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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A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny: a book group discussion

September 22, 2017 at 7:10 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Despite the theme of defiled innocence that makes this such a mournful story, the immense  charm of the Gamache series survives in the magical setting and feisty residents of Three Pines, like the cranky old poet Ruth Zardo (“Bile. She’s pure bile”) and Clara Morrow, the dotty artist (“Have you ever seen  a self-portrait where the person didn’t look just a littlw insane?”).

Marilyn Stasio, from her review of The Great Reckoning in The New York Times.

The series is deep and grand and altogether extraordinary.

From Maureen Corrigan’s review in The Washington Post, entitled “There’s a bit of Nancy Drew in Louise Penny’s masterful ‘A Great Reckoning’”

Finally, there’s a video segment that was aired on CBS Sunday Morning in July, on the occasion of the release of The Great Reckoning. In it, Martha Teichner muses, “There should be a name for fans of Louise Penny’s murder mysteries: The L Pack, or the Penny Posse maybe.” She goes on:

To say they come from far and wide in large numbers to attend her book events is no exaggeration. They’ve come all the way to the Canadian town of Knowlton, in the eastern townships of Quebec, where Penny lives, and her books are set.

Indeed, the mass of fans gathered for this particular book signing event is large and impressive.

If you look at her entry on Stop! You’re Killing Me, you’ll see that her books have garnered numerous awards and nominations.

Critics  and reviewers routinely fall all over themselves in the search for superlatives to apply to the novels in this series. And yet….You probably know where this is heading.

Ably led by Mike, Usual Suspects recently discussed A Great Reckoning, and well, our sentiments were decidedly mixed. There was general acknowledgement of Penny’s skill in creating a world and filling it with memorable characters. However, we were not all unduly fond of those same characters. For myself, I find Ruth Zardo, “the old poet” with the foul mouth and the pet duck named Rosa (who goes around making a sound very like ‘cluck cluck’) supremely irritating. It’s hard for me to believe that a person with such a sour disposition and profane vocabulary could also be the author of beautiful verse. (Yes, I know there was Lord Byron and Dylan Thomas – but even so….) Myrna the bookstore owner is pleasant enough, but I wonder why Penny does not invest her with more of a love and knowledge of literature.

Not having read in this series since the first novel, Still Life, Marge was immediately made aware of a great deal of back story that was alluded to but not elaborated upon. A Great Reckoning is the twelfth novel in the series, and I can well imagine feeling quite lost of you haven’t been reading at least some of the more recent series entries.

And then there’s Armand Gamache, recently retired Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec. Marge felt that as  the book’s plot got under way, his virtuousness and uprightness were stressed ad nauseum. Others among us felt that his nearly flawless goodness was at times hard to believe in and tended to make him seem somewhat two dimensional.

It was somewhere around this point in the discussion that Frances weighed in with a lengthy and entirely eloquent plea in favor of Gamache in particular and this novel in general. My notes on her remarks are rather hasty and fragmented – I wish I could have recorded them so as to have a verbatim record of her spirited disquisition, which was both an analysis and a defense. A Great Reckoning, she averred, was in the nature of a hero’s quest, a journey through difficulties and dangers that at last arrives at a place of peace and enlightenment where, importantly, justice is served. The plot’s structure was elegantly wrought, in her judgment. She likened  the nove to a morality play. (At least, I have that phrase scribbled in my notebook!) We begin in confusion and end in clarity.

Up until the occasion of this discussion, Frances had been absent from our gatherings for quite a while.  By the time she had concluded her incisive and insightful remarks, I was reminded of her keen intellect which, combined with a compassionate heart, serves to make her so valuable as both an interlocutor and a  friend.

Even after Frances vibrantly championed A Great Reckoning, there remained dissenters among us. For the most part, we did not agree with her about the novel’s structure. The plot has numerous threads that were a challenge to untangle; moreover, there is a dauntingly large cast of characters. It was hard to keep all of this straight. It was all over the map.

And maps, as it happens, are a key element in this story. A hundred year old map of Three Pines and the surrounding area is found concealed within the walls of the building that now serves as the village bistro. This map has some very curious features and obviously cries out for investigation. This process is the springboard for much of what subsequently unfolds in the novel’s plot.

