‘The Osage found themselves surrounded by predators—“ a flock of buzzards,” as one member of the tribe complained at a council meeting.’ – Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

July 8, 2017 at 2:15 pm (Book review, books, History)

 

Yet another Osage chief, Bacon Rind by name, enlarged on the subject at a congressional hearing, testifying that the whites had

“bunched us down here in the backwoods, the roughest part of the United States, thinking ‘we will drive these Indians down to where there is a big pile of rocks and put them there in that corner.’  ” Now that the pile of rocks had turned out to be worth millions of dollars, he said, “everybody wants to get in here and get some of this money.”

Pile of rocks worth millions? What happened was this: After being driven from their land in Kansas, the Osage finally settled – were permitted to settle – on the stony ground of northeast Oklahoma, in the early 1870s. It was thought that in this region, so inimical to agricultural usage, the Osage would be left alone.

And so they were, until these began to appear on the landscape:

The Osage owned not only the land, but also the mineral rights pertaining to that land.. Oil barons like J. Paul Getty and Frank Phillips came calling; they paid enormous sums for the right to drill on Osage property. Unexpectedly, almost unimaginably, members of the tribe became wealthy. They spent lavishly on houses and cars. They were living the good life. At first.

It’s not hard to envision the reaction of their white neighbors. First, astonishment. Then resentment. These could have been borne. But they were followed by something far more dangerous: greed. Greed, in its most insidious yet ruthless guise, masquerading as friendship and benign caring. In particular, with regard to one William Hale, Hamlet’s bitter exclamation concerning his uncle comes to mind:

That one may smile and smile, and be a villain….

William Hale, supposed friend of he Osage; in reality, their scourge

The wave of crime that decimated the Osage’s rightful gain and culminated in multiple murders, committed by varied and nefarious means, was ultimately traced back to him and his henchmen. The period in the 1920s in which these depredations occurred became known as the Reign of Terror.

Who did the above tracing? To being with, local and state law enforcement. At first, the crimes having been so cunningly executed and forensic evidence gathering being so new and largely untested, the investigation proceeded at the proverbial snail’s pace. It didn’t help that while some investigators were committed and resourceful, others were being suborned with threats and payoffs. It was indeed a fiendish set of circumstances, with the deck heavily stacked against the Osage victims, real and potential.

Eventually, a key development kick started a series of breakthroughs. Because in  some cases, the crimes had been committed on federal land, the federal government was  duly brought in. A little known and relatively small agency, an arm of the Department of Justice, assumed responsibility. At the time it was called the Bureau of Investigation. Its low profile was about to change dramatically, largely because it was headed up by a man who was young, smart, incredibly focused and utterly driven:

Hoover and  the Osage had the great good fortune to have an agent in the field who was indefatigable in his pursuit of justice. His name was Tom White.

Tom White and J Edgar Hoover

Mollie Burkhart and her long suffering family are the heart and soul of Killers of the Flower Moon.

Mollie Burkhart, center, with sister Annie at left and another sister Minnie. Annie was shot and killed execution style, Minnie died of “a peculiar wasting illness,” their mother Lizzie was almost certainly poisoned, yet another sister, Rita, was killed when her house was bombed.

The story David Grann tells in this book should never have been allowed to lapse into obscurity. It is both mesmerizing and enraging and needs to be remembered. Although the Osage paid a terrible price, justice was done, at least to some extent. Grann believes that there are more murders than those officially acknowledged in the public record. What a job of research he has done here; I cannot praise his efforts highly enough. It’s the good fortune of readers that his skills as a researcher are matched by his gifts as a storyteller. Still, I think he remains haunted by “the ones that got away.” We should all feel the same.

Click here to view a segment on David Grann and Killers of the Flower Moon aired on April 30th on CBS Sunday Morning.

Permalink 1 Comment

More mysterious musings

June 20, 2017 at 10:55 pm (books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

The noir sensibility would seem to having its moment – again…

I like this trenchant observation made by Megan Abbott in her recent New York Times review of You Belong To Me by Colin Harrison:

Noir has always had a complicated relationship with nostalgia, alternately rejecting the past as a psychological prison and romanticizing it as the lost Eden that predated our fallen present. At its heart, however, the hard, hungry gaze of noir has always been fixed instead on the future. It’s a genre filled with the kind of characters the novelist Laura Lippman calls “dreamers who become schemers.” The dedicated employee who decides to steal from the boss, the drifter who wants the rich man’s wife, the low-rent crooks who try to pull off the big con.

