It began with the railroads: The Europeans, by Orlando Figes

November 29, 2019 at 9:25 pm (Art, Book review, books, Music)

What began was the nineteenth century culture of worldly sophistication and high art described in this incredibly wide ranging volume. Along with the new  ease of rail travel, cultural cross currents began to flow with increasing speed and receptivity, to and from numerous nations of Western Europe. The countries specifically referenced are Italy, England, Germany, Russia – to my surprise – and France, always France, the epicenter of it all.

The book’s full title is The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture. Figes chooses to tell his story through the lives of singer and composer Pauline Viardot, her husband Louis, and their friend and close associate Ivan Turgenev. (The great Russian writer was, in fact, in love with Pauline Viardot throughout his life. To an extent, she returned his affections, but would never leave Louis, with whom she had four children.)

Pauline Viardot, 1821-1910

 

Louis Viardot 1800-1883

 

Ivan Turgenev, 1818-1883

*******************
I had gotten this far in composing this post before we left town for a few days. A recent photo in the  Washington Post served as a reminder that I hadn’t yet finished it:

Putin signing visitors’ book in Turgenev’s house

Ages ago, when I was trying to get more classics under my belt, I read Fathers and Sons and First Love. I recall especially being moved by the latter. In The Europeans, Orlando Figes tells us how Turgenev’s early writings in The Sportsman’s Sketches first secured his authorial fame. As with many out-of-copyright classics, various editions of this work are available for download on Amazon. I’ve read several of the stories and very much enjoyed them.

As it happens, copyright law, both within nations and international, is an important subject covered by Figes in his book. And as happens sometimes in books like this, it slows the narrative down to a crawl. It’s a case of an important subject that needs in depth coverage and one that at the same time isn’t – well, for want of a better word, sexy.

Still, all in all, this was a fascinating book, filled with illuminating facts about the flowering of high culture – art, music, and literature – throughout nineteenth century Europe. What fabulous gifts these people bequeathed to us!

 

 

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“The Little Donkeys with The Crimson Saddles,” by Hugh Walpole

November 20, 2019 at 3:52 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

THE little donkeys went past the shop-window at eight in the morning and seven-thirty in the evening, punctually, rain or shine.

Miss Pope christened them Percy and Emily. The old man whose donkeys they were she had long ago named Voltaire because he looked wicked, unChristian and clever – and because she liked literary allusions. One thing she often discussed with Miss Menzies, and that was why, being wicked and clever, he had not advanced further in the world. Miss Menzies suggested drink, and Miss Pope thought it probable.

Thus in its  unassuming way, this story, the first in Hugh Walpole’s collection The Silver Thorn, begins.

As I began reading, my first question was, where are we? The presence of the donkeys made me think of Spain, but no, this is Silverton-on-Sea, a fictional seaside town in England. The owner of the animals, the so-called Voltaire, makes them available to children and their families for rides. Thus he ekes out a living.

Miss Pope and Miss Menzies keep a small shop in the town. The shop offers a variety of items for sale –

The fancy work was very new, the antiquities very old. The shop, when it was lucky, made a profit, and then they went away for a holiday. They had been to the Lake District, Paris, Vevey, the Isle of Man, and Lake Como. On the other years the shop had not made a profit.

At age forty-three, Jane Pope is thirteen years older than Alice Menzies. She is at peace with her lot in life. But Alice Menzies, seeing what she perceives as the approach of spinsterhood, does not share in this equanimity. She longs for the chance to be a wife and mother, before it is too late..

In the meantime, she and her companion continue to observe the punctual coming and going of the little donkeys. It is how their days are marked.

And then a man arrives, and with his arrival comes a moment of reckoning for Alice Menzies.

Alice, as she sat down beside him, wished (Oh, how she wished!) that he had not chosen just this spot in which to make his proposal. Had she thought of it (but when does one think of these things?) there could not possibly be anywhere worse – here where she could see all the familiar things – the little town white and shining in the sun, huddled together so happily as though cosily inviting her congratulation (she so old a friend) at its contentment, the great sweep of purple, green-striped sea, the silver beach, the cornfields and the singing larks. Yes – and then, surely she could see them quite clearly, Percy and Emily trotting bravely, little midgets of patience and determination, to their inevitable destiny.

