‘A few prayers, word of the Book, nod of the head, and into the ground sharp.’ – Skin and Bone by Robin Blake
Titus Cragg is Coroner to the town of Preston, in Lancashire, in the 1740s. I do not give the exact date because this series advances one year per entry. Skin and Bone is the fourth such.
In the first, A Dark Anatomy, we meet Titus and his close friend, the physician Luke Fidelis. From time to time, Luke lends his assistance in Titus’s death investigations. His expertise often proves invaluable.
In Skin and Bone, the mystery commences with the discovery of the body of an infant. Neither the child’s identity nor the cause of death are known. Pursuing the answer to these questions lands Titus in a world of trouble he could not have anticipated.
Blake’s plots are well wrought, but the real joy of this series lies in his meticulous evocation of mid-eighteenth century England. Details describing the workings of the coroner’s office are particularly fascinating. The characters are eminently real. believable, and appealing, for the most part. A particular pleasure is the depiction of the marriage of Titus Cragg and his wife Elizabeth. With their steadfast devotion to one another, and in particular her staunch loyalty to her often beleaguered husband, we witness first hand the source of their strength.
Titus and Elizabeth eagerly await the coming of a child into their lives. Elizabeth in particular has to fight impatience and anxiety on this score. Titus is well aware of her struggle. Early in the novel, this exchange occurs:
Her mocking tone had long gone and, now, tears were glinting in her eyes.
‘My dearest wife,’ I said, kneeling by her chair and clasping her hands. ‘You are not yet thirty and God is merciful. It is not too late for you–for us–I am sure of it.’
A simple yet moving statement of faith.
I am somewhat perplexed that this series is not better known. I would rate it without hesitation among the very best of the historical mysteries. One thinks of the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters and C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series.
Do yourself a favor and start with the first, so that the novels’ cumulative effect can work freely on your imagination. For myself, I eagerly await the fifth.
If Jeremy Thorpe were a character in a novel of political intrigue, reviewers and readers alike would cry out, “Oh, that’s so over the top!” For an excellent summing up of the intricacy and sheer weirdness of this story, read this write-up in the Guardian.
At the time that I picked this book up, I was in need of something that would hold my interest – with little or no effort on my part – from first to last. A Very English Scandal – sometimes sordid but never dull – proved to be just the ticket.
Now, the mysteries:
In his informative and entertaining Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, Barry Forshaw describes Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target as “…vintage MacDonald and one of the best post-Chandler private eye novels, with a palpable sense of evil.”
So that naturally sent me back to one of my favorite writers of crime fiction. The Moving Target was one of the few Lew Archer novels I’d never read. Published in 1949, it’s the first in the series. I thought it might be too obviously a journeyman effort. As I began reading, I thought my fears were confirmed. He’s toiling too much, I thought, in the dark, dark shade of Raymond Chandler.
And yet, and yet…as the narrative developed, the prose took flight, out from behind the Chandler shadow and into the brilliant sun of southern California:
The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon’s mouth, bright blue and polished like a stone. Private property: color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small.
There is an element of bitterness, even at times self-loathing, that emerges from time to time in the character of Lew Archer. We don’t know where it comes from; we’re told very little, if anything, about his background and personal life. I would have liked to know more. I was in a state of heightened intrigue as I read this novel, and the others. I’ve always wanted him to fall in love, but the women that he meets in the course of his investigations are either unworthy of him or unavailable, for one reason or another.
The Moving Target has its moments, but I think for those new to the oeuvre, it can be safely passed over in favor of later works, in particular The Doomsters, The Far Side of the Dollar, The Galton Case, The Underground Man, The Chill, and of course, The Zebra-Striped Hearse. Then, of course, you can do as I’ve done and go back and read them all.
Sue Grafton on Ross MacDonald:
If Dashiell Hammett can be said to have injected the hard-boiled detective novel with its primitive force, and Raymond Chandler gave shape to its prevailing tone, it was Ken Millar, writing as Ross Macdonald, who gave the genre its current respectability, generating a worldwide readership that has paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps.
This next is going to be a very short review of a very long book – well, maybe not very long, but in my view, rather longer than it needed to be. In regard to my current reading life, the chief virtue of The Grave Tattoo (2006) is its setting in the Lake District, an area of preternatural beauty in the far north of England. God willing, and I fervently hope that He will be, we are set to go there in July, and to York as well.
This trip comes accompanied by a marvelous reading list. Those of us who love to travel and love to read know well that combining these two activities is one of life’s great pleasures. (Thanks are due for the trip’s literary component to Kathy of British Mystery Trips.)
The plot of Val McDermid’s novel concerns the doings of a Wordsworth scholar, a forensic anthropologist, a dealer in rare documents, a precocious and endangered adolescent girl, various law enforcement personnel, and others. It’s a densely woven narrative. At the outset, we are treated to a lengthy disquisition on the life and mystery surrounding Fletcher Christian, of all people. I almost gave up at that point, but I persevered, and actually I am glad that I did. Val McDermid has woven rather a fabulous tapestry here – if you can stick with it. And once the Fletcher Christian connection becomes clear, we’re treated to a very intriguing historical mystery. And I’m grateful to McDermid for her depiction of this special landscape:
[River] loved the place names too, with their echoes of another wave of invaders. The Vikings had left their mark on the places they occupied with suffixes–Ireby, Branthwaite, Whitrigg. And there were other wonderful names whose origins she knew nothing of–Blennerhasset, Dubwath and Bewaldeth. Driving from Carlisle to Keswick wasn’t just pretty, it was poetry in motion.
