The Apothecary Rose and The Lady Chapel by Candace Robb
Robb vividly evokes the world of 14th century Britain.
P.F. Chisholm does likewise for the 16th century in A Famine of Horses . Chisholm’s writing is enlivened by an irony and irreverence rarely encountered in historical fiction, which has an occasional tendency to take itself too seriously. Her protagonist, Sir Robert Carey, is based on an historical figure. The scenario she depicts, up north by the Scottish borders, is rife with a sort of cheerful, energetic lawlessness. This too is based in the factual history of the period. In her introduction to this novel, Chisholm tells us that “…I first met Sir Robert Carey by name in the pages of George MacDonald Fraser’s marvellous history of the Anglo-Scottish borders, “’The Steel Bonnets’.” I love this quote from Fraser:
The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.
This series currently encompasses six novels. They’re not all as compelling as the first, though A Chorus of Innocents, the most recent, I thought was every bit as good as Famine.
A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake. The first entry in the Cragg and Fidelis series, one that deserves to be much better known than it is. Set very specifically in eighteenth century Preston, Lancashire, and peopled with an exceptionally appealing cast of characters. (See the link at the beginning of this post.)
The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor
The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Wow! A standalone novel of tremendous depth and power. The year is 1869. Amid the oppression of a community of Scottish crofters by cruel and heedless overseers, a young man’s anger and resentment build steadily until they reach the boiling point. His Bloody Project made the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2016, apparently astonishing certain folk among the ‘literati.’
Judge Dee at Work and The Haunted Monastery by Robert Hans van Gulik (historical and international!) Here’s a case in which the story of how these books came to be written is as fascinating as the books themselves. I wrote of this in some detail in a previous post.
Born in the Netherlands in 1910, Robert Van Gulik spent most of his childhood in what was then the Dutch East Indies and is now Jakarta, Indonesia. While there. he learned Mandarin as well as other languages. He seems to have been an intellectually voracious and multi-talented individual whose life was cheifly characterized by a love of all things Chinese. The site RechterTie.nl is a veritable goldmine of information on this fascinating man his work.
The Judge Dee mysteries take place during the 600s (Tang Dynasty). In Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart, events transpire in an era much closer to our own: the early 1700s. We are nonetheless presented with kingdom which, for all its riches, remains largely aloof from Western influences. The Jesuits, however, have made significant incursions into the culture of this isolationist empire. It is their presence, and their influence, that lie at the heart of this impressive first novel.
Li Du is an exiled scholar whose wanderings take him to Dayan, a city at the edge of China’s empire. Here, feverish preparations are under way for a festival in honor of the Emperor, whose arrival is imminent. A shocking murder disrupts the proceedings, and Li Du, a cousin of the ruling magistrate, finds himself pressed into the role of detective. The Emperor is due to arrive in Dayan in a matter of days. Li Du is required to have solved the mystery by that time. It is a daunting task.
So, to be honest, is the reading of this novel – at least, it has been, for me. (I’ve got about 45 pages to go.) Hart spends a fair amount of time describing life in the city of Dayan during this era. Her writing is wonderful, but in the midst of her rich prose elaborations, I found it all too easy to lose the thread of the plot. It seemed at times to wander like the depiction of a sinuous landscape one sees in certain paintings from the Qing Dynasty.
There are several examples of story within a story in Jade Dragon Mountain. In one instance, one of the featured characters was none other than Judge Dee. Another story is the retelling of an old Sufi legend that I first came across in a biography of Somerset Maugham. Maugham retells the story in his play Sheppey. Sometimes referred to as “Death Comes to Baghdad,” sometimes as “The Appointment in Samarra,” it is more of a fable, actually, its message being that we cannot outrun the fate that awaits each of us.
I’ve already had occasion to praise Elsa Hart’s writing. Some passages in this novel rise to the poetic. Here Li Du, traveling in mountainous terrain, is enjoying a rare moment of repose after a meal. Gradually he finds himself enveloped in clouds and mist.
The quiet deepened into silence. Li Du did not move, but rested his eyes on the soft white expanse. As he watched, the cloud shifted and broke. He saw, as if through a window, a tree on the opposite side of the gorge. It was a dead, hollowed oak, blackened by fire. Only one branch remained, reaching out perpendicular to the trunk. The vapor thickened, the window closed, and the tree was gone.
Another opening appeared. Through this new window Li Du saw movement, and though the could make out the rounded back of a little bear trundling across a clearing into a copse of evergreens. Again the mist moved, erasing the scene.The next break in the cloud framed a waterfall, a still, silver column too distant for him to perceive its tumbling energy. That window closed, another opened, and he saw a tree. It was in the same place as the tall oak he had seen minutes earlier. Only this one was not hollow, but alive, its limbs and trunk whole and draped in garlands of lichen.
He imagined then t hat t he shifting clouds contained thousands of years, and that he had seen the same tree in two different times. What if every moment of that tree’s existence, the whole of is past and its future, exited at once, here in this blank and infinite cloud?
Oh that we could each of us be vouchsafed such a lovely vision!
And these as well:
And love James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life.
As a celebration of an ancient way of life that persists despite the odds, The Shepherd’s Life is incomparable.
You could bring a Viking man to stand on our fell with me and he would understand what we were doing and the basic pattern of our farming year. The timing of each task varies depending on the different valleys and farms. Things are driven by the seasons and necessity, not by our will.
Sometimes I am left alone somewhere on the mountain, waiting for the others, alone in the silence. Skylarks rise, ascending in song. Sometimes there are moments when not a sheep or a man can be seen. Away in the distance I can see the main roads and the villages. No one really knows how long this fell gathering has happened, but it is quite possibly as much as five thousand years.
