Reading in a roundabout manner

August 9, 2020 at 1:13 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Most Thursdays in the Washington Post there appears a column by Michael Dirda in which an unusual book or literary trend is profiled. These pieces are always worthy of attention. This past Thursday’s, for instance, concerned the classic Japanese tradition of the locked room in crime writing. One of Dirda’s recommendations is a collection of short stories by Tetsuya Ayukawa; these were written  between 1954 and 1961, and the book containing them is called The Red Locked Room.   So I’ve now read the first story, “The White Locked Room,” and found it most cunning.  Currently, I’m part of the way through the next story, which is quite a bit longer. It’s called “Whose Body” (a title that of course at once put me in mind of the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel of the same title.) I’m enjoying these tales a great deal.

Meanwhile, the volume’s title put me in mind of a  classic American mystery that I read recently. It’s called The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers, a writer previously not known to me. Wikipedia tells us that Rogers  “…was an American writer who wrote science fiction, air-adventure, and mystery stories and a handful of mystery novels.”

Joel Townsley Rogers (1896-1984)

  This novel is one of a series called American Mystery Classics currently  being issued by Otto Penzler. Mr. Penzler, proprietor of New York City’s venerable Mysterious Bookshop, can be depended upon to further the interest in, and appreciation of, crime fiction among the general populace. In launching this excellent series (with, I might add, its delightful covers), he is doing all of us mystery lovers a great service.

Right from the get go, The Red Right Hand unnerved me. This is one of the most genuinely bewildering mysteries I’ve ever read. But over and above the strangeness of  the plot, there’s a feeling of dread that steadily deepens as the story moves forward. The time is just after the Second World War. Dr. Henry Riddle, a young surgeon from New York City, is driving upstate when he encounters a young woman in desperate need of help. She and her fiance, Inis St. Erme, had been on their way to Connecticut to get married when they picked up a hitchhiker. This strange little man seemed harmless enough – until he wasn’t. He had attacked Inis and made off with their vehicle. She herself had barely managed to escape before they drove off.

What happens next is…well, you need to read it and experience it for your self. Meanwhile, here is what e Booklist reviewer Emily Melton says:

When the full story is finally revealed in this disturbing nightmare of a whodunnit, it will well leave readers reeling. A must-read masterpiece, thankfully resurrected.




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‘The not-knowing is mad-making.’ The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands, by Jon Billman

August 2, 2020 at 6:26 pm (Book review, books)

  This is a book about persons who disappear, primarily those who go missing in the wilder regions of the Pacific Northwest. Typically, they have set off alone on a journey into one of these remote places, and, at some point, have ceased to provide evidence of  their whereabouts. Family and friends become concerned, then frantic. Various rescue organizations launch searches. The aforementioned family and friends often do the same, if they can.

In the Spring of 2017, Jacob Gray planned a long distance bicycling journey through Olympic National Park in Washington State. In April, Jacob’s red bicycle was found, along with a number of other items, lying beside a trail in the park. The young man’s whereabouts could not be determined. Family, friends, and search and rescue organizations embarked on a search that lasted for well over a year but seemed to  go on forever.

Billman tells numerous other tales of persons lost in the wilderness. A few – a very few – end happily, with the lost individual being located  before time has run out. One of those stories takes place on Maui, Hawaii, and is particularly harrowing in the retelling.

[Amanda] Eller, who lives in Haiku, ducked down a little side path for a meditation break. When she stood up to continue on the main trail, she got turned around, forgetting which way she’d come in. And as outdoor athletes can and sometimes do, she pushed herself swiftly and confidently in the wrong direction, determined not to backtrack, so that her hourlong outing turned into a seventeen-day bushwhack from hell.

The discovery of Eller while she was still alive, albeit injured in not in great shape, was nothing short of a miracle.

It was the kind of miracle that Jacob Gray’s father never stopped hoping for. And he didn’t just hope – he searched – actively, relentlessly. Helped by many people, Jon Billman among them.

In the course of this book, I learned fascinating facts about some places that I knew almost nothing about:

In Siskiyou County we pass Mount Shasta, which is a legendary now-dormant volcano of myth and magic and missing persons. It rises to 14,179 feet, the second-highest peak in the Cascade Range. The mountain is a sacred site to the Winnemem Wintu tribe, indigenous to the area, as well as the Modoc, Achomawi, Atsuwegi, and Shasta peoples. Bigfoot has been seen here for years—dozens of them. Some Native Americans claim a species of tiny, evil people live above the treeline on Mount Shasta and throw rocks at humans who get too close.

And there is more about this fabled peak.

But The Cold Vanish is primarily about people who disappear in the wilderness, and the desperate attempts of their loved ones and others to locate them.. These stories  are mesmerizing. Most of them are also heartbreaking. But they are so filled with acts of heroism and selflessness that are inspiring and humbling. Above all, I am grateful to have met, even at a remove, Randy Gray. Greater love hath no father; I admire him tremendously. And I hope that he has found some measure of peace.

