I was happy to return to the Lake District Series of crime novels written by Martin Edwards. In The Dungeon House, a cold case casts a sinister shadow over the lives of those who still feel its effects. Meanwhile, the relationship between Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind is getting warmer, albeit rather cautiously.
Twenty years prior to the novel’s main action, Malcolm Whiteley hosted a barbecue for friends and family at his residence, the rather ominously named Dungeon House. This seemingly celebratory occasion ended in terrible violence, but the question of exactly who was responsible has never been resolved in a manner that satisfied everyone. This is the cold case that DCI Hannah Scarlett inherits. As her investigation proceeds, troubling new events occur: disappearances, and even deaths, darken the beautiful Lake District landscape which forms the novel’s setting.
Meanwhile Daniel Kind, a gifted and sought after lecturer, is preparing to give a talk on the history of murder. Daniel has a penchant for choosing provocative topics. In The Serpent Pool (2010), his subject is the mercurial Thomas De Quincey. (I’ve read The Serpent Pool, but I may return to it, my interest in De Quincey having recently been stimulated by Grevel Lindop’s fascinating biography.)
In the words of the Kirkus review of Dungeon House, Martin Edwards “works exceptionally close to his characters.” Because of this, Hannah, Daniel and company are vivid and true to life. The plot is extremely complex – I admit that I lost the thread at several points – but as is invariably the case when I read crime fiction, my connection with the characters more than compensated.
Both Grevel Lindop and Martin Edwards are scheduled to meet with us on our British Mystery Trip in July.
I continue to enjoy Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby novels. There are nine in total; The D.A. Goes To Trial, published in 1940, is the fourth in the series.
Unsurprisingly, this novel is quite plot driven. But there are also descriptive passages like the one with which the story commences:
Streaks of eastern color appeared behind the mountains separating the rich orchard land from the desert. The night had been cold, although not cold enough for smudging. A light layer of frost coated the lower levels where the railroad trestled its way across the dry, sandy wash.
Out on the mesa land could be heard the hoarse bark of tractors as ranchers, bundled against the cold, pulled plows across the fertile soil.
Gardner says a lot with a little, I think. (And how I love all things California, both past and present….)
At any rate, as I said, the Selby novels are primarily plot driven, this one especially so. I have to admit, I got lost around the far turn several times. But it didn’t matter; I was so enjoying the company I was in.
Reminders abounded of how times have changed between now and then. In one scene Sylvia Martin, who is accompanying Doug on a chartered flight to Arizona, makes the following suggestion: “Let’s switch out the lights while we have our cigarettes….”
In addition, there are the old fashioned dial telephones without so much as a voicemail service, the cigarettes rolled on the spot with papers and loose tobacco, and the hobos – defined by Wikipedia as “a migratory worker or homeless vagabond, especially one who is impoverished.” – Such individuals are still a presence on the landscape, even as the Depression gives way to the industrial boom brought on by the Second World War.
The publisher provides this handy come-on at the front of the book:
Here you will find a battered body under a railroad trestle…a vanished bookkeeper…a wire from a man who wasn’t there…a girl who fought Doug because she couldn’t have him…a political game with Doug as the goat. And a set of fingerprints that simply had to be where they weren’t–and couldn’t be where they were!
Doug’s on his way again, with the able assistance of Sylvia Martin, the lovely young reporter with a nose for news and an eye for Doug.
Regrettably, in the course of this narrative, Gardner occasionally refers to Mexican laborers in derogatory terms. This kind of heedless denigration is something one encounters from time to time in crime fiction from the 1930s and 1940s. On the other hand, Sylvia Martin, “the lovely young reporter” alluded to above, is a woman whose brains are more than equal to her looks. She’s a welcome contrast to the female characters who frequently populate works in this genre, in the same period. These tend to be either poor broken flowers wholly dependent on a man – or several men – to fix their lives, or else they are dangerous sirens who use their sexual allure to tame and trap the men in their lives.
That said, there is another continuing female character in this series who treads a somewhat odd middle ground. Her name is Inez Stapleton; she’s connected to Doug via common experiences shared in years past. Read the books and try to figure out for yourself what her game is.
