‘It was just that in her own mind the house itself was tainted by something evil right at its heart.’

July 18, 2018 at 11:59 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Just a quick word on this one. Although I read this mystery a while ago, I don’t want to miss the chance to recommend it to my fellow crime fiction fans.

On a remote corner of the Isle of Skye, in Scotland, Human Face has its headquarters. This is a charity that provides aid and comfort to Third World Children. For Beatrice Lacey, Human Face represents a passionate and powerful commitment. Co-founded and funded by herself, it takes its name from “The Divine Image,” a poem by William Blake:

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Beatrice’s other great passion is for Adam Carnegie, Human Face’s other founder. Adam is a manipulative user and a guileful charmer, but Beatrice, overweight, ungainly, and filled with thwarted yearning, sees him solely through the eyes of (hopeless) love.

Other forces are at work, both within the house that serves as Human Face’s headquarters and on the larger island itself. An unexplained disappearance occasions police involvement. There’s worse to come.

For its mixture of fully developed and engaging characters along with vividness of setting, I give Human Face high marks. And the writing by Aline Templeton, an author new to me, is excellent:

In the city there was always ambient light and Kelso was uncomfortable in darkness like this: it had an intense, almost physical presence. It seemed to wrap itself about you till the air itself felt thick and smothering. There were no stars, only a greenish pallor that was the moon, heavily veiled by cloud.

The reader will encounter some piquant Scottish locutions. Here are some examples:

The word teuchter is used by those in Lowland areas of Scotland to describe those from the Highlands, specifically those in rural areas who speak Gaelic. More loosely, the term is used for a country-dweller.

From the newspaper The Scotsman

Laldy
 To give it Laldy means to do anything with great gusto or to get laid in to someone big style whether physically or verbally.Ye shooda seen big Effie it the karaoke,she wiz geein it laldy aw night.

From TalkingScot.com

Scunner: The first definition is something that disgusts, or causes dislike, for example his attitude fair scunners me. The second usage describes the actual feeling of disgust or dislike. It’s unclear whether some definitions of this word stem from the word ‘sickener’ or whether the similarities in pronunciation and meaning are coincidental. The final definition is used for someone or something who causes the dislike or disgust, such as It’s a right scunner that the match has been cancelled ‘cause of the weather.’ This particular word is used widely, with the original meaning – to shrink back, or recoil – falling by the wayside somewhat, in preference for the more generic term we know today.

From The Scotsman

Then there’s the strange phenomenon known as a Brocken spectre. This is originally a German term rather than a Scottish one, but one can imagine that it’s a concept that that the Scots, with their rich folkloric tradition, might be receptive to. At one point in the novel, Beatrice is terrified by the sight of this eerie manifestation in the nearby mountains, but her friend Vicky, who has also seen it, explains it to her thus:

‘It’s a sort of light effect when there’s fog and the sun comes up…. It’s your own shadow and you move, it does too.’

Here’s a visual, from the Wikipedia entry:

A semi-artificial Brocken spectre created by standing in front of the headlight of a car, on a foggy night. [Photographed by Bob Blaylock]

I owe thanks to Carol from the Usual Suspects group for this fine recommendation.

 

 

 

 

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The Word Is ‘Mesmerizing’

July 11, 2018 at 5:02 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Got through it in 48 hours. It may be 387 pages long (hardback, U.S. edition), but somehow it felt much shorter.

Anthony Horowitz has pulled off something very cunning in this novel: He has made himself the main character. Yes, I mean the actual Anthony Horowitz, author of the immensely popular Alex Rider series for young adults, creator of the Foyle’s War series on Masterpiece Mystery, author of the delightful Magpie Murders, and plenty more.

Oh – and by the way, it’s now Anthony Horowitz, OBE.

The novel opens with a very odd chain of events. A woman, Diana Cowper, visits an undertaker with the purpose of planning her own funeral. That in itself is not so very unusual. What is unusual is that six hours later, she is found dead – unquestionably murdered (as Paula Zahn would say – with special emphasis – on her program On the Case) in her own home!

One of the persons tasked with doing the detecting in this case is Daniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne is a former policeman, having left the force under a cloud. But his skills are such that he is retained by the force from time to time as a consulting detective.

Hawthorne, not short of a certain egotistical self-regard, wants a book to be written about his exploits. He requires, therefore, a recorder equal to the task; an accomplished writer who will shadow him as he investigates but who will not  intrude on the investigative process. Who better than Anthony Horowitz? He it is that narrates the events of the novel in the first person.

Sound like another pair you may have encountered in your reading of classic crime fiction? I assure you, that is not a coincidence. Poor Anthony, though: He cannot resist asking what he believes to be perceptive questions in the course of various interviews. Almost invariably, said questions are adjudged to be intrusive, or even detrimental to the proceedings by Daniel Hawthorne. This exasperates Hawthorne, but it exasperates Anthony even more. After all, he – Anthony – is accustomed to thinking himself superior in perceptiveness and intellect. Who does this Hawthorne person think he is, to be denigrating the Great Author in this way?

In the course of the narrative, one encounters flashes of wit from time to time. At one point, Hathrone and Anthony encounter the official investigator, Detective Inspector Meadows, at yet another crime scene. D.I. Meadows orders Hawthorne to vacate the premises. “And take Agatha Christie here with you.”

Horowitz reacts thus:

He meant me. Agatha Christie is something of a  hero of mine but I was still offended.

In The Word Is Murder, you will not find lyrical description, lengthy expository passages, ruminations on the evils of mankind. What you will find is a plot that moves at breakneck speed, pulling the reader inescapably along.

