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.
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.
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:
- What is true crime, and what accounts for its appeal at this particular point in time?
- Why is this type of murder narrative so fascinating? (It can be by turns riveting and tedious.)
- “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.
That is not to say I didn’t enjoy it – I did. For me, Donna Leon almost never disappoints, and she didn’t this time. The saga of Flavia Petrelli, an opera singer bedeviled by an obsessed fan, was enriched as usual by the incomparable Venetian setting. Added to that, the opera in question is none other than Puccini’s Tosca.
I found myself almost pathetically eager to be once more in the company of the cultured Commissario. At the Questura, he deals skillfully with difficult, often dense superiors and prickly administrative assistants – yes, that would chiefly be the mercurial Signorina Elettra. At home, he is buoyed by the companionship provided by Paola, his spirited and fiercely intellectual wife, and his children Chiara and Raffi. (And these four really are present in one another’s lives. Not only are their dinners often festive affairs, but they also frequently lunch together – at home, enjoying delicious feasts prepared by Paola.)
In his book Opera as Drama (1956, revised 1988), Joseph Kerman famously referred to Tosca as “a shabby little shocker.” In a recent essay collection, Leon herself calls it “a vulgar potboiler I wouldn’t today cross the street to hear.” My response to all of this vilification is…YES!! Tosca is everything an opera should be: turbulent, melodramatic, filled with over the top exploding passions and glorious music, and – well, quintessentially operatic.
As usual, the city of Venice is itself a character in the drama. There are the inevitable laments over its deterioration and despoiling, particularly by the hoards of tourists who are bent on destroying what they supposedly love. And yet…As Brunetti and Paola are walking homeward on a moonlit night, they experience this:
There was no wind, so the moon was reflected as though on a plate of dark glass. No boats came for some minutes, and Brunetti remained silent, as if afraid that the sound of his voice would shatter the surface of the water and thus destroy the moon. The footsteps on the bridge stopped, and for a long time there was silence. A Number One appeared down at Vallaresso and crossed over to La Salute, breaking the spell and then the reflection. When Brunetti turned towards San Vidal, he saw motionless people on the steps below him, all transfixed by the now-shimmering moon and the silence and the facades on either side of the canal. He looked to his right and saw that the railing was lined with more motionless people, faces raised for the moon’s benediction.
Paola is moved to exclaim: “We live in Paradise, don’t we?”
I’ve featured this segment in previous posts, but it’s always worth seeing and hearing again:
I didn’t know where to begin. But an article in the Guardian helped. It listed five key works by this author. They are as follows:
1. From Doon with Death (1964). Ruth Rendell’s first published novel. In it, she introduces her policeman protagonist Reginald Wexford.
2. A Judgement in Stone (1977). A standalone containing one of the best known opening sentences in modern crime fiction.
3. A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986). Winner of the 1987 Edgar Award for best mystery, this is the first work that Rendell published using the pseudonym (alternate identity?) of Barbara Vine. A book I’ve always meant to read and still haven’t.
4. Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (2001). This choice, another standalone, threw me. I know I read it, but I remember nothing about it. Time to revisit, I suppose.
5. Not in the Flesh (2007). A later Wexford, and one of the best in the series, in my view.
I think by “five key works,” authors Alison Flood and Vanessa Thorpe mean to suggest good entry points into Ruth Rendell’s large and varied body of work. Looking at this list, the one choice they made that I totally agree with is A Judgement in Stone. I’ve led book discussions on it, and I’ve read it three times. And every single time I’m filled with dread and awe, despite already knowing what the shattering climax will be. The build-up of tension over the course of the narrative is simply incredible.
For me, the Wexford novels, good from the very beginning, became increasingly compelling from the mid-1980s to the present. From An Unkindness of Ravens (1985) to No Man’s Nightingale (2013), I’ve loved them all. Somehow, when I’m reading them, my critical faculties are suspended. I’m held in the thrall by the writing, the story, the characters, Wexford and his utterly ordinary yet fascinating family life, his second in command Mike Burden, whose starchy, conservative exterior serves to protect the vulnerable man within.