Meanwhile, several faithful readers have tried their hands at more conventional re-creations of Three Pines, to wit:

Then there is the matter of Louise Penny’s prose style. It is definitely distinctive. For some readers, it is brimful of charm and a kind of eccentric beauty. For others, not so much. In our group, Pauline found it pretentious. I described it as highly idiosyncratic. Marge said that it simply did not work for her.

It’s my feeling that the style of a written work should serve as a vehicle for the story. This does not mean that it can’t possess a lyrical quality, but it does mean that it shouldn’t call it attention to itself at the expense of that story.

I fear that this write-up is coming across as overly negative. Certainly Louise Penny has created a body of work that resonates powerfully for many people. I think we all felt that she seems to be a lovely person, kind and generous. Recently widowed, she has had to fight through the pain to continue her work. Undoubtedly the devotion of her many readers has been a great help in that effort.

Louise Penny

Of the thirteen novels in this series, I’ve red eight. My favorite is without doubt Bury Your Dead. That book made me want to board a flight to Quebec City tout de suite!

This was a terrific discussion. I was reminded once again of what a pleasure it is to be among lovers of our wonderful crime fiction genre who are both great “discussers” and wonderful people.

 

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‘His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world…’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls

September 17, 2017 at 4:08 pm (Book review, books)

  Upon finishing this book several weeks ago, I felt overwhelmed by a mixture of  new knowledge, wonder, and grief. I needed some time to pass before I could write about it.

There is so very much more to Thoreau than Walden, as great as that book is. We have an image of him as a sort of recluse, but nothing could be further from the truth. He was actively engaged in the life of his beloved Concord. His friends were numerous; he was devoted to his family; his interests ranged far and wide. I like Wikipedia’s brisk summation:

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian.

Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and never lived anywhere else. He was not widely traveled, although he loved to explore nature by boat and on foot. He delighted in the woods of Maine and scaled Mount Kahtadin.  He explored Cape Cod. He went as far afield as Montreal, New York City, and, toward the end of his life, Minnesota. (Ill though he was at the time, he rejoiced in this opportunity “to see the West.”) But always he returned to Concord, relieved and rejoiced to be back in his true home.

The subject of Thoreau’s life requires a biographer who above all has a prose style that is both incisive and gracious. Fortunately, Laura Dassow Walls is just such a writer:

Thoreau is often said to have turned to “Nature,” but what he actually turned to was, more exactly, the “commons”—spaces that, back then, were still open to everyone: woods, fields and hilltops, ponds and blueberry thickets, rivers, meadows, trails up nearby mountains, the long open beaches on the Atlantic shore. Nearly all his writings use landforms and watersheds to explore the commons, expanding our shared natural and intellectual heritage until it touches the Cosmos itself. When Thoreau sailed on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he traveled the deep stream of time; when he walked the shore of Cape Cod, he dabbled his toes in a wild ocean stretching around the globe; when he stood on the shoulder of Mount Katahdin, he breathed the thin chill air of a planet in stellar space.

Laura Dassow Walls, most probably standing at the edge of Walden Pond

Walls’s account brims with fascinating incidents from Thoreau’s life. (And with sadness as well; life was still a precarious thing in the early nineteenth century.) Thoreau’s tenure in Concord coincided with that of a number of other worthies, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father), and above all, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The friendship of Emerson and Thoreau was rather fraught. They fell out over various issues any number of times, but the basic closeness and mutual respect never wavered.

In addition, Thoreau crossed paths with other notable individuals. During his sojourn in New York City, he was introduced to the young Walt Whitman. He was not quite sure what to make of him:

…a man so coarse and rough yet so gentle and sweet, who loved “to ride up and down Broadway all day,” sitting beside the omnibus driver and declaiming Homer at the top of his lungs.

And yet Thoreau very much liked Leaves of Grass.

