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

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

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

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

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

Hill continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katharine Cornell as Elizabeth Barrett)

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

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

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

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

 

 

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A suggestion for ‘paired reading’

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Best Books of 2017: Contemporary Crime Fiction, Part Two

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

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

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

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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

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

Robin Blake

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

Kjell Erikkson

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

Gianrico Carofiglio

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

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

Archer Mayor

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

Julia Keller

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

 

 

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Best books of 2017: Contemporary crime fiction, Part One

December 26, 2017 at 1:37 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

A Legacy of Spies. What wonderful work from John LeCarre, a living demonstration that his gifts as a  storyteller and his uncanny feeling for the shadowy world of espionage remain undiminished.

The Girl in the Ice and The Night Stalker – Bryndza. After The Girl in the Ice, I knew I’d be coming back for more – the second is, if anything,  better than the first.

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

The Crow Trap and The Seagull by Ann Cleeves. I’m now happily working my way through the Vera Stanhope series. What an original and oddly appealing protagonist she is.

The Templars’ Last Secret – Walker. I read each new Bruno Chief of Police novel as it comes out, not waiting on the reviews – I know I want to spend time with Bruno and the other denizens of the village of St. Denis. And I always want to be updated on his never-quite-successful love life. (Bruno earnestly desires a wife and children:  I’m rooting for you, Bruno!)

Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson. Ordinarily I’m not drawn to mysteries featuring real historical personages as protagonists, but I’d been hearing and reading good things about this series; this is especially true of Jessica Mann’s review of this novel (among others) in the October issue of Literary Review Magazine. Being a staunch fan of Josephine Tey’s mysteries, I decided to give it a try. I liked it a great deal, for its depiction of the interwar years, the Cambridge setting, and the portrayal of Tey as a resourceful, courageous woman of great integrity. (This is precisely  how I prefer to think of her factual counterpart.)

The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid. A rich mixture of history and literature made this somewhat lengthy mystery well worth the effort.

Dance Hall of the Dead. What a pleasure it was to return to the works of Tony Hillerman; his mysteries brought the Native American culture of New Mexico to such vivid life. In fact, he and Judith Van Gieson both made the state itself seem so special and exotic that I felt I had to go there. I did – twice – and I fell in love with the place. It is truly the Land of Enchantment.

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon. Not my absolute  favorite from the Guido Brunetti series, but being in the company of the urbane and compassionate Commissario  always results in time well spent.

The Crossing and The Late Show by Michael Connelly. As good as The Crossing was – it was voted best ‘read’ of 2017 by the Usual SuspectsThe Late Show was even better. Michael Connelly has given us a terrific new protagonist – Detective Renee Ballard – provided her with an intriguing back story, and then summoned up a rich brew of murder, departmental backstabbing, and fiendishly complicated criminal enterprise with which to contend. And boy, does she contend!

When I started reading The Late Show three days ago, I was  daunted by its length – 400 pages. I’m hopping on a plane next week and can’t possibly schlepp such a weighty tome along with me. As it turns out – no worries; I finished it this morning. Among its many other virtues, it is quite the page turner.

(A slightly altered version of my blog post on the Suspects’ discussion of The Crossing appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Mystery Readers Journal.)

 

 

 

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Best Books of 2017, Part Two: Crime fiction and suspense: older and classic titles

December 24, 2017 at 9:25 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

I’ve already written a post on the classic mysteries I’ve consumed with gusto this year. I’ve also read other older mysteries that might not rightly be termed classics but that nevertheless made for enjoyable reading.

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer (1941)

 

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, a landmark story collection edited by Sarah Weinman

The Hours Before Dawn – Celia Fremlin’s 1958 Edgar Award winner is a novel of domestic suspense well ahead of its time. An exhausted mother of three demanding children takes in a lodger and comes to wish she hadn’t.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Fergus Hume’s 1886 runaway bestseller set in Melbourne, Australia. (This is a book about which a book has been written: Blockbuster! by Lucy Sussex.)

 

Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham (1931). Thanks to a perceptive article by A.S. Byatt, I finally “get” Albert Campion and Company – even Magersfontein Lugg! This one was a twist on the country  house murder trope: elegantly plotted and witty to boot.

