The Strand is everything you want a bookstore to be: crammed with literary treats for bibliophiles and staffed by knowledgeable people who understand passionate readers. In order to join that select cohort – the store’s staff, I mean – it is necessary to take and pass a multiple choice quiz. The Times very generously posted several iterations of that test on its site. If you click here, you can test your knowledge of the written word.
It started with a profile of Hillary Clinton that appeared in the May 10 issue of New York Magazine. Among other topics, author Rebecca Traister wrote about Clinton’s reading preferences:
In person, she presents, at 68, as a nana. When she tells me what she reads, she sounds just like my mother and so many other women I know, describing how she has become addicted to mystery novels. She cites the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear and Donna Leon’s series set in Venice, explaining, “I’ve read so much over the course of my life that now I’m much more into easier things to read. I like a lot of women authors, novels about women, mysteries where a woman is the protagonist … It’s relaxing.”
I was pleased to learn that Clinton enjoys the works of Jacqueline Winspear and Donna Leon. Both are fine novelists, especially Leon who, with The Waters of Eternal Youth, has just hit it right out of the ball park. May I venture an opinion that by saying these books are easy to read, Clinton is comparing them to some of the policy papers and similar material that she has to not only wade through but also master. To then allow herself to become engrossed in a good story well told and peopled with interesting characters must be a profound relief.
In late June, an article by Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post amplified the subject of Hillary Clinton’s reading taste. Corrigan claimed that in the New York Magazine piece, Clinton was guilty of “a minor flub.” She quotes Rebecca Traister’s ad hoc clarification to the effect that “…Clinton is no cinnamon-scented Mrs Tiggy-Winkle” (a reference which I found baffling and had to look up). Corrigan counters:
But that is, indeed, the patronizing image that bedevils female readers of cozy mysteries. The idea that these writers — and “women’s mysteries” in general — are “easier to read” sounds a tad trivializing.
Right off the bat, let’s assume that Maureen Corrigan – frequent reviewer of mysteries for the Post – did not mean to imply that Donna Leon is a writer of cozy crime fiction. On the contrary, her novels are concerned with the most basic truths and the fathomless complexity of human motivations. Winspear’s works may be somewhat lighter, but I don’t know that I’d call them cozies either. (The last one I read, Pardonable Lies, was excellent.)
So, then – what exactly is a cozy:
Cozy mysteries, also referred to simply as “cozies”, are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.
From “The Immense Popularity of Cozy Mysteries,” a piece by Kristen Houghton on the Huffington Post site:
Cozies are fun to read. There’s a formula to the cozies that work very well drawing readers back again and again. The amateurs in such stories are nearly always well educated, intuitive women. Books, especially in series form usually have the story line relate to the detective’s job or hobby. Murderers in cozy mysteries are generally intelligent, rational, articulate people, and murders are pretty much bloodless and neat. Violence and sex are low-key and supporting background characters bring comic relief to the story. Some cozy series are set during holidays such as Valentine Day or Christmas making them more intimate to the reader.
See the article on the Cozy Mystery List site for a yet more extended treatment of this subject.
I seem to recall reading somewhere that Lawrence Block defines a cozy mystery as one in which a cat figures prominently in the plot. (I believe this was a tongue-in-cheek offering, but one can never be sure, especially where Block is concerned.)
Finally, a spirited riposte appeared earlier this month in the Post’s Letters to the Editor column. Written by Claire Tieder, it’s entitled “Intellectuals like reading mysteries, thank you very much:”
As one egghead to another, and on behalf of my many egghead friends: Thanks Claire!
Let me also add that I read my share of cozy mysteries, chief among them M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth novels and the No.1 Ladies’ Detective novels and the Corduroy Mansions series by the prodigiously gifted Alexander McCall Smith.
At one point in his book The Golden Age of Murder, after naming several of the outstanding male authors of the period, Martin Edwards poses this question:
One of the mysteries of the Golden Age is – why have they been airbrushed out of its history so completely that it is often seen as the exclusive territory of the ‘Queens of Crime’?
In actuality, the aforementioned ‘Queens’ – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham, with the somewhat later Josephine Tey often thrown into the mix for good measure – not only crowded out a large number of male writers by dint of their sheer brilliance, but also a fair number of other women writers as well. One of those in this latter group was Ethel Lina White.
White’s story “Cheese” was the final selection from Capital Crimes to be considered by the Usual Suspects at last Tuesday’s discussion. The framework for this story is so elegantly – and eloquently – set forth that I’m going to quote it in its entirety:
This story begins with a murder. It ends with a mouse-trap.
The murder can be disposed of in a paragraph. An attractive girl, carefully reared and educated for a future which held only a twisted throat. At the end of seven months, an unsolved mystery and a reward of £ 500.
It is a long way from a murder to a mouse-trap— and one with no finger-posts; but the police knew every inch of the way. In spite of a prestige punctured by the press and public, they had solved the identity of the killer. There remained the problem of tracking this wary and treacherous rodent from his unknown sewer in the underworld into their trap.
