Killing with Confetti by Peter Lovesey

August 18, 2019 at 12:35 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

To begin with, this title required some patience on my part. Peter Diamond doesn’t appear until page 77. I wasn’t sure I was all that fascinated by what was going on while I awaited his entrance into the narrative.

Well – O ye of little faith! The story took off like a race horse. And I was so glad once again to be among the usual cast of characters. Peter’s team consists of Keith Halliwell, his second in command, Ingeborg Smith,  and John Leaman. All three are distinct individuals with a wide array of skills; in addition, they are excellent investigators. Other officers are available for support and assistance. I enjoy spending time with all of them.

Peter occasionally locks horns with his immediate superior, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore. For her part, ACC Dallymore has a way of toadying in the presence of Deputy Chief Constable George Brace, her own superior, that is positively revolting!  DCC Brace’s son is in the midst of planning his wedding, and there are issues with this event, to put it mildly. Unfortunately for Peter, DCC Dallymore has volunteered him for chief of security in regard to the upcoming nuptials. It’s an assignmemt that he’d do anything to avoid, but alas, there’s no way out.

As usual, this latest Peter Diamond outing is a mix of humor and suspense. And Lovesey takes full advantage of the wonderful setting of Bath. This time, the action centers on Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths.

Bath Abbey

Roman Baths

Peter Lovesey is surely one of the wittiest, most adept, most literary practitioners of crime fiction writing today. He’s had a long and deservedly successful run; I am already looking forward to the next Peter Diamond adventure!

Peter Lovesey

 

 

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‘His cursor hovered over the send button for a moment and then, with the terrified bravery of a defeated general plunging his sword into his own abdomen, he clicked it.’ –A Philosophy of Ruin by Nicholas Mancusi

August 17, 2019 at 2:59 pm (Book review, books, Crime)

Oscar Boatwright is a 29-yearold professor of philosophy at an unnamed California college. He is single and lives in a small apartment. It’s a frugal, almost ascetic existence, in which nothing very dramatic occurs. Then things begin to happen.

This is the novel’s opening sentence:

Oscar Boatwright’s mother had died in her seat during a  flight from Hawaii to California, and his father had been made to sit for three hours in the same aircraft as her cooling body.

Every traveler’s nightmare, right? This awful happening and Oscar’s grief over it underlie all that happens next.  And as if this is not enough, his father has some disturbing revelations to impart.

But this is not what the novel is actually about, or not entirely. Oscar flies back home to Indiana with his father (also accompanied by his mother’s ‘remains’). After the funeral, he returns to California. He is still disoriented by grief. Over the weekend, after a short stint at a bar, he takes a comely young woman home. He doesn’t actually know her. He beds her, and the sex is  great.  (I’d like to note at this point that the erotic passages in this book are beautifully written, no mean feat, as we all know.)

On Monday, Oscar returns to teaching. The semester is just beginning. It’s an Introduction to Philosophy class. He stands in front of the room, surveying the group. A disturbing revelation awaits him.

Now at this point, I thought I knew where the story was headed. I was wrong – very wrong. The narrative careens forward at a frenzied pace, toward developments that are completely unanticipated, at least by me.. The tension was so great  that I had to keep putting the book down, in order to regain some semblance of equilibrium. And all this time, the writing is replete with the kind of figurative language that I’m glad writers still know how to deploy.. It’s like firecrackers going off at irregular intervals. Oh, and there is humor, also, albeit of the darkest hue.

Oscar could feel a great force amassing itself just outside his city walls, just  beyond his perception, and for an instant he was able to appreciate the inevitability of his own destruction, truly understood with a loving acceptance, but the it was gone.
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Even when during the day he paused to suss out a point in a paper he was reading or to spar with an astute student (in other words, when he was “doing philosophy”), his thoughts had a way of functioning alongside language: solving problems, achieving tasks, figuring things out through dialectic. But in the dark, his thoughts became unhinged from physical or linguistic application and floated above him as a meaningless terror.

