The poignant beauty of Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences

August 12, 2015 at 1:32 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

9780300198058 Just a brief shout out here for the terrific job Genie did last night in leading the discussion of Suspended Sentences for the Usual Suspects. Author Patrick Modiano was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. Up until that time, he was not well known to the general public in this country, and few of his works had been translated into English.

Suspended Sentences consists of three novellas: Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin. After giving us some fascinating background on Modiano’s life, Genie led us through the discussion of each of these, ultimately focusing on what binds them one to another. This proved to be more a matter of tone and theme than of story and character. In fact, the novellas were singularly devoid of a conventionally structured plot. But an overarching sadness, coupled with a certain guilt and unease, pervades all three. Autobiographical elements strongly predominate.

As one reads, the series of loosely related incidents and elusive characters acquires a cumulative power. It is a quiet power, and that makes the book all the more effective and memorable.

For myself, I can say that brief though it is, I struggled to get through this book. For one thing, Modiano includes a great deal of specific detail about  the Paris that once was and is no more. For those of us who barely know the city, or don’t know it at all, this tendency on the author’s part presented a stumbling  block. In addition, I love a good story, and I could not detect one in these pages. But gradually the mood established a hold over me. This was aided by the beauty of the writing, and by implication, the excellence of Mark Polizzotti’s translation.

We spoke of the recurrence of rain, raincoats, and sudden disappearances as themes and symbols in Modiano’s work. One of my favorite passages includes all three:

 I hadn’t moved from the window. Under the pouring rain, he crossed the street and went to lean against the retaining wall of the steps we had walked down shortly before. And he stood there, unmoving, his back against the wall, his head raised toward the building façade. Rainwater poured onto him from the top of the steps, and his jacket was drenched. But he did not move an inch. At that moment a phenomenon occurred for which I’m still trying to find an explanation: had the street lamp at the top of the steps suddenly gone out? Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him, the way water dilutes a fresco that hasn’t had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I’d later notice in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself these people had really existed.

At the beginning of our discussion, Genie brought up the question of whether  Suspended Sentences could rightly be considered a mystery. She suggested that after all, this is a work about seeking and investigating a mystery – or perhaps, several mysteries. This seems to me a reasonable assessment, up to a point. Although I don’t see this work as crime fiction in the accepted, conventional sense, I do see the reason in Genie’s suggested approach. Modiano can be seen as investigating the mystery of life itself – in other words, Mystery with a capital M. And yet, isn’t this what most great literature, whatever the genre, strives to  do?

Patrick Modiano in 1969

Patrick Modiano in 1969


Patrick Modiano in 2014

Patrick Modiano in 2014

The Nobel Prize for Literature is famous for being awarded to writers who are largely unknown. But in 2013, the Nobel committee achieved a major course correction by selecting the brilliant Alice Munro for this well deserved accolade. (This was “Stop the Presses” moment in our house!) Still, I was rather amused to discover a “Find the Author” word game on the Nobel site. Indeed, almost every year, the press and literature lovers alike have had to scramble to ‘find the author!’

Once more: kudos to Genie for the immense amount of hard work and conscientious consideration that obviously went into her presentation last night. Next month, she and Carol are off to Scotland for yet another British Mystery Trip. Have a terrific time, ladies!
The Suspects being made up of passionate book lovers, certain other (unrelated) titles came up in the course of last night’s discussion. To the best of my recollection, here they are:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matter in the End, by Atul Gawande

The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud

Sisters of Fortune: America’s Caton Sister at Home and Abroad, by Jehanne Wake (A blog post on this title will appear shortly in this space.)



Permalink 1 Comment

The Man Booker Prize Long List for 2015

August 8, 2015 at 1:27 pm (Awards, books)

The Man Booker Prize long list for 2015 has been announced. Here are the chosen titles; they’re listed with the names of the publishers and the authors’  respective countries of origin (or current residence):

Bill Clegg (US) – Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape)

Anne Enright (Ireland) – The Green Road (Jonathan Cape)

Marlon James (Jamaica) – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications)

Laila Lalami (US) – The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)

Tom McCarthy (UK) – Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) – The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press)

Andrew O’Hagan (UK) – The Illuminations (Faber & Faber)

Marilynne Robinson (US) – Lila (Virago)

Anuradha Roy (India) – Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus)

Sunjeev Sahota (UK) – The Year of the Runaways (Picador)

Anna Smaill (New Zealand) – The Chimes (Sceptre)

Anne Tyler (US) – A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus)

Hanya Yanagihara (US) – A Little Life (Picador)

I haven’t read any of these titles. Three of them – those by Roy, Sahota, and Smaill – have not yet been published in this country, as far as I can determine. I’ve had the Enright, Robinson, and Lalami titles out of the library at some point, but they were returned unread. (I don’t suppose that counts!) I had an unexpected “epic fail” with one of these selections: A Spool of Blue Thread. For years I’ve been a faithful fan of Anne Tyler’s fiction, but this novel annoyed me almost  from the get go. Those same hapless, well meaning characters back again! The problem could have been my mood. I may try again; one of my book groups has scheduled it for our December meeting, and I will always have a high regard and affection for Anne Tyler.

The book I take on first from the above list will probably be The Moor’s Account. Laila Lalami, born and raised in Morocco, is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California’s Riverside campus. What we have here is a striking, gifted, and mellifluously named author, a beautiful book cover, and a graceful and compelling opening passage:

In the name of God, most compassionate, most merciful. Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds, and prayers and blessings be on our prophet Muhammad and upon all his progeny and companions. This book is the humble work of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, being a true account of his life and travels from the city of Azemmur to the Land of the Indians, where he arrived as a slave and, in his attempt to return to freedom, was shipwrecked and lost for many years.


Laila Lalami


The Booker Prize Foundation proclaims itself to be an evolving and dynamic entity. To an extent, this is no doubt true. But one does wish – This One does, at any rate – that its members would in some way acknowledge the outstanding work being done now and in years past in the field of mystery and crime writing. For that matter, where are the short story collections? An unusually large number of these have garnered rave reviews in recent months. I mentioned some of the titles in a recent post entitled Twenty fiction and mystery titles I’ve loved (or at least liked a lot) so far this year.  (Presumably the Foundation’s motto “Fiction at Its Finest” includes short stories – and could also include crime fiction.)

Permalink 5 Comments

Six nonfiction titles I’ve read and esteemed so far this year

August 1, 2015 at 11:01 pm (Book review, books, France, True crime)

51CgK5tPG2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  My nonfiction reading this year was heavily influenced by the presence of the true crime class in my life. Among other readings, I finally got around to reading The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule‘s classic account of her strange and curiously compelling friendship with serial killer Ted Bundy.

And so this seems like the appropriate time and place to acknowledge Ann Rule’s recent passing and pay tribute to her remarkable achievements in the field of true crime authorship. Several of Rule’s family members were involved in law enforcement and various other aspects of the criminal justice system. Thus her interest was piqued at an early age. Among her earliest achievements, she became the youngest policewoman ever hired by the Seattle police department. she also obtained a degree in creative writing from the University of Washington. Thus, in regard to her future career, the stage was set.

