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, sensibleTo feeling as to sight? or art thou butA dagger of the mind, a false creation,Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
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!
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:
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.
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: )
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.
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.”
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!
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.
At one point in his book The Golden Age of Murder, after naming several of the outstanding male authors of the period, Martin Edwards poses this question:
One of the mysteries of the Golden Age is – why have they been airbrushed out of its history so completely that it is often seen as the exclusive territory of the ‘Queens of Crime’?
In actuality, the aforementioned ‘Queens’ – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham, with the somewhat later Josephine Tey often thrown into the mix for good measure – not only crowded out a large number of male writers by dint of their sheer brilliance, but also a fair number of other women writers as well. One of those in this latter group was Ethel Lina White.
White’s story “Cheese” was the final selection from Capital Crimes to be considered by the Usual Suspects at last Tuesday’s discussion. The framework for this story is so elegantly – and eloquently – set forth that I’m going to quote it in its entirety:
This story begins with a murder. It ends with a mouse-trap.
The murder can be disposed of in a paragraph. An attractive girl, carefully reared and educated for a future which held only a twisted throat. At the end of seven months, an unsolved mystery and a reward of £ 500.
It is a long way from a murder to a mouse-trap— and one with no finger-posts; but the police knew every inch of the way. In spite of a prestige punctured by the press and public, they had solved the identity of the killer. There remained the problem of tracking this wary and treacherous rodent from his unknown sewer in the underworld into their trap.
They failed repeatedly for lack of the right bait.
And unexpectedly, one spring evening, the bait turned up in the person of a young girl.
The principal dramatis personae in this tight, suspenseful little drama:
Jenny Morgan, freshly arrived from the blooming English countryside, eagerly seeking her fortune – quite literally, as she’s in dire need of funds.
Inspector Angus Duncan, “…a red-haired Scot, handsome in a dour fashion, with the chin of a prize-fighter and keen blue eyes.” (Please excuse all the direct quotes; I do love White’s writing.)
Jenny may be keen, but she’s also cautious. She’s received a letter detailing a job offer as a traveling companion and secretary to an elderly lady, but the instructions she’s been given concerning the initial interview for the position have made her uneasy. A friend connected with the police has advised her to seek their counsel. She goes, describes her situation, and asks for their advice – more specifically, for Angus Duncan’s advice, as he is the detective who has caught the case.
(Oh – and watching all this is a Great Dane, resting placidly by the office fireplace. Jenny longs to go over pet him, but she lacks the nerve to move from her chair. Trust me; this is an important detail.)
Inspector Duncan says he needs to have this letter checked out by an expert. Can he take it for that purpose, and will she please come back the next day?
Jenny says yes.
It turns out that by answering just such a summons, the hapless young victim alluded to in the passage quoted above met her tragic fate. As is also stated in that passage, the identity of the perpetrator is known; his whereabouts are not. What’s needed is bait with which to lure this rat out of hiding. As Angus Duncan stares across his desk at Jenny Morgan, a plan, plain as day, reveals itself to him.
He asks Jenny if she’d be willing to help the police capture the malefactor. True, she’ll need to summon her courage, but she need not be too concerned: She will be surreptitiously watched over and guarded every step of the way. Oh – and she will earn a reward: five hundred pounds!
Once again, Jenny says yes.
What happens next is – well, I won’t give away any more. As Frank would say, White summons a plot device into being that the reader has no trouble buying into and that generates edge-of-the-seat suspense. Finally, added to the mix is the beginning of a romance, always a welcome development in a mystery story.
Ethel Lina White was born in Abergavenny, Wales, in 1887. Upon moving to London, she took a job with the Ministry of Pensions. Eventually she left that employment in order to devote herself to writing full time. During the 1920s and 1930s, she was both prolific and popular. Although not as well known these days, she’s still remembered for two novels which were made into successful motion pictures: The Wheel Spins, filmed in 1938 by Alfred Hitchcock and retitled The Lady Vanishes, and Some Must Watch, which was released in 1946 as The Spiral Staircase and directed by Robert Siodmak. (The Lady Vanishes was remade for theatrical release in 1979 and for television in 2013. The Spiral Staircase was remade for theatrical release in 1975 and for television in 2000.)
In his introduction to “Cheese,” Martin Edwards states:
White’s speciality was ‘woman in jeopardy’ suspense fiction, and her ability to evoke a mood of mounting fear has seldom been matched.
The ‘woman in jeopardy’ trope was, of course, one of the keys to the effectiveness of “Cheese.” White deploys it on a larger canvas and with great success in The Wheel Spins, a novel I recommend with great enthusiasm. (Some Must Watch is high up on my to-read list, but as is the way with such lists, one makes no promises.)
Very little is known of Ethel Lina White’s personal life – witness the sketchiness of the Wikipedia entry. (It’s interesting how is frequently this is the case with women writers of that era who have never married or had children. One thinks of Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey, although a new biography of the latter by Jennifer Morag Henderson is said to have unearthed some new information about that famously elusive author.) The lengthiest research I found on White is in the Gale database Biography in Context (available through many library websites), and even there, the piece was almost exclusively focused on her work. Frank and I both tried without success to find a date for the initial appearance of “Cheese.”
To recapitulate: the four stories from Capital Crimes that we read for this discussion were “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Hands of Mr Ottermole” by Thomas Burke, “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole, and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White. I think I’m safe in saying that “Cheese” was the favorite among those present at the meeting. (Suspects and others, please feel to offer additions, corrections, or other comments.)
At the start of the discussion, I handed out the following very subjective list of recommended reading in the classics.
FURTHER READING IN THE CLASSICS INSPIRED BY BRITISH LIBRARY CRIME CLASSICS, MARTIN EDWARDS (BOTH HIS BLOG ‘DO YOU WRITE UNDER YOUR OWN NAME’ AND HIS AWARD WINNING BOOK THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER), THE GOLDEN AGE DETECTION GROUP ON FACEBOOK, ETC.
I enjoyed the following by authors appearing in the Capital Crimes collection:
“The Leather Funnel” and “Lot No. 249” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Complete Adventures of Judith Lee by Richard Marsh (first few stories)
“The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles” from The Silver Thorn by Hugh Walpole
“The Whistle” from All Souls’ Night by Hugh Walpole
Mist in the Saltings by Henry Wade
Before the Fact by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)
Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) by Ethel Lina White
In addition, I recommend the following:
The Emperor’s Snuff Box by John Dickson Carr
Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne
From The Independent December 20, 2014:
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hitBooksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
A Christmas detective tale not seen in shops for more than 70 years has become a festive sleeper hit and resurrected interest in a long-forgotten crime writer.
