A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846, by Alethea Hayter

January 14, 2018 at 1:51 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, France, London 2017)

While in London, I had the good fortune to find myself in the vicinity of the London Review Bookshop. (Sister-in-law Donna figured this out courtesy of the mapping function she employed with admirable dexterity on her iPhone.) Naturally that meant that I soon found myself inside the shop.   The cash register was at the back; there, I found issues of the venerable London Review of Books. I informed one of the young people staffing the desk that I subscribe to the review ‘back home in Maryland, USA.’ He immediately exclaimed, with booming gusto: “Cracking good mag, innit?!” Yet another wonderful British moment….

As it happened, I had a new issue waiting for me when I got back home. In it was a review of One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli ad the Great Stink of 1858, by Rosemary Ashton.

Reviewer Rosemary Hill observes that aside from the choking stench emanating from the Thames River, nothing else of great moment happened in London in the year 1858. It is therefore, she concludes, “the perfect subject for a microhistory.”

Hill continues:

Great events cast shadows over details which in an undramatic year, or season, can be more clearly seen. Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month, published in 1965, was one of the earliest and best examples  of what has become a popular  genre. Set in another heat wave, in 1846, Hayter’s account weaves together the famous, the obscure and the forgotten.

Hill enumerates just a few of the writers and artists who are featured in Hayter’s slender volume – Samuel Rogers, Jane Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett,  and Gräfin Hahn-Hahn (that’s her name alright – no mistake!). Hayter documents their lives and interactions so closely that “…from day to day and street to street, the sublime and the ridiculous appear in the proximity they occupy in life.”

Hill then goes on to make further observations on the microhistory subgenre:

This is surely one reason for the rise of microhistory, that it brings the texture of the past closer. It illustrates the ‘human position’, the way the momentous occurs ‘while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’…When it is done well, microhistory opens out from its immediate subject matter and  the result is like looking through a keyhole and seeing a whole landscape.

Meanwhile, I had developed a strong need to get my hands on A Sultry Month. There is no e-book available; the physical book is out of print. I bought a used copy from Amazon.

I’m now about two thirds of the way through it. I am deliberately reading as slowly as possible, as I do not want it to end. I love it.

While Haydon was walking out of the northern fringe of London, Browning was sitting on the grass in the garden at New Cross, and was conscious of the immensity of the whole round earth under him, and saw it as an image of  the love that now supported all his life. At the same time Elizabeth Barrett was sitting on the drawing-room window seat in Wimpole Street, writing to him while he was thinking of her.

(Those of my generation may recall watching the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street on television in 1956. I was twelve years old at the time, and that production made an indelible impression on my  nascent romantic imagination.

Katharine Cornell as Elizabeth Barrett)

I had never heard of Alethea Hayter before this. Her obituary in The Guardian – she died in 2006 at the age of 94 –  says this of her works:

In all these books, she manages to unite the narrative sweep and urgency of a novel with impeccable historical and social research and a uniquely elegant style.

I will certainly be reading more books by Alethea Hayter. I’ve  already downloaded this one: 

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I can recommend yet another microhistory: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. This book came out shortly after the release of a terrific film Le Retour de Martin Guerre starring Gerard Depardieu. (And while you’re  at it, seek out Janet Lewis’s novelized version of this true story, The Wife of Martin Guerre.)

 

 

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A suggestion for ‘paired reading’

January 6, 2018 at 9:12 pm (Book review, books)

 

I found Robert Harris’s inside-the-Vatican scenario as engrossing as any thriller I’ve read lately. This should not have surprised me; Harris is a master at generating suspense through creative use of setting and the placement therein of believable characters operating under duress.

Thomas Kenneally employs similar techniques to great effect in Crimes of the Father. This novel tackles head-on the exposure of cases of abuse by priests and the subsequent action (or lack of same) undertaken by the church. This will be a sensitive subject for many people, and they may or may not agree with the way in which Thomas Kenneally has handled this material.

Kenneally has placed a four-page Author’s Note ahead of the novel’s text. In it, he reveals that he was raised Catholic and attended seminary for a period, but upon realizing his unsuitability for the priest’s vocation, dropped out.

