Loved it, as I figured I would: The Department of Sensitive Crimes, by Alexander McCall Smith

June 9, 2019 at 5:55 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Scandi Blanc. Thus has Alexander McCall Smith named his new series. This is how he describes his latest undertaking in The Scotsman:

“I’ve started a new series set in Sweden. I call it ‘Scandi blanc’ as opposed to Scandi noir.

“My central character is a Swedish detective called Ulf Varg – Ulf means ‘wolf’ in Danish and Varg means ‘wolf’ in Swedish so he’s Wolf Wolf.

“He lives in Malmo and works in this department which deals with unusual crimes.

“He has a dog called Marten, and he’s hearing impaired. He’s the only dog in Sweden who can lip-read, but only in Swedish.

“He also has various sidekicks, but all his cases are really peculiar.

“The whole thing is just having great fun. My books never involve any serious crimes. Nobody is ever killed in any of my books, so there’s no murder there.

“There is a case of lycanthropy, though – somebody who is possibly a werewolf. It’s good Scandinavian stuff and I’ve had tremendous fun.

There is also a case of multiple missing persons. But is it actually a case if one of those reported missing never actually existed in the first place?

One of the reasons I love police procedurals is that you have a team of investigators. The individuals who make up that team are often very interesting in and of themselves. And there interactions can also be quite memorable.

From the jacket copy for The Department of Sensitive Crimes:

Ulf “the Wolf” Varg, the top dog, thoughtful and diligent; Anna Bengstdotter, who’s in love with Varg’s car (and possibly Varg too); Carl Holgersson, who likes nothing ,ore than filling out paperwork; and Erik Nykvist, who is deeply committed to fly fishing.

Throw in a local beat cop who is amiable but talks nonstop, and you have an entirely winning (if, at times, exasperating) ensemble.

Alexander McCall Smith is also great on the subject of dogs. Martin (variable spelling ‘Marten’) is an entirely lovable canine. Freddy de la Haye is my all time favorite fictional dog.

I admit I’ve been made slightly anxious by the appearance of this new series. I see there’s a new Precious Ramotswe novel in the offing, but what about the Isabel Dalhousie series? I love both and don’t want to see either of them supplanted. But McCall Smith is such a prolific writer – just have a look at his Wikipedia entry and you can see for yourself. I probably don’t need to worry.

I’m an Alexander McCall Smith junkie; I don’t deny it. I still have the fondest memory of his appearance at the library several years ago.

Long may he write!

Alexander McCall Smith

 

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Rarely has the Australian outback been brought so vividly to life….The Lost Man, by Jane Harper

June 6, 2019 at 12:50 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Jane Harper is a relatively new author; The Lost Man is her third book. She’s been getting consistently favorable reviews, which is why I decided to try this one.

The Bright brothers are  cattle ranchers in Queensland, Australia. Their land is flat, vast, sun baked. There are three brothers: Nathan, Cameron, and Bub. The novel’s prologue reveals that a man has been found dead on a lonely stretch of land that’s well known for having a single gravestone on it.

The name of the man buried beneath had long since vanished, and the landmark was known to locals–all sixty-five of them, plus one hundred thousand head of cattle–simply as the stockman’s grave. That piece of land had never been a cemetery; the stockman had  been put into  the ground where he had died, and in more than a century, no one had joined him.

This is one of the most striking openings I’ve encountered in a novel in a long while. And the rest of the book more than lives up to the promise offered up in this prologue.

I was mesmerized by The Lost Man. I hated to finish it. The ending was just as dramatic as  the beginning; I was held captive by every word in between, as well. Oh, for more reading experiences like this!

Highly recommended, obviously.

I plan to go back and read Jane Harper’s first Two novels, The Dry and Force of Nature.

Jane Harper

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Two pleasing procedurals

June 5, 2019 at 8:17 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Having fallen hopelessly behind in the reviewing process – and watching as titles pile up in my home office – I’ve decided to take a stab at remedying the situation.

So, to begin:

Both Jo Bannister and Peter Turnbull are, in my view at least, underappreciated writers, at least on this side side of the Atlantic. Both have a large and solid body of work, chiefly in the subgenre of the police procedural. Jo Bannister has authored several series; the one featuring Constable Hazel Best is her latest. Silent Footsteps is the most recent. It takes place, as do its predecessors, in the fictional region of Norbold.

