The large helpings of the literature of true crime in which I’ve been lately immersed have, at times, made me feel as though I were marinating in sin. So I’ve sought relief in a different kind of reading matter altogether. And what would that be? Why mysteries, of course….
In Deadly Virtues, we’re introduced to Constable Hazel Best, one of the Norbold (England) police department’s newest – and greenest – recruits. She had come to the aid of one Gabriel Ash, a man half destroyed by the disappearance of his wife and sons. In the process, Hazel had proven herself an officer of worth and mettle.
Perfect Sins is Hazel’s second outing. This time, she becomes embroiled in a situation involving deeply held family secrets. For Hazel, this is more than just another case: the Byrfields, aristocrats of long and proud lineage, are the employers of Hazel’s father Fred Best. Luckily, she has the help and support of Gabriel Ash – and he has the help and support of Patience, his faithful and preternaturally wise lurcher.
Spending time with Hazel and company is pure pleasure. She is such a fine and decent person, with all the attributes needed to become, in time, a first rate investigator. Her creator, Jo Bannister, has long labored in the field of crime fiction, producing a body of work of continuously high caliber. Yet she is little known in this country. I hope this fine new series changes that.
At one point in the narrative, Gabriel Ash, so grateful to Hazel for her straightforward loyalty and affection, turns to her and says: “I wish I could explain to you how much richer my life is for having you in it.”
The Devotion of Suspect X by Japanese author Keigo Higashino is the March selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery discussion group. We Suspects are currently having an international year. This means we read novels set elsewhere than in the US or the UK. We began in January with Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Although I was not crazy about the book, it nevertheless provoked a lively and enjoyable discussion. February’s selection, set in Barcelona, was A Not So Perfect Crime by Teresa Solana. I opted out of this one, due to time pressures occasioned by work on the True Crime Course.
But being intrigued by reviews I’d read – and desperate to resume my normal activities! – I decided I’d make time for the March selection. Initially, I had trouble with The Devotion of Suspect X. It seemed a curiously glum bit of prose and was not drawing me in. But a few chapters in, that changed. Surprisingly, this novel turned out to be in no small part a story of thwarted love, and of humans living in isolation, loneliness, and sometimes fear. The picture the author paints of contemporary Japan is a bleak one, with occasional flashes of light. And the ending – well, I won’t say any more. Find out for yourself; it is well worth it.
I always look forward to the next Harpur & Iles novel. I know I’ll be equal parts amused and appalled (but in an entertaining way). That’s exactly the effect that author Bill James strives for and achieves so effortlessly. Disclosures, the 32nd (!!) entry in this series, suffers a bit for having this dynamic duo off stage or much of the book’s action. A fair compensation, though, is the presence of Ralph W Ember, a long running character, owner of the Monty, a social club, and a member – until recently – of the drug cartel called Pasque Uno. (Strange names abound in these novels.)
Ralph aspires to join a better class of people; his ruminations on the subject of high culture can be quite diverting:
Ralph would admit he didn’t know a terrific amount about classical music, but on the whole he was not anti. It could do no real harm. Radio Three was always there, but you could take it or leave it alone.A lot of the stuff had been around for centuries so there must be certain parts that were reasonably OK.
So much for Mozart, Beethoven, etc.
Bill James is a bit of a mystery himself. He was born in 1929 and his real name is Allan James Tucker. He’s an extremely prolific writer and is still at it, apparently. He has no website, and this is the only photo I’ve ever been able to find (although it is usually reproduced in black and white):
Finally, last but certainly not least, I continue to be vastly entertained by P.F. Chisholm‘s romp through late 1500s with Sir Robert Carey, his faithful and long suffering Sergeant Henry Dodd, his sister Philadelphia, the longed-for but unfortunately (in more ways than one) married Lady Elizabeth Widdrington, and a host of other colorful characters. I’ve already written about A Famine of Horses, the first book of this series, in a post entitled Best Reading in 2014. I felt compelled to go on with the series and am now on number four, A Plague of Angels.
Chisholm knows how to conjure up a scene, as in this description of an encounter in the countryside:
For a moment it was hounds only, the horses heralded by sound. The, like the elven-folk from a poet’s imagination, they cantered out of the tree shadows, three, four, eight, twelve of them, and more behind, some carrying torches, their white leather jacks pristine and lace complicating the hems of their falling bands and cuffs, flowing beards and glittering jewelled fingers, with the plump flash of brocade above their long boots.
(From A Surfeit of Guns, third in the series)
Chisholm has an in depth knowledge of the clothing and weaponry of the period, but her scholarship is never intrusive. Instead, it serves to make her evocation of a past time almost unnervingly vivid.
Oh – and she displays great helpings of wit, often of the most irreverent kind and therefore all the more welcome to a reader desperately in need of some comic relief.
“….an exploration of deadly and sensational interpersonal betrayal, experienced on a very personal level.” – The Stranger Beside Me, by Ann Rule
I’ve already written about rereading the terrific Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson. I did this in conjunction with preparing to teach a course entitled “Stranger Than Fiction: The Literature of True Crime.” The next classic of the genre that I tackled was Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me.