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon is selling in “astonishing numbers”, according to the Waterstones book chain. It has outsold rival paperbacks Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on the high street, while Amazon temporarily ran out of stock last week due to surging demand.
I kicked off our discussion of Capital Crimes with this article. I then expounded a bit further on the opening chapters of Farjeon’s novel. The situation is this: a train has gotten stuck in a snowstorm, and a party of passengers decides to disembark and attempt to reach the next railway station on foot.
With renewed hope they resumed their difficult way. They twisted round another bend. On either side of them great white trees rose, and the foliage increased. Once they walked into the foliage. Then the lane dipped. This was unwelcome, for it appeared to increase the depth of the snow and to augment the sense that they were enclosed in it. With their retreat cut off, they were advancing into a white prison.
The atmosphere became momentarily stifling. Then, suddenly, the clerk gave a shout.
“What? Where?” cried David.
“Here; the house!” gulped the clerk.
Almost blinded by the whirling snowflakes, he had lowered his head; and when the building loomed abruptly in his path he only just saved himself from colliding with the front door.
To their astonishment, they’ve come upon a gracious dwelling all lit up and decorated for the holidays. It’s as if a special welcome had been prepared for them. Yet this cannot be: their decision to leave the train could not have been anticipated. Even more bizarre, as they look around the house, they can find no other living being. The place is completely empty. For whom then is this festive reception intended?
It’s a great set-up. The story takes off from that point, and unlike the aforementioned unfortunate railway transport, never loses its momentum until the full-of-surprises denouement.
Having come out in 2012, The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (Charles Warren Adams) was the first reissue in The British Library Crime Classics series. Two years later, however, Mystery in White was the first to make a major impression on the reading public. At this point, there have been some thirty-six titles released or planned for release by the publishing division of the British Library.
Joseph Knobbs, crime fiction buyer for Waterstone Books, observes:
‘Mystery in White has been our bestselling paperback this Christmas  and one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.
“The Crime Classics stand out against the darker crop of contemporary crime fiction and offer something a bit different. A lot of modern stuff skews closer to thriller than mystery. It has been a treat to see mystery writers such as John Bude, Mavis Doriel Hay and J Jefferson Farjeon get their due. I think that’s a credit to the British Library, which has not only done the important work of archiving this material, but now brought it to a wider audience.’
Robert Davies, from British Library Publishing, adds:
‘For years, publishers have been concentrating on dark, violent, psychological crime novels, but we spotted a gap in the market for readers seeking escapist detective fiction with superb plots and period atmosphere.’
(At this juncture, Louise interjected the view that the stories selected for this discussion were actually quite dark – anything but escapist! She had a point.)
The runaway success of the British Library Crime Classics was instrumental in bringing into being a conference on Golden Age Mysteries called Bodies from the Library. The first of these was held last year; the second, last month. The conference’s site features a list of suggested reading in Golden Age classics that’s enough to bring tears to your eyes. There’s simply not enough time!
Like the dutiful librarian I was for many gratifying years, I set out some display items for the group:
Capital Crimes is a short story collection that was published here last year. (The Crime Classics entries are now being published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press.) The seventeen stories contained therein were selected by Martin Edwards, who has performed the same function for several other anthologies in this series.
(You’ll note that one of the display items above is Martin Edwards’s award-winning book The Golden Age of Murder.) I’d chosen four stories from Capital Crimes for us to consider. The first was “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle. (Although Martin Edwards does give the year in which this story first appeared – 1893 – that information was not readily available for most of the other stories in this anthology. We all agreed that this was omission we’d like to see remedied, if possible.)
This is not a Sherlock Holmes story; rather, it is a tale of adultery and revenge, with no detective in the cast of characters. I have to say that upon my first reading, I was so shocked by the events therein described that I slammed the book shut, looked up, and uttered an oath, I don’t remember what, exactly.
Upon subsequent readings, I was able to be somewhat more analytical. Were the events of the story credible? Does Conan Doyle play fair with the reader? The group tossed these questions around for a while; ultimately we concluded that the answer to both questions was yes. Conan Doyle’s masterful touch as a storyteller was everywhere apparent.
Frank directed our attention in this and the other stories to the way in which information about the characters is imparted. In a novel, the author has the time to develop in an almost leisurely manner the personalities of those characters. By contrast, in a short story the time and space are limited. There’s no room for extended descriptions; words must be chosen for their economy of meaning. We agreed that Conan Doyle achieved this aim in “Lady Sannox.”
Here’s what we’re told about Douglas Stone, an eminent surgeon who also happens to be the lover of Lady Sannox:
He was born to be great, for he could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare not plan. In surgery none could follow him. His nerve, his judgment, his intuition, were things apart. Again and again his knife cut away death, but grazed the very springs of life in doing it, until his assistants were as white as the patient. His energy, his audacity, his full-blooded self-confidence— does not the memory of them still linger to the south of Marylebone Road and the north of Oxford Street?
And his vices were as magnificent as his virtues, and infinitely more picturesque. Large as was his income, and it was the third largest of all professional men in London, it was far beneath the luxury of his living. Deep in his complex nature lay a rich vein of sensualism, at the sport of which he placed all the prizes of his life. The eye, the ear, the touch, the palate, all were his masters. The bouquet of old vintages, the scent of rare exotics, the curves and tints of the daintiest potteries of Europe, it was to these that the quick-running stream of gold was transformed.
Douglas Stone himself would have readily agreed with all this praise: he had an ego the size of West Texas!
The complete story can be accessed at this site.
There exists a film version of “The Case of Lady Sannox.” For today’s viewer, I’m afraid it comes across as rather campy. The acting is over-the-top histrionic; in addition, the actress playing Lady Sannox is woefully miscast. But the strangest thing about this version of the story is the way in which the ending is altered. I suggest reading the story, then watching the film, and drawing your own conclusions concerning what was changed and why.
This story sparked an especially lively discussion. Unfortunately, many of the details have escaped me. But I’m grateful to Marge, Louise, Frank, and Ann for engaging with such enthusiasm.