They failed repeatedly for lack of the right bait.
And unexpectedly, one spring evening, the bait turned up in the person of a young girl.
The principal dramatis personae in this tight, suspenseful little drama:
Jenny Morgan, freshly arrived from the blooming English countryside, eagerly seeking her fortune – quite literally, as she’s in dire need of funds.
Inspector Angus Duncan, “…a red-haired Scot, handsome in a dour fashion, with the chin of a prize-fighter and keen blue eyes.” (Please excuse all the direct quotes; I do love White’s writing.)
Jenny may be keen, but she’s also cautious. She’s received a letter detailing a job offer as a traveling companion and secretary to an elderly lady, but the instructions she’s been given concerning the initial interview for the position have made her uneasy. A friend connected with the police has advised her to seek their counsel. She goes, describes her situation, and asks for their advice – more specifically, for Angus Duncan’s advice, as he is the detective who has caught the case.
(Oh – and watching all this is a Great Dane, resting placidly by the office fireplace. Jenny longs to go over pet him, but she lacks the nerve to move from her chair. Trust me; this is an important detail.)
Inspector Duncan says he needs to have this letter checked out by an expert. Can he take it for that purpose, and will she please come back the next day?
Jenny says yes.
It turns out that by answering just such a summons, the hapless young victim alluded to in the passage quoted above met her tragic fate. As is also stated in that passage, the identity of the perpetrator is known; his whereabouts are not. What’s needed is bait with which to lure this rat out of hiding. As Angus Duncan stares across his desk at Jenny Morgan, a plan, plain as day, reveals itself to him.
He asks Jenny if she’d be willing to help the police capture the malefactor. True, she’ll need to summon her courage, but she need not be too concerned: She will be surreptitiously watched over and guarded every step of the way. Oh – and she will earn a reward: five hundred pounds!
Once again, Jenny says yes.
What happens next is – well, I won’t give away any more. As Frank would say, White summons a plot device into being that the reader has no trouble buying into and that generates edge-of-the-seat suspense. Finally, added to the mix is the beginning of a romance, always a welcome development in a mystery story.
Ethel Lina White was born in Abergavenny, Wales, in 1887. Upon moving to London, she took a job with the Ministry of Pensions. Eventually she left that employment in order to devote herself to writing full time. During the 1920s and 1930s, she was both prolific and popular. Although not as well known these days, she’s still remembered for two novels which were made into successful motion pictures: The Wheel Spins, filmed in 1938 by Alfred Hitchcock and retitled The Lady Vanishes, and Some Must Watch, which was released in 1946 as The Spiral Staircase and directed by Robert Siodmak. (The Lady Vanishes was remade for theatrical release in 1979 and for television in 2013. The Spiral Staircase was remade for theatrical release in 1975 and for television in 2000.)
In his introduction to “Cheese,” Martin Edwards states:
White’s speciality was ‘woman in jeopardy’ suspense fiction, and her ability to evoke a mood of mounting fear has seldom been matched.
The ‘woman in jeopardy’ trope was, of course, one of the keys to the effectiveness of “Cheese.” White deploys it on a larger canvas and with great success in The Wheel Spins, a novel I recommend with great enthusiasm. (Some Must Watch is high up on my to-read list, but as is the way with such lists, one makes no promises.)
Very little is known of Ethel Lina White’s personal life – witness the sketchiness of the Wikipedia entry. (It’s interesting how is frequently this is the case with women writers of that era who have never married or had children. One thinks of Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey, although a new biography of the latter by Jennifer Morag Henderson is said to have unearthed some new information about that famously elusive author.) The lengthiest research I found on White is in the Gale database Biography in Context (available through many library websites), and even there, the piece was almost exclusively focused on her work. Frank and I both tried without success to find a date for the initial appearance of “Cheese.”
To recapitulate: the four stories from Capital Crimes that we read for this discussion were “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Hands of Mr Ottermole” by Thomas Burke, “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole, and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White. I think I’m safe in saying that “Cheese” was the favorite among those present at the meeting. (Suspects and others, please feel to offer additions, corrections, or other comments.)
At the start of the discussion, I handed out the following very subjective list of recommended reading in the classics.
FURTHER READING IN THE CLASSICS INSPIRED BY BRITISH LIBRARY CRIME CLASSICS, MARTIN EDWARDS (BOTH HIS BLOG ‘DO YOU WRITE UNDER YOUR OWN NAME’ AND HIS AWARD WINNING BOOK THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER), THE GOLDEN AGE DETECTION GROUP ON FACEBOOK, ETC.
I enjoyed the following by authors appearing in the Capital Crimes collection:
“The Leather Funnel” and “Lot No. 249” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Complete Adventures of Judith Lee by Richard Marsh (first few stories)
“The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles” from The Silver Thorn by Hugh Walpole
“The Whistle” from All Souls’ Night by Hugh Walpole
Mist in the Saltings by Henry Wade
Before the Fact by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)
Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) by Ethel Lina White
In addition, I recommend the following:
The Emperor’s Snuff Box by John Dickson Carr
Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne
From The Independent December 20, 2014:
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hitBooksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
A Christmas detective tale not seen in shops for more than 70 years has become a festive sleeper hit and resurrected interest in a long-forgotten crime writer.