I have to say, though, that so far the most wonderful discovery gleaned from that reading list is The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.
George Hennessy knocked reverentially on the blue-and-green painted door of the modest bungalow on the outskirts of Fridaythorpe. He had never been to the village and found the name as pleasing as the appearance. “Thorpe” he knew to be an ancient Norse word for settlement but ‘Friday’ was unexplained. There was, he thought, probably a interesting story to the name.
(If you’re wondering whether there actually is such a place as Fridaythorpe – there is.)
Novels comprising the Hennessy and Yellich series used to arrive fairly regularly each year, Gift Wrapped having been the entry for 2013. When none arrived in 2014 or 2015 I became concerned…Was one of my favorite series now discontinued? Ergo, I was especially pleased to greet the appearance of 2016’s A Dreadful Past.
Crime solving is very much a group effort in these novels; George Hennessy’s team is comprised of a fairly stable cast of characters – stable both in their regular reappearance and their conduct. Their back stories are reiterated in each new novel. Some readers have complained about this, but I like it very much. It’s a sort of reaffirmation. Somerled Yellich is Hennessy’s second in command. Then there is Carmen Pharoah, a striking woman of West Indian heritage whose husband, also in law enforcement, was killed in action before she joined Hennessy’s team. Rounding out this tight knit group are Detective Constables Reginald Webster and Thompson Ventnor. They work together like the proverbial well oiled machine.
(From time to time, the reader will come upon a chapter heading like this:
In which a man becomes a woman, a name is mentioned and Carmen Pharoah and Somerled Yellich are severally at home to the most charitable reader.)
The particular case treated in this narrative is a cold one, twenty years of cold having accrued on the case of a triple homicide that nearly wiped out an entire family.. The only surviving member had been away at university at the time of the killings, and it is he, one Noel Middleton, who arrives at the police station with a very telling piece of evidence in the form of a Wedgwood vase. The piece had been stolen from his home at the time of the murders and has now turned up in an antique shop. While idly browsing some shop windows, Middleton had spotted it and known it for what it was.
I was amazed by what then happened as a result of this singular discovery. Read the book; I think you will be likewise astonished.
As they are set in the great and ancient city of York, these novels are also featured on the reading list for the trip. I was there for a day in 2005, and of course it was not nearly long enough. I was reading a book from this series, though I’m not sure which, at the time of my visit.
(Oh, for a different picture of this seemingly reclusive author…)
This is a gripping and disturbing novel. It is replete with the bursts of insight and powerful expression that readers of the fiction of Margaret Drabble have come to expect over the decades. I think of her as a writer of the old school. One finds in this novel no incursions into the realm of metafiction; the story unfolds in a more or less straightforward manner, though there is some shifting of time and place. The characters are for the most part in their seventies or thereabouts, as is their creator. And like their creator, they are highly literate and cultured people.
The mood is one of deep melancholy. Early on, Francesca Stubbs, one of the main characters in the narrative, recalls these lines from MacBeth:
And that which should accompany old age,As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,I must not look to have….
It’s rather an odd quote for Fran to be reflecting on, as she herself has quite a few friends. Some are in various stages of physical and/or mental decline, but others are still as robust and active as she herself is. In fact, some might say she overdoes it, driving all around the countryside in her capacity as inspector of facilities for the housing of the aged. She has two grown children, a son and a daughter, each rather odd in his or her own way, but basically caring and loving. And she prepares and delivers “plated meals” for her ex-husband Claude, who is bedridden as much by inclination as by necessity.
Fran’s occupation causes her to think a lot about the current state of death and dying. Her conclusions tend to be rather grim:
Her inspection of evolving models of residential care and care hoes for the elderly have made her aware of the infinitely clever and complex and inhumane delays and devices we create to avoid and deny death, to avoid fulfilling our destiny and arriving at our destination. And the result, in so many cases, has been that we arrive there not in good spirits, as we say our last farewells and greet the afterlife, but senseless, incontinent, demented, medicated into amnesia, aphasia, indignity. Old fools, who didn’t have the courage to have that last whiskey and set their bedding on fire with a last cigarette.
Good grief. After that, you may be shuddering and thinking, why would I want to read this book? Here’s the thing, though: the interactions among the characters are rich and memorable. You come to care greatly about both their lives and their deaths. And believe it or not: There’s humor, too, although mostly of a decidedly dark caste.
Much of the novel’s action takes place in England – a mostly rainy, chilly England – but a good portion takes place in the Canary Islands. This sunlit, idyllic locale is home to Ivor and Bennett, writers and literary gentlemen. These two have been quietly devoted to each other for decades. They still have a connection to Britain, and friends from there cycle in and out of their lives, most notably Fran’s son Christopher. Drabble renders this setting so vividly that you’ll want to up sticks and go there (especially if you’re experiencing dreary weather in your current habitation.)
Ivor is younger than Bennett, but both are aging into that realm of uncertainty which precedes death:
Bennett is here for his health and Ivor is here because Bennett needs him to be here….Ivor needs Bennett because Bennett holds the purse strings. It is too depressing, and yet not ignoble. They are bound together by the needs which succeed love, by the needs which succeed sex and affection. Ivor does not like thinking in these terms, but it is hard to avoid them. They sit by him, these considerations, looking at him from time to time, as does the pretty collared dove with its pale and pearly plumage.
Ivor has begun to seek solace in visits to a small chapel on the island. He tells no one he is doing this, not even Bennett. Especially not Bennett. Ivor’s wordless prayers ascend upwards.
It may be a false solace, but there’s more truth in it than in the endless discussions about doctors, diets, symptoms and medications, about dwindling royalties and bad reviews by old enemies, about the menace of e-books and the demise of booksellers and the new historiography.