(That is some powerful cogitation. No wonder  he grabbed a beer right afterwards.)
***************

A line of Schopenhauer returned to him, one that he had committed to memory as an undergraduate: “Does it not look as if existence were an error the consequences of which gradually grow more and more manifest?” Once, he had found it funny.
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It is nighttime, like now, and the stars are even brighter, not yet robbed by science of  their mystery….
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Oscar understood that he was having one of  those moments, he figured you might only get one in each epoch of your life, where  the massive clockwork that ticks just outside  the boundaries of perception in order to maintain the motion of reality is revealed for a single instant, and something totally inexplicable and impossible becomes perfectly, obviously clear.
*************

The issue of free will versus determinism keeps percolating to the surface of this novel. Oscar has actually written a paper on combatibilism, a school of though which seeks to reconcile the two.

As I was reading this novel, I kept recalling the opening sentence of Dickens’s David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

In my estimation,  A Philosophy of Ruin is a bravura performance. I hope for more from this exceptionally gifted author.

Nicholas Mancusi

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Mystery news and views: the Dagger Award nominations

August 5, 2019 at 8:46 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, True crime)

Here are the shortlisted nominees for the 2019 Dagger Award, given by the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain:

Diamond Dagger Recipient: Robert Goddard

CWA Gold Dagger:
All the Hidden Truths, by Claire Askew (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Puppet Show, by M.W. Craven: (Constable)
What We Did, by Christobel Kent (Sphere)
Unto Us a Son Is Given, by Donna Leon (Heinemann)
American by Day, by Derek B Miller (Doubleday)
A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood (Scribner)

CWA John Creasey (New Blood):
All the Hidden Truths, by Claire Askew (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Boy at the Door, by Alex Dahl (Head of Zeus)
Scrublands, by Chris Hammer (Wildfire)
Turn a Blind Eye, by Vicky Newham (HQ)
Blood & Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Mantle)
Overkill, by Vanda Symon (Orenda)

CWA ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-fiction:
All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black (Doubleday)
Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime,
by Claire Harman (Viking)
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson (Hutchinson)
 An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere,
by Mikita Brottman (Viking)
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold (Doubleday)
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre (Viking)

CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger:
Give Me Your Hand, by Megan Abbott (Picador)
Safe Houses, by Dan Fesperman (Head of Zeus)
Killing Eve: No Tomorrow, by Luke Jennings (John Murray)
Lives Laid Away, by Stephen Mack Jones (Soho Crime)
To the Lions, by Holly Watt (Bloomsbury)
Memo from Turner, by Tim Willocks (Jonathan Cape)

CWA Sapere Books Historical Dagger:
The Quaker, by Liam McIlvanney (Harper Fiction)
Destroying Angel, by S.G. MacLean: (Quercus)
Smoke and Ashes, by Abir Mukherjee (Harvill Secker)
The House on Half Moon Street, by Alex Reeve (Raven)
Tombland, by C.J. Sansom: (Mantle)
Blood & Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Mantle)

CWA International Dagger:
A Long Night in Paris, by Dov Alfon;
translated by Daniella Zamir (Maclehose Press)
Weeping Waters, by Karin Brynard;
translated by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon (World Noir)
The Cold Summer, by Gianrico Carofiglio;
translated by Howard Curtis (Bitter Lemon Press)
Newcomer, by Keigo Higashino;
translated by Giles Murray (Little, Brown)
The Root of Evil, by Håkan Nesser;
translated by Sarah Death (Mantle)
The Forger, by Cay Rademacher;
translated by Peter Millar (Arcadia)

CWA Short Story Dagger:
“Strangers in a Pub,” by Martin Edwards (from Ten Year Stretch, edited by Martin Edwards and Adrian Muller; No Exit Press)
“Death Becomes Her,” by Syd Moore (from The Strange Casebook,
by Syd Moore; Point Blank Books)
“The Dummies’ Guide to Serial Killing,” by Danuta Reah (from The Dummies’ Guide to Serial Killing and Other Fantastic Female Fables,
by Danuta Reah [aka Danuta Kot]; Fantastic)
“I Detest Mozart,” by Teresa Solana (from The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, by Teresa Solana; Bitter Lemon Press)
“Bag Man,” by Lavie Tidhar (from The Outcast Hours,
edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin; Solaris)