And yet…What were the odds that while volunteering at a crisis hotline in Seattle, a woman with a background in both law enforcement and creative writing would find herself seated next to an apparently congenial, unquestionably nice looking young man who ultimately proved to be one of the most terrifying serial killers of all time? That chance juxtaposition determined the course of Ann Rule’s professional life.

Truly, in the lives of certain people, the workings of the hand of Fate seem clearly discernible. Of course, it helps greatly when the individual in question recognizes the unique set of circumstances and is prepared to act on them.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…



Ann Rae Rule October 22, 1931 – July 26, 2015

The other true crime classic I read that  directly related to the class is one that I had read once before, when it first came out in 1976. I had a feeling Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money would be worth revisiting. Boy, was it ever. (See the link above to the true crime class.) blood_and_money_dj

So far  this year, I’ve read two additional books in the  true crime genre: This House of Grief by Helen Garner and Ghettoside by Jill Leovy.. Both were gripping narratives replete with tension and heartbreak. Beautifully written, too – that’s true especially of the Garner title. I’ve reviewed both in this space; click on the titles to read those posts.

thishouseofgrief_12  a1mftpympl-_sl15001_

I used Harold Schechter’s True Crime: An American Anthology as the basic text for the true crime course. In preparation for teaching the class in February of this year, I read nearly all of the selections in this 772 page tome, including Schecter’s helpful and illuminating introduction.  Although I’d completed this reading by late fall of 2014, I found that as February drew near, I had to reread everything I’d chosen for the syllabus in order to refresh my memory. (This is part of what made the course prep seem so labor intensive.) So perhaps this particular book does not rightly belong on this list. Yet it so dominated my thought processes over the winter and early spring that I can’t omit mentioning it in this context.  truecrimea1

Two biographies round out my list of great reading in nonfiction: The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss and Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison.

deathofcaesarjacketimage1  51rddlpwhal-_sy344_bo120420320012_

So, what’s up next for me in nonfiction?  joanofarccastor1 What can I say? I’ve been mesmerizedby this woman’s life story since I was a girl. I date that fascination from the time I first stood before this painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (I was eight years old; my mother could hardly wait to show it to me.)


Joan of Arc, by Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879 [Click to enlarge]


Permalink 1 Comment

Twenty fiction and mystery titles I’ve loved (or at least liked a lot) so far this year

July 26, 2015 at 8:33 pm (Best of 2015, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Earlier this month, the Washington Post gifted its book-loving readers (whose numbers are legion) with “23 books we’ve loved so far this year.” I’d already seen excellent reviews of most of these titles; nevertheless, it was a pleasure to see them listed together in one place.

And so I would like to emulate the sterling example set by the editors and reviewers of the Post Book World by presenting my own list, in two parts. Here goes:

Fiction & Literature (as termed by Kirkus Reviews): For me, this has been the least rewarding category so far this year. I’ve started several novels and set them aside in fairly short order. Perhaps I’ve been too impatient. A rather large number of story collections have garnered excellent write-ups of late, among them England and Other Stories by Graham Swift, Bitter Bronx by Jerome Charyn, There’s Something I Want You To Do by Charles Baxter (whose 2003 novel Saul and Patsy I very much enjoyed), Get In Trouble by Kelly Link (whose story “The Wrong Grave” I greatly admire), In Another Country by David Constantine, and Honeydew by Edith Pearlman. In my relentless search for excellent writing, bracing wit, and elegantly constructed narrative, I mean to seek these out.

The only “literary” fiction I read from start to finish so far this year is An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. This is a novel I’ve long meant to tackle, but the impetus to finally do so was provided by the true crime course that I taught earlier this year. If the word “tackle” gives you pause, it’s with good reason: at eight hundred plus pages, An American Tragedy is a real doorstop of a tome. But – despite certain slow moving sections – I was mostly riveted. It was well worth the effort. Despite all the reading I was doing for the course, I kept returning – avidly – to Dreiser’s hefty masterwork.

Originally issued in two volumes, An American Tragedy came out in 1925, nine years after the sensational crime that inspired it. In a later post, I’ll have more to say about this mostly absorbing, occasionally maddening novel. 17142

Mystery & Crime (once again, pace Kirkus): A different story here. I’ve had lots of great reading so far this year in this, my admittedly favorite genre.

In February, I posted Mystery Round-Up, in which I warmly recommended Perfect Sins by the greatly under-appreciated Jo Bannister and The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. The latter was an entry in the international reading year of the Usual Suspects. It’s a novel I did not expect to like but did – very much. Endings are often less than impressive in contemporary crime fiction, but The Devotion of Suspect X featured a conclusion that was extremely powerful, almost shattering in its intensity.

In  that same post, I gave thanks for Disclosure, the reliably entertaining 32nd entry in the Harpur and Iles series of procedurals, written by the pseudonymous and mysterious Bill James. And finally, I heaped praise yet again on P. F. Chisholm’s wonderfully witty novels set amidst the turmoil and dangers of Elizabethan England. Thus far this year I’ve read A Surfeit of Guns and A Plague of Angels. And I’m about half way through A Murder of Crows.

Historical crime fiction appears to be on a roll. In addition to Chisholm’s above mentioned Sir Robert Carey series, there are the Matthew Shardlake novels of C.J. Sansom and  the books featuring Titus Cragg, coroner, and Luke Fidelis, physician. This year’s reading has included Lamentation, the sixth entry in the series featuring lawyer Shardlake, and The Hidden Man, the third in Robin Blake’s Cragg and Fidelis series. I wrote about both books in an April post in which I voiced Some Thoughts on Historical Fiction.

I continue my periodic return to Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. The new translations and reissues add to the enjoyment of this pleasurable reading experience. Most recently read: Dancer at the Gai-Moulin and The Grand Banks Cafe. And two entries in contemporary series that I follow regularly and that almost never disappoint: Falling in Love, the latest Guido Brunetti novel by Donna Leon, and the latest appearance of Bill Slider and company in Star Fall by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

I enjoyed The Youth Hostel Murders by Glyn Carr and The Bachelors of Broken Hill by Arthur Upfield.  Both were selected for discussion by The Usual Suspects.

yhmurders3    16897617692_b0fb3d288e

51jNaTzadhL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_  I grabbed Ross MacDonald’s The Ivory Grin off a display at one of my favorite hangouts, the Miller Branch Library. Could it be time to read another Lew Archer novel? Turned out the answer was yes.

The Ivory Grin is an early work – 1952 – and is the fourth entry in this series. To my mind, it has some of the characteristics of a journeyman work. Characters swirl about in profusion, and the plot is hard to follow. Still, there are places where the language is riveting, never more than when MacDonald is describing scenes of dereliction:

The road degenerated from broken asphalt to dirt, and the sidewalk ended. She picked her way carefully among the children who ran and squatted and rolled in the dust, past houses with smashed windows patched with cardboard and scarred peeling doors or  no doors at all. In the photographic light the wretchedness of the houses had a stern kind of clarity or beauty, like old men’s faces in the sun. Their roofs sagged and their walls leaned with a human resignation, and they had voices: quarreling and gossiping and singing. The children in the dust played fighting games.