“The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles” is a short story dating from around 1928. Yet this gem of a tale has a timeless quality; it is strongly atmospheric, beautifully crafted, and immensely moving. I would rate it with the stories of Alice Munro. That is the highest praise I can give to a work of short fiction.

The Silver Thorn can be downloaded free of charge from the site The Faded Page. (A PDF download is of reliable quality.)

In the anthology Capital Crimes: London Stories, Martin Edwards says this about Hugh Walpole: “Today, his work is strangely underappreciated.” I’ve read several other stories by Walpole, and I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment.

Sir Hugh Walpole, 1884-1941

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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

October 22, 2019 at 3:58 pm (Book review, books)

  The Conroy family is every bit as unique as the house they grew up in. Well, perhaps not quite….

The Dutch House was the place where those people with the unpronounceable name lived. Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass from the doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back across the wide lawn. Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library, and master  bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts.

This singular edifice, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia, was completed in 1922. I must say that for the life of me, I could not summon up an image of it in my mind. I longed for a photo.

The family, on the other hand, was easy enough to conjure. Big sister Maeve, tall with a single thick braid trailing down her back, Cyril, the father, both loving and distracted, close and remote, a staff  consisting mainly of Jocelyn and Sandy, two warm and affectionate sisters, a mother who appears and disappears and seems finally gone for good, and Danny, Maeve’s younger sibling and the narrator of this story.

There are numerous reviews of The Dutch House available online; you don’t need any further specifics from me. I will say that I had some problems with the novel up until around  the half way point. There are several dramatic developments in the course of the narrative, completely unanticipated, by me at any rate..  (One of these, by the way, is given away prematurely in the jacket copy – beware.) Unfortunately, the narration of what happens in between these developments sometimes tested my patience. I was less than fascinated, for instance, by the minutiae of Danny’s college classes at Columbia, in New York City, where a good portion of the story takes place..

But once past a certain point, the narrative seemed to hurtle towards a conclusion that was at once highly anticipated and hard to predict. I do love it when that happens!

And, of course, this is Ann Patchett, supremely gifted writer and co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee.

Before I sign off, I wish to note that The Dutch House is currently Number Seven on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller List. I choose to view this as a hopeful sign.

For behind the mystery of their own exile is that of their mother’s: an absence more powerful than any presence they have known. Told with Ann Patchett’s inimitable blend of humour, rage and heartbreak, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale and story of a paradise lost; of the powerful bonds of place and time that magnetize and repel us for our whole lives.

Storysmith

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Mysteries piling up, due dates fast approaching…

October 20, 2019 at 4:59 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Having fallen hopelessly behind, I hereby offer some quick reviews of crime fiction I’ve recently borrowed and read.

  When I read The Poacher’s Son, the first entry in the Mike Bowditch series, I was immediately impressed by Paul Doiron’s storytelling savvy, rendered as it is in writing which is both elegant and precise.. These novels vividly evoke Maine in all its sylvan beauty:

Nearby a robin laughed maniacally. I caught a flash of red has he flew off through the bare trees. The hints of color were subtle in the spring woods: green buds of birches, purplish catkins of alders, maroon spathes of skunk cabbage emerging from holes in the snow they had melted with their own thermogenesis.

Some readers of crime fiction get impatient with descriptive passages like this, feeling that they impede the narrative’s momentum. I on the other hand am delighted to encounter such felicitous prose as this. Almost Midnight is the tenth Mike Bowditch novel. From what I can tell, these books are just getting  better and better.

Grade: A+
**********************
  I decided to read Force of Nature mainly because I was so impressed with Jane Harper‘s standalone novel The Lost Man. Force of Nature is the second novel to feature Federal Agent Aaron Falk; the first is entitled The Dry. I also read The Dry and enjoyed it, but not as much as The Lost Man. The latter took me into the deepest reaches of the Australian outback, a place that seems in equal measure forbidding and fascinating.

In Force of Nature, a company undertakes to send two teams – one comprised of just the women, the other, of their male counterparts –  into the Australian bush, with maps, basic supplies, and with luck, their own resourcefulness. Alas, for the women, this team building exercise turns into an utterly harrowing team destroying exercise instead.