This was a tough review for me to write. There was a considerable spillover of grief. In an effort to console myself, I made a donation to Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue.  In the ‘Notes’ field, I said that I was making this donation in honor of Jacob Gray and Randy Gray.


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‘The archdeacon’s speech had silenced him – stupefied him – annihilated him; anything but satisfied him.’ – The Warden, by Anthony Trollope

July 26, 2020 at 1:06 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

Just look at this wonderfully hirsute gentleman! (Always looking for an excuse to use that word ‘hirsute’ ) Among a (large) number of other works, Trollope is the author of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, a series of six books describing, in the words of the Wikipedia entry,

…the dealings of the clergy and the gentry, and the political, amatory, and social manœuvrings that go on among and between them.

The novels in the series are:

  • The Warden (1855)
  • Barchester Towers (1857)
  • Doctor Thorne (1858)
  • Framley Parsonage (1861)
  • The Small House at Allington (1864)
  • The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

(Again, thank you, Wikipedia.)

Quite a few years ago, I read three of them: Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, and Framley Parsonage. I enjoyed them all. The first is probably the most famous; I began with it, without realizing that it was the second entry in a series. Then off I went, on some other literary quest, undoubtedly devouring mysteries all the while, or at least since 1987, when I went to work at the Howard County Library and was instructed in the utter rightness and necessity of reading crime fiction. (And what a long, strange, completely wonderful trip that has been!)

So, why did I go back back to this saga? This literary turn may fairly be ascribed to the writings of one Michael Dirda, star of the Washington Post’s Book World and resident intellectual in a distinctly nonintellectual environment. In a recent article (which alas, I’ve been unable to retrieve), Dirda cited a scene in Framley Parsonage as being especially memorable and beautifully rendered. Inspired  by  this encomium, I decided to reread said volume.

This was such a thoroughly enjoyable experience that I decided to go back to the beginning, as it were, and tackle The Warden.

The Reverend Septimus Harding is as good and decent a man as one would ever hope to encounter, in fiction or in real life. He has two daughters: Susan ,the elder, who is married to Archdeacon Grantley, and the younger Eleanor who still lives at home with him. (Eleanor’s unwavering devotion to her father is one of the most moving aspects of this novel.)

The Reverend Harding serves as warden to a hospital (what we would call a nursing home) which houses twelve elderly gentlemen who are beyond their working years and have no other family to care for them.

All their wants are supplied; every comfort is administered; they have warm houses, good clothes, plentiful diet, and rest after a life of labour; and above all, that treasure so inestimable in declining years, a true and kind friend to listen to their sorrows, watch over their sickness, and administer comfort as regards this world, and the world to come!

From this labor, the veritable opposite of onerous, Rev. Harding derives a comfortable income. Yet it is that income, as supposedly specified in the will of a deceased well off parishioner, that becomes the major issue of dispute in this novel.

The Warden, which is so often entertaining, humorous, and sunny, depicts a crisis of conscience more excruciating than almost any I have encountered anywhere in fiction. (In fact, I’m reminded, in that regard, of Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey.)

I’d like to  close on a lighter note, one which illustrates the sly wit for which Trollope is noted and treasured (and that wit is never deployed in a vulgar or mean-spirited manner):

The bishop did not whistle; we believe that they lose the power of doing so on being consecrated; and that in these days one might as easily meet a corrupt judge as a whistling bishop;…


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‘For a brief moment, she smiled, and I glimpsed an angel far from Paradise.’ Death in Delft: A 17th Century historical murder mystery by Graham Brack

July 19, 2020 at 12:28 pm (Art, Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  This little novel found me out via one of Amazon’s cunning algorithms. I had previously not heard of it, nor of its author Graham Brack. As the cover explains, the setting is Delft, in the Netherlands, and the time is the 17th century.

This was the era of the Dutch Golden Age. Its characteristics are summed up as follows in the Wikipedia entry:

The Dutch Golden Age … was a period in the history of the Netherlands, roughly spanning the era from 1581 (the birth of the Dutch republic) to 1672 (the disaster year), in which Dutch trade, science, and art and the Dutch military were among the most acclaimed in the world. The first section is characterized by the Eighty Years’ War, which ended in 1648. The Golden Age continued in peacetime during the Dutch Republic until the end of the century.

For many of us, this remarkable era primarily means the following:

Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt


The Laughing Cavalier, Frans Hals


Soldier and Laughing Girl, Vermeer


The Young Bull by Paulus Potter


The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede by Jacob van Ruisdael

Not to mention this:

Antique Delftware plate

Well, I did let myself get sidetracked there, didn’t I?

Master Mercurius is – well, a curious character. A cleric attached in some capacity to the University of Leiden, he is ordained both as a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister. The latter serves as a cover, at a time when Catholics were not generally esteemed or welcome in the Netherlands.

Having been recognized by his superiors as something of a natural sleuth hound, Mercurius is sent to Delft to look into the disappearance and possible kidnapping of three young girls. Once established in this city which is new to him, he is assisted with his endeavors by a number of individuals, among them two of Delft’s most notable citizens: Anton van Leuwenhoek and Joannes Vermeer.