Frequently in MacDonald’s fiction, as in the works of other noir writers (see Raymond Chandler), that there’s a woman in the case who has in some way sold her soul and is probably beyond redemption. Here’s how he describes Archer’s encounter with one such character:

She came out of the car, her body full and startling in a yellow jersey dress with a row of gold buttons down the front. I frisked her on the stairs and found no gun and burned my hands a little. But in the lighted room I saw that she was losing what she had had. Her past was coming out on her face like latent handwriting.

At the conclusion of this novel, there’s a revelation that startled me so much that I cried out with a mixture of horror and amazement. So yes, even in these early days, there were signals of greatness to come.

I am very pleased that this past April, the Library of America brought out a volume of four Lew Archer titles from the 1950s. MacDonald richly deserves this recognition. And I like this picture of him, bathed in the perpetual sunshine of the southern California, whose mid twentieth century zeitgeist he captures so vividly in his novels and stories. 41DoGOZnfsL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_  (And thanks once again to Helene, one of my closest friends of very long standing, for introducing me to Ross MacDonald all those years ago. She gave me one of his best novels – in fact, still one of the best mysteries I’ve ever read: The Zebra-Striped Hearse.)

The British Library Crime Classics are a joy! Individual entries in this series vary in quality and readability, but my experience of them so far has been very positive. I especially recommend Mystery in White by J. Farjeon Jefferson and the story collection Resorting To Murder. These splendid little volumes with their appealing cover art are being brought out in this country by Poisoned Pen Press.

mysteryinwhite4  511s1ab85al-_sy344_bo12042032001_

I was sufficiently intrigued by what Martin Edwards has to say (in The Golden Age of Murder) about Before the Fact by Francis Iles that I downloaded a copy on the spot. Once I’d begun, I didn’t want to read anything else. Before+the+Fact1

Before the Fact (1932) is an unusual little book. It’s not a detective story, or even a mystery in the accepted, conventional sense. Rather, it’s a work of romantic suspense in the tradition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The book is not quite on a par with that masterpiece, but make no mistake: it’s very, very good. Francis Iles (pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley, actually Anthony Berkeley Cox) has a way of setting up the reader’s expectations only to knock them sideways with little or no warning. As with Rebecca, you find yourself rooting for the somewhat diffident protagonist (named Lina in the Iles novel) and at the same time fearing for her (and also, from time to time, wanting to grab her by the shoulders and shake her).

Before the Fact was selected by H.R.F. Keating for inclusion in his book Crime  Mystery: The 100 Best Books (1987). He calls it “… one of the key texts in the history of crime fiction.”

On January 5, I posted a review of Ruth Rendell’s novel, The Girl Next Door. I subtitled the piece, “Ruth Rendell at the summit of her powers.” Shortly thereafter came the news that the author had suffered a severe stroke. Then there was no news. Then came the news that we’d all been dreading.

Here’s what I wrote on the extremely sad occasion of losing Ruth Rendell.

I felt an immediate need to read or to reread one of her works. Among the works recommended by The Guardian in Ruth Rendell: Five Key Works is a standalone from 2001 entitled Adam and Eve and Pinch Me. I picked that one and was enthralled. Ah, the old magic….

There will be a final book to be released here in December, a standalone entitled Dark Corners. One is saddened but all the same grateful.

dark-corners-9781501119422_lg  611902









Permalink Leave a Comment

Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio: a book group discussion

July 16, 2015 at 9:02 pm (Book clubs, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

temporary-perfections_1024x1024  This past Tuesday evening, as my contribution to the ‘international year’ of the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group, I chose to present Temporary Perfections, the fourth entry in Gianrico Carofiglio’s Guido Guerrrieri series.

I began by passing around two maps of Italy. The first shows the twenty regions of which the country is comprised; the second gives the precise location of Bari, the city in which Guido lives and has his law practice.




Next, I recommended Jane Kramer’s recent New Yorker profile of Italy’s new young and dynamic prime minister, Matteo Renzi. Having begun public life as mayor of  Florence, Renzi  declares: “This year, I will change Italy or change jobs.” When Angela Merkel admitted that she’d only been to Florence once, he invited her to visit his native city as his guest. The visit – dubbed by the media as a “charm offensive” -went exceedingly well:

It has to be said that Merkel flew home to Berlin looking uncommonly reassured that Italy wasn’t Greece.


Matteo Renzi

Next, we zeroed in on Bari, where most of the novel’s key events transpire.


Bari, in Italy’s Apulia region

Bari is the capital city of Apulia (or Puglia), the region which encompasses the boot heel of the Italian land mass. (See the maps above.):

Until recently, the southern region of Apulia was often dismissed as the run-down heel of Italy, an undeveloped Spanish-Greek-Italian coastal crossroads of parched landscapes and poverty, its glorious food, wine and architecture known only to hardy adventurers. But under the leadership since 2005 of its charismatic, gay, Berlusconi-busting governor, Nichi Vendola, Apulia has emerged as an attractive, solar-energy-driven destination of choice for green businesses, music festivals and tourism. It even has its own Mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita – smaller than the organised crime outfits of its southern neighbours Sicily and Naples, but lethal nonetheless. And, for nearly a decade Apulia has had its own celebrity crime writer, Gianrico Carofiglio.

From a review of Temporary Perfections written by Rosie Goldsmith and appearing in The New Statesman

A trullo plays an important part in the novel. 11705174_10153924568888912_1887971549878056278_n   Trulli are quaint little structures formerly used as storehouses or shelters  for farm laborers. They are unique to the region of Apulia. (Those located in the town of Alborabello have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.)

Before getting to our novel, I wanted to address briefly the subject of Italian crime fiction. In a 2009 article in Italica Magazine, Nicoletta Di Ciolla comments on the proliferation of Italian mysteries currently being written in the noir idiom:

The increasing success enjoyed in Italy by the noir genre–evidenced by a variety of indicators including volume of sales, permanence in the best–(and long–) sellers lists, creation of specialised series and/or publishing houses–has been accompanied over the past decade by a concomitant singular phenomenon: the emergence of a new category of writer that could be named ‘the law professional turned noir practitioner’. Senior police officers (Giuttari, Matrone, Di Cara), judges (Cannevale, De Cataldo, Cacopardo, Mannuzzu, Carofiglio, Von Borries) and lawyers (Filasto), whilst fully engaged in the exercise of their principal activities as custodians and upholders of the law, have also become the newest breed of Italian noir authors…. Their novels, often making use of the array of statutory genre conventions that typically include crime(s) and investigation(s), are however different from most, or perceived by readers as such, because of the position of authority from which their discourses are uttered. The “passionate and large public” that, according to Carlo Lucarelli, finds in some writers accurate interpreters of the social dynamics of contemporary Italy, will trust in the knowledge and vision of authors who experience and navigate the dysfunctions of the system in their working life and trust them to shed light on–if not to make sense of–the inconsistencies of Italian society.

