It’s been a while since I read Martin Walker’s The Children Return, but I remember how much I enjoyed it. As with Until Thy Wrath Be Past as well as several titles from Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series, the shadow of the Second World War hangs over this narrative. In addition, we get caught up on Bruno Courrege’s ever-changing love life as well as updates on the progress of Balzac, his basset hound puppy who’s a truffle dog in training.
But most of all, you get a rich helping of life in (fictional) St Denis, in the (real – very real!) Perigord region of southwestern France: its people, cuisine, wine making traditions, and beautiful unspoiled surroundings. In this passage, Bruno brings Nancy, his new American friend, to a ‘fete des vendanges,’ or grape harvest festival:
He felt the strange sensation stealing over him of time slipping, of the modern France of high-speed trains and computers giving way to a scene that was medieval or perhaps even older. The setting of stone and fire and meat roasting over open flames could have taken place in this valley in the days when men carried swords and wore chain mail and kept guard against English raiders, or millennia ago when they wore furs and painted prehistoric beasts on the walls of caves.
Every time I read a title in this series, I start googling tours of the Dordogne region. Martin Walker has a place there, where he spends part of every year – lucky, lucky man.
The next entry in the series, The Patriarch (published in the UK as The Dying Season), is already ensconced on my night table.
I’ll begin with Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson. Wrath was the final selection discussed by the Usual Suspects in this, our international year. Having done plenty of substantive research, my friend Marge led a stimulating discussion of this complex, haunting work. Wrath was voted the “best read” of the year by the Suspects.
When an attractive young couple goes missing, the hunt is on. Although the whereabouts of Simon Kyro and Wilma Persson is a mystery, it’s suspected that they are drowning victims. When the body of Wilma is discovered, the investigation is kicked into high gear. Strangely, we have already encountered Wilma in another dimension, as it were (or, as I like to think, Rod Serling of blessed memory would have phrased it).
Key roles in this story are played by members of the Krekula family: parents Isak and Kerttu and their sons Hjalmar and Tore. Kerttu and Isak in particular are fighting to hold on to secrets that date back to the years of World War Two. Should the truth of their activities at that time come to light, they would at the very least be vilified, possibly even prosecuted.
The lead characters on the side of law enforcement are Rebecka Martinsson, a lawyer, and Detective Anna-Maria Mella. Both are complex and interesting women. At one point, Anna-Maria travels alone to the Krekula house in the hopes of gathering some useful information. Instead, Tore and Hjalmar play several dirty tricks on her, one involving the safety of her daughter. This astonishing scenario is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in a police procedural. Those Krekulas, brutal and fearless and utterly repugnant, are a piece of work!
I did have a few issues with this novel. For one thing, the narrative is punctuated by flashbacks that on occasion I found confusing. Also I became impatient with the lengthy passages in italics. The book may have been longer than it needed to be. But these are minor cavils.
I especially liked the way in which Asa Larsson evokes the atmosphere of rural Sweden – particularly of Kiruna, the country’s northernmost town:
This region, one of Western Europe’s last wildernesses, represents for Swedes what Glenn Gould, in a Canadian context, called “The Idea of North.” Though Kiruna itself is a modern town, with an economy based on iron-ore mining and tourism, its population is small—22,972 in the 2012 census—and the mountains and forests, bordering on Norway to the West and North and Finland to the East, are sparsely populated. In Steven Peacock’s words, north of Kiruna, “there is only roadless, uninhabited land. To the East, boreal forests stretch for hundreds of miles into Finland and Russia” (125). In Until Thy Wrath Be Past, Larsson fully exploits not only the isolation and harsh winters of this region, but its liminality, in a literal and metaphoric sense.
….animals in the novel—reindeer, elk, fox, and above all bear, dogs, and ravens—are important to atmosphere, plot, character development, and symbolism and interact with the human characters.
(The above passage is from an article entitled “Till My Change Come: Nature, Justice, and Redemption in Asa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past.” It appears in a journal called Scandinavian-Canadian Studies. This is an excellent source that you might like to check out; it has other articles on Scandinavian crime fiction. They appear to be erudite yet at the same time quite readable.)
Asa Larsson’s writing is wonderful (and so, by implication is the translation, done by Laurie Thompson.) In the midst of all the turmoil, the tenderer human feelings are not ignored. Here she recounts an exchange between Rebecka and Krister Eriksson, a grievously injured man with a heart of gold:
“Hi,” he says before she has a chance to say anything.
It is such a tender-sounding “hi.” It sounds happy over the fact that she has called him, and ever so intimate. It sounds like a “hi” the second before a man slides his hand under his lover’s hair and around the back of her head.
Are they falling in love? Could be. Krister is the police department’s canine handler; through him, we get to know some noble, courageous, and lovable dogs.
Until The Wrath Be Past, which came out here in 2011, is the fourth novel featuring Rebecka Martinsson. The Second Deadly Sin, the fifth and final novel in the series, came out last year.
Highly, highly recommended.
For this, our year of (mostly) international reading, these are the titles we selected:
Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (primarily Egypt)
A Not So Perfect Crime by Teresa Solana (Barcelona)
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Tokyo)
The Bachelors of Broken Hill by Arthur Upfield (Australia)
The Youth Hostel Murders by Glyn Carr (Cumbria, England)
Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio (Southern Italy)
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano (France)
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (Istanbul)
A Possibility of Violence by D.A. Mishani (Israel)
Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson (Sweden)
(I did not read the Solana title, being immersed at the time in work on the true crime course.)
Each year we vote on our favorite discussion book. This year’s winner was Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Nothing surprising about that choice: this was a terrific read that elicited a very enjoyable discussion (ably facilitated by Marge). Tied for second place were The Devotion of Suspect X and The Bachelors of Broken Hill. (For me personally, first place was a tie between Until Thy Wrath Be Past and A Possibility of Violence; for second place, also a tie, I’d vote with the group.)