It is difficult to talk about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle without also talking about his most famous creation. That fact was illustrated by this oft-reproduced 1926 cartoon from Punch Magazine: Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist bringing this along for show and tell: This book is a companion to a special exhibit at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. We were for fortunate enough to see this exhibit and tour this remarkable facility when we were on our 2007 Smithsonian Mystery excursion. On that occasion, Dr. Alan Mackaill was our guide and speaker:
It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes … round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.
Our next story was “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” (1931) by Thomas Burke. This is a fairly famous piece and is included in quite a few mystery anthologies. It’s the story of a serial killer who roams the streets of London, striking innocent people at random and then seeming to disappear into thin air. The first victim is a gentleman by the name of Mr Whybrow. He’s headed home after a hard day’s work and looking forward to having tea with his wife. You get the sense of a perfectly ordinary man married to a likewise ordinary woman; they’re fond of each other and neither would hurt a fly. But their domestic tranquility, taken for granted up until now, is doomed to be shattered by “A man with a dead heart eating into itself and bringing forth the foul organisms that arise from death and corruption.” He murders them both, husband and wife. Then quick as you like, he’s gone. Or is he?
Burke’s description of this fiend in human form comes with a large dose of irony and black humor:
He wasn’t, this man, a bad man. Indeed, he had many of the social and amiable qualities, and passed as a respectable man, as most successful criminals do. But the thought had come into his moldering mind that he would like to murder somebody, and as he held no fear of God or man, he was going to do it, and would then go home to his tea. I don’t say that flippantly, but as a statement of fact. Strange as it may seem to the humane, murderers must and do sit down to meals after a murder. There is no reason why they shouldn’t, and many reasons why they should. For one thing, they need to keep their physical and mental vitality at full beat for the business of covering their crime. For another, the strain of their effort makes them hungry, and satisfaction at the accomplishment of a desired thing brings a feeling of relaxation toward human pleasures.
The total number of murders stands at eight. Following the last, “…he was to pass into history as the unknown London horror, and return to the decent life that he had always led, remembering little of what he had done and worried not at all by the memory.” This could be a description of Jack the Ripper, or of the perpetrator of the so-called Texas Servant Girl Murders. Burke’s tone here, located somewhere between satire and black humor, is reminiscent of that of Thomas de Quincey in “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts.”
It is a sheerly terrifying story. It imparts to the reader a quality of horror and shock usually associated with tales of the supernatural or of pure sensation, while staying in the bounds of the strict detective story.
I more or less concur with this view, which is why I was somewhat surprised at the negative reaction to this story on the part of my fellow Suspects. Marge felt that the narrative would have worked better as a full length novel, in which the character of the victims could be more fully explored and the reader’s sympathy engaged accordingly.
Frank mentioned the effectiveness of a passage told in the second person, a rarely used device in fiction. It harkens back to poor Mr. Whybrow, as his fate draws near:
You are nearly home now. You have turned into your street— Caspar Street— and you are in the center of the chessboard. You can see the front window of your little four-roomed house. The street is dark, and its three lamps give only a smut of light that is more confusing than darkness. It is dark— empty, too. Nobody about; no lights in the front parlors of the houses, for the families are at tea in their kitchens; and only a random glow in a few upper rooms occupied by lodgers. Nobody about but you and your following companion, and you don’t notice him. You see him so often that he is never seen. Even if you turned your head and saw him, you would only say ‘Good evening’ to him, and walk on. A suggestion that he was a possible murderer would not even make you laugh. It would be too silly.
And now you are at your gate. And now you have found your door key. And now you are in, and hanging up your hat and coat. The Missis has just called a greeting from the kitchen, whose smell is an echo of that greeting (herrings!), and you have answered it, when the door shakes under a sharp knock.
It’s as though you are perched on Whybrow’s shoulder (Frank’s comment), heading along with him into that awful abyss.
At one point near the conclusion, Burke gives some examples of recent history’s most notorious killers. One was Constance Kent, whom we encountered in Kate Summerscale’s masterful true crime narrative The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Another one was Eugene Aram, whose strange story I came across while researching the town of Knaresborough, which lies a short distance from Harrogate in North Yorkshire.
“The Hands of Mr Ottermole” was filmed in 1958 as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It can be viewed on Hulu.com, but the commercials make it hard going. The other option is to purchase it from Amazon streaming for $1.99. (It helps to know that particular episode occurs in Season Two, where it’s number 32.)
As with “The Case of Lady Sannox,” the ending of “Mr Ottermole” has been altered. In both cases, this change violates the intent of the author, and in the exact same way.
In Part Two, I’ll cover “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White, plus a few other related items of interest.
Last Thursday’s AAUW Readers planning session was most enjoyable and productive. Here are some of the highlights:
As she was not able to come, Susan suggested via email that we read Richard Russo’s EVERYBODY’S FOOL. This is the “rollicking sequel” (as per The Seattle Times) to NOBODY’S FOOL from 1993. The latter was made into a film starring Paul Newman, of blessed memory. (While I’ve read neither of these titles, I do have a fond recollection of Russo’s EMPIRE FALLS.) Additionally recommended by Jean was Russo’s STRAIGHT MAN, a novel that sounds made to order for those of us who have labored, at some point in our working lives, in the groves of academe.
Barb brought WILDE LAKE by Laura Lippman. Columbia, a planned community in Maryland where most of us live and some of us work, is composed of ten villages, of which Wilde Lake (est. 1967) was one of the first (possibly THE first?). Laura Lippman graduated from Wilde Lake High School in 1977. Her novels are usually set in Baltimore, but this time, she’s brought the action back home to Howard County.
It’s safe to say that many readers in this area are eager to get their hands on this book. As of this writing, the local library has 360 reserves on it. (I’m number 165.)
Phyllis recommended THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE by Melanie Benjamin. At this suggestion, several of us chimed in enthusiastically. The Literary Ladies – another book group to which I belong – had a terrific discussion of this title last month. Click here for a brief review and some striking photographs of a bygone era.
My recommendations were as follows:
THE INVENTION OF NATURE: ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT’S NEW WORLD, by Andrea Wulf: An amazing book about a great scientist and a true visionary. Essential reading for anyone who cares about the environment, science, botany, conservation – anything related to the natural world. Beautifully written and fascinating from beginning to end. (I’m gushing, I know, but I can’t help it.)
