This is the title I’ve selected for a program I’ll be presenting in the not too distant future. I was pleased – probably too much so – with myself for coming up with it.
Once the first few moments of self-satisfaction passed, I began casting about for content. I came up with this list:
- Domestic (i.e. psychological) suspense
- Classics reissues and rediscoveries
- International authors and settings
- Use of actual historical personages as detectives
- Historical mysteries
- Regional mysteries (U.S.)
- “Crime fiction is finally getting the critical respect it deserves”
I was immediately filled with unease. Are these trends necessarily hot? Are they especially new? Are they even trends, properly called? And what about that pert little exclamation point? Perhaps I should at least modify the punctuation, e.g. ‘Hot new trends in crime fiction?’ But what a woeful lack of confidence is betrayed thereby!
More often than not, domestic suspense involves a family menaced by a threat from outside (and sometimes, from inside) the family unit. Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me is a good example of the subgenre. Gone Girl, a book I couldn’t get through, is, from what I know of it, yet another, and can possibly be credited with jump starting the present trend.
Another book that could possibly fit into this category is What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross. I’d never heard of this novel until it was chosen by one of my book groups. The plot hinges on a kidnapping rather than a murder. The writing isn’t brilliant, but the story grabbed me. Both the kidnapper and the circumstances are unusual, but the motive behind the crime is all too understandable. The abduction occurs near the beginning of the narrative; the description of the fallout from it is very compelling. My emotional response was unexpectedly strong.
It should be mentioned that domestic suspense is more often written by women, with a woman as the featured protagonist. The Library of America’s two volume edition of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s contains some excellent examples. This collection was curated by Sarah Weinman, whose knowledge of this field is deep, as is her enthusiasm for it. (Last year the Usual Suspects discussed one of the novels included in this collection, Margaret Millar’s Edgar winner Beast in View.)
These mid-twentieth century works provide a neat segue into the subject of crime fiction classics. Stay tuned…
Peter Robinson’s Children of the Revolution more than fulfilled my expectations. Intriguing story, wonderful team of investigators headed up as always by the ever-reliable though sometimes stubborn Alan Banks, nice North Yorkshire atmospherics, and the usual music references. How do I love the British police procedural? Let me count the ways…. (And that goes especially for this long running, very fine series.)
Leave it to me to start with Book Two, then wish I’d read the first one – well, first. I did it with Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful Corduroy Mansions; now I’ve done it again with Slough House, the highly original series penned by Mick Herron. Having read the second, Dead Lions (and inadvertently skipped the award-winning first, Slow Horses), I proceeded immediately to the third, Real Tigers.
Whoever heard of an espionage series in which the dramatis personae almost never get out of London? Usually we have to struggle to keep up with spies as they ricochet from one exotic locale to the next. Not here. The Slow Horses of Slough House are agents who have messed up big time. For reasons best known to their handlers, it would be imprudent to fire them outright. So they’re pensioned off and exiled to no man’s land, in the fervent hope that they’ll stay out of trouble. Fat chance! Jackson Lamb and his ill-sorted, gifted but wayward crew want only to prove themselves worthy of reinstatement in the intelligence pantheon. In pursuit of this elusive goal, they manage to stir up all sorts of fresh trouble.
In Literary Review, critic and novelist Jessica Mann – see my review of A Private Inquiry embedded in this post – had this to say about Real Tigers:
Although this is Mick Herron’s ninth book, and despite the fact that he has won the prestigious Gold Dagger award for his crime fiction, Real Tigers is the first of his books to come my way. What a find!…The story, though good, is not the main reason to read this book. Rather, it is its elegant style, original viewpoint, dry wit and spring-to-life characters, some recognisable.
Mick Herron writes great dialog and is a master storyteller with a sly sense of humor and an ironic world view. He might be the best thing that’s happened to spy fiction since the great LeCarre. Jessica Mann’s prediction: “I think Herron’s is the next big name in crime fiction.”
In the July issue of The Atlantic, Terence Rafferty proclaimed that “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels.” (His article also has the variant title, “‘Gone Girl’ and the Rise of Crime Novels by Women.”) Rafferty is alluding to a specific subgenre of crime fiction, what he calls “tortuous, doomy domestic thrillers.” Women writers, he asserts, are uniquely capable of delivering the goods where these kinds of narratives are concerned.
One of the titles Rafferty mentions is Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. I decided to read this book during the Summer Olympics primarily because it deals with young female gymnasts. It was also getting excellent reviews.
Normally, on the theory that life is too short, I avoid reading anything about sports, with the exception of “The Sport of Kings,” for which I have a lingering fondness from my childhood. But You Will Know Me seemed worth a shot, for the reasons enumerated above. And the fact is, it was good – very good. The crime forms an intriguing subplot, but the novel is really about these young gymnasts, their fierce dedication to the sport, and the cost of that dedication to their minds, bodies, and families. The writing is excellent.