With The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks has given us a priceless gift. If you need to feel better about a beautiful landscape preserved as well as a way of life enriched with animals, children, and nature’s joys and rewards, read it.
‘Perhaps they both had narrowly escaped death–death by arrow, death by beauty, death by night.’ – News of the World by Paulette Jiles
When I read a historical novel I want to find myself immersed in another world: a past world that has come alive. Paulette Jiles has worked this magic in News of the World. Set in Texas in the 1870s, it’s the story story of Captain Jefferson Kidd, a Civil War veteran in his early seventies, who accepts a commission to convey Johanna Leonberger, age ten, to her relations in San Antonio. Johanna has spent the past four years living with Kiowa Indians who kidnapped her after killing her parents. Since the Captain and Johanna are starting out in the very northernmost part of the state, they have a long journey ahead of them. For a conveyance that will serve, Kidd has purchased a green ‘excursion wagon;’ on its side is painted in gold letters Curative Waters East Mineral Springs Texas. His two horses, Pasha and Fancy, will also make up the party.
Along the way, Kidd and Johanna have plenty to contend with. Lawless bands of heavily armed men are freely roaming the countryside. The weather is harsh and unpredictable. There is the constant danger of theft of their meager stores. Kidd ekes these out by hiring venues along the way and therein presenting readings from various newspapers to the state’s news-starved (and sometimes illiterate) denizens.
Meanwhile Johanna, a cheerfully feral child, has become Kiowa in spirit and outlook. It’s some time before the Captain is able to inculcate into her some basic notions of “civilized” behavior. She may be a wild child but she’s an extremely resourceful one. At one point, she gets the herself and the captain out of a tight spot by showing him how to use coins as projectiles in their severely depleted store of ammunition. Amazing!
Jiles’s wonderful writing is enlivened by a sly wit and a telling instinct for le mot juste:
There is a repeat mechanism in the human mind that operates independent of will.
I knew I’d want to remember that. And here’s a wonderful bit of description:
The man was too big to be a human being sand too small to be a locomotive. He had been shot of the tower of the Bardsley mansion and when he fell three stories and struck the ground he probably made a hole big enough to bury a hog in.
Jiles employs the same low key narrative tone in describing a harrowing river crossing:
They slowed as the current stopped them and then it took hold of the little mare and their wagon as well. Crows shot up out of the far bank screaming. Foam churned around them, drift and duff ran on top of the fast water in snaking lines. Briefly the wagon floated. The roan mare snorted, went under, came up and beat at the floodwaters with her hooves. Then she struck hard bottom and they pulled up on the far bank with water draining in streams.
Unavoidably they encounter sad evidence of the devastation wrought by war:
They came to a destroyed cabin and he pulled up and then went inside. Broken cups and pieces of dress material torn on a nail. A doll’s body without a head. He dug a 50-caliber bullet out of the wall with his knife and then carefully placed it on the windowsill as if for a memento. Here were memories, loves, deep heartstring notes like the place where he had been raised in Georgia. Here had been people whose dearest memories were the sound of a dipper dropped in the water bucket after taking a drink and the clink of it as it hit bottom. The quiet of evening.
It goes on.
The plot is not the main point of interest in this novel. It is not especially original. There’s a certain inevitability about the way in which the Captain and Johanna gradually form a bond. But the story is told in so compelling a way that the fate of these characters becomes increasingly crucial. I was very worried about what would happen at the end. I cared tremendously.
News of the World carried me back to one of the greatest reading experiences of my life: Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Jiles’s canvas is smaller here, but I got the same feeling of being transported to a time and place that, when artfully limned, seems to all but overwhelm the senses: namely, the state of Texas in former times.
In her New York Times review of News of the World, Suzanne Berne says the following:
In a world where live oak leaves fall “like pennies” and teams of oxen move in “a ponderous waltz,” everything is news. And at scarcely 200 pages, this exhilarating novel, a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, travels through its marvelous terrain so quickly that one is shocked, almost stricken, to reach the end. So do what I did: Read it again.
I may need to do the same.
A wonderful, wonderful book.
I’m currently having a great deal of fun putting together a presentation on mysteries for my AAUW colleagues. The first title I chose was “Hot trends in Crime Fiction!” I then decided to tone it down a bit; it is now “Current Trends in Crime Fiction.”
Having achieved that much, I then sat back, contemplated the general state of things, and asked myself in all seriousness what those trends might be. This list is what I’ve come up with so far:
Domestic (i.e. psychological) suspense
Classics reissues and rediscoveries
International authors and settings
Use of actual historical personages as detectives
Regional mysteries (U.S.)
Increasing presence of women protagonists
Diminishing number of police procedurals
“Crime fiction is finally getting the critical respect it deserves”
This is by no means definitive, but at present, it seems reasonably workable. (I’ve already penned three posts on the subject.)
It then occurred to me to see if this subject had been tackled elsewhere. As expected, the internet came through with “A History of Detective Stories: Current Trends.” This essay begins with a general assessment of the genre and then moves to a discussion of the challenges posed to mystery fiction by rapidly emerging technologies.
The subgenre that most appeals at the moment is listed above as “Classic reissues and rediscoveries.” I recently wrote a review of The D.A. Calls In Murder, the first entry in Erle Stanley Gardner‘s Doug Selby series. I’ve now read the second and the third – The D.A. Holds a Candle and The D.A. Draws a Circle – and my enjoyment has increased with each perusal.
As I mentioned in the review cited above, these books are hard to find. I’ve been getting them via interlibrary loan from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a wonderful facility which since 1971 has been designated as the (Maryland) State Library Resource Center. Alas, as the series progresses, the volumes themselves are proving to be increasingly fragile. As I was reading in bed the other night, I noticed small pieces of dark brown paper appearing on the blanket. These proved to be escaping from the book’s binding. I prodded the larger piece back into place, but it showed no great inclination to remain there. Now Pratt seems blessedly reluctant to discard books like this, but I can’t help feeling that I might be the last person to borrow this poor decrepit entity.