And here is a passage that caused me to exclaim in delight. I was deeply grateful for its presence in the narrative, as it occurs as Thoreau and his traveling companion, Horace Mann Jr. are making their way back East, after their sojourn in Minnesota. As they cross Wisconsin, Thoreau’s health becomes increasingly precarious. And yet, at that very moment, a luminous synchronicity occurs:

They passed through Madison on June 27, where the university had just let out for the year, and a twenty-three-year-old John Muir was, that very day, walking north to his home in Portage. Muir, a student of geology, botany, and chemistry, had just finished his first term. Not until he quit school for “the University of the Wilderness” would he hear of Thoreau, who would become one of his heroes; in Muir’s work, Thoreau’s emerging environmental activism would mature into a national politics.

Reading this, I envisioned a map of Wisconsin, with these two paths nearly crossing; two lines not fated to meet, but coming close, an almost meeting that proved to  be deeply meaningful, as  the years passed.

Having been there several times, I can say with confidence that Concord is a town well worth visiting.  Orchard House, home of the Alcott family, Emerson’s house, the Old Manse, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – all are there to be seen and admired. The house where Thoreau’s family lived while he attended Harvard has become the Concord Colonial Inn. We have twice enjoyed staying at this historic hostelry. (On the occasion of one of those stays, we had the great pleasure of becoming acquainted with Miss Emily Dickinson, distinguished poet.)

If you have the great good fortune to visit Concord, there is, of course, a wealth of related reading material with which to fortify your luggage. One you may not know about, though, is a mystery: God in Concord by Jane Langton.  I recommend a browse in the venerable Concord  Bookshop,   and most importantly, do not omit a visit to the Concord Free Public Library,  which plays such an entertaining role in Jane Langton’s novel.

Orchard House

 

‘Bush,’ home of Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

The Old Manse

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Concord Colonial Inn

 

Concord Free Public library, dedicated in 1873

Henry David Thoreau finally succumbed to the ravages of tuberculosis in 1862. He was 44 years old. This is the closing passage of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eulogy

The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task, which none else can finish,—a kind of indignity to so noble a soul, that it should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.

 

Henry David Thoreau in 1854, crayon on paper, by Samuel Worcester Rowse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller

September 15, 2017 at 12:31 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Poor Acker’s Gap, West Virginia.

Staggering under a load of misery, its denizens have turned to drugs for solace and a numbing of the pain. But suddenly the number of dying increases exponentially. The heroin has been mixed with a deadly substance called carfentanil.   Prosecutor Bell Elkins, Deputy Sheriff Jake Oakes, and others in both medicine and law enforcement are desperate to track this substance to its source so as to prevent yet more overdoses.

Having lived away from Acker’s Gap for a period of time, Bell Elkins, feeling a strong imperative, has returned home. She’s determined to help in whatever way she can, as her community and others in the state struggle with this nefarious plague:

The highest compliment you could pay to a place and its people, she believed, was to insist on justice. On the rule of law. To say to the dark anarchical currents that were always threatening to overwhelm this area: No. I won’t let that happen.

Bell and Jake are  having to deal with those ‘anarchical currents’ – wonderful phrase, that – in both their professional and personal lives. This, despite dauntless courage and perseverance exhibited by the two of them in the most trying circumstances.

I’ve been hearing good things about this series ever since it debuted with A Killing in the Hills in 2012. This is the first entry I’ve read, and judging by this one, I’d say the praise is entirely justified. Julia Keller’s skill at plotting and character creation are exemplary; in addition, her writing is beautiful.

Julia Keller

With regard to her chosen profession, Bell reflects that “…prosecutors had to believe, at least theoretically, in the possibility of redemption.” Sadly, there’s very little redemption in evidence in this extremely downbeat novel. Things seem always to be going from bad to worse, as characters that you’ve come to care about catch one bad break after another. I would love to talk about this book with other readers, but I’m hesitant to propose it for a book discussion; the mood is so relentlessly somber.

At one point  in the narrative, one of Bell’s staffers, a woman of staunch but restrained religious conviction, asks Bell if she’s familiar with the hymn “Abide With Me.” Bell says she is not. (This response surprised me. I was raised Jewish, in an overwhelmingly Jewish community, and I know that hymn.) The staffer recites some verses for her, thinking they may provide some comfort in a time of great stress.

“Abide With Me” was written by Henry Francis Lyte. a Scottish clergyman. At the time he penned this hymn, Lyte was desperately ill with tuberculosis. He passed away in November of 1847.