Fran’s reflections on the subject of religion run along a decidedly different track:
She has known some who have lost their faith late in life, in their sixties, in their seventies, even in their eighties. Because the human story is so very disappointing, because the cruelty of it is so very great, and God’s care of his creation so hard to interpret.
‘God’s care of his creation’….That phrase really gave me pause. I had that reaction frequently while reading this provocative, no-punches-pulled novel.
One of the most appealing characters in The Dark Flood Rises is a friend of Fran’s named Teresa Quin. Teresa is ill with cancer and has not much longer to live and knows it. She’s resigned to her fate, and gracious in her resignation. Her chief desire is to see her son Luke, a physician in Africa, before she passes. This wish is granted. Luke reaches her in time. “Teresa is elated.”
The Dark Flood Rises is a profound meditation on death, but to me it seems an equally profound meditation on life: “O make the most of what we yet may spend….”. It has in it some of the qualities that Peter Ackroyd, in his book Albion, ascribes to the English temperament in general, and to the King Arthur legends in particular:
The story of Arthur has always been striated with sensations of loss and of transitoriness, which may well account for its central place within the English imagination; the native sensibility is touched with melancholy…and the sad fate of Arthur and his kingdom corresponds to that national mood. There is something, too, of determination and endurance within this dominant sensation. Some men say that Arthur will rise again; we must endure our going hence. It is the kind of stoicism which as been seen as characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, perhaps nowhere better expressed than in “The Battle of Malden” where the most famous Saxon or English cry has been rendered–“Courage must be the firmer, heart the bolder, spirit must be the greater, as our strength grows less.” That combination of bravery and fatalism, endurance and understatement, is the defining mood of Arthurian legend.
This also puts me in mind of the magnificent closing lines of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses:”
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’We are not now that strength which in old daysMoved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;One equal temper of heroic hearts,Made weak by time and fate, but strong in willTo strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
This novel’s title is taken from the poem “The Ship of Death” by D.H. Lawrence.
The Apothecary Rose and The Lady Chapel by Candace Robb
Robb vividly evokes the world of 14th century Britain.
P.F. Chisholm does likewise for the 16th century in A Famine of Horses . Chisholm’s writing is enlivened by an irony and irreverence rarely encountered in historical fiction, which has an occasional tendency to take itself too seriously. Her protagonist, Sir Robert Carey, is based on an historical figure. The scenario she depicts, up north by the Scottish borders, is rife with a sort of cheerful, energetic lawlessness. This too is based in the factual history of the period. In her introduction to this novel, Chisholm tells us that “…I first met Sir Robert Carey by name in the pages of George MacDonald Fraser’s marvellous history of the Anglo-Scottish borders, “’The Steel Bonnets’.” I love this quote from Fraser:
The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.
This series currently encompasses six novels. They’re not all as compelling as the first, though A Chorus of Innocents, the most recent, I thought was every bit as good as Famine.
A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake. The first entry in the Cragg and Fidelis series, one that deserves to be much better known than it is. Set very specifically in eighteenth century Preston, Lancashire, and peopled with an exceptionally appealing cast of characters. (See the link at the beginning of this post.)
The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor
The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Wow! A standalone novel of tremendous depth and power. The year is 1869. Amid the oppression of a community of Scottish crofters by cruel and heedless overseers, a young man’s anger and resentment build steadily until they reach the boiling point. His Bloody Project made the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2016, apparently astonishing certain folk among the ‘literati.’
Judge Dee at Work and The Haunted Monastery by Robert Hans van Gulik (historical and international!) Here’s a case in which the story of how these books came to be written is as fascinating as the books themselves. I wrote of this in some detail in a previous post.
Born in the Netherlands in 1910, Robert Van Gulik spent most of his childhood in what was then the Dutch East Indies and is now Jakarta, Indonesia. While there. he learned Mandarin as well as other languages. He seems to have been an intellectually voracious and multi-talented individual whose life was cheifly characterized by a love of all things Chinese. The site RechterTie.nl is a veritable goldmine of information on this fascinating man his work.
The Judge Dee mysteries take place during the 600s (Tang Dynasty). In Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart, events transpire in an era much closer to our own: the early 1700s. We are nonetheless presented with kingdom which, for all its riches, remains largely aloof from Western influences. The Jesuits, however, have made significant incursions into the culture of this isolationist empire. It is their presence, and their influence, that lie at the heart of this impressive first novel.
Li Du is an exiled scholar whose wanderings take him to Dayan, a city at the edge of China’s empire. Here, feverish preparations are under way for a festival in honor of the Emperor, whose arrival is imminent. A shocking murder disrupts the proceedings, and Li Du, a cousin of the ruling magistrate, finds himself pressed into the role of detective. The Emperor is due to arrive in Dayan in a matter of days. Li Du is required to have solved the mystery by that time. It is a daunting task.
So, to be honest, is the reading of this novel – at least, it has been, for me. (I’ve got about 45 pages to go.) Hart spends a fair amount of time describing life in the city of Dayan during this era. Her writing is wonderful, but in the midst of her rich prose elaborations, I found it all too easy to lose the thread of the plot. It seemed at times to wander like the depiction of a sinuous landscape one sees in certain paintings from the Qing Dynasty.
There are several examples of story within a story in Jade Dragon Mountain. In one instance, one of the featured characters was none other than Judge Dee. Another story is the retelling of an old Sufi legend that I first came across in a biography of Somerset Maugham. Maugham retells the story in his play Sheppey. Sometimes referred to as “Death Comes to Baghdad,” sometimes as “The Appointment in Samarra,” it is more of a fable, actually, its message being that we cannot outrun the fate that awaits each of us.