Since its initial publication in 1980, this seminal true crime narrative has been re-issued a number of times. In a 2008 preface to the latest edition, Rule writes, “I never expected to be writing about Theodore Robert Bundy once again.” Didn’t she? From the time of their fateful first meeting as workers at the Seattle Crisis Clinic in 1971, Ted Bundy has haunted Rule’s life, even commandeered her dreams, turning them into nightmares on frequent occasions. But at the beginning, they were friends, even confidants. Or so she thought.
Her determination to write about this experience in clear, honest prose probably saved her sanity; ironically, that same determination turned out to be the making of her as a successful author of true crime books.
There’s very little explicit violence in The Stranger Beside Me until about the book’s half way point. Until he went to Florida, Bundy’s murderous rampage was an oddly shadowed thing. His victims often seemed to disappear into thin air; some were abducted in broad daylight with other people not far distant. There was, in other words, no crime scene – or none until the body was discovered, weeks or even months or years after the commission of the crime. Some of the victims were never found. It was one of the reasons he was so difficult to identify and apprehend.
But once in Florida, the fever seems to have seized Bundy with an overmastering force. On one awful night in Tallahassee, he invaded a Florida State University sorority house and viciously attacked four young women as they slept in their beds. Two were killed; two more, severely injured. He then proceeded to an off campus residence and attacked another female student. The crime scenes were ghastly, and Rule describes them in precise detail. It was horrible, and I could not stop reading.
Professor Jean Murley descibes this phenomenon in her book The Rise of True Crime. In the introduction, she states that as a teenager, her reading of The Stranger Beside Me sparked a life long fascination with the true crime genre. But alongside that fascination came the insistent question: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”
There is something uniquely dreadful about Ted Bundy. That a person who faces the world with such an easygoing, pleasant demeanor, and is nice looking to boot, could be so innately evil seems almost beyond comprehension – well, it is beyond comprehension.
In an interview with Library of America, Harold Schechter observes the following:
Our fascination with psychopathic killers derives in no small
part from their outward appearance of normality. Their atrocities provoke in us a
powerful need to comprehend an ultimate human mystery: how people who seem
(and often are) so ordinary, so much like the rest of us, can possess the hearts and minds of monsters.
Hamlet puts it even more succinctly: “The devil hath power / To assume a pleasing shape.”
As I read Rule’s book, I had the sense of following two parallel mysteries. The first concerned the nature of Ted Bundy himself – how such a person could even exist, could conceal his unspeakable compulsions and actions behind a veneer of affability and genuine intelligence. The second mystery resides with the author herself. Rule kept up her acquaintance, if not friendship, with Ted Bundy even when the murders came to light and he went on trial for his life. True, she was writing and publishing about him all the while. But it seemed to me that her feeling of connection with him went deeper than that. It’s as though she were compelled to continue the work of reconciling in her mind the friend she’d known with the monster he was now known to be.
The last part of the book is occupied with Bundy’s seemingly endless legal maneuvering. Sometimes, when Rule would describe Bundy’s annoyance with a lawyer or judge, I would want to scream out loud, “Who cares how you feel, you horror!!”
Jean Murley observes that “Rule’s description of Bundy as sociopath is classic, and the insights she discovered though him form the basis of contemporary understandings about killers:
On the surface Ted Bundy was the very epitome of a successful man. Inside, it was all ashes. For Ted has gone through life terribly crippled, like a man who is deaf, or blind, or paralyzed. Ted has no conscience.”
Ted Bundy was electrocuted in Florida in January of 1989. I remember the television footage of the scene outside Florida State Prison in Raiford. People were carrying placards and yelling, “It’s Fry-day, Ted!”
“One purpose of true crime writing is precisely to provide
decent law-abiding citizens with primal, sadistic thrills—to satisfy what William
James called our ‘aboriginal capacity for murderous excitement.’ The worst
specimens of the genre may not rise above that quasi-pornographic level. But
the best—like those exquisitely ornamented warclubs, broadswords, and flintlocks displayed in museums—are a testimony to something worth celebrating:
the human ability to take something rooted in our intrinsically bloodthirsty
nature and turn it into craft of a very high order, sometimes even into art.”
From Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, as quoted by Harold Schechter
There’s a lot to report; this post will necessarily cover just a small amount of material. Doing the research has been an adventure, and a fascinating one at that. (I am reminded of what Steven Saylor, in the author’s note in Arms of Nemesis, called “a sort of information ecstasy.”)
Starting with Harold Schechter’s remarkable anthology, I’ve traveled down interesting byways, some fairly familiar and others more obscure. As I made my way through this hefty compendium – it clocks in at just under 800 pages – I encountered several unexpected names: William Bradford, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Abraham Lincoln (!), James Thurber. But what’s been especially gratifying is the discovery, or rediscovery, of writers of whom I’d never heard or whose names rang only the faintest of bells. I refer in particular to Miriam Allen deFord, Jose Marti, Celia Thaxter, Lafcadio Hearn, and Edmund Pearson. All are not only excellent writers but fascinating individuals in their own right.