Observing me turning up in various places through the house, oblivious of all except the text before me, my husband commented that this must surely the ideal summer read. I agree. Great fun, and highly recommended, for any season, actually.

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“In Okahumpka, he was known as the boy on the bike.” – Beneath a Ruthless Sun, by Gilbert King

July 1, 2018 at 9:40 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

This is the story of Lake County, Florida, in the mid twentieth century. It is a powder keg of a place where the corrupt law enforcement apparatus was controlled by a ruthless, pitiless sheriff named Willis McCall.

Sheriff Willis McCall, center, with two of his deputies

McCall presides over a process whereby Jesse Daniels, a slow and unworldly nineteen-year-old who spends most of his time bicycling around the tiny town of Okahumpka, is made to take  the blame for the rape of Blanche Knowles, a wife and mother from a socially prominent family. From this basic cast, King’s narrative expands outward to encompass numerous individuals hapless enough to catch the eye of the sheriff, as well as those who fought him any way they could (and there were not many safe ways in which to do this).

Location of Lake County, Florida, in red.

Oh and by the way, I say of Jesse Daniels that he was “made to take the blame’ rather than being convicted because initially, he was never tried. Instead, he was declared insane and sent to the Florida Asylum for the Indigent Insane, now know simply as the Florida State Hospital,  in Chattahoochee. If you’re imagining a place of sheer awfulness right out of a film shocker, you’d  be about right.

As this saga commences, Jesse Daniels was a gentle, loving soul, an only child with devoted parents. He was not insane but rather developmentally disabled. He had committed no criminal act. Yet he spent fourteen years in Chattahoochee.

(Another famous inmate of this notorious institution, also in the 1950s, was Ruby McCollum, whose case was written about so memorably by Zora Neale Hurston.)

Both Blanche Knowles and Jesse Daniels were white. The Knowles family had money and status; the Daniels family had neither. Pearl Daniels had suffered repeated miscarriages before having Jesse. Pearl’s husband Charles, Jesse’s father, a veteran of the First World War, was functionally illiterate and beset with arthritis and other adverse health conditions. He was unable to work.

As I was reading this book, I was experiencing many emotions: astonishment, dismay, and anger were just a few of  them. But reading about Pearl Daniels evoked feelings of almost unbearable sadness. Here was a woman for whom almost nothing in life had gone smoothly, who possessed so  little of material value. But the one thing she did prize above all else was her son Jesse.

Pearl Daniels and her son Jesse

Pearl never stopped fighting for Jesse. And in this fight she was aided and supported by a most extraordinary woman. At the time she enters this story, Mabel Norris Reese, later Chesley, was the editor of a small weekly newspaper, the Mount Dora Topic. (Her husband Paul Reese had bought the paper in 1947.) From the start, Reese was relentless in her effort to free Jesse Daniels. By means of her fiery editorials, she went after Sheriff McCall and the corrupt minions who carried out his orders. (A historian of the paper refers to one of them as “McCall’s right-hand thug.”) She was treading in dangerous territory. Her dog was poisoned. She received death threats. Her house was firebombed. Nothing stopped her.

Reading her editorials on microfilm at the library in Eustis, I didn’t know what was odder, Reese’s willingness to take on a fight no one else cared to get into, or that her struggle with such a venomous foe was wedged it inbetween innumerable reports on the everyday — city council meetings, oak tree plantings, bass fishing, library events, shuffleboard results, Easter services, rosy copy about the city’s fine weather (intended to lure the northern visitor), prep sports, performances the local theater, election politics, engagement announcements, “East Town News” (goings-on in the city’s black neighborhood), car crashes and farm reports. She reported on it all, sold all the ads, too. She didn’t quit her day-job obligation to cover her community while at the same time challenging it to live up to the highest standards.

From A History of Mount Dora’s News (2), by David Cohea

Eventually, because of financial strain and the danger of their position in the town, it became impossible for Mabel and Paul Reese to continue to put out the Mount Dora Topic. The marriage cracked under the strain. Mabel remarried, moved to Daytona Beach, and joined the staff of the Daytona Beach News. Her efforts to seek justice continued. She died in 1995, at the age of 80.

Mabel Norris Reese

Woven around the story of Jesse Daniels are numerous other crime narratives, most involving African Americans. They are painful to read. The depth of the racist sentiment is simply appalling. It was exacerbated by the changes being wrought by the Civil Rights Movement. The subtitle of  this book is ‘A True Story of  Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found.’ Found, that is, if you believe that justice delayed – in Jesse Daniels’s case long delayed – is still justice.

My heart ached as I read this book. At the same time I was mesmerized by it. I had to keep reminding myself of the quotation from Martin Luther King:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

(For an interesting backgrounder on this quote, click here.)

Beneath a Ruthless Sun was preceded by Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. Published in 2012, this book tells the story of four young black men accused of raping a white woman in Lake County Florida, in 1949. Thurgood Marshall was their defending attorney. Beneath a Ruthless Sun is in a sense a follow-up to that first narrative. Gilbert King refers to the events told therein several times. While it’s not necessary to have read Devil in the Grove first, I rather wish that I had.

Devil in the Grove won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2013. I’d love to see Beneath a Ruthless Son receive a similar accolade.

[My family lived in Miami Beach, Florida, from 1953 to 1962, when I went north to college. Miami Beach was an oddly insular community, largely composed of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and Russia, their children – such as my parents – and their grandchildren – such as my brothers and myself. If there was any awareness of what was going on in Lake County, it was not, to the best of my recollection, communicated to us children.]

In 2007, Willis McCall’s son Douglas said of his father: “He was a son of the old South,” adding that “He was investigated more times than the Kennedy assassination and they never found anything.” Oh, but there was plenty to find, if one only knew where to look (and then how to impanel an impartial jury to hear the  evidence and judge accordingly).