Carofiglio has a short – very short – story in the collection entitled Rome Noir.  51yS+YPYgDL  This volume is a good place to go if you’re searching for other Italian crime writers. (The Akashic Noir series spotlights numerous locales, with more to come.)

Carol recently pointed out to me that there’s a piece in the Spring/Summer issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine entitled “Mediterranean Nouveau-Noir.”  Nancy-Stephanie Stone begins her article with this observation: “There’s an evolving area of European crime fiction known as Mediterranean Noir that may challenge  the Nordic hold on mystery readers.”

She goes on to discuss such French writers as Jean-Claude Izzo, Patrick Manchette, and Pierre Lemaitre. Among the Italians are Maurizio De Giovanni and Massimo Carlotto. (Although I’ve glanced through a couple of titles by Manchette, Izzo, and De Giovanni, I’ve not yet read any of the aforementioned authors.)

At the conclusion, Stone offers this comment:

These French and Italian crime stories present pictures at odds with the Air France and Alitalia travel posters that introduced and enticed visitors to the Mediterranean.

My guess is, that’s probably an understatement.

On Tuesday evening, I recommended an article in an October 2013 issue of Library Journal entitled “Crime Italian Style.” Author David Keymer offers up lengthy annotations of eight novels of crime in Italy – titles which he deems “first-rate.” (One of his selections is a book that I loved: The Silence of the Wave by Gianrico Carofigio.

And speaking of Carofiglio: he was born in Bari in 1961. He was a lawyer and judge before starting a career as a novelist. For a period in the 1990s, he specialized in the prosecution of members of Mafia. This was not an undertaking for the faint of heart:

I had some difficult years. Between 1993 and 1998, I went around with an armed escort, in an armored car, because in those days I was involved with some very dangerous criminal organizations.

[From a 2005 interview with Bloomberg News]

Carofiglio notes that he and others achieved some notable successes during that time, bringing a number of significant malefactors to justice. He adds: “Today, Mafia organizations exist, are dangerous and operational, but, fortunately, they’ve abandoned the frontal clash (with the state), and this reduces the risk for magistrates and policemen who work on these things.”

Gianrico Carofiglio is currently serving in Italy’s senate. He is married and has two children. (If one of his goals is to keep his private life private, I’d say he’s doing an excellent job.)

Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio

I provided some information on the Italian criminal justice system and policing in Italy. Both topics are covered nicely by Wikipedia.

In addition to the Guido Guerrieri series, Gianrico Carofiglio has wriiten two standalones, The Silence of the Waves, mentioned above, and The Past Is Another Country. He has also collaborated with his brother Francesco on a work entitled La Casa Nel Bosco (The House in the Woods).

Francesco Carofiglio and Gianrico Carofiglio

Francesco Carofiglio and Gianrico Carofiglio

The Guido Guerrieri series currently consists of five novels. I only recently discovered that a fifth novel, The Rule of Balance, has already been published in Italy. It came out in November of last year; as of this writing, it has not appeared here and may not yet have been translated into English.

We began our discussion of Temporary Perfections with an assessment of the narrator and protagonist, Guido Guerrrieri. His tendency toward self-deprecation was duly noted by us – first positively, then not so much. Genie and Frank felt it wore thin after a while; I believe others agreed with them. Oddly enough, I did too. It was only one of the several ways in which I felt somewhat let down by the experience of rereading this novel. (In my notes, I wrote that after a while, all that self-abasement began to seem perversely like a kind of reverse egotism.)

Guerrieri’s sense of humor did garner some well deserved praise. And we all appreciated Carofiglio’s sensitive, compassionate portrayal of Antonio Ferraro, a man driven to the extremity of grief and anxiety over his daughter Manuela’s disappearance. This is what goes through Guerrieri’s mind  as he sits face to face with this person:

As I looked at him, the words of an old song…floated into my mind: “Do you by any chance know a girl from Rome whose face looks like a collapsing dam?” The face of Signore Ferraro, furniture salesman and desperate father, looked like a collapsing dam.

Guerrieri has been asked by his friend Sabino Fornelli to assist in the search for Manuela. He demurs at first. He is, after all, an attorney and not trained in investigative techniques. But absent some kind of definitive breakthrough, the police are preparing to close the case. The Ferraros and Fornelli see Guido as their last hope. Reluctantly, he agrees to provide whatever assistance he can in the quest for the missing young woman.

I think that despite his tendency to indulge in long bouts of nostalgia, plus certain other reservations, generally speaking the character of Guido Guerrieri found favor with this group of readers. That is, until Caterina Pontrandolfi enters the mix. She’s one of Manuela’s closest friends. Among others, Guido will need to interview her in order to move his investigation forward.

I’m tempted to refer to Caterina as a “beautiful seductress.” Certainly she knows how to use her endowments most effectively. She proceeds to manipulate Guido, using the oldest tricks in the book. Eventually, almost inevitably, he succumbs, all the while berating himself for doing so. (Among other things, he’s old enough to be her father.)

As this aspect of the plot unfolds, Guido sacrifices in some measure the reader’s good will. At least, this was the reaction I detected on the part of our group. (In some cases, ‘detecting’ was not needed. Pauline was clear about her growing aversion to both characters.) In her review of this novel, the author of the blog Petrona voices the same reservations.

I asked how people felt about the novel’s plot. Frank zeroed in on a plot point involving a cell phone in which the author had not played fair with the reader. I agreed with him; I had not picked up on that. Unfortunately, I can’t recall any other specifics of that part of the discussion – I think my brain was getting tired by then – but I will say that for myself, I found the plot singularly weak, insufficiently inventive, and lacking in momentum. In addition, it meandered in and out of focus, partly due to the aforementioned digressions supplied by Guido himself.

This assessment stands in rather stark contrast to my initial reaction to the novel  when I first reviewed it in 2011. What accounts for this change? It’s hard to say. Marge and I agree, though, that in regard to books we select for discussion, this change of perception occurs from time to time.

This is not to say I’m dismissing Temporary Perfections out of hand. There were still aspects of the book that I appreciated the second time around. I enjoyed the literary references with which Carofiglio salts his narrative. Auguste Dupin appears, as does Sherlock Holmes. And there’s this lovely homage to memory, and to Proust:

It’s not like memories dissolve and disappear. They’re all still there, hidden under a thin crust of consciousness. Even the memories we thought we’d lost forever. Sometimes they remain under the surface for an entire lifetime. Other times, something happens that makes them reappear.

A madeleine dipped in tea, or a huge dog with melancholy eyes that offers you his throat to be stroked, for example.

I’ve by no means covered our entire discussion, or indeed everything I have to say about the book. I am, however, running out of steam, so I’d like to sign off shortly. But, speaking of memory, I’m just now recalling that someone said toward the end that her view of the novel had changed as a result of our discussion. Not surprising, given what terrific talkers and thinkers the Suspects are.

Next up for our group is another volume with much to say about the workings of memory: Suspended Sentences, a beautiful and poignant collection of three novellas written by Patrick Modiano of France, winner of last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Modiano  Genie will be the presenter.


Permalink 4 Comments

Classics of the Golden Age Come into their Own, courtesy of the British Library

July 1, 2015 at 2:02 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)


I’ve gotten caught up in the excitement and enthusiasm that’s been generated by Bodies from the Library, a recent conference held at the British Library.