I’ve already had occasion to praise Elsa Hart’s writing. Some passages in this novel rise to the poetic. Here Li Du, traveling in mountainous terrain, is enjoying a rare moment of repose after a meal. Gradually he finds himself enveloped in clouds and mist.
The quiet deepened into silence. Li Du did not move, but rested his eyes on the soft white expanse. As he watched, the cloud shifted and broke. He saw, as if through a window, a tree on the opposite side of the gorge. It was a dead, hollowed oak, blackened by fire. Only one branch remained, reaching out perpendicular to the trunk. The vapor thickened, the window closed, and the tree was gone.
Another opening appeared. Through this new window Li Du saw movement, and though the could make out the rounded back of a little bear trundling across a clearing into a copse of evergreens. Again the mist moved, erasing the scene.The next break in the cloud framed a waterfall, a still, silver column too distant for him to perceive its tumbling energy. That window closed, another opened, and he saw a tree. It was in the same place as the tall oak he had seen minutes earlier. Only this one was not hollow, but alive, its limbs and trunk whole and draped in garlands of lichen.
He imagined then t hat t he shifting clouds contained thousands of years, and that he had seen the same tree in two different times. What if every moment of that tree’s existence, the whole of is past and its future, exited at once, here in this blank and infinite cloud?
Oh that we could each of us be vouchsafed such a lovely vision!
And these as well:
And love James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life.
As a celebration of an ancient way of life that persists despite the odds, The Shepherd’s Life is incomparable.
You could bring a Viking man to stand on our fell with me and he would understand what we were doing and the basic pattern of our farming year. The timing of each task varies depending on the different valleys and farms. Things are driven by the seasons and necessity, not by our will.
Sometimes I am left alone somewhere on the mountain, waiting for the others, alone in the silence. Skylarks rise, ascending in song. Sometimes there are moments when not a sheep or a man can be seen. Away in the distance I can see the main roads and the villages. No one really knows how long this fell gathering has happened, but it is quite possibly as much as five thousand years.
With The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks has given us a priceless gift. If you need to feel better about a beautiful landscape preserved as well as a way of life enriched with animals, children, and nature’s joys and rewards, read it.
‘Perhaps they both had narrowly escaped death–death by arrow, death by beauty, death by night.’ – News of the World by Paulette Jiles
When I read a historical novel I want to find myself immersed in another world: a past world that has come alive. Paulette Jiles has worked this magic in News of the World. Set in Texas in the 1870s, it’s the story story of Captain Jefferson Kidd, a Civil War veteran in his early seventies, who accepts a commission to convey Johanna Leonberger, age ten, to her relations in San Antonio. Johanna has spent the past four years living with Kiowa Indians who kidnapped her after killing her parents. Since the Captain and Johanna are starting out in the very northernmost part of the state, they have a long journey ahead of them. For a conveyance that will serve, Kidd has purchased a green ‘excursion wagon;’ on its side is painted in gold letters Curative Waters East Mineral Springs Texas. His two horses, Pasha and Fancy, will also make up the party.
Along the way, Kidd and Johanna have plenty to contend with. Lawless bands of heavily armed men are freely roaming the countryside. The weather is harsh and unpredictable. There is the constant danger of theft of their meager stores. Kidd ekes these out by hiring venues along the way and therein presenting readings from various newspapers to the state’s news-starved (and sometimes illiterate) denizens.
Meanwhile Johanna, a cheerfully feral child, has become Kiowa in spirit and outlook. It’s some time before the Captain is able to inculcate into her some basic notions of “civilized” behavior. She may be a wild child but she’s an extremely resourceful one. At one point, she gets the herself and the captain out of a tight spot by showing him how to use coins as projectiles in their severely depleted store of ammunition. Amazing!
Jiles’s wonderful writing is enlivened by a sly wit and a telling instinct for le mot juste:
There is a repeat mechanism in the human mind that operates independent of will.
I knew I’d want to remember that. And here’s a wonderful bit of description:
The man was too big to be a human being sand too small to be a locomotive. He had been shot of the tower of the Bardsley mansion and when he fell three stories and struck the ground he probably made a hole big enough to bury a hog in.
Jiles employs the same low key narrative tone in describing a harrowing river crossing:
They slowed as the current stopped them and then it took hold of the little mare and their wagon as well. Crows shot up out of the far bank screaming. Foam churned around them, drift and duff ran on top of the fast water in snaking lines. Briefly the wagon floated. The roan mare snorted, went under, came up and beat at the floodwaters with her hooves. Then she struck hard bottom and they pulled up on the far bank with water draining in streams.
Unavoidably they encounter sad evidence of the devastation wrought by war:
They came to a destroyed cabin and he pulled up and then went inside. Broken cups and pieces of dress material torn on a nail. A doll’s body without a head. He dug a 50-caliber bullet out of the wall with his knife and then carefully placed it on the windowsill as if for a memento. Here were memories, loves, deep heartstring notes like the place where he had been raised in Georgia. Here had been people whose dearest memories were the sound of a dipper dropped in the water bucket after taking a drink and the clink of it as it hit bottom. The quiet of evening.
It goes on.
The plot is not the main point of interest in this novel. It is not especially original. There’s a certain inevitability about the way in which the Captain and Johanna gradually form a bond. But the story is told in so compelling a way that the fate of these characters becomes increasingly crucial. I was very worried about what would happen at the end. I cared tremendously.