 

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Working on A Famine of Horses while finishing the latest Bill Slider novel

June 28, 2018 at 2:05 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  My choice for the next Usual Suspects mystery discussion is A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm. I like this book mainly because of the way it brings a distant time so vividly to life. One way Chisholm does this is by weaving particulars about dress, food, and other specifics into a narrative that has an actual historical personage as its hero. I refer to Sir Robert Carey, cousin to Queen Elizabeth I – His father, Lord Hunsdon, was the son of Mary Boleyn, sister to the ill-fated Anne, Elizabeth’s mother.

Sir Robert Carey, First Earl of Monmouth, circa 1591

The historical Sir Robert Carey’s main claim to fame is his breakneck horseback journey in 1603 from London to Edinburgh. His purpose: To inform King James VI of Scotland that he was now King James I of England:

When the Queen died at Richmond Palace Lady Scrope threw the blue ring from a casement window to her brother. Carey, who had previously told King James that he would be the first man to bring the news, set off immediately for London and from there started his epic ride to Edinburgh. He completed the journey in less than three days, and on his way caused King James to be proclaimed by his brother (the governor) at Berwick upon Tweed, the strongest fortress on the road from Scotland. On arrival at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, he hailed King James as King of England and Scotland.

From The Great North Ride

P.F. Chisholm’s prose style is uniquely suited to the time and place of which she writes. It helps cast a spell; I feel transported to that era. One of my favorite of her locutions occurs when she’s describing Sir Robert’s fast-growing goatee as “invading upland pastures.”

Then there’s the passage in which he strives to convey to Henry Dodd, his second-in-command, the flavor of the language used by those who wish to survive at the Queen’s court:

“Well,” he said consideringly, “a scurvy Scotsman might say she is a wild old bat who knows more of governorship and statecraft than the Privy Councils of both realms put together, but I say she is like Aurora in her beauty, her hair puts the sun in splendour to shame, her face holds the heavens within its compass and her glance is like the falling dew.”

Dodd, astonished by this recitation, asks if all the courtiers are required to speak in this manner. Sir Robert replies with unaccustomed bluntness:

“If they want to keep out of the Tower, they do.”

Queen Elizabeth I, the Darnley portrait, circa 1575

My favorite scene in Famine is one in which the characters move seamlessly from discussing a murder investigation – the killing of one Sweetmilk Graham –  to making music together:

“And then,” continued Carey, as he dug in a canvas bag for the latest madrigal sheets he had carried with him faithfully from London, “there’s where he put the body. After all, Solway field’s a very odd place. The marshes or the sea would give him a better chance of the body never being found. It’s almost as if he couldn’t think of anywhere else. And how did Swanders come by the horse?”

“Killed Sweetmilk?” asked Henry Widdrington, picking up one of the sheets and squinting at it. “

“Not Swanders. He doesn’t own a dag. A knife in the ribs would be more his mark. Can you take the bass part?”

Henry Widdrington whistled at the music. “I can try.”

Meanwhile Lord Scrope, Chief Warden and husband to Sir Robert’s sister Philadelphia, is hard at work tuning the virginals in a corner of the room they’re currently occupying. Scrope may be a lackluster administrator, but he’s a genuine music lover and an excellent keyboardist.

And so, they’re off and singing! The effect they’re striving for would have sounded something like this:

or, more informally, this (‘O Eyes of My Beloved’ by Orlando di Lasso – such a beautiful song!):

(Now in my youth, I sang with a madrigal group, and I can tell you from experience, it’s a fiendishly tricky business for nonprofessionals.)

Another way in which Chisholm strives to achieve authenticity is through liberal use of vocabulary appropriate to the times. Here I must insert a caveat. Words such as Cramoisie and dag do not trip lightly off the tongue of a modern reader. The author does not provide a glossary; I rather wish that she had. Even a few footnotes at the bottom of the page would have been helpful. The degree to which this is a problem will of course vary from reader to reader. (I put together a brief glossary for my fellow Suspects. It’s available upon request!)

A Famine of Horses is the first in a series that at present comprises eight novels. I have read all of them. In the main, they are quite entertaining. I thought A Murder of Crows (2010) rather sub par, to the extent that I had trouble finishing it. On the other hand, I found A Chorus of Innocents (2015), a real triumph and, in my opinion, the best series entry since the series itself began. A Suspicion of Silver, entry number nine, is due out in December of this year. (P.F. Chisholm is a pseudonym used by Patricia Finney, a writer of historical fiction and children’s books.)

Another series of which I’m inordinately fond is the Bill Slider series written by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. These novels have the same sparkling irreverence and wit that I prize in the Sir Robert Carey novels. The latest, which I just finished, is entitled Shadow Play.

The dialog that characterized Slider’s team is often quite delightful. To wit:

“I’ve never been there,” Atherton said. “Don’t need to. It’s a totally justified irrational prejudice based on subliminal impressions gained over a lifetime.”

“I wish you came with subtitles,” Loessop complained.

And I love this description of a top speed race to capture a suspect on the run, so dizzying it’s positively cinematic:

It was a glorious, adrenalin-fueled chase, through the narrow streets of Soho, dodging the evening revellers and the crawling traffic; down Wardour Street, left into Noel, left again into Poland, across Broadwick Street, into Lexington. Onlookers stepped helpfully out of the way, even when LaSalle shouted, ‘Police!’ In the old days someone would have stuck out a foot. Loessup began to fall behind, but LaSalle had long legs. Where were the two men carrying a sheet of glass, the tottering stack of cardboard  boxes, the young mother pushing a pram, when you needed them?