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon is selling in “astonishing numbers”, according to the Waterstones book chain. It has outsold rival paperbacks Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on the high street, while Amazon temporarily ran out of stock last week due to surging demand.
I kicked off our discussion of Capital Crimes with this article. I then expounded a bit further on the opening chapters of Farjeon’s novel. The situation is this: a train has gotten stuck in a snowstorm, and a party of passengers decides to disembark and attempt to reach the next railway station on foot.
With renewed hope they resumed their difficult way. They twisted round another bend. On either side of them great white trees rose, and the foliage increased. Once they walked into the foliage. Then the lane dipped. This was unwelcome, for it appeared to increase the depth of the snow and to augment the sense that they were enclosed in it. With their retreat cut off, they were advancing into a white prison.
The atmosphere became momentarily stifling. Then, suddenly, the clerk gave a shout.
“What? Where?” cried David.
“Here; the house!” gulped the clerk.
Almost blinded by the whirling snowflakes, he had lowered his head; and when the building loomed abruptly in his path he only just saved himself from colliding with the front door.
To their astonishment, they’ve come upon a gracious dwelling all lit up and decorated for the holidays. It’s as if a special welcome had been prepared for them. Yet this cannot be: their decision to leave the train could not have been anticipated. Even more bizarre, as they look around the house, they can find no other living being. The place is completely empty. For whom then is this festive reception intended?
It’s a great set-up. The story takes off from that point, and unlike the aforementioned unfortunate railway transport, never loses its momentum until the full-of-surprises denouement.
Having come out in 2012, The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (Charles Warren Adams) was the first reissue in The British Library Crime Classics series. Two years later, however, Mystery in White was the first to make a major impression on the reading public. At this point, there have been some thirty-six titles released or planned for release by the publishing division of the British Library.
Joseph Knobbs, crime fiction buyer for Waterstone Books, observes:
‘Mystery in White has been our bestselling paperback this Christmas  and one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.
“The Crime Classics stand out against the darker crop of contemporary crime fiction and offer something a bit different. A lot of modern stuff skews closer to thriller than mystery. It has been a treat to see mystery writers such as John Bude, Mavis Doriel Hay and J Jefferson Farjeon get their due. I think that’s a credit to the British Library, which has not only done the important work of archiving this material, but now brought it to a wider audience.’
Robert Davies, from British Library Publishing, adds:
‘For years, publishers have been concentrating on dark, violent, psychological crime novels, but we spotted a gap in the market for readers seeking escapist detective fiction with superb plots and period atmosphere.’
(At this juncture, Louise interjected the view that the stories selected for this discussion were actually quite dark – anything but escapist! She had a point.)
The runaway success of the British Library Crime Classics was instrumental in bringing into being a conference on Golden Age Mysteries called Bodies from the Library. The first of these was held last year; the second, last month. The conference’s site features a list of suggested reading in Golden Age classics that’s enough to bring tears to your eyes. There’s simply not enough time!
Like the dutiful librarian I was for many gratifying years, I set out some display items for the group:
Capital Crimes is a short story collection that was published here last year. (The Crime Classics entries are now being published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press.) The seventeen stories contained therein were selected by Martin Edwards, who has performed the same function for several other anthologies in this series.
(You’ll note that one of the display items above is Martin Edwards’s award-winning book The Golden Age of Murder.) I’d chosen four stories from Capital Crimes for us to consider. The first was “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle. (Although Martin Edwards does give the year in which this story first appeared – 1893 – that information was not readily available for most of the other stories in this anthology. We all agreed that this was omission we’d like to see remedied, if possible.)
This is not a Sherlock Holmes story; rather, it is a tale of adultery and revenge, with no detective in the cast of characters. I have to say that upon my first reading, I was so shocked by the events therein described that I slammed the book shut, looked up, and uttered an oath, I don’t remember what, exactly.
Upon subsequent readings, I was able to be somewhat more analytical. Were the events of the story credible? Does Conan Doyle play fair with the reader? The group tossed these questions around for a while; ultimately we concluded that the answer to both questions was yes. Conan Doyle’s masterful touch as a storyteller was everywhere apparent.
Frank directed our attention in this and the other stories to the way in which information about the characters is imparted. In a novel, the author has the time to develop in an almost leisurely manner the personalities of those characters. By contrast, in a short story the time and space are limited. There’s no room for extended descriptions; words must be chosen for their economy of meaning. We agreed that Conan Doyle achieved this aim in “Lady Sannox.”