News of the World carried me back to one of the greatest reading experiences of my life: Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Jiles’s canvas is smaller here, but I got the same feeling of being transported to a time and place that, when artfully limned, seems to all but overwhelm the senses: namely, the state of Texas in former times.
In her New York Times review of News of the World, Suzanne Berne says the following:
In a world where live oak leaves fall “like pennies” and teams of oxen move in “a ponderous waltz,” everything is news. And at scarcely 200 pages, this exhilarating novel, a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, travels through its marvelous terrain so quickly that one is shocked, almost stricken, to reach the end. So do what I did: Read it again.
I may need to do the same.
A wonderful, wonderful book.
I’m currently having a great deal of fun putting together a presentation on mysteries for my AAUW colleagues. The first title I chose was “Hot trends in Crime Fiction!” I then decided to tone it down a bit; it is now “Current Trends in Crime Fiction.”
Having achieved that much, I then sat back, contemplated the general state of things, and asked myself in all seriousness what those trends might be. This list is what I’ve come up with so far:
Domestic (i.e. psychological) suspense
Classics reissues and rediscoveries
International authors and settings
Use of actual historical personages as detectives
Regional mysteries (U.S.)
Increasing presence of women protagonists
Diminishing number of police procedurals
“Crime fiction is finally getting the critical respect it deserves”
This is by no means definitive, but at present, it seems reasonably workable. (I’ve already penned three posts on the subject.)
It then occurred to me to see if this subject had been tackled elsewhere. As expected, the internet came through with “A History of Detective Stories: Current Trends.” This essay begins with a general assessment of the genre and then moves to a discussion of the challenges posed to mystery fiction by rapidly emerging technologies.
The subgenre that most appeals at the moment is listed above as “Classic reissues and rediscoveries.” I recently wrote a review of The D.A. Calls In Murder, the first entry in Erle Stanley Gardner‘s Doug Selby series. I’ve now read the second and the third – The D.A. Holds a Candle and The D.A. Draws a Circle – and my enjoyment has increased with each perusal.
As I mentioned in the review cited above, these books are hard to find. I’ve been getting them via interlibrary loan from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a wonderful facility which since 1971 has been designated as the (Maryland) State Library Resource Center. Alas, as the series progresses, the volumes themselves are proving to be increasingly fragile. As I was reading in bed the other night, I noticed small pieces of dark brown paper appearing on the blanket. These proved to be escaping from the book’s binding. I prodded the larger piece back into place, but it showed no great inclination to remain there. Now Pratt seems blessedly reluctant to discard books like this, but I can’t help feeling that I might be the last person to borrow this poor decrepit entity.
One of the things I’ve really been enjoying about this series is its artless evocation of a bygone era. In the era between the two World Wars, Southern California was already undergoing some dramatic changes, yet the orange groves, apple orchards, small towns, (like the fictional Madison City where Doug Selby plies his trade) and country roads were still a vivid presence.
The sheriff drove rapidly over the grade, out of the orange lands into the app;e country, and then down a gradual slope between snow-capped mountains to where the country abruptly changed from fertile soil to arid desert.
The dialog is snappy, but Gardner does not overdo the noir lingo. Doug Selby is a very appealing protagonist. Alongside him works Sylvia Martin, intrepid reporter. (Think Lois Lane of Superman fame.) In many noir novels and stories, the only woman on the scene is the perennial femme fatale, so Sylvia’s presence is refreshing, to say the least.
In the climactic scene of The D.A. Draws a Circle, she and Doug, along with the sheriff, become embroiled in a shoot out. Doug is trying to protect her, while she’s quite literally fighting him off. Later she apologizes – after a fashion:
“Gosh, Doug, I’m sorry I kicked at you. But you’re not the only one with a job to do. If I want to take risks, I’ll take them. I had to be in at the finish.”
Selby said, “You’ll stop a slug one of these days, and then what would I do?”
She said indignantly, “I’m just as much entitled to stop slugs as you are.”
“You’re a woman,” Selby said.
Sylvia Martin said, “Well, well. You’re finding that out, are you?”
Oh, yes, he certainly is….
The Selby novels are by and large composed of such dialog exchanges. They move along at a rapid clip; I’m finding them to be excellent escapist reading.
There are moments, though, when Gardner waxes unexpectedly poetical:
Passages like this are welcome, as they’re so rarely encountered in this context.
I’ve been very late getting this done, I know. This is mainly due to my work on what was the most challenging book discussion preparation I’ve ever undertaken. The book was Paul Theroux’s Deep South. The discussion took place on this Thursday past, and I’m glad to report that it went quite well, mainly due to the lively and insightful comments of my colleagues in AAUW Readers.
Mostly it’s done. And what a sweet relief!
Audiobooks are very vital to me. I only listen to them in my car, and I want to feel a sense of happy anticipation when, belted in and ready to roll, I fire up my current choice. I knew I’d get that good feeling from a work by Alexander McCall Smith, and so I am now listening to the 44 Scotland street series.
Love Over Scotland, the third entry, features a prose passage so moving – at least it was to me – that as soon as I got back home, I downloaded the novel in its entirety.
The excerpt I refer to consists of a letter being written by the artist Angus Lordie to his friend , the beautifully named Domenica Macdonald. Domenica, described as a “freelance anthropologist,” is at that time halfway around the world studying the mores and folkways of a community of pirates inhabiting the Malacca Straits. (McCall Smith’s imagination as usual, ranges freely from the domestic to the remote to the downright bizarre.)