Dagger in the Library:
M.C. Beaton
Mark Billingham
John Connolly
Kate Ellis
C.J. Sansom
Cath Staincliffe

Debut Dagger
(for the opening of a crime novel by an uncontracted writer):
Wake, by Shelley Burr
The Mourning Light, by Jerry Krause
Hardways, by Catherine Hendricks
The Firefly, by David Smith
A Thin Sharp Blade, by Fran Smith

Let me say right off the bat that I’m delighted to see Robert Goddard being honored in this way. I read his first novel, Past Caring, when it came out here in 1986 and recognized at once that he was an excellent new talent. Since then, he’s written twenty-six more novels, of which I’ve read some twelve or thirteen.

Goddard’s books are not conventional mysteries; rather, they’re a blend of some of the elements of crime fiction and those of espionage, novels, international intrigue, and often historical fiction as well. They’re gracefully written and not fiendishly complicated or stuffed with extraneous characters. There’s often a love story, either incipient or well under way.

Goddard’s oeuvre constitutes a mix a mix of stand-alones and limited series. Into the Blue, one of three novels featuring Harry Barnett, was filmed with John Thaw in the starring role.

Of the titles I’ve read, I’d especially recommend these:

For a complete list, click here.

I’ve read just a few of the fiction titles on this list. The Donna Leon – Well, I love every one of the Guido Brunetti novels, and as for as I’m concerned,  Unto Us a Son Is Given is just as good as its predecessors. Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott and Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman are both excellent. And a special shout out for C.J. Sansom’s Tombland, a marvelous, sprawling historical novel that had me so absorbed that I fairly flew through its 880 pages – no problem.

Finally, the category of non-fiction is where I’ve read the most. Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime by Claire Harman was interesting, though for me, it fell short of being truly gripping. I was intrigued, though by the description of  the public’s fevered obsession with the crime – the murder of an elderly aristocrat by one of his servants. It showed that today’s intense absorption in true crime is really nothing new, although on this particular morning, after a horrible bloody weekend in this country, people might be more inclined to turn away from the subject.

I know that The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson got excellent reviews, but for whatever reason it did not work for me. I got about fifty pages in and then gave up. All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black looks really good. I hadn’t heard of it before; at present, it resides on my already groaning night stand.

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman. I was really pleased to see that this book made the cut. The unexplained death in the title refers to the body of a young man, inexplicably found on a section of roofing of Brottman’s own apartment complex in Baltimore. Her investigation takes some strange turns until she reaches a conclusion. The book was riveting.

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre. Yet another terrific read. I’m not sure how or when I became so interested in  espionage, both fictional and actual, but I’ve had some excellent reading in the field in recent years. One of the best was also written by Macintyre: A Spy Among Friends, the story of the perpetually notorious traitor Kim Philby. The Spy and the Traitor is Philby in reverse: it’s the story of Oleg Gordievsky, who, during the Cold War, repeatedly risked his life to inform on his Russian spymasters for the benefit of British intelligence. The story of his exfiltration is as suspenseful as anything Le Carre ever dreamed up. (Charlotte Philby, granddaughter of Kim, has just published a novel entitled The Most Difficult Thing.)

  Finally, there is Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, in which the lives of each of Jack the Ripper’s five victims are explored and revealed in detail. This book to my mind is a triumph. These women are worth knowing about as distinct individuals who struggled constantly with poverty, displacement, and an uncaring environment. While reading this saga, I had to keep reminding myself that this was Victoria’s England, where royalty and aristocrats lived in splendor and had their every want and need catered to.

What a prodigious feat of research this book is! For my money, it should win every award in the book, and then some.