The particular teenage gymnast – and potential Olympian – around whom this novel’s events center is called Devon; the story unfolds from the point of view of her mother Katie. Their relationship is close and intense, and prone to sudden bouts of disequilibrium:
It was remarkable, when Katie thought about it. How her daughter, so strong already, her body an air-to-air missile, had metamorphosed into this force. Shoulders now like a ship mast, rope-knot biceps, legs corded, arms sinewed, a straight, hard line from trunk to neck, her hipless torso resting on thighs like oak beams. Sometimes Katie couldn’t believe it was the same girl.
I recommend reading the Rafferty article referenced above. He makes some interesting points about the history of American crime fiction as well as its current state. As for the ascendant status of domestic suspense, he may be right, but it’s not my first choice in this genre and probably never will be. (I’m a dissenter from the ranks of Gone Girl enthusiasts; Gillian Flynn’s writing rubbed me the wrong way for some reason, and I found the “Amazing Amy” trope contrived and irritating.) Call me old fashioned and/or out of touch, but my favorite mystery subgenre remains the police procedural.
By the way, For my money, where You Will Know Me is concerned, I found Devon’s sweet younger brother Drew to be the unsung hero of the whole scenario. Read it and see if you don’t agree with me.
Quite an opener, that. Right up there, I’d say, with Kafka’s metamorphosed insect.
And it strikes just the right note from the outset, since this testy speaker is in fact a late-term male fetus, impatient with his cramped and watery surroundings, more than ready to be born, to claim his right to a life. “I’m owed a handful of decades to try my luck on a freewheeling planet,” he proclaims.
We aren’t given a name for this rather unique narrator. But wait: his mother’s name is Trudy; her lover is called Claude. Together they are conspiring to cause the death of John, Trudy’s estranged husband and Claude’s brother. Oh – and the biological father of our pre-born raconteur. He is the silent witness to these machinations, helpless save for his ability to deliver, from time to time, a well placed kick.
This quotation appears in the book’s front matter:
“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet, II.ii
I’ve worked out what’s meant by most of the dialog in that play – but I’ve never understood this particular line. Ah well, no matter – McEwan has here put it to very cunning use.
In many ways, this is a strange and wondrous novel, a bravura performance. The fireworks and provocative observations that characteristically enliven McEwan’s prose are everywhere on display. These thoughts, for example, are entertained by the little mini-Hamlet (micro-Hamlet?) in response to a podcast filled with bleak thoughts and bleaker predictions. (Trudy had listened to it and he – inevitably – had overheard):
Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions….Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived? When fewer die in wars and childbirth than ever before – and more knowledge, more truth by way of science, was never so available to us all? When tender sympathies – for children, animals, alien religions, unknown, distant foreigners- swell daily?…When smallpox, polio, cholera, measles, high infant mortality, illiteracy, public executions and routine state torture have been banished from so many countries? Not so long ago, all these curses were everywhere….what of the commonplace miracles that would make a manual labourer the envy of Caesar Augustus: pain-free dentistry [and this, from a little guy who doesn’t even have teeth yet!], electric light, instant contact with people we love, with the best music the world has known, with the cuisine if a dozen cultures?
He could go on – and believe me, he does – yet he ends on this plangent note:
We’ll always be troubled by how things are–that’s how it stands with the difficult gift of consciousness.
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all….
The background presence of Shakespeare’s masterpiece is at times even more powerfully resonant. Here the fetus has retreated into a decidedly more melancholy disposition:
But lately, don’t ask why, I’ve no taste for comedy, no inclination to exercise, even if I had the space, no delight in fire on earth, in words that once revealed a golden world of majestical stars, the beauty of poetic apprehension, the infinite joy of reason. These admirable radio talks and bulletins, the excellent podcasts that moved me, seem at best hot air, at worst a vaporous stench.
And here is the Prince of Denmark’s famous “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy:
I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so.
(This passage contains what is, for me, the single most astonishing locution in all of English literature: ‘…a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” Amazing!)
I don’t want to give the impression that Nutshell is an exercise in dreary pessimism. Quite the opposite: It’s alive with sheer inventiveness. In the course of its short duration – just under two hundred pages – you rarely know what’s going to happen next, or if you do, you still don’t know how it’s going to happen. From time to time, the author’s mordant wit enlivens the proceedings. Even given its brevity, the novel is an exceptionally fast read – at least, it was for me.
I have to admit that when I first learned of the novel’s premise, I thought, well, this is rather bizarre! And more than one book-loving friend has admitted to finding it rather off putting. Having now read it, I have to say that I enjoyed it. It seems to have been undertaken in the spirit of, Can I pull this off? A literary sleight of hand, in other words. Very clever. But not especially deep.
When Ian McEwan told his editor his new novel would be told from the point of view of a foetus, fully inverted in his mother’s womb, “I got a rather glassy look. He [the editor] said ‘Oh, great’ in a rather flat tone; he was not sort of throwing his hat in the air,’’ McEwan recalls with a chuckle so dry and light, it barely registers down the phone line.
I would love to discuss this novel, but possibly with just one other person, and I’d be more comfortable if that person were a woman. You see – and I haven’t got around to mentioning this yet – Nutshell contains the most explicit sex scenes that I’ve encountered since On Chesil Beach.