Edmund Pearson, considered by many to be one of the founders of modern true crime writing, was by profession a librarian. His wry and irreverent observations on the foibles of human nature seem strangely apt. Pearson is best known for his work on the Lizzie Borden case. In this passage from The Trial of Lizzie Borden, published in 1937, he debunks the assertion made by commentators that the Borden murders could only have happened in New England, ancestral home of the stern, humorless and unbending Puritans:
“The major events of the Borden case might have happened anywhere. Its chief
personages could have flourished in Oregon, in Alabama, in France or Russia.
Stepmothers, dissatisfied spinster daughters and grim old fathers are not peculiar to
Massachusetts. It is my impression that they appear in Balzac’s novels.
Perhaps this is mere whistling against the wind. We shall never give up the black-
coated scarecrow of the Puritan; throwing stones at him is too much fun. For three
hundred years New Yorkers have intimated, sometimes jocosely, sometimes angrily, that
the folk of New England, or most of them, are sour bigots…. Acquittals or convictions
have been equally wrong and have somehow resulted from “Bostonian snobbishness” or
“fierce puritanical hatred.”
This has become a convention, fostered by many who profess to scorn convention.
The feverish village patriotism of frontier days subsides for a time, but editors whip it up
again to tickle local pride. We pretend that the vinegar-faced Puritan is still bothering us,
just as we cling to our belief in the parsimonious Scot of the anecdotes.”
“It was the consensus among my male colleagues, who either saw Margaret Crain in the flesh or studied her photographs, that she had about as much sex appeal as a pound of chopped liver.”
Making allowances for pre- PC mid-twentieth century America, this is at the very least an attention grabber. I immediately located and purchasd a copy of Murder One: Six on the Spot Murder Stories, a collection of Kilgallen’s crime writing.
Professor Murley defines true crime as “the narrative treatment of an actual crime.” She adds that in the course of constructing these narratives, writers frequently make use of fictional techniques. (This latter practice has been a source of controversy ever since Truman Capote announced the invention of what he called the nonfiction novel.)
The second question is more personal, almost a cri de coeur from the author herself: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”This one is harder to answer, or at least, to answer honestly. You don’t want to think of your interest in this subject as being purely prurient, or worse, deriving from a perverse enjoyment of the misery of others. Those elements may be present in some hopefully small degree, but Murley offers two other possible explanations for why we read true crime:
A desire to make sense of the (seemingly) senseless
A desire to illuminate the sordid with beams of truth
Let’s leave it there, for the time being.
I came up with this list of postwar true crime classics:
Compulsion by Meyer Levin – 1956
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – 1965
The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh – 1973
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry – 1974
Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson – 1976
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer – 1979
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule – 1980
Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss – 1983
Of these eight titles, I have, at one time or another, read five. My plan was to reread In Cold Blood and then read the three that I’d not read before: Compulsion, The Onion Field, and Helter Skelter. Meanwhile I had ordered a copy of Blood and Money, currently available from Carroll & Graf. I vividly recall being spellbound by this book. What was it about this narrative that, on my first reading all those years ago, had so captivated me? I made the mistake of opening it and perusing the first few pages….
You can guess the rest. I came up for air 474 pages later, at the end, feeling slightly stunned. I cannot overstate the compelling nature of this stranger than fiction story, infused as it is with Tommy Thompson’s relentless drive. The last two paragraphs are especially powerful. Some books, fiction or nonfiction, attain a kind of greatness at their closing moments. One thinks of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and The Great Gatsby as well. You can put Blood and Money in that select company.
Thomas Thompson died of cancer in 1982 at the age of 49. We are fortunate that he had the time and the will to write this true crime classic.
“….an existence so so splendid, so compelling, that the paltry realities of this world grew faint by comparison.” – Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison
I’ve never lost interest in the story of Joan of Arc. So when I read of Kathryn’s Harrison’s new biography, I knew I’d want to read it.
Ever since she made her appearance in the historical narrative, shaking that narrative to its core, people have longed to know what Joan of Arc actually looked like. The sole contemporaneous likeness we have is a marginal doodle by Clément de Fauquembergue, a clerk in parliament.
He made this drawing in 1429 without actually having seen its subject.But he was correct in making Joan’s hair black. How do we know this? In the mid nineteenth century, a single strand, inky dark in color, was found embedded in the wax seal of a letter she had dictated.
Harrison tells us that
Likenesses made in her lifetime were destroyed upon her being condemned as a witch, rendering them dangerous devil’s currency.
The frontispiece of this book contains a single word: the scrawled signature of the Maid of Orleans:
I was stopped in my tracks. You want to trace the jagged letters with your fingers. (I did.)
‘I was only born the day you first spoke to me….My life only began on the day you told me what I must do, my sword in hand.’
Joan speaking to her voices, in The Lark by Jean Anouilh
Pictorial representations of Joan of Arc have proliferated down through the centuries. And the coming of the motion of the motion picture provided a whole new means of bringing to life her remarkable story.