Bannister has a wry sense of humor that often manifests itself in dialog. In this scene, Hazel is seconding Sergeant Murchison as he attempts to interview a possible witnesses to a crime. They belong to a gang called the Canal Crew. Murchison dives right in with a blunt opener:

“So what have you done with Trucker Watts?”
One of the hairy young men appeared to be senior to the other. ‘We ‘aven’t got ‘im. We never ‘ad ‘im. We ‘aven’t seen ‘im.”
There was something almost Shakespearean about it, Hazel thought. But Sergeant Murchison was harder to impress. ‘You saw him this morning, panhandling outside the off-license in Arkwright Street.’
Yes, they admitted, they had. They’d seen him off–or, to be more accurate, they’d seen him leave.They hadn’t seen him since.
‘Is that the truth?’
‘On my mother’s grave.’
Murchison frowned. ‘Your mother’s still alive, Billy Barnes.’
Yeah–but she’s already bought a plot down the Municipal. Cost her an arm and a leg, it did.’

Hazel has a close friendship with Gabriel Ash and talks to him frequently about the cases she’s working on. The two have a interesting back story. To be thoroughly filled in on that, it’s best to go back to the beginning and read Deadly Virtues. In fact, you could commit  yourself to all six books in this series, read them in order, and be well served.

One of my favorite titles by Jo Bannister is a standalone called The Tinderbox.

***************
Cold Wrath 
is a different story. It’s the twenty-fifth entry in the series featuring Chief Inspector George Hennessey and Detective Sergeant Somerled (pronounced ‘Sorely’) Yellich. In each of these slender novels, Peter Turnbull presents the reader with an intriguing puzzle. A body is discovered in an odd place; sometimes it’s  several bodies. Watching the action unfold as Hennessey, Yellich,  and company pursue various leads is invariably a pleasurable experience – at least, it is for this devoted lover of police procedurals.

Part of the enjoyment of immersing oneself in these novels resides in the fact that  they’re set in York, in the north of England. This is a magical city, steeped in history and  crowned by the presence of York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern England.

Another thing that distinguishes these novels is the author’s use of somewhat antiquated diction. This is especially evident in the way he begins each new chapter. This, for example, appears above Chapter Three:

In which the reason why Miles Law delayed calling the police upon discovering the body of Anthony Garrett is revealed, and Reginald Webster and Carmen Pharoah and George Hennessey are severally at home to the urbane and always too forgiving reader.

There’s something oddly Victorian about it, n’est-ce pas? Reginald Webster and Carmen Pharoah, by the way, are additional members of Hennessey’s team of investigators. All of these characters have interesting back stories, which are reiterated anew in each book.

I’ve read something like seventeen novels in this series. I never tire of them, and always  look forward to the next one.

Jo Bannister

Peter Turnbull

 

 

 

 

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Tony Horwitz

May 28, 2019 at 10:51 pm (books, In memoriam)

 

Tony Horwitz, a gifted and witty prose stylist, wrote two of my favorite nonfiction titles: Baghdad Without a Map and Confederates in the Attic. I read the former when it came out in 1991. It might come across as somewhat dated now, but Confederates, with its wonderful stories of Civil War re-enactors and the lengths they go to to achieve authenticity, is probably just as entertaining today as it was when it came out in 1998.

Earlier this afternoon, I was checking my library reserves and was delighted to find that my reserve on Horwitz’s latest book, Spying on the South, had just come in. About an hour later, I read the news of his sudden death. He was here in the Washington area to promote the new book when he collapsed.

Tony Horwitz’s death was sudden, probably due to cardiac arrest. Married to novelist Geraldine Brooks, he was sixty years old.

This is very sad news.

Tony Horwitz June 8 1958-May 27, 2019

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‘The sense of proximate skin–of latent power beneath respectable garments–it had the effect of spring water, bubbling beneath her skin.’ – Courting Mr. Lincoln, by Louis Bayard

May 25, 2019 at 3:24 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  A thoughtful essay on historical fiction recently appeared in The New York Times Style Magazine. “Why Are We Living in a Golden Age of Historical Fiction?” may be  a somewhat clunky title – at least, I find it so – but author Megan O’Grady makes some points worth pondering:

A new kind of historical fiction has evolved to show us that the past is no longer merely prologue but story itself, shaping our increasingly fractured fairy tales about who we are as a society. The unmooring of time can be found everywhere, in battles for social progress we thought we’d already fought and won. In the media age, history is not simply a chain of facts recorded by scholars but a complex narrative harnessed by political parties and Facebook disinformation campaigns to speak to our sense of identity and belonging. The past we inherit speaks to us individually and collectively, but a common thread, much less a consensus view of reality, feels increasingly hard to come by.