Gripping and compelling, but just a bit too “talky” at the end  a flaw, by the way, which I encounter in numerous crime novels.

Grade: A-
***********************
  In a presentation on current trends in crime fiction, I spoke of the resurgence of the private eye in recent crime novels. One example of this trend is August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones. Having attained the status of reviled whistle blower in the Detroit Police Department, August has had to reinvent himself as a private eye. A case falls into his lap almost at once when Eleanor Paget, a wealthy businesswoman, prevails upon him to undertake an investigation on her behalf. She then dies suddenly before much can be gotten under way. Her death is supposedly a suicide, but August doesn’t believe it and sets out to discover the truth of the matter.

August Snow is the first entry in a projected series; the second, the poetically titled Lives Laid Away, came out this past January. August Snow is a dark novel; for my taste, the violence, minutely described, was at times over the top. On the other hand, the writing was excellent, characters were believable and sometimes sympathetic.  And somewhat to my surprise, I really enjoyed the description of Detroit, on the cusp of a comeback, with many interesting features that you have to seek out in order to fully appreciate (It reminds me of Baltimore, in that way.).

Grade: B+ 

For more information on this excellent magazine, click here.

 

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The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

October 16, 2019 at 9:54 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

   

This is a novel that begins with a desperate plea,then goes back in time to delineate the beginning of an innocuous, even hopeful undertaking, only to move forward with inexorable speed and mounting dread,  to culminate in…well, Reader, you’ll see.

The evocatively named Rowan Caine has taken a position as nanny to three small children who live with their parents in the remote Highlands of Scotland. The post has much to recommend it: the setting is beautiful, and Sandra, the children’s mother, is warm and welcoming. Best of all, it will provide Rowan with an  escape from London. The city’s crowded confusion had come to weight on her unpleasantly. (And was there something else weighing on her as well?)

Rowan is to be a live-in child minder; her room, on the top floor of the spacious dwelling, is cozy and inviting. But she’s no sooner moved in than her expectations are confounded, in ways large and small. First of all, she finds out that the Elincourts, husband and wife who are partners in an architecture firm, are leaving almost at once to attend an important conference. Rowan will basically be left to cope on her own in a strange establishment.

It quickly becomes apparent that two of the young daughters, Maddie and Ellie, are less than thrilled by Rowan’s presence on the scene. (The third, Petra, is barely a toddler and a fourth, teen-aged Rhiannon, is away at boarding school.) Maddie in particular is downright hostile. The more Rowan tries to win her over, the more malevolent she becomes. When her behavior turns suddenly congenial, that’s the time to be especially wary.

The Elincourt domicile may have a venerable – if somewhat sinister – history, but Sandra’s husband Bill has tricked it up with all the latest in technological gadgetry. There are times when the house itself seems determined to thwart Rowan’s efforts to keep the family ship on an even keel.

By now, you have probably become aware of a certain classic ghost story hovering in the background of this novel. For one thing, the title pretty much gives the game away: The Turn of the Key versus The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Despite this and other similarities, there are significant differences between these two novels.

James’s work features a housekeeper who is benign and sympathetic; the counterpart in Ware’s tale is contemptuous and spiteful. In The Turn of the Key, the parents are anxious and protective; in The Turn of the Screw, the young gentleman who hires the governess cares almost not at all for the niece and nephew whose custody he’s been saddled with. He desires the governess to take over their care and keep them out of harm’s way (and out of  his way as well). The Turn of the Key is narrated in the first person by Rowan herself, making the her situation feel all the more immediate and urgent to the reader. In contrast,  the governess in The Turn of the Screw is isolated by having her story told in the third person – and told by another, completely unrelated individual in what is referred to as ‘framing device.’

More could be said about this comparison but I’d rather not do so, at this juncture. Instead, I’d like to quote what I said about The Turn of the Screw in a post from 2013:

 I’ve listened to this recording (narrated by Flo Gibson) before, and I’ve read the book at least three times. I’ve seen “The Innocents,”  the terrific (in the literal sense of the word) 1961  film version starring Deborah Kerr. I’ve seen a film version (not sure which one)  of the opera by Benjamin Britten. All of this has taken place over the course of many years, decades actually.

