genre, but The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher certainly was. I led a discussion on that title back in 2009. What a rich concoction of a tale that is! It was Summerscale’s breakthrough book, winning the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. (This has since been renamed The Baillie Gifford Prize. Presumably the British penchant for renaming literary awards is meant to keep us book lovers awake and alert.) In 2010, she was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (which appears to retain that name as of this writing.)

All Summerscale’s books save the first one take place – or, as in the case of The Wicked Boy, have their beginnings – in the Victorian era. In an interview in the Independent, quoted in the September/October 2016 issue of Bookmarks Magazine, she enlarges on her attraction to that particular time in history:

…it feels far enough away to be gripping, like a mystery or an adventure, but near enough to also recognise…..It’s strange on the surface, but you can get it. My sense of what we’re like as English people–the idea of the Englishness I inhabit–I have a sense of it being forged [then].

The subject matter of The Wicked Boy is grim enough. The murdered mother alluded to in the quote at the beginning of this post was done to  death by her own son. His name was Robert Coombes. At the time of the murder he was thirteen years old. What made the crime appear even more appalling – then as now – was the fact that once it had been done, Robert, his twelve-year-old brother Nattie, and a somewhat simple minded  adult companion named John Fox, whom Robert recruited for various purposes, not only played cards, but also attended cricket matches and amused themselves in various other ways as if they hadn’t a care in the world. (Their father, a merchant seaman, was away from home.)

What was their ultimate plan? There didn’t seem to be one, except to make the most of this hard won freedom for as long as they could. In ten days, the gig was up. When asked, Robert came clean and took the rap.

An even more pressing question involved Robert’s motive. Although he readily admitted to stabbing his mother, he didn’t supply a motive that seemed commensurate with the crime. Their mother thrashed Nattie for stealing food, presumably from their own larder. Adolescent boys develop powerful appetites, and Emily Coombes might not have been making allowances for this. At least one reviewer I encountered felt that this denial of needed nourishment might have been enough to trigger the killing. Neither of the boys was undernourished, though it’s worth noting that neither attained much height in adulthood. Nattie in particular was not much more than five feet tall.

One theory frequently offered was that Robert had fallen prey to the malign influence exerted by the so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’ that he read compulsively. As defined by Wikipedia, these were “cheap popular serial literature produced during the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom.” (America had its own similarly flourishing industry; they were called “dime novels” here.) Summerscale provides an interesting context for this phenomenon:

Between 1870 and 1885, the number of children at elementary schools trebled, and by 1892 four and a half million children were being educated in the board schools. The new wave of literate boys sought out penny fiction as a diversion from the rote-learning and drill of the school curriculum….Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.

Sound familiar? A reviewer in The Guardian called penny dreadfuls “the Victorian equivalent of video games.”

I went off on a lengthy quest to find one of these, or at least a facsimile thereof. This American equivalent, published in 1903, is what I finally came up with, courtesy of eBay:

 Front and back covers

 

Inside front cover

Proclaiming the entries in this series to be “excellent books of generous length,” the editor goes on to offer this assurance: “One of the best features about these books is that they are all of the highest moral tone, containing nothing that could be objectionable to the most particular parents.”

Our group went on to discuss the types of emotional and mental disturbances that might have affected Robert. (Thank you, Frank, for your enlightening and professionally informed comments on this subject.) Ultimately Robert was adjudged guilty but insane. John Fox was not made to  stand trial. Nattie testified against his brother – he was “flipped,” as they in contemporary police dramas – and was granted immunity.

And Robert was sent off to a rather extraordinary institution called Broadmoor, originally opened in 1863. Under the enlightened regime in place there, he reached a more or less normal and potentially productive adulthood. He learned a marketable skill – tailoring, played in the band, something he loved to do and was good at, and participated in various sports.

In 1912, at age 30, he was released from Broadmoor and went to live at another interesting residential facility, The Salvation Army Farm Colony at Hadleigh, in Essex. Both Broadmoor and the Salvation Army facility are still in existence. The latter, in fact, has been repurposed  in a way that truly give one hope for the future.