  Megan Abbott is the author of the excellent You Will Know Me.   As for the subject of this particular review, I immediately downloaded You Belong To Me and started reading it. I’m now  55 pages in – eighteen per cent, as the Kindle Reader helpfully informs me – and let’s put it this way: it’s not my usual thing. For one thing, the thoughts attributed to various characters can be exceedingly harsh, judgmental, and cynical; I’m not comfortable quoting them here. Nevertheless, assailed by a kind of coruscating wit one moment and provoked to astonishment and dread the next, I can’t seem to put the book down! (Judging by where I am currently in the narrative, the novel can best be described as Henry James on speed. It’s a quintessentially New York novel of manners, all right – but updated to  the twenty-first century. And what manners!)

Interviewed in the latest issue of Mystery Scene Magazine, writer and critic Eddie Muller offers these thoughts on the essence of noir:

It was the artists who created it and fostered it, not the executives….Some of the films made money, sure–but this had more to do with artists feeling a sense of liberation after the constraints that the Depression and World War II put on them to be “uplifting.” Now they could write adult stories that didn’t have to end well. And that often meant making “bad guys” of the protagonists, which was really the revolutionary, subversive aspect of these films. The central character didn’t have to be a good guy–but he or she was relatable and even someone with whom you could empathize. That’s sort of how I define noir, both literary and cinematic.

  Meanwhile, while trying to control my compulsion to devour You Belong To Me in several gargantuan gulps, I’m also reading Earthly Remains, the latest entry in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series.   From the standpoint of pacing, this novel is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Harrison’s mile-a-minute thriller. I’m a third of the way in – sorry not to be more specific, I’m reading it the old fashioned way – and almost nothing has happened. Brunetti is taking a solo vacation in a house owned by his wife Paola’s wealthy relations. So far, he’s done a lot of rowing, bicycling, reading, and eating. Sounds pleasant, but it doesn’t exactly make for riveting reading.

Still, I’m inordinately fond of Guido Brunetti, so I don’t mind hanging out with him in this way – for a while. And I was deeply moved by the novel immediately preceding this one: The Waters of Eternal Youth.And I do sense the presence of something indefinably ominous in the air. Ah well – pazienza….

  Meanwhile, I shall make it my business to get hold of Dark City, Eddie Muller’s highly praised book on noir. And I want to take this opportunity to remind those who have an interest in the subject of David Meyer’s terrific work A Girl and a Gun. I shall here quote Meyer as well as myself, from a post I wrote in September 2011 on the occasion of a discussion of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity.

Here’s how Meyer describes the “fortuitous clash of cultures” that gave birth to noir:

As purely an American art form as jazz or the Western, noir sprang from a specific set of social and creative circumstances: the end of World War II, the impact of European refugees on an American art form, the mainstream film studios’ need for a steady supply of low budgets, lurid pictures, and the ascendance of a particular writing style….The hard-bitten, American pulp energy of James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, B. Traven, Raymond Chandler, and others was filtered through the refined, ironic sensibilities of cultured European directors.The writers created heroes who dealt with spiritual crisis (caused by the emptiness of Amercian middle-class life) by alternating between emotional withdrawal and attack. The refugee directors preferred a more sardonic, alienated approach.

Meyer sums up: “The combining of these sensibilities helped create one of the great creative outpourings in American history.”

The title of Meyer’s book is taken from a quote by Jean Luc Godard: “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.” 

 

 

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Crossing by Michael Connelly: a book discussion

June 15, 2017 at 12:55 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

  Last night, Frank took the discussion of a specific book – Michael Connelly’s The Crossing – and broadened it until it was about mystery fiction in general: its chief characteristics, what makes it work, why we love it.

An aspiring author himself, Frank tends to approach book discussions from a writer’s point of view. His kickoff question concerned a crucial  aspect of narrative: the Major Dramatic Question. The MDQ, as it’s sometimes called for the sake of brevity, is the story element that initially hooks the reader and keeps him or her committed right through to the book’s end. The hunger for the answer to that question is the chief generator of suspense.

Frank asked us what that question traditionally is in a romance novel. We had no trouble with that one: Will the guy get the girl (or vice versa). With crime novels, the question is more often specific to the situation posited by the author. In The Crossing, we learn early on that defense attorney Micky Haller, Harry Bosch‘s half-brother, needs the help of an experienced investigator to prove his client’s innocence. He appeals to Harry to take on the job.

Will Harry accede to Mickey’s request? He has plenty of reasons not to. He’s retired from the Homicide Division of the Los Angeles PD, utilizing his newly freed up time to restore a vintage motorcycle. More importantly, he’s concentrating on his relationship with his daughter Maddie, soon to go off to college.