As usual, Pauline prepared helpful handouts for us. These included a grid displaying information about each of the year’s selections (awards received and any other relevant facts) and a list of general questions for discussion. Some of these questions elicited an exceptionally spirited response; others, not so much.
1. Has the decision to read international mysteries been worthwhile? This was answered in the affirmative, albeit to a different degree by each person present.
2. Do you think you’d be interested in participating in another themed year at some time in the future? This question was followed by a list of suggestions that was sufficiently varied and provocative that we agreed, albeit cautiously, that another “theme” year might be worth trying.
Here are those suggestions:
i. books that won an award– Edgar, Dagger, many others (I believe we agreed that award winners, arbitrary and even capricious as they can be, would be a poor basis for choosing a title. In addition, Carol pointed out that on occasion, these awards can and do devolve into popularity contests, in which the perky and ingratiating winner gets to bound up to the podium at a mystery convention and proceed to be irresistible for the benefit of fans and colleagues.)
ii. books by an author who is new to you,
iii. books made into a movie,
iv. books recommended by a friend,
v. first books in a series,
vi. books from a “best mysteries” list,
vii. books by a long-time favorite author,
viii. books that are a specific type of mystery, e.g. historical, police procedural, amateur detective, espionage, others,
ix. books with a specific setting, e.g. Africa, China, Maryland/Virginia/DC, New York City, etc.,
x. books written or published during a certain time period, e.g., Golden Age (c. 1920-1940), or a particular decade such as the 1950’s or 1980’s. (Carol’s question). Ann mentioned three series protagonists who were young women making their way in the aftermath of the First World War: Bess Crawford (written by Charles Todd), Maisie Dobbs (written by Jacqueline Winspear), and Kate Shackleton (written by Frances Brody). All, I believe, are well regarded.
3. There haven’t been any nonfiction books this year. Have you missed reading nonfiction? Of course, Yours Truly waved her hand wildly and said yes loudly. Others did not exactly chime in! But to be fair, Midnight in Peking – an Edgar winner, BTW – and The Poisoner’s Handbook both came in for favorable mention. I brought up The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. In that work, author Kate Summerscale, structured an entire society around a single – and singularly heinous – crime. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were both intrigued by the mystery. Elements of it appear in Lady Audley’s Secret, which I read as a result of encountering it in this book and enjoyed immensely.
4. We have read mysteries set in Cumbria and London in England, England/Egypt in Death on the Nile, Spain, Italy, France, Japan, Australia, Italy, France, Turkey (Ottoman Empire), Israel, and Sweden— on the continents of Europe, Asia, and Australia. Is there a country or continent we should try to read about in the future? Or doesn’t it matter? I think we agreed that it didn’t much matter.
5. Which authors would you read again? Asa Larsson and D.A. Mishani were mentioned with special enthusiasm.
6. Did any of the protagonists stand out as being particularly memorable? Which ones did you like? Dislike? Were there any differences in the range of protagonists this year? Anyone really unusual? D.A. Mishani’s Avraham Avraham and Arthur Upfield’s “Bony” Bonaparte were mentioned in this context.
7. The breakdown of periods for our ten 2015 books is: Historic: 5—1836, 1937, 1940s, and 2 Mid-20th century, Contemporary: 5. We had a 50% division between historic and contemporary. Would you have preferred to read more (or less) about any particular era? I didn’t get a chance to bring this up, but it seems to me that a fair number of crime fiction novels are currently being set in the nineteenth century. Several have received excellent reviews, among them The Fatal Flame by Lindsay Faye, Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell (I very much enjoyed the predecessor of this title, Murder as a Fine Art.), Home by Nightfall by Charles Finch, and Doctor Death by Lene Kaaberbøl.
8. Regarding the international titles we read this year, how important was the work of the translator? Did any titles stand out as being particularly good or particularly inadequate translations? Or is it possible to tell if you don’t know the original language? (Roberta’s question) I believe it was Pauline who observed that when a translation is well done, it does not draw attention to itself, whereas the opposite is true of a poor translation.
9. This year there have only been 3 female writers out of 10. Should we try harder to diversify, or doesn’t it matter? We agreed that it just turned out that way, and moved on.
10. When we read a book that was not the first one in a series did it affect our understanding or enjoyment of the story? These books are Death on the Nile, The Bachelors of Broken Hill, The Youth Hostel Murders, Temporary Perfections, A Possibility of Violence, Until Thy Wrath Be Past. We agreed that for books that were part of a continuing series, the author almost always fills in the new reader with facts he or she needs to know. This is usually done in a fairly unobtrusive manner. Jumping in in the middle of a series is not ordinarily a bar to enjoyment of the novel.
11. Please comment on any of the writing styles of the various authors that you wish to. (Frank’s question) I think we felt that we’d already addressed this subject when we talked about translations.
For this meeting, we were each asked to bring one or two books to recommend to the group. Here’s how that portion of the afternoon went. (Thanks to Pauline for this list.):
Mike: A Necessary End by Peter Robinson. Series with DCI Alan Banks. Marge and I couldn’t help thinking how long it had been since we first read this book, the third in a by now venerable series. Mike made us want to read it again – at least, that’s how I felt.
1. Blood Royal by Eric Jager. Murder in medieval France. nonfiction. Also recommended by same author:The Last Duel, nonfiction, medieval France. The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse: an Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception and Intrigue by Piu Marie Eatwell, nonfiction.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson, nonfiction. Jar City by Arnaldur Indridasan, Icelandic mystery, 1st in series. There’s a film based on the book, but it may be hard to find.
Philip Kerr’s 30s mystery series. The 1st 3 are a trilogy called Berlin Noir with detective Bernie Gunther fighting crime and trying to stay away from the Nazi power structure. Very gritty and good. Latest in series is The Lady from Zagreb.