I really love Ian McEwan’s work. I consider him brilliant. So, while this book was fun, I’m ready for a return to profundity. Ready, in other words, for another novel like The Children Act.
In quick succession, we are introduced to three sets of people: Mass Malthe, whose grown son Eddie is dependent on her; Bonnie Hayden and Simon, her five-year-old son; and Inspector Konrad Sejer, his second-in-command Jakob Skarre, and Sejer’s dog Frank, a somewhat somnolent Shar-Pei. Frank is the sole source of comic relief in this relentlessly bleak saga. I wish we’d seen more of him.
Karin Fossum has chosen an unusual way to construct her story. From the outset, you know who the victims are – or were. Yet the reader spends a good part of the novel getting to know them while they are still vibrantly alive and utterly heedless of the future – or the lack of a future – that awaits them. The identity of the perpetrator is no great mystery, either. The puzzle concerns the why of it. (With its evocation of dread, and the reader’s desperate desire to somehow avert the looming catastrophe, this novel reminds me of Ruth Rendell’s chilling masterpiece, A Judgement in Stone, with its famous tell-all first sentence.)
Hell Fire is nominally a police procedural, and I would have welcomed more of a police presence in the novel. Instead, we get a great deal of detail concerning the lives of Malthe mother and son and Hayden mother and son. I’m not saying that this material is dull. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is especially true of Bonnie Hayden’s work as a cleaner and home health care aid for the elderly. Her experiences with these individuals are carefully and empathetically described.
I think Karin Fossum is a terrific writer. I consider myself an advocate and an admirer of her crime fiction oeuvre, of which I’ve read some nine or ten titles. But this was one tough read. Recommended, but consider yourself cautioned.
She seems like someone in her sixties, not in her early forties, as she’s purported to be. (Actually I get this observation. In my post on The Careful Use of Compliments, I said that I envision Isabel as a model for a dress of the mid-twentieth century. Here’s the image I selected: )
She keeps “bumping into herself” (love that locution!), trying to use reason to understand and control feelings, an effort that’s pretty much doomed to fail.
She’s judgmental. (I probably didn’t mind this characteristic because her judgments so often agree with mine.)
She’s pretentious and/or arrogant (two adjectives which I would not myself have thought to apply to her, so I was interested to learn that others found them apt, in the circumstances.)
Ann felt impatient with Isabel’s philosophizing; she felt that it got in the way of the plot. Others among us felt that the philosophical questions deeply enriched the novel.
In this passage, Isabel considers the importance of good manners:
It was so easy dealing with people who were well-mannered…. They knew how to exchange those courtesies which made life go smoothly, which was what manners were all about. They were intended to avoid friction between people, and they did this by regulating the contours of an encounter. If each party knew what the other should do, then conflict would be unlikely. And this worked at every level, from the most minor transaction between two people to dealings between nations. International law, after all, was simply a system of manners writ large.
How utterly shortsighted we had been to listen to those who thought that manners were a bourgeois affectation, an irrelevance, which need no longer be valued. A moral disaster had ensued, because manners were the basic building block of civil society. They were the method of transmitting the message of moral consideration. In this way an entire generation had lost a vital piece of the moral jigsaw, and now we saw the results: a society in which nobody would help, nobody would feel for others; a society in which aggressive language and insensitivity were the norm.
Our group more or less agreed with these sentiments. Yet Isabel admits that even thinking about such a thing makes her feel old.
We spent some time on the subject of judgment and the judging of others. Was Isabel, in fact, any more judgmental than most people? The reader spends a great deal of time inside Isabel’s head, as it were. She forms strong opinions in that confined space – don’t most of us do the same? – but does she act on them, or even speak them aloud, except in specific circumstances?
Isabel’s back story is crucial to an understanding of how she lives the life that we witness unfolding in The Sunday Philosophy Club. Her father was Scottish; her mother, American. Isabel herself has spent relatively little time in the U.S. (She makes frequent reference to “my sainted American mother,” an appellation whose origin is not clear, at least not to me.) She holds a doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University; we may take it as a given that she’s a intensely intellectual person.
As with many intellectuals, Isabel could also be passionate and impulsive. She was especially so in her youth, when such emotions are not uncommon. At Cambridge, she fell in love with John Liamor, an Irishman who seems to have had a high opinion of himself. Isabel married him and in short order was betrayed and deserted by him. The anguish caused by this episode has left a deep scar. It may be partly responsible for her seeming to be older than she actually is. Although she has numerous friends and associates in Edinburgh, she seems to have deliberately walled herself off from any intimacy that could cause her further pain. In this novel, however, we perceive her emerging, however tentatively, from this self-imposed isolation.
(We Suspects grappled with the question of whether Isabel still had feelings for John Liamor, and if so, what those feelings consisted of. Might she still even be in love with him? We reached no definite conclusion. McCall Smith is somewhat evasive on the question.)