Here’s the complete list of novels in this series::
|Doug Selby, the district attorney in fictional Madison County, California:|
|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)
(Thanks to StopYoureKillingMe.com for this information.)
I’ve recently discovered that two of these books are currently in print courtesy of a small press called House of Stratus:
Why just these two? No idea. However, I’m grateful, anyway.
My copy of The D.A. Goes To Trial, obtained through interlibrary loan, is in a gray library binding. But I had fun looking on line for something more colorful. Here are several that I found:
And now: on to The D.A. Cooks a Goose!
‘Metta Fuller Victor was the first writer, male or female, to produce full-length detective novels in the United States….’
There is something unearthly in the scream of the “steam-eagle,” especially when heard at night.
Indeed: a train roars into Peekskill, New York, and with it comes heartbreak.
Metta Fuller Victor evokes fear, anxiety, and above all, compulsive curiosity in The Dead Letter. Right at this remarkable novel’s outset, a blameless young man is found brutally murdered. Lives are upended; one in particular, devoured by grief, will never recover. It is left to others to solve this baffling crime.
Here the mansion lay, bathed in the rich sunshine; the garden sparkled with flowers as the river with ripples, so full, as it were, of conscious, joyous life, while the master of all lay in a darkened room awaiting his narrow coffin. Never had the uncertainty of human purposes so impressed me as when I looked abroad over that stately residence and thought of the prosperous future which had come to so awful a standstill.
I am much drawn to the loveliness and grace of this writing, and it is here present in abundance. If at times it shades into melodrama, no matter. The core sentiments are real and moving.
The edition pictured above comes from the Duke University Press; as you can see, it includes a second work by Victor, The Figure Eight. This I have not read yet but am greatly looking forward to doing so. I strongly recommend Catherine Ross Nickerson’s highly informative and enlightening introduction to this volume, from which the title of this post is taken. She offers this pithy summation of Victor’s life:
We do not have a great deal of information on the life of Metta Fuller Victor, though we do have her prolific legacy of fiction. Born in 1831, she grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio and attended a female seminary. She began to write poetry as a teenager, often with her sister Frances Fuller, and the two published a volume of poetry when Metta Fuller was twenty.
She went on to a remarkable career in the dime novel and was successful in several genres for both children and adults: the western, the romance, temperance novels, and rags-to-riches tales. She wrote relatively little under her own name and chose different pseudonyms for different genres, a practice that allowed her to develop a following among several sectors of readers. When she was twenty-five, she married Orville Victor, editor of Beadle and Adams, and it seems fair to say that she built the Beadle empire of publications with him. She was editor of Beadle’s Home and Beadle’s Monthly, in which The Dead Letter first appeared in serial form in 1866. Victor was best known for an abolitionist dime novel (which she published under her own name) called Maum Guinea and Her Plantation “Children” (1861). Alongside this highly productive career in letters, she raised nine children.
As for Victor’s work, Nickerson is of the opinion that Victor was instrumental in
…creating an identifiable tradition of women’s detective fiction that extends well into the twentieth century. The close association of that tradition with an earlier body of popular women’s writing, the domestic novel of the 1850s, produced a style we can call domestic detective fiction because of its distinctive interest in moral questions regarding family, home, and women’s experience.
The Dead Letter held me from beginning to end. The characters were believable and sympathetic; the plot was elegantly constructed and at the same time gripping. As a window on a past world, it was particularly appealing.
Hard to believe that this eminently readable novel was published in 1867.
‘A few prayers, word of the Book, nod of the head, and into the ground sharp.’ – Skin and Bone by Robin Blake
Titus Cragg is Coroner to the town of Preston, in Lancashire, in the 1740s. I do not give the exact date because this series advances one year per entry. Skin and Bone is the fourth such.
In the first, A Dark Anatomy, we meet Titus and his close friend, the physician Luke Fidelis. From time to time, Luke lends his assistance in Titus’s death investigations. His expertise often proves invaluable.
In Skin and Bone, the mystery commences with the discovery of the body of an infant. Neither the child’s identity nor the cause of death are known. Pursuing the answer to these questions lands Titus in a world of trouble he could not have anticipated.