The story of the achievements of these two gifted individuals is woven seamlessly into this engrossing narrative. In fact, it is a discovery made by Vermeer that provides a clue that proves crucial to  the solving of the mystery of the missing girls (one of whom, alas, is found deceased early on in the story).

Mercurius himself is a very appealing and believable character. Despite being in holy orders, he is as vulnerable to the world’s temptations as any man would be. But he is also genuinely self-effacing, empathetic, and above all, kind. One instinctively has faith in his commitment to the cause.

The book is full of memorable scenes. After van Leowenhoek has shown some of his works in microscopy to Mercurius, the latter exclaims:

‘I hope, mijnheer, that you will publish your drawings and receive the credit your work deserves. You have opened our eyes to the smallest works of our Creator, and are therefore a benefactor to mankind.’

Religious doubts and convictions play an important role in this narrative, but they never overpower or interfere  with the action. I like this quote:

 I remembered a prayer that I was told was used by an English soldier during their Civil War: “Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be today. If I do forget Thee, do not Thou forget me.”

Mercurius adds, with fervor, “I knew exactly how he felt.”

The second book in Graham Brack’s Master Mercurius series is entitles Untrue Till Death. It’s due out on August 10, and I very much look forward to reading it.


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The Fairest of Them All: Snow White and 21 Tales of Mothers and Daughters, by Maria Tatar

June 3, 2020 at 2:05 pm (Book review, books)

This is an odd, and oddly appealing, little book. It is comprised of a lengthy introduction – 62 pages including notes – followed by 21 short tales, all variations on the Snow White story.

As I wrote in a previous post, Maria Tatar’s introduction consists of the following:

An analysis – at times, a psychoanalysis – of the Snow White story and its different meanings and iterations in a variety of cultures.

It must first be stipulated that the Disney film, released in 1937, created the template for this fairy tale as it has come down to us at present. That film in turn relied as its source on the story as told by  the Grimm Bothers in the 1812 edition of their fairy tale collection.

Here is a scene from the Disney movie:

This was the first full length cel animated feature length film in the history of motion pictures.

Maria Tatar discusses how the reader is affected when, as she picturesquely terms it, “we trip across a trope:”

There are narrative tropes (“woman in peril…” ), but there are also the tropes that folklorists refer to as motifs, instantly recognizable that connect to other tales and produce a pleasing resonance, for example “haunted castle,” “impossible tasks,” or “hedge of thorns.” These tropes not only arrest our attention but also draw us into a force field that demands intellectual engagement by challenging us to make connections, draw contrasts, and consider how the trope is deployed.

So, as you can  readily perceive from the above, this book may ostensibly be about a fairy tale, but it demands an adult engagement with the material being presented. In fact, as she later observes, “That brilliant allegory of aging, bewitching in its artistic virtuosity, reminds us that just as much is slipped into  fairy tales for grown-ups as for the  young, even more in many cases.” Continuing in the same vein:

It is easy enough to put t he story of Snow White in dialog with other myths – Demeter and Persephone, to cite just one example – with its daughter abducted and taken to the underworld, only to return, seasonally, in a move that signals resurrection and renewal. What is important in these narratives – all bits and pieces of what anthropologists tell us is a larger myth about life and death as much as about beauty – is how they draw from the same storytelling arsenal to take on the great existential mysteries as they try to create counternarratives to the reality that all living beings must die.

Well, this is deep stuff. Psychology, philosophy, religion, teleology – all are evoked in this quest. I found Tatar’s ruminations on these questions, profound and thought provoking. And it helps greatly that her writing is quite simply beautiful.

The introduction takes up nearly half of the book. The remainder consists of 21 stories which are variations on the Snow White tale. As absorbed and delighted as I was by the introduction, I’ve found the stories tough going. They vary from fanciful to grotesque, and after a while, I was surprised to find them somewhat irritating. So far, I’ve read seven of them, widely spaced, of necessity.

Even so, I recommend this unique and fascinating volume. And I am especially grateful for the picture inserts. They serve as a reminder of the transcendent art of the great illustrators. There is the enchanting Schneewittchen (Snow White), at the top of this post, by Alexander Zick, a German artist of the 19th and early 20th century. And these:

by Victor Paul Mohn


by Thekla Brauer

by Katharine Cameron

by Lothar Meggendorfer

by Jesse Willcox Smith

by Hans Makart


by Maxfield Parrish

There are many more.

In her review of The Fairest of Them All in one of my favorite magazines, Literary Review, Lucy Lethbridge concludes:

Shocking yet familiar, these stories of regeneration and transformation even when written down retain the secret whisper of storytelling. This is a properly magical, erudite book that follows Snow White’s trail into the darker forests of  the human psyche in which she originated.






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Reading To Save My Mind

May 27, 2020 at 10:50 pm (Book review, books)

As of the start of Lock Down – March 10 here in Maryland, if memory serves – we all knew we were going to have to develop strategies for staying sane. Mine, unsurprisingly, was to disappear into books.