Harrison quotes liberally from the numerous books and plays in which some version of Joan’s life has been depicted, among them Anouilh’s The Lark (quoted above), George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, The Maid of Orléans by Friedrich Schiller, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, Saint Joan of the Stockyards by Bertolt Brecht, and Joan of Lorraine by Maxwell Anderson. In addition, the author place’s the events of Joan’s life in their proper context. The mindset of the people of Western Europe in the late Middle Ages is of course foreign to us in many ways. This is especially true as regards the intensity of religious feeling on the one hand, and the prevalence of superstitious beliefs and fears on the other. (A good way to get a vivid feel for the period is to watch Ingmar Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal):
Harrison sums up the essence of this stranger-than-fiction individual thus:
Joan’s poise under fire demonstrated what she couldn’t by herself, even had she been erudite as well as literate. It’s one thing to assemble and polish a portrait of oneself, as St. Augustine, a professor of philosophy and rhetoric, and another to demonstrate at nineteen an integrity that a chorus of scheming pedants couldn’t dismantle, their sophistry displaying Joan’s virtues as she could not have done for herself. Few trial transcripts make good reading; only one preserves the voice of Joan of Arc. While the words of the judges are forgettable – all despots sound alike – Joan’s transcend the constraints of interrogation. Even threatened with torture and assaulted by prison guards attempting her rape, she could not be forced to assume the outline her judges drew for her. That was their script, their story of Joan’s life, and, unlike other such medieval documents, it was reproduced, bound, and distributed by her persecutors with the ironic purpose of establishing their punctiliousness in serving the laws of canon.
In other words, she ran rings around her tormenters. Her courage and resourcefulness, both on the battlefield and in court, were almost beyond belief.
It can be seen from the above paragraph that Harrison’s meticulous and powerful prose is more than equal to the telling of this extraordinary story. (I particularly love the locution “chorus of scheming pedants.”) I do have a small caveat, however: Harrison writes this biography from a distinctly feminist perspective, or at least so it seemed to this reader. I was not troubled by this, because while she makes no secret of the gloss she places on certain aspects of this story, she does not harp on ideological convictions. They’re there, in other words, but not to excess. They do not detract – nothing detracts, really – from this incredible tale.
A brief biography of Joan with excellent illustrations can be found at Live Science.
Finally, I recommend the (silent) film The Passion of Joan of Arc. It was made in 1928 by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. The history of this film is in itself rather unlikely. For one thing, it was very nearly lost to posterity. For another its star, Maria (sometimes called Renee) Falconetti did such an uncanny job of bringing Joan to life that it’s almost as though she were channeling rather than acting. Dreyer himself called her “the martyr’s reincarnation.”
Several full length versions of The Passion of Joan of Arc reside on YouTube. The variations have mainly to do with the soundtrack. Voices of Light, a new soundtrack for the film, was written in 1985 by Richard Einhorn. It accompanies the Criterion release of the film.
The version below has no sound at all and French subtitles only. The final fifteen minutes are extremely harrowing and need no words whatsoever.
“‘The triumphal progress of Linnet Ridgeway in her golden car….'” – a discussion of Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway marries Simon Doyle. From this fateful and impulsive act, a world of trouble arises, starting with the couple’s Egyptian honeymoon.
But the great question, the crucial question is…Why should we care?
Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects discussed Death on the Nile, the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie. Led by Frank, one of our newer members and himself an aspiring writer of crime fiction, this proved to be an especially lively session.
Frank got us started by asking up front for our opinions of the novel. In this space, I recently advised against opening a book discussion this way, but on this occasion, the gambit worked exceptionally well. The first few responses were fairly positive, but then Yours Truly, the curmudgeon for the evening, weighed in. Way too plot driven, I complained, at the expense of character development and setting evocation. We’re supposed to be in Egypt, for Heaven’s sake! Where are the descriptions of the wonders of antiquity? Instead, we have a group made up mostly of spoiled rich people and insufferable snobs (the usual suspects, in other words) playing out their petty psychodramas in the cramped confines of a cruise vessel called the Karnak. (Pauline opined that it would have been a good thing if the ship had simply sunk, a view with which I concurred, as did several others.)
Admittedly, the basic murder plot was very cunning, but in order for it to work, circumstances had to obtain which were by no means a sure thing. Meanwhile, readers were tossed enough red herrings to make a large seafood salad, and I admit that in this regard, Christie’s ingenuity positively shone. However, this multiplicity of suspects was made possible by the presence of large number of characters who drifted in and out of focus as the narrative progressed. Also there are secondary plots involving the theft of valuable jewels and a murderer who foments trouble internationally and who, though his identity is unknown, is also on board the Karnak. This is a lot to cram into a novel of about 330 pages in length.
In fairness, it must be noted that this novel contained some memorable passages. I liked the “golden car” conceit, and there were other piquant bon mots as well. Agatha Christie’s primary storytelling strength lies in the creation of clever puzzles that are difficult to unravel before she unravels them for you. In the first Golden Age of British crime writing, this skill was considered a key asset in an author of detective fiction, and Christie did it as well if not better than just about anybody else. (Frank admitted that he’s a great admirer of this kind of plotting – to the extent that he uses a computer to map puzzles like this one.) But it must be said that as crime fiction has evolved over the decades, character creation and evocative setting have become more or less coequal in importance with storytelling.
(Someone observed that for P.D. James, the setting sometimes came first – at least, in her imagination. The characters and their story then emerged from that setting, which remained throughout a powerful element in the story.)