The author mentions a number of titles. Three are among my favorites. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel evokes a turbulent period in English history with uncanny exactitude. And the other – O’Grady calls it “Penelope Fitzgerald’s strange and wonderful take on Novalis” – The Blue Flower.

Two mystery series, not well known in this country, more than satisfy my craving for atmospheric historical fiction: PF Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey books and the Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis novels written by Robin Blake.

And I’ve just finished the richly rewarding Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard. While my husband and I were vacationing in the Hudson River Valley, I had  the great good fortune to be reading A Pale Blue Eye, Bayard’s fictional  account of Edgar Allan Poe’s brief and turbulent tenure at West Point. So I had high hopes for this new novel – which hopes were more than fulfilled.

I can do no better than to quote from the jacket copy:

Told in the alternating voices of Mary Todd and Joshua Speed, and inspired by historical  events, Courting Mr. Lincoln creates a sympathetic and complex portrait of Mary unlike any that has come before; a moving and deep portrayal of the deep and real connection between the two men; and most of all, an evocation of the unformed man who would  grow into one of the nation’s most beloved presidents.

 

There’s some lovely writing in this novel, as is seen in the title of this post. Also some  delightful dialog, as in this exchange wherein Joshua Speed is trying to teach the awkward and unschooled Lincoln the rudiments of ballroom etiquette:
“All right,’ said Joshua. Try it with me. Until you find your way.”
“We’ll regret this,” Lincoln said.
“Now you are the lead, so you will just…you will hook your right hand round my back. Like that. Now I will rest my hand…lightly…here.
“This will end badly.”
“Be quiet. Now…raise your elbows. Shoulder height, that’s it. And back straight. And knees…well, you can bend the knees a little.”
“Like this?”
“Well, no, not like you’re praying.”
“I am praying.”
Dare I use the word, charming? Because that’s what this is. and much of the rest of the book as well. Charming, heartfelt, and irresistible.

Louis Bayard

 

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‘I remained beyond mortality’s reach. Death and decay were for others.’ – Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

May 20, 2019 at 1:02 pm (Book review, books)

I want to set down my thoughts about this book before looking at the reviews, which I’m eager to read.

First – let it be said – for me, this was a page turner. Right from the moment that Charlie Friend brings his newly acquired ‘Adam’ into his home and into his life, I had no idea how events would unfold, and I wanted badly to find out. From that moment – right  from the novel’s beginning – I had that careening roller coaster feeling; I never knew what was going to happen next. At the same time, I was getting to know Charlie – an okay guy, not entirely admirable – and his upstairs neighbor Miranda, with whom he has fallen in love. Naturally she gets embroiled too in Charlie’s Adam project.

Adam is a facsimile human  – nothing like the clunky robots one sees nowadays. He is remarkably close to being the real thing – in appearance, that is. As for his more subtle  attributes – knowledge, responses to human emotions, language, so many other things – these must all be uploaded into his brain-like mechanism. The online manual runs to 470 pages. The owner has a fair degree of choice with regard to the settings.

To say more would be to give away too much. Meanwhile, Ian McEwan’s writing is provocative and precise, as always. Here, Charlie and Adam have been conversing, in a way that has made Charlie feel profoundly uneasy:

The little black rods in his eyes were shifting their alignment. As I stared, they appeared to swim, even to wriggle, left to right, like microorganisms mindlessly intent on some distant objective, like sperm migrating towards an ovum. I watched them, fascinated–harmonious elements lodged with in the supreme achievement of our age. Our own technical accomplishment was leaving us behind, as it was always bound to, leaving us stranded on the little sandbar of our finite intelligence.

‘…the little sandbar of our finite intelligence.’ At times, I myself feel as though that sandbar is becoming steadily narrower.

A word to the wise: There’s a strong sexual undercurrent present in this novel. Not as blatant as it was in Nutshell, but all the more potent, for that fact.

I have to admit, it’s very difficult for me to write dispassionately about Ian McEwan. I find him brilliant.