Blake’s plots are well wrought, but the real joy of this series lies in his meticulous evocation of mid-eighteenth century England. Details describing the workings of the coroner’s office are particularly fascinating. The characters are eminently real. believable, and appealing, for the most part. A particular pleasure is the depiction of the marriage of Titus Cragg and his wife Elizabeth. With their steadfast devotion to one another, and in particular her staunch loyalty to her often beleaguered husband, we witness first hand the source of their strength.
Titus and Elizabeth eagerly await the coming of a child into their lives. Elizabeth in particular has to fight impatience and anxiety on this score. Titus is well aware of her struggle. Early in the novel, this exchange occurs:
Her mocking tone had long gone and, now, tears were glinting in her eyes.
‘My dearest wife,’ I said, kneeling by her chair and clasping her hands. ‘You are not yet thirty and God is merciful. It is not too late for you–for us–I am sure of it.’
A simple yet moving statement of faith.
I am somewhat perplexed that this series is not better known. I would rate it without hesitation among the very best of the historical mysteries. One thinks of the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters and C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series.
Do yourself a favor and start with the first, so that the novels’ cumulative effect can work freely on your imagination. For myself, I eagerly await the fifth.
If Jeremy Thorpe were a character in a novel of political intrigue, reviewers and readers alike would cry out, “Oh, that’s so over the top!” For an excellent summing up of the intricacy and sheer weirdness of this story, read this write-up in the Guardian.
At the time that I picked this book up, I was in need of something that would hold my interest – with little or no effort on my part – from first to last. A Very English Scandal – sometimes sordid but never dull – proved to be just the ticket.
Now, the mysteries:
In his informative and entertaining Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, Barry Forshaw describes Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target as “…vintage MacDonald and one of the best post-Chandler private eye novels, with a palpable sense of evil.”
So that naturally sent me back to one of my favorite writers of crime fiction. The Moving Target was one of the few Lew Archer novels I’d never read. Published in 1949, it’s the first in the series. I thought it might be too obviously a journeyman effort. As I began reading, I thought my fears were confirmed. He’s toiling too much, I thought, in the dark, dark shade of Raymond Chandler.
And yet, and yet…as the narrative developed, the prose took flight, out from behind the Chandler shadow and into the brilliant sun of southern California:
The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon’s mouth, bright blue and polished like a stone. Private property: color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small.
There is an element of bitterness, even at times self-loathing, that emerges from time to time in the character of Lew Archer. We don’t know where it comes from; we’re told very little, if anything, about his background and personal life. I would have liked to know more. I was in a state of heightened intrigue as I read this novel, and the others. I’ve always wanted him to fall in love, but the women that he meets in the course of his investigations are either unworthy of him or unavailable, for one reason or another.
The Moving Target has its moments, but I think for those new to the oeuvre, it can be safely passed over in favor of later works, in particular The Doomsters, The Far Side of the Dollar, The Galton Case, The Underground Man, The Chill, and of course, The Zebra-Striped Hearse. Then, of course, you can do as I’ve done and go back and read them all.
Sue Grafton on Ross MacDonald:
If Dashiell Hammett can be said to have injected the hard-boiled detective novel with its primitive force, and Raymond Chandler gave shape to its prevailing tone, it was Ken Millar, writing as Ross Macdonald, who gave the genre its current respectability, generating a worldwide readership that has paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps.
This next is going to be a very short review of a very long book – well, maybe not very long, but in my view, rather longer than it needed to be. In regard to my current reading life, the chief virtue of The Grave Tattoo (2006) is its setting in the Lake District, an area of preternatural beauty in the far north of England. God willing, and I fervently hope that He will be, we are set to go there in July, and to York as well.
This trip comes accompanied by a marvelous reading list. Those of us who love to travel and love to read know well that combining these two activities is one of life’s great pleasures. (Thanks are due for the trip’s literary component to Kathy of British Mystery Trips.)