Somehow, I don’t feel as though this write-up conveys the liveliness and conviviality of this discussion. So you’ll just have to take my word for it. Thanks to Pauline for facilitating these proceedings.
Next year is already shaping up nicely. This January we’re reading Beast in View, Margaret Millar’s Edgar Award winner (1952). Some years ago I read An Air That Kills by this author and very much enjoyed it. Millar was married to Ross MacDonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar.
Just when you start feeling desperate for intellectual stimulation, along comes a session like this, to serve as a reminder that the life of the mind is still, in some circles at least, of vital importance. Oh and by the way, there’s nothing stodgy about these gatherings – we had our share of laughter. My fellow Suspects are witty as well as brainy; it’s a great pleasure to spend time with them.
I’m a big fan of Barry Maitland’s Brock and Kolla mysteries. They’re set in London and are characterized by a nice feel for the great metropolis. Maitland currently lives in Australia, the setting for his newly begun Harry Belltree series. I usually feel somewhat frustrated when an author abandons a series I enjoy in order to start a new one. However, Crucifixion Creek has gotten very good reviews, and I do admire Barry Maitland’s writing, so I thought I’d give this one a try.
For starters, I’d call this novel a thriller rather than a mystery. The action is pretty nonstop – so nonstop that at times, I had trouble deciphering the plot. A biker gang figures prominently. They’re called the Crows; hence this cover: The writing is excellent, as I knew it would be. But I was hoping for more of an Australian ambiance.
Harry Belltree is an interesting detective, one who is not afraid to bend the rules to suit his own purposes. Oh, and here’s a strange thing: He’s the second fictional policeman I’ve encountered in recent years whose wife was blinded in an accident. The first is Reginald Webster, a member of George Hennessey’s team in the Peter Turnbull series.
When I finished Crucifixion Creek, I had a feeling somewhat like you get when you’ve eaten an entire bag of potato chips (not that I’ve done that lately, more’s the pity): overstuffed but undernourished. I hope we haven’t seen the last of David Brock and Kathy Kolla.
Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther series is one that I turn to when I’m in the mood for good, solid crime fiction. Not only are the plots interesting, if somewhat convoluted at times, but the characters are three dimensional people that you care about – that even includes, at times, the “bad guys.” Mayor has created an ensemble cast for the (fictional) Vermont Bureau of Investigation that’s the last word in realism. It includes not only Gunther himself, the consummate law enforcement professional, but also the irascible misanthrope Willy Kunkle. Willy has surprised everyone by falling in love with fellow officer Samantha “Sammy” Martens. They are now married and have an infant daughter. She’s naturally the apple of Willy’s eye. He’s softened a bit as a result – but not too much.
In this series, Vermont is a state of mind as well as a place with its own unique character. Like his creator, Joe Gunther could come from nowhere else:
His rural heritage– truly springing from the soil of this unusual, hard-working little state–had given him not jut an identity, but a sense of moral sturdiness that had served him well through the decades.
Archer Mayor’s intimate knowledge of law enforcement in Vermont is no accident. The jacket copy informs us that he’s “…a detective for the Windham County sheriff’s department, a death investigator, and the state medical examiner, and he has twenty-five years of experience as a firefighter/EMT.”
The Company She Kept is the twenty-sixth novel in this series. Like its predecessors, it was a pleasure to read.
Not really, but that opener was simply my effort to convey the bleakness that suffuses this brief heart breaker of a novel. A small boy has met with a death by drowning; that much is known from the outset. But was it an accident – or something else… Carmen Zita, the victim’s mother, is hard to read; she is alternately flighty, self-obsessed, and desperate. The father can barely speak; he is consumed by grief.
Once again, Inspector Sejer and his second in command Jacob Skarre are on the case. They are called upon to be both sensitive and probing, in their efforts to reach the truth of the matter. It will take some hard digging, combined with a maximum exercise of tact. Among the facts that had to be taken into account: little Tommy had Down Syndrome.
I enjoy spending time with Konrad Sejer and Jacob Skarre. Their conversations are invariably interesting, whether they’re discussing an investigation or something else. At one point, Sejer questions his fellow officer, a church goer, on the subject of his religious belief. He observes that the cruel death by drowning of a toddler makes it hard for him to believe in the benevolence of a Supreme Being:
“And according to your faith, everything has a meaning; isn’t that right? That’s what I’ve always struggled to understand”
“Yes, it’s not easy, I have to admit. And to be honest, I sometimes falter too. But doubt is an important part of faith; that’s all there is to it. And unlike you, I at least have somewhere to go with my complaints. Others flail around without focus, but I couldn’t take that. I need a wailing wall.”
(I very much empathize with that last bit.)
I am a committed reader of Karin Fossum’s crime fiction. Her insights into human nature are eloquently expressed and her plots are rarely too convoluted to comprehended. Her writing s beautiful, and kudos are merited for the translations, this one by Kari Dickson (from the Norwegian).
Although witches had been accused and executed prior to 1692, it was in that year that the accusations and executions reached a fever pitch. Twenty people were convicted of practicing witchcraft and put to death for it – nineteen by hanging and one, Giles Corey – by being “pressed to death.” Because he refused to enter plea, this is what was done to him:
As a result of his refusal to plead, on September 17, Sheriff George Corwin led Corey to a pit in the open field beside the jail and in accordance with the above process, before the Court and witnesses, stripped Giles of his clothing, laid him on the ground in the pit, and placed boards on his chest. Six men then lifted heavy stones, placing them one by one, on his stomach and chest. Giles Corey did not cry out, let alone make a plea.