 

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‘Murder, without cause, by a madman with his wits astray, monstrous, terrible….’

September 8, 2017 at 6:58 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Here’s the quotation in its entirety:

Murder, without cause, by a madman with his wits astray, monstrous, terrible, fascinated and filled them with an irrational and panic fear. It let loose the Devil among them, and people still believed in the Devil. He struck only here and  there, but threatened all alike, for once he got the upper hand of law, order and all good things, he might regain the world, and use it for his ancient purposes.

No wonder they call it the Eastrepps Evil…. 

I haven’t been blogging for a couple of days. I have  been reading instead. In a mesmerized fashion. Compulsively. Until positively bleary-eyed.

These days, I tend to read several titles at the same time. Invariably one is crime fiction, usually another is nonfiction. Perhaps there’s another fiction title thrown in, often a collection of short stories such as Tessa Hadley’s recent outstanding Bad Dreams. But from time to time, I am so thoroughly grabbed by one particular book that other reading gets elbowed aside.

Thus it has been with Death Walks in Eastrepps .

The author’s name, given as Francis Beeding, actually served as a pseudonym for John Leslie Palmer  and Hilary Aidan St. George Saunders. These two collaborated on a series of crime novels published  between 1925 and 1946. Death Walks in Eastrepps  was the tenth; twenty-two more followed.

Published in 1931, this novel seems at first to be the story of a serial killer let loose in the placid seaside town of Eastrepps. One murder after another has residents terrified. Tourists flee, understandably spooked. The local police are baffled. Obviously additional expertise is needed; soon Chief Inspector Wilkins of Scotland Yard is  called to the scene to offer what aid he can.

The denizens of Eastrepps are rendered with exceptional clarity. The reader comes quickly to care about them as individuals, and to worry for their safety. An atmosphere of dread hangs over the bewildered little hamlet; you as the reader become party to that pervasive fear. And while all of these  seemingly senseless things are happening, a poignant and secret love story is unfolding.

There’s some exceptional writing in this novel. One of my favorite passages is this description of a garden and its owner’s pleasure in it:

Mrs. Dampier finished her coffee, and, rising from her chair in the summer-house, began to walk slowly towards her roses. They were drooping a little in the heat…But they were very lovely, a superb mass of blossom, banked for twenty feet from the edge of the lawn to the top of the pergola that ran behind. Here in her garden beauty was caught in a net of shining petals, and to guard against unlovely invasions, the lilies and lupins stood about like sentinels, with the tall hollyhocks stiff as grenadiers towards the gate. To her right shone ever so faintly a still pool, with little newts and tiny Japanese fish that darted silently about their business in the cool depths. And beyond the pool was a gracious company of trees.

As riveting a read as Death Walks in Eastrepps was for me, it must be admitted that the novel contains two disparaging references. First, an emotionally  disturbed individual is called a “degenerate.” Then a wandering group of players called minstrels are said to blacken their faces when they perform;  at one point, the “n” word is used as an adjective to describe their appearance. Yes, I know we must take into account the times – the 1930s, in this case – when terms such as these were likely considered less unacceptable than they are now. Still, when confronted with usages of this sort, I’m disconcerted and pulled momentarily out of the narrative. Unfortunately, this is a problem one encounters from time to time when reading the literature of a different era.

The edition of this novel that I read was published by W.W. Norton & Company in 1966. It features a short introduction by Vincent Starrett. Starrett opens by quoting Ellery Queen on the question of what makes a great crime novel. Queen believes the answer is retrospective in nature:

“….if, years and years later, you still have a vivid recollection of the original impact; if the significance of the story, its point, or its subtle overtone still sticks in the pigeonhole of your mind, then surely the story has the quality of greatness.”

Starrett goes on to declare that “Death Walks in Eastrepps has remained in my memory for half a lifetime.” (If, in fact, you obtain this particular edition, I would caution you against reading Starrett’s essay first. He gives away rather too much of the plot.)