So, as you can see, I’ve been trying for a long time to get to the bottom of it, to uncover the truth about what really happened at Bly – or at least, to decide once and for all what I believe happened.  From time to time, I feel the need to revisit The Turn of the Screw.You could say that this ghost story has haunted me for the better part of my life (and I know I’ve got plenty of company, in that regard).

Every time I revisit this maddening tale, I become aware of some new element. This time, the insistence on propriety and conventional appearance seems almost grating. When, for instance, it is learned that little Flora has gone out on her own, Mrs. Grose immediately exclaims, “Without a hat?” Flora, upon seeing the governess and Mrs Grose, is moved in her own turn to ask where their “things” are. The early emphasis on the sweetness and innocence of the children recalls Victorian sentimentality on the subject. Of course, this serves to heighten the contrast between the governess’s initial impression and her growing suspicions that the innocence of Miles and Flora has been fatally compromised by the forces of evil personified by the ghostly emanations of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.

Whenever I am once again immersed in The Turn of the Screw, I begin looking for interesting commentary. In an essay called “Edmund Wilson and The Turn of the Screw,” M. Slaughter paraphrases the critic Edmund Wilson as follows: “James’s personal and authorial blind spot was sex, and his inability to confront, perhaps even to understand, sexual feelings, was transformed into the ambiguity of the governess.” That’s a subject for an entire book in and of itself…

Having come to Paris in 1875, Henry James was spending a considerable amount of time in the company of the greatest French writers of the day, Zola, Flaubert, and de Maupassant among them. Here’s what Michael Gorra says about the latter: “Guy de Maupassant wrote hundreds of short stories, many of them so frank in their account of sexual life that few young persons in England would have been allowed to read them.” So yes, there must have been a fairly wide gap between what James knew, and what he was able to acknowledge knowing. And as for what he could write about, that gap was much wider. He shared that reserve regarding sex with virtually all American and British writers of the late Victorian era. Even so, his reticence strikes the contemporary reader as extreme. Ironically, this need to approach the subject by the most oblique of routes often adds to the power of his writing rather than diminishing it (at least, it seems so to me).

(I think it’s worth noting here that from 1930 to 1968, American films were restricted by the Hays Code  as to how frankly they could deal with the subject of sex. Those limitations prompted screenwriters to approach the subject obliquely, producing dialog that was both provocative, suggestive, and at times downright terrific. See the famous “How fast was I going, Officer” scene written by Raymond Chandler for the 1944 film Double Indemnity.)

Basically, I enjoyed The Turn of the Key in the way you’re supposed to enjoy a thriller: It kept me turning the pages while generating a fair amount of dread. There were a couple of things I didn’t love, though. For one thing, there was a  very liberal amount of profanity, most of it coming from Rowan herself. At times it seemed as though every other word she uttered was either s–t or f–k. That got old fast. And as for Rowan herself – well, at times I was well in her corner, but at other times, she appeared rather clueless. I wanted to cry out, Get your head together, Woman! But I guess that makes her more or less normal.

As for The Turn of the Screw, it remains among my all time favorite novels – frightening, bewildering,  brilliant.

 

 

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Big effort combined with big schlep culminates in a rewarding experience: Current Trends in Mystery Fiction

October 4, 2019 at 5:07 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

This was a program I presented to some members of The Village in Howard, a fine local organization (with a national affiliation) which I have the privilege to belong to.

I prefaced my remarks by saying that this was a subjective assessment – by me – of how things currently stand in the field of crime fiction. I had written this reminder at the top of my notes:

Enthusiasm does not equal Expertise!

Evidence of the Big Schlep:

Thank goodness for the capacious trunk of our beloved 2019 Camry XLE V6

Thus began the program, guided by this reading list:

The return of the private eye:

No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Dead Man’s Mistress by David Housewright
Only To Sleep by Lawrence Osborne
The Last Good Guy by T. Jefferson Parker
     Case Histories and Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
The Word Is Murder and The Sentence Is Death by Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz

Kate Atkinson

Domestic / psychological suspense:

You Will Know Me and Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross

Megan Abbott

Classic of the genre:

 A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey

Rediscoveries: three anthologies edited by Sarah Weinman:

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense
Women crime writers : four suspense novels of the 1940s:

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. More about this novel to come. Let me just say right now that I thought it was absolutey terrific!