There’s yet another reason to refuse this request, and it has to do with Harry’s identification as a law enforcement professional. Among his cadre of fellow police, it is considered traitorous to work in any capacity for a legal defense team. It is tantamount to going over to the dark side. This is the prevailing perception, even when there are indications that the defendant in question is innocent. Harry’s internal struggle with this dilemma is the chief element that propels the story forward right from the beginning.

Frank also brought up the concept of the sympathetic character. How does an author create such a character, and what’s the advantage of having him or her having a part in the narrative? We responded that a sympathetic character is one that you feel a bond with and whose values you as a reader can identify with. You become invested in that person’s fate, and so you feel compelled to stick with the story.

We Suspects were not in complete agreement as to whether there was such a character in Connelly’s novel. The closest we came to one was Bosch’s daughter Maddie.

Frank also brought up  ‘free indirect style’ or ‘free indirect discourse.’ As best as I can make out, this term refers to instances in which the author describes a character’s inner thoughts and/or feelings while continuing to tell the story in the third person. Wikipedia calls it ‘free indirect speech’ and defines it as “a style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech.”

Harking back to my English major instruction in literary terminology, I recall this mode of writing being called ‘third person limited,’ as opposed to ‘third person omniscient.’ All of this comes under the rubric  ‘point of view,’ as explained here:

Point of view: the perspective from which the story is told.

The most obvious point of view is probably first person or “I.”
The omniscient narrator knows everything, may reveal the motivations, thoughts and feelings of the characters, and gives the reader information.
With a limited omniscient narrator, the material is presented from the point of view of a character, in third person.
The objective point of view presents the action and the characters’ speech, without comment or emotion. The reader has to interpret them and uncover their meaning.

Taken from “Literary Terms,”  a very helpful list on the Brooklyn College site

(I recall first learning of the way in which Henry James made brilliant use of  the limited omniscient narrator. Since my college days, I’ve had numerous occasions to observe with wonder as the master plies his trade, both in full length novels and  short stories.)

Commenting that to him, The Crossing seems more of a thriller than a murder mystery, Frank pointed out the element of banter that one encounters in the novel’s dialog. This is just one way of keeping the plot moving briskly. I was immediately put in mind of  Old Bones, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s latest Bill Slider procedural. Harrod-Eagles makes liberal use of banter; it ricochets among members of Slider’s team and veers from laugh out loud funny to insightful and reflective.

Several of us recalled fondly how well Robert B Parker deployed this technique of dialog construction in the Spenser novels. (Has it actually been seven years? You are still much missed, Mr Parker.)

The Harry Bosch novels are  set in greater Los Angeles, and Connelly displays a nice feel for the region. I wondered aloud at how Southern California has been used repeatedly and effectively in crime fiction by Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanlety Gardner, Ross MacDonald, Sue Grafton, James Ellroy, and Connelly, among others. Someone suggested that the presence of the entertainment industry might have something to do with this phenomenon. Frank oberved that whereas films require the viewer’s unwavering attention for some two hours, the novel reader may stop at any point and take time to reflect on what has taken place, and what may follow. (I don’t believe  that any of us present last night had watched any episodes of Amazon’s Bosch series. I listened to this novel narrated by Titus Welliver, who plays the title role in the TV series. He does an excellent job.)

Ross MacDonald’s take on the City of Angels  and its environs can be pretty devastating:

MacDonald’s depiction of mid-twentieth century southern California as a land of material riches and moral and spiritual bankruptcy has rarely been equaled. His mix of noir cynicism with an empathetic view of human vulnerability makes for a strangely heartbreaking reading experience.

(Penned by Yours Truly, in a letter to the Washington Post)

We talked about the way in which mysteries are often, at least in part, about a hero’s journey: from innocence to experience, ignorance to knowledge, naivete to a kind of knowingness that will make it possible for him or her to survive in an often hostile word. At some point, Frank mentioned – or someone else did – that in the course of the narrative, the protagonist ought to change in some way. And yet, in crime fiction, that often does not happen, at least not in an overt manner, especially if you’re reading about a character in a series. In fact, some of us don’t want that protagonist to change. (Please stay just as you are, noble Commissario Brunetti!)

Frank had each of us weigh in on what we liked or didn’t like about the book. I mentioned the two elements of a novel that I consider supremely important: structural excellence and good writing. He challenged me to define what I meant by ‘structure.’ This made me realize that I have to think and read some more about this subject! I do think that The Crossing was structured in an unusual and very effective way. For me. this element of the narrative ratcheted up the suspense a great deal. As for the writing, I thought it was extremely good. Connelly is not trying to compose a literary masterpiece, but rather heart stopping thriller. In this, he succeeded.

(Here’s an illuminating piece on story structure in Writer’s Digest Magazine.)