I have several people to thank for putting me on to this novel. First, it appears in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards (more on this splendid if somewhat exasperating compendium in a subsequent post). Secondly, my friend Carol of Usual Suspects forwarded a blog post by Harriet Devine of Shiny New Books, in which Ms Devine sang the praises of Eastrepps. “There is so much to love admire here,” she enthuses. I agree, though my own admiration is somewhat tempered by the presence of the above mentioned instances of denigration. Individual readers, I think, must make their own decisions regarding these issues. (I’ve written at greater length on this problem in a post on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.)

One more observation: I’ve rarely been as stumped as to the culprit’s true identity as I was while reading this book. It was positively awash in false leads and red herrings, deployed with great cunning. I arrived at the truth at about the same moment as it stood revealed to law  enforcement and to another character as well. I gasped aloud; my husband, walking by, exclaimed, “What?” It took me a  few minutes to find my voice, and tell him.

John Leslie Palmer, 1885-1944

 

Hilary Aidan St. George
Saunders,  1898-1951

 

 

 

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“‘To have a child is to open an account at the heartbreak bank…'”

August 29, 2017 at 7:31 pm (Book review, books)

Liv makes the above pronouncement one night to her husband Benjamin. They’re on a cruise, and they’re luxuriating in bed, at that moment.

Liv and Benjamin are the parents of two: Penny, an eleven-year-old who possesses the officiousness characteristic of some girls that age, and her younger brother Sebastian, a sweet little boy whose health must be monitored carefully; he is diabetic.

Liv is speaking in the abstract. She has no inkling of the events soon to occur that will affect all of them profoundly. How could she? They’ve dealt with the initial shock of Sebastian’s chronic illness; the entire family is engaged in helping him manage it. The effort has thus far been a notable success.

Accompanying Liv and Benjamin on this South American excursion are Liv’s cousin Nora and her husband Raymond. They also have two children: Marcus, the elder, and little June, often called Junie. Liv and Nora are close, nearly as close a sisters. Nora’s mother has recently passed away, and Liv had come up with the idea of all four of them traveling together, partly as a way of consoling Nora for her deeply felt loss.

At the outset of this venture, everything seems to be fine – not just fine, even great. The adults are nearly as excited as the kids.

On the walk to the buffet, Nora linked her arm through Liv’s and put her head on her shoulder, making Liv feel excessively tall. “I love you,” Nora said. “This was a genius idea.”

And so it would seem. Up to a point. That point is reached when Nora and Liv and the children, along with an Argentine woman and her two teenagers, decide to go on a zip-lining excursion while the ship is docked. A guide, Pedro, arranges things for then. Meanwhile, the men go off to play golf.

What could be more innocent, more conducive to a good time?

I dare not say more. I’ll just quote the final line of the Kirkus review  of this brainy and propulsive thriller by Maile Meloy:

Do not start this book after dinner or you will almost certainly be up all night.

I was.

 

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‘An act that becomes its own purifying absolution….’ – American Fire by Monica Hesse

August 22, 2017 at 12:25 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  It started in Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in November of 2012. It went on  for the next five months: the burning down of random empty buildings. The county had an abundant stock of such structures, and someone was apparently determined to take a torch to every one of them.

By some miracle, no one was killed, or even hurt, during this pyromaniacal rampage. But the effort to catch the perpetrator strained law enforcement to the breaking point. Firefighters in particular were hard hit and utterly exhausted. Still, the effort put forth during this siege was enormous and unstinting.

Whispering Pines, a once flourishing motel/resort, had been sitting empty before being set ablaze.

One tactic involved staking out buildings that were deemed to be likely targets. All sorts of electronic surveillance devices, especially motion sensitive cameras, were deployed. Agents of law enforcement huddled in tents at night, some distance – but not too far – from the focus of incendiary temptation.

Sure enough, five months into the investigation, this was the set-up that suddenly broke the case wide open.

Monica Hesse has done a prodigious amount of research in order to bring this stranger-than-fiction tale to life. In addition, she introduces us to a varied cast of characters who live and work – at least occasionally – in the insular community that is Accomack. Some are strong and purposeful; others are quirky drifters. And one, Charlie Smith, is – well, you need to read  the book to make your own assessment of Charlie.

Including notes, American Fire is 255 pages long; the experience of reading of it is propulsive. I put pretty much everything else aside as I raced though this narrative. If you’re looking for a page turner, this is it.

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