Generally speaking, with regard to the works of Agatha Christie, our groups spans the spectrum from those who are unabashed fans to those who – well, who for the most part are not fans, unabashed or otherwise. Most of us dwell somewhere in the middle ground. There are some Christie works for which I have genuine affection; numbered among them are several of the Poirot novels and stories and just about anything with Miss Marple in it. Among my favorites: The Labors of Hercules, Five Little Pigs, The Body in the Library, and Murder in Mesopotamia. Finally, in my view, some of Agatha Christie’s later works, featuring neither Poirot nor Miss Marple, are among her most powerful. I am thinking in particular of Endless Night and The Pale Horse.
Also we should keep in mind the jewel like quality of many of Dame Agatha’s short stories. Ann mentioned “Philomel Cottage.” This is one of the most chilling narratives in the canon. It can be found in two Christie collections: The Listerdale Mystery and Witness for the Prosecution. (It’s also included in an excellent if obscure collection that I acquired several years ago called Murder Short and Sweet.) “Philomel Cottage” has that atmosphere of dread that was so memorably evoked in The Pale Horse. In fact, my favorite works by Christie have this characteristic, which at times is characterized by supernatural overtones. My favorite story collection is The Tuesday Club Murders, aka The Thirteen Problems. One story in particular, “The Idol House of Astarte,” is especially haunting.
One of the most gratifying aspects of Tuesday night’s discussion was its wide ranging scope. In addition to Death on the Nile, we talked about other works by Christie and about the way in which she handles the various facets of crime fiction: primarily plot, character development, and setting. For the sake of comparison, other authors, such as P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, and Theodore Dreiser, were brought into the conversation. (What this means, of course, is that in this post, I’ve by no means “covered” Tuesday’s discussion in its entirety – just the highlights, and what I’m at present able to recall.)
Marge recommended the 1978 film version of Death on the Nile, memorable largely because of its cast, among them David Niven, Mia Farrow, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Angela Lansbury, with Peter Ustinov in the role of the imperturbable Belgian detective. I very much enjoyed the 2004 version with David Suchet. It was gloriously photographed, displaying all the wonder of Egypt that was so lacking in the book. (In the Suchet film, Colonel Race is played by James Fox, brother of actor Edward Fox and father of Laurence Fox, who plays Hathaway in the Inspector Lewis series.)
This was Frank’s first time leading a discussion for our group, and to my mind, it went about as well as one could possibly wish. His open mindedness, genuine curiosity, and probing questions resulted in numerous lively and rewarding exchanges. Well done!
After its acquisition by the National Trust, Greenway, Agatha Christie’s country home, was opened to the public in 2009. For those of us who have met Christie scholar John Curran and toured Greenway Estate, any visiting – or revisiting – of her works must invariably evoke memories of these excursions.
Here’s a recently discovered (by me, at least) video featuring David Suchet and Matthew Pritchard, grandson of Agatha Christie, at Greenway:
Finally, in the “Everything is connected to everything else” department:
This article links the Christie novel N or M? with the top secret activities taking place at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Christie’s connection with Bletchley was not through Alan Turing, subject of the current film The Imitation Game,” but through Alfred Dilwyn Knox,at the time a leading British codebreaker. Knox is one of the subjects of The Knox Brothers, novelist Penelope Fitzgerald’s group biography of her gifted father Edmund Knox and his equally gifted siblings. It’s a wonderful, quintessentially British book. Fitzgerald is one of my favorite novelists, and I’ve lately been afraid of her slipping into obscurity. Happily this has been prevented by Hermione Lee’s celebrated new biography, which I very much look forward to reading.
This past Sunday, Ron Charles of the Washington Post enumerated the books he’s looking forward to reading in the coming year. The column was squeezed into a tiny space. I almost missed it, and in case you actually did miss it, click here.
Ron Charles, Michael Dirda, and Jonathan Yardley, all of the Washington Post, are the most wonderful and perceptive book reviewers. Together these three have continually promoted and celebrated the reading life on behalf of those of us who live in the greater Washington area. Just last month, Jonathan Yardley announced his impending retirement. Oh, no! One hopes that he’ll still grace the pages of Book World from time to time and share his literary knowledge and boundless enthusiasm with us.
As a gift to us on the occasion of his farewell, Mr. Yardley composed a list of titles that have become, over the years, his personal favorites. Like a little kid who does well on a test, I was delighted to find that out of the fifteen fiction titles on his list, I’d read eleven!
From 2003 to 2010, Jonathan Yardley wrote a column called Second Reading, which he describes as “an occasional series in which the Post’s book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.” One of my favorites from among these essays is entitled “Six Gifted Englishwomen.”
Mr. Yardley’s Second Reading pieces have been collected in a book by the same name.
I was waiting for something – anything! – to fire me up again, in service to Books to the Ceiling. This did it:
In the waning years of World War Two, a group of children discover a series of tunnels near their neighborhood. Originally intended as part of a new housing development, they lay abandoned in the earth when the onset of war delayed the projected buildings.
The children find these subterranean passages to be ideal places to play. Far from the prying eyes of adults, they construct their own world there. One of the girls rather mysteriously dubs the tunnels ‘qanats.’ A term of Middle Eastern origin denoting “a series of well-like vertical shafts, connected by gently sloping tunnels,” qanats is a lovely word, one that effortlessly breaks the ironclad rule that decrees that the letter q must always be followed by a u.