Toward the conclusion of this extremely invigorating exchange of ideas, I found myself scribbling fragments in my notebook: life is a mystery…shades of gray…intellectual morality plays…start with confusion and end with clarity…ambiguity…legal response…justice?

In a subsequent email, Pauline used the word ‘erudite’ to describe our discussion. She further complimented Frank on his “unique and creative approach” to the material.

I wholeheartedly agree.

 

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

Inez Milholland Boissevain, Sophie Irene Loeb, and Grace Quackenbos Humiston

June 12, 2017 at 9:50 pm (books, History, True crime narratives)

  I am learning a great deal from Brad Ricca’s fascinating book. Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is chiefly the story of Grace Quackenbos Humiston, attorney at law and crusader for the oppressed and maltreated, especially those found among the immigrant population in this country in the early years of the last century. Peonage, a cruel system that kept workers in debt and tied to their employers indefinitely, was bad enough – but there’s more. Grace also worked to free those wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The case of Charles Stielow in particular is a real cliff hanger. As with all the cases that came her way, Grace worked tirelessly on this one. She was helped in her efforts by two equally extraordinary women: Sophie Irene Loeb and Inez Milholland Boissevain. Plagued by ill health and prone to push herself to the limit, Inez died in November of 1916 at the age of thirty.

Sophie Loeb wrote a eulogy in the Evening World titled “The Example of Inez Milholland.” Loeb wrote of her “dear, dear friend” by telling readers that you could always find her not in the usual spots for women, but in asylums, Sing Sing, and political marches. “How easy it might have been for so lovely a creature as she to sit idly by,” Sophie wrote. “But no. She could not enjoy the world while it suffered … she went forth to fight and used every asset to gain something for others, even unto the very end.” Inez, according to Sophie, was

An example for the idle rich girl who is poor indeed, whose time hangs heavy because it is full of nothingness. An example for the pretty girl who believes that all life means is to smile and dress. An example of the woman of brains who hides them under her marcel wave because she has become a parasite. An example for the woman who thinks that she can gain love when she acquires a man’s bank account. An example for all womanhood.

Grace Quackenbos Humiston 1869-1948

Sophie Irene Loeb 1876-1929

Inez Milholland Boissevain 1886-1916

How I wish I could have known them!

 

Permalink 1 Comment

Mysterious Musings

June 10, 2017 at 10:49 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Slider moved quietly until he could see into the room, and watched for a moment as the cars and plastic marines bounced and jerked to the murmuring narrative. Then George sensed him, turned, and his face lit in a ravishing smile.

No one who has ever been greeted by that ‘ravishing smile’ will ever forget it. In DCI Bill Slider’s case, it’s his second time around – in a second marriage –  with an infant to rear.

A pang of absolute love gripped Slider, making it for a moment hard to breathe. This intensity of feeling and minuteness of observation belonged to second families, and what made it worthwhile while starting all over again in middle age.

I and many of my friends have had a similar experience upon becoming grandparents. My younger grandchild is now three years old – ‘a big boy,’ as he will solemnly remind you – and those same moments, although still vividly recalled, are now consigned to the past. (They are preserved, as never before, in a profusion of photos and videos. I look at them often.)

This passage is yet another example of why I love this series.
**********************************

Have just finished Doug Selby novel number six: The D.A. Calls a Turn.The plot was exceptionally convoluted; nevertheless, I enjoyed spending time with Doug and company. I especially like the continuous sparring between reporter Sylvia Martin and Attorney Inez Stapleton, as they vie for Doug’s favor and attention. As usual, Sylvia would seem to have the edge, but in this series, as in life, you cannot be sure of the ultimate outcome. Another interesting feature of The D.A. Calls a Turn is the depiction of forensic investigation as it was done in the 1940s. In particular, the use of “a shaded light which gave a brilliant, slightly bluish illumination” to detect trace evidence on items of clothing brought to mind the use of luminol for a similar purpose.

Series entry number seven, The D.A. Breaks a Seal, is even now on its way to me.

Permalink 1 Comment

The Past, by Tessa Hadley

May 30, 2017 at 10:44 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

At a recent book group planning session with the AAUW Readers, I gave voice to my frustration with much of the recent fiction that I’ve tried – and failed – to read. Where is the elegance of structure, I moaned plaintively? Where is the graceful, eloquently expressive writing? (You’re talking about craft, my dear friend Helene pointed out, when she and I had  this same conversation several years ago.)

As I was concluding my litany of woes, Debbie, a colleague sitting beside me, leaned over and asked in a whisper if I’d read The Past by Tessa Hadley. “It’s only that you’re passionate about good writing; that’s why I ask.” 

