Mariano Fortuny, William Morris, and Peter Lovesey

August 25, 2016 at 1:26 am (Art, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Several weeks ago, while subbing at the library, I came across this: 9781101947470. Though the book was unknown to me, the author was well known: Antonia Byatt, one of Britain’s greatest women of letters, author of the much loved 1990 Booker Prize winner Possession: A Romance. (Both my mother and my close friend Helene loved that book and urged it on me. For some reason, I found it unreadable, but I very much enjoyed this author’s 2003 collection Little Black Book of Stories. As for Possession, I’ve long considered the best thing about it to be its cover: 9780701132606-us-300 . The Beguiling of Merlin is a work by the great Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones: Beguiling_of_Merlin2 )

Back to Peacock & Vine: Before setting eyes on this small volume – Byatt calls it an essay; the illustrations are exquisite – I had only heard the name ‘Fortuny’ in connection with the title of a novel owned at one time by the library: GbF Byatt’s little book is subtitled “On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny.” Like most Anglophiles, I’m well acquainted with William Morris‘s work in painting and design. Fortuny, as I said above, I knew not at all.

mariano fortuny in djellaba

Born in Spain in 1849, Mariano Fortuny moved with his family to Paris when he was still a young child. When he was eighteen, the family moved again, this time to Venice. The city claimed Fortuny as its own; he lived there until his death in 1949.

He lived in a world of elegant parties, extravagant theatricals, carnival and opulence.

From Peacock & Vine

Despite the somewhat decadent, even sybaritic sound of Byatt’s description, Fortuny was anything but a dilettante. In fact, he was extraordinarily creative, excelling in numerous fields: painting, photography, architecture, invention, theatrical set design and lighting, and fashion. It is in that last category that he is probably best known today. His crowning creation in that field is the Delphos gown,  “based on the robes seen on male and female Greek statues such as the Kore of Euthydikos, the Kore of Samos, and the charioteer of Delphi.” It is this latter that’s the most famous:

The Delphos gown was made of sheer silk, densely pleated and sometimes adorned with glass beading. Owners were encouraged to store them thus:fortuny5 When unraveled, they looked like this: Museo_del_Traje_-_MT111882_-_VestidoThe pooling hemline probably made walking a challenge. Also, woman were encouraged to wear only the lightest of undergarments – if any.

How Fortuny achieved this pleating effect was something of a mystery at the time, and still is.

Lady Mary of Downton Abbey in a Fortuny gown

Lady Mary of Downton Abbey in a Fortuny gown

Fortuny also had a nice line in stenciled velvet gowns and  capes:

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute

This amazingly creative man patented more than twenty inventions between 1901 and 1934. He was also a painter:

Interno dell'atelier del pittore a palazzo Pesaro-Orfei a Venezia

Salon at the Palazzo Pesaro in Venice. This was the place that functioned as both home and workshop for Fortuny and his wife Henriette. [Click to enlarge]

fortuny-painting-2-web

Prove alla Scala di Milano

Ritratto di Henriette Fortuny in costume pompeiano (Henriette was Fortuny's wife; they worked as a team on many of his projects.)

Ritratto di Henriette Fortuny in costume pompeiano (Henriette was Fortuny’s wife; they worked as a team on many of his projects.)

Fortuny came by his gifts naturally: his father, Maria Fortuny i Marsal, born in 1838, was a gifted painter in his own right. (Maria Fortuny died in 1874, when his son Mariano was three years old.) Here are three of his works:

The Seller of Tapestries

The Seller of Tapestries, 1870

Marià_Fortuny_-_The_Spanish_Wedding_-_Google_Art_Project

The Spanish Wedding, 1870

The Stamp Collector

The Stamp Collector, 1863

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As I was approaching the end of Peacock & Vine, I had also begun reading Another One Goes Tonight, Peter Lovesey‘s latest Peter Diamond procedural. About a third of the way in, there’s a scene in which Diamond is searching a suspect’s workshop. (He’d obtained the key to the premises by subterfuge; he had no warrant and the suspect was in a coma at the time.) On a high shelf, he spots three funerary urns. He climbs up on a chair to investigate further. His prior assumption that the urns contain ashes proves erroneous. He takes one of them down and reaches inside:

A piece of fine, cream-colored silk was coiled to fit into the space.   He lifted it out and stepped down from the chair. The lightweight silk unfurled into a finely pleated, exquisitely tailored, full-length gown. In spite of the way the garment has been stored, there was scarcely a crease to be seen.