One of the things I’ve really been enjoying about this series is its artless evocation of a bygone era. In the era between the two World Wars, Southern California was already undergoing some dramatic changes, yet the orange groves, apple orchards, small towns, (like the fictional Madison City where Doug Selby plies his trade) and country roads were still a vivid presence.
The sheriff drove rapidly over the grade, out of the orange lands into the app;e country, and then down a gradual slope between snow-capped mountains to where the country abruptly changed from fertile soil to arid desert.
The dialog is snappy, but Gardner does not overdo the noir lingo. Doug Selby is a very appealing protagonist. Alongside him works Sylvia Martin, intrepid reporter. (Think Lois Lane of Superman fame.) In many noir novels and stories, the only woman on the scene is the perennial femme fatale, so Sylvia’s presence is refreshing, to say the least.
In the climactic scene of The D.A. Draws a Circle, she and Doug, along with the sheriff, become embroiled in a shoot out. Doug is trying to protect her, while she’s quite literally fighting him off. Later she apologizes – after a fashion:
“Gosh, Doug, I’m sorry I kicked at you. But you’re not the only one with a job to do. If I want to take risks, I’ll take them. I had to be in at the finish.”
Selby said, “You’ll stop a slug one of these days, and then what would I do?”
She said indignantly, “I’m just as much entitled to stop slugs as you are.”
“You’re a woman,” Selby said.
Sylvia Martin said, “Well, well. You’re finding that out, are you?”
Oh, yes, he certainly is….
The Selby novels are by and large composed of such dialog exchanges. They move along at a rapid clip; I’m finding them to be excellent escapist reading.
There are moments, though, when Gardner waxes unexpectedly poetical:
Passages like this are welcome, as they’re so rarely encountered in this context.
I’ve been very late getting this done, I know. This is mainly due to my work on what was the most challenging book discussion preparation I’ve ever undertaken. The book was Paul Theroux’s Deep South. The discussion took place on this Thursday past, and I’m glad to report that it went quite well, mainly due to the lively and insightful comments of my colleagues in AAUW Readers.
Mostly it’s done. And what a sweet relief!
Audiobooks are very vital to me. I only listen to them in my car, and I want to feel a sense of happy anticipation when, belted in and ready to roll, I fire up my current choice. I knew I’d get that good feeling from a work by Alexander McCall Smith, and so I am now listening to the 44 Scotland street series.
Love Over Scotland, the third entry, features a prose passage so moving – at least it was to me – that as soon as I got back home, I downloaded the novel in its entirety.
The excerpt I refer to consists of a letter being written by the artist Angus Lordie to his friend , the beautifully named Domenica Macdonald. Domenica, described as a “freelance anthropologist,” is at that time halfway around the world studying the mores and folkways of a community of pirates inhabiting the Malacca Straits. (McCall Smith’s imagination as usual, ranges freely from the domestic to the remote to the downright bizarre.)
In this missive, Angus gives voice to his feelings upon the loss of a friend in strange and sad circumstances. I’m going to quote the whole thing here:
“My dear Domenica,” he began. “I write this letter seated at the kitchen table. It is one of those cold, bright winter mornings that I know you love so much, and which make this city sparkle so. But the letter I write you will be a sad one, and I am sorry for that. When one is alone and far from home, as you are, then one longs for light-hearted, gossipy letters. This is not one of those.
“Yesterday, as I was painting his portrait, Ramsey Dunbarton, a person I have known for a good many years, died in my studio. He was seated in my portrait chair, talking to me, when he suddenly stopped, mid-anecdote. I thought nothing of it and continued to paint, but when I glanced from behind my canvas I saw him sitting there, absolutely still. I thought that he had gone to sleep and went back to my painting, but then, when I looked again, he was still motionless. I realised that something was wrong, and indeed it was. Ramsey had died. It was very peaceful, almost as if somebody had silently gone away, somewhere else, had left the room. How strange is the human body in death–so still, and so vacated. That vitality, that spark, which makes for life, is simply not there. The tiny movements of the muscles, the sense of there being somebody keeping the whole physical entity orchestrated in space–that goes so utterly and completely. It is no longer there.
“You did not know Ramsey. I thought that you might perhaps have met him at one of my drinks parties, but then, on reflection, I decided that you had not. I do not think that you and he would necessarily have got along. I would never accuse you of lacking charity, dear one, but I suspect that you might have thought that Ramsey was a little stuffy for you; a little bit old-fashioned, perhaps.
“And indeed he was. Many people thought of him as an old bore, always going on about having played the part of the Duke of Plaza-Toro at the Church Hill Theatre. Well, so he did, and he mentioned it yesterday afternoon, which was his last afternoon as himself, as Auden puts it in his poem about the death of Yeats. But don’t we all have our little triumphs, which we remember and which we like to talk about? And if Ramsey was unduly proud of having been the Duke of Plaza-Toro, then should we begrudge him that highlight in what must have been a fairly uneventful life? I don’t think we should.
“He was a kind man, and a good one too. He loved his wife. He loved his country–he was a Scottish patriot at heart, but proud of being British too. He said that we should not be ashamed of these things, however much fashionable people decry love of one’s country and one’s people. And in that he was right.
“He only wanted to do good. He was not a selfish man. He did not set out to make a lot of money or get ahead at the expense of others. He was not like that. He would have loved to have had public office, but it never came his way. So he served in a quiet, rather bumbling way on all sorts of committees. He was conservative in his views and instincts. He believed in an ordered society in which people would help and respect one another, but he also believed in the responsibility of each of us to make the most of our lives. He called that ‘duty’, not a word we hear much of today.