I thought The Vault was an especially cunning work. It’s a sequel to A Sight for Sore Eyes, in which Rendell gave us one of the most uniquely frightening characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction: Teddy Brex. The Vault is a Wexford novel; A Sight for Sore Eyes was a standalone. In The Vault, Rendell brings in a retired Wexford to help investigate an extremely strange discovery: the remains of four bodies found in the sealed off basement of a house. If you’ve read A Sight for Eyes, you the reader have some recollection of who these people are. Wexford and company lack that advantage.
Houses are often fateful places in Rendell’s fiction; so it is with this one, named Orcadia Cottage.
The Girl Next Door, a standalone that came out last year, stands as a kind of summation of Rendell’s art. The vagaries and the irony of the human condition find rich embodiment in the cast of characters that people this narrative. I thought it was outstanding.
I’ll save my final words of praise for novel written in 1987 but not read by me until 2012: A Fatal Inversion. This is probably the most riveting and haunting work of psychological suspense that I’ve ever read. Read my review to find out why.
Ruth Rendell was an outstanding & hugely popular figure in British literature & served in the House of Lords with great loyalty & passion.
Oh – and the famous first line of A Judgement in Stone?
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.
Where the world of crime fiction is concerned, Carol of the Usual Suspects does a great job of keeping us group members informed. She recently sent along information about a Google doodle that pays homage to the great Golden Age writer Ngaio Marsh. The doodle appeared only in Marsh’s native New Zealand, so one would have known nothing of it had we not been specifically alerted to its existence:
Shortly thereafter, Carol forwarded an article on Marton Cottage, once home to Dame Ngaio.
One of my favorite novels by Ngaio Marsh is Death in a White Tie. This is as much a novel of manners as a mystery, providing as it does a close-up look at the ‘London season’ with all its social commotion and marriage market significance. It’s a poignant tale of loss, and an even more poignant love story. The tone commingles compassion and irony. The writing is unfailingly graceful and precise.
What a splendid job Felony & Mayhem Press has been doing in bringing so many of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn novels back into print. Click here for the full list.
And click here to hear Dame Ngaio explain how she first came to the writing of crime fiction.
Thanks so very much, Carol, for pointing me to all this excellent material!
In her Washington Post review of Jane Smiley’s Early Warning, Valerie Sayers proclaims: “In an era of tweets, texts and flash fiction, the big, juicy novel is ascendant again.” One can only say, thank goodness!
Early Warning is the second volume in a projected three volume trilogy. Some Luck, the first, moves at a slow, deliberate, even magisterial pace. One learns, like the Midwestern farm folk in the novel, to become attuned to the slow unfolding of events. I loved the book, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the sequel.
And speaking of anticipated sequels, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, a follow-up to Life After Life, is due out here on May 5. With its digressive, nonlinear narrative, Life After Life was a book I was prepared to dislike. In fact, I expected to be unable to get through it. In the event, it held me spellbound – a masterpiece of compelling storytelling.
Some months ago, I received word that Martin Edwards was writing a nonfiction work on the beginnings of the Detection Club and the rise of crime fiction in England in the early years of the twentieth century. It was to be called The Golden Age of Murder. I pre-ordered on Amazon as soon as I could, and two days ago it came:
Subtitled The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, this is a tome of substance, clocking in at some 457 pages (including bibliography). I plan to hold off for as long as I can before plunging in. It looks delicious!
In “The Maigret-a-Month Club” in the Wall Street Journal, Allan Massie begins with this pronouncement:
Georges Simenon was a phenomenon, a hack who became a great writer.
Massie’s article is filled with similar bons mots. It is a beautiful summation of the distinctive peculiarity of Simenon’s achievement in the field of crime fiction.