Robert only stayed a year at the Hadleigh colony before emigrating to Australia. At that point in Kate Summerscale’s research, she nearly lost the plot. She was afraid that Robert Coombes might have changed his name. He hadn’t. She  picked up the thread once again when a Google search led her to a database of headstones in Australian cemeteries. Click here for the listing. And here is the inscribed memorial:

So: there was a record of Robert’s military service; in addition, an unknown name of one for whom he had apparently done a good turn. She could pick up her research from that point. And she did. Robert’s life in Australia – including Army service in foreign parts on behalf of his adopted country – occupies the second half of The Wicked Boy. It is a virtually unbroken chronicle of courage, sacrifice, and generosity, freely offered with no expectation of any kind of return.

And so, at the end of this sad and tragic narrative, one question looms over all. At first, I phrased the query in terms of atonement or redemption. Frank however felt that the real question was whether, over the course of his life, Robert Coombes had changed in a fundamental way. But that begs the question as to what exactly was the make-up of his nature on that fateful day in 1895?  And anyway,  a 13-year-old is a half formed thing. Anyone would change from that point in time up until he or she reached adulthood. Of course, most 13-year-olds, whatever the conflicts with their parents, do not up and kill one of them out of spite, frustration – or whatever it was. Was there a deadness in Robert’s heart where at least some degree of regard for his mother should have reposed? Frank thought there was.

One of the things that those attempting to adjudicate Robert’s case had to grapple with was the fact that at the time he committed the crime, he was no longer really a child but not yet an adult. The identification of adolescence as a distinct stage of development was only just then gaining acceptance in the literature of psychology and child rearing. (Wikipedia has an interesting post on the subject.)

In talking this over with my husband, he pointed out that a person who atones or genuinely repents a past act has by definition changed from what he or she was when the act was first committed.

At any rate, in this case of Robert Coombes, these questions must remain at least to some extent speculative. Summerscale not only did not unearth a journal or diary of any kind, she did not even find any letters. We can only judge him by his outward actions. And in his adult life, those belonged to a human being who was almost desperately striving toward goodness.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly. Kate Summerscale was asked whether she was concerned about being pigeonholed as a true crime writer. This was her response:

No. I think it’s a fascinating genre. True crime is ethically kind of precarious, often uncomfortably close to voyeurism, prurience, a fascination with violence, transgression, and pain—but it can examine the dark traits that it panders to, and for just this reason it has an unusual capacity to engage with questions about psychology, cruelty, culpability, emotional disturbance, damage, injustice, restitution, fear, pity, grief.

The Wicked Boy has been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime Book of 2017 by the Mystery Writers of America. Winners will be announced later this month.

Robert Coombes in the late 1930s or early 1940s

 

 

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The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith: a book discussion

September 17, 2016 at 5:13 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

sunday-philosophy  An especially interesting aspect of the recent Usual Suspects discussion of The Sunday Philosophy Club centered on Isabel Dalhousie’s character. To sum up the various opinions on offer:

She seems like someone in her sixties, not in her early forties, as she’s purported to be. (Actually I get this observation. In my post on The Careful Use of Compliments, I said that I envision Isabel as a model for a dress of the mid-twentieth century. Here’s the image I selected:  shirtwaist2 )

She keeps “bumping into herself” (love that locution!), trying to use reason to understand and control feelings, an effort that’s pretty much doomed to fail.

She’s judgmental. (I probably didn’t mind this characteristic because her judgments so often agree with mine.)

She’s pretentious and/or arrogant (two adjectives which I would not myself have thought to apply to her, so I was interested to learn that others found them apt, in the circumstances.)

Ann felt impatient with Isabel’s philosophizing; she felt that it got in the way of the plot. Others among us felt that the philosophical questions deeply enriched the novel.