I just want to say a few more things about Crimes of the Father. The writing is excellent; I loved the conversations between  and among the various dramatis personae. The story is mainly told through the eyes of Father Frank Docherty. This is an entirely believable man – not just believable, but human and vulnerable, as assailed by doubts as are the rest of us, in this life. Above all he is a person of genuine integrity. He is a gentle Irishman by heritage, with an Irish sense of humor that’s never exercised at someone else’s expense. You may have been lucky enough in your life to know someone like him, either in the clergy or in some other walk of life.

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For more on paired reading, click on the post entitled “The Pleasures of Paired Reading.”

 

 

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Best Books of 2017: Contemporary Crime Fiction, Part Two

January 3, 2018 at 3:11 pm (Best of 2017, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

We’ve slipped over the finish line into 2018, so it behooves me to finish posting my “best reads” in crime fiction of the past year:

Old Bones by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. A series that, by virtue of its wit, sympathetic cast of characters, and above all its self-effacing hero Bill Slider, has been an unadulterated delight since its inception back in 1991.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Dungeon House Martin Edwards. Another winning series, by an author who’s also a distinguished scholar of the genre.

Skin and Bone by Robin Blake. An historical series of superior quality in which Blake narrates the exploits of Titus Cragg, coroner, and Luke Fidelis, a physician in 18th century Lancashire, England. People need to discover these marvelous novels!

Robin Blake

Stone Coffin by Kjell Eriksson. This Swedish series featuring Detectives Ann Lindell and Ola Haver is exceptionally well written and at times, genuinely moving. (Although Stone Coffin is the most recently published book in this series, it’s actually the earliest that’s been translated into English and is therefore a good place to begin.)

Kjell Erikkson

A Fine Line by Gianrico Carofiglio. I continue to champion this little-known high quality series set in Bari, Italy, and featuring the extremely appealing ‘avvocato’ Guido Guerrieri. (Carofiglio’s nonseries novel The Silence of the Waves is also very much worth reading.)

Gianrico Carofiglio

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. For sheer delicious enjoyment, this one was the big winner.

Trace by Archer Mayor. This is number twenty-eight in a series I’ve been following for years. Also I’ve felt a special bond with this author ever since I stood right next to him while ostensibly browsing the magazines at Onsite News in BWI  Thurgood Marshall Airport several years ago. (Sighting was later confirmed by means of a subsequent email exchange with the ever congenial Mayor.)

Archer Mayor

Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller. I was deeply touched by the sufferings, both noble and ignominious, of the people of Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. I can do no better than  to quote the Kirkus Review of this novel: “Keller’s prose is so pure that her exploration of the desperate scourge of drugs and poverty and her forecast of a grim future for her heroine are a joy to read.”

Julia Keller

Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adam. Recently reviewed by me in this space.

 

 

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‘It was one of the mysteries of modern life, what happened to old love.’ – Improvement, by Joan Silber

November 27, 2017 at 4:05 pm (Book review, books)

   The January 18 Washington Post featured a review by Charles Finch of Improvement, a new novel by Joan Silber. The article is entitled, “Joan Silber, America’s Alice Munro.” (Could  there be any higher praise?) Charles Finch urges readers thus:

Go introduce yourself to the genius who’s  been toiling in your back yard.

Yes, YES! I could not agree more.

I immediately downloaded Improvement and read it in three (otherwise extremely busy) days. Joan Silber’s style is very colloquial. You could swear that she’s sitting next to you spinning a wildly improbable – or all too probable? – yarn, filled with characters who are unique and driven and at the same time only too vulnerable. What they all have in common is the mistaken assumption that they’re in control of their respective destinies.

Compulsively readable, hugely entertaining, and filled to the brim with home truths that seem only too inevitable after the fact.
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  As much as I enjoyed Improvement, I don’t think it’s quite on a par with Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, one of the most masterful and profound works of fiction I’ve ever encountered. In the twelve years since I first read this extraordinary collection of stories, I’ve returned to it in my mind, time and time again. It haunts me – particularly, the title story.

Joan Silber

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‘The Name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him….’ – Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

November 19, 2017 at 2:30 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is like a Golden Age detective novel on steroids – not that all of those were necessarily short. There’s always Gaudy Night. And that crowning (and lengthy) achievement in crime fiction by Dorothy L Sayers does not contain a murder.