DEEP SOUTH: FOUR SEASONS ON THE BACK ROADS, by Paul Theroux. After a lifetime of fruitful laboring in the vineyard of literature, Theroux may now have written his masterpiece. Sick of dealing with airplanes and airports, he got in his car and drove to points south – deep south, primarily Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. His goal was to see how the people in these places were faring. What he found was poignant, heartbreaking, and at times inspiring.
For me, reading DEEP SOUTH was both an exalting and a humbling experience. How could I have been so oblivious to the pain and the vitality inherent these lives, in this vast swath of the country which is theirs as much as it is mine? He made me want to go there.
THE NATURE OF THE BEAST by Louise Penny. Penny’s Three Pines mysteries don’t always work for me. The denizens of this strangely obscure village seem overly precious at times, except for the nasty poet Ruth and her pet duck, who veer in quite the opposite direction. In this particular series outing, all of these characters and more get tangled up in a truly Byzantine plot. Nevertheless, it’s an absorbing read, and it’s based on a highly unusual, not to say bizarre, true story. (Gentle hint to this author: Could you possibly make more sparing use of the expletive “G-d damn?” Maybe it jumped out at me repeatedly the way it did because I was listening to the audiobook.)
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout was suggested by Rosemarie, who also mentioned THE MORNING THEY CAME FOR US: DISPATCHES FROM SYRIA by Janine di Giovanni. LUCY BARTON looks good – not least because it’s blessedly short – but I have to admit that Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE, beloved by book clubs and awards committees, left me cold. Rarely have I encountered a drearier, more humorless cast of characters! (On the other hand the film, with Frances McDormand in the title role, was a real tour de force.)
In addition to THE NATURE OF THE BEAST and WILDE LAKE, two other crime and suspense novels were mentioned at our meeting. Dottie suggested MALICE by the Japanese crime writer Keigo Higashino. (The Usual Suspects discussed THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X by this same author as part of our “international mystery” year in 2015. Most of us were favorably impressed by it.) And Jean brought IN A DARK, DARK WOOD, by Ruth Ware, a novel designated “a slick debut thriller” by NPR reviewer Jean Zimmerman.
Additional recommendations were as follows:
FIRST WOMEN: THE GRACE AND POWER OF AMERICA’S MODERN FIRST LADIES, by Kate Andersen Brower
WHAT YOUR BODY SAYS (AND HOW TO MASTER THE MESSAGE), by Sharon Sayler
DEGREES OF EQUALITY: THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF UNIVERSITY WOMEN AND THE CHALLENGE OF TWENTIETH CENTURY FEMINISM by Susan Levine
THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert
AHAB’S WIFE: OR, THE STAR-GAZER by Sena Jeter Naslund
WHAT JEFFERSON READ, IKE WATCHED AND OBAMA TWEETED: TWO HUNDRED YEARS OF POPULAR CULTURE IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Tevi Troy
MAESTRA by L.S. Hilton.
JEFFERSON’S SONS: A FOUNDING FATHER’S SECRET CHILDREN by Kimberly Bradley
THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE by Ann Packer
So there we were, faced with the challenge of narrowing the list down. We needed to decide on five titles for the coming year. (We meet every other month.) Lorraine’s suggestion that we put it to a vote worked extremely well. Those present could vote for multiple titles, if they so desired. We decided on the following:
THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE
I think everyone present felt that we’d generated some terrific ideas for worthwhile reading, whether for group discussion or for individual enjoyment.
I feel lucky to be a part of this articulate and passionate group of fellow book lovers. Thanks to all of you!
Recently, a discussion by the Usual Suspects of Dorothy L Sayers’s classic crime novel ranged far and wide. The plot is famously convoluted; the characters are numerous and colorful, and the depiction of a small, remote English village is vivid and evocative. And then, of course, there are those bells…
The English art of change ringing is the beating heart of The Nine Tailors. Indeed, Tailor Paul is actually the name of one of the bells rung in the parish church at Fenchurch St. Paul, the village at the center of the mystery. There is a saying, “Nine tailors make a man,” which has been construed in several ways:
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (2009), “nine tailors make a man” refers to the fact that a gentleman must select his clothing from a range of sources. However, numerous historical sources illuminate another meaning related to change ringing: the practice of ringing a death knell, or passing bell. In small villages in England the sickly or ill would be common knowledge to the people who lived within hearing of the church bell. The bell–typically the tenor, or lowest bell–would be rung to mark the death, and people could deduce who had died according to the number of times the bell sounded. Old wood carving
Local variances could be found around Britain, but the universal tolling-bell, or “teller,” to denote a deceased male was rung nine times. In many places six “tells” indicated a woman, and three indicated a child, so “nine tellers mark a man.”
You can see how the bell both “tolled” and “told” the death of someone in the village, and how over the years “teller” became “tailor” and “mark” became “make.”
Another article worth a look is “The Science of Mysteries: For Whom the Bells Toll,” part of a series that has appeared in Scientific American. The article opens with this observation: “A Twitter exchange recently revealed that certain members of the small subset of science writers who were humanities majors, also have a shared taste for classic mysteries.” Please be on the watch for the spoiler warning in this article. Wikipedia also has a detailed entry on change ringing.
Some of us also sought the aid of Wikipedia in order to get the plot of The Nine Tailors firmly fixed in our minds. Well, we had to laugh when comparing notes: we had trouble getting even that relatively lucid summary to resolve itself into something comprehensible! That of course is the point at which you decide either to give up or to enjoy other aspects of the novel. Most of us chose the latter course.
Frank, himself an aspiring author of crime fiction, is always especially interested in how plotting is handled in the books we read. He was deeply impressed with this novel, which, while complex in its structure, always plays fair with the reader. Not previously being a reader of Sayers’s works, he asked us whether all her plots were this “twisty” (good term for it). After a hasty consultation, we replied in the negative, though even the confirmed Wimsey fans among us hadn’t recently read any of the other novels in the series (although Mike, our excellent leader and an ardent fan of Sayers, led us in a discussion of Murder Must Advertise not long ago).