Massie is particularly concerned with the Maigret novels. These have been receiving renewed attention of late, due to an initiative undertaken by Penguin Press. They have commissioned new translations of all 75 of them, in handsome soft cover editions replete with eye-catching new covers.
The library has been acquiring these erratically, and I’ve been reading them just as erratically. (The Maigret books I’d read previously tended to be of a later vintage.) Penguin is issuing these novels roughly in chronological order. Simenon apparently dashed off a slew of them right at the outset of Maigret’s career. Steve Trussel – the “go to guy” for all things Maigret – assigns to each of the first eight titles above the same original publication date, 1931.
I’ve skipped Pietr the Latvian deliberately. It’s the first in the series; critics seem to agree that it’s quite obviously a journeyman effort (“a somewhat rough diamond” in the words of John Banville).. Recently I’ve read – I’m almost wanting to say ‘devoured’ – the following: The Yellow Dog, Night at the Crossroads, The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, The Grand Banks Cafe, and The Saint-Fiacre Affair (aka Maigret Goes Home, in an earlier translation). Ever since reading in Allan Massie’s article that no less a literary light than Muriel Spark considered Madame Maigret to be a her favorite character in fiction, I’ve kept a weather eye out for her appearance in the novels. (Massie observes of Madame Maigret: “She is the model wife of pre-feminist times.”)
At the outset of the series, appearances of, and references to, Madame Maigret are few in number. From The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin:
For all that she was married to a detective chief inspector of the Police Judiciaire, she had kept all the innocence of a true daughter of rural France.
Lovely phrasing, that. The same goes for this, from The Grand Banks Cafe:
The kiss he placed on the forehead of his drowsy wife was solemn and sincere.
Simenon’s depiction of the Maigrets’ married life is securely placed in this placid ground. Maigret, though sensitive to feminine beauty, seems never to be seriously tempted to stray outside his conjugal vows. For him, Madame Maigret is an entirely satisfactory life partner; she harbors the same sentiments towards him. (They have no children.) I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an element of wistfulness in this picture, as if, at least in respect of the domestic aspect, Simenon wishes from time to time that his own life could have more closely resembled that of his creation.
Not all of these early works are of the same high caliber, though I am finding, as I go along, that they’re getting better and better. The plotting becomes more deft, characters become more intriguing, the sense of place more resonant. The above two, from which I quoted, are my favorites so far. The Grand Banks Cafe in particular would be a good choice for a book discussion group.
What do “literary” novelists admire in Simenon? The combination of a positive and a negative, perhaps: a mixture of what he can do better than they, and of what he can get away with not doing. His admirable positives: swiftness of creation; swiftness of effect; clearly demarcated personal territory; intense atmosphere and resonant detail; knowledge of, and sympathy with, les petites gens; moral ambiguity; a usually baffling plot with a usually satisfactory denouement. As for his enviable negatives: Simenon got away with a very restricted and therefore very repetitive vocabulary (about 2,000 words, by his own estimation) – he didn’t want any reader to have to pause over a word, let alone reach for the dictionary. He kept his books very short, able to be read in one sitting, or (often) journey: none risks outstaying its welcome. He eschews all rhetorical effect – there is rarely more than one simile per book, and no metaphors, let alone anything approaching a symbol. There is text, but no subtext; there is plot but no subplot – or rather, what appears to be possible subplot usually ends up being part of the main plot. There are no literary or cultural allusions, and minimal reference to what is going on in the wider world of French politics, let alone the international arena. There is also – both admirable positive and enviable negative – no authorial presence, no authorial judgement, and no obvious moral signposts. Which helps make Simenon’s fiction remarkably like life.
Julian Barnes, in the Times Literary Supplement
I have recently downloaded a sample from this: . I’m intrigued, and may spring for the whole book. (Maigret, Simenon and France was a 2014 Edgar Award nominee for Best Critical/Biographical Work.)