Isabel’s tendency to involve herself in the affairs of others springs from several sources. She’s a naturally curious individual, and people excite that curiosity more than anything else. She wants to understand their motivations, their perception of the rightness and wrongness of their actions. (This is undoubtedly a large part of what impelled her to take up the study of moral philosophy, which has culminated in her becoming the editor of a small, specialized and highly respected journal, The Review of Applied Ethics.)
Also, she feels bound by the concept of moral proximity, which dictates that if you have a degree of closeness to another person, and that person is in some sort of trouble, then you are morally obliged to render aid in any way you can. This is one of the ways in which she justifies what others might term just plain nosiness, or even unwarranted interference in matters which are none of her concern.
But in the case of Mark Fraser, a young man who fatally falls “from the gods” – the British term for a theater’s upper balcony – Isabel feels obliged to look into the cause of his untimely demise. She had been at the concert where this terrible event occurred. She had witnessed the fall. There were some in our group who considered the ensuing mystery to be rather thin. I would concede that Isabel’s investigation does at times seem crowded out by other aspects of the novel. This is particularly true of her relationship with her niece Cat, a somewhat flighty young woman who runs a delicatessen not far from Isabel’s house. Cat runs through boyfriends at a pretty good clip. Jamie, one of her discarded lovers, has become a close friend of Isabel’s – and might be in the process of becoming more than a friend, even though he is still, to some extent, pining for Cat.
In the course of the novel, Isabel does solve the mystery of Mark Fraser’s death. His fatal fall was inadvertently precipitated by a disagreement that turned physical. When she has elicited a confession from the responsible party, Isabel proceeds to offer him absolution. This information, in other words, will go no further – certainly not as far as a revelation to law enforcement. Upon finishing the book, my immediate thought was, what right does she have to do this? The question came up in our group and prompted a discussion of who among the fictional crime solvers that we know of have done likewise? Agatha Christie was mentioned, as was Conan Doyle in certain of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
(As it happens, my husband and I recently watched one of the early Poirot films “The King of Clubs,” in which the famed Belgian sleuth and the loyal Captain Hastings agree to suppress the truth concerning an accidental death. I haven’t yet had the chance to read the short story that serves as the basis for this film, in order to see if this is a faithful recounting of the original text.)
Most members of our group had not read any further in the Isabel Dalhousie series. Frances and I, on the other hand, were faithful followers, and had read all of them. When queried as to whether there was a “character arc” where Isabel was concerned – does she, in other words, change as the novels progress – we responded in the affirmative, declining to reveal any more. I will say this much: having read the latest entry, The Novel Habit of Happiness, earlier this year, I was struck by how sad and solitary Isabel’s life seems at the beginning of this series, and how increasingly rich and full it becomes as the series goes forward. Small wonder that she becomes, in some ways at least, a changed woman!
End of Spoiler Alert
Our discussion touched briefly on Isabel’s wealth, the result of an inheritance from her mother. She lives in what seems to be a large and gracious abode in a good section of Edinburgh. She has the full time services of a housekeeper named Grace, also inherited, this time from her late father. (One might wonder how Grace keeps occupied, looking after a house inhabited by a sole adult. As it happens, she and Isabel spend a fair amount of time chatting to each other about various subjects of interest to them both.) Isabel is generous with money but also discreet.
Our discussion was skillfully led by Chris, who also graciously offered her premises for our meeting. In her follow-up email, Carol had this to say: “Although we did not all agree, we had a friendly and interesting exchange of observations and opinions.”
Although it was a pleasant spring evening, a stiff breeze had arisen and the clouds were scudding energetically across the sky, towards Norway. This was a northern light, the light of a city that belonged as much to the great, steely plains of the North Sea as it did to the soft hills of its hinterland. This was not Glasgow, with its soft, western light, and its proximity to Ireland and to the Gaeldom of the Highlands. This was a townscape raised in the teeth of cold winds from the east; a city of winding cobbled streets and haughty pillars; a city of dark nights and candlelight, and intellect.
I first read The Sunday Philosophy Club when it came out in 2004. I revisited it this time by listening to Davina Porter’s reading on audiobook. It is superb. The Scottish lilt that she commands is irresistible. I was so enraptured that I proceeded immediately to the second title in the series, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate. I was unable to get this one on audio, so I read it the old fashioned way. It was the only book in the series that I had somehow previously missed. If anything, it is even better that The Sunday Philosophy Club. It, too, would be great for a book discussion.
For his felicitous prose, vivid imagination, and sly wit – don’t miss The Dog Who Came In from the Cold, featuring my favorite fictional canine, Freddie de la Hay – – I salute this author. He is one of my absolute favorites – brilliant!
I just have to share this serendipitous discovery with all my book loving friends: In the process of researching the phrase “the gods in theatrical parlance,” I came upon a Google Books result that truly stunned me: a facsimile of an 1867 edition of All the Year Round, a weekly magazine put out by Charles Dickens. I knew about this journal but had never thought to actually lay eyes upon it, albeit digitally speaking.