Women crime writers : four suspense novels of the 1950s

Classic reissues and rediscoveries

Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics

The Case of the Careless Kitten (Perry Mason) by Erle Stanley Gardner

The D.A. Calls It Murder (Doug Selby) by Erle Stanley Gardner

British Library Crime Classics:

Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon
Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne
Capital Crimes: London Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Novels in which the crime has its basis in historical fact:

Snap by Belinda Bauer
What the Dead Know and Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman

Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller

Classic of the (sub)genre:

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
“The Mystery of Marie Roget” by Edgar Allan Poe

 Edge of your seat page-turner:

The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry
November Road by Lou Berney

International authors and settings:

Don’t Look Back, and He Who Fears the Wolf by Karin Fossum (Norway)
The Demon of Dakar and The Stone Coffin by Kjell Eriksson (Sweden)
The Department of Sensitive Cases by Alexander McCall Smith (Sweden)
The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon (Italy)
Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio (Italy)
Bruno Chief of Police by Martin Walker (France)
The Lost Man and The Dry by Jane Harper
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee (India)
The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (India)
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan (India). Be sure to watch the delightful video embedded in this post!

Alexander McCall Smith

Jane Harper

Louise Penny

Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny (Quebec)

 


Ah, Louise Penny, and her quaint little village of Three Pines filled with lovable eccentrics….At least, most of them are endearing. Elderly poet Ruth Zardo and her pet duck Rosa are anything but! Ruth spews profanity at every opportunity, and the villagers just grin and take it in stride. I, on the other hand, have a different reaction to her. But credit where it’s due: Several members of the group began praising this series as soon as I mentioned it. I personally blow hot and cold on this subject. I found A Beautiful Mystery, which many reader loved, impossibly inert. I couldn’t finish it. The series entry I like best is still Bury Your Dead, which brought Quebec City wonderfully to life.

USA

Maine: Paul Doiron
Vermont: Archer Mayor
Wyoming: Craig Johnson, C.J. Box
Minnesota: John Sandford, Vidar Sundstol, William Kent Krueger,
P.J. Tracy

Historical mysteries:

The Apothecary Rose by Candace Robb
A Famine of Horses by PF Chisholm
A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake
The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor
The Face of a Stranger and Sins of the Wolf by Anne Perry

Legal thrillers:

David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series (with Tara the Golden Retriever)

Police procedurals – authors and their protagonists:

Michael Connelly: Harry Bosch   (I Gotta Brag department: A slightly altered version of this article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Mystery Readers Journal.)
Archer Mayor: Joe Gunther   Mention of the  excellent Mr. Mayor gives me the chance to review several occasions on which my friends and I have encountered our favorite authors in the flesh! Marge has met numerous writers on her British Mystery Trip excursions, the writing team of Charles Todd, mother and  son, among them; Jean encountered Donna Leon in Florence – though at the time, Ms Leon failed to acknowledge her identity; I stood next to Archer Mayor at BWI Airport, meeting confirmed subsequently via email.

Archer Mayor

Meanwhile I’d like to congratulate Mr. Mayor on his thirtieth Joe Gunther novel, Bomber’s Moon. Rarely has a series maintained such consistent high quality as this one has.
Peter Robinson: Alan Banks
Val McDermid: Karen Pirie (Just reread Broken Ground for a book discussion and enjoyed it even more the second time around.)
Alexander McCall Smith: Inspector Varg
Jussi Adler-Olsen: Carl Mork, Department Q
Ann Cleeves: Vera Stanhope  I love this series, both the books and the television series.


Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad

Georges Simenon: Inspector Maigret

Regional/local:

Lady in the Lake and Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman

Comments in passing:

One person in the group – so sorry, I can’t recall just who – said that in the works of Donna Leon and Louise Penny, she found a certain philosophical bent – “almost existential.”

Jean recommended the mysteries of J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels. (These were originally written using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.) Her protagonist has  the memorable first name of Cormoran Strike. I read the first one, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and enjoyed it.