Penguin has bestowed new titles on the entries in this latest re-issue of the Maigret novels. Unfortunately, they’ve not provided information on how they’ve been titled in the past. This has resulted in some confusion, understandably. Thus far, I’ve found two sites that display that information and are up to date. Steve Trussel’s site provides the original French language title followed by English language variants. The Wikipedia entry is equally current, though it helps to know that the new Penguin titles are listed at the bottom of each cell.
Simenon’s prose is famously stripped down and lean. Early in his career as a novelist, he was advised by the writer Colette to keep his writing from becoming “too literary.” When pressed to clarify this directive, Simenon explained:
Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.
In accordance with this injunction, Simenon learned to choose his words with care. In brief bursts of dead-on prose he could conjure up a world:
He turned his head. He saw the trawler’s funnel, from which smoke was gently rising, for the boilers had just been lit. Fécamp was asleep. There was a wide splash of moonlight in the middle of the harbour. The wind was rising, blowing in off the sea, raw and almost freezing, like the breath of the ocean itself.
from The Grand Banks Cafe
Simenon wrote with incredible speed. A story is told about a time in which Alfred Hitchcock was trying to get in touch with him:
In the latter years of Georges Simenon’s prolific writing life, when he had already published close to 400 novels, Alfred Hitchcock was said to have telephoned, only to be told by Simenon’s secretary that he couldn’t be disturbed because he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock, knowing that Simenon was capable of writing one novel — or two or three — every month, replied, ”That’s all right, I’ll wait.”
I’ve read a number of Simenon’s titles that do not feature Maigret and are not strictly speaking police procedurals. As works of psychological suspense, they can be quite gripping. This is especially true of Monsieur Monde Vanishes and Act of Passion. Now, though, I am finding the Maigret books oddly soothing. Julian Barnes has a good grasp on the reason why:
Apart from delivering the usual satisfactions of crime fiction, the Maigret books work because they offer a continuous, reliable, easily re-enterable world. Those early readers never had to look up a word in the dictionary; and we later readers, whether foreign or French, never have to get out histories of the first half of the twentieth century to understand what is going on….The world he describes may exist as a moral and economic consequence of the First World War, but in the first six Maigrets that war is mentioned on only two occasions, once as part of a rare simile: The Carter of La Providence is set among the chalk hills of Champagne, “where at this time of year the vines looked like wooden crosses in a Great War cemetery”. Where the larger, outer world has been, is and may be heading does not impinge, any more than it does on, say, the world of Jeeves and Wooster. We enter Maigretland confident that the weather will be extreme, the Inspector will solve a seemingly insoluble crime, and that we shall not need to Google anything. This blithe sense of security will now continue for another sixty-nine volumes.
(To read the Julian Barnes article in its entirety, click here.)
There have been numerous film and television versions of the Maigret novels and stories. I’m pretty much wedded to the one made by Granada Television in the early 1990s and starring Michael Gambon as the taciturn inspector. The introductory film clip is wonderfully atmospheric (even though the series itself was actually filmed in Budapest).
My thoughts have turned to this subject of late, for two reasons: I’ve been reading quite a few historical mysteries, and I’m watching Wolf Hall:
I have little to add to the praise that has already been heaped on this production. I adored both books – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – and I’m loving the screen version, although I by no means consider them equivalent in impact. But oh, those costumes, those sets, those tapestries! (what you can see of them in the dark, that is).
(Vanity Fair has posted a very helpful guide to the cast and characters in Wolf Hall.)
Now, on to the meat of the matter. Currently I have two favorite historical mystery series. First, there’s Robin Blake’s novels featuring coroner Titus Cragg and his friend and fellow investigator Luke Fidelis, a physician. These books are set in a very specific time and place: Preston, Lancashire, in the eighteenth century. The first, A Dark Anatomy, takes place in 1740. The next two, Dark Waters followed by The Hidden Man, advance the action exactly one year forward. Thus having recently finished The Hidden Man, I feel firmly rooted in the world that Robin Blake has created. It’s an extremely interesting world and it feels utterly real. I feel as though I actually know Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis. Titus is married to the sweet and empathetic Elizabeth; Luke is single. (I am most eager for Elizabeth to become pregnant and for Luke to find a soul mate.)