British Library Crime Classics is a publishing initiative that in a short time has achieved remarkable popularity in Britain.

Britlibrarycrime classics

[Click to enlarge]

Building on this success, the British Library decided to hold  a conference on mystery fiction of the Golden Age; i.e., the period in the early twentieth century that fell between the two world wars.


(Lively on the spot coverage of this event may be found at Past Offences.)

Speakers included Simon Brett, Martin Edwards, Dr. John Curran, and Jake Kerridge. Kerridge writes wonderfully entertaining and insightful reviews of crime fiction titles. I especially appreciated his recent piece in the Telegraph on Ruth Rendell, entitled “The Most Astonishing Imagination in British Crime Fiction.”.  In an article from 2008  with the rather piquant title of “Efficient Mystery with Light Emotional Wallowing,”  Kerridge offers the following observation concerning Scandinavian crime fiction: “The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die….”

This past May saw the publication of The Golden Age of Murder  by Martin Edwards. Subtitled “The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story,” this engaging volume (which I’ve just begun reading) tells the story of The Detection Club and its founders – some famous, others not so much.

Edwards serves as consultant for the British Library Classic Crimes series. I’ve just read an entry in that series that I thoroughly enjoyed:  Mysteryinwhite  J. Jefferson Farjeon, whose name was hitherto completely unknown to me, was an extraordinarily prolific writer.  Of course, this does not mean that all his oeuvre is of the same high quality, but judging solely by Mystery in White, I know I’d like to read more.  Farjeon

By herself again, Jessie lay back on her pillow for awhile and stared at the canopy of faded pink above her. She had never lain in a four-poster bed before, and she found the sensation rather singular. At first it was pleasant. She felt herself sinking back into an easy, amiable past, where the fight for bread-and- butter— often so sordid a fight— did not exist. The snow dissolved with the years. Outside was sunny country; inside, slow movement, and ease. Then, gradually, the ease departed, and a strange fear began to invade her. She put it down to natural oppressions— her slightly aching foot, the strain she had been through, worry about her lost chance of an engagement and the difficulty of finding another, and the grunting and occasional coughing of the objectionable man in the adjoining room. None of these causes, however, seemed to fit her new mood. It was a fear to which she could not adjust any coherent cause. It grew until it gave her a definite pain in her stomach. She sat up suddenly, in the grip of a nameless, apprehensive terror. She felt as though the walls and the bed-posts were pressing upon her….

“What’s the matter with you?” she gasped, struggling to regain her normality. “Aren’t you a little idiot?”

Excerpt from Mystery in White

511s1AB85aL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  I’m currently reading a story collection (selected by Martin Edwards) entitled Resorting to Murder. I’m slightly more than half way through and having, as I anticipated, an excellent time. The book starts off with a Sherlock Holmes tale, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” which is set in Cornwall. It’s funny  how, after an absence from the Holmes canon, you can return to the stories and once again be awash in admiration of Conan Doyle’s superb narrative skills, not to mention his graceful prose style:

On the land side our surroundings were as sombre as on the sea. It was a country of rolling moors, lonely and dun-coloured, with an occasional church tower to mark the site of some old-world village. In every direction upon these moors there were traces of some vanished race which had passed utterly away, and left as its sole record strange monuments of stone, irregular mounds which contained the burned ashes of the dead, and curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife. The glamour and mystery of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations, appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor.

Excerpt from “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.”

From time to time, Carol of our Suspects discussion group forwards to us a grouping of four or five capsule reviews nicely observed and written by one who styles herself “LJ.” (I always think of her as ‘Ms Library Journal,’ having lived with those initials so regularly at the Central Branch.) LJ begins her reviews by quoting the first sentence of the work under consideration, then ends by giving the work a grade of sorts: Excellent, Very Good, etc. I’d like to borrow her method in rating the other stories I’ve read so far in Resorting to Murder, with the slight alteration of using the traditional academic grading system. (Needless to say but I’ll say it anyway: I’d give the Sherlock Holmes story an A plus.)

So, to begin:

“A Schoolmaster Abroad” by E.W. Hornung.

It is a small world that flocks to Switzerland for the Christmas holidays.

As Martin Edwards explains in his header notes, “Dollar sees himself as a crime doctor, someone whose mission is to prevent crime by treating prospective criminals by ‘saving ’em from themselves while they’re still worth saving’.”

I’d give this story a B: mildly entertaining without being especially enthralling. Interestingly, E.W. Hornung was Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law; he is best known for his stories featuring Raffles, the ‘amateur cracksman.”

“Murder!” by Arnold Bennett

Instead of just the first sentence, I’d like to quote the entire first paragraph:

Many great ones of the earth have justified murder as a social act, defensible and even laudable in certain instances. There is something to be said for murder, though perhaps not much. All of us, or nearly all of us, have at one time or another had the desire and the impulse to commit murder. At any rate, murder is not an uncommon affair. On an average, two people are murdered every week in England, and probably about two hundred every week in the United States. And forty per cent of the murderers are not brought to justice. These figures take no account of the undoubtedly numerous cases where murder has been done but never suspected. Murders and murderesses walk safely abroad among us, and it may happen to us to shake hands with them. A disturbing thought! But such is life, and such is homicide.

A tight, compelling little tale, driven by a urgent passion and exceptionally well written. I’d give it an A. I intend to seek out more works by this author. Martin Edwards tells us that although Arnold Bennett achieved distinction in his own time, his fame ebbed quickly after his death in 1931. This was possibly due in part to a ‘literary feud’ with Virginia Woolf. Based on this story, I’d say he is due for rediscovery. Time for a swing of the literary pendulum!

“The Murder on the Golf Links” by M. McDonnell Bodkin

‘Don’t go in, don’t! don’t! please don’t!’

The disobedient ball, regardless of her entreaties, crept slowly up the smooth green slope, paused irresolute on the ridge, and then trickled softly down into the hole; a wonderful ‘put.’

This opener typifies the irreverent tone of this thoroughly enjoyable story. Paul Beck is the detective protagonist, but for my money the lovely Mag Hazel, golfer extraordinaire, steals the show. And I love this eloquent statement regarding her father’s feelings for her:

Colonel Hazel’s sallow cheek flushed with delight, for he loved his daughter with a love that was the best part of his life.

“The Murder on the Golf Links” lacks the gravitas of the Arnold Bennett story, but I was delighted with it anyhow. I’m giving it an A minus.

“The Finger of Stone” G.K. Chesterton

Three young men on a walking-tour came to a halt outside the little town of Carillon, in the south of France; which is doubtless described in the guide books as famous for its fine old Byzantine monastery, now the seat of a university; and for having been the scene of the labours of Boyg.

I know that Chesterton is a revered figure in both literary and religious circles – goodness, his sanctification has recently been proposed! –  but I’ve always found his prose rather rough going. This is a good story, though; long on atmosphere if  a bit abstruse regarding plot – I had trouble getting a handle on who this Boyg person and what was the nature of his significance – beside his disappearance.