Magpie Murders is a book within a book. Or perhaps it is better described as a book alongside another book. At the very least. it is oddly structured. But it does have some recognizable features, most particularly a brainy and cultured ‘consulting’ detective who arrives on Britain’s shores as a refugee from the war on the Continent. Remind you of someone? Well, he is somewhat reminiscent of Hercule Poirot, but his finely honed powers of observation also bring to mind Sherlock Holmes.

He is Atticus Pünd. This is how he appears to a physician who is treating him:

The name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him, of course. He was often mentioned in the newspapers – a German refugee who had managed to survive the war after spending a year in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. At the time of his arrest he had been a policeman working in Berlin – or perhaps it was Vienna – and after arriving in England, he had set himself up as a private detective, helping the police on numerous occasions. He did not look like a detective. He was a small man, very neat, his hands folded in front of him. He was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a narrow black tie. His shoes were polished. If he had not known otherwise, the doctor might have mistaken him for an accountant, the sort who would work for a family firm and who would be utterly reliable.

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Inevitably, Atticus Pund has a ‘Watson,’ hired to assist him in his detecting and record keeping endeavors. This is James Fraser.

A graduate out of Oxford University, a would-be actor, broke, and perennially unemployed, he had answered an advertisement in the Spectator thinking that he would stay in the job for a few months. Six years later, he was still there.

(Later in the novel, we’re informed that James Fraser was named for actor Hugh Fraser who played Captain Hastings, the somewhat dim but extremely likable ‘associate’ of  David Suchet’s brilliant Poirot.)

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Captain Arthur Hastings

Atticus Pünd is a person possessed of deep understanding and a great capacity for empathy. Here, he is confiding to James Fraser his anxiety about the case they are investigating:

 ‘There is something about the village of Saxby-on-Avon that concerns me,’ he went on. ‘I have spoken to you before of the nature of human wickedness, my friend. How it is the small lies and evasions which nobody sees or detects but which can come together and smother you like the fumes in a house fire.’ He turned and surveyed the surrounding buildings, the shaded square. ‘They are all around us. Already there have been two deaths: three, if you include the child who died in the lake all those years ago. They are all connected. We must move quickly before there is a fourth.’

Meanwhile, Pünd is at work on a book which he hopes will encompass all the skills that he has acquired in the course of his detecting l life. It is to be entitled The Landscape of Criminal Investigation. (This immediately put me in mind of the oft-quoted tome The Principles of Private Detection,  written by Clovis Anderson and held in the highest esteem by Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Their creator, Alexander McCall Smith, has said that readers frequently ask him where they can obtain a copy of this purportedly  wondrous volume. “You can’t,” he responds. “I made it up!”)

The Atticus Pünd novels are written by Alan Conway. His London-based editor, Susan Ryeland, narrates a portion of Magpie Murders. (As I said, this is a novel within a novel, or you could say it’s two novels conflated into one. If this seems confusing, don’t worry. It’s actually quite a cunning edifice, offering numerous delights and surprises within.)

At one point, Ryeland speculates on the appeal of the English village as a setting for crime fiction:

Why do English villages lend themselves so well to murder? I used to wonder about this but got the answer when I made the mistake of renting a cottage in a village near Chichester….I soon discovered that every time I made one friend I made three enemies and that arguments about such issues as car parking, the church bells, dog waste and hanging flower baskets dominated daily life to such an extent that everyone was permanently at each other’s throats. That’s the truth of it. Emotions which are quickly lost in the noise and chaos of the city fester around the village square, driving people to psychosis and violence. It’s a gift to the whodunnit writer. There’s also the advantage of connectivity. Cities are anonymous but in a small, rural community everyone knows everyone, making it so much easier to create suspects and, for that matter, people to suspect them.

This passage put me in mind of the following exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in  the story “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” The two are traveling by train from London to Winchester:

It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and grey roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

Susan Ryeland is a lover of detective fiction, but she’s genuinely puzzled by the  frequent use of murder as a key plot device:

There are hundreds and hundreds of murders in books and television. It would be hard for narrative fiction to survive without them. And yet there are almost none in real life, unless you happen to live in the wrong area. Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us – the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable? I made a mental note to check out Alan’s sales figures in San Pedro Sula in Honduras (the murder capital of the world). It might be that they didn’t read him at all.