P.F. Chisholm’s series is set in the late 1500s in the far north of England, near the Anglo-Scottish border In this region, a curious and widespread lawlessness prevails. Queen Elizabeth is apparently too far away to take any meaningful corrective action; one doesn’t get the sense that she’s much interested in this remote domestic Hell raising anyhow. She does send one of her favorite courtiers, a distant cousin named Robert Carey. Would he please try to impose some sort of order on these people? Once arrived, Sir Robert assumes the role of Deputy Warden. Although his immediate superior, the Chief Warden of the region, happens to be his brother-in-law, this does not secure for Sir Robert any special favors. Rather, as he goes about the often dangerous business of pursuing outlaws, he is subject to a more particular scrutiny by that gentleman. Sir Robert’s sister, the wonderfully named Philadelphia, gives him a hand whenever she can.
After reading the first in the series, A Famine of Horses, I went on to read the next three in quick succession. I couldn’t get enough of Sir Robert Carey, his occasionally hapless men, and his seemingly doomed to be hapless love life.These books sparkle with wit, dry humor, and offhand irreverence. They are a joy to read – and there are more!
I’ve written about both Blake and Chisholm elsewhere in this space. It perplexes me that they are not better known and appreciated. Be that as it may, I recommend them to the discerning reader as highly as I possibly can.
What qualities are inherent in good historical fiction? To begin with, the writing has to be first rate. And so important: no anachronisms! Banish them utterly; they break the spell and spoil the illusion. Dialogue can be especially treacherous territory. I’ve read – or begun to read – some historical novels in which one encounters blocks of prose that are passable, even elegantly descriptive. But when the characters open their mouths to speak, they sound like high school kids from some idyllic valley in California. One certainly wishes them well – but do please extract them from Elizabethan England, the sooner the better! One way to skirt this pitfall is to cast the novel in the form of a first person memoir. Although this will limit point of view – the narrator can’t know what’s going on elsewhere except later and at second hand – it’s a technique that offers certain advantages. This is nowhere more apparent than in Marguerite Yourcenar’s brilliant Memoirs of Hadrian.
Really good historical fiction is carefully researched so that the era in question can be meticulously recreated. That research must then be subsumed beneath the surface of the story that’s being told. If it obtrudes itself in an ungainly way into the narrative, then the cherished illusion of being transported into a past time is under threat. C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels have been justly praised for their rich depiction of life in Tudor England. I’m currently reading the latest, Lamentation. I’m about third of the way in – it’s quite long – and generally speaking, I’m enjoying it. But I’ve been dismayed to encounter several instances in which one or another aspect of the times is explicated for the benefit of the contemporary reader rather than for the novel’s characters.
Here’s an example: Shardlake, a lawyer, is conversing with his new pupil Nicholas on the subject of the accoutrements that may legally be worn in public. As they head for the street, Shardlake asks if Nicholas is carrying a weapon. The pupil replies in the affirmative, and Shardlake offers this comment:
“Since your father’s being a landowner decrees you are a gentleman and gentlemen wear swords in public, we may as well turn the sumptuary laws to our advantage.”
Granted, sumptuary law will prove an arcane subject for most contemporary readers. (The WordPress visual text editor does not have the word “sumptuary” in its lexicon.) Still, in the context of the novel, this is too much information, methinks. Shardlake and his contemporaries would probably have been well versed in this body of regulations, since violating them could carry serious consequences. For whom then is this information intended? The modern reader, one can but supposed.
Admittedly a small cavil, but what can I say? It sets my teeth on edge and breaks the spell.