In this passage, Isabel considers the importance of good manners:

It was so easy dealing with people who were well-mannered…. They knew how to exchange those courtesies which made life go smoothly, which was what manners were all about. They were intended to avoid friction between people, and they did this by regulating the contours of an encounter. If each party knew what the other should do, then conflict would be unlikely. And this worked at every level, from the most minor transaction between two people to dealings between nations. International law, after all, was simply a system of manners writ large.

How utterly shortsighted we had been to listen to those who thought that manners were a bourgeois affectation, an irrelevance, which need no longer be valued. A moral disaster had ensued, because manners were the basic building block of civil society. They were the method of transmitting the message of moral consideration. In this way an entire generation had lost a vital piece of the moral jigsaw, and now we saw the results: a society in which nobody would help, nobody would feel for others; a society in which aggressive language and insensitivity were the norm.

Our group more or less agreed with these sentiments. Yet Isabel admits that even thinking about such a thing makes her feel old.

We spent some time on the subject of judgment and the judging of others. Was Isabel, in fact, any more judgmental than most people? The reader spends a great deal of time inside Isabel’s head, as it were. She forms strong opinions in that confined space – don’t most of us do the same? – but does she act on them, or even speak them aloud, except in specific circumstances?

Isabel’s back story is crucial to an understanding of how she lives the life that we witness unfolding in The Sunday Philosophy Club. Her father was Scottish; her mother, American. Isabel herself has spent relatively little time in the U.S. (She makes frequent reference to “my sainted American mother,” an appellation whose origin is not clear, at least not to me.) She holds a doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University; we may take it as a given that she’s a intensely intellectual person.

As with many intellectuals, Isabel could also be passionate and impulsive. She was especially so in her youth, when such emotions are not uncommon. At Cambridge, she fell in love with John Liamor, an Irishman who seems to have had a high opinion of himself. Isabel married him and in short order was betrayed and deserted by him. The anguish caused by this episode has left a deep scar. It may be partly responsible for her seeming to be older than she actually is. Although she has numerous friends and associates in Edinburgh, she seems to have deliberately walled herself off from any intimacy that could cause her further pain. In this novel, however, we perceive her emerging, however tentatively, from this self-imposed isolation.

(We Suspects grappled with the question of whether Isabel still had feelings for John Liamor, and if so, what those feelings consisted of. Might she still even be in love with him? We reached no definite conclusion. McCall Smith is somewhat evasive on the question.)

Isabel’s tendency to involve herself in the affairs of others springs from several sources. She’s a naturally curious individual, and people excite that curiosity more than anything else. She wants to understand their motivations, their perception of the rightness and wrongness of their actions. (This is undoubtedly a large part of what impelled her to take up the study of moral philosophy, which has culminated in her becoming the editor of a small, specialized and highly respected journal, The Review of Applied Ethics.)

Also, she feels bound by the concept of moral proximity, which dictates that if you have a degree of closeness to another person, and that person is in some sort of trouble, then you are morally obliged to render aid in any way you can. This is one of the ways in which she justifies what others might term just plain nosiness, or even unwarranted interference in matters which are none of her concern.

But in the case of Mark Fraser, a young man who fatally falls “from the gods” – the British term for a theater’s upper balcony – Isabel feels obliged to look into the cause of his untimely demise. She had been at the concert where this terrible event occurred. She had witnessed the fall. There were some in our group who considered the ensuing mystery to be rather thin. I would concede that Isabel’s investigation does at times seem crowded out by other aspects of the novel. This is particularly true of her relationship with her niece Cat, a somewhat flighty young woman who runs a delicatessen not far from Isabel’s house. Cat runs through boyfriends at a pretty good clip. Jamie, one of her discarded lovers, has become a close friend of Isabel’s – and might be in the process of becoming more than a friend, even though he is still, to some extent, pining for Cat.