Jean also recommended – very highly –  The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware. This book has been getting great reviews. I impatiently await the arrival of my library reserve copy.

Someone recommended the novels of Charles Todd, commenting that the books had given her insight into what life was like for veterans of the First World War who were psychically damaged by the experience of serving in that horrendous conflict. Marge is also an enthusiastic reader of this author’s works.

There were other insightful questions and comments offered by the participants in this session. It made for a stimulating and enjoyable morning.

Rewarding indeed!

It’s about crime:

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, by Martin Edwards

Books To Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels, ed. By John Connolly and Declan Burke

The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, by Barry Forshaw

The Black Mask Boys: Masters of the Hard-Boiled School of Detective Fiction, by William F. Nolan (1985) From William Nolan’s introduction:

Black Mask, and the fiction it printed, grew directly out of the era between the two wars, when machine guns flashed fire from low-slung black limousines, when the corner speakeasy served rotgut gin, when swift rum-runners made night drops in dark coastal waters, when police and politicians were as corrupt as the gangsters they protected, when cons and crooks prowled New York alleys and lurked in trackside hobo jungles, when Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and Al Capone made daily headlines and terrorized a nation….

The elegant, deductive sleuth, the calm, calculating sifter of clues, gave way to a new breed–the wary, wisecracking knight of the .45, an often violent, always unpredictable urban vigilante fashioned in the rugged frontier tradition of the western gunfighter.

In the pages of Black Mask, the private eye was born.

www.stopyourekillingme.com,

The Crimereads Brief

Periodicals:

Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine – George Easter, editor
Mystery Scene Magazine
Mystery Readers Journal – Janet Rudolph, editor

We lovers of crime fiction owe a debt of gratitude to these three scholars of the field:

 

Martin Edwards

 

Sarah Weinman

 

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Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen – a Discussion with the AAUW Readers

September 19, 2019 at 9:15 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, History)

  Okay, I admit it – I’ve complained about book groups being burdensome and borderline irrelevant. I want to read what I want to read, when I want to read it! Thus have I cried out, the lament of a fanatical reader.

But I have to say, there are times when book groups more than justify their existence. In fact, they can be just plain great. I attended just such a discussion this morning.

First off, Jared Cohen’s Accidental Presidents was so filled with fascinating revelations that it was a joy to read. Cohen’s book covered eight presidents who assumed office upon a president’s death. Four of the fatalities were due to assassinations; the others were due to illness of the Chief Executive.

John Tyler survived  a catastrophic explosion aboard the warship USS Princeton. The young woman he was in love with was also on board, escorted by her father. Her mother had been withholding permission for her to marry him; however, after losing her husband, she relented, and they were soon wed. So: a poignant love story  emerged from a scene of horror. (Tyler became president upon the death of William Henry Harrison.)

One must, of course, relive the killing of Lincoln and the evils that resulted from Andrew Johnson’s ill disguised sympathy for the defeated Southerners.

I was saddened once again to read of the death of James A. Garfield, surely one of the most honorable, decent, and compassionate men ever to serve the public. He never even wanted to be president, yet chose this path when his party and his friends convinced him that he was needed. Anyone who is interested in what happened to Garfield needs to read The Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. I never thought a history book could break my heart, but that one did.

There was so much more: Millard Fillmore, who succeeded Zachary Taylor; Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded William McKinley; Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded Warren G. Harding: Harry Truman, who succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt; and finally, the great tragedy of our own era, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the pursuant struggles of Lyndon Johnson. Stories about each of these critical moments in U.S. history had me mesmerized.

Page after page of Accidental Presidents astonished me. I could not help wondering: Was I ever actually taught American history? Obviously not  in a meaningful way, or a way that stayed with me, or a way that awakened to me to the fact that this subject could be so riveting.

It was evident from the reactions of the participants in the discussion that they shared my enthusiasm for this book and its subject matter. The amount of knowledge brought to bear, the questions raised, the points brought to light, all made for an exceptionally stimulating session. Jean’s insights about the South, gleaned from her granddaughters’ experiences; Phyllis’s memories of growing up in Kentucky, Peggy’s perspective as a person of Korean heritage, Doris’s first hand knowledge of the workings of the Federal government – these and many more  contributions flowed freely. I sat there thinking, What an exceptional, and exceptionally impressive, group of women!