Dead Letter and The Figure Eight (1866 and 1869 respectively) by Metta  Fuller Victor. If you’re going to read one, make it The Dead Letter.

Madame Maigret’s Friend by Georges Simenon (1950). Read this during insomniac moments in London. Good, but not , methinks, the best of the Maigret novels.

 

The DA Cooks a Goose and The DA Goes To Trial (1942 and 1940 respectively). Still working my way through the hugely enjoyable (for this reader, at least) Doug Selby novels.

 

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Best Reading in 2017, Part One: Fiction and Nonfiction

December 21, 2017 at 3:07 pm (Best of 2017, books)

We’ve already had the lists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Kirkus…. And now the one you’ve all been waiting for breathlessly:

Roberta’s Favorite Reads for 2017, Part One

Fiction

Improvement by Joan Silber. A terrific writer hits it out of the ball park yet again.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy. Suspense? ‘Literary’ fiction? However you categorize it, a gripping, unputdownable novel.

The Past, and Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley. The only author this year to appear twice on my list. She’s officially one of my absolute favorite writers.

Trajectory by Richard Russo. Four long stories – more like novellas – comprise this slender and powerful collection. I haven’t read anything by Russo since Empire Falls; I’d forgotten what delight his work can provide.

Conclave by Robert Harris. I couldn’t imagine how this novel set in the claustrophobic environs of the Vatican could possibly interest me. But how, after the Cicero Trilogy, The Fear Index, Pompeii, An Officer and a Spy, and The Ghost, could I ever have doubted this gifted novelist’s transfixing powers?

One thing I really appreciated about Conclave as the way in which the intense faith of the priests and cardinals was bodied forth in prayer, both in formal occasions and in moments of private urgency.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Reservoir 13 by Jon MacGregor. I am somewhat ambivalent about listing this novel.  Yes, the writing is lyrical, the evocation of rural Britain is striking, the critics mostly raved – and yet….Maureen Corrigan’s review summed it up for me exactly:

….as admirable as McGregor’s achievement is, I frequently found myself looking for excuses to stop admiring it and read something else.

And finally, News of the World by Paulette Jiles, a slim triumph of a novel. I don’t often finish a work of fiction with a feeling of such deep gratitude for  the gifts it bestowed.

Nonfiction

 

I had great reading in this category  this year, as you will see:

 

Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City, by Kate Winkler Dawson. I never go a chance to blog about this book, but trust  me – it’s a terrific story.

Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards. This book is responsible for greatly enriching my reading of crime fiction this year.

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls. And what a life it was: edifying and enriching, and way too short.

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, by Monica Hesse

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, by James Rebanks. Okay, so for a while, I got kind of obsessed with Mr. Rebanks and his pastoral life in the north of England. Blame it mostly on those wonderful border collies.

The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas de Quincey, By Grevel Lindop

The Witness Tree: Seasons of Change with a Century-Old Oak, by Lynda V. Mapes

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation,  by Brad Ricca

Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling, by Michael Cannell

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, by John Preston

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. What can I say? I felt a need for a change of pace. And yes, I did read every word of it. How much I actually understood is open to question, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is such an entertaining raconteur, it didn’t really matter:

   As the universe continued to cool, the amount of energy available for the spontaneous creation of basic particles dropped. During the hadron era, ambient photons could no longer invoke E=mc^2 to manufacture quark-antiquark pairs. Not only that, the photons that emerged from all the remaining annihilations lost energy to the ever-expanding universe, dropping below the threshold  required to create hadron-antihadron pairs. For every billion annihilations–leaving a billion photons in their wake–a single hadron survived. Those loners would get to have all the fun: serving as the ultimate source of matter to create galaxies, stars, planets, and petunias.

At this point I find I must give a shout-out to the Wall Street Journal for its selection of the Ten “Books of the Year.”  In Fiction, the editors included, among others, Joan Silber’s Improvement; in Nonfiction, both Laura Dassow Walls’s biography of Thoreau and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann made the cut. (To access the full text of Wall Street Journal articles, use the Proquest database. It can be accessed on the Howard County Library site, and at other academic and public libraries.)

Part Two of this post will be forthcoming – but first I must return to London….