After two days, Giles was asked three times to plead innocent or guilty to witchcraft. Each time he replied, “More weight.” More and more rocks were piled on him, and the Sheriff from time to time would stand on the boulders staring down at Corey’s bulging eyes. Robert Calef, who was a witness along with other townsfolk, later said, “In the pressing, Giles Corey’s tongue was pressed out of his mouth; the Sheriff, with his cane, forced it in again.”
Three mouthfuls of bread and water were fed to the old man during his many hours of pain. Finally, Giles Corey cried out “More weight!” and died. Supposedly, just before his death, he cursed Sheriff Corwin and the entire town of Salem.
from the Wikipedia entry
At the time that this extraordinarily cruel procedure was carried out upon him, the resolutely brave Giles Corey was eighty-one years old. (Sheriff George Corwin, by the by, was a major beneficiary of the Salem witch hunt, as he eagerly confiscated the property of the condemned souls and parceled out the booty to his confederates and to his own bulging coffers.)
The devil was loose, all right. But the sanctimonious judges, in thrall to a group of shrieking, convulsing girls, had, it would seem, gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick.
The death of seventy-one-year-old Rebecca Nurse was similarly appalling. A blameless woman of exemplary character and piety, she was very nearly acquitted. But one of the judges – William Stoughton, I believe, a man with much to answer for – gave the jury a pointed warning, and they ended by convicting her, probably because they were afraid not to. She, along with eighteen others, was hanged in 1692, a year in which the devil enjoyed an exceptionally rich harvest of souls in Salem Town, Salem Village, and nearby Andover.
As Schiff describes them, the Puritans of New England were almost fated to experience this dire (as perceived by them) onslaught of malevolence:
The Puritan was wary and watchful. His faith kept him off balance and on guard. And if you intended to live in a state of nerve-racking insecurity, in expectation of ambush and meteorological rebuke–on the watch for every brand of intruder, from the “ravening wolves of heresy” to the “wild boars of tyranny,” as a 1694 narrative had it–seventeenth century Massachusetts, that rude and howling wilderness, was the place for you.
(You’ll note the exclusive use of the male pronoun in this passage. Women were ostensibly powerless, able neither to vote nor to serve on juries. However, as is often the case in such situations, they found other ways to exert their influence.)
And what of the accusers? They were for the most part in late adolescence, though Elizabeth “Betty” Parris and her cousin Abigail Williams were ten or eleven at the time, and Mary Warren may have attained the age of twenty. The core group was composed of eight girls. In the course of their testimony before the Court of Oyer and Terminer, they came up with some remarkable scenarios: spectral evidence; witches perched in the rafters; diabolical convocations in moonlit meadows; bites in the flesh of a number of the girls, the wounds supposedly inflicted by the accused witches; and much more. But perhaps most astonishing of all was the credence of the judges. That, and an almost incomprehensible laxity in the judicial proceedings, virtually assured the disaster that was to follow:
Hathorne [Judge John Hathorne] never asked saucy Abigail Hobbs to produce the finery the devil had promised. Nor did he quarantine the girls or interview them separately,, as every legal manual advised. He made no attempt to match teeth marks to dentistry, which would have yielded some surprising results, one of the accused having, noted a contemporary, “not a tooth in his head wherewith to bite.”
To get at what motivated these young women, it helps to have some idea what their lives were like. Schiff has synthesized this description of the ideal Puritan young woman from the writings of a number of contemporary clergymen:
She was a sterling amalgam of modesty, piety, and tireless industry. She spoke neither too soon nor too much. She read her Scripture twice daily. Her father was her prince and judge; his authority was understood to be absolute. She deferred to him as she would to the man she would marry, in her early twenties.
Sound like any teen-age girls you know – or have ever known? It seems likely that they were desperate for an outlet – any outlet – and this, unfortunately, was what they came up with. Some of their inventions, ironically, probably emanated from the world view that the adults around them had helped to create. This was especially true of the household of Samuel Parris, where the trouble began:
The talk around Betty and Abigail was fraught, angry, apocalyptic. The house was cold and growing colder. Disaffected churchmen thumped heavily in and out of the parsonage to air powerful resentments.Betty and Abigail had no escape from those furies in early 1692, the dark, bleak, and confined months when death felt closer, when witchcraft accusations tended to peak. It helped that the girls occupied the kind of small, sealed-off place that makes good theater (and good detective fiction); witchcraft charges less often emanated from urban addresses. In an isolate community, in a tightly would household, the people who observed and conceivably caused the girls’ distress were the only ones to whom they could appeal.
Schiff concludes: “Whether precipitated by a visit from Sarah Good, a message from the pulpit, or an interior anguish, something disabled them.” Add to all this the severe New England winter, with its extreme cold, fierce storms and impenetrable dark, plus the threat of Indian attacks, and it becomes clear that the pressure must have been well nigh unbearable.
Stacy Schiff’s tone throughout this book is an interesting mixture of compassion and irreverence. One reviewer called it “glib.” I can see where some readers might be disconcerted by it, but I personally was grateful. An opportunity to smile, however short-lived, provided relief from the almost unrelenting horror of this narrative. When I told a friend that I was reading this book, she said she was not planning to do so because she feared it would be too disturbing. It is disturbing, all right. It is also enraging and frightening. One thing it isn’t, is dull. The Witches tells a fascinating and very complex story, replete with a large cast of characters. (A list of these characters at the front of the book is extremely helpful, especially since there’s an inordinate number of females named Mary, Sarah, Abigail, or Ann; also quite a few mothers and daughters with the same first names.)
As I was reading Schiff’s book, the works of two other writers kept coming to mind: Arthur Miller and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In The Crucible, Miller meant the witchcraft trials to serve as a metaphor for the House Un-American Activities Committee‘s efforts to find and root out Communist subversion. But the subject matter and Miller’s treatment of it were so compelling that the play now stands on its own merits as a powerful record of a terrible time in our history.