There are certain authors I read no matter what they write. Ian McEwan is one of them. Over the course of more than 40 years and some dozen and a half books — including Amsterdam, Atonement, and The Children Act — his generally realist, propulsive work reveals an abiding preoccupation with both the repercussions of deceit and how life can change in an instant.

Heller McAlpin, NPR

There are some pokey moments in this novel, some dead nodes. But McEwan has an interesting mind and he is nearly always good company on the page. In whichever direction he turns, he has worthwhile commentary to make.

Dwight Garner, New York Times

Ultimately, Machines Like Me is a novel about the power of novels. Charlie realises that his stance regarding his purchase has been shaped by literature. “The imagination,” he says, “fleeter than history, than technological advance, had already rehearsed this future in books…” This is a novel that holds up the form as an example of the unreplicable subtlety of the human mind. While Adam composes haikus of stultifying banality to Miranda, he finds the novel’s obsession with misunderstandings and reversals obsolete in an age when technology has colonised the private life. Novels, McEwan is saying, do something that robots can’t: they are a heroic record of our imperfections, a celebration of the flaws that make us human.

Alex Preston, The Guardian

Half a century ago, Philip K. Dick asked, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” and now Ian McEwan is sure those androids are pulling the wool over our eyes.

His new novel, “Machines Like Me,” takes place in England in the 1980s, but it’s an uncanny variation of the past we remember.

Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Ian McEwan

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Crime fiction: First lines of note

May 5, 2019 at 10:47 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

I’ve recently come across two memorable beginning sentences in works of crime fiction.

From The Secret Pilgrim by John Le Carre:

Let me confess to you at once that if I had not, on the spur of the moment, picked up my pen  and scribbled a note to George Smiley inviting him to address my passing-out class on the closing evening of their entry course–and had Smiley not against all my expectations, consented–I would not be making so free to you with my heart.

The entire paragraph consists of this one sentence. The Secret Pilgrim is copyright 1990 but might as well be dated 1890, or even earlier, so graceful and old-fashioned is it, in its expressiveness.

For me, A Legacy of Spies (2017) was triumphant return to form for John Le Carre (not that he was ever really off form). And there is a new novel on the horizon: An Agent Running in the Field, due out here in October.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley. The Secret Pilgriim is dedicated by Le Carre to Alec Guinness, “with affection and thanks”

 

John Le Carre, at his home in Cornwall. What kind if expression is that: querulous? quizzical? inscrutable? some combination?

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

A completely different case is presented by the opening gambit of the story “Dark Waters” by Freeman Wills Crofts:

For years Weller, the solicitor, had handled Marbeck’s affairs, and when he received the old man’s letter saying that he wanted to realise some securities, it struck him like a sentence of death.

Well, gosh! Talk about in medias res!

The story is off to a frantic start; Crofts sustains the pitch right through to the end of this brief and powerful tale.

“Dark Waters” appears in Bodies from the Library, an excellent new anthology featuring, according to the subtitle, Lost Tales of Mystery and Suspense by Agatha Christie and Other Masters of the Golden Age. As for Freeman Wills Crofts, he is one of the Golden Age writers whose works are  currently being reissued as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics initiative.

In the 1920s high culture priest T.S. Eliot, an avid detective fiction reader, classed Crofts with R. Austin Freeman, a still-active contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle, as the two greatest living detective novelists. Of Crofts, Ivor Brown, drama critic and Oxford graduate in the Classics, sics, humbly declared: “Before his invention, mine eyes dazzle.”

Curtis J. Evans, Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920–1961

The meticulous account of detective work, coupled with the ingenuity of the construction (and deconstruction) of the alibi were  to become Freeman Wills Crofts’ hallmarks, and they sett his debut novel apart from the competition. Over the next twenty years, the book sold more than 100,000 copies.

Martin Edwards on The Cask, in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books

The Cask is excellent; I highly recommend it.

Freeman Wills Crofts  1879-1957

 

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So many mysteries….

April 19, 2019 at 8:49 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

 

I felt like reading another British Library Crime Classic, so I picked up Thirteen Guests. J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White is the book that kicked off this series of reissues. Not all of these books have worked for me, but that one certainly did. If not quite as gratifying as Mystery in White, Thirteen Guests was nevertheless an enjoyable read. Luckily, there are more titles available by Farjeon. I intend to feast on all of them.