Here’s what we’re told about Douglas Stone, an eminent surgeon who also happens to be the lover of Lady Sannox:
He was born to be great, for he could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare not plan. In surgery none could follow him. His nerve, his judgment, his intuition, were things apart. Again and again his knife cut away death, but grazed the very springs of life in doing it, until his assistants were as white as the patient. His energy, his audacity, his full-blooded self-confidence— does not the memory of them still linger to the south of Marylebone Road and the north of Oxford Street?
And his vices were as magnificent as his virtues, and infinitely more picturesque. Large as was his income, and it was the third largest of all professional men in London, it was far beneath the luxury of his living. Deep in his complex nature lay a rich vein of sensualism, at the sport of which he placed all the prizes of his life. The eye, the ear, the touch, the palate, all were his masters. The bouquet of old vintages, the scent of rare exotics, the curves and tints of the daintiest potteries of Europe, it was to these that the quick-running stream of gold was transformed.
Douglas Stone himself would have readily agreed with all this praise: he had an ego the size of West Texas!
The complete story can be accessed at this site.
There exists a film version of “The Case of Lady Sannox.” For today’s viewer, I’m afraid it comes across as rather campy. The acting is over-the-top histrionic; in addition, the actress playing Lady Sannox is woefully miscast. But the strangest thing about this version of the story is the way in which the ending is altered. I suggest reading the story, then watching the film, and drawing your own conclusions concerning what was changed and why.
This story sparked an especially lively discussion. Unfortunately, many of the details have escaped me. But I’m grateful to Marge, Louise, Frank, and Ann for engaging with such enthusiasm.
It is difficult to talk about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle without also talking about his most famous creation. That fact was illustrated by this oft-reproduced 1926 cartoon from Punch Magazine: Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist bringing this along for show and tell: This book is a companion to a special exhibit at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. We were for fortunate enough to see this exhibit and tour this remarkable facility when we were on our 2007 Smithsonian Mystery excursion. On that occasion, Dr. Alan Mackaill was our guide and speaker:
It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes … round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.
Our next story was “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” (1931) by Thomas Burke. This is a fairly famous piece and is included in quite a few mystery anthologies. It’s the story of a serial killer who roams the streets of London, striking innocent people at random and then seeming to disappear into thin air. The first victim is a gentleman by the name of Mr Whybrow. He’s headed home after a hard day’s work and looking forward to having tea with his wife. You get the sense of a perfectly ordinary man married to a likewise ordinary woman; they’re fond of each other and neither would hurt a fly. But their domestic tranquility, taken for granted up until now, is doomed to be shattered by “A man with a dead heart eating into itself and bringing forth the foul organisms that arise from death and corruption.” He murders them both, husband and wife. Then quick as you like, he’s gone. Or is he?
Burke’s description of this fiend in human form comes with a large dose of irony and black humor:
He wasn’t, this man, a bad man. Indeed, he had many of the social and amiable qualities, and passed as a respectable man, as most successful criminals do. But the thought had come into his moldering mind that he would like to murder somebody, and as he held no fear of God or man, he was going to do it, and would then go home to his tea. I don’t say that flippantly, but as a statement of fact. Strange as it may seem to the humane, murderers must and do sit down to meals after a murder. There is no reason why they shouldn’t, and many reasons why they should. For one thing, they need to keep their physical and mental vitality at full beat for the business of covering their crime. For another, the strain of their effort makes them hungry, and satisfaction at the accomplishment of a desired thing brings a feeling of relaxation toward human pleasures.
The total number of murders stands at eight. Following the last, “…he was to pass into history as the unknown London horror, and return to the decent life that he had always led, remembering little of what he had done and worried not at all by the memory.” This could be a description of Jack the Ripper, or of the perpetrator of the so-called Texas Servant Girl Murders. Burke’s tone here, located somewhere between satire and black humor, is reminiscent of that of Thomas de Quincey in “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts.”
It is a sheerly terrifying story. It imparts to the reader a quality of horror and shock usually associated with tales of the supernatural or of pure sensation, while staying in the bounds of the strict detective story.
I more or less concur with this view, which is why I was somewhat surprised at the negative reaction to this story on the part of my fellow Suspects. Marge felt that the narrative would have worked better as a full length novel, in which the character of the victims could be more fully explored and the reader’s sympathy engaged accordingly.
Frank mentioned the effectiveness of a passage told in the second person, a rarely used device in fiction. It harkens back to poor Mr. Whybrow, as his fate draws near:
You are nearly home now. You have turned into your street— Caspar Street— and you are in the center of the chessboard. You can see the front window of your little four-roomed house. The street is dark, and its three lamps give only a smut of light that is more confusing than darkness. It is dark— empty, too. Nobody about; no lights in the front parlors of the houses, for the families are at tea in their kitchens; and only a random glow in a few upper rooms occupied by lodgers. Nobody about but you and your following companion, and you don’t notice him. You see him so often that he is never seen. Even if you turned your head and saw him, you would only say ‘Good evening’ to him, and walk on. A suggestion that he was a possible murderer would not even make you laugh. It would be too silly.