Now I had previously read two novels by this author, The London Train and Clever Girl. I recall enjoying them both a great deal. And I actually had The Past already downloaded onto my Kindle. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Debbie’s words resonated with me. I started Tessa Hadley’s book as soon as I got home. And I knew at once that Debbie was right on the mark with this recommendation.

The Past is a family story, and it reflects generously the messy realities of family life. The Crane family have temporarily abandoned their busy city lives and convened at the house of their late grandparents in the country. There is a question before them: Should  they keep and maintain the house, seat of so many of their childhood memories, or should they sell it? If they decide to keep it, they’ll need to arrange to have work done on it, with all the attendant inconvenience and expense. It would be much simpler to sell up. But then something intangible yet terribly vital will be lost to them forever.

Dramatis personae here consists of three sisters, Harriet, Alice, and Fran, their brother Roland, Roland’s new wife Pilar (or should I say latest wife – apparently he’s had several), Fran’s children Ivy and Arthur, Roland’s teen-aged daughter Molly, and Kasim, Alice’s – well, it’s rather unclear, actually. As you may well imagine, the house becomes a veritable laboratory of tension generation, the level rising and subsiding as argument and irritation are followed by a period of (transitory) calm. And there’s a derelict cottage not far away that’s familiar to Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland from their childhood. It catches some of the spillover from the grandparent house.

This is one of those novels in which as you’re reading, the characters become increasingly vivid, to the extent that you feel you must know them, or at least have known them, at some point in your own life. The conflicts and the emotions are that real.

Hadley’s feel for natural surroundings seems, to this reader, profound:

The lane was strewn with branches fallen in the last high wind; huge oaks growing out of the banks were contorted and bulging with age, their grey hides deeply fissured and crusty. In the high hedgerows the delicate flowering plants of early summer had yielded to coarsely thriving nettles and bramble and dock, rank in the heat. She crossed a stile, then climbed a stubble field up to where cylindrical bales of straw were stored in a Dutch barn. At the top of the hill the wide landscape was proffered bleached and basking, purged of its darkness: there were views across the shining estuary all the way to the blue hills of Wales and, behind her, inland to the moors.

She’s also extremely astute in her observations of children. (In this, she reminds me of Joanna Trollope and Ann Patchett.) Fran’s daughter Ivy is at a volatile age, often beset by surging anger and resentment and prone to misinterpret the words and actions of those around her. And yet she’s pretty much allowed the run of the place. Various people are assigned supervision of Ivy and her little brother Arthur, with the result sometimes being they they’re being supervised by no one in particular. It  seems to me only sheer luck that prevents her from precipitating a full blown disaster.

The odd result of all this commotion is that although The Past hasn’t get an especially dynamic plot, it has still got plenty of suspense. Oh – and lest I forget to mention it – Tessa Hadley has a wonderfully wry and subtle sense of humor.

This is a marvelous novel written by a master of her craft. I recommend it highly; I also think it would make an excellent subject for a book discussion group.

Tessa Hadley

 

Permalink 1 Comment

There’s no stopping Your Faithful Blogger as she polishes off yet another Doug Selby DA novel:

May 26, 2017 at 9:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

This time it’s The D.A. Cooks a Goose.

Who are these fools anyway, who think they can escape the relentless justice, meted out against steep odds, by the young and fearless Doug Selby?

I’ve decided that what most attracts me to this series is its vivid evocation of a time gone by, in this country in general and in California in particular. Often it’s the small gestures that tell: the lighting of cigarettes anywhere and any time; uninsured  cars having the freedom of the road, with predictable consequences.

Each time I’ve read one of these books, I’ve been struck by the brief and unexpected beauty of various descriptive passages:

Selby found the atmosphere in San Francisco was a sharp change from the desert-tanged, dry air of Madison City.Cold fog which had swept in from the ocean surrounded the street lights with a golden aura of suspended globules.The clanging bells of cable cars, the monotonous whine of mechanical fog signals and the deep booming of whistles from steamboats drifted upward through the fog mantle, muffled into a soft medley of sound by the thick white blanket which lay over the city.

At the other end of the spectrum,  Gardner rarely misses an opportunity to dish up a nice helping of noir lingo:

“I was a pen-pusher once, and a  good one. I did my time in stir and got a clean bill of health – as much as  they can give you when you get out of the big house. But with that record of mine, all they need is just a little evidence, and  they could frame a murder  rap on me. I’ve seen those things done lost of times.”

In small Madison City, Doug has a lot to contend with: an ambitious sheriff, a hostile press, a scheming defense lawyer, and the general intransigence of the state’s legal machinery. And then there are the women in his life: Sylvia Martin and Inez Stapleton, one a reporter and the other a lawyer. There’s a hint of the femme fatale in Inez; nevertheless, she’s a thoroughgoing professional. The same may be said of Sylvia, whose unswerving loyalty to Doug is never allowed to interfere with her getting the scoop ahead of everyone else.