The plot of Val McDermid’s novel concerns the doings of a Wordsworth scholar, a forensic anthropologist, a dealer in rare documents, a precocious and endangered adolescent girl, various law enforcement personnel, and others. It’s a densely woven narrative. At the outset, we are treated to a lengthy disquisition on the life and mystery surrounding Fletcher Christian, of all people. I almost gave up at that point, but I persevered, and actually I am glad that I did. Val McDermid has woven rather a fabulous tapestry here – if you can stick with it. And once the Fletcher Christian connection becomes clear, we’re treated to a very intriguing historical mystery. And I’m grateful to McDermid for her depiction of this special landscape:
[River] loved the place names too, with their echoes of another wave of invaders. The Vikings had left their mark on the places they occupied with suffixes–Ireby, Branthwaite, Whitrigg. And there were other wonderful names whose origins she knew nothing of–Blennerhasset, Dubwath and Bewaldeth. Driving from Carlisle to Keswick wasn’t just pretty, it was poetry in motion.
I have to say, though, that so far the most wonderful discovery gleaned from that reading list is The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.
George Hennessy knocked reverentially on the blue-and-green painted door of the modest bungalow on the outskirts of Fridaythorpe. He had never been to the village and found the name as pleasing as the appearance. “Thorpe” he knew to be an ancient Norse word for settlement but ‘Friday’ was unexplained. There was, he thought, probably a interesting story to the name.
(If you’re wondering whether there actually is such a place as Fridaythorpe – there is.)
Novels comprising the Hennessy and Yellich series used to arrive fairly regularly each year, Gift Wrapped having been the entry for 2013. When none arrived in 2014 or 2015 I became concerned…Was one of my favorite series now discontinued? Ergo, I was especially pleased to greet the appearance of 2016’s A Dreadful Past.
Crime solving is very much a group effort in these novels; George Hennessy’s team is comprised of a fairly stable cast of characters – stable both in their regular reappearance and their conduct. Their back stories are reiterated in each new novel. Some readers have complained about this, but I like it very much. It’s a sort of reaffirmation. Somerled Yellich is Hennessy’s second in command. Then there is Carmen Pharoah, a striking woman of West Indian heritage whose husband, also in law enforcement, was killed in action before she joined Hennessy’s team. Rounding out this tight knit group are Detective Constables Reginald Webster and Thompson Ventnor. They work together like the proverbial well oiled machine.
(From time to time, the reader will come upon a chapter heading like this:
In which a man becomes a woman, a name is mentioned and Carmen Pharoah and Somerled Yellich are severally at home to the most charitable reader.)
The particular case treated in this narrative is a cold one, twenty years of cold having accrued on the case of a triple homicide that nearly wiped out an entire family.. The only surviving member had been away at university at the time of the killings, and it is he, one Noel Middleton, who arrives at the police station with a very telling piece of evidence in the form of a Wedgwood vase. The piece had been stolen from his home at the time of the murders and has now turned up in an antique shop. While idly browsing some shop windows, Middleton had spotted it and known it for what it was.
I was amazed by what then happened as a result of this singular discovery. Read the book; I think you will be likewise astonished.
As they are set in the great and ancient city of York, these novels are also featured on the reading list for the trip. I was there for a day in 2005, and of course it was not nearly long enough. I was reading a book from this series, though I’m not sure which, at the time of my visit.
(Oh, for a different picture of this seemingly reclusive author…)
This is a gripping and disturbing novel. It is replete with the bursts of insight and powerful expression that readers of the fiction of Margaret Drabble have come to expect over the decades. I think of her as a writer of the old school. One finds in this novel no incursions into the realm of metafiction; the story unfolds in a more or less straightforward manner, though there is some shifting of time and place. The characters are for the most part in their seventies or thereabouts, as is their creator. And like their creator, they are highly literate and cultured people.
The mood is one of deep melancholy. Early on, Francesca Stubbs, one of the main characters in the narrative, recalls these lines from MacBeth:
And that which should accompany old age,As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,I must not look to have….
It’s rather an odd quote for Fran to be reflecting on, as she herself has quite a few friends. Some are in various stages of physical and/or mental decline, but others are still as robust and active as she herself is. In fact, some might say she overdoes it, driving all around the countryside in her capacity as inspector of facilities for the housing of the aged. She has two grown children, a son and a daughter, each rather odd in his or her own way, but basically caring and loving. And she prepares and delivers “plated meals” for her ex-husband Claude, who is bedridden as much by inclination as by necessity.