And now you are at your gate. And now you have found your door key. And now you are in, and hanging up your hat and coat. The Missis has just called a greeting from the kitchen, whose smell is an echo of that greeting (herrings!), and you have answered it, when the door shakes under a sharp knock.
It’s as though you are perched on Whybrow’s shoulder (Frank’s comment), heading along with him into that awful abyss.
At one point near the conclusion, Burke gives some examples of recent history’s most notorious killers. One was Constance Kent, whom we encountered in Kate Summerscale’s masterful true crime narrative The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Another one was Eugene Aram, whose strange story I came across while researching the town of Knaresborough, which lies a short distance from Harrogate in North Yorkshire.
“The Hands of Mr Ottermole” was filmed in 1958 as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It can be viewed on Hulu.com, but the commercials make it hard going. The other option is to purchase it from Amazon streaming for $1.99. (It helps to know that particular episode occurs in Season Two, where it’s number 32.)
As with “The Case of Lady Sannox,” the ending of “Mr Ottermole” has been altered. In both cases, this change violates the intent of the author, and in the exact same way.
In Part Two, I’ll cover “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White, plus a few other related items of interest.
Commissario Guido Brunetti has been tasked with investigating what is essentially a cold case. Fifteen years ago a teenage girl, Manuela Lando-Continui, was found floating in one of Venice’s canals. Pietro Cavanis, a bystander, pulled her out of the water, but not before serious brain injury had occurred. Cavanis, an alcoholic, remembered almost nothing of what occurred that day. As for Manuela, she was in a coma for a period of time. When she finally awoke, it was with the mental capacity of a seven-year old. There would be no growth, no change, as the years passed.
A dinner party at the home of his wife Paola’s parents serves to introduce Brunetti to Manuela’s grandmother, Contessa Demetriana Lando-Continui. The Contessa requests a private meeting with him at a later time. At that meeting, she reveals to Brunetti the full extent to which her heart has been broken by Mauela’s cruel fate. Added to her anguish is a suspicion that there’s a dark secret hidden behind that fate. Quite simply, she wants that secret brought to light. Can Brunetti do anything to make that happen?
His initial response is negative. But the Contessa is in her eighties. She is frail and death-haunted. She yearns to know the truth before it is too late.
It did not sound to him as though the Contessa were after vengeance. Perhaps she believed that simply knowing what had happened to her granddaughter would lessen her pain. Brunetti knew how illusory that belief was: as soon as a person knew what had happened, they wanted to know why, and then they wanted to know who.
Even so, compelled by the Contessa’s urgency and her distress, Brunetti finds that he cannot refuse her. He will, he assures her, do what he can.
And so begins an investigation unlike any other, circuitous and serpentine, full of shocks and false assumptions, culminating in more than one stunning revelation.
Throughout this compelling narrative, Donna Leon’s ambivalent feelings about her adoptive homeland peek coyly around every corner. Venality and bureaucracy rear their ugly heads with depressing regularity. But there is goodness at the ready to combat them, especially in the person of Brunetti’s partner in this inquiry, Commissario Claudia Griffoni.
As for Brunetti, he finds his solace and his refuge in the literature of the ancients – Apollonius this time – and in the companionship of his close-knit family.
This scene occurs after yet another grueling day of the investigation:
His spirit was at peace by the time he reached home. Paola was happy for his kiss of greeting and the children pleased to have his full attention during dinner. As he ate his bean soup, knowing there was only lasagne to come, he wondered why this wasn’t enough for so many people….
Later, when Paola came back to place the deep dish of lasagne on the table, Brunetti looked at her, looked at his children, and said: ‘How happy this makes me.’ His family smiled their agreement, thinking he meant the food, but it was the last thing on Brunetti’s mind at that moment.
(That said, the food in this novel is described in the usual mouthwatering detail.)
I’d like to add, without inserting a spoiler, that in my view many contemporary novelists lose their way as they approach the conclusion of their respective narratives. The opposite happened with this novel: the ending was exactly apt, and deeply moving as well.
I’ll say no more except to assert how much I loved The Waters of Eternal Youth. I’m having trouble settling on what to read next; this book set the bar so high.
The Midnight Assassin was one. The Austin Axe Murderer was another. The Servant Girl Annihilator, a coinage from the pen of William Sydney Porter, was yet another. (Porter, who was living in Austin at the time of the murders, later moved to New York City and eventually gained fame for his “twist at the end” short stories, written under the pseudonym O. Henry.)
The basic facts are these: Between December of 1884 and December of 1885 eight people were brutally murdered with an axe, or axes, in the dead of night, in Austin Texas. Five of the victims were African-American woman who worked as servants in the homes of Austin’s well off denizens. In the course of one of the attacks, a male servant was also slain, most likely because he was in the perpetrator’s way. The final two killings were of white women; these both took place on Christmas Eve of 1885.