This is not a Father Brown story, though there is a tale from that body of work that I cherish. It’s called “The Oracle of the Dog.”

I’d give “The Finger of Stone” a B plus.

“The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser” by Basil Thomson

This is exactly the kind of story I love, where reality seems to bend into an entirely different shape before the very eyes of a completely rational actor. Sort of a locked room puzzle kicked up several notches. I loved it!

On a par with the Conan Doyle story; hence, it too gets an A plus.

“A Mystery of the Sand-Hills” by R. Austin Freeman

Doctor John Thorndyke is a fairly well known protagonist to Golden Age aficionados. Martin Edwards observes that Dr. Thorndyke resembles Sherlock Holmes in some particulars but is lacking in the latter’s charisma. I would agree with that assessment. Edwards adds this, however:  “But what he lacked in literary flair, he made up for with meticulous craftsmanship, and his admirers included T. S. Eliot and Raymond Chandler.”

Here’s how the story opens:

I have occasionally wondered how often Mystery and Romance present themselves to us ordinary men of affairs only to be passed by without recognition. More often, I suspect, than most of us imagine. The uncanny tendency of my talented friend John Thorndyke to become involved in strange, mysterious and abnormal circumstances has almost become a joke against him. But yet, on reflection, I am disposed to think that his experiences have not differed essentially from those of other men, but that his extraordinary powers of observation and rapid inference have enabled him to detect abnormal elements in what, to ordinary men, appeared to be quite commonplace occurrences.

We’re at the port city of Sandwich, in Kent. A pile of clothing is found on the rocks at water’s edge. The identity of the owner of the abandoned habiliments  is ascertained, yet he himself is nowhere to be found. It’s quite a good yarn, with a twist at the end that I didn’t anticipate. Still, I kept wishing I would encounter just a hint of that sly irony that makes the Conan Doyle stories such a pleasurable read.

You’ll note in the above quoted passage the phrase “my talented friend John Thorndyke.” Yes, here we encounter yet another ‘Watson,’ this one named Christopher Jervis. And like Watson, Jervis serves as narrator of the tale and assistant to his preternaturally gifted companion.

For me, this story lingers somewhere between a B plus and an A minus.

“The Hazel Ice” by H.C. Bailey

Set in the Alps, this is a somewhat convoluted tale of a two mountaineers caught in a rock slide. One of them,  injured but still mobile, returns to their hotel; his companion, however, has disappeared. A multiplicity of characters becomes involved in the mystery.

Sprightly writing and a nicely conveyed sense of place made this one an enjoyable read. Grade: B plus.

“The Razor Edge” by Anthony Berkeley

Yet another situation involving mistaken and concealed identity, this is also a case in which the police benefit greatly from the acumen of amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham. Anthony Berkeley is best known as one of the founding members of The Detection Club.

This is an ingenious tale, well told and engrossing. A minus.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

E. W. Hornung

E. W. Hornung

Arnold Bennett

Arnold Bennett

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

Sir Basil Home Thomson

Sir Basil Home Thomson

R. Austin Freeman

R. Austin Freeman

Henry Christopher Bailey

Henry Christopher Bailey

Anthony Berkeley Cox

Anthony Berkeley Cox

Well, as you can plainly see, I’m enjoying this anthology a great deal. I’ve four stories remaining; then it’s on to Capital Crimes, seventeen stories set in London and once again selected by Martin Edwards. capital-crimes

Biographical and literary information about the Golden Age writers can be found at gadetection.

Meanwhile, the Bodies from the Library conference has come out with a terrific list of Suggested Reading. This is both wonderful news and dismaying, because one realizes (deep sigh) how much great material is out there, begging to be read….still….

In his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name, Martin Edwards has been steadily laboring in the cause of bringing Forgotten Books to the attention of crime fiction enthusiasts. To these efforts, he has now added his work with the British Library on their Crime Classics series and his newly published history of The Detection Club and its quirky, brilliant founders.

Add to all this his fine body of work as a writer of crime fiction. I’ve been enjoying The Lake District Series since The Coffin Trail, the debut volume, came out in 2004.  (The Dungeon House, the eagerly awaited seventh series entry, is due out in September.)

CoffinTrail  The-Dungeon-House-cover

In the course of my few brief encounters with the British community of crime writers, I’ve been deeply impressed by the kindness and generosity they display toward one another and toward their readers. In addition to his erudition and creativity, Martin Edwards likewise exemplifies these  qualities. And so it is small wonder that he has been chosen to be the next president of The Detection Club. This honor places him in some distinctly select company:

G.K. Chesterton   1930-36
E. C. Bentley        1936-49
Dorothy L. Sayers 1949-57
Agatha Christie     1957-76
Lord Gorell            1957-63 (as co-President, because Christie disliked public speaking)
Julian Symons       1976-85
H.R.F. Keating      1985-2000
Simon Brett           2000 to date

Det Club 4

Outgoing president of The Detection Club Simon Brett, in the scarlet robe, with incoming president Martin Edwards (photo from Martin Edwards’s blog)

Congratulations, Martin – well done!












Permalink Leave a Comment

Crime fiction: three good ones

June 21, 2015 at 1:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

a1ziez18wcl-_sl1500_  51UNbsOz1RL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

In a recent post on historical fiction, I wrote that I was reading Lamentation, the latest entry in C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. This series has won critical acclaim, and justly so, for the most part, I think. Yet as much as I was enjoying it, I found that the author’s research was obtruding upon the narrative. I have now finished the book and am happy to report that as the story gathered steam, that particular problem pretty much disappeared. I got caught up in this tale of  court intrigue in the dying days of King Henry VIII’s  reign. The fact that Queen Catherine Parr figures prominently in this story further enlivens the proceedings.

At over six hundred pages, Lamentation is something of  an undertaking. Be patient, though; the immersion in a turbulent and fascinating past is worth the effort. This is the only form of time travel we can aspire to – at least, so far.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s Bill Slider series is one of the few that I follow without question, and without troubling to read the reviews first. I know I’ll be thoroughly entertained, and thus it was with Star Fall, the seventeenth novel featuring Slider, Atherton, Swilley, and the rest of the Shepherd’s Bush crew. Their task this time around is to solve the murder of Rowland Egerton, a television personality whose program Antiques Galore has a large and enthusiastic following. Egerton is one of those celebrities whose publicly displayed bonhomie conceals a dubious personality rife with nasty proclivities. He’s a hard person to grieve for, but murder is murder and justice must be served. This is the kind of tightly wound contemporary British police procedural that I cherish. It follows a formula with delightful variations.

As usual, Harrod-Eagles’s writing is liberally spiced with irreverent wit and clever asides. Chapter titles feature the inevitable wordplay – “Hairline Pilot” followed by “Men Behaving Baldly” – groan-inducing but fun nonetheless. Then,  at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a sentence in this novel that stopped me in my tracks:

He had the look of a man who had heard the leathery creak of the Erinyes’ wings in the darkness, smelled the chthonic reek of their breath, felt the clammy touch of their lips on the back of his neck.