(It saddens me to reflect that the comment about “the wrong area” would probably not be made these days by an American. We’re learning more and more, to our collective chagrin, that the wrong area can be anywhere at all.)

Despite a certain unease, Susan Ryeland readily confesses her love for the crime fiction genre:

I’ve always loved whodunnits. I’ve not just edited them. I’ve read them for pleasure throughout my life, gorging on them actually. You must know that feeling when it’s raining outside and the heating’s on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book. You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover. That is the particular power of the whodunnit which has, I think, a special place within the general panoply of literary fiction because, of all characters, the detective enjoys a particular, indeed a unique relationship with the reader. Whodunnits are all about truth: nothing more, nothing less.

Ah, yes – the pages slipping through your fingers, a delicious sensation hard to replicate with an e-reader…. And speaking of pages, don’t be daunted  by the novel’s length. It’s about 450 pages long but they fly by. (And why can’t I tell you exactly how long it is? Well, I’d have to do some arithmetic first. But really, just get it and you will see for yourself.)

Magpie Murders is a splendid hommage to the crime fiction of a bygone era. I’m immensely grateful to Anthony Horowitz for writing it.

Anthony Horowitz, named Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to literature in 2014

 

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Trace, by Archer Mayor: a Joe Gunther novel

October 30, 2017 at 6:55 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Joe Gunther, former Lieutenant in the Brattleboro Police Department and now  Special Agent field commander for the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI), always knew that if for any reason he were to be sidelined, all ‘heck’ would break loose at the VBI.

He was right.

As the events of Trace get under way, Joe’s elderly mother has fallen ill with a variant of Lyme Disease. The best treatment for her is only available at a hospital in the Midwest. Joe must accompany his mother to this facility and say with her for the duration, leaving his trusty subordinate Sammie Martens in charge.

Sure enough, no sooner has he left the premises, then things start to happen. An investigation into a police shooting  that occurred two years previous is reopened due to the discovery of new evidence. That case goes to Lester Spinney. Next, some strange objects found on a stretch of of railroad track – a crushed battery and several human teeth (!) – seems to point to an infraction that could involve Homeland Security. The elusive and slippery Willy Kunkle catches this one.

Finally, there’s a break-in at the apartment of Rachel Reiling, daughter of state medical examiner Beverly Hillstrom. Beverly and Joe are in a relationship, so Joe is particularly anguished at being hors  de combat at this critical moment. As per Beverly’s request, Sammie becomes part of the team investigating this crime and its weighty, complex consequences.

Archer Mayor handles all of this with his usual skill and aplomb. In my opinion, he is one of the best in the business when it comes to constructing tight, consistent plots. His team members are beautifully drawn characters. We  get engrossing insights into their personal lives minus the soap opera aspect that can become so grating in some crime fiction.

As always, Archer Mayor’s deep knowledge of and affection for Vermont provide a rich backdrop for the narrative:

They were traveling north on I-91, in preparation for catching the state’s only other interstate – I-89 -that cut diagonally through thee Green Mountains to reach Burlington on the western border. It was a beautiful, scenic, thinly traveled road, showing off some of the best views that northern New England had to offer.At this time of year–the soothing, seductive, emerald green stretch of time between the end of mud season and early fall, when this patch of earth holds out the brief glimpse of perfection–it was difficult for even a  hard-bitten soul not to be influenced.

Mayor can also gently chaff the Green Mountain State, as when he notes that the locals refer to the frequently sighted abandoned cars dotting the countryside as ‘Vermont planters.’

I think that this is one of the best entries I’ve read in this long running series. It’s beyond my understanding why Archer Mayor is not better known, his excellence more widely acknowledged. These novels are outstanding.