In this missive, Angus gives voice to his feelings upon the loss of a friend in strange and sad circumstances. I’m going to quote the whole thing here:
“My dear Domenica,” he began. “I write this letter seated at the kitchen table. It is one of those cold, bright winter mornings that I know you love so much, and which make this city sparkle so. But the letter I write you will be a sad one, and I am sorry for that. When one is alone and far from home, as you are, then one longs for light-hearted, gossipy letters. This is not one of those.
“Yesterday, as I was painting his portrait, Ramsey Dunbarton, a person I have known for a good many years, died in my studio. He was seated in my portrait chair, talking to me, when he suddenly stopped, mid-anecdote. I thought nothing of it and continued to paint, but when I glanced from behind my canvas I saw him sitting there, absolutely still. I thought that he had gone to sleep and went back to my painting, but then, when I looked again, he was still motionless. I realised that something was wrong, and indeed it was. Ramsey had died. It was very peaceful, almost as if somebody had silently gone away, somewhere else, had left the room. How strange is the human body in death–so still, and so vacated. That vitality, that spark, which makes for life, is simply not there. The tiny movements of the muscles, the sense of there being somebody keeping the whole physical entity orchestrated in space–that goes so utterly and completely. It is no longer there.
“You did not know Ramsey. I thought that you might perhaps have met him at one of my drinks parties, but then, on reflection, I decided that you had not. I do not think that you and he would necessarily have got along. I would never accuse you of lacking charity, dear one, but I suspect that you might have thought that Ramsey was a little stuffy for you; a little bit old-fashioned, perhaps.
“And indeed he was. Many people thought of him as an old bore, always going on about having played the part of the Duke of Plaza-Toro at the Church Hill Theatre. Well, so he did, and he mentioned it yesterday afternoon, which was his last afternoon as himself, as Auden puts it in his poem about the death of Yeats. But don’t we all have our little triumphs, which we remember and which we like to talk about? And if Ramsey was unduly proud of having been the Duke of Plaza-Toro, then should we begrudge him that highlight in what must have been a fairly uneventful life? I don’t think we should.
“He was a kind man, and a good one too. He loved his wife. He loved his country–he was a Scottish patriot at heart, but proud of being British too. He said that we should not be ashamed of these things, however much fashionable people decry love of one’s country and one’s people. And in that he was right.
“He only wanted to do good. He was not a selfish man. He did not set out to make a lot of money or get ahead at the expense of others. He was not like that. He would have loved to have had public office, but it never came his way. So he served in a quiet, rather bumbling way on all sorts of committees. He was conservative in his views and instincts. He believed in an ordered society in which people would help and respect one another, but he also believed in the responsibility of each of us to make the most of our lives. He called that ‘duty’, not a word we hear much of today.
“There is a thoughtless tendency in Scotland to denigrate those who have conservative views. I have never subscribed to that, and I hope that as a nation we get beyond such a limited vision of the world. It is possible to love one’s fellow man in a number of ways, and socialism does not have the monopoly on justice and concern. Far from it. There are good men and women who believe passionately in the public good perspectives. Ramsey was as much concerned with the welfare and good of his fellow man as anybody I know.
“People said that he had a tendency to go on and on, and I suppose he did. But those long stories of his, sometimes without any apparent point to them, were stories that were filled, yes filled, with enthusiasm for life. Ramsey found things fascinating, even when others found them dull. In his own peculiar way, he celebrated the life of ordinary people, ordinary places, ordinary things.
“I suspect that Scotland is full of people like Ramsey Dunbarton. They are people whose lives never amount to very much in terms of achievement. They are not celebrated or fêted in any way. But there they are, doing their best, showing goodwill to others, paying their taxes scrupulously, not cheating in any way, supporting the public good. These people are the backbone of the country and we should never forget that.
“His death leaves me feeling empty. I feel guilty, too, at the thought of the occasions when I have seen him heaving into sight and I have scuttled off, unable to face another long-winded story. I feel that I should have done more to reciprocate the feelings of friendship he undoubtedly had for me. I never asked him to lunch with me; the invitations always came from him. I never even acknowledged him as a friend. I never told him that I enjoyed his company. I never told him that I thought he was a good man. I gave him no sign of appreciation.
“But we make such mistakes all the time, all through our lives. Wisdom, I suppose, is seeing this and acting upon it before it is too late. But it is often too late, isn’t it?–and those things that we should have said are unsaid, and remain unsaid for ever.
“I am heart-sore, Domenica. I am heart-sore. I shall get over it, I know, but that is how I feel now. Heart-sore.”
He finished, read it through, and then very slowly tore it up. He would not send it to Domenica, even if he meant every word, every single word of it.
I’d never heard of Cesar Aira until I encountered him in a review in the Wall Street Journal written by Nathaniel Popkin. Popkiin was actually reviewing a novel called Zama by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto. In the concluding paragraph, reference was made to Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira, Di Benedetto’s fellow Argentinian.
Two things about Episode immediately piqued my interest. First, there was the fact that the protagonist was a painter; his name is Johann Moritz Rugendas. Secondly, Rugendas had been encouraged to travel to South America in order to find new and exotic subjects with which to fuel his artistic impulses. The individual urging him on this course of action was none other than the great explorer and natural scientist Alexander Von Humboldt. Early last year I read The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Von Humboldt’s “New World” became my new world – what an absolutely terrific read this was! Had it been up to me, Andrea Wulf would have won every existing literary award and then some.
The following is from Aira’s novel:
Rugendas was a genre painter. His genre was the physiognomy of nature, based on a procedure invented by Humboldt. The great naturalist was the father of a discipline that virtually died with him: Erdtheorie or La Physique du monde, a kind of artistic geography, an aesthetic understanding of the world, a science of landscape. Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an all-embracing scholar, perhaps the last of his kind: his aim was to apprehend the world in its totality; and the way to do this, he believed, in conformity with a long tradition, was through vision.