If, like me, you love historical fiction, here’s a little book that may drive you crazy in the best possible way:
For me, the chief task of historical fiction is to transport me to another time and place – and keep me there for the duration. Above all, transcendent writing can help make the leap. There are two passages from Wolf Hall that illustrate this phenomenon exceptionally well well. This one:
‘The harvest is getting in. The nights are violet and the comet shines over the stubble fields. The huntsmen call in the dogs.
He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.
All our senses are heightened and brought into play. The past is made real once again.
“This year John Billington the elder (one that came over with the first) was arraigned; and both by grand, and petty jury found guilty of willful murder; by plain and notorious evidence. And was for the same accordingly executed. This as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them; they used all due means about his trial, and took the advice of Mr. Winthrop, and other the ablest gentlemen in the Bay of Massachusetts, that were then newly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land be purged from blood. He and some of his, had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them; … His fact was, that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen (about a former quarrel) and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.”
Such poignancy in the line, “This as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them…”
For more about John Billington, click here.
The murder of John Newcomen took place in 1630. Another murder in the colonies, not included in the Schechter anthology, occurred in New Hampshire in 1648. In May or June of that year, one Hannah Willix was found floating in the Piscataqua River in New Hampshire. The body was in shocking condition: “…her necke broken, her tounge black and swollen out of her mouth & the bloud settled in her face, the privy partes swolne &c as if she had been muche abused &c.” In the course of her research, blogger Pam Carter, a lifelong Maine resident and self-confessed genealogy addict, discovered that Hannah Willix was her own tenth great grandmother.
Robert Begiebing, now professor of English emeritus at Southern New Hampshire University, first came across this story in a different context: he was looking for fresh subject matter with which to engage creatively.
While in this rather restless frame of mind, Begiebing was reading “Bell’s History of Exeter,” an 1888 book about the Exeter-Newfields region where he lives. Alarms went off in Begiebing’s head when he came across a one-sentence entry in the journal of Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop.
That sentence was exactly the same as the one, quoted above, that was found by Pam Carter in the course of her genealogical research. It fired Begiebing’s imagination at once; the result was a fine piece of historical crime fiction, in which Hannah Willix becomes the eponymous – and similarly unfortunate – Mistress Coffin:
Here is the book trailer for this novel:
This past Monday, March 23, was the final convening of the true crime class; thus, today begins the assessment of the experience.
First, I freely admit that I did not realize the magnitude of the task I was undertaking. I’ve been teaching off and on my entire adult life: middle school, high school, freshman composition at the community college level, aspects of the mystery genre in continuing education settings, etc. etc. And that does not include the numerous presentations I gave while working at the library.
So what made this undertaking so uniquely challenging? To being with, it had the imprimatur, as it were, of Johns Hopkins, a name to conjure with in this region, and probably elsewhere as well. Granted, this is a noncredit lifelong learning institute, but to my mind that made it no less daunting. I was forewarned that the members had high standards and expectations. So, yes, a bit nervous making.
On the other hand….
I’ve rarely had so much fun doing research. Also I’ve mastered some new computer skills, thanks mostly to my endlessly patient husband Ron. The art of teaching now incorporates technology in ways that were unheard of when I first started out in the field. For instance, up until this class came into my life, I had never assembled a power point style presentation. Neither had Ron, but he’s a quick study where I.T. is concerned, and so he got me up to speed fairly quickly. The program we used was Google Presentation.
Here’s the slide I began the course with:
To begin with, we talked about the landmark works of true crime that appeared in the years between 1965 and 1983:
I had just reread Blood and Money and was as mesmerized as I was when I first encountered it decades ago. (It was urged on me by my mother, of all people – definitely not her usual reading material.) This quintessentially Texas story of passion, murder, and betrayal still has the power to shock, and to sadden.
I then proceeded to read, for the first time, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. (One of the class members read the book right after we talked about it in the first class. When I next saw her, she told me that she had a single daughter in her early twenties and that The Stranger Beside Me had made her very fearful for that daughter. All I could think to say was, Remind your daughter to beware the facile charm of certain men. They can be master deceivers. But really, Bundy was seemingly a unique and terrible case, and, one hopes, one whose like will never again see the light of day.)