The 1950s collection came out in April of last year; the second volume, in April of this year. Critics and readers alike mostly agree that the MacDonald attained the high point of his creativity in the sixties. This does not mean that the earlier books are any less worthwhile. I’ve read all seven of the above titles and more, and I freely admit that it’s hard for me to be impartial on the subject of Ross MacDonald.
The Archer novels are a potent mix of culture, crime and psychological motivation, the kinds of stories you have to sit with for a while after you finish them, just because they are so good, because they say something ineffable about the human condition.
[“Why you should get reacquainted with the mystery novelist Ross MacDonald,” by Mary Ann Gwinn, in the Seattle Times, July 27 2016]
The first Lew Archer that I ever read was The Zebra-Striped Hearse.
It is still one of my two or three favorites. I’ve subsequently reread it twice for book group discussions. As is usual with MacDonald, the plot is complex and twisty – I actually created a flow chart in order to keep the various developments straight.
But the writing – ah, the writing…
The striped hearse was standing empty among other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.
MacDonald excels at writing dialog; it’s what his novels mainly consist of. Description of characters conveys much in few words:
We sat in close silence, listening to each other breathe. I was keenly aware of her, not so much as a woman, but as a fellow creature who had begun to feel pain. She had lost her way to the happy ending and begun to realize the consequences of the sealed-off past.
The fateful exposure of that past is what many of MacDonald’s novels are about.
The appearance of the Library of America volumes has occasioned several appreciative essays in the review media. In the Seattle Times article cited above, Mary Ann Gwinn goes on to enumerate the reasons she cherishes MacDonald’s works:
• [His] immersion in the glittering highs and the dark lows of Hollywood film culture — wishful, wayward starlets, manipulative movie executives, performers with rampant egos whose descendants still clog the airwaves today.
• P.I. Lew Archer’s sturdy, if romantic heart. “The problem was to love people, try to serve them, without wanting anything from them,” he concluded in “The Barbarous Coast.” Indeed.
• A mercifully low level of violence, though there is gunplay, a few beatings and one death-by-knitting-needle.
…in fully embracing the observer nature of the fictional private eye, Macdonald refined the genre to the point where it became a rich and fascinating comment upon itself. This endears his books to critics and other intellectual types who like to think about such things. More important, it gives his stories a vitality and depth that keep them readable and relevant more than 50 years after they were written.
“A Passion for Mercy” by Tobias Jones in The Guardian is itself beautifully written and studded with shrewd observations:
Over a series spanning 18 novels, Archer became something paradoxical: a memorable character about whom the reader knows next to nothing, the man with the punchy one-liners who is actually a good listener. Macdonald once wrote of his famous creation that he was “so narrow that when he turns sideways he almost disappears”. The thinness was deliberate because Macdonald wanted his detective to be like a therapist, a man whose actions “are largely directed to putting together the stories of other people’s lives and discovering their significance. He is … a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge.”
From Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal’s crime fiction reviewer and biographer of Ross MacDonald:
“All the household-name mystery writers since the 1970s in a sense owe their careers to his crossover onto mainstream-fiction bestseller lists; he paved the way for Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman and dozens of others. And he set an artistic standard that many authors still aspire to.”
Eudora Welty’s review of The Underground Man appeared on the cover of the New York Times Book Review in 1971:
”Ross Macdonald’s style is one of delicacy and tension, very tightly made, with a spring in it. It doesn’t allow a static sentence or one without pertinence. And the spare, controlled narrative, built for action and speed, conveys as well the world through which the action moves and gives it meaning, brings scene and character, however swiftly, before the eyes without a blur. It is an almost unbroken series of sparkling pictures. The style that works so well to produce fluidity and grace also suggests a mind much given to contemplation and reflection on our world.”
(In the post prior to this one, I mentioned that Helene, one of my oldest and dearest friends, many years ago recommended A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. It was a book that should have worked for me but didn’t. This same friend it was who gave me The Zebra-Striped Hearse.)
Sue Grafton, a longtime admirer of the Lew Archer novels, contributed the introduction to Tom Nolan’s biography:
“If Dashiell Hammett can be said to have injected the hard-boiled detective novel with its primitive force, and Raymond Chandler gave shape to its prevailing tone, it was Ken Millar, writing as Ross Macdonald, who gave the genre its current respectability, generating a worldwide readership that has paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps.”
Several weeks ago, while subbing at the library, I came across this: . Though the book was unknown to me, the author was well known: Antonia Byatt, one of Britain’s greatest women of letters, author of the much loved 1990 Booker Prize winner Possession: A Romance. (Both my mother and my close friend Helene loved that book and urged it on me. For some reason, I found it unreadable, but I very much enjoyed this author’s 2003 collection Little Black Book of Stories. As for Possession, I’ve long considered the best thing about it to be its cover: . The Beguiling of Merlin is a work by the great Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones: )
Back to Peacock & Vine: Before setting eyes on this small volume – Byatt calls it an essay; the illustrations are exquisite – I had only heard the name ‘Fortuny’ in connection with the title of a novel owned at one time by the library: Byatt’s little book is subtitled “On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny.” Like most Anglophiles, I’m well acquainted with William Morris‘s work in painting and design. Fortuny, as I said above, I knew not at all.