Having just finished the twentieth installment of the adventures of Bill Slider and company, I find myself so enamored of this series that I’m thinking of going back to the beginning and starting it all over again!

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“‘The void, the waste, the black blackness.'” – The Knowledge, by Martha Grimes

June 14, 2018 at 7:25 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  In 1981, Martha Grimes burst onto the mystery scene with The Man with a Load of Mischief. In that novel, we were introduced to DCI Richard Jury and a colorful cast of supporting characters. This has been followed by twenty-three additional novels in the series, the titles all standing for the names of pubs or similar establishments.

The Man with the Load of Mischief – wonderful title, that – was one of the first mysteries pressed eagerly into my hands when I came to work at the library in 1982. It was swiftly followed by The Old Fox Deceiv’d, published that same year. I stayed with the novels for a while, then left off reading them, and came back to it in 2006, intrigued by the reviews of that year’s series entry. In The Old Wine Shades, a mother and  son and their dog mysteriously go missing. Some nine months later, the dog reappears – but only the dog. What is one to make of these strange circumstances? I am reminded that Grimes wrote about this curious canine with especial eloquence and charm. I love this kind of writing! It may be time to reread this book. 

From the Publishers Weekly review:

The author’s gift at melding suspense, logical twists and wry humor makes this one of the stronger entries in this deservedly popular series.

The Old Wine Shades was followed by Dust, a novel to which I am particularly partial because of its references to Henry James, specifically to Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, where The Master dwelt from 1897 to 1914 (two years prior to his death). 

So: The Knowledge. This, of course, is the name of a pub – but one shrouded in mystery. Rumors of its existence persist, but those who should be most in the know – namely, London cab drivers, deny any knowledge of it. Yet those same men  and women are required to pass an incredibly difficult test known as – what else? – The Knowledge. It is reputedly

…a test which is amongst the hardest to pass in the world, it has been described as like having an atlas of London implanted into your brain.

The Knowledge Taxi – London Knowledge

An appalling crime is committed in front of the Artemis Club, an elite London establishment. Robbie Parsons, a London cab driver, is a witness. What happens next defies expectation – especially on Robbie’s part. From this act there grows a larger mystery, and a fiendishly complex one at that. This is a case  for Superintendent Richard Jury. He’ll need maximum brains and expertise to figure this one out.

At one point, fairly early on, the action switches to Africa, where Melrose Plant, Jury’s longtime unofficial assistant sleuth, is pursuing a crucial line of inquiry. Plant, aka Lord Ardry, is assisted in his endeavors by one Patty Haigh, a ten- (eleven?) -year-old girl of preternatural resourcefulness. She was my favorite character in the novel. Back in London, Patty’s confederates habitually stationed themselves at Heathrow and other key venues. They reminded me of the Baker Street Irregulars in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

In fact, for this reader, the appeal of these novels lies in their characters rather than their plots. This one was especially convoluted; I’d be hard pressed to unravel its complexities. No matter; I enjoyed spending time with this diverse and invariably entertaining dramatis personae. Melrose Plant in particular has a line in pained bewilderment that always makes me smile.

We here in greater Howard County have always had a special pride in Martha Grimes, a resident of Bethesda, one county to the south of us. Grimes also represents a small but significant group of American mystery writers who set their books in Britain. Two others that come to mind are Deborah Crombie and Elizabeth George. I’ve read and enjoyed several titles by Crombie. (If you’re going to read just one, I recommend Dreaming of the Bones.) I fear I must number myself among a small band of Elizabeth George dissenters. She’s hugely popular with readers and critics alike, I know. But for the most part I have found her writing to be ponderous and humorless. I readily concede, though, that the book that I did get through, With No One As Witness, was extraordinarily powerful (not to mention apparently enraging to some of her faithful readers).

At any rate: back to The Knowledge. It did get a bit sluggish in some places, but for the most part I enjoyed it and recommend it.

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The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry

June 9, 2018 at 7:15 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was busily at work on another post but I have to interrupt myself in order to write about this book. It is quite possibly the most gripping thriller I’ve ever read.

Or listened to, actually. The reader is Joe Barrett. His voice is somewhat gravelly; his reading, low key. I wasn’t sure I would like it. But  about half way into the first disc – there are nine altogether – it grabbed me.

And would not let go. I used any and every excuse to get into my car. I got everywhere early. I sat and listened, mesmerized and full of dread.

So: all plot and no character development, right? Wrong. The bomb maker – we never learn his real name – squares off against Dick Stahl, an experienced professional in the fields of both law enforcement and private security. Stahl’s deep knowledge of a seemingly limitless variety of explosive devices, detonators, and the deadly ways in which they can be deployed is combined with an equally deep understanding of the human potential for depravity. This makes him a formidable adversary. But the bomb maker himself is equally formidable. And unlike Dick Stahl, he has no moral compass at all.

The Kirkus review of The Bomb Maker describes Dick Stahl as “a hero worth caring about.” I could not agree more. And to add to the gifts abundantly present in this novel is a love story with just as much suspense inherent as the crime story possesses. Oh, and did I mention: the writing is excellent.

The part that remained remarkable to her was that on the first night they had both known they were very likely to die in days or weeks, and they had each accepted the other as the ideal person with whom to share those days and nights. Her impulsive attraction to the nearest wise and brave man had turned into something huge and real.

Where has Thomas Perry been all my life? After some twenty-five years of gorging myself on crime fiction, I’ve somehow managed to have read just this one of Perry’s twenty-five novels.  That will now change. (Anyone have any recommendations?)