Now it’s on to the sixth in the series: The DA Calls a Turn. This title and the seventh, The DA Breaks a Seal, are in print, courtesy of House of Stratus.

On the back of The DA Calls a Turn, readers are informed that Erle Stanley Gardner “…wrote 146 books, 88 of which feature Perry Mason.” Alack, he only wrote nine in the Doug Selby series. For this reader, it will probably be on to the enormous Perry Mason oeuvre after that.

This has been escapist reading of the first order, especially welcome right now.

(For the complete list, see the entry at Stop! YoureKillingMe.Com.)

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume

May 22, 2017 at 11:21 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I had already heard of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab when I chanced upon a short story written by that novel’s author, Fergus Hume. The story, entitled, “The Ghost’s Touch,” is the lead piece in Crimson Snow, an anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series. Editor Martin Edwards says of it:

This highly traditional mystery is a period piece, yes, but also offers a reminder that Hume was a capable storyteller; he deserves more than to be remembered solely on the strength of a single book.

I liked “The Ghost’s Touch” so much that I decided to dive right into the ‘single book’ upon which Fergus Hume’s somewhat elusive fame rests:

I would call this novel a locked room mystery, except for the fact that the murder happened in the middle of  the night, in the open air. In order to fully comprehend what took place, it’s necessary to know just what a hansom cab is. The Wikipedia entry offers a succinct description of  the vehicle’s design (and  features some excellent visuals as well):

The cab, a type of fly, sat two passengers (three if squeezed in) and a driver who sat on a sprung seat behind the vehicle. The passengers could give their instructions to the driver through a trap door near the rear of the roof. They could pay the driver through this hatch and he would then operate a lever to release the doors so they could alight. In some cabs, the driver could operate a device that balanced the cab and reduced strain on the horse. The passengers were protected from the elements by the cab, and by folding wooden doors that enclosed their feet and legs, protecting their clothes from splashing mud. Later versions also had an up-and-over glass window above the doors to complete the enclosure of the passengers. Additionally, a curved fender mounted forward of the doors protected passengers from the stones thrown up by the flying hooves of the horse.

It’s easy to see that at night, a criminal act could take place within the close confines of the carriage, without being observed by the driver, or by anyone else for that matter. And that is exactly what happens right at the outset of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. The deceased was found to have no identification on him; thus, the police  are left with two perplexing questions: What is the identity of the victim? Who killed him?

Hume gradually fills in the picture with the relevant dramatis personae: among them are Brian Fitzgerald, a young man about town who knew the victim; Madge Frettlby, Brian’s fiancee, a woman of uncommon grit and determination; Madge’s father Mark Frettlby, and Mr. Gorby, the police inspector. (There are many more supporting characters.) Gorby goes after Brian Fitzgerald like Javert pursuing Jean Valjean. He’s the very avatar of the investigator who, the more wrongheaded his theory of the crime, the more relentlessly he pursues its fanciful dictates.

While this conundrum is being set forth, the city of Melbourne, Australia comes vividly to life. I freely admit that the only things I know about this locale have been gleaned from watching the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries. Whereas these delightful productions are set in the 1920s, Fergus Hume’s novel was published several decades earlier. So the setting reaches further back in time, becoming even more exotic and intriguing in the process. Here, Hume describes one Melbourne’s more elegant venues:

It was Saturday morning, and of course all fashionable Melbourne was doing the Block. With regard to its ‘Block,’ Collins Street corresponds to New York’s Broadway, London’s Regent Street sand Rotten Row, and to the Boulevards of Paris. It is on the Block that people show off their new dresses, bow to their friends, cut their enemies, and chatter small talk.

When we venture away from Collins Street toward Burke Street, though, we encounter an altogether different, far less salubrious scene:

The restless crowd which jostles and pushes along the pavements is grimy in the main, but the grimyness is lightened in many places by the presence of the ladies of the demi-monde,who flaunt about in gorgeous robes of the  brightest colours. These gay-plumaged birds of ill omen collect at the corners of the street, and converse loudly with their male acquaintances, till desired by some white-helmeted policeman to move on, which they do, after a good deal of unnecessary chatter.

In other words, Melbourne in the 1880s resembles in some ways London of the same period.

Hume’s writing is sprightly and inventive and filled with literary allusions, from the classics of the ancient world to contemporaneous crime literature – and that includes both detective fiction and true crime. I was pleased to see Thomas De Quincey referenced more than once; likewise Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose Lady Audley’s Secret was so fearfully entertaining, not to mention compulsively readable.