And before I close, I want to recommend Michael Dirda’s recent piece in the Washington Post on Somerset Maugham‘s Ashenden stories. Dirda says this about Maugham’s style:

While no one denies Maugham’s gifts as a storyteller, his prose has regularly been dismissed as pedestrian. Not so. It is plain, direct, natural, the language of a well-educated, civilized Englishman. If you would write perfectly, Maugham once declared, you should write as clearly, as urbanely as Voltaire, which is just what he himself tries to do.

When I read that, I wanted to stand up and cheer! (In fact, I may have actually done so. Husband Ron is  indulgent of such occasional outbursts; the last one occurred when Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature.)

  Ever since reading the 2009 biography of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings – reviewed and recommended by Michael Dirda in the Post – I’ve been delving into his novels and stories at regular intervals. I have to say, though, that  Ashenden: or the British Agent is well overdue a definitive new edition by a major publishing house. Knopf, New York Review Books, are you listening?

Click here to read “‘Ashenden’: the Perfect Late Summer Escape Read, and a Classic.”
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Dead Man’s Mistress by David Housewright

August 3, 2019 at 2:38 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is a nifty little caper novel in which an unlicensed private eye goes in search of three valuable paintings. The art works were boosted from the home of one Louise Wykoff, usually referred to as “that Wykoff Woman.” Now Louise was a sometime model and sometime lover of the artist, Randolph McInnis. Also in the picture is Mary Ann McInnis, widow of Randolph and enthusiastic hater of Louise.

Louise however, had no documentation as to their provenance of the paintings; and nor were they insured. Add to that, Louise, a painter herself, is a dab hand at mimicking Randolph’s style. So: who actually made this art? And to whom does it belong, stolen or not?

Enter the rather uniquely named Rushmore McKenzie, described in the jacket copy as “an occasional unlicensed private investigator.” Called simply McKenzie by just about everyone, he’s been asked to look into  the theft.  Soon he finds himself looking into a murder as well, one in which he himself is initially implicated.

Anyway, the cast of characters keeps getting larger, thus providing both McKenzie and the local police with plenty of suspects. Although cleared of involvement in the homicide, McKenzie is not necessarily cleared of suspicion. Why, you might ask, is McKenzie not licensed? The reason is that he’s been made independently wealthy by a generous legal settlement. He detects out of a genuine desire to help people and also for the sheer pleasure of it, not for the money. (This reminded me of Andy Carpenter the lawyer in the David Rosenfelt series, although in Andy’s case, his comfortable situation has been facilitated by a hefty inheritance.)

Dead Man’s Mistress has lots of snappy dialog in the tried and true gumshoe tradition. (I invariably come back to the classic line, spoken by Sam Spade, from The Maltese Falcon: “The cheaper  the crook, the gaudier the patter.”) The novel is lightweight and breezy and zips right along. And unexpectedly, it has a nicely realized sense of place. Most of the action takes place in and around Grand Marais, Minnesota. This is a recreational area that caters primarily to tourists. (That’s during the summer, of course – we are, after all, speaking of Minnesota.) I even learned of an actual yearly event that sounds rather wonderful:

Every August, reenactors from across the country dress in period attire and gather at the post for what is called the Grand Rendezvouz and pretend for three days to be living in the late eighteenth century.

This is just the kind of thing I love.

I liked McKenzie,  and as I was reading, I kept trying to recall who he reminded me of. Then I remembered: Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, of blessed memory.

 

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Joe Country, being the sixth entry in the Slough House series written by Mick Herron

July 29, 2019 at 10:45 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The action in Joe Country takes place primarily in Wales during a ferocious blizzard. And there is plenty of action, what with the disgraced spies of Slough House chasing, and being chased by, a host of bad actors. The trigger for all this mayhem is Louisa Guy’s determination to find Lucas Harper, the teen-aged son of Min Harper, her former and now deceased lover. Almost as soon as she arrives in Wales, Louisa goes dark, prompting her Slough House colleagues to mount a search mission. Things quickly become confused and dangerous. As always in this series, the dialog is arch, the plot is convoluted, and the mood is shot through with dark humor and bitter irony.

A glossary on the site Intelligence Search defines joe as ‘a deep-cover agent.’