Well, gosh…Parse that, you grammarians! Although I consider myself one of their number, I admit I was flummoxed. It turns out that the Erinyes are better known as the Furies of ancient Greek mythology; “chthonic” literally means “subterranean.” (Thus saith Wikipedia, at any rate.) I sympathize wholeheartedly with this author’s apparently irresistible urge to show off her erudition.

10  Appointed To Die by Kate Charles appeared on the reading list for the mystery tour we took in 2011.  Ms Charles is the author of several crime fiction series; this particular novel is third in The Book of Psalms sequence. I very much enjoyed Appointed To Die. It put me in mind of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, of happy memory. In addition, the author showcased her love and knowledge of British music, something we share, especially regarding the great Ralph Vaughan Williams. (In the course of the above mentioned tour, we had the pleasure of meeting with Ms Charles.)

Kate Charles grew up in the U.S. and was “transplanted,” in her own words, to Great Britain in 1986. She now lives in the Welsh border country, a place of almost unearthly beauty replete with the riches of history. (Not that I”m at all envious….)

Recently I read False Tongues, the latest entry in a different series featuring Callie Anson, identified on Stop!YoureKillingMe – Kate Charles as “a newly ordained Anglican cleric.” Callie is a tenderhearted young woman, empathetic, sensitive, and easily hurt. To a certain degree, she is well suited to minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of others.  At any rate, in False Tongues, she is struggling to recover from a broken heart so that, from both a personal and vocational perspective, she can once again feel whole and complete and ready to give of herself to others.

This novel is enlivened by a host of interesting secondary characters, including Canon John Kingsley, a man of warmth and generous spirit who also appears in Appointed To Die. Like that earlier work, False Tongues is beautifully written and a thoroughly gratifying read.

Permalink 1 Comment

The Youth Hostel Murders by Glyn Carr

June 13, 2015 at 8:26 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

yhmurders  The plan was, I’d write up the Usual Suspects’ discussion of The Youth Hostel Murders, which I read some months ago. But in one of those ‘man-proposes-God disposes’ moments, I came down with a flu like illness which prevented my attendance at the discussion this past Tuesday.

Well, darn it anyway….

Still, I’d like to say a few words about the book, which was originally published in 1952.  The youth hostel of the title is located in the Cumberland fells, in the far north of England. The chief protagonist is Abercrombie Lewker, a professional actor and manager who moonlights as an amateur but gifted sleuth. His wife Georgie – Georgina -does her best to keep her husband’s flights of fancy from becoming overly extravagant.

The countryside of this setting is mountainous and wild, sparsely populated by humans but nicely populated by sheep. In fact a shepherd, Ben Truby, figures prominently in this narrative. We first encounter him as he emerges from the shadows surrounding a fireplace “like a troll emerging from a cave.”

He was a tall old man with scanty gray locks and very long and muscular arms. His gaunt body, bent like a question mark but still suggestive of great strength, was clad in an old velveteen coat with tails, much patched tweed breeches, and huge nailed boots. His face was weather-browned and bony, and the inordinate length of his bristly jaw gave him a horse-faced appearance which instantly reminded Georgie of William Wordsworth.

Wordsworth? Really? Still, it’s a compelling description, one of several found in this novel.

What did I like about The Youth Hostel Murders? The atmospherics, for one thing: the danger and eeriness of the fells. And Carr  throws in a soupçon of witchcraft for good measure.The text is replete with quotes from Shakespeare. I particularly liked “hell’s black intelligencer,” as Queen Margaret venomously terms Richard III in the eponymous history play.

Abercrombie Lewker is usually referred to as the “actor-manager” rather than just an actor. as though the additional designation would confer more status. He “booms” as opposed to merely speaking. He’s an avid climber, although he doesn’t seem cut out for this rugged sport. Pauline wrote me that she found him an “extremely annoying” character, and if you’ve ever spent time with someone who declaims rather than simply talking, you’ll know what she means. Georgie’s nickname for her scenery-chewing husband  is “Filthy,” and Pauline found this likewise irritating. (So did I.) Marge, for her part, was put off by Carr’s prose style. I gather that for the rest of the Suspects, the verdict on the novel was generally positive, albeit with some reservations.

(The nickname “Filthy” put me in mind of Jane Gardam’s trio of novels about a character called “Old Filth.” He’s actually Edward Feathers QC, and the sobriquet is an acronym of ‘Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.’ Is this a specifically British thing, I wonder? The legal system over there can seem somewhat alien to Yanks – or at least, it does to this Yank. The Gardam novels are worth seeking out, though, especially the first one, Old Filth.)

Presently, The Youth Hostel Murders is a publication of the good people at Rue Morgue Press. Theirs is an extremely admirable initiative, aimed at bringing neglected classics and other unjustly ignored older titles back into print. Some of the authors currently on their list are Gladys Mitchell, Catherine Aird, John Dickson Carr, and Craig Rice. Click here for the complete list.

Glyn Carr, by the way, is a pseudonym for Showell Styles, a remarkably prolific writer of whom I ‘d not previously heard.

I’m next up for the Suspects, and I’ve just started rereading my selection, Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio. I’m always a bit uneasy at this preliminary stage; I’ve had the experience of picking up a book group title that I’ve committed to but not actually read for some time, only to find myself wondering why I ever made that particular choice. That’s not happening with this book. I’m enjoying it all over again and I hope that my fellow Suspects feel the same.

And those of you who were in attendance Tuesday night, please feel free to comment on this post and/or correct any errors.


Permalink 1 Comment

“Dark-eyed and silver-tongued, sensual and violent… ” – The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss

June 2, 2015 at 12:50 pm (Book review, books, History)

DeathofCaesarJacketImage  Julius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play that I came to love. So this book was a joy to me, elucidating as it does the actual events leading up to and following one of history’s most famous assassinations. (That early attraction was probably the result of having had a terrific Latin teacher when I was in the ninth grade. Mrs Gelber – I didn’t know I remembered her name until I began writing this – made the ancient world come alive for her lucky students. All these decades later, I can still recall dressing two dolls in a toga and a tunic respectively, for a class project.)

Even more importantly, I gained a sense of who Julius Caesar actually was and how he fits into the template of Roman history.


This bust of Caesar resides in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. I was there in 2009. It’s a very fabulous place, but I don’t have a specific memory of seeing this sculpture.

The other players in this drama are brought vividly to the fore. Some, like Mark Antony, we already know – or thought we knew…

While he spent the next year in the East, winning allies, raising money, conquering rebels, and wooing a new mistress, Caesar sent Antony back to Rome. There Antony arranged for Caesar to be dictator for the year and for himself to be Master of the Horse (Magister Equitum), as a dictator’s second-in-command was called. This was Caesar’s second dictatorship. It dismayed lovers of liberty. Meanwhile, traditionalists took offense at Antony’s rowdy and degenerate lifestyle, which he resumed with abandon. The sources speak of wild nights, public hangovers, vomiting in the Forum, and chariots pulled by lions. It was hard to miss his affair with an actress and ex-slave with the stage name of Cytheris, “Venus’s Girl,” since she and Antony traveled together in public in a litter.