Hume knows how to render characters vividly. Here’s his description of Brian’s landlady Mrs.Sampson:

She was a small, dried-up little woman with a wrinkled yellow face, and looked so parched and brittle that strangers could not help thinking it would do her good if she were soaked in water for a year, in order to soften her a little. Whenever she moved she crackled, and one was in constant dread of seeing one of her wizen-looking limbs break off short, like the branch of a dead tree.

There’s more, but doubtless you get the idea.

Fergus Hume and Arthur Conan Doyle were both born in 1859. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab came out in 1886; A Study in Scarlet, the work that first introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes, appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887.   Scarlet barely created a ripple of interest in the reading public, whereas Hansom Cab created a sensation, first in Australia and then in Britain. The Sign of the Four, Conan Doyle’s second novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, came out in 1890. Like Scarlet, it did not make much of an impression on the reading public, although this delightful story of how it came to be written is recounted in the Wikipedia entry:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described how he was commissioned to write the story over a dinner with Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of an American publication Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, at the Langham Hotel in London on 30 August 1889. Stoddart wanted to produce an English version of Lippincott’s with a British editor and British contributors. The dinner was also attended by Oscar Wilde, who eventually contributed The Picture of Dorian Gray to the July 1890 issue. Doyle discussed what he called this “golden evening” in his 1924 autobiography Memories and Adventures.

(Oh, to have  been a fly on the wall at that dinner party!)

“A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first short story featuring Holmes, appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1891. This was the work that kick started the mania for Conan Doyle’s brilliant eccentric creation. That fascination is with us still; if anything, it has grown in stature and intensity, spawning innumerable spin-offs and being handily adapted to modern media .  

Fergus Hume’s literary fortunes followed an opposite course. After Hansom Cab, he penned numerous novels and short stories, but none grabbed readers as his first novel had done, so widely and so unexpectedly.

If I have a criticism of The Mystery of  Hansom Cab, it’s that it is rather longer than necessary. The pace flags somewhat toward the end, and the plot becomes unnecessarily tangled. But for the most part it was a terrific read, filled with colorful characters and featuring a compelling love story.. I highly recommend  it.

Fergus Hume 1859-1932

Permalink 3 Comments

‘…Thomas began to learn how to apply the ointment of dreams to the wounds inflicted by experience.’ – The Opium Eater by Grevel Lindop

May 17, 2017 at 12:36 am (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

  The Opium Eater is subtitled, A Life of Thomas De Quincey. It was a deeply turbulent and difficult life. As an adult, De Quincey was chronically short of funds and relentlessly hounded by creditors, frequently needing to flee from them and find repose in the homes of friends or in designated sanctuaries like Holyrood House in Edinburgh. His health was frequently poor, with problems exacerbated by his use of opium.

All of this was preceded by a childhood positively Dickensian in its cruelty. That the cruelty was in the main psychological made it no less devastating to Thomas, a child in desperate need of warmth and encouragement. His mother Elizabeth Quincey, a domineering woman with a heart of flint, believed that praising children promoted vanity and this refrained from demonstrating any kind of approval or even basic kindness toward her children.

De Quincey’s father, a successful merchant, was often absent. He finally came home for good, to die of tuberculosis at the age of 40, as Thomas was approaching his eighth birthday. Shortly prior to this, Thomas had lost the one bright light of his chilldhood: his sister Elizabeth, who died at the age of nine.

What a catalog of miseries! The burden of sadness must have been nearly intolerable. And as for the mother in the case, I found her conduct so enraging that I had to stop reading from time to time, to give myself a chance to simmer down.

Despite the absolute lack of maternal love and support, De Quincey began to exhibit signs of an insatiable intellectual curiosity. These were accompanied by unmistakable signs of brilliance. His scholarship in the fields of the classics and philosophy was deeply impressive.

At thirteen he wrote Greek with ease; at fifteen he not only composed Greek verses in lyric measures, but could converse in Greek fluently and without embarrassment; one of his masters said of him, “that boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.”

From NNDB.com

De Quincey attended Oxford but does not seem to have derived much joy from the experience. He began his writing career as a journalist, editor, and reviewer. He earned a precarious living in that manner  for the rest of his life. He married Margaret Simpson, a farmer’s daughter whom he loved dearly.

To this superb young woman . . . I surrendered my heart forever almost from my first opportunity of seeing her; for so natural and without disguise was her character and so winning the simplicity of her manners, due in part to the deep solitude in which she had been reared, that little penetration was required to put me in possession of all her thoughts and to win her love.