There are several striking aspects to these murders. To begin with, they were excessively cruel and brutal. The first thing that happens as you read about each one is that your sympathies are engaged in the extreme for these hapless and totally innocent victims. Then there are additional factors to ponder. After committing each depredation, the killer vanished so quickly that no one ever got a good look at him. No motive was ever clearly discerned, except for possibly a kind of generalized misogyny. He struck erratically and unpredictably and proved virtually impossible to guard against. Police and city officials were helpless in the face of this rampage. The eerie elusiveness, not to mention viciousness, of the killer gave rise to speculation that he was not merely human:
A reporter for the Fort Worth Gazette actually suggested that Austin was being terrorized by a real-life version Frankenstein’s monster, the hideous yellow-eyed creature created by Mary Shelley in her 1823 novel.
Yet in the midst of all this awfulness, life went on, as it must and does. In the 1880s, Austin was a striving city. A new state Capitol building was nearing completion; the newly established University of Texas had opened its doors earlier in the decade. Especially interesting is the picture Hollandsworth paints of the lives of the city’s inhabitants. In the late nineteenth century, Austin was indeed a busy and prosperous place. From the saloons and so-called “houses of assignation” to Millett’s Opera House, there was plenty of entertainment (of various kinds) on offer. And although the races occupied separate social spheres, with the majority of African Americans relegated to the servant class, there was little overt enmity between them. The first six murders were in no way considered to be of lesser import because of the race of the victims. (That said, in Hollandsworth’s telling, certain among Austin’s white citizens held benighted and repugnant beliefs regarding the African American populace of their city – of any city, for that matter.)
According to the New York Times, there were over four hundred arrests of both African American and white men during the course of the investigation into these crimes. Only one conviction resulted – that of Jimmy Phillips, husband of one of the white victims – and that was later vacated. As suddenly as the killings had begun, they stopped. The perpetrator was never found.
Three years later, in London in 1888, the serial murder of prostitutes began. At least five are thought to have been done by the same man. The murders were savage, the killer elusive. Although he too was never found, the sobriquet by which he is known has echoed down though history to the present day: Jack the Ripper.
The case of the Texas Servant Girl Murders was featured on a segment of the PBS series The History Detectives. Among those interviewed by the investigators are Harold Schechter, whose anthology I used as the basis for the true crime class I taught last year, and Steven Saylor. Saylor writes a wonderful series of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome. From time to time, though, he takes on a different subject. This he did in his year 2000 novel A Twist at the End, which is partly set in Austin Texas and includes a retrospective examination of the Midnight Assassin and his dark doings by the above mentioned William Sydney Porter. I’ve not yet read it, but the Hollandsworth book (plus my high regard for this author) has made me eager to do so.
We are as fascinated by what we do not know as by what we do know. Indeed, in many ways, the rampage of the Midnight Assassin is the perfect crime story–a rip-roaring whodunit of murder, madness, and scandal, replete with the sorts of twists and shocks that give a page-turner its good name.
Except there is one catch. There is no dramatic last-act revelation, no drum-roll finale. Everything ends up precisely where it started, in a gray limbo of unknowing. The trail of clues just stops, like bewildered bloodhounds baying in the night.
As May turned to June, the Roman people were invited to celebrate a profound mystery: the turning of the centuries and the dawning of a new cycle of time. Entertainments were staged; chariot races held; lavish banquets thrown. First, though, for three days in succession, the gods were given their due of sustenance and blood; and by night, illumined by the torches which had been handed out free to the entire population of the city, the Princeps himself led the celebrations. To the Moerae, the three white-robed Fates who directed the city’s destiny, he offered a sacrifice of lambs and goats; and then, to the goddess of childbirth, a gift of cakes. A golden age was being born – and just in case there was still anyone who had failed to take in the message, a poem composed specially for the occasion by Horace was sung on both the Capitol and the Palatine, with the aim of ramming it home. ‘Grant riches, and progeny, and every kind of glory to the people of Romulus.’ Many who heard this prayer sounding out across the Forum, hymned by a choir of girls and boys of spotless probity, and framed by a skyline edged with gold and gleaming marble, would doubtless have reflected that the gods had already obliged. ‘Truth, and Peace, and Honour, and our venerable tradition of Probity, and Virtus, long neglected, all venture back among us. Blessed Plenty too – why, here she is with her horn of abundance!’
Yes, the times were Golden for the Romans under the benevolent stewardship of the Princeps, otherwise know as Gaius Octavius, otherwise known as Imperator Caesar Augustus. (Names were fluid – and very confusing, at least to me – in ancient Rome.) At any rate, it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun reading about ancient Rome. Historian Tom Holland does a terrific job of bring this remote time and place to vivid and sometimes disconcerting life.
(How disconcerting? Well, I’ve just finished reading a description of the use to which a fabulously wealthy Roman named Hostius Quadra put the mirrored walls of his bedroom:
The mirrors on his walls boasted a particularly distinctive feature: everything reflected in them appeared larger than it actually was. ‘So it was that the freak made a show of his own deviancy.’
The author proceeds to specifics, but this being a family oriented blog, I shall quote no further.)