Joe Country is the fifth full length novel in the Slough House series that I’ve read. I liked them all up until London Rules, which I didn’t especially care for. I thought it contained too much description of  the revolting comportment of Jackson Lamb, who’s head of the outfit. (I’ve seen him compared to Andy Dalziel of Reginald Hill‘s Dalziel and Pascoe series. I think Hill’s characterization is somewhat more subtle.) In this latest entry, Lamb is still pretty disgusting, but being as he’s monitoring events from London and not directly involved in the Welsh scrum, I found his presence in the narrative less of an annoyance.

As you can see from the Stop! You’re Killing Me entry, the Slough House novels have been a hit with critics and with many readers as well. But they don’t work for everyone. As of now, I’d say they definitely work for me. I fairly raced through Joe Country.

Mick Herron

 

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The Body in Question by Jill Ciment

July 21, 2019 at 6:39 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The jury selected for a murder trial is sequestered. In this close quartered isolation, two members – at first, known to us only as C-2 and F-17 – are strongly attracted to each other and begin a clandestine affair. C-2, a woman in her early fifties, is married to a man some thirty years her senior. She loves her husband deeply; he still possesses more than his quotient of robust physical energy and his mind remains questing and alert. (And yes, sex, too, is still in the mix.) yet C-2 feels powerless in the grip of this unsought after passion.

Admittedly, it was somewhat disconcerting reading about characters identified solely by a letter and a number. I felt at times as though I were reading about robots. But if so, this was a whole new take on robots. (This puts me in mind of Ian McEwan’s brilliant Machines Like Me.) I’ve rarely read a crime novel in which the feelings ran so high and so close to the surface.

The crime itself is especially horrendous; I wish it were less so. The burgeoning relationship distracts from it, which in this case is a blessing.

I was unsure from one minute to the next what the outcome would be. The writing was terrific.

You must steel yourself concerning the crime, but fortunately, the author does not dwell on particulars.

Recommended, but with the above mentioned caveat.

 

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Big Sky – My, oh My! or, Kate Atkinson does it again

July 14, 2019 at 7:44 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Many readers of crime fiction have  been impatiently awaiting the return of Jackson Brodie. Brodie last appeared in Started Early, Took My Dog, a 2010 novel  by Kate Atkinson, published in 2010. I never read that book. I read its predecessor, When Will There Be Good News, and found it somewhat disappointing. This was no doubt due to having absolutely loved Case Histories. Loved it enough, that is, to nominate it for future classic status.

For my money, Big Sky is a welcome return to form. Its excellence is due not especially to the presence of Jackson Brodie – though that in itself is  a  definite plus – but to the elegant plot structure, the masterful building of suspense, the strategic deployment of an irreverent and delightful wit, and above all, the concatenation of fascinating characters. Several ruthless yet charming men are involved in a singularly evil enterprise; their wives/partners are either clueless or have secrets of their own – or, somehow, both. There are children in the mix as well, including two teenage boys: Harry, a truly wonderful person, and Nathan, whose  overweening and sullen demeanor would have earned him, in former times, the back of someone’s hand across his smug countenance. (Nathan is Jackson Brodie’s son.)

The story is set in and around Scarborough, on England’s North Sea Coast.

He could see Whitby from here, two miles south along the beach, the skeleton of the abbey standing on top of the cliff.

In 2007, my husband and I were there:

I love the way that Atkinson’s characters pull in quotations seemingly from left field. Here’s DC Reggie Chase, observing an especially vivid sunset:

“‘See where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament.'” [From Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe]

I like this one too:

“Well, you know what the song says….You can check out but you can’t leave.” [The exact lines are: “You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave!” From the song Hotel California by The Eagles]

You wouldn’t know it from the stern countenance in this photo, but Kate Atkinson has a marvelous sense of humor.

Big Sky is vastly entertaining; however, I don’t think it’s Atkinson at her absolute best. That accolade, in my view, goes to Life After Life, a true tour de force.