Spoiler Alert

In the course of the novel, Isabel does solve the mystery of Mark Fraser’s death. His fatal fall was inadvertently precipitated by a disagreement that turned physical. When she has elicited a confession from the responsible party, Isabel proceeds to offer him absolution. This information, in other words, will go no further – certainly not as far as a revelation to law enforcement. Upon finishing the book, my immediate thought was, what right does she have to do this? The question came up in our group and prompted a discussion of who among the fictional crime solvers that we know of have done likewise? Agatha Christie was mentioned, as was Conan Doyle in certain of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

(As it happens, my husband and I recently watched one of the early Poirot films “The King of Clubs,” in which the famed Belgian sleuth and the loyal Captain Hastings agree to suppress the truth concerning an accidental death. I haven’t yet had the chance to read  the short story that serves as the basis for this film, in order to see if this is a faithful recounting of the original text.)

Most members of our group had not read any further in the Isabel Dalhousie series. Frances and I, on the other hand, were faithful followers, and had read all of them. When queried as to whether there was a “character arc” where Isabel was concerned – does she, in other words, change as the novels progress – we responded in the affirmative, declining to reveal any more. I will say this much: having read the latest entry, The Novel Habit of Happiness, earlier this year, I was struck by how sad and solitary Isabel’s life seems at the beginning of this series, and how increasingly rich and full it becomes as the series goes forward. Small wonder that she becomes, in some ways at least, a changed woman!

End of Spoiler Alert

Our discussion touched briefly on Isabel’s wealth, the result of an inheritance from her mother. She lives in what seems to be a large and gracious abode in a good section of Edinburgh. She has the full time services of a housekeeper named Grace, also inherited, this time from her late father. (One might wonder how Grace keeps occupied, looking after a house inhabited by a sole adult. As it happens, she and Isabel spend a  fair amount of time chatting to each other about various  subjects of interest to them both.) Isabel is generous with money but also discreet.

Our discussion was skillfully led by Chris, who also graciously offered her premises for our meeting. In her follow-up email, Carol had this to say: “Although we did not all agree, we had a friendly and interesting exchange of observations and opinions.”

 She’s exactly right. It was a most stimulating, thoroughly enjoyable discussion. There was plenty of scope for differing views, which is what you want in such a setting. It was conducted in the spirit of enlightened inquiry. Well done, Suspects!
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Just a brief, personal and completely subjective word on this book in particular, and the series in general. Alexander McCall Smith simply amazes me with his ability to penetrate to the heart and soul of this woman. (Of course he does likewise with Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi the No.1 Ladies Detective series.) His writing  is marvelous, and rises to the poetic when he’s describing his  beloved Edinburgh:

Although it was a pleasant spring evening, a stiff breeze had arisen and the clouds were scudding energetically across the sky, towards Norway. This was a northern light, the light of a city that belonged as much to the great, steely plains of the North Sea as it did to the soft hills of its hinterland. This was not Glasgow, with its soft, western light, and its proximity to Ireland and to the Gaeldom of the Highlands. This was a townscape raised in the teeth of cold winds from the east; a city of winding cobbled streets and haughty pillars; a city of dark nights and candlelight, and intellect.

I first read The Sunday Philosophy Club when it came out in 2004. I revisited it this time by listening to Davina Porter’s reading on audiobook. It is superb. The Scottish lilt that she commands is irresistible. I was so enraptured that I proceeded immediately to the second title in the series, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate. I was unable to get this one on audio, so I read it the old fashioned way. It was the only book in the series that I had somehow previously missed. If anything, it is even better that The Sunday Philosophy Club. It, too, would be great for a book discussion.

For his felicitous prose, vivid imagination, and sly wit – don’t miss The Dog Who Came In from the Cold,  featuring my favorite fictional canine, Freddie de la Hay – – I salute this author. He is one of my absolute favorites – brilliant!

Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith

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I just have to share this serendipitous discovery with all my book loving friends: In the process of researching the phrase “the gods in theatrical parlance,” I came upon a Google Books result that truly stunned me: a facsimile of an 1867 edition of All the Year Round, a weekly magazine put out by Charles Dickens. I knew about this journal but had never thought to actually lay eyes upon it, albeit digitally speaking.

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