Eventually the children are chased out of the tunnels and banished from playing there by John Winwood the father of one their number, Michael. In those days, one of them later reflected, children did as they were told by the adults in their world. None of them ever went back.
The years passed and they grew up, and away from one other. Decades pass. Then, from deep inside their old hiding place, an ugly secret is disgorged, and they are once again thrown together. It proves to be highly combustible reunion.
The Girl Next Door contains a love story mesmerizing in its intensity, and also the most affecting description of a cruel and loveless childhood that I’ve encountered outside of Charles Dickens. (And yes, I am putting Ruth Rendell in that rarefied company.)
More than anything, this novel is about old age and its inevitable mixture of dread and hope, fragility and strength, anger and passivity, the frustration of feeling outdated and irrelevant at war with an equally defiant determination not to care, sadness, resignation, acceptance – and the strange and unexpected apparition of what I would call a kind of grace.
I was gripped by the whole scenario, from beginning to end.
Here is the meditation of one character who is forced, by circumstances beyond her control, into a profound and essential change:
Now Alan’s gone, said Rosemary to herself, I don’t much care. I did at first but now I don’t. That’s how it is with me. Calm, at peace, thinking ahead to all the clothes she would be able to make uninterruptedly, she began to pin the velvet pieces together. Tomorrow she would go to the shop which had reopened when knitting became fashionable again two or three years ago and buy enough wool to make herself a twinset. Something for the new baby too? I don’t think so. Freya wouldn’t appreciate it, so why bother?
Why do anything at all I don’t enjoy? I won’t. That’s how it is for me now.
One caveat: the cast of characters is rather large, and you may initially have trouble separating out the various strands of the narrative. Don’t worry; they’ll fall into place fairly quickly.
In an article in the London Evening Standard, Mark Sanderson declares The Girl Next Door to be equal in greatness to Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis and Memento Mori by Muriel Spark: “Rendell’s novels, for all their aberrations, establish a sense of order that is deeply satisfying.” How true. I cherish those ‘aberrations’ as much as I appreciate – deeply – the underlying sense of order. Well put, Mr. Sanderson.
As i began reading this novel, I was reminded of this author’s A Fatal Inversion, which she wrote under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. My first thought was – oh, surely, this won’t be that good. Ah, but it was.
Well done – very well done indeed, Baroness Rendell of Babergh.
Please note: the following are my favorite reading experiences of the year and are not necessarily books published in 2014. Simenon’s Night at the Crossroads came out in 1931. They Were Counted, the first volume in the Transylvanian trilogy of Miklos Banffy, also appeared in the 1930’s, although it was not translated into English until the late 199o’s. Originally published in 1965, John Williams’s Stoner went largely unnoticed. And yet it has had its champions down through the years, and now, in our era, its greatnesss has finally been acknowledged.
I’d like to say thanks to the various book groups that I attend (often but not faithfully). Several of their discussion selections are on this list. I might not have read these books otherwise. (I’ve designated them with an asterisk.)
For a printable text only version of this list, click here.
This is a bifurcated list, as you can see. It just came together that way, as I was working on it.
Enjoyable and worthwhile:
Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade by Rachel Cohen
The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation by Harold Schechter
Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris by Steven Levingston
Three Can Keep a Secret and Proof Positive by Archer Mayor
Dark Waters by Robin Blake. Although this second series entry did not have quite the same impact as A Dark Anatomy, I still enjoyed it. I look forward to number three, The Hidden Man, due out in March of the coming year.
No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell. A Wexford, and as excellent as its predecessors.
*China Trade by S.J. Rozan
*Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood. A pleasant surprise. I expected a negligible bit of frippery and got a great deal more. And these are the novels that have given rise to the delightful series, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
The Devil’s Cave and The Resistance Man by Martin Walker
The Snowman by Jo Nesbo
Only the Dead by Vidar Sundstol. This second installment in Sundstol’s Minnesota Trilogy was not what I expected. For one thing, it is probably the most static crime novel I’ve ever read. The writing is lush to the point of gorgeousness, but there are several very disturbing scenarios as well. And so I recommend this (deceptively short) book with a certain amount of caution, and I would definitely read Land of Dreams first. (See below)
The Ravens, the third and final novel in this trilogy, is due out in April of next year. Vidar Sundstol writes these novels in Norwegian, his native tongue. He is most fortunate in his gifted translator, Tiina Nunnally.
By Its Cover by Donna Leon
Night at the Crossroads by Georges Simenon. Penguin is in the process of reissuing all the Maigret novels in new translations. The project began in January with Pietr the Latvian. Currently the schedule for publication runs through February of the coming year. So far I’ve read The Late Monsieur Gallet, The Yellow Dog, and Night at the Crossroads. The third was definitely the best. I believe that the writing and plotting gain strength as the series goes forward.
From the first, Simenon delighted in the study of the females of the species and their effect on their male counterparts:
For a woman can be lovely without being alluring, while other, less classically beautiful women unfailingly inspire desire or sentimental feelings
Else aroused both: she was at once woman and a child, creating her own aura of voluptuous attraction. And yet, whoever looked into her eyes was astonished to find her gaze as limpid as a little girl’s.