Born in Spain in 1849, Mariano Fortuny moved with his family to Paris when he was still a young child. When he was eighteen, the family moved again, this time to Venice. The city claimed Fortuny as its own; he lived there until his death in 1949.
He lived in a world of elegant parties, extravagant theatricals, carnival and opulence.
From Peacock & Vine
Despite the somewhat decadent, even sybaritic sound of Byatt’s description, Fortuny was anything but a dilettante. In fact, he was extraordinarily creative, excelling in numerous fields: painting, photography, architecture, invention, theatrical set design and lighting, and fashion. It is in that last category that he is probably best known today. His crowning creation in that field is the Delphos gown, “based on the robes seen on male and female Greek statues such as the Kore of Euthydikos, the Kore of Samos, and the charioteer of Delphi.” It is this latter that’s the most famous:
The Delphos gown was made of sheer silk, densely pleated and sometimes adorned with glass beading. Owners were encouraged to store them thus: When unraveled, they looked like this: The pooling hemline probably made walking a challenge. Also, woman were encouraged to wear only the lightest of undergarments – if any.
How Fortuny achieved this pleating effect was something of a mystery at the time, and still is.
Fortuny also had a nice line in stenciled velvet gowns and capes:
This amazingly creative man patented more than twenty inventions between 1901 and 1934. He was also a painter:
Fortuny came by his gifts naturally: his father, Maria Fortuny i Marsal, born in 1838, was a gifted painter in his own right. (Maria Fortuny died in 1874, when his son Mariano was three years old.) Here are three of his works:
As I was approaching the end of Peacock & Vine, I had also begun reading Another One Goes Tonight, Peter Lovesey‘s latest Peter Diamond procedural. About a third of the way in, there’s a scene in which Diamond is searching a suspect’s workshop. (He’d obtained the key to the premises by subterfuge; he had no warrant and the suspect was in a coma at the time.) On a high shelf, he spots three funerary urns. He climbs up on a chair to investigate further. His prior assumption that the urns contain ashes proves erroneous. He takes one of them down and reaches inside:
A piece of fine, cream-colored silk was coiled to fit into the space. He lifted it out and stepped down from the chair. The lightweight silk unfurled into a finely pleated, exquisitely tailored, full-length gown. In spite of the way the garment has been stored, there was scarcely a crease to be seen.
Diamond, no fashion maven, is not quite sure what to make of this find. So he presents one of the gowns to his lady friend, Paloma Kean, for her appraisal. Paloma is an expert on period clothing and knows at once what Peter has placed before her.
By that point, so did I.
Fortuny had made a surprise appearance in my mystery novel! And this, just as I was first learning who he was.
William Morris has taken something of a back seat to Fortuny in this post, though he does not do so in Byatt’s book. So I’d like to insert here one of his most famous and beautiful wallpaper designs: “The Strawberry Thief:”
Unlike Mariano Fortuny, Morris was not lucky in his home life. His wife Jane Burden Morris, often called Janey, was in love with another man, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti; neither of them made any effort to disguise their mutual attraction.
In the Wall Street Journal’s Review section of August 5, Willard Spiegelman expresses his awe and appreciation of The Charioteer of Delphi in an essay entitled “Beauty Takes a Victory Lap in This Masterpiece” (see image above).
And yet…. In July of 1895, in a house in Plaistow, “a poor but respectable working-class district in the borough of West Ham” in East London, Robert Coombes, age 13, stabbed his mother Emily to death as she lay in her bed.
He then closed and locked her bedroom door.
Robert had a brother a year younger than himself. He was called Nattie. Their father, a seaman bound for New York, had no idea of the horror awaiting him back home.
Acquiring funds any way they could, Robert and Nattie proceeded to live large. When friends and family asked after their mother, they invented various excuses for her absence. Aside from running around town and generally enjoying themselves, especially when watching cricket test matches at Lord’s, Robert and Nattie spent time at home playing cards with their friend John Fox, a man in his mid-forties of apparently limited intellect.
Meanwhile, a noxious odor had begun to emanate from the upper floor. It was beginning to pervade the entire house and could even be detected from the outside. Robert and Nattie’s excuses began to wear thin. They were even barring the door to their mother’s friends and her sister-in-law, also named Emily. Soon the latter would brook no further obstruction. She and her friend Mary Jane Burrage forced their way into the house as Nattie fled out the back. Once again, Aunt Emily demanded to know the whereabouts of Robert and Nattie’s mother. Robert claimed that she was in Liverpool. Mrs Burrage was having none of it. She stated bluntly: “‘Your mother is lying dead in that room upstairs.” With Robert still denying, she and Aunt Emily went up and gained entry to the bedroom.
Although they could not see only mounded up sheets and pillows, the stench was overwhelming. They backed out of the room and sent for the police. When PC Twort finally arrived and removed the coverings, he was greeted by a gruesome sight: a woman’s dead body, already undergoing putrefaction and crawling with maggots.