I wanted to read Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters because I was intrigued by a character in the Maigret series that I first encountered in Maigret and the Dead Girl. That character is the above named Lognon, commonly referred to be his police colleagues as Inspector Hard-Done-By.

Lognon is in fact an excellent investigator, but luck always goes against him. He wants more than anything to work alongside Maigret and his team at their headquarters in 36 Quai des Orfevres. But inevitably, his performance falls short of that dream. And so he trudges home to his invalid wife – a woman rather hard done by herself, I’d say – and their cramped little apartment, with very little to show for his considerable efforts. This includes, in the course of dogged pursuit of criminals, taking a beating that puts him in the hospital.

(As of September 2017, the headquarters of the Police Judiciaire is no longer at Quai des Orfevre, but has moved to premises on the Rue De Saussaies. The Research and Intervention Brigade, however, still operated out of the older location.)

I recommend both Maigret novels, but then I’m somewhat indiscriminate in my affection for this series.

A Suspicion of Silver is the ninth novel in the series featuring Sir Robert Carey, a character based on an actual historical personage from the Elizabethan era. A while back, I led a discussion with the Usual Suspects of the first series entry, A Famine of Horses. There was strong feeling in the group that Chisholm had made too free use of Archaic vocabulary without providing a glossary. Well, for this latest outing, she included a very lengthy glossary in the notes at the front of the novel. (“She listened!’ Frank exclaimed.)

The Silver in the title refers to ore which is being illegally gotten from a mining operation overseen by German emigres, experts in the process. Very interesting, and historically accurate as well. As for Sir Robert, he’s his usual resourceful, irreverent self, and still pining for his beloved – and married, though lovelessly –  Lady Elizabeth Widdrington.

From 1593, we go back to 1549 and the tumult and disorder of the reign of Edward VI. Not really Edward’s fault: he was twelve years old at the time. His reign was being overseen by a council of regents led first by his uncle Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, and subsequently by John Dudley, 1st Earl of Warwick, who in 1551 became Duke of Northumberland.

Tombland is the seventh entry in C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. Shardlake, a Sergeant-at-law, carries out commissions assigned to him by the likes of Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and Queen Catherine Parr. In Tombland, he is tasked by the Lady Elizabeth with looking into the murder of  the wife of John Boleyn,  a distant relation of hers. Elizabeth will one day be queen, but at the time this story takes place, her position is somewhat precarious; for instance, despite being the daughter of the late King Henry VIII, she is not permitted to call herself “Princess.”

Shardlake’s investigation takes him Norfolk, in the East of England, just as a peasant revolt is heating up. Soon Kett’s Rebellion has burst onto the scene. Shardlake becomes legal advisor to its leader Robert Kett, partly in order to save his own skin and that of his assistants, as the politically and religiously fueled mayhem gains momentum. His investigation is  forced, at least for the time being, into abeyance.

Andrew Taylor, himself a writer of excellent historical crime fiction, says this of C.J. Sansom’s series:

Where Shardlake goes, so do we. Sansom has the trick of writing an enthralling narrative. Like Hilary Mantel, he produces densely textured historical novels that absorb their readers in another time. He has a PhD in history and it shows — in a good way. He is scrupulous about distinguishing between fact and fiction.

Tombland is some eight hundred pages long. It provides the reader with a fully immersive experience in the turbulence of mid-sixteenth century England. Sansom has appended an afterward of some fifty or sixty pages of historical explication. So: a commitment, for sure, but well worth it, in my view.

Michael Connelly has reached a point in his career as a writer of police procedurals where he’s hitting them out of the park, one after another. In the beginning, there was Harry Bosch; then came Harry’s half brother and lawyer Mickey Haller. Now they’re appearing together. Then came Renee Ballard. She debuted in the excellent novel The Late Show. Next, she appears with Harry in Dark Sacred Night. And it all works – beautifully!

Lately, I’ve been listening to these books on CD. They’re usually read by Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch on the Amazon Prime TV series. Most recently, I listened to Two Kinds of Truth. Among other things – there’s always a lot going on in these books – Harry undertakes an undercover assignment where he’s embedded in an operation run by drug dealers who enlist addicts to score prescriptions for opioids and other saleable drugs at so-called “pill mills.” Vivid, true to life, and very scary!