This from a man who, in his dotage, claimed to have slept with some ten thousand women! (See “Would You Believe It” by Mark Dawson in The Guardian.)
The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley
*The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Outstanding – Best of the best
Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris by Eric Jager. An absolutely riveting read.
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre
*The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber
True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schecter
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
Land of Dreams by Vidar Sunstol
*An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris
Black Lies, Red Blood by Kjell Eriksson
After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman
The Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey
The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh, based on characters created by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith. Mma Ramotswe yet again, displaying her unerring intuition and just as importantly, her signature warmth, kindness, and compassion.
A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm. Written twenty years ago, this is the first in a series of mysteries featuring Sir Robert Carey and set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First. I’ve been hearing about this book for years and always meant to give it a try when I was next in the mood for historical fiction. Lately I’ve been in that mood a lot. It was brought to my attention not long ago that A Famine of Horses was available for Kindle download at a most attractive price. (It still is.) I acted accordingly.
I was so completely enchanted by Patricia Finney’s gem of a novel that I segued immediately into its sequel, A Season of Knives. (This is something I almost never do.)
The Robert Carey novels are currently available from Poisoned Pen Press, which does so much good work on behalf of quality crime writing. In her entry in They Died in Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated and Forgotten Mystery Novels, Barbara Peters, venerable founder of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore and editor-in-chief of the eponymous publishing house, observes the following:
This series has everything one could want: carefully crafted, clever, challenging plots, a great setting in the border country between England and Scotland, and characters drawn from (Elizabethan) life or wholly from Finney’s imagination….
So well transported are we that any interruption becomes unwelcome and we must follow the twists and turns of the plots to the end.
In her introduction to A Plague of Angels (fourth in the series), Diana Gabaldon puts it this way:
…Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey novels are the sort of books that cause one to rush out of the house and leave the supper burning for fear of finishing one after the bookstore has closed and the others are out of reach. And the main reason for this addictive readability is the way in which complete matter-of-factness meets historical picturesqueness, thus resulting in a thoroughly convincing illusion of reality.
Here’s an exchange between Carey and his chief Lieutenant Dodd, on the subject of Queen Elizabeth, whose court Carey has lately vacated for the post of Deputy Warden in the borderlands:
Dodd struggled for a moment, then gave in. “What’s she like, the Queen?”
Carey raised an eyebrow. “Well,” he said consideringly, “a scurvy Scotsman might say she is a wild old bat who knows more of governorship and statecraft than the Privy Councils of both realms put together, but I say she is like Aurora in her beauty, her hair puts the sun in splendour to shame, her face holds the heavens within its compass and her glance is like the falling dew.”
“You say that do you, sir?”
“Certainly I do, frequently, and she laughs at me, tells me that I am her Robin Redbreast and I’m a naughty boy and too plainspoken for the Court.”
“And then I kiss her hand and she bids me rise and tells me that my brother is being tedious again and my father should get up to Berwick and birch him well, and that poor fool of a boy Thomas Scrope apparently wants me for a deputy in the West March, which shows he has at least enough sense to cover his little fingernail, which surprised her, and what would I say to wasting my life on the windswept Borders chasing cattle-thieves.”
“What did you say, sir?” Dodd asked, fascinated.
Carey’s eyes danced. “I groaned , covered my face, fell to my knees and besought her not to send me so far from her glorious countenance, although if it were not for the sorrow of leaving her august presence, I would rejoice in wind, borders and cattle-thieves, and if she be so hard of heart as to drive me away from the fountain of her delight, then I shall go and serve her with all my heart and soul and try and keep Scrope out of trouble.
Despite himself, Dodd cracked a laugh. “Is that how they speak at the Court?”
“If they want to keep out of the Tower, they do. I’m good at it and she likes my looks, so we get on well enough. And here I am, thank God.”
I cannot tell a lie: I am seriously at risk of falling in love with the dashing, amorous yet always courtly Sir Robert Carey!
(where, among other worthies, two of my favorite authors once again outdo themselves)
They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy
Stoner by John Williams
American Romantic by Ward Just
*Sparta by Roxana Robinson
The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster
The Children Act by Ian McEwan.
Some Luck by Jane Smiley
*The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
The first Adam Dalgliesh novel I read was A Taste for Death, published in 1986. I remember little of the actual plot except for the crime described early on in the book. The author’s depiction is both shockingly out of place and totally bewildering. I was later to learn that James makes frequent use of this kind of scenario, to wit:
I think it was W.H. Auden who said that there is the potential for more horror in that one single body on the drawing room floor than there is in a dozen bullet-riddled bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets. That one body is out of place: It’s shocking because it’s in the wrong place. We don’t associate murder with the vicarage drawing room. I use that quite a lot, that contrast between the awfulness of the deed and perhaps the beauty of what’s surrounding it. We get it with the murder in Cambridge in high summer, in “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.” We get the bodies in the church in “A Taste for Death,” brutally murdered in what is, after all, a holy place.