Nattie and Robert Coombes were arrested, as was their friend John Fox. Fox was soon discharged; charges against Nattie were withdrawn on condition that he testify against his brother. This he did.
Both the public and the press the followed the legal proceedings avidly, while all the time condemning the appalling nature of the crime. From a local paper called the Stratford Express:
“The ‘Plaistow Horror’ is a story which must depress all who are longing for the improvement of mankind. It will pain public feeling to an extent which has rarely been equalled . It seems to plunge us back at once into the Dark Ages.”
The only way that Robert Coombes could escape the death penalty – his youth was no bar to it – was if he were found to be insane. In due course, this judgment was handed down. Robert was sent to Broadmoor Hospital.
Upon its founding in 1863, the facility’s official name was The Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. In the late 1890s, as per Summerscale’s fascinating description, it was operated in a remarkably humane manor. In addition, the grounds were bucolic and offered appealing views to all who dwelt therein.
It was as idyllic a prospect as a city boy like Robert had ever seen. In this pastoral setting the inmates of Broadmoor were returned to a kind of innocence: they were stripped of their freedoms and responsibilities, rendered as powerless and unencumbered as children. In Broadmoor they were unlikely to be reproached for their crimes. They entered a suspended existence, with little reference to the past or the future, a strange corollary to the dissociated, dreamlike state that often attended psychosis. The asylum was both gaol and sanctuary, fortress and enchanted castle. The spell by which the patients were bound within its walls could be lifted only at the behest of the queen.
(I am deeply grateful that there are still among us people who have such a marvelous command of the language.)
Having lived at Broadmoor for seventeen years, Robert was discharged in 1912.. He was thirty years old. In January of 1914 he set sail for Australia. (Nattie, who had become a seaman like their father. had also emigrated.) Once there, Robert set about creating a new life for himself as a farmer. But the outbreak of war intervened.
In August of 1914, Robert joined the 13th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force. He had already had experience playing in brass bands in England, specifically at Broadmoor; he took on that role with his mates in the battalion. He was also trained as a stretcher bearer; his task, along with his fellow bearers, was to rescue the wounded from the battlefield and bring them to a place behind the lines where they could be treated in relative safety. His ability to perform this task effectively would be tested to the limit when, in April of 1915, his battalion set off for Gallipoli, “a peninsula squeezed between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles in what is now western Turkey.” (Smithsonian Magazine)
I’d heard of this battle and seen the 1981 film Gallipoli. I didn’t remember much about it. Possibly I repressed the memory. I knew that words such as carnage and slaughter were frequently used to describe the battle. All I can say is that Kate Summerscale’s description of what actually happened there was so harrowing that I had to fight my way through it. If there was ever a Hell on Earth, Gallipoli was it.As for Robert, his performance as stretcher bearer under these extreme conditions was exemplary. He managed to survive the experience, an achievement in itself. He was directly or indirectly responsible for saving numerous lives, and was awarded several medals, richly deserved by all reports.
The above summary of Kate Summerscale’s narrative is cursory in the extreme. She not only covers the trial of Robert Coombes in fascinating detail, but she also pulls back from his story to provide a wider context for the reader. She’s especially good at conveying the mindset of the people who lived at the turn of the century, both in England and Australia.
As this book approached its conclusion, I began to appreciate its true heft. For me, The Wicked Boy addresses a most profound issue; namely, can a person live his or her in such a way as to expiate a “primal eldest” sin? It is a matter that only the individual reader and thinker can decide. But Kate Summerscale has given us the perfect case study with which to ponder the question.
A mesmerizing read; a terrific book.
A special issue of the July 31 edition of The New York Times Book Review – “Summer Thrills” – was fairly bursting with great suggestions for us crime fiction fans. And there was even a two page spread allotted to true crime! The writer was none other than the paper’s long time mystery reviewer (and taste maker for many of us), Marilyn Stasio.
Before plunging into specifics, Stasio admits that “…true crime unnerves me. It’s so…real.” Well of course it is! (I found this confession rather endearing.) But plunge ahead she does, to the tune of six different titles. There’s a nice variety here: contemporary, historical, a visit to the morgue, obsession with a rare tropical fish (the Asian arowana), etc.
I’ve read two of the six: True Crime Addict and The Wicked Boy. In a way, they represent the extremes of true crime writing. In the first, journalist James Renner recounts his obsessive search for Maura Murray. On February 9 2004, while standing beside her disabled vehicle in Haverhill, New Hampshire, Murray went missing. Between the time she was spotted by a passerby who offered to help, and seven minutes later when the police arrived, she had disappeared. Just like that. One minute she was there; the next, she was gone.
She has not been seen or heard from since.
Renner’s determination to solve this mystery is impressive. He conducted many interviews, reviewed a great deal of evidence, and in general worked tirelessly. This is an unusual true crime narrative, though, in the sense that the writer/investigator keeps getting in his own way. There’s a definite manic aspect to this quest that seems to take root in an already volatile personality. It probably didn’t help that after taking the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, he was informed by the psychologist that “‘Your results were very similar to those of Ted Bundy, the serial killer.'”