The Wimsey series is strangely bifurcated. Courtesy of Wikipedia, here’s a list of the eleven novels in the series, along with their publication dates. (There are also several short story collections):
- Whose Body? (1923)
- Clouds of Witness (1926)
- Unnatural Death (1927)
- The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
- Strong Poison (1931)
- Five Red Herrings (1931)
- Have His Carcase (1932)
- Murder Must Advertise (1933)
- The Nine Tailors (1934)
- Gaudy Night (1935)
- Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)
Harriet Vane first appears in Strong Poison; subsequently she appears in Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. Among other things, these books chart the course of her love affair with Lord Peter Wimsey, a course that is anything but smooth. But as the Bard is wont to remind us, that’s typical of true love, and this particular love is, despite various obstacles, strong and true and does win out in the end. In reference to Frank’s question, cited above, I wonder if the Harriet Vane novels are less intensely plotted so that Sayers can concentrate more on the evolution of the relationship.
BBC Television filmed and broadcast five of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels from 1972 to 1975. They are Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Five Red Herrings, Murder Must Advertise, and The Nine Tailors. Edward Petherbridge portrayed Wimsey in three out of four of the Harried Vane titles in 1987. (The BBC were apparently not able to secure the rights for Busman’s Honeymoon.) I’ve watched all of the episodes multiple times. I like what Wikipedia says about them:
Both sets of adaptations were critically successful, with both Carmichael and Petherbridge’s respective performances being widely praised, however both portrayals are quite different from one another: Carmichael’s Peter is eccentric, jolly and foppish with occasional glimpses of the inner wistful, romantic soul, whereas Petherbridge’s portrayal was more calm, solemn and had a stiff upper lip, subtly downplaying many of the character’s eccentricities.
From time to time, one encounters speculation that Sayers invented Harriet Vane as a surrogate for herself, so that she could become, in her imagination at least, Lord Peter’s lover. Harriet and Dorothy L. Sayers share some commonalities: both are Oxford graduates – among the earliest women to become so – and both write crime fiction. Unlike her creation, however, Sayers was never brought up on a murder charge!
There were, in fact, other good reasons for Sayers to insert Harriet Vane into the Lord Peter novels:
In creating Harriet Vane, who appears in four of the twelve Lord Peter Wimsey novels, Sayers was able to comment from within about the genre and its shortcomings, detailing Harriet’s relationships with her publisher, agent, fans, the press, and the snobbish literary scene. The personal concerns of the self-sufficient writer are expanded in Gaudy Night into a richly detailed examination of women’s education, career opportunities, and marriage prospects in a society not quite recovered from one war and sliding helplessly into the next.
From “Second Glance: Dorothy Sayers and the Last Golden Age” by Joanna Scutts, in Open Letters Monthly
I’ve frequently quoted the thoughts that Sayers ascribes to Harriet in Gaudy Night as she once again enters the precincts of Shrewsbury, her Oxford University alma mater:
They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University;… a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.
I like to think of the deep satisfaction Dorothy L Sayers must have been feeling as she typed those words.
One more thing about my revisiting of The Nine Tailors. I was struck this time by the extreme insularity of Fenchurch St Paul. It almost seemed like a village out of time, a sort of Brigadoon. (I’m currently listening to The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny, and it occurs to me that she depicts the Quebecois village of Three Pines in much the same way.)
Wimsey’s devotion to the town, its people and the unfolding of the crime opens unexpected windows onto an English culture flailing to right itself after the lingering disruptions caused by the First World War. A friend warned me I might find the novel “a little dated” when she gave me her copy this summer. It was anything but. This is literary mystery perfect for the dialogue-devotees of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. Sayers’ smart descriptions of peculiar English customs like change-ringing, and of the arcane engineering marvels that for centuries kept her East Anglia from drowning in annual spring floods, sparkle every bit as much as the affectionate portraits she paints of her characters, even those with minor roles.
From “What I’m Reading: The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L Sayers,” by Jon Nagy in Notre Dame Magazine.
Mike provided us with excellent background on Dorothy L Sayers, a brilliant woman whose life had more than its share of pain and difficulty – but, one senses, had its moments of real happiness and satisfaction as well.
If you ever have the opportunity to listen to Ian Carmichael’s reading of The Nine Tailors, you will encounter as bravura an audio performance as I’ve ever experienced. Carmichael gets the accents of the “locals” just right. He seems to be enacting numerous roles all on his own. And the drama at the novel’s climax…well, it’s just terrific.
Our group was generally positive about this novel, although quite a few of us were challenged to follow the threads of the plot. And more than one person commented that there was more than enough material on the bells. Of course Reverend Theodore Venables would undoubtedly disagree – he simply could not get enough on the subject! In the 1993 biography Dorothy L Sayers: Her Life and Soul, Barbara Reynolds observes the following concerning Sayers’s father, the Reverend Henry Sayers, MA:
Six years after his death, his unworldly and self-effacing personality was to be tenderly evoked in The Nine Tailors in the lovable character of the Reverend Theodore Venables, rector of Fenchurch St. Paul.
This past Tuesday, the Usual Suspects enjoyed an exceptionally bracing discussion of Learning To Swim by Sara J. Henry. It had been a while since I’d read this novel, and my recollection of details was somewhat hazy. Not so for the others present – they dove in head first, displaying an abundance of both insight and enthusiasm.
It was clear from the outset that the reaction to this book was overwhelmingly favorable. Learning To Swim opens with a high octane drama that grabs the reader right from the get-go. The setting, actually dual settings, both in the Lake Champlain region – and for a few scarifying moments IN Lake Champlain! – and in Ottawa, contribute to the story’s unique flavor. But I think the elements of this novel that were most intriguing reposed in the character and personality of the main protagonist, Troy Chance.
When we first meet Troy, she is attempting to rescue a child, who, without her intervention, would surely have died. The rescue succeeds – and then the mystery takes over. Who is this boy? How did he come to be in such a harrowing circumstance? All she has been able to glean from him is that his name is Paul, and he speaks French almost exclusively.
As Troy struggles to comprehend the situation, we get to know her better. She’s a free lance journalist, living in a house in Lake Placid, New York with several male renters. Except for a brother who’s a policeman in Florida, she’s not close to her family. She’s not especially close to her (supposed) boyfriend either. But in a very short time, she finds herself becoming deeply attached to little Paul.