The Bomb Maker opens with a bang. It builds to an hair-raising climax. And the ending is – well, you’ll see. You will, won’t you?

 

 

 

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Robicheaux fatigue, and a suggested remedy

May 26, 2018 at 8:18 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Herewith are some excerpts from media reviews of Robicheaux:

James Lee Burke is what fellow writers call a wordsmith. He can make your eyes water with a lyrical description of tropical rain falling on a Louisiana bayou: “I love the mist hanging in the trees,” he tells us… “a hint of wraiths that would not let heavy stones weigh them down in their graves, the raindrops clicking on the lily pads, the fish rising as though in celebration.” But in the next breath, he’ll offer a comprehensive account of an excruciating death by torture: “The guy who did him took his time.” And to satisfy our appetite for Southern eccentricity, he’ll introduce us to great characters like Baby Cakes Babineau and Pookie the Possum Domingue.

Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times

Is this the last in the series of the great crime writer James Lee Burke’s novels featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux? That eponymous title and an air of mortality as pungent as the semi-tropical Louisiana setting of these outstanding novels would suggest this may be the case.

It isn’t down to a diminishing of Burke’s powers at the age of 81 if so: this 21st instalment is as rewarding and superbly written as any in the series since the first, 1987’s The Neon Rain.

Alasdair Leeds in The Independent

Five years after his last case in far-off Montana (Light of the World, 2013), sometime sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux returns to Iberia Parish, Louisiana, for another 15 rounds of high-fatality crime, alcohol-soaked ruminations, and heaven-storming prose….

Despite a plot and a cast of characters formulaic by Burke’s standards (though wholly original for anyone else), the intimations of mortality that have hovered over this series for 30 years have never been sharper or sadder.

Kirkus

This is one of the best entries in one of the best ongoing crime-fiction series currently being published, and like all its predecessors, it’ll have readers eagerly waiting for the next installment.

Steve Donoghue in Open Letters Monthly

The novel’s murders and lies—both committed with unsettling smiles—will captivate, start to finish.

Publishers Weekly

Arthur Miller once said that what separates the great artists from their merely proficient peers is not talent, intelligence, or dedication, but an “unquenchable moral thirst.”

If the late playwright was correct, then his insight serves as explanation for why and how James Lee Burke, one of America’s best novelists, continues to write profound, poetic and important books at the age of 81, after already having won two Edgar Awards — the most prestigious honor for crime writers — a Guggenheim fellowship, and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. Burke infuses into his art a theological treatment of ethics, allowing for acts against humanity — both of the smallest repute and the largest consequence — to crack open the essence of reality in contemporary America, but also resting in what Poe famously called, “the tell-tale heart.”

David Masciotra in Salon

I don’t usually read a book’s reviews right before writing up my own assessment. This time is different. I wanted to get some sense of what the reviewers had been saying that had made me want to return to this series, after having abandoned it more than twenty years ago.

Well, now I know. And am none the wiser. Which is to say, I’m somewhat perplexed at all the unqualified raves. In Robicheaux, there are a multitude of characters. This in itself is not unusual in full length mysteries these days. But a number of these characters veer into the action sideways, only to disappear just as abruptly. They were hard to keep track of, to the point where I stopped caring – always a bad sign. As  for the plot: one of the reviewers described it as “multilayered.” I would have used the adjective “incoherent.” I cant be more specific at this time, since I read the book several weeks ago. But I doubt if I could have achieved an orderly retelling of the story even if I’d sat down to write this right after finishing the book.

And back to the characters, I recognized only two besides Dave Robicheaux, from previous books: Cletis “Clete” Purcel, Dave’s close buddy still wearing his signature pork pie hat, and Dave’s daughter Alafair, now grown and a successful novelist (like Burke’s real life daughter, also named Alafair). Other characters came and went; some stayed, like the shape changing Jimmy Nightingale. Some of these people verged on caricatures of Big Bad Southerners, obsessed with their guns, their drinking, and occasionally, their drugs.

Dave himself was still – well, Dave himself, ethical and upright to a fault (except when he wasn’t), still battling alcoholism, fiercely protective – overprotective I’d say – of Alafair. There were times when his air of moral superiority struck me as smug and irritating. A touch of comic relief would have helped, but there was very little of that on offer.

Regarding his home in southwestern Louisiana, Dave entertains a certain ambivalence. On the one hand:

Yes, Louisiana has produced some statesmen and stateswomen, but they are the exception and not the norm. For many years our state legislature has been known as a mental asylum run by ExxonMobil. Since Huey Long, demagoguery has bee a given; misogamy and racism and homophobia have become religious virtues, and self-congratulatory ignorance has  become a source of pride.

Yet, on the other:

I looked the oaks, the moss lifting in the wind, purple dust rising from a cane field, Bayou Teche glinting in the sun like a Byzantine shield. La Louisiane, the love of my life, the home of Jolie Blon and Evangeline and the great Whore of Babylon, the place for which I would die, the place for which there was no answer or cure.

And yes, there is plenty more writing of that caliber. Burke is well known for his way with words in general, and for his poetical descriptions of Louisiana in particular. Tony Hillerman managed to lure me – twice – into visiting New Mexico. (I’d go again in a heartbeat.) James Lee Burke’s depiction of south central Louisiana doesn’t have quite the same effect. Although….

Bayou Teche, near Dave’s home, is a real place.

I found two aspects of this novel profoundly off putting. First, the language was beyond coarse and vulgar, filled with profanity and references to body parts that you’d rather not talk about. Second, the violence was frequent, graphic, and spiked with sickening acts of sadism.

Even so, I pushed ahead to the end, wanting to give the novel every chance to redeem itself in my eyes. And well, the ending was rather fitting, ironic, even sad. It made you wonder what all the effort was for.