(from a 1998 Salon Magazine interview )
Here is the actual quote from W.H. Auden’s 1948 essay, “The Guilty Vicarage:”
In the detective story, as in its mirror image, the Quest for the Grail, maps (the ritual of space) and timetables (the ritual of time) are desirable. Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder. The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighborhood (but not too well-to-do-or there will be a suspicion of ill-gotten gains) better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.
In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, mention is made of the possibility of W. H. Auden writing some verse especially for James to insert into one of her novels, attributing it to her poet/detective Adam Dalgliesh. The idea never bore fruit, though James notes with justifiable pride that “Auden loved detective stories – he always read my books.”
The other thing I remember from that reading of A Taste for Death is more subtle. I’d describe it as the sense of something more elemental at work in the pages of the novel, a deeper quest into the very essence of human nature. In other words, the mystery was eventually solved, but not the Mystery. (I encountered similar elements in The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie. In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, Christie scholar John Curran says of this novel that it evokes “……a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.”)
At any rate, we who love crime fiction owe a debt of gratitude to P.D. James, a writer whose elegant style, masterful storytelling, and singular characters have for decades kept us engrossed, entertained, and edified. It was a life well lived, and a body of work that will stand the test of time.
A mist lay over the valley, so that the rounded hilltops looked like islands in a pale-silver sea. It had been a clear and cold night. The grass on the narrow stretch of lawn under her windows was pale and stiffened by frost, but already the misty sun was beginning to green and soften it. On the high twigs of a leaf-denuded oak three rooks were perched, unusually silent and motionless, like carefully placed black portents. Below stretched a lime avenue which led to a stone wall, and beyond it a small circle of stones. At first only the tops of the stones were visible, but as she watched, the mist rose and the circle became complete. At this distance, and with the ring partly obscured by the wall, she could see only that the stones were of different sizes, crude misshapen lumps around a central, taller stone.
(from The Private Patient)
Among my favorites:
Ave atque vale, Baroness James . You will be sorely missed.
Having recently attended two very enjoyable book discussions, I’ve decided to voice a few more thoughts on this subject. Two of the book groups I attend (with some regularity) make their choices by means of a general shout-out. This occurs every few months – both of these groups meet every two months. Gradually the titles are winnowed down to those few that seem to have the most general appeal. (Nevertheless, there may be at least one person in the room thinking, Oh good grief, I do NOT want to read that! I’ve read bad reviews / it’s too long/ that author is overrated/I’ve already tried reading it and couldn’t get past page five, etc. etc. I freely confess that I have been that person, more than once.)
The third book group – The Usual Suspects, frequently referenced in this space, employs a different procedure for the selection of titles. Just before Christmas, each person chooses a month in the coming year when they’ll be responsible for leading the discussion. That same individual chooses the book to be discussed at that session. Whether or not others approve is immaterial, at least at this stage of the proceedings. We read the book, show up at the appointed time and place – and let fly! (Actually, we’re very civil.)
Of these two methods of choosing, I favor the one practiced by the Usual Suspects. It guards against haggling and impulsive decisions, possibly regretted at a later time. Oh, and one other suggestion: If it’s your selection that’s so to speak under the microscope, don’t start by asking people if liked the book. Instead, dive right in with the particulars. Sometimes a reader who’s formed a not especially favorable opinion of a book finds that same opinion being modified as the discussion goes forward. (This, too, has happened to me.)
Below is a list of books I’ve read in recent months that I enjoyed a great deal and that, in my view, would be good book group choices (or in my case already have been, as indicated by an asterisk):
The Unknown Bridesmaid – Margaret Forster
Stoner – John Williams
*Sparta – Roxana Robinson
*The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd
The Children Act – Ian McEwan
The Weight of Water – Anita Shreve
American Romantic – Ward Just
Some Luck – Jane Smiley
Clever Girl – Tessa Hadley
CRIME AND SUSPENSE
*An Officer and a Spy – Robert Harris
Sandrine’s Case – Thomas H. Cook
After I’m Gone – Laura Lippman
– Candace Fleming
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal – Ben Macintyre
*The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder – Charles Graeber
It’s been a while since I read anything by Jane Smiley. I had a feeling I would like her latest. “Like” is too weak a word. I thought it was terrific. Some Luck is the first in a projected three volume saga of the Langdon family. It begins on a farm in Iowa in 1920. The rural life there is described with such loving care that I wished things could stay the same forever. But of course they can’t – and they don’t.
There was nothing extraordinary about these characters except that they spring from the fervent imagination of a master craftsman. I care so much about what happens to them! I look forward eagerly to the next installment.
The Unknown Bridesmaid seems, indeed, to be all but unknown. I sought it out on the basis of a review in The New York Times. The reviewer, Michelle Wildgen, calls it “a mesmerizing, unsettling novel.” Forster tells the story of Julia, beginning with her girlhood, as she becomes increasingly at odds with her loving yet strangely uncommunicative family. I can’t describe the hypnotic effect this story had on me any better than Wildgen does, so I’ll let her do it:
One isn’t always certain what, exactly, there is to fear in the middle-class environs in which Julia grows up, but no matter how mundane the event, the atmosphere is electric with significance.
(Click here for the full text of the review.)
I’d love to lead a discussion of this novel. This would give me a perfect reason to reread it, which I want to do anyway.