And so I read Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Though slight in length – more a novella than a novel – it is one of the most unusual and powerful works of fiction I have ever encountered. Johann Moritz Rugendas was an actual historical personage, a German artist of the early nineteenth century who traveled to South America in search of new vistas to paint. But although this novel takes Rugendas’s life as its starting point, it diverges significantly from his actual biography. This is nowhere more true than in regard to the episode in the title. Actually, ‘episode’ is a misleadingly innocuous term to describe what actually happens to Rugendas shortly before the novel’s midpoint. I don’t want to say anything more about it except this: it haunts me.
I do think I can say that for me, this novel is about two things: the courage that individuals are capable of in extreme circumstances, and the sustaining devotion that one friend freely gives to another.
The writing is extraordinary. Kudos to Cesar Aira for his intense lyricism and meticulous descriptions, and to Chris Andrews, the translator.
At a recent book club discussion I attended, some readers expressed impatience with descriptive passages that impede the pace of a book’s plot. While I have encountered this from time to time in my own reading, the sheer beauty of the prose in Episode was one of the main things that kept me riveted to the narrative.
It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away . . . and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alternations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness. Each day was larger and more distant. As the mountains took on weight, the air became lighter and more changeable in its meteoric content, a sheer optics of superposed heights and depths.
I hope to read more of the works of Cesar Aira; I’d like to read Zama as well.
How is it that I read only one historical mystery this year? I’m a great fan of historical fiction, so I can’t quite figure this out. Anyway, the book in question is The Lady Chapel by Candace Robb, Marge’s choice for our November Suspects discussion. This novel is the second in Robb’s Owen Archer series. I’d read the first, The Apothecary Rose, several years ago, when I needed a Middle Ages “fix.” It did the job admirably. I therefore had high hopes for The Lady Chapel and I”m glad to say those hopes were fulfilled. I’ve already downloaded the next book in the series, The Nun’s Tale. I look forward to reading it.
Elizabeth Edmondson’s two entries in the series A Very English Mystery are a delight, tailor made for the Anglophiles among us. With their setting in the quintessential village of Selchester in the postwar years, the milieu is rife with rumor, scheming and gossip, readily inviting comparison to the world of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead.
A Man of Some Repute combines the classic murder mystery formula with the intrigue of intelligence work. Thus there are twice as many secrets and intrigues for the varied cast of characters to contend with. What fun! I’m still in the midst of reading A Question of Inheritance, but similar plot elements are already in play.
On the occasion of the 2014 Oxford Literary Festival, Elizabeth Edmondson penned a spirited defense of genre fiction. Unfortunately, we’ve lost this gifted author: she passed away early last year.
I continue to be a one-person Alexander McCall Smith Fan Club. This year I reread The Sunday Philosophy Club, Chris’s pick for the Usual Suspects. Once again, Once again, I reveled in this narrative. Isabel Dalhousie, with her love of art and music, and of the city of Edinburgh, and of deep thought and ethical conundrums – both fascinates and attracts me.
As always, McCall Smith’s writing is beautiful.
Although it was a pleasant spring evening, a stiff breeze had arisen and the clouds were scudding energetically across the sky, towards Norway. This was a northern light, the light of a city that belonged as much to the great, steely plains of the North Sea as it did to the soft hills of its hinterland. This was not Glasgow, with its soft, western light, and its proximity to Ireland and to the Gaeldom of the Highlands. This was a townscape raised in the teeth of cold winds from the east; a city of winding cobbled streets and haughty pillars; a city of dark nights and candlelight, and intellect.
Similar pleasures are to be found in The Novel Habit of Happiness, the latest full length entry in this series:
She looked at Jamie. “It may well be right to say that God doesn’t care. But…” She was not sure what she wanted to say about God. She thought that he might be there— embodied somehow in the perfection of the world, or in the sublime harmonies of a great work of music. Of course, if he was anywhere in music, she felt he was in the grave beauty of the motets of John Tavener, or in the more sublime passages of Bach. The architecture of such music was incompatible, Isabel thought, with a world that was meaningless.
Admittedly, the element of mystery tends to be at best tangential in these novels, but if you wish to spend time in the company of a woman whose restless personality is made up of equal parts intellect and passion – both, I would venture to say in prodigious amounts – then these books are for you.
I started Mick Herron’s Slough House series with the second entry, Dead Lions. Would that I had started at the beginning. Stylishly crafted and hugely entertaining, these novels are part murder mystery, part espionage, and feature fiendishly ingenious plots. Moreover, the cast of characters is…well, read them and find out for yourself. Here are the first three: . The fourth is due out here late next month. Oh, do hurry up; I’m no end impatient!
Finally, there’s my recent quirky predilection for Erle Stanley Gardners’s legal thrillers from the thirties. No, I don’t mean the Perry Mason novels but rather a series featuring District Attorney Doug Selby. As the series commences, Selby has recently been swept into office on the promise of cleansing the office of a recently acquired taint of corruption. He’s young and green, but he’s got fire in the belly. I’m rooting for him – and for his friend, reporter Sylvia Martin.
So far, I’ve read the above two novels in the series. I look forward to reading more. From what I can tell, they’re out of print and not available as ebooks. However, the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam books, written by Gardner under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, have begun to appear courtesy of Hard Case Crime. I’ve already downloaded this one:
Erle Stanley Gardner eventually had to shutter his law practice in order to make room in his life for his writing compulsion. Have a look at his bibliography and you’ll understand why.