“There is a thoughtless tendency in Scotland to denigrate those who have conservative views. I have never subscribed to that, and I hope that as a nation we get beyond such a limited vision of the world. It is possible to love one’s fellow man in a number of ways, and socialism does not have the monopoly on justice and concern. Far from it. There are good men and women who believe passionately in the public good perspectives. Ramsey was as much concerned with the welfare and good of his fellow man as anybody I know.
“People said that he had a tendency to go on and on, and I suppose he did. But those long stories of his, sometimes without any apparent point to them, were stories that were filled, yes filled, with enthusiasm for life. Ramsey found things fascinating, even when others found them dull. In his own peculiar way, he celebrated the life of ordinary people, ordinary places, ordinary things.
“I suspect that Scotland is full of people like Ramsey Dunbarton. They are people whose lives never amount to very much in terms of achievement. They are not celebrated or fêted in any way. But there they are, doing their best, showing goodwill to others, paying their taxes scrupulously, not cheating in any way, supporting the public good. These people are the backbone of the country and we should never forget that.
“His death leaves me feeling empty. I feel guilty, too, at the thought of the occasions when I have seen him heaving into sight and I have scuttled off, unable to face another long-winded story. I feel that I should have done more to reciprocate the feelings of friendship he undoubtedly had for me. I never asked him to lunch with me; the invitations always came from him. I never even acknowledged him as a friend. I never told him that I enjoyed his company. I never told him that I thought he was a good man. I gave him no sign of appreciation.
“But we make such mistakes all the time, all through our lives. Wisdom, I suppose, is seeing this and acting upon it before it is too late. But it is often too late, isn’t it?–and those things that we should have said are unsaid, and remain unsaid for ever.
“I am heart-sore, Domenica. I am heart-sore. I shall get over it, I know, but that is how I feel now. Heart-sore.”
He finished, read it through, and then very slowly tore it up. He would not send it to Domenica, even if he meant every word, every single word of it.
I’d never heard of Cesar Aira until I encountered him in a review in the Wall Street Journal written by Nathaniel Popkin. Popkiin was actually reviewing a novel called Zama by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto. In the concluding paragraph, reference was made to Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira, Di Benedetto’s fellow Argentinian.
Two things about Episode immediately piqued my interest. First, there was the fact that the protagonist was a painter; his name is Johann Moritz Rugendas. Secondly, Rugendas had been encouraged to travel to South America in order to find new and exotic subjects with which to fuel his artistic impulses. The individual urging him on this course of action was none other than the great explorer and natural scientist Alexander Von Humboldt. Early last year I read The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Von Humboldt’s “New World” became my new world – what an absolutely terrific read this was! Had it been up to me, Andrea Wulf would have won every existing literary award and then some.
The following is from Aira’s novel:
Rugendas was a genre painter. His genre was the physiognomy of nature, based on a procedure invented by Humboldt. The great naturalist was the father of a discipline that virtually died with him: Erdtheorie or La Physique du monde, a kind of artistic geography, an aesthetic understanding of the world, a science of landscape. Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an all-embracing scholar, perhaps the last of his kind: his aim was to apprehend the world in its totality; and the way to do this, he believed, in conformity with a long tradition, was through vision.
And so I read Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Though slight in length – more a novella than a novel – it is one of the most unusual and powerful works of fiction I have ever encountered. Johann Moritz Rugendas was an actual historical personage, a German artist of the early nineteenth century who traveled to South America in search of new vistas to paint. But although this novel takes Rugendas’s life as its starting point, it diverges significantly from his actual biography. This is nowhere more true than in regard to the episode in the title. Actually, ‘episode’ is a misleadingly innocuous term to describe what actually happens to Rugendas shortly before the novel’s midpoint. I don’t want to say anything more about it except this: it haunts me.
I do think I can say that for me, this novel is about two things: the courage that individuals are capable of in extreme circumstances, and the sustaining devotion that one friend freely gives to another.
The writing is extraordinary. Kudos to Cesar Aira for his intense lyricism and meticulous descriptions, and to Chris Andrews, the translator.
At a recent book club discussion I attended, some readers expressed impatience with descriptive passages that impede the pace of a book’s plot. While I have encountered this from time to time in my own reading, the sheer beauty of the prose in Episode was one of the main things that kept me riveted to the narrative.
It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away . . . and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alternations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness. Each day was larger and more distant. As the mountains took on weight, the air became lighter and more changeable in its meteoric content, a sheer optics of superposed heights and depths.
I hope to read more of the works of Cesar Aira; I’d like to read Zama as well.
How is it that I read only one historical mystery this year? I’m a great fan of historical fiction, so I can’t quite figure this out. Anyway, the book in question is The Lady Chapel by Candace Robb, Marge’s choice for our November Suspects discussion. This novel is the second in Robb’s Owen Archer series. I’d read the first, The Apothecary Rose, several years ago, when I needed a Middle Ages “fix.” It did the job admirably. I therefore had high hopes for The Lady Chapel and I”m glad to say those hopes were fulfilled. I’ve already downloaded the next book in the series, The Nun’s Tale. I look forward to reading it.
Elizabeth Edmondson’s two entries in the series A Very English Mystery are a delight, tailor made for the Anglophiles among us. With their setting in the quintessential village of Selchester in the postwar years, the milieu is rife with rumor, scheming and gossip, readily inviting comparison to the world of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead.
A Man of Some Repute combines the classic murder mystery formula with the intrigue of intelligence work. Thus there are twice as many secrets and intrigues for the varied cast of characters to contend with. What fun! I’m still in the midst of reading A Question of Inheritance, but similar plot elements are already in play.
On the occasion of the 2014 Oxford Literary Festival, Elizabeth Edmondson penned a spirited defense of genre fiction. Unfortunately, we’ve lost this gifted author: she passed away early last year.