Author Gallery

Georges Simenon

P.F. Chisholm (Patricia Finney)

Michael Connelly

 

C.J. Sansom, with a most excellent feline companion

What’s up next for me in this, my favorite genre? I’m currently reading Overture to Death, the next Usual Suspects selection. The author is Ngaio Marsh, whom I greatly admire. Then I’m very much looking forward to new entries in three of my best-loved series: Hitmen I Have Known, a Harpur and Isles (Yes!) mystery by Bill James; Cold Wrath by Peter Turnbull (Hennessey and Yellich are back, to my delight.) and Rough Music, the fifth Cragg and Fidelis historical mystery by Robin Blake.

 

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Mysteries: from India to Italy in one enriching leap

April 15, 2019 at 7:06 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

In February, Marge led the Usual Suspects in a discussion of A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee. This is the initial entry in a series set in post-World-War-One India, and it’s a great example of a first time author who hit the ground running. Beautifully written, this novel takes full advantage of its exotic setting, all the while weaving a tale of intrigue and introducing us to a memorable cast of characters. Chief among these is Captain Sam Wyndham, veteran of the Great War, who has been recruited to serve in the police force of India’s British Raj. His Sergeant is Surendranath Banerjee, called ‘Surrender-not’ because Sam and others have trouble pronouncing his name. (At any rate, it proves an apt nickname; he does not surrender to difficulty easily but is persistent and resourceful, and a great help to Sam.)

  Oh, and there’s a love interest for Sam. I just finished the second book, A Necessary Evil – also excellent – and all I have to say is, Make your wishes known, Sam, for heaven’s sake! Remember: He who hesitates….

Meanwhile, tensions between the Indians and their British overlords are portrayed with blunt realism. Even back then – undoubtedly before then – Indians were agitating for independence. Reading about the attitude of the British toward the native population, it’s no wonder. Enough to make you seethe with indignation, on their behalf.

Yet amidst all the turmoil, the allure of the place persists. From A Necessary Evil:

We left him and followed Sayeed Ali along a corridor whose walls were lined with murals that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Kama Sutra, and into a cloistered courtyard dominated by a huge banyan tree….We walked through another arched doorway into a stairwell, climbing two flights before entering a well-apportioned sunlit apartment. The room was divided by a carved teak screen peppered with small holes. In front of the screen, the marble floor was covered with a black and gold Persian rug, strewn with silk cushions.

There are those who maintain that this sort of meticulous description does not belong in crime fiction. I for one love it.

Banyan trees, by the way, are rather startling entities. Growing up in South Florida, I remember seeing them from time to time:

A Rising Man won the 2017 Historical Dagger Award, and was a finalist for the Gold Dagger, the Barry for Best First Mystery, the Edgar for Best Mystery, and the Macavity Award for Best Historical Mystery.

A Necessary Evil was a Gold Dagger finalist ,as well as a finalist for  the Historical Dagger and for the Barry Award for Best Mystery. The third entry in the series, Smoke and Ashes, is already out.

(This information and more is “at your fingertips” can be found at the site Stop!YoureKillingMe.com)
*************************
  Then it was off to Italy, or more specifically, to Venice. Actually, the way that Donna Leon writes about La Serenissima, it seems less like a part of Italy and more like a separate principality, which, of course, it once was….

Unto Us a Son Is Given is, by my count, the 28th entry in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. Of these, I’ve read at least twenty. The Commissario and I are old friends; likewise, his wife Paola and children Raffi and Chiara. The latter has become an ardent conservationist; Brunetti is proud of her and her new found commitment to the cause.

The Brunetti family members are all getting older but at a blessedly slow rate. Reading each new book in this wonderful series gives me the chance to spend time with them in their magical dwelling place.

Brunetti’s fellow police officers are also on the scene, both those he genuinely likes, like Vianello, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, and Claudia Griffoni, and those whom he has learned to tolerate, like Lieutenant Scarpa. (That name always makes me think of Scarpia, the arch villain in Puccini’s Tosca.)

The plot – it’s not much of a mystery, really – concerns one Gonzalo Rodriguez de Tejada. This elderly gentleman is a wealthy friend of Brunetti’s father-in-law, Count Orazio Falier. Gonzalo is openly gay and, at this late stage of his life, is preparing to adopt a young man as his son. Gonzalo has no other immediate family, but he does have several siblings, including a sister to whom he is quite close. At any rate, Falier has his doubts about this prospective adoptee and asks Brunetti to see what he can discover about him.