When I read The Crucible in my student days, I remember being filled with wonder and dread. I haven’t revisited that famed drama for many years, though now I think I’d like to. Hawthorne, on the other hand, I have long loved. I return to the stories again and again. Unlike Arthur Miller, Hawthorne dealt with the long shadow of Salem indirectly and obliquely. His stories are infused with the supernatural aura of a world that is not quite real, in which good but naive souls are menaced by an unseen, unnamed evil. Among my favorites are “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”
Born in Salem in 1804, Hawthorne was a direct descendant of John Hathorne, one of the judges in the witchcraft trials. He added the ‘w’ to his last name on purpose to obscure the kinship. (I, on the other hand, have felt a sort of kinship with this author, having visited his home in Concord, Mass. on several occasions.)
Stacey Schiff appeared – in costume, no less! – on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to talk about The Witches:
Here she is again on CBS This Morning:
I found two documentaries on the witchcraft trials on YouTube. I haven’t had a chance to watch either of them and so cannot attest to their quality. One was shown on the History Channel; the other, on the Geographic Channel.
Finally, here is the trailer for the 1996 movie version of The Crucible, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder, and Joan Allen.
I’ve not seen this film, but from the above I gather that heavy emphasis is placed on the supposed illicit love shared by John Proctor and Abigail Williams. To my knowledge, this relationship was Miller’s invention. There is no intimation of it in the historical record. But then, as Stacy Schiff would be the first to tell you, there has got to be plenty that never made it into that record.
Throughout my reading of Gods of the Morning, I’ve been astonished over and over again by Lister-Kaye’s gorgeous descriptions:
Like molten gold from a crucible, the first touch of sun spilled in from the east, from the glistening horizon of the Moray Firth, so bright that I couldn’t look at it, flooding its winter fire up the river, right past me and on up the valley. The river trailed below me, like a silk pashmina thrown down by an untidy teenager. Strands of mist over the water were fired with yellow flame, as though part of some mysterious ritual immolation. The new-born light raked the steep glen sides, floodlighting every rocky prominence and daubing deep craters of black shadow so that the familiar shape of the land vanished before my eyes. I was in a wonderland, strange to me and a little unnerving. The dogs sat uncharacteristically silent at my feet, noses lifting to test the air, but stilled as though they, too, could sense the moment.
And yet, even in the midst of all this beauty, there appear certain disturbing vignettes. One concerns an almost sacrilegious act committed by Lister-Kaye when he was eleven years old.
His grandfather had shown him the customary roosting place of a tawny owl in a yew tree on the family property. Earlier that year, young John had been gifted with an air rifle:
It was the most exciting birthday gift I had ever received. In the short space of a birthday afternoon I became Davy Crockett, Kit Carson and the Lone Ranger all rolled into one ill-disciplined puberulous youth bursting to tangle with danger and adventure.
You can probably guess what happened next:
The head-hanging truth that still torments my soul is that when no one was looking I crept out and shot that owl. For a moment it seemed not to move; then it tipped forward and fell like a rag at my feet. I picked it up, hot and floppy in my hands. Its cinnamon and cream mottled plumage was as soft and silky as Angora fleece. One owl, one boy, one gun. Two burst hearts, one with lead, the other with guilt. I had never held a tawny owl before and its lifeless beauty hit me in a withering avalanche of instantaneous remorse and shame. I have never forgotten it and never forgiven myself. To this day I ask myself why I did it.
The very definition of remorse.
Several works came to mind when I read this passage. Foremost among them, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bowI shot the ALBATROSS.……………………………………And I had done a hellish thing,And it would work ’em woe:For all averred, I had killed the birdThat made the breeze to blow.Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,That made the breeze to blow!
Surely there is no more dramatic and meaningful moment in life than when you realize that an action you’ve taken – whatever the reason – is profoundly, morally wrong. Almost always that action is an irreparable transgression, against God, nature, or one’s fellow human beings. Sometimes that action involves the taking of a life. In a chapter in A Sand County Almanac entitled “Thinking Like a Mountain,” the great conservationist Aldo Leopold recounts such a moment in his own life:
We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
John Lister-Kaye’s sense of wonder at the nesting and migratory habits of birds – indeed, at their very existence – shines throughout in Gods of the Morning.
A willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus – the cascading leaf-watcher) is an unexceptional little bird, often our first summer migrant, an arrival announced by the male birds rendering a rippling, descending peal of pure notes tinged with mild complaint, but as pretty as a summer waterfall. It’s a refrain that rings through the spring woods, repeating over and over again, lifting to a brief, pleading crescendo, then slowing as it falls and, diminuendo, fades away at the end. It seems to be calling out, ‘Now that I’ve arrived, what am I going to do?’
Like the blackcap, it resides in that large family of typical warblers that come and go every summer without any fuss, unnoticed except by ornithologs like me and a few thousand binocular-toting others to whom these tiny creatures assume an importance far greater than their size. If they’ve heard of a willow warbler at all, the vast generality of people don’t know that it has just completed a global marathon, back from wintering in southern Africa, a migration of three thousand miles of skimming arid plains, dodging desert sandstorms and leap-frogging seas and mountains, and they probably wouldn’t care much either. ‘All little brown birds are the same to me,’ I’m told, over and over again. But not to me: for me they all carry meaning and I thirst to know more. Sylviidae, the family.
I’m here to tell you, it takes a rapturous devotion like Lister-Kaye’s to keep all this warbler lore straight! But if anyone can do it, he can.
Reading this skilled and eloquent observer’s descriptions of his almost mystical encounters with avian species put me in mind of a piece I read some years ago: Loren Eiseley‘s “The Judgment of Birds.” There’s a bit in this essay about a close encounter with a crow that has remained vivid in my imagination:
This crow lives near my house, and though I have never injured him, he takes good care to stay up in the very highest trees and, in general, to avoid humanity.
His world begins at about the limit of my eyesight.