I continue to be a one-person Alexander McCall Smith Fan Club. This year I reread The Sunday Philosophy Club, Chris’s pick for the Usual Suspects. Once again, Once again, I reveled in this narrative. Isabel Dalhousie, with her love of art and music, and of the city of Edinburgh, and of deep thought and ethical conundrums – both fascinates and attracts me.
As always, McCall Smith’s writing is beautiful.
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.
Similar pleasures are to be found in The Novel Habit of Happiness, the latest full length entry in this series:
She looked at Jamie. “It may well be right to say that God doesn’t care. But…” She was not sure what she wanted to say about God. She thought that he might be there— embodied somehow in the perfection of the world, or in the sublime harmonies of a great work of music. Of course, if he was anywhere in music, she felt he was in the grave beauty of the motets of John Tavener, or in the more sublime passages of Bach. The architecture of such music was incompatible, Isabel thought, with a world that was meaningless.
Admittedly, the element of mystery tends to be at best tangential in these novels, but if you wish to spend time in the company of a woman whose restless personality is made up of equal parts intellect and passion – both, I would venture to say in prodigious amounts – then these books are for you.
I started Mick Herron’s Slough House series with the second entry, Dead Lions. Would that I had started at the beginning. Stylishly crafted and hugely entertaining, these novels are part murder mystery, part espionage, and feature fiendishly ingenious plots. Moreover, the cast of characters is…well, read them and find out for yourself. Here are the first three: . The fourth is due out here late next month. Oh, do hurry up; I’m no end impatient!
Finally, there’s my recent quirky predilection for Erle Stanley Gardners’s legal thrillers from the thirties. No, I don’t mean the Perry Mason novels but rather a series featuring District Attorney Doug Selby. As the series commences, Selby has recently been swept into office on the promise of cleansing the office of a recently acquired taint of corruption. He’s young and green, but he’s got fire in the belly. I’m rooting for him – and for his friend, reporter Sylvia Martin.
So far, I’ve read the above two novels in the series. I look forward to reading more. From what I can tell, they’re out of print and not available as ebooks. However, the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam books, written by Gardner under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, have begun to appear courtesy of Hard Case Crime. I’ve already downloaded this one:
Erle Stanley Gardner eventually had to shutter his law practice in order to make room in his life for his writing compulsion. Have a look at his bibliography and you’ll understand why.
[Click here for part one.]
I always return to books about the classical world. This year I read three: Searching for Sappho: the lost songs and world of the first woman poet, by Philip Freeman; The Classical World: the foundations of the West and the enduring legacy of antiquity, by Nigel Spivey; and Dynasty: the rise and fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland. All excellent, highly readable, and recommended.
I must say, I found some fabulous images for the post I wrote on A.S. Byatt’s Peacock & Vine. Have a look!
Pursuits of both an intellectual and an amorous nature are gracefully intertwined in John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story. And in The Vanishing Velasquez, author Laura Cumming, motivated by the need to escape the pain of a deep personal loss, embarks on an investigation into a fascinating mystery of the art world.
A Thousand Hills To Heaven by Josh Ruxin is a book I’d planned to read out of a sense of duty. But it turned out to be a joy and an inspiration. From the horrors of genocide, Rwanda is emerging as a country ready and eager to enter the modern world. Help from committed individuals like Josh and Alissa Ruxin combined with the resilience and resourcefulness of the native population is creating a wondrous new reality. (Be sure to watch the video embedded in this post – it is heart-lifting.)
Finally, two biographies and one travel book – all three absolutely super.
It’s been a while since I read Andrea Wulf’s revelatory life of Alexander Von Humboldt. I can only say that while reading this book – mesmerized by it – the ‘new world’ of this brilliant scientist became my new world as well. I feel deeply grateful to Andrea Wulf for this gift. (Calling this work a “thrilling new biography,” the write-up in The New York Review of Books pretty much says it all.)
“Erased from history: Too many women writers — like Constance Fenimore Woolson — are left to languish in moldy archives. What will it take to bring them back?”
Thus did Anne Boyd Rioux title an article she wrote for Salon earlier this year. Rioux herself has done yeoman work in restoring a worthy author to her rightful place in the history of American literature.
I began this particular reading adventure with the short stories featured in Miss Grief. Woolson was writing about post-Civil War American, in particular the Great Lakes Region and then the South. It seems to me that she was writing about people and places that had been overlooked by others. And having lived in both regions, she wrote about them knowledgeably and beautifully.
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. The bristling reeds, like companies of free-lances, rode boldly out here and
there into the deeps, trying to conquer more territory for the grasses, but the currents were hard to conquer; they dismounted the free-lances, and flowed over their submerged heads; they beat them down with assaulting ripples; they broke their backs so effectually that the bravest had no spirit left, but trailed along, limp and bedraggled. And, if by chance the lances succeeded in stretching their forces across from one little shore to another, then the unconquered currents forced their way between the closely serried ranks of the enemy, and flowed on as gayly as ever, leaving the grasses sitting hopeless on the bank; for they needed solid ground for their delicate feet, these graceful ladies in green.
From “St. Clair Flats” in Castle Nowhere:Lake Country Sketches, 1875
At first, I thought Anne Boyd Rioux’s introduction to this volume would satisfy my curiosity about Constance Fenimore Woolson. Informative as it was, however, it proved inadequate, for this reader, at least. I decided to read Rioux’s full length biography of this unaccountably neglected writer. It proved fascinating. As with most really good biographies, it opened a window onto a whole period of history; namely, post-Civil War America and the European expatriate scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Born in New Hampshire in 1840, Woolson grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where her family moved after the death of three of her sisters. Her father died in 1869, at which point she began publishing stories and essays in various magazines. She felt called to be a writer but money was also a very present problem.