After this bomb is dropped, Renner comments: “That’s one of those statements you just can’t unhear.” (It turns out that hard charging individuals such as law enforcement officers and CEO’s tend to score in a similar range.)
Sometimes the prose gets a bit ragged around the edges, but the book is never dull. In fact, there are times when Renner’s observations are striking. At one point, he hikes an area near where Maura disappeared. It’s treacherous going, and icy to boot. When he finally gets back to his vehicle, he’s tearful, exhausted, and drenched in sweat.
We forget how dangerous nature can be. We want to forget, I think. We don’t want to be reminded that nature is more deadly than man. Man can be cruel, but nature is indifferent. It is the unrivaled psychopath.
Throughout this book, the author veers from intense concentration on the task at hand to a self-absorption that’s almost as intense. He’s married with children; they must perforce go along with him on this wild ride. (The term I’d use to describe his wife Julie is ‘long suffering.’) Renner’s taking – or not taking – the drug Cymbalta is a thread that runs through this story. He’s grateful for the calming affect it has on him. On the other hand: “…there’s a freedom in blind rage once you give yourself over to it that is as welcoming as any drug.” At one point, he gives himself over to it in court and as a result, lands in jail.
I actually had trouble putting this book down. I might even read it again.
Kate Summerscale is the author of the terrific Victorian true crime narrative, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008). In my view, The Wicked Boy is just as good, perhaps even better. It deserves a review of its own, and will get it in this space, soon.
Searching for truth, uncovering deception, both deliberate and inadvertent – these are Lu Brant’s core motivators, in both the personal and professional spheres. She’s the recently elected state’s attorney for Howard County, Maryland, and like her father who served in the position before her, she intends to be an unflinching seeker of justice. But as she starts out making her mark in the legal community, she has no idea how close to home this relentless ambition will soon take her.
A widow with two young children, Lu – short for Luisa – has chosen to move back into her childhood home so that her father, now retired, and his long time housekeeper can help her balance her overloaded life. It’s a bit like living in the past and the present simultaneously. The home in question is in the village of Wilde Lake, situated on the lake itself. Along with her parents, Lu and her much older brother AJ had been among the pioneers of the “new town” of Columbia, Maryland. (As she grew older, Lu had been told the sad facts concerning her mother’s passing.)
The above is but a brief recounting of a complex narrative which alternates back and forth between the past tense narration of the family’s early years in Columbia and the exposition of events occurring in the present. (Also, the past is related by Lu in the first person; the present, in the third person.) The family’s past is interwoven with Columbia’s early years. In these chapters, Lippman uses the actual names of various streets and neighborhoods.
The problem with parallel narratives is that one of them often asserts a larger claim on the reader’s interest than the other. When that happens,you can become impatient with the narrative that you’re finding less compelling. Again, this was my own experience with the novel.
There is also a problem with reading something that takes place so close to home. The impulse to fact check sometimes overrides one’s attentiveness to the story. At least, that was the case with this reader. I admit it was hard not to jump up and down when ‘Rain Dream Hill’ was mentioned, as I lived there for two years in the mid-1970s, which is pretty much the time period the author is describing in those sections.
Lippman’s writing is as breezily accessible as usual, and her sense of humor is very much intact. At one point, she describes a salad set cherished by her father and referred to by him as his “‘lares and penates’.” She confesses that “For years I thought that was Latin for oil and vinegar.” (Dictionary.com defines them as “
My overall assessment of Wilde Lake? First off, the local references were fun but at the same time distracting. I found the plot rather convoluted. In addition, I don’t especially care for the technique of jumping back and forth in time, or of switching verb tenses and point of view. I like a straight ahead narration. (This may be one of the reasons I’m currently preferring to read nonfiction, the other being that there’s so much terrific nonfiction being written right now.)
But well, it is Laura Lippman, she is a home town girl and a very talented one, and Lu Brant is an exceptionally likeable and sympathetic character: a thoroughly modern woman in some ways, but still beset with the same doubts and uncertainties that, in the twenty-first century, still bedevil women in this country and elsewhere as well.
So I would say in general that despite the reservations voiced above, I liked the book. I’d recommend it especially to those who are recent residents of this area or who, like me, resided here during the same period as Lu Brant did as a child (and as Laura Lippman herself did as a teenager, graduating from Wilde Lake High School in 1977).
My favorite work by Laura Lippman is still What the Dead Know. This powerful novel from 2008 was inspired by the disappearance of the Lyon sisters in adjacent Montgomery County in 1975. (Strangely, almost fatefully, after forty years without any substantial leads the case is once again in the news. This stunning development put me in mind of the penultimate line of the story “Dr. Henry Selwyn” by W.G. Sebald: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”
I’d like to give Lu Brant herself the final word:
The truth is not a finite commodity that can be contained within identifiable borders. The truth is messy, riotous, overrunning everything. You can never know the whole truth of anything.
And if you could, you would wish you didn’t.