Troy’s character and proclivities were a major topic of discussion. To begin with, she endeared herself to me by being named (by her father) after Agatha Troy, the society painter who is the love interest and then wife of Roderick Alleyn, the protagonist featured in Ngaio Marsh’s series of detective novels. Troy observes:
I liked the character I was named after: slim, thoughtful, graceful, a talented painter and a watcher of people.
(Interestingly, Agatha Troy was initially reluctant to enter fully into a relationship with Alleyn. It took the traumatic events of Death in a White Tie – a novel I love – to make her finally willing to commit to him.)
We mainly had a positive view of Troy. However, Frank dissented from that view, and the reasons for that dissent were interesting. As I understood it, he felt that in the depiction of Troy, Sara J. Henry failed to make her character sufficiently womanly. At first, he averred, he felt uncertain even as to whether she was male or female. He attributed this impression partly to her lack of strong commitment to, and feelings for, her friends and family. She seemed to him like a person floating through life, with no particular aspirations either of a professional or personal nature.
Other group members received this pronouncement with some perplexity. I think that by and large, most of us accepted Troy Chance as a woman, albeit one who is keeping the world at arm’s length. Of course, this stance is suddenly and radically altered by the entry of Paul into her life. Frances suggested that Troy, still young, was in the process of becoming – “learning to swim,” in other words. Moreover, we’re given hints that her upbringing gave cause for wanting to preserve a distance between herself and the world: “…I’ve often wondered if my mother would have liked me better if I had been a Christina or a Sharon or Jennifer.”
Frank also found a number of “plot holes,” points on which he elaborated. We agreed with him about some of these, but not all. My own feeling about the novel is that from the point of view of structure, it’s somewhat problematic.After a highly dramatic opening that provided plenty of momentum, it sagged somewhat in the middle. (I think some of the others agreed with that assessment.) Frank, himself an author, commented that this is a common problem in crime fiction, one that sometimes requires the addition of a sub plot in order to keep things moving.
(At one point, someone asked Frank whether writers necessarily know from the outset how the plots of their novels are going to unfold. He then introduced us to the concept of “plotters and pantsers,” an expression new to me.)
Published in 2011, Learning To Swim is the first in what I assume will be a series featuring Troy Chance. It was a winner of multiple awards:
2011 Agatha Award for Best First Novel
2012 Anthony Award for Best First Novel
2012 Mary Higgins Clark Award
Finalist 2012 Barry Award for Best First Novel
Finalist 2012 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery
(With thanks to the entry on Stop! You’re Killing Me!)
Our presenter for this book discussion was Louise. We owe her thanks for making such a good choice to begin with, and then leading a fine session in which we were allowed to give full vent to our opinions – something we rarely have trouble doing!
The second novel, A Cold and Lonely Place, came out in 2013. I believe that Frances mentioned having already read it.
If you look at the author information provided on Sara J. Henry’s website, you’ll readily perceive that she has quite a bit in common with Troy Chance.
I’ve only touched on certain points in this discussion; it was actually quite wide ranging and lots of fun. Judging by the strength of Learning To Swim, Sara J. Henry has a definitely got something going here. I’d be interested in reading the next in the series.
[As always, comments, corrections, etc. from the Suspects – indeed, from any reader of this blog – are most welcome.]
Initially, I was going to have this post consist of a single picture:
This was the sight that greeted us this morning, just outside our kitchen window, at the back of the house.
But this is what it still looked like out front:
Here in Maryland, they’ve been begging us to stay off the roads. At the moment, I can’t see any roads, no problem with that.
I couldn’t help recalling with a sort of bitter nostalgia the days of newspaper delivery, mail delivery, trips to the library to get yet another of my gazillion reserves…
I won’t deny it: I was getting cranky.
But in the afternoon, a crew making the rounds gained access to our front door and asked if we wanted to be dug out. Well, I guess so! And so they did the job.
Now, it looks like this:
It’s better, but until they plow out the cul-de-sac, we’re still stuck.
I have been trying to employ my time in useful pursuits. I have two presentations to prepare for, one a week from this Saturday and the other, in July.
The first is a presentation for the many book lovers in my AAUW chapter. It is called Book Bash. I’ve been involved in this event for several years now. Sometimes others collaborate with me, but this year I’m going solo. I’m basing my presentation on last year’s True Crime class and calling it “Time for Crime: True and Imagined.” Here’s the handout I prepared and sent out in advance:
Time for Crime: True and Imagined
Last year, I was offered the opportunity to teach a class on the literature of true crime at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins. I chose as my principal source/textbook True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and published by Library of America in 2008. Several copies are available at the library, call no. 364.1523T
Here are some especially interesting excerpts from this anthology. Where these excerpts are available online, I’ve provided the URL; additional URL’s contain related material of interest:
- “The Recent Tragedy” by James Gordon Bennett p. 63
- “Crime News from California: The Criminal Market Is Active” by Ambrose Bierce pp. 80-81
- “A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter p. 131
- Murder Ballads: “The Murder at Fall River” p. 205; “The Murder of Grace Brown” p. 203
- The Eternal Blonde” by Damon Runyon pp. 236-246
- Excerpt from The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury p.303
(Lots of additional material concerning true crime is included in the above blog post.)
7. “The Trial of Ruby McCollum” by Zora Neale Hurston p. 512
8. “The Black Dahlia” by Jack Webb p. 524
9. My Mother’s Killer” by James Ellroy p. 707
10. “Nightmare on Elm Drive” by Dominick Dunne p. 737
The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower
“The Murder of Marie Roget” by Edgar Allan Poe
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
A Place in the Sun: film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift
An American Tragedy: opera composed by Tobias Picker
Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
Double Indemnity: film starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson
My Dark Places by James Ellroy
Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments by Dominick Dunne
British Library Crime Classics
Resorting To Murder: Holiday Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards
Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards
Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
The Sussex Downs Murders by John Bude
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon
The irreplaceable excellence of Ruth Rendell
A Judgement in Stone
A Fatal Inversion (as Barbara Vine)
The Wexford novels: http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/R_Authors/Rendell_Ruth.html
The absolute wonderfulness of Sue Grafton, as embodied in
I’ve included many mysteries and quite a few works of true crime in my yearly round-up of favorites:
The second presentation is actually a book discussion I’m planning to hold with the Usual Suspects. I’ve chosen to discuss Capital Crimes: London Stories, edited by Martin Edwards. (It’s one of the British Library Crime Classics mentioned above.) I’m trying to decide which stories to single out, but they’re all so good, it’s proving to be a real challenge. (My friend and fellow Suspect Pauline is assisting me with this task. Thanks, Pauline.)