As her story unfolds, Woolson’s life seems more and more poignant. Despite her obvious literary gifts, she had to struggle for recognition. She was befriended and aided by many, most notably Henry James. In fact, I ‘d heard of her previously through my reading about James. Her relationship with him is a very intriguing subject, one not easily resolved. I believe she was rather overshadowed by him; his attitude toward her authorial endeavors was distinctly ambivalent.
Woolson endured a lifelong struggle with encroaching deafness. She never married, and died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 53.
Reading these two books in tandem provided yet another example of the enriching experience of paired reading. Highly recommended, both for solitary readers and for book groups.
Finally, there is Deep South. There are simply not enough superlatives in the language for me to summon up in praise of Paul Theroux’s marvelous travelogue. He himself did not indulge in such language, describing his experiences with the places and people of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas in prose at once artless and powerful.
I just finished rereading Deep South in preparation for presenting it for a book group next month. At that time, I’ll write about it in more detail. Meanwhile I have already spoken of it, albeit briefly, in a post entitled Book list for a Friend, Part Two: Nonfiction.
In that same post, I wrote about some of the gorgeous art books that I’ve recently either acquired or obtained through interlibrary loan. These have been a big part of my nonfiction immersion this year. This trend continues, with these two titles from the library:
And finally, there’s this gift to myself, the Mother of All Art Books!
If you happen to be in the market for a gift for an art lover, this weighty tome is brand new and really quite sensational.
Meanwhile, I shall return, before too long, to Paul Theroux. In my opinion, with Deep South, he has written his masterwork.
This particular trend may not be as hot as it was in the heyday of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (published posthumously in 2005), but it’s still with us. For one thing, we continue to be fairly inundated by the Scandinavians. My long running favorites among them are Karin Fossum of Norway and Kjell Eriksson of Sweden. Jo Nesbo, also of Norway, is a perennial favorite of many crime fiction readers.
Icelandic authors have been receiving favorable notices: Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Arnaldur Indridason. And I’ve just learned of yet another from the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine: Ragnar Jonasson. Author of the Dark Iceland series – consisting so far of Snowblind and Nightblind – Mr. Jonasson is the recipient of the 2016 Mörda Dead Good Reader Award.
Currently I’m intrigued by a new (or newly translated) series written by Harri Nykänen. It’s set in Finland and features Inspector Ariel Kafka of the Violent Crime Unit; he’s identified by StopYoureKillingMe.com as “one of only two Jewish cops in the country.” Thus far, the first two series entries, Nights of Awe and Behind God’s Back, have been translated into English. I’ve just started Nights of Awe and it looks promising. Right off the bat it provides a vivid illustration of the challenges to English-speaking readers that can be posed by novels such as this:
Around eight I headed into town. I always took the same route: Fredrikinkatu to Iso Roobertinkatu, and once I hit Erottaja I headed past the Swedish Theatre down Keskuskatu to Aleksi, where I jumped on a tram.
Well, I’m glad he caught that tram; the spell checker was about to have a breakdown!
Last year, the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group focused mainly on international titles. As a result, we had some exceptionally good reading. My favorites were The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Japan), Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson (Sweden), and A Possibility of Violence by D. A. Mishani. I’m especially eager to read Mishani’s next entry in the Avraham Avraham series. The title in the States is The Man Who Wanted To Know Everything; it was released in this countryr on November 8 of this year.
The international crime fiction scene can be roughly divided into two categories: novels in translation and novels written in English and set in a foreign land. With regard to this latter category, the author is often one who over the years has acquired a deep knowledge of the locale in which his or her stories unfold. My favorite example of this scenario is Martin Walker’s series, Bruno, Chief of Police. As each of these novels unfolds, the reader is transported to the beautiful Perigord region in the south of of France. Indeed, while immersed in these delicious entertainments, I often give myself over to transports of delight: the scenery, the history – starting with the prehistory, the intriguing characters – oh, and the food!
The latest in the series is entitled Fatal Pursuit. As always, the communal life of the village is vividly depicted; it make one envious of what these people possess.
“Crepuscule, one of the loveliest words in our language, for one of the loveliest times of the day just as it gives way to night,” the baron said softly, gazing at the shifting planes of red and crimson light on the river. “Sitting here with wine and food and surrounded by friends as generations must have done before us in this very place, makes all the world’s troubles seem very far away.”
Immersed in the rich history of the region, the baron adds:
“Sometimes I imagine the prehistoric people sitting here on the riverbank, sharing their roast mammoth or whatever it was and watching the sun go down just like us.”
Concluding his reverie, the baron raises his glass in a toast: “‘I drink to them, whoever they were’.”
The baron has been conversing with Bruno, who knows hinself to be lucky to work and live in this caring and vibrant community. Among his many tasks, he’s in the process of training up his basset puppy, the wonderfully named Balzac, to hunt for black truffles, the diamonds of the Perigord.
Young as he was, Balzac seemed fearless, ready to chase away even a big fox. Feeling a sudden burst of affection, Bruno knelt down to stroke him and tell him what a fine hunting dog he would be.
A scene that encapsulated in a nutshell why I love both Bruno and Balzac.
With regard to French crime fiction: on the other hand…
Pascal Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge opens with a sympathetic portrait of a recently widowed woman in her sixties. Eliette Velard finds herself unexpectedly alone in the country house in which she and her husband had planned to live for the duration of his retirement years. She is melancholy but determined to make something meaningful of the years remaining to her. The pace of novel’s plot is at first quite leisurely, with Eliette meticulously preparing a jardiniere, a dish of thickly cut fresh vegetables. Cooking is followed by eating, which in turn is followed by a nap. Meanwhile, the nature of the countryside exerts its beneficent influence:
By the time she woke up, the rain had stopped. A baby-blue sky extended as far as the eye could see. There was a smell of washing powder in the air, of sheets drying on the breeze. In the garden the bay leaves were fringed with water, each droplet holding a ray of sunshine within it. All around, the mountains were steaming, streaked ochre and purple and foaming minty green to freshen the wind’s breath.