Below are the results:


Contemporary Crime Fiction

Children of the Street and Murder at Cape Three Points by Kwei Quartey. I’m currently reading the next title in the Darko Dawson series, Gold of Our Fathers. There’s only one more entry; then Dr. Quartey switches to what I assume will be another series featuring a female private detective, Emma Djian. The first entry, called The Missing American, is truly excellent – but I still want more Darko Dawson!

Wolf Pack and The Bitterroots by C.J Box. Set in Wyoming, Wolf Pack is the twentieth entry in the Joe Pickett series: The Bitterroots takes place in Montana and features Cassie Dewell as a sheriff’s investigator. (I have a soft spot for the Wyoming novels, as my son and daughter-in-law got married in that gorgeous place in 2008.)

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths. This book just won the 2020 Edgar Award for Best Novel. I read it; it’s sort of an old fashioned British crime story of the type that I frankly love. The writing was excellent, and the plot was riveting – I had trouble putting it down. But I have to say that the ending – the solution ,to the mystery, arrived at rather suddenly – didn’t completely satisfy me. I was left feeling rather empty. Nevertheless – recommended. (You may have a completely different reaction that I did.) Oh, and the version I downloaded includes an excellent discussion guide.

Trouble Is What I Do by Walter Mosley

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

An Honorable Man and The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich

The Last Hunt by Deon Meyer. I had  the privilege of meeting Mr. Meyer at Crimefest in England in 2011. He was an excellent speaker and a pleasure to talk to. In preparation for that excursion, I read the suspenseful and absorbing Thirteen Hours; The Last Hunt was even better. One reviewer opined that this new novel should gain Meyer the following he deserves. I certainly hope so.

Classic crime fiction

Signed, Picpus by Georges Simenon. It is my custom to turn to Simenon’s Maigret novels whenever I’m stressed. They always help. This one did the trick, as expected.

Murder in the Mill-Race by E.C.R. Lorac. The British Library Crime Classics series continues apace, with its wonderful cover art and delightful period pieces. This is one of my favorites.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie. Being as I’ve been immersed in the lore and history of ancient Egypt lately – a Life Long Learning class in the Art of Ancient Egypt, plus viewing a Great Courses lecture series on the subject with the marvelous Bob Brier – it seemed the right time to read this; it’s Agatha Christie’s sole work of historical fiction.

Birthday Party by C.H.B. Kitchin

The House of the Arrow by A.E.W. Mason

Historical fiction

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel. A fitting conclusion to Dame Hilary’s monumental Wolf Hall trilogy.


The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin. When I first joined the Fiction/AV staff of the library in 1982, one of the first books that my colleagues urged me to read was the new novel by Gail Godwin (of whom I’d never heard), A Mother and Two Daughters. I’ve  been enjoying this author’s thoughtful, gracefully written works ever since  then. When I saw that she had a new book out this year, I downloaded it at once. That, and  the Hilary Mantel, have  definitely been sanity saviors!


Van Gogh: A Power Seething by Julian Bell

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Life of Emily Dickinson, by Martha Ackmann

Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Achorn

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life by John Kaag

So, what am I reading now? In addition to  Gold of Our Fathers,  the mystery mentioned above, several other items.

An analysis – at times, a psychoanalysis – of the Snow White story and its different meanings and iterations in a variety of  cultures:


This novel is a bit staid and slow moving, but I love the re-imagining of ancient Rome:

I am so loving Bob Brier’s Egypt lectures!! This is rather arcane subject matter, but Professor Brier brings it to life rather nicely:

Okay, well this is about the incredibly destructive, fast moving, and horrifying Camp Fire that occurred in California in 2018 and decimated this most ironically named small city. It’s a slightly odd thing to be reading right now, but all the same, it’s riveting.

This post came about as a result of a reading list I’m compiling for a program of book talks that I’m scheduled to present in July.

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Dear Diary…

May 24, 2020 at 1:32 am (Book review, books)

Dear Diary,

Brain feeling like mush. But I don’t like to absent myself from this space for too long, so here goes.

Went out to  get the paper this morning, greeted by a picture perfect day: warm, but with a hint of cool, and intensely green,  with a cloudless blue sky. Surely if this is, in fact, the real, the actual world, we cannot be facing an apocalypse?

However, the paper, once gotten inside, and freed of its plastic covering and my hands happy-birthday cleansed, tells a different and altogether grimmer story.

Anyway, I’ve been reading. Boy, have I been reading:


I have now confirmed my suspicion that I am not the ideal reader of philosophical texts. To wit:

In many cases, James suggested we can falsify ideas, make relatively accurate predictions, answer questions, and reach agreement, by simply being faithful to the facts—realities that repel or reinforce our ideas. Ignoring these realities, or dismissing their interpretation as “fake news,” is to give up on the pragmatic method altogether. Truth happens to ideas only through the ongoing and collective conversation with sensations, moments in the stream of consciousness that either sustain them, wash them clean, or wash them away. In James’s words, “[S]ensations are the motherearth, the anchorage, the stable rock, the first and last limits, the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of the mind. To find sensational termini should be our aim with all our higher thought.”