I felt deeply fortunate and grateful to be among them.

Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford. (Ford was not included in Jared Cohen’s book.)

 

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‘The night was no longer silent; she could hear the seven billion people who lived on this earth.’ – The Whisperer by Karin Fossum

September 16, 2019 at 7:33 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This was a tough one.

Tough to get through, I mean. The problem was not excessive violence or a byzantine plot. There was, in fact, very little violence – at least until the long-awaited crime actually takes place. And by that time, I was actually relieved. This is because the plot had been moving with all due sluggishness.  In fact, it often seemed not to be moving at all.

Instead, we were spending page after page delving into the mind of one Ragna Riegel, a middle aged woman who suffers from an unusual and poignant disability, brought about by a surgeon’s error. Ragna lives alone in the house she grew up in. She has a day job in a retail establishment called Europris. It’s nothing special, but it pays the bills and provides her with a modicum of human contact.

Ragna Riegel dwells in an almost painful obscurity. The one bright light in her life is her son, but he has gone to live and work in Berlin and her contact with him is very sporadic.

We’re delivered from an almost relentless introspection by excerpts of Ragna’s lengthy interviews with Inspector Sejer. Sejer is the continuing character in Fossum’s series. He’s appealing and conscientious, if somewhat low key; his dog Frank, a small but portly Shar Pei, provides the sole comic relief in this downbeat narrative.

I’ve read seven or eight books in this series. Obviously I liked  them, or I wouldn’t have kept coming back for more. But I must admit, I found The Whisperer challenging.   Jake Kerridge, who reviews  crime fiction for Britain’s Telegraph, wrote an article several years ago with the rather piquant title, “Efficient Mystery with Light Emotional Wallowing.” In it, he opined that “The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die…” This novel partakes of that melancholy world view.

One of the reasons I stick with Inspector Sejer is that these books invariably contain some striking passages of prose. They’re not necessarily spectacular, but in their quiet way they make you stop and think.

She looked up at  the black sky over the town. They all believed that it stretched on for eternity, whereas in reality, the atmosphere was as thin as a bride’s veil and the sky stopped just beyond the tallest skyscraper, or after twenty minutes in a rocket, Twenty minutes, she thought, and then nothing. Beyond was just dark and cold, and beneath the veil, tiny people lived inside a glass cloche.

(One must of course credit the seemingly meticulous translation from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson.)

Do I recommend The Whisperer? Yes, but cautiously. The ponderousness of the plot could understandably defeat some readers. Yet in some ways, it’s a  rather profound work. And there does emerge, toward the end, a small ray of hope for redemption, for Ragna and her constricted world.

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O Baltimore! Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

August 30, 2019 at 1:15 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I had fun reading this novel, mainly due to all the references to sixties era Baltimore, and especially to its Jewish population. Several Yiddish expressions appear in the text: shidduch (matchmaking – see Fiddler on the Roof) and shanda (a shame or a scandal) are examples. Mention is made of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, which in the time frame of the novel was getting ready to move out of the city to a new building in Baltimore County. The Gilbert branch of my family have been members of this congregation for many years.

Here’s the building:

The distinctive shape of this edifice has been likened to that of a certain marine mammal “(very like a whale,” as Hamlet would have said). This makes me think of my Uncle Hal, of blessed memory, who frequently referred to Chizuk Amuno “a whale of a schul.” (‘Schul’ or ‘shul’ denotes a synagogue, or any Jewish place of worship. Yiddish is written using the Hebrew alphabet. For more on the language, click here.)

Numerous other Baltimore streets and place names appear in this novel. One of the more curious street names is Auchentoroly Terrace. According to  the Baltimore Sun:

The word derives from an old estate, Auchentorlie, that once stood nearby. The name has a Scottish origin and refers to a flower similar to heather.

There are two Baltimore places that figure importantly in this narrative: the lake in Druid Hill Park and Cylburn Arboretum. They are directly involved in the two fatalities that are crucial to The Lady in the Lake. 