Oh, good, I thought: a slow-paced, reflective character study with, as Dorothy L. Sayers would say, ‘detective interruptions.’
Boy, was I wrong! First, there’s the apparition of sudden passion, followed by a neighbor gone inexplicably rogue, and…well, I invite you to read it and find out for yourself (available as a Kindle download for $8.99).
Of course, we cannot leave the subject of crime fiction in La Belle France without a nod and a salute to Georges Simenon. I’ve read and liked several of the so-called romans durs – Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Act of Passion – but the go-to books for me are the Maigret titles. I find it oddly consoling to spend time with L’Inspecteur and his team, all steady workers not prone to hysterics or high drama. And then there’s Madame Maigret, so low key she is almost no key, cooking and cleaning in their apartment on Boulevard Richard le Noir, cosseting her husband as if he were the child they never had.
Penguin’s reissues of these treasures, with newly commissioned translations, continue to appear with gratifying regularity. The latest one I’ve read is Maigret Gets Angry (Maigret Se Fâche), translated by Roz Schwartz. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself in Meung-sur-Loire, at the Maigret’s country house, where they’ve begun spending summers since his recent retirement.
It was cool inside the house, where there was a pleasant smell of wax polish, cut hay, ripening fruit and food simmering on the stove. It had taken Maigret fifty years to rediscover that smell, the smell of his childhood, of his parents’ house.
Inevitably, as with so many fictional detectives, retirement proves temporary. Maigret is soon summoned back into the thick of things, this time with a troubled family where death has paid a highly suspicious call.
I’ve only skimmed the surface of this subject in this post. The most comprehensive list of international crime fiction that I know of can be found on the StopYoureKillingMe site. Similar information can be found on Eurocrime. For several years now I’ve enjoyed G.J. Demko’s Landscapes in Crime. Demko, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Dartmouth, passed away in 2014; nevertheless, his site is still accessible online and is well worth visiting.
‘There was a chilled, numb feeling at the back of his mind, the feeling of one who has had ideals shattered, who has lost confidence in a friend, and a sense of vague, impending disaster hung over him.’ – The D.A. Calls It Murder, by Erle Stanley Gardner
The year is 1937. Doug Selby is a recently elected District Attorney in Madison City, a town of modest size not far from Los Angeles. Although he’s untested, he’s very keen. A mysterious death in a downtown hotel tests his mettle in ways that couldn’t have been foreseen.
The D.A. Calls It Murder is an excellent yarn, well told and bristling with the kind of snappy dialog that characterizes crime fiction of that era. More than that, it was, at least for this reader, an experience in time travel. We find ourselves in a world where telephones are not always available when and where needed, and sending telegrams is often easier – and cheaper – than making long distance calls The idiosyncrasies of typewriters can provide crucial evidence in a murder case, as can laundry marks found on the victims clothing, including his starched collars.
I became intrigued with this brief series after reading an article in the Fall 2016 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine. In “Erle Stanley Gardner…for the Prosecution?” author Michael Mallory provides a number of useful insights on the Selby novels:
Clever plotting was always among Gardner’s strongest skills, and the plots for the Selby books are complex, ingenious, and follow a distinct pattern in which one story thread emanates from within Madison City while a second story thread arrives in town like a visitor from the outside world.
This is, in fact, just what happens in The D.A. Calls It Murder. The novel could certainly be describes as plot-driven; nevertheless, I was pleased to encounter several almost lyrical descriptive passages. In fact, the writing as a whole was better than I’d expected it to be:
It was one of those clear, cold nights with a dry cold wind blowing in from the desert. The stars blazed down with steady brilliance. The northeast wind was surprisingly insistent. Selby buttoned his coat, pushed his hands into the deep side pockets and walked with long, swinging strides.
I could not help but be reminded of the famous opening of Raymond Chandler’s 1938 short story “Red Wind”:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
Selby is a likeable protagonist; Mallory describes him as “a handsome, pipe-puffing, remarkably even-tempered reformer….” Another character whose presence on the scene I greatly enjoyed is Sylvia Martin, the enterprising reporter and friend – possibly more than friend? – of Selby’s. (She’s rather in the Lois Lane mode.) As the novel’s setting is not far from Hollywood, show business almost inevitably manages to intrude upon the proceedings. The intrusion takes the form of the actress Shirley Arden, a seductive beauty whose connection to the hotel killing is key to unraveling the mystery.
The D.A, Calls It Murder came out as the noir style in crime fiction was in its ascendancy. Dashiell Hammett’s career as a writer was pretty well over (hard to believe), while Raymond Chandler, who’d been churning out stories and articles at a rapid rate, was about to embark on a stellar career as a novelist, starting with 1939’s fully formed masterpiece, The Big Sleep. In this first Doug Selby novel, Gardner does not partake much of that ethos, although the flavor of noir lingo can be detected in certain snatches of dialog. Here, Selby has one of his rare flare-ups of temper directed at actress Shirley Arden’s slippery manager:
“You promised me to have Shirley Arden here at eight o’clock. I’m already being put on the pan for falling for this Hollywood hooey. I don’t propose to be made the goat.”
Here’s the list of Doug Selby novels:
The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937)
The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)
The sheer volume of Erle Stanley Gardner’s literary output is truly staggering. Obtaining individual items from this vast oeuvre can be something of a challenge. Here’s what the sole copy of The D.A. Calls It Murder available from Interlibrary Loan looks like:
Michael Mallory concludes his article thus:
With their amazingly deft plots, lightning pacing, constant twists, and offbeat characters, Erle Stanley Gardner’s D.A. novels deserve to be better known and read.