Umm…. Okay….

Now, I read another book by John Kaag several years ago. In American Philosophy: A Love Story, he describes how, as a newly minted philosophy professor,  he undertook a project to save the precious remnants of the library of William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966), who in years past was a distinguished Harvard-based philosopher. In the course of this endeavor, Kaag acquires a research assistant. She shares his enthusiasm for the undertaking, then develops an enthusiasm for him, which he joyfully reciprocates. Long story short, after navigating past some obstacles, they get married.

That book came out in 2016. This past February, I encountered an article in the Wall Street Journal by Kaag. Entitled “William James, Yoga and the Secret of Happiness,” it is adapted from his forthcoming book on that august personage. Possessed of pleasant memories of American Philosophy: A Love Story, I’m happily reading along until I encounter this sentence:

This winter—as I slogged through a second divorce at the tender age of 40, recovered from a second heart attack and lamented the state of the world—I reread James’s “Principles.”

WHAT?? Oh no! (I think I voiced my dismay aloud; in fact, I know I did, as Ron called over to ask what the problem was.)

But John, you told such a sweet love story in American Philosophy! I was counting on – nay, assuming – that a Happily Ever After ending would rightly follow. Nope – not this time. Notice I failed to get worked up over the poor man’s health – I mean, two heart attacks at such a young age is quite serious. But the breakup of that marriage seemed to me like the worst possible news. I admit – I took it personally. But I’m sure, not as personally as John and Carol took it.

(This was a  second marriage for both of them, plus by the time of the breakup. they’d had a daughter. John briefly mentions the misery of co-parenting with an ex-spouse; having been there, I know of what he speaks, and I sympathized.)

So, you may rightly ask, is Sick Souls, Healthy Minds about the wreckage of John Kaag’s domestic life or the life and philosophy of William James? As you’ve probably guessed, the answer is, some of both, although it’s really much more about James’s philosophical and intellectual endeavors. Much of that material is simply too complex and abstract for me to fully comprehend. I plowed through those sections dutifully, although at many points I felt like crying out, “Enough already! Stop doing all this excessive thinking and theorizing about things that can never be proven anyway and just live your life!”

Is this supposed to be the road to true self-knowledge, even to real happiness? I admit, it just doesn’t work for me.

Kaag gives us a brief summary of the life of William James. It’s clear he was a deep thinker, and this mental habit reinforced a tendency toward melancholy, even depression. And yet, in 1876, he was lucky enough to find just the right woman. Her name was Alice Howe Gibben; they were married in 1878.

James and Alice eventually had five children although they lost a son, Herman, when a case of whooping cough gave rise to a severe bout of pneumonia. James had nicknamed this youngster ‘Humster’ and wrote that he was “the flower of their flock.” Earlier in the book, Kaag says that James  was glad to leave all the details of domesticity, including child rearing, in Alice’s capable hands. I found myself curious about just what kind of husband and father William James was. So I guess I’m looking for a good biography of the man. Suggestions welcome.

William James 1842-1910. He fascinates me, both in his own right and because he is the older brother of that other enigma, the novelist Henry James.


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“When we first meet someone, before words are ever spoken, there are already lies and half-truths.” Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

May 1, 2020 at 2:44 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Peter Swanson and his novel, a gift to us lovers of crime fiction

That title makes it sound like a right blood bath, doesn’t it? But it actually refers to a list of crime novels:

The Red House Mystery (1922)- A.A. Milne
Malice Aforethought (1931)- Francis Iles
The A.B.C. Murders (1936)- Agatha Christie
Double Indemnity (1943)- James Cain
Strangers on a Train (1950)- Patricia Highsmith
The Drowner (1963)- John MacDonald
Deathtrap (1978)- Ira Levin
The Secret History (1992)- Donna Tartt

The list was compiled by one Malcolm Kershaw, part owner and proprietor of The Old Devils Bookstore in Boston. He placed this list on the store’s blog, and  it created something of a stir among mystery aficionados.  By far the most notable and bizarre reaction to it is that of a dedicated murderer who has apparently decided, by means of his own depraved methods, to replicate the scenarios set forth in each of the titles on the list.

Eight Perfect Murders is exceptionally well plotted, with enough twists and turns to keep  the reader thoroughly engaged. To a degree, the book is about the mystery genre itself, and why so many of us love it. Especially toward the beginning, the author is tossing out titles and authors left and right – there’s something for everyone. When he casually mentions to the fact that Ruth Rendell once presented a reading at The Ole Devils, I just wanted to cheer! But soon enough, things begin to get somewhat grim….

That said, Malcolm Kershaw does have his flippant moments, such as this one, when he’s describing the plot of The Red House Mystery:

There’s a rich man named Mark Ablett who lives in a country house, the kind of English one that seems specifically designed to have a murder occur in it.

(Now the fact is, that after you’ve read as many country house mysteries as I have, you start to feel as though the whole purpose of the English country house is to serve as a setting for a slaying.)