 

 

 

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The 2017 year end meeting of the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion group

December 19, 2017 at 4:56 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

I always look forward to the Usual Suspects’ end of year meeting. It’s a time and place where we talk about the books and authors we’ve read during the year, both for group discussion and for individual reading pleasure.

Pauline always sends us material in advance of this meeting. She creates a grid in which the following material about each book appears: title and author, the month that the discussion took place, comments/awards for author, and the name of the discussion leader. Then there is a further breakdown containing information as to setting and time period, type of investigator (e.g. lawyer, detective, private investigator), and finally, sex and nationality of the authors we read. (That last is always interesting and sometimes surprising: in our 2017 discussion year, there were three male authors and seven women. Six of the authors were American, three were British, and one was Canadian.)

Here are the books:

 

 

 

Pauline also provided us with the following discussion questions:

1. Which is the most impressive book? What did you like about this book? What did you dislike about the book?

2. Did you notice anything in particular about the author’s writing style in any of the books? Which is the best-written book? Which has the best-developed characters?

3. What new things did you learn about the world from a particular book and subsequent group discussion? Which book provided the best treatment of a location?

4. Which author(s) would you like to read more of? Is there a particular type of mystery you’d like to read in the future?

5. Which book has the best puzzle?

6. Which book(s) deserve or do not deserve the awards they received?

7. Are there any other books that we should comment on that have been left out of today’s discussion?

Frank added these questions to the mix:

For each of the books please answer, if you can, the following questions:

  1. What did you like about the book?
  2. What did you dislike about the book?
  3. What new things did you learn about the world from the book and/or subsequent group discussion?
  4. What new things did you learn about the art of writing from the book and/or subsequent group discussion?

As usual, we dove with zest into the discussion. Several of us expressed our gratitude for the chance to revisit the works of Tony Hillerman. We appreciated the Washington DC setting of Hagar’s Last Dance; even more so, the setting of Wilde Lake – right here in Columbia! Marge felt that she got a sense of what World War Two was like for Parisians in Murder on the Quai.

I think that we were all impressed by Jade Dragon Mountain, with its setting so remote in time and place and yet so vividly brought to life by author Elsa Hart. Frances reiterated her praise for Louise Penny. It interests me that while Penny’s Three Pines novels are so widely loved by readers – both here and in Penny’s native Canada –  and are so highly praised by reviewers, several members of our group have reservations about them. I’m one of them. Although there have been a number of books in this series that I’ve genuinely enjoyed, I found A Great Reckoning hard going.

Even people who did not for the most part care for Envious Casca agreed that its locked room puzzle was a cunning contrivance. Finally, Frank’s  choice of Michael Connelly’s The Crossing has caused several of us to want more of the same from this distinguished author of American police procedurals set in – where else? –  Southern California.

At this year end meeting, we always vote for our favorite “read” from among that year’s selections. This year’s winner was The Crossing; Dance Hall of the Dead came in second.

As is the custom, we were asked to bring a book to share with the group. If there’s time, you can mention a second title. Here’s how that worked out this year:

Frances: A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock Series) by Sherry Thomas
Frank: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury
Anne M.: The Inheritance by Charles Finch
Roberta: Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City by Kate Winkler Dawson; and Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller
Cheryl: Blood on the Water by Anne Perry
Pauline: My Darling Detective by Howard Norman; Maggie Hope mystery series starting with Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
Marge: The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman; Fatal by John Lescroart
Ann R.: Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adam
Mike: The Chessmen : The Trilogy by Peter May
Louise: Design for Dying by Renee Patrick
Carol: The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Carol has been gently but firmly coaxing us towards declaring our choices for next year. Here’s how that list is currently shaping up:

(The process of choosing your title for the coming year can be tortuous. Sometimes one becomes afflicted with analysis paralysis. You want the book to be enjoyable to read and also to lend itself to a good discussion. Something that’s not too heavy but not too lightweight either. At times, this can seem like a tall order. Then of course it’s a tricky business trying to anticipate the reaction of others to what you’re presenting. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s preferable to pick something that you’re not extremely emotionally attached to. )

I was pleased to see that we’re doing another Erika Foster novel by Robert Bryndza, as I very much enjoyed Girl in the Ice. And after starting with the second book in Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series and reading pretty much every entry thereafter, I’m at last going to get around to reading the first! The Crow Trap I read this summer and loved. It made me into a Vera  Stanhope groupie! And finally I’m pleased and delighted that we’ll be reading a Judith Van Gieson novel. For years, Marge and I have lamented the fact that this fine writer never found a wider audience. We especially like her earlier series featuring Albuquerque lawyer Neil Hamel, but really, any and all of her books are worth reading.