I agree completely. I’ve already got my request into Interlibrary Loan for The D.A. Holds a Candle.
This is a rather unusual book – at least, for this reader it was. A lively yet dense traversal of the history of American philosophy is interwoven with the story of a sense of personal inadequacy brought on by the failure of a marriage. But our hero’s quest culminates in the excavation and salvation of a precious collection of books. At the same time that this intellectual quest is playing out, our hero – John Kaag by name – is falling in love with a fellow researcher.
Redemption on two fronts!
The philosophers Kaag writes about were deep thinkers and, at times, profound pessimists. They thought a great deal about questions such as the meaning of life; often their response to these inquiries was bleak. Preeminent among these is William James, older brother brother of the novelist Henry and a famed philosopher and psychologist in his own right:
James knew something the faithful often miss: that believing in life’s worth, for many people, is a recurring struggle.
Kaag goes on to tell us that in the 1870s, James deliberately overdoes on chloral hydrate “for the fun of it.” He wrote Henry that he wanted to see how close he could get to death without actually dying. Around this time, he would have been in his thirties.
Yet just few pages later, the author hastens to reassure us:
The appropriate response to our existential situation is not, at least for James, utter despair or suicide, but rather the repeated,ardent, yearning attempt to make good on life’s tenuous possibilities.
Kaag adds that “the possibilities are out there, often in the most unlikely places.”
Well, gosh, do tell – and quickly, please.
And he does.
For Kaag, in the short term, those possibilities lie in the exploration of the library of the Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. The library is located at West Wind, the Hocking estate located in a remote area of rural New Hampshire. This aging and sadly neglected edifice is filled with priceless volumes – first editions of seminal works in philosophy, classics containing marginalia by William James and others.
A tremendous amount of food for thought, the collection had also for some time served as food for various insects and vermin. In addition, mouse droppings were frequently found. In other words, the library was in desperate need of rescuing. Kaag plunges in with a will. He clearly loves his subject. And he just as clearly needs to be distracted from his personal problems. The work of examining and cataloguing numerous volumes provides the scaffolding for the story of American philosophy that Kaag sets about constructing.
The cast of characters in this book is large. Some of the names were familiar; others not, at least not to me. It was a pleasure to encounter Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and to have a chance to view them in the context of the history of philosophy. Charles Sanders Peirce and Josiah Royce were names unknown to me; I was glad to make their acquaintance. To my surprise and pleasure, May Sarton and Pearl Buck also figure in this story. (I remember from my early days at the library a slender volume by Sarton that we cat lovers cherished: The Fur Person.)
The presence of Dante in this narrative both intrigued and enlightened this reader. The Divine Comedy was though to contained the summit of human wisdom – so much so that in the 1860s, it was installed as the central text in Harvard’s intellectual firmament. The poet James Russell Lowell proclaimed it to be “‘…a diary of the human soul in its journey upwards from error through repentance to atonement with God.'”
Personal salvation wasn’t just a single triumphant moment of beatific insight, as some of the Transcendentalists had suggested. Moments of insight do occasionally happen, but Dante’s point is that the real trick to salvation is that there is no trick to salvation. It’s just work, plain and not at all simple. Salvation is revealed in the long road of freedom and love.
Then there were the eye glazing moments during which I felt that the discipline being described was the secular version of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This was nowhere more true than when Kaag was enlarging on the subject of analytic philosophy:
Analytic philosophers tend to understand philosophy as the task of parsing arguments, breaking down complex and confusing phenomena by analyzing their constituent parts. Like scientists at a laboratory bench, these thinkers dissect human experience in order to see how it ticks. Of course, this dissection often results in the distortion or destruction of the experience itself, but many analytic philosophers don’t seem to care. They scrutinize for a living.
Don’t know about you, but this sort of thing makes me want to run out to the nearest bar for a short beer (or not so short). But then, just a few pages on, you get this:
The beautiful soul was worth sacrificing everything for. Everything! Socrates stands before his neighbors and says the unthinkable–that there is something worse than death: living an ugly, wicked, boring life. This is not the stuff of Kant’s “pure reason.” It’s the stuff of personal vision, insight, and a foolhardy courage to speak the truth.
And finally, there’s this quotation from Hocking:
“The lover widens his experience as the non-lover cannot. He adds to the mass of his idea-world, and acquires thereby enhanced power to appreciate all things.”
(Oh – and speaking of love, there’s a most intriguing revelation concerning William James. I refer you to a New York Times article entitled “The Geography of Religious Experience” by Christopher Shaw.)
I could go on to expand on subjects such as pragmatism and determinism, but really, it would be just too darn hard – for me, anyway, and possibly for you too, Dear Reader. Instead, I’ll note this strange and fascinating phenomenon from history that Kaag shares with his readers toward the end of the book:
In the medieval era it was not uncommon to bury the bones of the dead in buildings–for example, in the floors and walls of chapels across the British Isles. It is believed that these remains not only served as safeguards against demons but also had a more practical function: They were good for the acoustics. The songs of the living, reverberating through these dead remains, could escape the earthen walls and begin their ascent.
(In 2005, while we were visiting the ruins of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, our guide explained to us at one point that we were standing in the room in which the monks offered up their chants in praise of God. “I like to think,” she added, “that these walls are impregnated with their song.”)
I’m interested in the relationship between philosophy and religion. I sometimes think that for some people, philosophical thought is a substitute for religious belief. But from what I’ve gathered, from this book at least, one does not preclude the other.
I’ve only skimmed the surface in this write-up. Though getting through this book requires some perseverance, it is well worth it. Highly recommended.