Fran’s occupation causes her to think a lot about the current state of death and dying. Her conclusions tend to be rather grim:
Her inspection of evolving models of residential care and care hoes for the elderly have made her aware of the infinitely clever and complex and inhumane delays and devices we create to avoid and deny death, to avoid fulfilling our destiny and arriving at our destination. And the result, in so many cases, has been that we arrive there not in good spirits, as we say our last farewells and greet the afterlife, but senseless, incontinent, demented, medicated into amnesia, aphasia, indignity. Old fools, who didn’t have the courage to have that last whiskey and set their bedding on fire with a last cigarette.
Good grief. After that, you may be shuddering and thinking, why would I want to read this book? Here’s the thing, though: the interactions among the characters are rich and memorable. You come to care greatly about both their lives and their deaths. And believe it or not: There’s humor, too, although mostly of a decidedly dark caste.
Much of the novel’s action takes place in England – a mostly rainy, chilly England – but a good portion takes place in the Canary Islands. This sunlit, idyllic locale is home to Ivor and Bennett, writers and literary gentlemen. These two have been quietly devoted to each other for decades. They still have a connection to Britain, and friends from there cycle in and out of their lives, most notably Fran’s son Christopher. Drabble renders this setting so vividly that you’ll want to up sticks and go there (especially if you’re experiencing dreary weather in your current habitation.)
Ivor is younger than Bennett, but both are aging into that realm of uncertainty which precedes death:
Bennett is here for his health and Ivor is here because Bennett needs him to be here….Ivor needs Bennett because Bennett holds the purse strings. It is too depressing, and yet not ignoble. They are bound together by the needs which succeed love, by the needs which succeed sex and affection. Ivor does not like thinking in these terms, but it is hard to avoid them. They sit by him, these considerations, looking at him from time to time, as does the pretty collared dove with its pale and pearly plumage.
Ivor has begun to seek solace in visits to a small chapel on the island. He tells no one he is doing this, not even Bennett. Especially not Bennett. Ivor’s wordless prayers ascend upwards.
It may be a false solace, but there’s more truth in it than in the endless discussions about doctors, diets, symptoms and medications, about dwindling royalties and bad reviews by old enemies, about the menace of e-books and the demise of booksellers and the new historiography.
Fran’s reflections on the subject of religion run along a decidedly different track:
She has known some who have lost their faith late in life, in their sixties, in their seventies, even in their eighties. Because the human story is so very disappointing, because the cruelty of it is so very great, and God’s care of his creation so hard to interpret.
‘God’s care of his creation’….That phrase really gave me pause. I had that reaction frequently while reading this provocative, no-punches-pulled novel.
One of the most appealing characters in The Dark Flood Rises is a friend of Fran’s named Teresa Quin. Teresa is ill with cancer and has not much longer to live and knows it. She’s resigned to her fate, and gracious in her resignation. Her chief desire is to see her son Luke, a physician in Africa, before she passes. This wish is granted. Luke reaches her in time. “Teresa is elated.”
The Dark Flood Rises is a profound meditation on death, but to me it seems an equally profound meditation on life: “O make the most of what we yet may spend….”. It has in it some of the qualities that Peter Ackroyd, in his book Albion, ascribes to the English temperament in general, and to the King Arthur legends in particular:
The story of Arthur has always been striated with sensations of loss and of transitoriness, which may well account for its central place within the English imagination; the native sensibility is touched with melancholy…and the sad fate of Arthur and his kingdom corresponds to that national mood. There is something, too, of determination and endurance within this dominant sensation. Some men say that Arthur will rise again; we must endure our going hence. It is the kind of stoicism which as been seen as characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, perhaps nowhere better expressed than in “The Battle of Malden” where the most famous Saxon or English cry has been rendered–“Courage must be the firmer, heart the bolder, spirit must be the greater, as our strength grows less.” That combination of bravery and fatalism, endurance and understatement, is the defining mood of Arthurian legend.
This also puts me in mind of the magnificent closing lines of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses:”
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’We are not now that strength which in old daysMoved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;One equal temper of heroic hearts,Made weak by time and fate, but strong in willTo strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
This novel’s title is taken from the poem “The Ship of Death” by D.H. Lawrence.
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.