The following is from Archer Mayor’s site:

Archer Mayor is a death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, a detective for the Windham County Sheriff’s Office, the publisher of his own backlist, a travel writer for AAA, and he travels the Northeast giving speeches and conducting workshops. He has 25 years of experience as a volunteer firefighter/EMT. Mayor was brought up in the US, Canada and France and had been employed as a scholarly editor, a researcher for TIME-LIFE Books, a political advance-man, a theater photographer, a newspaper writer/editor, a lab technician for Paris-Match Magazine in Paris, France, and a medical illustrator. In addition to writing novels and occasional articles, Mayor gives talks and workshops all around the country, including the Bread Loaf Young Writers conference in Middlebury, Vermont, and the Colby College seminar on forensic sciences in Waterville, Maine.

Archer Mayor: From what I can see, a deeply accomplished and thoroughly admirable person

 

 

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More on John Le Carre and A Legacy of Spies, with echoes of W Somerset Maugham

October 21, 2017 at 6:07 pm (Book review, books)

[Click here for the first post on A Legacy of Spies.]

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A Legacy of Spies opens with Peter Guillam recounting  his early life. In line with his mother’s retelling, his father was

…the wastrel son of a wealthy Anglo-French family from the English midlands, a man of rash appetites, fast-diminishing inheritance and a redeeming love of France.

Thus his French mother, and his blissful early childhood spent on a farmstead in Brittany. His father was frequently absent, but that in no way intruded on little Pierre’s happiness. He assumed this idyll would go on indefinitely. But of course, it did not: “The future meant nothing to me until it struck.” At the age of eight, little Pierre was unceremoniously whisked off to England to live with cousins of his father. He barely knew these people. School was a torment, where his heavily accented English was mocked by the other students. Eight more years passed before he was able to return to Brittany, where things were not as he had left them.

As I was reading this, I was thinking to myself that somehow I’d heard a similar tale before. A warmly recollected childhood in France, followed abruptly by a chilly and friendless life in England….Ah, yes, then I remembered:

William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris in 1874, the youngest of four boys. While his older brothers were away at boarding school in England, young Willie basked in the exclusive adoration of his beautiful mother Edith. But that idyll was shattered when she died of tuberculosis. Maugham was only eight years old.

The loss was devastating. Willie’s father Robert, who served as legal counsel for the British Embassy in Paris, tried to make it up to him but only two years later himself died of cancer. Willie was sent to live in England with his uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham, Vicar of Whitstable in the County of Kent, and his wife Sophie.

Willie knew nothing of England; his halting command of the language was made more problematical by a severe stammer. Making matters worse – much worse – was the fact that the vicar was a cold, self-regarding individual, whose high opinion of himself rested on not much discernible evidence.

I’m quoting from my 2010 review of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings.    Mere coincidence? Possibly. It did make me wonder if by any chance John Le Carre has read Selina Hastings’s book, one of my all time favorite biographies.

Like Le Carre, W. Somerset Maugham worked for a period as an agent for Britain’s intelligence service. His experiences in that capacity later informed a series of short stories published as Ashenden: or the British Agent. (After finishing the Hastings biography, I commenced binge reading everything my Maugham that I could get my hands on. While in thrall to this delightful obsession, I read the Ashenden stories and loved them unconditionally.)

 

Some four years ago, I decided to read John Le Carre’s second novel. A Murder of Quality features George Smiley as a former intelligence agent who’s prevailed upon by an old friend to look into a worrying situation. That friend, Miss Brimley, edits a journal called The Christian Voice. She has received an extremely disturbing missive from Stella Rode, a some time contributor to this enterprise. Mrs Rode, who is married to a teacher at Carne, an exclusive school for boys on England’s South Coast, believes herself to be in some sort of danger. Could Miss Brimley help her? Miss Brimley, in her turn, asks the same question of George Smiley. Having agreed to look into the matter, Smiley travels down to Carne in order to see for himself what is transpiring there. (And thus we enter an enclosed, almost claustrophobic setting in academia, my favorite type of locale for a murder mystery.)

I liked A Murder of Quality enough to select it for discussion by the Usual Suspects the following year. I then read and also enjoyed Call for the Dead, Le Carre’s first published novel, which also features George Smiley.

  

Le Carre’s memoir The Pigeon Tunnel came out last year; Adam Sisman’s biography, the year before that. I’ve read neither at this point, but reading A Legacy of Spies has whetted my interest, especially in the memoir.

John Le Carre by Nadav Kander

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Exfiltration of Tulip, and other matters….