Before he took on The Old Devils, Malcolm had worked at a bookstore in Harvard Square. He recalls that the owner’s wife had given him a list of her favorite books, almost all of which were mysteries:

Besides Malice Aforethought, she’d listed Gaudy Night and The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the first two Sue Grafton books, The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, even though she said she’d never finished it (“I just love the beginning so much”). Her other favorite book was Bleak House by Charles Dickens; I guess you could say that it has mystery elements, as well.

Well, of course, I can’t see a list like this without putting in my two cents, as it were. In general, I think it’s pretty good, although I’ve never  been able to warm to Faye Kellerman and I couldn’t get through The Name of the Rose. On the other hand, I revere Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter novels, and I love, and miss very much, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. The Daughter of Time is Josephine Tey’s most famous book, but not, in my view, her best. That accolade, I think, should go to two of her other titles: Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair.

Finally I’d like to note my surprise at the rather dismissive attitude toward Bleak House. I’ve not read it – though I keep meaning to, alas – but I did watch the superb 2005 BBC miniseries. (Who could forget the lowering evil of Mr. Tulkinghorn, so masterfully portrayed by Charles Dance?) There is indeed a significant “mystery element’ in that novel; it is present in the person of Inspector Bucket. On the Victorian Web, there’s an excellent essay entitled “Inspector Bucket Points the Way.”

I do have  several reservations about this book. First, it seems a bit of a stretch – to me, at least – that Malcolm Kershaw  makes  such a good living from The Old Devils Bookstore that he’s able to employ two full time assistants there. Second, I don’t recall a single mention of the advent of e-books, an issue looming so very large in the book business right now and affecting it in every possible way. (No mention – or if there is, it’s very cursory – of Amazon, either.)

Toward the end of Eight Perfect Murders, Malcolm Kershaw talks about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. This 1926 novel, the third to feature the suave Belgian Hercule Poirot, caused something of a sensation because of the ingenious and wholly unexpected twist at the end. Kershaw, alas, gives it away in his brief summary. If you haven’t read or seen The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you’ll want to skip over that (very brief) portion of Eight Perfect Murders. That denouement in the Christie novel is much more fun if you come upon it completely unprepared, as I was lucky enough to do when I first read it.

These are minor cavils, really. Over all, this novel was a very enjoyable and immersive read. It kept my mind off a certain nasty bug currently lying in wait, and for that, I am very grateful.







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‘But if you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?’ The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

April 26, 2020 at 7:34 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

  I have finished it: the third and final installment of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy, all 784 pages of it. (Hardback count, though I read the e-book). And what a long, strange trip it’s been….

I’m really eager to read media reviews of this book, but I want to note my own impressions, first. Going back over some of the passages I’ve highlighted, I’m struck first of all by the wealth of sardonic humor. There’s the comment that appears in the title above, issuing from the angry mind of Thomas Cromwell. He and others have just witnessed the beheading of Anne Boleyn.

Here is how the novel opens:

Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner. The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us. The witnesses, who have knelt for the passing of the soul, stand up and put on their hats. Under the hats, their faces are stunned.

Hungry, after that? Ugh. But if it’s meant to deliver a jolt, it succeeds.

Later, with jaunty irreverence, he remarks to his son Gregory:

‘It would be like the late queen to pin her head back on, pick up the sword and chase me to Whitehall.’

Serving the King’s Majesty takes Cromwell on one heck of a wild ride. For him, and for those who pursue a similar career path, the sensation of being near to supreme power, and possibly even exerting influence over it, is intoxicating. Me, I would rather be out in some distant field, as remote from royalty as possible, harvesting flax or some other needful quantity, or laboring in a kitchen somewhere helping to fashion one of the unique repasts, such as the one described here:

The eels come in, presented in two fashions: salted in an almond sauce, and baked with the juice of an orange. There is a spinach tart, green as the summer evening, flavoured with nutmeg and a splash of rosewater. The silver gleams; the napkins are folded into the shapes of Tudor roses; the coverpanes at each place are worked with silver garlands. ‘Bon appétit,’ he says to the ambassador. ‘I’ve had a letter.’

Falsehoods, outright lies, artful dissembling, plotting, deceiving – no bad act is off limits at this glittering court. One false move, one unguarded word, and you can find yourself imprisoned in the tower, awaiting interrogation and God knows what else. Or, as Thomas Cromwell learns to his grief, acts off loyalty and resourcefulness can be turned into something else quite other by those same interrogators. Love can curdle and become hate in a matter of hours. – even minutes.

(In Act Two Scene One of As You Like It, Duke Senior, exiled from the court, has taken refuge in the Forest of Arden. Unexpectedly, he finds this a rather pleasant  experience:

And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.

It is much the better place, to be “exempt from public haunt.”)

Careful attention must be paid to who is who among a vast array of characters. Dame Hilary does provide a list at the front of the novel, and a very intimidating roster it is:


Anne Boleyn, Queen of England.

Her supposed lovers:

George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, her brother. (Yes – her brother!)

Henry Norris, chief of the king’s privy chamber.

Francis Weston and William Brereton, gentlemen in the king’s circle.