On the particular morning when this episode occurred, the whole countryside was buried in one of the thickest fogs in years. The ceiling was absolutely zero. All planes were grounded, and even a pedestrian could hardly see his outstretched hand before him.
I was groping across a field in the general direction of the railroad station, following a dimly outlined path. Suddenly out of the fog, at about the level of my eyes, and so closely that I flinched, there flashed a pair of immense black wings and a huge beak. The whole bird rushed over my head with a frantic cawing outcry of such hideous terror as I have never heard in a crow’s voice before and never expect to hear again.
He was lost and startled, I thought, as I recovered my poise. He ought not to have flown out in this fog. He’d knock his silly brains out.
All afternoon that great awkward cry rang in my head. Merely being lost in a fog seemed scarcely to account for it—especially in a tough, intelligent old bandit such as I knew that particular crow to be. I even looked once in the mirror to see what it might be about me that had so revolted him that he had cried out in protest to the very stones.
Finally, as I worked my way homeward along the path, the solution came to me.
It should have been clear before. The borders of our worlds had shifted. It was the fog that had done it. That crow, and I knew him well, never under normal circumstances flew low near men. He had been lost all right, but it was more than that.
He had thought he was high up, and when he encountered me looming gigantically through the fog, he had perceived a ghastly and, to the crow mind, unnatural sight.
He had seen a man walking on air, desecrating the very heart of the crow kingdom, a harbinger of the most profound evil a crow mind could conceive of—air- walking men. The encounter, he must have thought, had taken place a hundred feet over the roofs.
At the conclusion of Coleridge’s poem, the mariner offers this moral:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.He prayeth best, who loveth bestAll things both great and small;For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
I’ve been a faithful reader of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series for quite a few years now, so that when I began preparing to lead a discussion of The Girl of His Dreams, I did not expect much in the way of previously unknown facts to emerge in the course of my research. Nevertheless, they did. I’m not speaking of perception altering revelations, but rather of subtle, belated realizations. These cast both the novel and the author in a somewhat different light, for this reader.
I started out with Donna Leon’s life. Now, this is a subject where details are notoriously thin on the ground. In 2010, the blogger at About “Donna Leon” queried, rather peevishly I thought:
There’s no information about her education; when, where, and if she went to college or university, and if so, how far she got before she quit? Her last employer says she wrote on her application that she had been in a doctorate program, had completed all the required coursework but had not submitted a dissertation. But again, no indication of dates or institutions. Why not? What’s so secret about where and when you went to college, and what degree-level you attained?
(There’s more along these lines. The blogger, who gives his name as Ken Kellogg-Smith, seems almost to cherish a sense of personal injury over Leon’s steadfast withholding. He wouldn’t be the only one who feels this way.)
There’s a bit more on offer in My Venice and Other Essays, published in 2013. In this collection, Leon affirms that she was born (in 1942) and raised in Montclair, New Jersey:
“My father read The New York Times, my mother did secretarial work, we had a dog, we had a garden, I had a brother.”
The above is actually a quote from an interview with Tim Heald of The Telegraph in 2009. It’s obvious that Leon wishes this brief statement to be the end of the story. In the essays she dilates somewhat on the subject of mildly eccentric aunts and uncles. She does not seem to harbor a particular animus toward any one of them.
As for her education, Leon states that she did graduate work in Massachusetts, but she doesn’t specify exactly where. In his article, Tim Heald states that she “did a doctorate” in Indiana, her specialty being 18th century novelists. (Again, no specific educational institution is named.) So did she tell him this at the time of the interview? Is what we have here a bit of deliberate misinformation?
I must confess that what I was really hoping to gain from the essays was some disclosure regarding Leon’s personal life. It was a vain hope, however, and I can’t say I was surprised.
[An almost entirely irrelevant aside: I was born in 1944 in West Orange, New Jersey, only a short drive from Montclair, where my grandparents owned and ran a confectioners shop. I like to think that as kids, Donna Leon and I might have been there at the same time, browsing the aisles for favorite candy – mine was candy dots – and hearing mischievous boys asking the proprietor – my grandfather – if he had Prince Albert in a can. “You do? Well. let him out!” ]
What is fairly certain is that Leon knocked about teaching English in various places – Iran, Saudi Arabia, China – until the 1980s. She then decided it was time to put down roots somewhere. She had close friends who lived in Venice, so that is the place she too chose to live.
Before zeroing in on the books in general and The Girl of His Dreams in particular, I provided some brief information on several relevant aspects of Italian civic structure and society. The Brunetti novels being police procedurals, I reviewed the way in which law enforcement entities function in the country. Then, because Gypsies – or Rom, or Romani people – figure prominently in the narrative, we talked a bit about the origin and present status of this famous but little understood (by me, anyway) ethnic group. Finally, because the parents of Brunetti’s wife Paola are referred to as the Count and Countess, I provided some background as to the history of titled nobility in Italy. (All three subjects are covered in detail in their respective Wikipedia entries.)
Donna Leon’s career as a writer of crime fiction happened almost accidentally – certainly incidentally. Leon, a passionate lover of baroque opera, was chatting backstage with some musicians after a performance. They were engaged in bad mouthing a certain prominent conductor (purportedly Herbert von Karajan). Speculation arose as to how such a person could be cleanly removed from the world stage. It occurred to Leon, an avid reader of crime fiction, that this would be a great premise for a murder mystery. Thus, in the pages of Death at La Fenice did Helmut Wellauer come into existence, if only to be quickly dispatched backstage. Commissario Guido Brunetti has proven far more durable.
Mystery novelist Donna Leon continues the long tradition of foreigners writing about Venice. No other city has been so celebrated by its expatriate writers and visitors, from Ruskin’s glittery tributes to Henry James’s hesitant adoration to Thomas Mann’s fatal seduction.