Mostly I was just glad it was over. Would I ever read another? If I thought there were a hope for something more humane and less savage, I might.

There was a time when I was so hooked on this series that its unearthly setting invaded my dreams. From 1989, the pub year  of the Edgar-award-winning Black Cherry Blues, through A Morning For Flamingos and A Stained White Radiance to In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, published in 1993, I was a faithful reader. In that last novel, Burke evoked the spirits of the doomed soldiers of the Old South, as they slogged through the swamps and lit their campfires where they could. Those men still haunt Robicheaux in this novel. It’s a powerful and haunting trope.

James Lee Burke

I went straight from this unsettling reading experience to another of Ann Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope mysteries. Vera’s no paragon of perfection either, but she’s honest with herself and with others, smart as a whip, and very sympathetic where sympathy is  called for. The violence is muted; the language is low key yet devastating. This one was called Harbour Street.

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The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon

May 7, 2018 at 9:21 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

  In general, I’m a big fan of Donna Leon’s mysteries. Guido Brunetti is one of the most humane and compassionate officers of the law that one could ever wish to meet, either in fiction or in real life. His family, consisting of wife and university professor (and fabulous cook) Paola and children Raffi and Chiara, now almost grown, are a pleasure to spend time with. Alas, in this latest outing, we don’t get to see much of them. This may be one of the reasons why I was less than thrilled with this particular series entry.

The writing is, in a crisp and unaffected way, wonderful. In this scene, Brunetti has seated himself by the hospital bed of an unconscious, badly bruised man.

He crossed his legs and studied  the crucifix on the wall. Did people still think He could help them? Maybe being in the hospital refreshed their belief and made it possible again for them to think that He would. One gentleman to another, Brunetti asked the Man on the cross if He would  be kind enough to help the man in the bed. He was lying there, perhaps troubled in spirit, helpless, wounded and hurt, apparently through no fault of his own. It occurred to Brunetti that much the same could be said of the Man he was asking to help; this would perhaps make Him more amenable to the request.

This scene actually surprised me, since Brunetti has, throughout this series, thought of himself as at  best, an agnostic.  Thus does belief sometimes steal upon us, taking us unaware, even if just momentarily.

(In The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, Sarah says, “I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love.”)

All this time, the victim’s wife is also in the hospital room, anxiously waiting for him to awaken. At one point, an attendant comes in and offers her a simple courtesy, which she desperately needs. Brunetti thanks the attendant for her kindness.

She was a robust women, stuffed into a uniform she seemed to be outgrowing. One loose strand of greying hair had slipped from under the transparent plastic-shower-cap thing; her hands were red and rough. She smiled. St.Augustine was wrong, Brunetti realized: it was not necessary for grace to be arrived at by prayer; it was as natural and abundant as the sunlight.

And so, what about that unconscious man? How did he get that way, and what is his fate to be? Unfortunately, this aspect of the novel was, for this reader at least, not especially compelling. The narrative dragged in places; the interviews were less than riveting. Ultimately, the solution to the mystery hinges on a fistful of discount cosmetic coupons issued by a pharmacist to an elderly lady. This transaction was analyzed at length; it was confusing and just plain dull.

Concerning Brunetti’s workplace colleagues, there are two who are portrayed in a positive light: fellow investigator Claudia Griffoni, a relatively new addition to the cast of characters; and Signorina Elettra Zorzi. Signorina Elettra, as she is usually called, is a civilian employee of the police, whose resourcefulness is legendary (as is her wardrobe).

Donna Leon has expressed her delight at the entrance of Signorina Elettra into the cast of characters in the Brunetti novels. Here’s how she puts it in an interview:

She came about one day a long time ago. I forget when she entered, the 3rd or 4th book. (the 3rd book) Really, that long ago. I was writing and someone knocked on Brunetti’s door and I didn’t have a clue who it could be or what it could be. So I went for a long walk, probably down to Sant Elena and I came back and turned on the computer and by God Signorina Elettra walked in and Thank God for the day that she did.

Not everyone is enamored of this character. One reader who most definitely isn’t is my friend Marge, whom I’ve referred to in the past as my ‘partner in crime,’ since she was the one who explained to me, when I first came to work at the library, why I should be reading mysteries. Marge is so put off by the presence – some would say the intrusive presence – of Elettra that she has stopped  reading this series altogether. Ah mon Dieu! Now I’m not crazy about her either, but I don’t dislike her quite to that extent. And as I’ve indicated above, this latest is, in my view, not Donna Leon’s best work. But in a series thus far comprising twenty-seven novels, some are bound to better than others. My favorite among the more recent titles is The Waters of Eternal Youth.

One aspect of the Brunetti novels that is a constant, and that gives great pleasure, is the setting. The city of Venice is almost a character in and of itself, unique and imperiled as it currently is. I recently read a review of a 2016 book by Salvatore Settis entitled If Venice Dies.  The cover pretty well sums up the crux of the problem (click to enlarge):

Let’s hope something can be done, and in time. Meanwhile, I along with many others will continue to read the Brunetti novels and to ponder the exasperating glory of that unique city.

 

 

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‘–a man as close to godhead as any mortal who had ever lived–could such a man be alive one moment…and dead the next?’ – The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor

May 4, 2018 at 12:59 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Italy, Mystery fiction)

  The Throne of Caesar begins in this wise:

Once upon a time, a young slave came to fetch me on a warm spring morning. That was the first time I met Tiro.