Oh – and one other useful pursuit for today: I made a batch of famously mysterious Lacy Parmesan Wafers.
I often bring these little guys to meetings and get-togethers, and whenever I do, folks tend to wax rhapsodic. What’s in them? they demand to know. Well, let’s see, there’s shredded Parmesan cheese… That’s it – just that one ingredient. Make little mounds of it – about a tablespoon in volume – and space them out regularly on a cookie sheet. (I put nonstick aluminum foil on the sheet.) They go into a 400 degree oven for about eight minutes. Take them out, give them several seconds to cool, then transfer them to a paper towel to await the arrival more Lacy Wafers. Keep doing batches until you run out of Parmesan cheese.
That’s all there is to it. And it makes a great snack for diabetics like Yours Truly. Cheese is blessedly low in carbohydrates, often containing only trace amounts or none at all.
So, this single-ingredient thing is my idea of hassle free cooking. It’s the only kind of cooking that I have the patience for, at present.
‘It was as if her loneliness had compelled her to listen; even words of evil were better than no words at all.’ Beast in View by Margaret Millar
Born in Kitchener, Ontario, and educated at the University of Toronto, where she majored in classics. Margaret Millar lived most of her adult life in Santa Barbara California; she was married to Kenneth Millar, better known by his pseudonym Ross MacDonald. The assumption is often made that her work was overshadowed by that of her husband, author of the renowned Lew Archer detective series. But Margaret Millar’s novels have long been esteemed in their own right by the cognoscenti, and recently her star has risen anew due to the inclusion of Beast in View in a recently published landmark anthology. This worthy endeavor by Library of America has been curated by Sarah Weinman, a distinguished scholar of crime fiction.
Sarah Weinman has a particular interest in bringing to the forefront women writers of mid-twentieth America who specialized in noir fiction and psychological suspense – or what is now coming to be known as ‘domestic suspense.’ Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s goes a long way toward advancing that cause. (Sarah Weinman has also edited the short story collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. )
A further word about Margaret Millar: her first truly memorable encounter with her future husband occurred in the University of Toronto Library, where she was in the process of reading Thucydides in the original Greek!
Beast in View opens thus:
The voice was quiet, smiling. “Is that Miss Clarvoe?”
“You know who this is?”
“I have a great many friends,” Miss Clarvoe lied.
In the mirror above the telephone stand she saw her mouth repeating the lie, enjoying it, and she saw her head nod in quick affirmation— this lie is true, yes, this is a very true lie. Only her eyes refused to be convinced. Embarrassed, they blinked and glanced away.
“We haven’t seen each other for a long time,” the girl’s voice said. “But I’ve kept track of you, this way and that. I have a crystal ball.”
“I— beg your pardon?”
“A crystal ball that you look into the future with. I’ve got one. All my old friends pop up in it once in a while. Tonight it was you.”
“Me.” Helen Clarvoe turned back to the mirror. It was round, like a crystal ball, and her face popped up in it, an old friend, familiar but unloved; the mouth thin and tight as if there was nothing but a ridge of bone under the skin, the light brown hair clipped short like a man’s, revealing ears that always had a tinge of mauve as if they were forever cold, the lashes and brows so pale that the eyes themselves looked naked.
In this way, we make the acquaintance of Helen Clarvoe, a lonely, vulnerable young woman. She is not completely alone in the world: her mother Verna and brother Douglas live not far away. But she has as little to do with them as possible. In fact, she generally has very little to do with the world outside her hotel room. That is, until this strange phone call comes to disrupt her carefully ordered existence.
In her shrewd commentary on this novel, Laura Lippman points out that the reader should keep in mind the exact location of Helen Clarvoe’s telephone – an ‘instrument’ of the 1950s – beneath a mirror:
Page one, line one: a telephone rings. It is a stout, old-fashioned rotary phone. It has no Caller ID, no smartphone functions. You couldn’t use it as a GPS or even to Google “Margaret Millar Beast In View.” Helen Clarvoe, alone in her hotel residence, wouldn’t be able to carry it across the room. She has to stand where she is, staring into a mirror.
Among other issues, Beast in View deals with the phenomenon of what used to be called a split personality, these days more commonly referred to by mental health professionals as Dissociative Identity Disorder or Multiple Personality Disorder. Frank, our discussion leader, is a practicing psychotherapist who has treated individuals afflicted with this condition. He described the way in which D.I.D. manifests itself: the change in the individual’s body language, the unexplained memory gaps, and other symptoms. When asked what the goal was in treated such a person, he said the therapist’s efforts went toward uniting the personalities into a single fully functional entity. D.I.D. is sometimes confused with schizophrenia; in fact, they are two very different illnesses. For further elucidation on this topic, see coverage provided by Web MD. (This diagnosis has not been without controversy. See “Multiple Personality–Mental Disorder, Myth, or Metaphor?” by Dr. Allen J. Francis. Frank reminded us that the field of mental health has been as subject to fads as other fields of inquiry. Just look at the dust-up that invariably occurs every time The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is revised and reissued.)
The 1950s were a time of intense interest in this phenomenon. Beast in View came out in 1956. Frank mentioned The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson, which came out in 1954. This novel had brought the subject of “split personality” to the forefront of public discourse. In 1957, two psychiatrists wrote about a case they had treated. Using a made-up name for their patient, they called their book The Three Faces of Eve. The film starring Joanne Woodward came out later the same year. I remember it well. Everyone I knew saw that movie; people talked about it incessantly. For Joanne Woodward, who up until then had been a relatively unknown bit player, it was the start of a brilliant career. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her riveting portrayal of Eve White/Eve Black/Jane.
In Beast in View, Millar also presents a homosexual character in an evenhanded, compassionate light. I was surprised by this enlightened portrayal, given the time period in which the novel’s action takes place. As I was reading, I felt increasingly certain that this character held the key to the novel’s unfolding events. Certainly he plays an important role. But that role is almost beside the point. I’m now thinking that his presence, which may have been disconcerting to some contemporary readers, was a deliberate distraction. It diverts attention from Helen Clarvoe herself. But the spotlight returns to her at the novel’s conclusion, in what proves to be a shattering revelation.