My feeling about Ann Rule as a writer is that while she is no great prose stylist, she knows how to tell a story so that it almost never loses momentum. In addition to her full length books, she’s published several collections of shorter pieces. Her contribution to True Crime: An American Anthology, the text I used for the course, is an explosive – quite literally – piece entitled “Young Love,” which originally appeared in the collection Empty Promises in 2000.
In addition to posting images, Google Presentation allows for videos to be embedded within slides. I did that with this video of an interview with Ann Rule:
The other video I showed in that first class, though not in its entirety, features Jean Murley, an associate professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY). Professor Murley’s book, pictured on the above slide, is entitled The Rise of True Crime: 20th Century Murder and the American Popular Imagination. It was very helpful to me in gathering and organizing material for the course – a real treasure trove, in other words.
In 2008, The Rise of True Crime was nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for an Edgar Award for best critical work. Professor Murley poses some provocative questions, to which she does not offer facile answers (something I really appreciate):
To these, I appended several more:
What can we gain from reading and studying the literature of true crime – generally speaking, and specifically in regard to the Library of America anthology?
Why do certain crimes continue to resonate in the public consciousness while others fade from memory?
How do the crimes in our reading selections affect the lives of perpetrators, surviving victims, friends and family of the victims, investigators, witnesses and bystanders – in other words, anyone who becomes involved one way or another?
I urged class members to be mindful of these questions as we move forward with our discussions.
And next: Let us now praise Harold Schechter, who has assembled a terrific anthology of true crime narratives. In his excellent introduction, he limns the history of the genre; he also includes deeply informative header notes in front of each selection. I highly recommend the interview on the Library of America site. Here are some excerpts:
….we dutiful citizens harbor a dark, savage self, deeply hidden from our own awareness, that revels in violence and destruction. This atavistic part—the flip side of our civilized persona—has been called many things: the Id, the Shadow, the Other, Mr. Hyde.William James describes it as “the carnivore within.” Appealing as powerfully as it does to our least socially acceptable impulses, true crime has always carried a strong whiff of the forbidden and incurred the censure of moralizing critics.
What critics of the genre fail to realize, of course, is that true crime isn’t
just, or even primarily, about titillation. It’s an age-old form of storytelling,
deeply rooted in folk tradition, that—by casting deeply disturbing events into
shapely narratives—helps us cope with and make sense of the violence that is
endemic to both our inner and outer worlds.
I first became interested in the historical roots of true crime when I discovered,
twenty or so years ago, a collection of old issues of the Illustrated Police
News of London, the best-selling periodical of Victorian England. The equivalent
of today’s sleazier supermarket tabloids, this wildly sensationalistic paper
offered graphically illustrated accounts of the most gruesome crimes, all trumpeted with headlines like “Shocking Murder!” “Singular Homicide!” “Frightful Slaying!” I realized that, though based in fact, these accounts were a variety of what folklorists call wondertales—stories designed to elicit a kind of childlike
astonishment and awe in the reader. That same experience, I believe, remains central to the appeal of true crime today. As a result, I chose to focus my anthology on accounts of remarkable crimes, the kind that erupt into otherwise ordinary lives—as opposed to, say, gangland murders, which are, after all, an
everyday part of life for your average hitman.
While visiting his website, I discovered that in January of this year, Harold Schechter delivered a lecture entitled “A History of Serial Murder from One Million, B.C. to the Present.” The venue was one I’d never heard of: The Morbid Anatomy Museum. This curiously named entity, located in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, opened in June of last year. (This write-up in The New York Times features a slide presentation.)
Schechter’s latest true crime opus has been nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for the award in the Best Fact Crime category. I hope he wins. I love the way this man writes!
More to come on this; not sure when.