Gordianus hastens to inform us that this was a long time ago. Now, Tiro is no longer a slave. He is a freedman, having been manumitted some years ago by his master Cicero. And after the passage of many years and the experience of numerous adventures, Gordianus, called Finder, is quite a bit older and, he hopes, wiser. His family is flourishing. The omens are propitious. And he himself is about to be receive an unexpected and significant honor, bestowed by none other than the great Julius Caesar, with whom he has become a favorite.

What could possibly go wrong? Here’s a clue: the novel opens with a page upon which only  the date is divulged. That date is March 10.

That’s right; six days before one of the most famous dates in the history of the Western World: March 15, the Ides of March.

So: do we readers just wait in dread of the inevitable? Well, that element of suspense is certainly present from the start, but much else is going on as well. Gordianus’s son Meto has  become indispensable to Caesar as his secretary and general right hand man. Daughter Diana and her husband, the hulking bodyguard Davus, live with Gordianus and his wife, the beautiful and imperious Bethesda. (One imagines that no one has ever done “imperious” quite the way the Roman matrons did.) Cinna the poet is a favorite drinking buddy of Gordianus’s. The great orator Cicero, somewhat past his prime, is nervously on the scene. And then there’s the haruspex Spurinna….

A haruspex was a soothsayer who specialized in the reading of entrails. This skill was closely identified with the religion of the Etruscans.

Bronze statue of a haruspex, from about the 4th century BC, currently housed in the Vatican Museum

Spurinna was supposedly the name of the soothsayer who has warned Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March.” One of the most chilling moments in Shakespeare’s play occurs when, on his way to the Senate, Caesar encounters Spurinna for the second time. Feeling rather full of himself, Caesar observes that “The Ides of March are come.” To which the  soothsayer responds, without missing a beat, “Ay, Caesar, but not gone.”

And yet, in the days before the Ides, life goes on, filled with plots, counter- plots, and various intrigues, and gossip, just as the Romans loved it. Also, at the time, poetry played a big part in the cultural life of the people. Cinna’s latest opus, entitled Zmyrna, was incessantly read and talked about. (The author’s full name is Helvius Cinna, not to be confused with Lucius Cornelius Cinna, praetor and conspirator. Alas, despite the protestations of Helvius Cinna, that confusion does in fact occur, with disastrous results for the poet. You’ll recall Shakespeare’s memorable line: “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.”)

At any rate, back to Zmyrna: Impatient with his father’s delay in reading this putative masterpiece, Meto begins reading aloud to him. Here’s how Gordianus responds:

I thought I would prefer those moments when Meto read aloud, for he had a beautiful voice and knew exactly where to place each stress depending on the secret meanings of the words. But I enjoyed just as much the experience of reading the verses aloud myself, letting my lips and tongue play upon the absurdly convoluted edifice of language. Even when I didn’t quite understand what I was reading, the words themselves produced music. When I did understand not merely the outermost level of meaning but also the multiple puns and learned references, I felt an added thrill, as if the words that emerged from my mouth were truly something more than air, compounded of some enchanted substance that encircled and gently caressed both Meto and myself.

Beautiful description that, and how eloquently it limns the closeness and mutual affection of father and son. (When I went in search of the actual Zmyrna, I was informed succinctly by Wikipedia that “The poem has not survived.”)

Oh and speaking of ‘learned references,’ Caesar, during a later literary-themed conversation, comes up with this idea:

“Imagine a series of life stories told in parallel, to compare and contrast the careers and fortunes of great men.”

Of course, Plutarch not only imagined this, he wrote it, some hundred and fifty years after Caesar’s fanciful speculation, as rendered by Steven Saylor.

Here’s another set piece that I love. This is actually the same occasion at which Caesar made the comment above:

To either side of me, braziers burned. Torches flickered from various sconces in the surrounding portico. The last faint light of day lit the ashen sky, in which the first stars had begun to shine. The four men moved amid green shrubs and tall statues. The ever-changing light, the men in their finery, the looming figures of marble, and bronze–all combined in a moment of surpassing strangeness. I looked at Meto, wondering if he, too, felt it. On his face I saw a look of deep contentment that increased with each step that brought Caesar nearer.

Scenes like  this, with their portentous quietude, serve to make the intimations of coming bloodshed feel all the more harrowing.

Steven Saylor obviously derives a deep joy from a lifelong immersion in the life and literature of ancient Rome. He passes that joy directly on to us, the readers of his Roma Sub Rosa series. His erudition is everywhere evident, but it never hijacks the narratives, which are invariably compelling, set as they are against a background of actual events from ancient times. Those times spring vividly to life in his stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. It cannot be an easy task to conjure a world whose inhabitants had such a drastically different world view than our own. (It’s hard, for instance, to accept the fact that educated, cultured individuals gave credence to the reading of animal entrails.) And yet this author accomplishes this feat, with conviction and brio.

The art work that graces the cover of The Throne of Caesar is by Karl Theodor Piloty and was painted in 1865.

I also like this version of the event, painted by Jean-Leon Jerome in 1867.

On Steven Saylor’s richly informative site, I note with delight a celebration of  the 25th anniversary of the publication of Roman Blood. How well I remember reading it when it came out in 1991 and thinking, Wow, what a winner this is!

I ask only this of any work of historical fiction that I read: Put me there, in that place, at that time. This is, after all, the only form of time travel we have, so make it work. In his marvelous series of novels treating of the life and times of Gordianus the Finder, proud and resourceful citizen of ancient  Rome, Steven Saylor (whom we had the pleasure of meeting at Crimefest  in 2011) does exactly  that.

Steven Saylor

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‘The wet air was as cold as the ashes of love.’ – Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

April 14, 2018 at 10:01 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I just finished Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler and my head is so full of this astonishing jumble of (at times, frustrating) episodic brilliance that I can’t at the moment think or write about anything else.