Mark Smeaton, musician.


Thomas Cromwell, later Lord Cromwell, Secretary to the king, Lord Privy Seal, and Vicegerent in Spirituals: that is, the king’s deputy in the English church.

Gregory, his son, only surviving child of his marriage to Elizabeth Wyks.

Mercy Prior, his mother-in-law. Rafe Sadler, his chief clerk, brought up within the family: later in the king’s household.

Helen, Rafe’s wife. Richard Cromwell, his nephew, married to Frances Murfyn.

Thomas Avery, household accountant. Thurston, chief cook.

Dick Purser, keeper of the guard dogs. Jenneke, Cromwell’s daughter. (Invented character) Christophe, a servant. (Invented character)

Mathew, a servant, formerly of Wolf Hall. (Invented character)

Bastings, the bargemaster. (Invented character)

And on it goes, through The King’s Family and Household (8), The Seymour Family (5), Politicians and Clergy (12), Courtiers and Aristocrats (17), Household of the King’s Children (3), At the Convent in Shaftsebury (2), Henry’s Dynastic Rivals (7), Diplomats (8), In Calais (4), At the Tower of London (2), Cromwell’s Friends (5). Oh – and there are two family trees – the royal family, naturellement.

Am I trying to dissuade you from tackling this formidable tale? Heaven forfend! You surely do not want to miss out on all the fun. And besides, quite a few of the characters in the above accounting are quite minor. It’s just that – well, be aware, and keep your wits about you. (No doubt, Thomas Cromwell himself would advise the same.)

At one point, Cromwell’s son Gregory observes, rather artlessly: ‘It’s no treason to say all men are mortal.’ His father has a swift rejoinder: ‘No, but it’s not your best idea either.’ Then, reflecting on recent events, he thinks to himself:

…that was Anne Boleyn’s mistake. She took Henry for a man like other men. Instead of what he is, and what all princes are: half god, half beast.

With the death of Anne Boleyn, Henry is free to seek out a new wife. He already has is eye on the demure Jane Seymour, scion of the powerful, social-climbing Seymour clan. In the fullness of time, she provides him with the son he has been so desperately wanting – a true heir. The effort, however, costs her her life.

And so, back to the drawing boards; the search for Wife Number Four begins almost immediately. And for Thomas Cromwell, the previously invincible fixer, this is where things start to go wrong.

Hilary Mantel is a deeply gifted writer. She writes marvelous dialog; moreover, she can summon up, in a single sentence, an entire world. There’s this from Wolf Hall:

He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.

The novels in this trilogy are written in the present tense. I don’t always like this mode of expression in fiction, but Mantel uses it convincingly here. It conveys a sense of unrelenting urgency entirely appropriate to the story. Something she uses that I find less convincing is the pronoun ‘he’ to designate Thomas Cromwell’s thoughts and utterances. Since most of the speaking in these novels – certainly in The Mirror & the Light – is done by men, it can be unclear at times as to who is doing the speaking (or thinking).

Cromwell is reflecting here:

On his journey today from London, he felt he brought guests: Norris and George Boleyn, young Weston, Mark, and William Brereton. As he stepped out of his barge they stepped out too; they stood on the banks of the Styx, waiting to cross. They died within minutes of each other, but that does not mean they are together now. The dead wander the lanes of the next life like strangers lost in Venice. Even if they met, what would they have to talk about? When they stood before their judges they edged away from each other, as if fearing contamination. Each man had made a case against the other, hoping he might save his own life.

As soon as Henry turns against someone – often for reasons known only to himself – he pulls away from that person and lets his minions mete out their punishment. Thomas Cromwell is no angel, but as this ineluctable process played out in his life, I developed a strong animosity toward Henry. It’s never a pretty sight, watching a third party carry out a powerful person’s dirty work. It is just plain cowardly, also lazy. As Isabella says in Measure For Measure:

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
This next is a spoiler, if you don’t already know what happens: Cromwell’s path to annihilation is laid out in excruciating detail. I haven’t read anything as harrowing since the closing sentences of the story “Ideas of Heaven” by Joan Silber (in the collection by the same title).
Portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein – himself a minor character in the Wolf Hall trilogy – are hung on the same wall in my beloved Frick Collection in New York City. (El Greco’s portrait of Saint Jerome hangs between them.)

Thomas More, left, and Thomas Cromwell

Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein

The first four wives:

Katherine of Aragon

Anne Boleyn

Jane Seymour

Ann of Cleves

This scene from the television version of Wolf Hall vividly conveys Anne Boleyn’s spitfire persona. She and Henry re examining a document  brought to them by Cromwell, superbly played by Mark Rylance. (Damian Lewis is Henry; Claire Foy is Anne.)


Hilary Mantel has been very generous with appearances and interviews. Here is a short piece that I found illuminating:


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‘Be especially diligent in cultivating. Mind you that my barley seed is guarded and that all my property is guarded.’