This novel has an unusual structure for a mystery. Progress in the investigation is slow and methodical, yielding very few surprises. Then, about three quarters of the way  through the book, there’s a murder. It’s sudden, and deeply shocking.

I really liked this book – well, I like every book in this series. Donna Leon is one of my favorite authors. She never disappoints – at least, that’s the case where this reader is concerned.

 

 

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‘…it is a “locked room” mystery written by Sophocles.’ – The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

April 9, 2019 at 4:51 pm (books, True crime)

I’ve had a strange experience, reading this book. It begins, of necessity, with  recounting of the circumstances that led to the murder of Andrew Borden and his wife Abby. Immersed as I’ve been  recently in this story, I didn’t discern anything new in Cara Robertson retelling. This, despite the fact that every time I revisit this scenario, its mixture of strangeness and horror grabs hold with great force.

I read on. The chief body of the text concerns the trial. I found that the minute retelling of the witness testimony began to drag. I was having to push myself to keep going.

One note that was sounded throughout the proceedings concerned the demeanor of the defendant: “Throughout the trial, Lizzie Borden remained a sphinxlike cipher.” Her lack of responsiveness puzzled all who saw her. Where were the tears, where the shuddering? I had the sense that some among the observers went from puzzlement to exasperation, even to anger, in the way that our feelings sometimes evolve when we simply cannot figure something out.

At any rate, the trial dragged on. At one point, I was close to throwing in the towel. But then the unexpected occurred, in the form of the closing arguments. George Robinson for the defense; Hosea Knowlton for the prosecution. For me, the pace of the narrative changed suddenly. The eloquence of these two attorneys held me spellbound. I fairly raced through to the conclusion.

Except there was no conclusion. There I was, eagerly flipping the pages, ready for more, when I found that I’d reached the Acknowledgements. From the storehouse of her vast and meticulous research, Cara Robertson had told all she had to tell.

From George Robinson, for the defense:

“Right at the moment of transition she stood there waiting,between the Court and the jury; and waited, in her quietness and calmness, until it was time for her to properly come forward. It flashed through my mind in a minute. There she stands, protected, watched over, kept in charge  by  the judges of  this court and by the jury who have hr in charge. If the little sparrow does not fall unnoticed to the ground, indeed, in God’s great providence, this woman has not been alone in this courtroom, but ever shielded by His  watchful Providence from above, and by  the sympathy and watch[ful] care of those who have her to look after.”

Cara Robertson observes that Lizzie’s lawyer has portrayed her as “an orphan in need of paternal guidance and protection, a ward of the court rather than a prisoner in custody.” And she cannot resist adding, with more than a touch of irony:

It was a neat rhetorical sleight of hand, considering that Borden was on trial for having created her own orphanhood.

(Robinson’s closing lasted just under  four hours. At that time, lengthy closing arguments were not all that unusual.)

From Hosea Knowlton, prosecutor:

“It was not Lizzie Andrew Borden, the daughter of Andrew J. Borden, that cme down those stairs, but a murderess, transformed from all the thirty-three years of an honest life, transformed from the daughter, transformed from the  ties of affection, to the most consummate criminal we have read of in all our history or works of fiction.”

As is by now well known, George Robinson and his defense team won the day. When the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict was read out, the courtroom erupted in shouts of rejoicing, which were in turn taken up by  the crowd outside the courthouse building. Lizzie finally let her feelings show. She was thrilled with her  exoneration and couldn’t express sufficient gratitude to her attorneys, the jurors, and various other  friends and supporters.

The good feeling did not last….

Lizzie and Emma could have gone anywhere else to live, at that point. But they elected to remain in Fall River – although not in the same house, the seemingly accursed domicile on Second Street. It was now 1893. As time went on, relations between the sisters began to deteriorate. In 1905, Emma moved out of their house. The sisters never spoke again.

Lizzie Borden herself never publicly commented about the case that altered the course of her otherwise drab life. Like the town that bred her and then ostracized her, as she aged, Lizzie Borden turned inward, reclusive, and, above all, silent.

Lizzie – by then, Lizbeth – Borden, at her house on The Hill, dubbed Maplecroft, with her dog, Laddie

As I was reading – and in some part laboring to get through this book, I kept saying to myself, okay, this is it – this is the last book I read on the subject of the Borden murders. Well, at this point, all I can say to myself in response to that assertion is: Hah!!

Next up – eventually, most likely:

 

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