There’s plenty of tension in this yarn, some of it generated by the interplay of opposites: good cop versus bad cop, a beautiful but deadly female versus a woman of genuine virtue and compassion. There are lots more characters, from the large yet love-struck and improbably named Moose Malloy to the unlikely – and distinctly unlikable – ‘Psychic Consultant’ names Jules Amthor.

And in the midst of it all, Philip Marlowe, licensed private eye, trying to make sense of it all.

For this reader, the strangest, almost inexplicable interaction occurs between Marlowe and a man called Red Norgaard. Marlowe is in search of a power broker named Laird Brunette. Red – he of the fire-colored hair and outsized build – plies the offshore waters of the Pacific in his motor boat, He offers to help Marlowe board a gambling ship illegally – i.e., with a gun. Their interaction is quite lengthy; in the course of it, Marlowe is moved to disclose something of himself that’s normally kept well out of sight. He begins by stating bluntly that he’s scared, then going on to elaborate.

“I’m afraid of  death and despair,” I said. “Of dark water and drowned men’s  faces and skulls with empty eyesockets. I’m afraid of dying, of being nothing, of not finding a man named Brunette.”

Red is a straight arrow of a guy. He’s not at all stupid but he’s not given to existential ruminations either. His reaction to Marlowe’s disclosure:

He chuckled. “You had me going for a minute. You sure give yourself a pep talk.”

Somehow, though, Red has touched something deep in Marlowe. Perhaps it was a his straightforward kindness, his willingness to help a stranger on a dangerous mission.

Hardboiled protagonists are famously portrayed as loners. But in this instance, Marlowe needed a friend and, like a blessing, one appeared at precisely the right moment. Later, after his harrowing adventure at sea:

I thought of the giant with the red hair and violet eyes, who was probably the nicest man I had ever met.

(It’s a safe assumption that Marlowe does not meet many ‘nice’ men – nor women, for that matter – in his line of work.)

Figurative language abounds in Farewell, My Lovely, sometimes it’s almost hypnotic. Of Nulty the cop:

He hung up and scribbled on a pad and  there was a  faint gleam in his eyes, a light far back in a dusty corridor.

Other times it’s downright disconcerting. Of Moose Malloy, on the novel’s first page:

He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.

(This made me think of Mercutio’s riposte to Romeo: “‘…’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a  church-door…'”)

Subsequently, still descriptive of Moose Malloy:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

Of a room just entered:

A couple of frayed lamps with once gaudy shades that were now as gay as superannuated streetwalkers.

There’s more, this mode of expression being one of the hallmarks of hardboiled prose. And this is probably as  good a place as any to quote a paragraph that seems to me emblematic of the style:

I got up on my feet and over to the bowl in the corner and threw cold water on my face. After a little while I felt a little better, but very little. I needed a drink. I needed a lot of life insurance. I needed a vacation. I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.

And the plot? On the site Detnovel.com, Prof. William Marling calls it “disjointed.” Hah!  I call it all but incomprehensible. A multipliicity of twists and turns. A McGuffin in the form of a supposedly priceless jade necklace. Strange hand rolled cigarettes with secrets inside. Really, I was pretty much lost by the time we reached the back stretch. But you know what? It didn’t matter. By then I was all but mesmerized by the at times almost poetic urgency of the first person prose.

It has to be mentioned that Farewell, My Lovely has its share of ethnic slurs.The instances are not overabundant, but they are there, and they are jarring. Say what you will about “the times,” one wishes – I wish – that they could be made to go away. (This was in fact actually done in this country with post-World-War-Two editions of the works of Agatha Christie.)

I was prompted to read Farewell, My Lovely by the fact that it’s the June selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group. I’d actually been wanting to get back to Chandler for some time. This forms part of my extremely enjoyable program of returning to the classics of crime fiction. I’ve recently read these two:

 

Trent’s Last Case (1913) was termed by Dorothy L. Sayers to be “…a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original”; Agatha Christie called it “One of the three best detective stories  ever written.” (I’d like very much to know what Christie’s other two choices for this designation were.) The Robthorne Mystery is less well known. Published in 1934, this quintessential English village mystery turns on a puzzling question of identity. I though the plot exceptionally well wrought. John Rhode’s real name was Cecil John Charles Street. Also writing as Miles Burton and Cecil Wayne, he was extremely prolific. (See the ‘Bibliography’ section of his Wikipedia entry.)  I enjoyed The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton.

Farewell, My Lovely exists in two notable screen versions. The first was released in 1944, titled Murder, My Sweet, and starring Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe and Claire Trevor as Mrs. Lewin Lockridge Grayle –  sometimes called Helen Grayle, other times called something else.

The second version from 1975 retains the original title and stars Robert Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling.

**************

  The Modern Library edition of Farewell, My Lovely that I just read also contains The Big Sleep, which I read years ago. This volume was published in 1995. Right after the last page of the novel, there’s a list of those who were on the editorial board at the time of publication:

Maya Angelou
Daniel J. Boorstin
A.S. Byatt
Christopher Cerf
Shelby Foote
Vartan Gregorian
Larry McMurtry
Edmund Morris
John Richardson
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
William Styron
Gore Vidal

Some very distinguished names. Most – but not all – have now passed from the scene.

I love the photo of Chandler on the cover of the Modern Library edition. The other photo of Chandler that I cherish is this one: Chandler and his wife Cissy both doted on Taki the cat.

The story of Raymond Chandler’s life is both fascinating and surprising. I recommend  A Mysterious Something in the Light: A Life of Raymond Chandler by Tom Williams.

 

 

 

 

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