April 20, 2020 at 3:03 pm (Book review, books, Egypt, Mystery fiction)

This is the original cover of the first edition, published in the U.S., October 1944

  Death Comes as the End is something of an anomaly in Agatha Christie’s oeuvre. Set in Egypt circa 2000 BCE, it is her only historical novel. The main character is called Resinenb, a young woman recently widowed, who has returned with her small daughter to live in her family home. This home is a well-populated establishment. Renisenb’s father, the farmer Imhotep, is the somewhat fussy, imperious paterfamilias; in addition, there are two married brothers, a younger brother in his teens, a grandmother called Esa, a hanger-on and all purpose busybody named Henet, and of course the necessary complement of scribes, servants, and slaves. Then, not long after Renisenb’s arrival, Imhotep introduces Nofret, his new concubine, into this already turbulent mix of striving individuals. She proves to be the catalyst for all that follows….

(Initially, I found myself wrestling with the question of  how to pronounce the name ‘Renisenb;’ specifically, deciding which of the two final consonants was silent. I decided to jettison the ‘n.’ purely for the purpose of pronunciation and smooth reading. Hence phonetically, for this reader at least, ‘Reniseb.’)

Turns out that Dame Agatha got the idea for this volatile combination of characters from some letters that were found in the early 1920s near what was then ancient Thebes, close to the end of the 11th Dynasty, ca. 2130 BCE-1991 BCE, the era known as the First Intermediate Period. They are called the Hekanakht Letters, after the farmer and ka-priest who wrote them. (The Ancient History Encyclopedia defines a ka-priest as  as one who “…was paid by a family to perform the daily offerings at the tomb of the deceased.”):

….the two letters that Hekhanacht sent to his family are unparalleled in ancient Egypt, both for the light that they shed on the personality of the elderly farmer living in the fall of 2002 BC and for  the inherent interest in the matters discussed in them. They are virtually the only source for Egyptian agriculture before the New Kingdom and the sole surviving texts from ancient Egypt to give the cultivator’s point of view rather than that of  the administrator and landlord. They have suggested the plot for  novel by Agatha Christie, Death Comes as the End, and are likely in the future to be used as sources outside the limited circle of Egyptologists.

From “An Eleventh Dynasty Farmer’s Letters to His Family” by Klaus Baer, in The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March, 1963

As the tale unfolds, the various characters in Death Comes as the End come vividly to life – more so than in some of the other Christie works I’ve read. Renisenb is especially appealing:

She would sit in the shade of the rock chamber entrance with one knee raised and her hands clasped round it, and stare out over the green belt of cultivation to where the Nile showed a pale gleaming blue and beyond it to a distance of pale soft fawns and creams and pinks, all melting hazily into each other.
She had come the first time, months ago now, on a sudden wish to escape from a world of intense femininity. She wanted stillness and companionship—and she had found them here. The wish to escape was still with her, but it was no longer a mere revulsion from the stress and fret of domesticity.

Also the  writing, as you may perceive in this passage, is somewhat more poetic than that which one normally encounters in Christie’s novels, focused as they usually are on the relentless advancing of the plot. (And I have to say, I love that aspect of her writing!)

At any rate, Renisenb is the most appealing of the dramatis personae in this book. That is just as well, because as events move forward, the others begin to drop like flies….

For a more detailed summary of the plot, have a look at this article on the BBC site. Be wary, though: this piece comes dangerously close to containing spoilers. Actually, what it reveals is how cunningly Christie has made use of the content of the remarkable Hekanakht Letters.

Chapter Three of the novel concludes thus, with Esa speaking:

“Men are made fools by the gleaming limbs of women, and lo, in a minute they are become discoloured cornelians. . . .”
Her voice deepened as she quoted:
“A trifle, a little, the likeness of a dream, and death comes as the end . . .”

Christie does not provide an attribution for this quote. I thought perhaps she herself had invented it. But it turns out to be one of the sayings of Ptah-hotep:

The Maxims of Ptahhotep or Instruction of Ptahhotep is an ancient Egyptian literary composition based on the Vizier Ptahhotep’s wisdom and experiences. The Instructions were composed by the Vizier Ptahhotep around 2375-2350 BC, during the rule of King Djedkare Isesi of the Fifth Dynasty.[1] The text was discovered in Thebes in 1847 by Egyptologist M. Prisse d’Avennes.[2] The Instructions of Ptahhotep are called wisdom literature, specifically under the genre of Instructions that teach something.[3] There are four copies of the Instructions, and the only complete version, Papyrus Prisse, is located in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.  (Wikipedia)

Here is the complete quotation:

If you would prolong friendship in a house to which you have admittance, as master, or as brother, or as friend, into whatsoever place you enter, beware of approaching the women. It is not good in the place where this is done. Men are made fools by their gleaming limbs of carnelian. A trifle, a little, a likeness of a dream, and death comes as the end of knowing her.

The title of this post is taken from a translation of the first Hekanakht Letter. More of this text can be found on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

Mentuhotep, an Eleventh Dynasty Pharoah


This is a tomb painting of Nefertari. I like to think that with her placid, far-seeing beauty, this young woman looks a bit like Renisenb.




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