 

 

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Two short but sincerely enthusiastic crime fiction recommendations

July 11, 2019 at 9:29 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Having greatly enjoyed The Word Is Murder, first in the Anthony Horowitz/Daniel Hawthorne series, I was eager to read The Sentence Is Death. I’m happy to report that it was just as much fun to read as its predecessor. I impatiently await the third entry in the series.

In a post from 2017, I said that if  there was an Anthony Horowitz fan club, I would gladly join. Offer still stands.

(Also don’t forget the standalone Magpie Murders.)
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  I also recommend The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan. This is the second mystery by McTiernan, who’s originally from Ireland but now lives in Australia. Like her first book, The Ruin, The Scholar is set in Ireland. I enjoyed The Ruin and knew I wanted to read The Scholar. As you might have guessed from the title, this novel has an academic setting. (I’m always on the lookout for crime fiction set in a school or college anyway.)

McTiernan shrewdly depicts the infighting, snobbery, and secretiveness that can be characteristic of  the upper eschelons of certain academic institutions. She writes extremely well. I look forward to her next mystery, and I hope that at some future time, she will set one in her new home Down Under.

 

 

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Three quick crime fiction reviews

June 27, 2019 at 1:14 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Booklist Magazine:

The voice that emerges from Josef’s diary  is one of a man struggling with the enduring issue that surfaces and resurfaces throughout espionage fiction, from Graham Greene to John LeCarre and Alan Furst: loyalty to country versus loyalty to the individual.

The setting is pre-World-War-Two Germany, in Hamm, to be specific, in the far north of the country. Josef Hoffmann has  come there in order to do work on behalf of international Communism. But he becomes involved in the life of Walter, the young son of the woman who runs his boarding house. Gradually he becomes like a substitute father to the boy.

As Josef’s emotional commitment to Walter grows, his commitment to “the cause” recedes. Eventually he must make a crucial decision.

What could be better than espionage with a beating heart at its center? I loved this book and would definitely read another by this author, David Downing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dan Fesperman was foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun before turning novelist. Having enjoyed The Small Boat of Great Sorrows -such an evocative title – and The Warlord’s Son, I have long wanted to get back to this writer. In the main, Safe Houses did not disappoint. It was, however, in my estimation, too long and filled with such a large number of characters that I had trouble keeping track of  them all. On the plus side, Helen Abell, the aptly named protagonist, is someone you want to root for. Her resourcefulness is deeply impressive; at the same time, she’s all too human, and vulnerable along with it.

Safe Houses opens in Berlin in the late 1970s. Additionally, the action takes place in Paris and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. (That last is a place we know fairly well, so that was kind of a bonus for this reader.) This is one of the hallmarks of espionage literature; there’s a great deal of restless movement from place to place. In this particular instance, Helen is trying to elude capture by a very sinister foe. The situation is full of irony; they both work for the same service.

The level of suspense would have been higher had the action been less attenuated. Still, on balance, I enjoyed Safe Houses and hope to read more books by Dan Fesperman.

  It’s mid-Victorian England, and there’s a madcap race on to catch a killer – to stop a dangerous conspiracy among people who believe that Darwin’s theories are nothing less than heretical.  Meanwhile, a true life policeman – Charles Field –  features in this fictional tale, while the fictional Field gets conflated with yet another policeman: Inspector Bucket, who issued forth from the fertile imagination of no less an author than Charles Dickens:

“That’s enough out of you, Brass Buttons, this man here is Detective Field!” Kilvert grew indignant. “Mr. Charles Dickens called him Bucket!”

“Shut up, Kilvert!” said Field. “Inspector Bucket of the Detective!”

“Kilvert, you ass,” said Field, “just get me out of this!”

As the inspector was released, there was renewed scrutiny from the crowd. It was clear that many of them had heard of Dickens’ fictional detective. For a person who did not in fact exist, Mr. Bucket was quite the celebrity, and so was his model.

I haven’t had this much just plain reading fun in a long time. This novel is a treasure!