After his divorce, Antony married Fulvia, a woman who was his match in more ways than one:

Of all the powerful women of the era, Fulvia is in a class of her own. She alone once wore a sword and recruited an army, which earned her the backhanded compliment of having her name inscribed on her enemy’s sling bullets along with rude references to her body parts. But she did most of her fighting with words. A populist through and through, Fulvia married three politicians in turn: the street-fighting demagogue Clodius, Curio— a People’s Tribune who supported Caesar— and finally and most fatefully, Antony. Antony’s enemies claimed that Fulvia controlled him, which is not true. But this strong woman probably stiffened his spine and she almost certainly shared with Antony the political skills learned from her two earlier husbands.

Julius Caesar was an immensely complicated man. Strauss’s succinct enumeration of his qualities make that clear:

Coming under the dictator’s inspection could only have been a daunting prospect, even if at fifty-five Caesar was beginning to show his age. He was subject to dizzy spells, possibly a symptom of the epilepsy that brought him infrequent seizures. He was balding. After nearly fifteen years of war, his face was creased and his cheeks sunken. Yet Caesar still was cunning and dangerous. He personified talent, strategy, memory, literature, prudence, meticulousness, reasoning, and hard work, as a contemporary said.

Strauss returns repeatedly to this kind of categorizing, trying to bring to life a man whose life, triumphs, and death have attained a sort of mythical status:

In earlier years, Caesar had been a reforming consul who fought and beat the Senate; a political broker who considered no one his equal except Rome’s then-greatest general, Pompey, and Rome’s then-richest man, Marcus Licinius Crassus. By 45 B.C. Caesar outstripped them both; became a conqueror on three continents; and wrote military commentaries destined to last as literary classics for two thousand years. Caesar was both genius and demon, excelling at politics, war, and writing— a triple crown that no one has ever worn as well. Caesar lived in a society in which modesty was not a virtue. He was what Aristotle called a great-souled man— one with high-flying ambitions and no small opinion of himself. He believed in his intelligence, versatility, and efficacy. He lacked neither courage nor nerve, and his appetite for self-promotion was limitless. As he saw it, he was a political virtuoso with a common touch. He was the man who did everything in the crisis of battle and saved his army again and again. He was stern, fair, and prudent with the enemy, and infinitely merciful to the people of Rome. He stated approvingly a belief that “the imperator Gaius Caesar deserved well of the republic after all his achievements.”

Strauss provides plenty of background for the run-up to the assassination, but it’s in the moments immediately preceding the killing that his narrative becomes truly gripping. This, and the ghost of Shakespeare hovering over the narrative, had this reader well nigh mesmerized.

There now took place the famous exchange between the dictator and the soothsayer. “The Ides of March have come,” said Caesar. “Aye, they have come but not gone,” replied the soothsayer in one of history’s memorable comebacks.

This is the seminal moment in which the soothsayer speaks truth to power, bluntly informing Caesar in so many words that “it ain’t over til it’s over.” Shakespeare’s version is almost exactly word for word the same; this has always been one of my favorite moments in the play. Fate is hanging heavily over Caesar, who seems curiously oblivious, even cheerful. (Despite having been warned of  imminent danger, he set forth on that fateful day sans bodyguards.)

Barry Strauss examined every source he could find on the assassination, but mainly relied on these five:

 …Plutarch (c. 46-c. 120 CE), Suetonius (c. 66-c. 122 CE), Appian (c. 95-c. 165 CE), Cassius Dio (c. 155-235 CE) and, last but not least, Nicolaus of Damascus (c. 64 BCE-14 CE).

(This information comes from an interview on the site Ancient History Et Cetera.) Shakespeare relied almost exclusively on Plutarch’s Lives. See Shakespeare’s Romans for more information.)

This book is 362 pages long in hard copy. A great deal of space is at the end is given over to photographs, notes, and information on sources. (I read the e-book and nearly missed the photographs, which are marvelous.) It was over too soon. I loved it.

Permalink 2 Comments

“…a terrible gong of horror.” – This House of Grief by Helen Garner

May 19, 2015 at 10:30 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

thishouseofgrief_2  This is the story of the death by drowning of three young boys – brothers – in Australia, and of the trial, or I should say trials, that came afterward.

It was a spring day. We passed Geelong and were soon flying along between paddocks yellow with capeweed, their fence lines marked by the occasional windbreak of dark cypresses. Across the huge sky sailed flat-bottomed clouds of brilliant white. My companion and I had spent years of our childhoods in this region. We were familiar with its melancholy beauty, the grand, smooth sweeps of its terrain. Rolling west along the two-lane highway, we opened the windows and let the air stream through.

(Helen Garner’s companion on this grim journey is a teenager named Louise, looking for a useful way to employ her time during her “gap year.”)

At the end of the gruelling day the jury looked older, weary and sad. The men’s brows were furrowed, the women were stowing sodden handkerchiefs. Out in the courtyard we passed Bev Gambino. She gave us a small, shaky smile. Her face was thin, her eyes hollow behind the pretty spectacles. A puff of wind would have carried her away. Louise and I were beyond speech. We parted in Lonsdale Street. On the long escalator down to Flagstaff station I could not block out of my mind those small bodies, the tender reverse-midwifery of the diver. The only way I could bear it was to picture the boys as water creatures: three silvery, naked little sprites, muscular as fish, who slithered through a crack in the car’s rear window and, with a flip of their sinuous feet, sped away together into their new element.

The stunning image summoned forth here will, I think, stick with me for the rest of my life. What a mind  Helen Garner possesses! What an amazingly gifted writer. And I had never before heard of her.

Garner says that when she first saw the image of the submerged car in which the Farquharson boys had been trapped,  ‘‘I suppose it struck me in the way it struck everyone who saw it, with a terrible gong of horror.’’ This House of Grief in part depicts Garner’s personal struggle to make some kind of sense out of  this tragedy. In her attitude toward the chief players in the drama – the father who stands accused, the ravaged mother, and others –  she is alternately tough minded and tender. She feels the horrible loss almost as if it were her own. It is indeed very deep water, and the reader must perforce go with her on this harrowing journey.

Obviously this book is not for everyone. In fact, those to whom I’ve described its matter tend to recoil in dismay, exclaiming all the while: “How could you read about something so awful?” This goes back to the questions we dealt with in the True Crime class:

  1. What is true crime, and what accounts for its appeal  at this particular point in time?
  2. Why is this type of murder narrative so fascinating? (It can be by turns riveting and tedious.)
  3. “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”

So why couldn’t I stop reading this horrifying story?

1. The author’s voice is extraordinarily compelling.
2. I came to care deeply about the people involved.
3. I was riveted/appalled by the story.
4. I don’t know.

I’ve read quite a few true crime narratives, and lately their number has multiplied as a result of teaching the true crime class. This House of Grief is not only one of the most powerful of that lot – it is one of the most powerful, wrenching, and eloquent stories I’ve ever read in any genre. At the very least, it belongs up there in the pantheon with In Cold Blood, Blood and  Money, Fatal Vision, and The Stranger Beside Me.

Permalink Leave a Comment

« Previous page · Next page »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 377 other followers