[Click here for part one.]
I always return to books about the classical world. This year I read three: Searching for Sappho: the lost songs and world of the first woman poet, by Philip Freeman; The Classical World: the foundations of the West and the enduring legacy of antiquity, by Nigel Spivey; and Dynasty: the rise and fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland. All excellent, highly readable, and recommended.
I must say, I found some fabulous images for the post I wrote on A.S. Byatt’s Peacock & Vine. Have a look!
Pursuits of both an intellectual and an amorous nature are gracefully intertwined in John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story. And in The Vanishing Velasquez, author Laura Cumming, motivated by the need to escape the pain of a deep personal loss, embarks on an investigation into a fascinating mystery of the art world.
A Thousand Hills To Heaven by Josh Ruxin is a book I’d planned to read out of a sense of duty. But it turned out to be a joy and an inspiration. From the horrors of genocide, Rwanda is emerging as a country ready and eager to enter the modern world. Help from committed individuals like Josh and Alissa Ruxin combined with the resilience and resourcefulness of the native population is creating a wondrous new reality. (Be sure to watch the video embedded in this post – it is heart-lifting.)
Finally, two biographies and one travel book – all three absolutely super.
It’s been a while since I read Andrea Wulf’s revelatory life of Alexander Von Humboldt. I can only say that while reading this book – mesmerized by it – the ‘new world’ of this brilliant scientist became my new world as well. I feel deeply grateful to Andrea Wulf for this gift. (Calling this work a “thrilling new biography,” the write-up in The New York Review of Books pretty much says it all.)
“Erased from history: Too many women writers — like Constance Fenimore Woolson — are left to languish in moldy archives. What will it take to bring them back?”
Thus did Anne Boyd Rioux title an article she wrote for Salon earlier this year. Rioux herself has done yeoman work in restoring a worthy author to her rightful place in the history of American literature.
I began this particular reading adventure with the short stories featured in Miss Grief. Woolson was writing about post-Civil War American, in particular the Great Lakes Region and then the South. It seems to me that she was writing about people and places that had been overlooked by others. And having lived in both regions, she wrote about them knowledgeably and beautifully.
The word “marsh” does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind, and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen,— an enchanted land, whose memory haunts me as an idea unwritten, a melody unsung, a picture unpainted, haunts the artist, and will not away. On each side and in front, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores. In and out, now running into each other for a moment, now setting off each for himself again, these many channels flowed along with a rippling current; zigzag as they were, they never seemed to loiter, but, as if knowing just where they were going and what they had to do, they found time to take their own pleasant roundabout way, visiting the secluded households of their friends the flags, who, poor souls, must always stay at home. These currents were as clear as crystal, and green as the water-grasses that fringed their miniature shores. The bristling reeds, like companies of free-lances, rode boldly out here and
there into the deeps, trying to conquer more territory for the grasses, but the currents were hard to conquer; they dismounted the free-lances, and flowed over their submerged heads; they beat them down with assaulting ripples; they broke their backs so effectually that the bravest had no spirit left, but trailed along, limp and bedraggled. And, if by chance the lances succeeded in stretching their forces across from one little shore to another, then the unconquered currents forced their way between the closely serried ranks of the enemy, and flowed on as gayly as ever, leaving the grasses sitting hopeless on the bank; for they needed solid ground for their delicate feet, these graceful ladies in green.
From “St. Clair Flats” in Castle Nowhere:Lake Country Sketches, 1875
At first, I thought Anne Boyd Rioux’s introduction to this volume would satisfy my curiosity about Constance Fenimore Woolson. Informative as it was, however, it proved inadequate, for this reader, at least. I decided to read Rioux’s full length biography of this unaccountably neglected writer. It proved fascinating. As with most really good biographies, it opened a window onto a whole period of history; namely, post-Civil War America and the European expatriate scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Born in New Hampshire in 1840, Woolson grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where her family moved after the death of three of her sisters. Her father died in 1869, at which point she began publishing stories and essays in various magazines. She felt called to be a writer but money was also a very present problem.
As her story unfolds, Woolson’s life seems more and more poignant. Despite her obvious literary gifts, she had to struggle for recognition. She was befriended and aided by many, most notably Henry James. In fact, I ‘d heard of her previously through my reading about James. Her relationship with him is a very intriguing subject, one not easily resolved. I believe she was rather overshadowed by him; his attitude toward her authorial endeavors was distinctly ambivalent.
Woolson endured a lifelong struggle with encroaching deafness. She never married, and died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 53.
Reading these two books in tandem provided yet another example of the enriching experience of paired reading. Highly recommended, both for solitary readers and for book groups.
Finally, there is Deep South. There are simply not enough superlatives in the language for me to summon up in praise of Paul Theroux’s marvelous travelogue. He himself did not indulge in such language, describing his experiences with the places and people of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas in prose at once artless and powerful.
I just finished rereading Deep South in preparation for presenting it for a book group next month. At that time, I’ll write about it in more detail. Meanwhile I have already spoken of it, albeit briefly, in a post entitled Book list for a Friend, Part Two: Nonfiction.
In that same post, I wrote about some of the gorgeous art books that I’ve recently either acquired or obtained through interlibrary loan. These have been a big part of my nonfiction immersion this year. This trend continues, with these two titles from the library:
And finally, there’s this gift to myself, the Mother of All Art Books!
If you happen to be in the market for a gift for an art lover, this weighty tome is brand new and really quite sensational.
Meanwhile, I shall return, before too long, to Paul Theroux. In my opinion, with Deep South, he has written his masterwork.