 

 

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‘They began their lives in deficit.’ – The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

June 22, 2019 at 2:16 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  I’ve learned to stop describing this book as being about the five women murdered by Jack the Ripper. As soon as people hear those last three words they recoil in horror. But wait –

The Five is subtitled, The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. The book is about the lives of those five individuals up until the time of their respective demises in 1888. What it is most definitely not about is Jack the Ripper.

From the Amazon page:

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden, and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.

They were orphaned while still underage. They got caught in destructive marriages or relationships. They had a child, or children, whom they worked to support and protect. They often stayed in rooming houses that were at best insalubrious, sharing rooms, and even beds, with strangers. As many as 48.9 percent of English women of the ‘lower classes’ could not read or write.

This book contains many passages that are well nigh brutal in their depiction of what living in poverty did to these women. Even so, moments of great poignancy occur. In this one, Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, the Ripper’s first “canonical” victim, is identified by her estranged husband William, in the presence of Inspector Abberline. William and Polly were both entitled to their recriminations; yet they never stopped caring about each other:

Abberline noticed that the color had drained  from Nichols’ face. He was noticeably shaken by the sight and then broke down.
“I forgive you as you are.” He addressed Polly as if she were merely sleeping and the brutish cuts on her body had not ended her life. “I forgive you on account of what you have been to me.”
It took Williams some time to compose  himself. The coffin lid was moved back into place, and Abberline showed the grieving husband back across  the yard and into the station.

Some of  the environments in which both men and women had to live and work were truly terrible. They displayed the results of unrestrained and unregulated industrialization at its worst. Here, Rubenhold quotes a description of a “deadened, scorched landscape” that prevailed in the West Midlands in the mid-nineteenth century:

“On every side, and as far as the eye could see into the heavy distance, tall chimneys, crowding on each other, and presenting that endless repetition of the same dull, ugly form, which is the horror of oppressive dreams, poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air.”

(This, from Charles Dickens, who knew a thing or two about such conditions.) Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddoes was sent to live (with an aunt and uncle) and work in this place, sometimes referred to as the Black Country.

Hallie Rubenhold has done prodigious research and produced a fascinating recreation of a particular time and place. But most of all, The Five is a searing indictment of the conditions and expectations foisted upon the poor women of the nineteenth century. From the summing up at the book’s conclusion:

The cards were stacked against Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane from birth. They began their lives in deficit. Not only were most of them born into working-class families; they were also born female. Before they had even spoken their first words or taken their first steps, they were regarded as less important than their brothers and more of a burden on the world than their wealthier female counterparts.

One gets the feeling that this book, meticulously sourced and beautifully written, was in fact written in a mood of barely suppressed rage. The concluded chapter is called “Just Prostitutes;” and in it, the dam of the author’s anger is well and truly breached. She gives vent freely, as in these words:

A woman’s entire function was to support men, and if the roles of their male family members were to support the roles and needs of men wealthier than them, then the women at the bottom were driven like piles deeper and harder into the ground in order to bear the  weight of everyone else’s demands. A woman’s role was to produce children and to raise them, but because rudimentary contraception and published information about birth control was made virtually unavailable to the poor, they…had no real means of managing the size of their families or preventing an inevitable backslide into financial hardship. The inability to break this cycle–to better their own prospects and  those of their children–would have been soul crushing, but borne with resignation.

In the course of this book, the reader is made to witness the terrible struggle on the part of each of these women as they attempt to withstand the conditions foisted upon them, as they endure repeated pregnancies and try to care for sick and dying children, only to fall victim, finally, to the savage ministrations of Jack the Ripper.

One of Hallie Rubenhold’s chief goals in writing The Five is to put to rest the assumption that these women were prostitutes. Selling themselves was a desperate act when no other way of  getting money was available to them. Only the last, Mary-Jane Kelly, resorted to it with any kind of frequency.  The others, including Mary-Jane herself, engaged in any number of other kinds of back breaking labor – anything to put food on the table without resorting to the ultimate debasement. To write off each of these women as “just prostitutes” is a calumny which this author seeks to redress and prove to be untrue. She has succeeded, all the while telling a riveting and ultimately heartbreaking story.

Hallie Rubenhold

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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