Dr. Toni Sepeda, literature and art history professor and close personal friend of Donna Leon
In The New Republic, Peter Green sums up the Brunetti series this way:
…the audience [Leon] aims at (as she cheerfully admits) is educated, civilized, well-read, morally alert, and intellectually curious: quick to catch allusions or arcane literary jokes, involved in the political and social problems of the modern world, humane and liberal in the best sense of those much-abused terms. She has a weakness for aristocratic virtues. Guido Brunetti himself relaxes with Aeschylus or Marcus Aurelius; his wife Paola not only teaches Henry James (among others) at a Venetian university, but when last seen was re-reading The Ambassadors for the fourth time.
When I first began my re-reading of The Girl of His Dreams, my confidence in my choice for the reading group of this particular title in the series was somewhat shaken. The novel opens with the presence of the entire Brunetti family at the funeral of Guido’s mother. It is a deeply poignant scene.But Leon pulls back from this sadness as Brunetti returns to his official duties. The first of these involves looking into the activities of a non mainstream religious leader who may be scheming to bilk his followers of their money and possessions.
This investigation is not especially compelling and may lull the reader into thinking that this will be a gentle read. Just shy of the midpoint of this short, tightly structured novel, that expectation is shattered.
The body of a young girl is discovered floating in one of the canals. The scene in which she is pulled from the water is harrowing in more ways than one. Vianello, Brunetti’s second in command, does most of the work. Brunetti stands close by ready to grab him. It is pouring down rain.There is a danger that he’ll slip on the seaweed, possibly striking his head on the hard stone or going into the water.
She was small with fair hair that fanned out from her head. Brunetti looked at her face, then back at her feet, and then her hands, and finally he accepted that she was a child.
Vianello struggled to his feet like an old man. Suddenly there was a surge of noise, and then silence and only the sound of the rain hitting the water. They looked up, and there was Foa, the boat floating silently a hair’s breadth from the embankment.
The image of the girl, fair hair fanned out and clothes sopping wet, will haunt Brunetti throughout the novel. His sense of personal anguish over this cruel death will not leave him. At the same time, thoughts of his mother come from to time, but these are of a far more benevolent nature.
In The Girl of His Dreams, the character of Guido Brunetti shines forth in all its vulnerability and humility. One feels that his quest for justice is of the old school. He has no illusions about the possibility of achieving this goal, in Venice or anywhere else on Earth. But the effort must be made, especially on behalf of those who have no one to speak for them. (In the back of my mind I’m hearing Linda Loman’s beseeching cry, echoing down the corridors of time: ” …attention must be paid!”)
In the end the sadness, the ephemeral quality of human life that was so vividly bodied forth at Guido’s mother’s funeral, has reasserted itself. There is one small ray of consolation, though, and it comes from an unexpected source, about which I will say no more at present.
Paola Brunetti, no shrinking violet when it comes to asserting herself, is deeply appreciative of her husband’s rare and fine qualities. At one point she calls him her shield and her buckler. As strong a woman as she is, she knows how much she depends on him. (The domesticity of Guido and Paola, with their son and daughter frequently joining them for delicious meals, is one of the major selling points of the series.)
It has been noted that Donna Leon minces no words when she trains her gimlet eye on contemporary Venetian culture (not to mention the scourge of tourists that regularly descend in hordes on the city). You get plenty of this in the above mentioned essay collection. And yet, you’ll have moments like the one in which Guido and Paola are strolling the city at night, and she turns to him and says, “We live in paradise, don’t we?” This moment of supreme savoring occurs in Falling in Love, the latest entry in the series. And in The Girl of His Dreams, Vianello asks if Brunetti if her could even conceive of living somewhere else. He answers, inevitably, in the negative.
(Donna Leon has thus far not allowed her Brunetti novels to be translated into Italian. It’s been alleged that she’s afraid of alienating her friend with her sharp critiques if the city. She claims that it is simply a desire not to be famous where she lives.)
The members of AAUW Readers who attended this discussion were uncommonly perceptive in their comments and observations. I doff my cap to you, ladies – Thanks!
I prepared a reading list for the group. Here it is:
DONNA LEON and GUIDO BRUNETTI
My Venice & Other Essays, by Donna Leon
Brunetti’s Venice, by Toni Sepeda
Brunetti’s Cookbook, by Roberta Paniaro
Venetian Curiosities, by Donna Leon
OTHER NONFICTION TITLES ABOUT VENICE
City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt
A Venetian Tale and Lucia, by Andrea Di Robilant
The Venetians: A New History from Marco Polo to Casanova, by Paul Strathern (not read by me)
OTHER FICTION SET IN VENICE
Don’t Look Now, by Daphne Du Maurier
The Aspern Papers, by Henry James
Alibi, by Joseph Kanon
The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan
OTHER MYSTERIES SET IN ITALY
Aurelio Zen series by Michael Dibdin (set in various locales in Italy)
Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia series by Magdalen Nabb (set in Florence)
Salvo Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri (set in Sicily)
The Guido Guerrieri series by Gianrico Carofiglio (set primarily in Bari, in the Apulia region of southern Italy) This author has also written several standalone novels. I was especially impressed by The Silence of the Wave.
The Carnivia Trilogy by Jonathan Holt (I have not read these):
Remember to consult stopyourekillingme.com for information about books in a series and Italian-mysteries.com for books specifically set in that country.
The Girl of His Dreams is the seventeenth novel in the Guido Brunetti series. There are currently twenty-four Brunetti titles, with the twenty-fifth, The Waters of Eternal Youth, scheduled for publication in March of 2016.
“An American in Venice,” the most recent feature piece I’ve found on Donna Leon, appeared in Publishers Weekly in March. It provided me with a very pleasant surprise; namely, that she and I have a favorite mystery writer in common: Ross MacDonald, creator of the private eye Lew Archer:
“Macdonald’s prose is wonderful, his sentences are sometimes serpentine, sometimes as balanced as anything Alexander Pope wrote,” Leon says. “I also like the way the past always comes along to haunt and destroy the present in his books.”