Quoted by Grevel Lindop from “The Household Wreck,” a story by De Quincey

They had a large family, though a number of the children did not survive to adulthood. The saddest story on that subject involves their son William. He contracted a rare and particularly cruel cancer called chloroleukaemia and died at the age of eighteen. He was the firstborn of Margaret and Thomas; they were devastated by the loss.

Somehow, amidst all the pain, loss, and hardship, De Quincey persevered. In September 1822, “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” was published in London Magazine:

The Confessions were instantly famous and have remained so ever since. Between 1821 and 1823 some fifteen reviews appeared, nearly all of them enthusiastic about the book’s style and imaginative power, though a few thought the author vain or immoral and there were doubts about the truth of his story. Imitations and parodies abounded, and before long De Quincey’s literary influence, unknown to him, was spreading abroad. In 1828 his work was introduced to France by Alfred de Musset in L‘anglais, mangeur d’opium, a very free adaptation; in 1860 a better version was to be made by Baudelaire in Les paradis artificiels, and by then the Confessions had reached Edgar Allan Poe and contributed an important element to his style and vision. vision. De Quincey had written a classic work.

I cannot praise this biography too highly. Grevel Lindop’s writing is wonderful; his research, exhaustive. This was obviously a labor of love, and I, for one, loved it.

Grevel Lindop

Here, from Lindop’s site, is the story of his thorough-going involvement in the life and work of Thomas De Quincey:

In the late 1970s I became interested in Thomas De Quincey, ‘the English Opium-Eater’, essayist and friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge. I wrote a biography of him, published in 1981 as The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. Later I edited his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings for the Oxford World’s Classics series in 1985, and later still I piloted The Works of Thomas De Quincey, a 21-volume complete edition of his writings, produced by a team of eleven editors under my direction and published in 2000-03.

There’s much more in this biography that what I’ve described above. Of especial interest is De Quincey’s relationship with Wordsworth and his family. Anyway, read it, for that and for so much more.

The question arises as to what to read by De Quincey himself. I won’t deny that I find some of his writings abstruse. For one thing, his prose is liberally sprinkled with quotations from the Latin and Greek. For another, there is an antiquarian aspect to his prose that can  be rather daunting for the modern reader – or this reader, at any rate. Be that as it may, there are works that Lindop really made me want to read: The Avenger, The English Mail Coach – and of course, The Confessions. I’m currently rereading On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts and finding it tougher going than I did this first time; don’t ask me why. I do, though, have to share this quote from it:

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.

The tone, I think, is what makes On Murder especially memorable. A good place to start, though, would be On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth. It’s short, powerful, accessible, and deeply profound.

Thomas De Quincey 1785-1859

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

‘…unbefriended men with long-simmering rage and elaborate plans for revenge.’ – Incendiary by Michael Cannell

May 3, 2017 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, New York City, True crime)

   New York’s so called Mad Bomber was just such a man. From the early 1940s to the late 1950s, he terrified the city with homemade explosive devices. He placed them in movie theaters,  train stations, phone booths, and rest rooms. All anyone knew about him was that he held a powerful grudge against Con Edison.

For sixteen years, the New York City Police pursued this wraith, with no results. Finally, in desperation, they consulted Dr. James Brussel.

An assistant commissioner of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, his day job  was supervising the treatment of more than six thousand anguished souls at Creedmoor and other public asylums in and around New York City.

In addition to his responsibilities to the city, Dr. Brussel also saw private patients.

The question the police had for him was this: From the brief, handwritten correspondence provided by the Bomber, in addition to his actions and methods, could this distinguished psychiatrist venture any conclusions as to who this cunning and elusive person might be?

He could. And did. Hence, the book’s subtitle: The Psychiatrist, The Man Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling.

In Incendiary, Michael Cannell does a first class of job of reporting, particularly on the reporters themselves. He brings the world of the mid- century newsroom to vivid life. You can almost hear the noisy clattering of the typewriters and smell the tobacco smoke that suffused these places. In fact, the city itself, in that era, springs vividly to life. (As one who spent a fair amount of time in Gotham in the early sixties, this portrait really resonated.)

Standing on the corner of Forty-Third Street and Broadway, F.P. [as the bomber was known at first] could see the full neon honky-tonk shine of Times Square pulsating above him. Camel cigarettes. Admiral appliances. Chevrolet. The billboards glimmered and blinked with the wattage of a thousand light bulbs, as if to compensate for the gloom of a dying afternoon.

As I was reading this book, I found that George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, especially the adagio (middle movement) kept resonating in the back of my mind. And in my mind’s eye I kept seeing Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.  My husband, ever the helpful and resourceful onsite IT guy, put the two together for me:

Permalink Leave a Comment

« Previous page · Next page »