The only problem with this meeting is that I always end up with more titles to add to my must-read list – not exactly what I need, at the moment! But I am genuinely grateful to the Suspects for a year of excellent reading, with more to come. I devour book reviews in magazines and newspapers, but the really memorable reading experiences I have usually come via recommendations from fellow book lovers.

So thank you Suspects for yet another year of fine reading, stimulating conversation, and fast friendship.

 

 

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Best Reading in 2017: Classic Crime

December 1, 2017 at 10:44 pm (Best of 2017, books, Mystery fiction)

Before I blast off for London town, here’s a shout-out for the year’s most rewarding reading experience; namely, my immersion in vintage and classic works of crime fiction, facilitated by this singularly excellent volume by Martin Edwards:

I’ve already written about several titles suggested therein, but here  are the are again, with new ones added to the mix.

These three were highly enjoyable:

  

  

These, even more so:

features a wonderfully atmospheric setting in the Scottish Highlands

Wonderful turn of the century setting on the continent, with a plot inspired by an actual crime

Click here for my review of this title.

If I had to choose my absolute favorites thus far, it would be these three:

Egyptian mysteries, terrific writing, a cunning plot, and a love story – The Eye of Osiris has all of these elements, and more.

Where Israel Rank is concerned, it’s a classic case of being amazed not to have heard of this book before now. Israel Rank is a young man on the make – and then some. His father is Jewish, and so he is set apart, to a certain degree, at the outset. The accusation of anti-Semitism is frequently made in regard to this novel. Certainly, as the narrative unfolds, the fact of Rank’s Jewish heritage is alluded to from time to time, by himself and by others. Certain unwarranted generalizations are made. I personally was made slightly uneasy at times, but I was never offended. My verdict: the author skates close to the territory, but never actually goes in.

Martin Edwards describes the novel as “edgy and provocative.” I agree with that assessment.

Israel Rank has been adapted both as a film and a Broadway show. The film is from 1949 and is entitled Kind Hearts and Coronets. In it, Alec Guinness  portrays no fewer than nine different characters! The name ‘Israel Rank’ is changed to ‘Louis Mazzini;’ accordingly, he became half Italian rather than half Jewish. I’ve not had a chance to see the film yet, but I hope to soon.   The Broadway musical is entitled A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder. I’ve not seen that either, though my cousin Stephany, a Broadway aficionado par excellence, has seen it and declares it to be quite wonderful.

It’s one of the most recognized name in all of crime fiction. Yet I’d never read a single book by Ellery Queen before now.

What was I waiting for?

I loved Calamity Town. It has everything I look for in a mystery: ingenious plotting, believable and often sympathetic characters, excellent writing, a love story – or a hint of the possibility of one – it’s all here, in abundance. The novel is set in the small New England town of Wrightsville – there are, I believe, several others with the same setting.

The Ellery Queen novels were authored jointly by two men professionally known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred B.Lee.

Manfred B. Lee, left, and Frederic Dannay

Lee and Dannay were two cousins straight out of Brooklyn, that cauldron of American talent (or in a few cases, notoriety).    In addition to writing their own novels and short stories, they anthologized the work of other notable writers.  And of course there’s Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, launched by the Mercury Press in 1941 and still going strong today more than 70 years later. Frederic Dannay was editor-in-chief up until his death in 1982. According to Wikipedia, “It is now the longest-running mystery fiction magazine in existence.”

Michael Grost of A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has a lengthy and detailed entry for Ellery Queen. In it, he states bluntly: “They are the most important American detective writers of the Twentieth Century.”

So thanks, Martin Edwards. It’s good to know that I have lots more reading pleasure awaiting me, courtesy of your splendidly curated list!

Martin Edwards

 

 

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

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

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

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

Yes, YES! I could not agree more.

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

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

Joan Silber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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