The question then became, who saw that shocker of an ending coming? Some did; some definitely didn’t. (I was in the latter camp. As I was approaching the story’s conclusion, I was exclaiming to myself, “What? What?”)
There are elements in Beast in View that date the narrative; among them, a modeling school/business that also served as a sort of charm school. But there is also some precise and powerful writing, especially as regards Helen Clarvoe. (Note: Paul Blackshear is a friend of the family who tries to help Helen and her mother Verna.)
The forehead was smooth, the mouth prim and self-contained, the skin paper-white, as if there was no blood left to bleed. Miss Clarvoe’s bleeding had been done, over the years, in silence, internally.
He hung up quickly. He didn’t like the sound of Miss Clarvoe’s gratitude spilling out of the telephone, harsh and discordant, like dimes spilling out of a slot machine. The jackpot of Miss Clarvoe’s emotions— thank you very much. What a graceless woman she was, Blackshear thought, hoarding herself like a miser, spending only what she had to, to keep alive.
This hotel clerk is a very minor character; nevertheless, trouble was taken to bring him fully to life:
The desk clerk, whose name-plate identified him as G. O. Horner, was a thin, elderly man with protuberant eyes that gave him an expression of intense interest and curiosity. The expression was false. After thirty years in the business, people meant no more to him than individual bees do to a beekeeper. Their differences were lost in a welter of statistics, eradicated by sheer weight of numbers. They came and went; ate, drank, were happy, sad, thin, fat; stole towels and left behind toothbrushes, books, girdles, jewelry; burned holes in the furniture, slipped in bathtubs, jumped out of windows. They were all alike, swarming around the hive, and Mr. Horner wore a protective net of indifference over his head and shoulders.
The only thing that mattered was the prompt payment of bills.
In addition to his work as a physician in the mental health field, Frank is also an aspiring writer. We had an interesting discussion about how point of view functions in novels. In my opinion, the mishandling of this crucial element in fiction writing occurs all too frequently in contemporary works of “literary” fiction (as does inattention to structure).
Frank explained that frequent switches in point of view, especially in the midst of scene containing dialog, is disconcerting to the reader. One wishes to be inside the mind of a single character, and to view the action according to his or her mindset. (I hope I’ve got that right.)
I have the feeling that I’ve omitted quite a bit here. This was a wide ranging and extremely stimulating discussion. Addition and corrections are welcome.
Beast in View was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock for an episode on his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The story is told very differently from the way Margaret Millar tells it – rather confusing, I thought. But I clapped my hands in delight when I first laid eyes on the actor who plays Paul Blackshear. It was Kevin McCarthy, who played the role of Dr. Miles Bennell in the original (1956) version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of my all time favorite films.
I’ll begin with Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson. Wrath was the final selection discussed by the Usual Suspects in this, our international year. Having done plenty of substantive research, my friend Marge led a stimulating discussion of this complex, haunting work. Wrath was voted the “best read” of the year by the Suspects.
When an attractive young couple goes missing, the hunt is on. Although the whereabouts of Simon Kyro and Wilma Persson is a mystery, it’s suspected that they are drowning victims. When the body of Wilma is discovered, the investigation is kicked into high gear. Strangely, we have already encountered Wilma in another dimension, as it were (or, as I like to think, Rod Serling of blessed memory would have phrased it).
Key roles in this story are played by members of the Krekula family: parents Isak and Kerttu and their sons Hjalmar and Tore. Kerttu and Isak in particular are fighting to hold on to secrets that date back to the years of World War Two. Should the truth of their activities at that time come to light, they would at the very least be vilified, possibly even prosecuted.
The lead characters on the side of law enforcement are Rebecka Martinsson, a lawyer, and Detective Anna-Maria Mella. Both are complex and interesting women. At one point, Anna-Maria travels alone to the Krekula house in the hopes of gathering some useful information. Instead, Tore and Hjalmar play several dirty tricks on her, one involving the safety of her daughter. This astonishing scenario is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in a police procedural. Those Krekulas, brutal and fearless and utterly repugnant, are a piece of work!
I did have a few issues with this novel. For one thing, the narrative is punctuated by flashbacks that on occasion I found confusing. Also I became impatient with the lengthy passages in italics. The book may have been longer than it needed to be. But these are minor cavils.
I especially liked the way in which Asa Larsson evokes the atmosphere of rural Sweden – particularly of Kiruna, the country’s northernmost town:
This region, one of Western Europe’s last wildernesses, represents for Swedes what Glenn Gould, in a Canadian context, called “The Idea of North.” Though Kiruna itself is a modern town, with an economy based on iron-ore mining and tourism, its population is small—22,972 in the 2012 census—and the mountains and forests, bordering on Norway to the West and North and Finland to the East, are sparsely populated. In Steven Peacock’s words, north of Kiruna, “there is only roadless, uninhabited land. To the East, boreal forests stretch for hundreds of miles into Finland and Russia” (125). In Until Thy Wrath Be Past, Larsson fully exploits not only the isolation and harsh winters of this region, but its liminality, in a literal and metaphoric sense.
….animals in the novel—reindeer, elk, fox, and above all bear, dogs, and ravens—are important to atmosphere, plot, character development, and symbolism and interact with the human characters.
(The above passage is from an article entitled “Till My Change Come: Nature, Justice, and Redemption in Asa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past.” It appears in a journal called Scandinavian-Canadian Studies. This is an excellent source that you might like to check out; it has other articles on Scandinavian crime fiction. They appear to be erudite yet at the same time quite readable.)
Asa Larsson’s writing is wonderful (and so, by implication is the translation, done by Laurie Thompson.) In the midst of all the turmoil, the tenderer human feelings are not ignored. Here she recounts an exchange between Rebecka and Krister Eriksson, a grievously injured man with a heart of gold:
“Hi,” he says before she has a chance to say anything.
It is such a tender-sounding “hi.” It sounds happy over the fact that she has called him, and ever so intimate. It sounds like a “hi” the second before a man slides his hand under his lover’s hair and around the back of her head.
Are they falling in love? Could be. Krister is the police department’s canine handler; through him, we get to know some noble, courageous, and lovable dogs.
Until The Wrath Be Past, which came out here in 2011, is the fourth novel featuring Rebecka Martinsson. The Second Deadly Sin, the fifth and final novel in the series, came out last year.
Highly, highly recommended.