Holland’s prose is engaging; his view of the past tinged alternately with irony and wonder. It’s a marvelous book, and I highly recommend it.
As it happens, I recently encountered an article in the Wall Street Journal by Joseph Epstein, a writer I esteem highly, in which he extols the virtues of a work by Montesquieu on ancient Rome. It’s entitled Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence. This can be translated as Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of Their Decline. According to Epstein, Considerations is “…a lesser-known work but one deserving the highest acclaim.” Herewith an excerpt:
It was a maxim then among the republics of Italy, that treaties made with one king were not obligatory towards his successor. This was a sort of law of nations among them. Thus every thing which had been submitted to by one king of Rome, they thought themselves disengaged from under another, and wars continually begot wars….
One cause of the prosperity of Rome was, that all her kings were great men. No other history presents us with an uninterrupted succession of such statesmen and such captains.
In the infancy of societies, the leading men in the republic form the constitution; afterwards, the constitution forms the leading men in the republic.
Considerations appears to be replete with such provocative observations. Of course, the fact that it was written in 1734 and that we are reading it in translation makes it rather a challenge to take on. The author’s full name is Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. He was a leading figure of the French Enlightenment.
Finally, I’ve been listening to one of the Great Courses entitled “Famous Romans.” The material is presented by J. Rufus Fears. Professor Fears punctuates his narrative with war whoops; he’s an exhilarating and enthusiastic raconteur. I could not help envying the students who had the good fortune to be in his classes.
I found to my dismay that J. Rufus Fears, Professor of Classics at Oklahoma University, passed away in 2012. He was 67 years old. David L. Boren, current president of the university (and former senator) praised Fears as “one of the greatest teachers in the history of our state.” One of his former students, in a moving tribute, declares that “Dr. Fears taught a class that was basically everything I had hoped college would be.”
I’ve also been enjoying yet another of Taschen’s wonderful art books – that’s Gaius Julius Caesar on the cover. And the Khan Academy’s Smarthistory series offers a rare glimpse inside Livia’s villa:
Here are the three novels in the trilogy:
I just finished Dictator. Words fail me, but luckily they did not fail Robert Harris. Quite, in fact, the opposite:
I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium— their yearning, keening howls, like animals in heat— and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.
It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.
The story of Cicero’s turbulent life and dramatic death is told to us by Tiro, a former slave who remained in Cicero’s service as scribe and factotum after Cicero had freed him. Tiro supposedly invented a type of shorthand writing; moreover, it is said that he penned a biography of Cicero. This document has never come to light – at least, not until Robert Harris resurrected it through the power of his imagination. It is a brilliant conceit, brilliantly executed.
Whether writing about contemporary political intrigue or ancient history, Robert Harris produces works that are compelling, convincing, and altogether satisfying.The Fear Index was a high tech thriller, at times difficult to follow but nonetheless enjoyable. The Ghost is a riff on post-Blair Britain and America. It was turned into a terrific film entitled The Ghost Writer:
Pompeii was about…well, the volcano of course, but Harris fleshes out the story with fascinating characters and incidents. (There is something uniquely powerful about fiction in which an impending catastrophe looms over the narrative and you know it’s coming but the characters don’t. One thinks of Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself about the sinking of the Titanic. And of course, Ruth Rendell’s Judgement in Stone, with its famous opening sentence that at the time – 1977 – astonished the world of crime fiction: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”)
Finally there is An Officer and a Spy, in which Harris tells the story of the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Lieutenant Georges Picquart. In the course of the novel, Picquart becomes increasingly convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence and ends up putting his career and even his freedom on the line as he doggedly pursued the truth of the matter.
So I wish to salute Robert Harris, master storyteller.
For a musical accompaniment, may I suggest the finale of The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. You may have to adjust the volume as this piece attains its blazing climax!
The Vanishing Velasquez: A 19th Century Bookseller’s Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece, by Laura Cumming
In this book, the author tells a fascinating if convoluted story. I admit that I lost the thread several times. But it didn’t matter. Laura Cumming’s exquisite writing and keen powers of observation take you to a whole other place, a magical realm saturated with the genius that was Diego Velasquez.
The scene is a darkened tavern filled with objects, each gleaming in its own spotlight. A red onion, an egg, a white bowl balancing a silver knife, a brass vessel full of reflected glory: all appear as if laid out on an altar, singular, mysterious and sacramental. Velasquez pays the greatest respect to each humble item, and each is painted with mesmerizing beauty. Even the strung melon cradled by the young boy on the left shines like some strange new gift to the world.
More to come on this, at a later time.
And who. pray tell, is Inspector Chopra? The creation of author Vaseem Khan, Inspector Ashwin Chopra is a self-effacing, rigorously upright member of the Mumbai Police Department. On the day that we meet him, he’s in the process of retiring after a long and distinguished career.
True, he can do this officially and physically, but from a psychological and emotional standpoint, police work is in his blood. He cannot stop himself. No sooner has he cleared out his office than he begins, on his own, to investigate the mysterious death of a boy. Although ruled accidental, Chopra becomes increasingly convinced that it was murder – a murder that’s being too conveniently swept under the rug.