October 20, 2017 at 2:43 pm (Book review, books, Crime)

Exfiltration operation: ‘A clandestine rescue operation designed to bring a defector, refugee, or an operative and his or her family out of harm’s way’
[Language of Espionage, courtesy of The International Spy Museum]

At any rate, here we are, back in familiar Le Carre country. A double agent, code name Tulip, must be extricated from East Berlin and brought to England, where she will (presumably) be safe. The operation is overseen by Peter Guillam, agent of the British Secret Service. Tulip is not the easiest baggage to transport. She’s been forcibly parted from her son Gustav. pines for him constantly, and repeatedly demands to know when she will be reunited with him. A delicate, difficult situation.

It’s a strange, almost hallucinatory experience, being escorted by the Master of espionage fiction back into the Cold that he knows so well. As I read, I could almost feel its icy coils tightening. To say that this novel is atmospheric is to greatly understate the case.

The exfiltration provides the scaffolding upon which the plot is built. Myriad other things are going on at the same time. As is usual with Le Carre, the characters are numerous. They kept fading on and out; I admit that at times, I had trouble keeping track of them. A good number of them are artifacts from previous works. The most noteworthy of these is, of course, George Smiley.

For me, as I suspect for many others of my generation, the image of George Smiley is forever fixed as Alec Guinness, who portrayed the character for BBC-TV in 1979 and again in 1982.

Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley. His was the face I saw throughout my reading of A Legacy of Spies.

The characters in this story indulge in the full panoply of spy behavior: they lie, prevaricate, evade, deceive, and worst of all, betray. Not that they derive any joy from these actions. Rather, they seem depressed, cynical, and thoroughly disillusioned. The question arises: Why would anyone choose to live like this? They don’t even seem to  be especially patriotic, and that may be the biggest puzzle of all.

Every once in a while, the prevailing gloom is relieved by a rare glimpse of goodness, like this:

Some faces, try as  they may, cannot conceal the good heart of  their owners, and Riemeck’s is such a face. He is balding, bespectacled – and sweet. The word is simply not to be denied. Never mind the medic’s studious frown: humanity breathes out of  him.

Sweetness! Imagine…(The combination of understated eloquence and precision that we know from previous books is present here as well.)

It must be stressed that Smiley is not the main character in this novel. Rather, he hovers like a ghost in the background throughout most of the narrative. The first work by Le Carre that I ever read was Smiley’s People, the third and final installment in the ‘Karla Trilogy.’ Not the best place to start, and so it proved. I had never in my life  been so completely flummoxed by a work of fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter). Upon completing the laborious  task of reading this book, all I could think was, “What was that??” It was 1980, and at that time, I had no background in the reading of either espionage fiction or mysteries. Thus my bewilderment may be more easily understood.

I already knew from the reviews I’d read that Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, main characters in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, reappear in this novel. I’ve never read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, although I’ve seen the film several times. It is superb; it could hardly have been otherwise with stars like Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner, directed by Martin Ritt.

I’m not sure what the experience of reading this novel would be like today. (I do know that that the AMC network and the BBC are currently at work on a miniseries version, to be broadcast some time next year.) Alec Leamas is a notable but secondary character in A Legacy of Spies, only emerging as primary near the end of the novel. Liz Gold’s presence is even more fleeting.

And Peter Guillam, whose hard work and diligence facilitated Tulip’s exfiltration? He’s as conflicted a character as you’d expect him to be. One minute he’s on an outrage-fueled quest for justice; the next, he’s desperate to save his own skin and to Hell with everything  and everyone else. It’s this mixture of motives, this interweaving of truth and subterfuge, that is so mesmerizing, exasperating, and unnerving.

What a novel! I dreaded picking it up, then could not put it down. Le Carre, conjuror and artificer,  has done it again.

Photo by Nadav Kander

 

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‘See what a rent the envious Casca made…’ (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)

October 18, 2017 at 7:57 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

To find that his own ill-humour had quenched the gaiety of his guests appeared to afford him considerable gratification.

Thus does Nathaniel Herriard derive smug satisfaction in Envious Casca (1941), Georgette Heyer‘s gleeful send-up of the upper class guests and denizens of Lexham Manor. If he sounds an unpleasant creature, well, that’s more or less on the mark.