Like Macdonald, Leon’s evildoers are not psychopathic serial killers or rapists. She, too, delves into the more interesting territory of moral corruption, in all its forms.
Leon adds that Brunetti could be seen as “Lew Archer with a wife.”
I recommend this video interview with Donna Leon:
Many are the cultural riches that Venice has bestowed on us all. I recently created a post illustrating some of the art work that’s featured in The Girl of His Dreams. Now here is some of the music.
First: Il Complesso Barocco is a performing arts organization that’s dear to Donna Leon’s heart:
The above quote (on the subject of the ghost) is from The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough. It is cited by Michael Newton in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories.
This recently published anthology of ghost stories is assembled and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger. In addition to being a writer, Ms Niffenegger is an illustrator and printmaker – a sort of latter day William Blake. In this volume, she has selected fifteen of her favorite tales of the supernatural, plus one that she herself has penned. It’s entitled “Secret Life, with Cats,” and I found it quite effective.
There are many collections of ghost stories and supernatural tales. There are two that I especially recommend. First, the aforementioned Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. Published in 2010 and edited by Michael Newton, it contains a wondrous variety of stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell; “The Cold Embrace” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (author of the mesmerizing Lady Audley’s Secret); “No.1 Branch Line:The Signal-man” by Charles Dickens; “Green Tea” by Sheridan Le Fanu; “The Moonlit Road” by Ambrose Bierce – these and more are here included. And there is much added value in this small volume: Newton has constructed a chronology of the ghost story; in addition, there is an extensive list of titles suggested for further reading.
I’m indebted to Michael Newton for introducing me to Catherine Crowe and Dorothy Scarborough, both authors and literary critics of distinction. Crowe’s Night-Side of Nature (1848) and The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) by Scarborough are each available in full text on the Internet Archive. The latter title was submitted by Dorothy Scarborough as her doctoral thesis at Columbia. She went on to teach creative writing at that university; Carson McCullers was among her students.
I am rather amazed, and somewhat vexed, that I’ve not previously been aware of the existence of these two highly accomplished women.
If you’re going to buy just one book of this type, I highly recommend Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. Edited by Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise, this hefty compendium first came out in 1944 and has remained in print (courtesy of Modern Library) ever since. “Fifty-two stories of heart-stopping suspense” chortles the Amazon.com write-up, and that is most definitely true. The usual suspects are present and accounted for: Poe’s “The Black Cat” (also the lead story in Audrey Niffenegger’s collection); “The Boarded Window” by Ambrose Bierce; “Sredni Vashtar” by Saki; and a particular favorite of mine, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Many others are present for your reading pleasure – though you may be seriously unnerved by certain among them!
As the Washington Post’s Michael Dirda here avers, “These Great Tales of Terror Live Up To their Promise.”
And by the way, Mr. Dirda has given us a wonderful gift for this Halloween season in an article replete with excellent ghostly reading suggestions.
These images have been assembled as part of the preparation for a book group discussion. I have also reviewed The Girl of His Dreams in this space.
We owe businessman Herbert Simon a debt of gratitude for saving Kirkus Reviews – now officially Kirkus Media – from extinction. This invaluable reviewing organ was slated for closure when Mr. Simon purchased it in 2010. Kirkus’s reinvention for the digital era has been most felicitous. I well remember reading the rather dour print version at the library. Still, even then, it was a great source of book reviews.
Now, however, it has gained added value as an online entity. It is eminently searchable. Its starred reviews are a reliable guide to works that will be worth your while (reliable – not foolproof). Kirkus also offers help for aspiring writers; it has even established a prize award of its own. (Do we actually need another book prize? Oh heck – why not?)
I use Kirkus primarily for its starred mystery reviews. But there’s lots more rich content for book lovers available on its site.
Another terrific media review source is Booklist Magazine, a publication of the American Library Association. While certain of Booklist’s content resides behind a pay wall, reviews for the current year are freely available. I use this source for mystery reviews, and also for reviews of new nonfiction. (Scroll down to below “Find Best Books of 2015” to access this content.) Both Kirkus and Booklist have been used in the past as selection tools for libraries and bookstores. I’m not certain if they still are.
A brief aside regarding nonfiction, where there has been so much interesting writing happening lately that I’ve pretty much fallen hopelessly behind. I am currently – or I should say, concurrently – reading these titles:
and finally, I’m about to finish, with great regret: . Murder by Candlelight is not only a true crime narrative – or rather, a narrative of multiple true crimes – it is a work of philosophy, psychology, and history. True, some of it is hard to read – repugnant, even gruesome – but other parts are rich with a profound insight into the human condition. The erudition displayed by Michael Knox Beran is nothing short of amazing. For instance, it is not every day that a book sends me scurrying to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer:
Yes, I know, he doesn’t look as though he’d be very scintillating at a dinner party, but he’s actually a deeply fascinating thinker. I have in mind specifically a work entitled The World as Will and Representation. Sound dry as dust? Not the portions quoted in Murder by Candlelight – they’re anything but.
I had not previously heard of Michael Knox Beran, but he will most definitely be getting a fan letter from Yours Truly.
In searching for more historical true crime following my rueful withdrawal from Beran’s book, I stumbled upon a portion of the MWA‘s Edgar site that I’d not seen before. It is a list of submissions from publishers for consideration for next year’s Edgar Awards. These are suggestions, not selections. Those will be announced on or around January 19, Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. (And Poe Toaster, we beg you to come back this year!)
As you will see, the list of mysteries is already very long. The list of true crime titles – or in MWA parlance “Fact Crime” – is considerably shorter and thus easier to digest.