The William Wallace monument in Druid Hill Park [Click to enlarge]

There’s a nice page devoted to this park on the Park School website. This distinguished Baltimore private school also figures in Lady in the Lake.

Cylburn Arboretum [Click to enlarge]

Both of the fatalities referenced  above were inspired by actual crimes.  Lippman has used this device before, most effectively in her award winning novel from 2008, What the Dead Know.

(To read an article about the actual crimes that inform Lady in the Lake, click here.)

With regard to the plots of her novels, Lippman insists on the difference between ‘based on’ as opposed to ‘inspired by.’ She clarifies the distinction in this video:

In Lady in the Lake, Laura Lippman weaves an intriguing tale. Early on, Madeline Schwartz, the main character who’s in search of gainful employment, becomes a newspaper reporter. This is a world that Lippman knows well and she portrays it in a convincing and entertaining manner. However, I have to say that the way in which she’s chosen to structure her narrative made for a challenging reading experience. In particular, in the earlier sections, there’s a frequent switching out of first person narrators that, at least for this reader, seriously impeded the flow of the story. Some of these narrators were of only tangential importance to the tale being told. Why did we have to hear from them? I got impatient with this technique, and was relieved that as I turned the pages, these interruptions became less frequent and the narrative became more tightly focused.

At one point, Madeline – pretty much always called ‘Maddie’ – inveigles her way into the morgue in order to see the body of one of the victims. It is, predictably, a harrowing experience.

Nature was vicious. When Marilyn Monroe had died four years ago, people had said she was undone by her age, her fading looks, that she wanted to leave a  beautiful corpse. No one leaves a beautiful corpse.

I had a strange and startling experience myself while reading this novel. At one point, in the course of her independent investigation, Maddie visits a medium with a bad cold. She thinks to herself, ‘Madame Claire has a cold’ and is immediately pleased at her ability to come with this allusion to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” At the same time, she’s frustrated because she cannot come up with the name of the clairvoyant in Eliot’s poem.

I have not sat down and read all the way through that poem in a very long time. But as soon as I read  the above passage, I whispered softly, ‘Madame Sosotris? No, Madame Sosostris.’ I quickly verified this via google. The second guess was exactly right. I had no idea that  this obscure bit of knowledge resided still in my memory, from all those years – decades- ago, when I took a graduate school seminar in the works of T.S. Eliot at Georgetown University, taught precisely and perceptively by Father Bishoff.

I don’t want to conclude without mentioning that Laura Lippman has dedicated Lady in the Lake to the memory of five of her fellow journalists at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, who were gunned down in a mass shooting on June 28, 2018:

Rob Hiassen
Gerald Fischman
John McNamara
Rebecca Smith
Wendi Winters

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Killing with Confetti by Peter Lovesey

August 18, 2019 at 12:35 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

To begin with, this title required some patience on my part. Peter Diamond doesn’t appear until page 77. I wasn’t sure I was all that fascinated by what was going on while I awaited his entrance into the narrative.

Well – O ye of little faith! The story took off like a race horse. And I was so glad once again to be among the usual cast of characters. Peter’s team consists of Keith Halliwell, his second in command, Ingeborg Smith,  and John Leaman. All three are distinct individuals with a wide array of skills; in addition, they are excellent investigators. Other officers are available for support and assistance. I enjoy spending time with all of them.

Peter occasionally locks horns with his immediate superior, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore. For her part, ACC Dallymore has a way of toadying in the presence of Deputy Chief Constable George Brace, her own superior, that is positively revolting!  DCC Brace’s son is in the midst of planning his wedding, and there are issues with this event, to put it mildly. Unfortunately for Peter, DCC Dallymore has volunteered him for chief of security in regard to the upcoming nuptials. It’s an assignmemt that he’d do anything to avoid, but alas, there’s no way out.

As usual, this latest Peter Diamond outing is a mix of humor and suspense. And Lovesey takes full advantage of the wonderful setting of Bath. This time, the action centers on Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths.

Bath Abbey

Roman Baths

Peter Lovesey is surely one of the wittiest, most adept, most literary practitioners of crime fiction writing today. He’s had a long and deservedly successful run; I am already looking forward to the next Peter Diamond adventure!

Peter Lovesey

 

 

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