The situation is this: Joseph, Nathaniel’s brother, has planned a good old fashioned Christmas celebration  to take place at Lexham Manor. Joseph and his wife Maud also live at the grand establishment, though one does not detect an particular amity between the brothers. In fact, as has already been noted, there’s no particular amity between Nathaniel and anyone else. He’s a solitary curmudgeon, best left to his own devices. But he’s  also heir to Lexham, and thus a wealthy man.

Inevitably , a murder takes place, this muting the gaiety of the  occasion – not that there was much of that in evidence to begin with. (A more mutually ill-suited gathering would be hard to find.) This is a locked room mystery, and a particularly cunning one at that. It’s also a classic country house murder, although perhaps spiked with more venom that is usually present in such scenarios. On the other hand, there’s a most welcome romance that blossoms late in the narrative.

Envious Casca was Ann R.’s choice for the August discussion meeting of the Usual Suspects. Reaction to it was for the most part rather tepid, if not downright negative. I initially had some trouble getting into the novel, but once I did, I really enjoyed it. Heyer’s sparkling wit added greatly to my reading pleasure. There are three other Inspector Hemingway novels; I hope to read another before too long.

Georgette Heyer 1902-1974

 

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Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza: a book discussion

October 14, 2017 at 9:10 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Before Chris G. put this on the reading list for Usual Suspects, I had not heard of this author. I read Girl in the Ice some two months ago and was pleasantly surprised by the experience. I was initially daunted by the novel’s length, but it was such a compelling read that I fairly raced through it. Bryndza writes great dialog; his characters were interesting, if not always likeable; he had an intriguing, if complex tale to tell, and he told it well – or so I thought, at the time, at any rate.

As last Tuesday evening’s discussion progressed, it became clear that others did not share my enthusiasm. Several gaps and inconsistencies  in the plot (not to mention a disappearing subplot) were pointed out. Procedural matters were deemed to be flawed. Frank N. felt that due to the paucity of clues, Girl in the Ice did not play fair with the reader.

But the most glaring criticism was reserved for the main protagonist, DCI Erika Foster. She was described by several Suspects as “over the top” and as a result, not likable. By the time our discussion took place, I was too far removed from my actual reading of the novel to be able to clearly recall the plot issues that were brought up, but I did retain a vivid memory of the character of Erika Foster.

I concede that Foster could be strident and blunt to a fault. But she was also a person of firm convictions and great integrity. Even though she was warned to go “softly, softly” with the victim’s upper class and influential parents, she would not let this deter her in the search for the truth about the death of Andrea Douglas-Brown. Fairly early on, we learn that Erika Foster’s life had been shattered not that long ago by a shooting that was both personally and professionally devastating. (This material is related as back story; Girl in the Ice is the first book in the series.) To my mind, this accounts at least partly for her difficult, rather unyielding persona – a brusque facade  that conceals pain that’s still sharp and deep. For this reader, it made her seem more real.

Erika Foster put me in mind of Helen Mirren’s  brilliantly realized portrayal of DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect.

Robert Bryndza himself comments on this here:

(This has to be one of one of the most  self-effacing, downright endearing  promotional videos I’ve ever seen!)

When I first saw the title The Girl in the Ice, I immediately thought of The Virgin in the Ice, a Brother Cadfael novel by the late, lamented Ellis Peters.

Ellis Peters, with Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael

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The Usual Suspects are currently making their selections for next year’s discussions. Unlike many book discussion groups which rely on consensus to decide on titles, we have each member choose a title to present to  the group. My choice for next year is A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm, one of my favorite historical novels and first in a series that is, for the most part, both meticulously researched and wonderfully entertaining.   It’s always interesting to see what each of the Suspects selects for the coming year. I feel lucky to be a part of this group, where people can express their views openly in an atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship.
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Before I conclude this post, I have to deliver a shout-out for a terrific mystery that I just finished: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. Horowitz has written six episodes of Midsomer Murders; in addition, he created Foyle’s War and wrote twenty-five episodes for that outstanding program. There’s much more.   If there were an Anthony Horowitz fan club, I’d be in it.

There will be more about Magpie Murders in a later post. 

 

 

 

 

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