Ashwin Chopra and his wife Poppy live in an apartment block in Mumbai. Early in the novel, a baby elephant arrives to disrupt their rather simple existence. It seems that this lovable but somewhat depressed creature has been left to Chopra in the will of his recently deceased uncle. Part of the fun of The Unexpected Inheritance lies in watching Poppy and Chopra attempting to cope with this rather cumbersome legacy. At one point, “Baby Ganesh” ends up actually inside the Chopra’s apartment!
Ashwin and Poppy are extremely appealing individuals; even more so, the city of Mumbai itself can be considered a character in this novel. Chopra has much to say about the city he loves, and indeed, generally speaking, about his native country in its present incarnation. Upon visiting a mall filled with high end luxury goods, these are his thoughts:
Chopra did not need Van Heusen and Louis Philippe shirts, he had no use for Apple accessories and Ray Ban sunglasses. Sometimes it seemed to him that the whole country was being rebranded. He imagined the lines of Indians moving past booths manned by representatives of foreign multinationals as each Indian went past he was stripped of his traditional clothes, his traditional values, and given new things to wear and new things to think. Branded and rewired, this new model of Indian went back to his home thinking that he was now a truly modern Indian and what a fine thing that was, but all Chopra saw was the gradual death of the culture that had always made him proud of his incredible country.
That sounds rather gloomy and heavy, but this novel is for the most part optimistic, if cautiously, and even at times humorous.
In the biography on his website, London-born Vaseem Khan tells how when, arriving in Mumbai in 1997 to work as a management consultant, he beheld an elephant walking down the middle of the road. This amazing vision…”served as the inspiration behind my Baby Ganesh series of light-hearted crime novels.” Khan concludes his biographical sketch thus:
Elephants are third on my list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, not always in that order.
(For the complete biography, click here.)
Just for fun, to get you in the mood for things Indian, here’s one of my favorite music videos, the manically cheerful and riotously colorful “Kal Ho Naa Ho – Maahi Ve:”
Last February, I wrote a post in which I expressed my disappointment in A Murder of Crows, then the latest installment in P.F. Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey series. I was not sure that I wanted to read A Chorus of Innocents, the novel following that one. Then I saw the Kirkus review, in which the writer concludes with this assessment:
One of Chisholm’s best Elizabethan mysteries… combining all the historical information readers have come to expect with a swiftly moving story featuring a strong woman whose romantic aspirations have yet to be fulfilled.
The strong woman in question is Lady Elizabeth Widdrington. In A Chorus of Innocents, she is determined to solve a murder that smites her sense of justice deeply. It is more or less unheard of that a woman, even – or especially – a noble woman, should involve herself in a murder investigation, but such considerations do not weigh greatly with Lady Widdrington.
She has the great misfortune to be married to a thoroughly nasty man who beats her and refuses to share her bed. The same unbending rectitude that impels her to pursue the malefactor in this case also governs her behavior as a wife. She believes she must submit to her husband because he is her lord. Unlike many women of her rank, she is without exception faithful to her spouse, no matter how odious his treatment of her. What makes this situation especially remarkable, not to mention painful, is that she is deeply in love with another man, Sir Robert Carey, and he, equally with her. Sir Robert serves in Queen Elizabeth’s court when he’s in London and serves as Deputy Warden of one of the Marches located in the border country between England and Scotland. (This is an altogether tough region to police; it very much reminds of the early days of the American West.)
P.F Chisholm is on record as having taken her inspiration for this series of novels from her reading of The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser. I’ve only read the first few pages of this book, but I hit almost at once upon this quote:
The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.
Chisholm’s depiction of this clash of civilizations is robust and amazingly vivid and convincing. She writes terrific dialog, redolent of the speech patterns and eccentric vocabulary of those who dwell in the border regions. They are as lively and irreverent a gang of folk as I’ve met in a long time, or perhaps ever. Religion is invariably a hot topic in these parts, and in the midst of a debate over the afterlife, this view is offered to Elizabeth:
“….all the borderers go to hell; it’s warmer there and better company.”
Quite naturally, she can’t think how to reply and so remains silent.
Throughout this novel, times of intense activity and excruciating suspense alternate with moments of tenderness and heartache. Along the way there is a good deal of humor, though mostly laced with irony and sometimes even bitterness. The Kirkus reviewer is right on the mark: this is outstanding historical fiction.
A Chorus of Innocents is the sixth entry in the Sir Robert Carey series. As I’ve read the five previous titles, I’m undecided as to whether a reader can begin here, or whether it’s needful to go back to the first book, A Famine of Horses. That novel was similarly wonderful; the three immediately following were enjoyable rather than stellar, and the fifth, as I’ve already said, was below par in my view.
So, Reader, it’s up to you. Whatever you do, don’t miss the series opener and this latest installment. You will be amply rewarded by both.