Diamond, no fashion maven, is not quite sure what to make of this find. So he presents one of the gowns  to his lady friend, Paloma Kean, for her appraisal. Paloma is an expert on period clothing and knows at once what Peter has placed before her.

By that point, so did I.

Fortuny had made a surprise appearance in my mystery novel! And this, just as I was first learning who he was.
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William Morris has taken something of a back seat to Fortuny in this post, though he does not do so in Byatt’s book. So I’d like to insert here one of his most famous and beautiful wallpaper designs: “The Strawberry Thief:”

2006AM8935_jpg_l

Unlike Mariano Fortuny, Morris was not lucky in his home life. His wife Jane Burden Morris, often called Janey, was in love with another man,  poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti; neither of them made any effort to disguise their mutual attraction.

William Morris

William Morris

Jane Burden Morris

Jane Burden Morris

Jane Morris as Proserpine, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

Jane Morris as Proserpine, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

*************************************

In the Wall Street Journal’s Review section of August 5, Willard Spiegelman expresses his awe and appreciation of The Charioteer of Delphi in an essay entitled “Beauty Takes a Victory Lap in This Masterpiece” (see image above).
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Currently there exists an enterprise called The Original Morris and Company.  The same is true of Fortuny, on whose site you can find some excellent historical background.

 

 

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‘It seems to plunge us back at once into the Dark Ages.’ – The Wicked Boy, by Kate Summerscale

August 17, 2016 at 10:47 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

9781594205781     Matricide. It is certainly one of the most loathed and loathsome crimes imaginable. Surely the killer would have to be irredeemably evil.

And yet…. In July of 1895, in a house in Plaistow, “a poor but respectable working-class  district in the borough of West Ham” in East London, Robert Coombes, age 13, stabbed his mother Emily to death as she lay in her bed.

He then closed and locked her bedroom door.

Robert had a brother a year younger than himself. He was called Nattie. Their father, a seaman bound for New York, had no idea of the horror awaiting him back home.

Acquiring funds any way they could, Robert and Nattie proceeded to live large. When friends and family asked after their mother, they invented various excuses for her absence. Aside from running around town and generally enjoying themselves, especially when watching cricket test matches  at Lord’s, Robert and Nattie spent time at home playing cards with their friend John Fox, a man in his mid-forties of apparently limited intellect.

Meanwhile, a noxious odor had begun to emanate from the upper floor. It was beginning to pervade the entire house and could even  be detected from the outside. Robert and Nattie’s excuses began to wear thin. They were even barring the door to their mother’s friends and her sister-in-law, also named Emily. Soon the latter would brook no further obstruction. She and her friend Mary Jane Burrage forced their way into the house as Nattie fled out  the back. Once again, Aunt Emily demanded to know the whereabouts of Robert and Nattie’s mother. Robert claimed that she was in Liverpool. Mrs Burrage was having none of it. She stated bluntly: “‘Your mother is lying dead in that room upstairs.” With Robert still denying, she and Aunt Emily went up and gained entry to the bedroom.

Although they could not see only mounded up sheets and pillows, the stench was overwhelming. They backed out of the room and sent for the police. When PC Twort finally arrived and removed the coverings, he was greeted by a gruesome sight: a woman’s dead body, already undergoing putrefaction and crawling with maggots.

Nattie and Robert Coombes were arrested, as was their friend John Fox. Fox was soon discharged; charges against Nattie were withdrawn on condition that he testify against his brother. This he did.

Both the public and the press the followed the legal proceedings avidly, while all the time condemning the appalling nature of the crime. From a local paper called the Stratford Express:

“The ‘Plaistow Horror’ is a story which must depress all who are longing for the improvement of mankind. It will pain public feeling to an extent which has rarely been equalled . It seems to plunge us back at once into the Dark Ages.”

The only way that Robert Coombes could escape the death penalty – his youth was no bar to it – was if he were found to be insane. In due course, this judgment was handed down. Robert was sent to Broadmoor Hospital.

Broadmoar Asylum Terrace in 1885

Broadmoor Asylum Terrace in 1885

Upon its founding in 1863, the facility’s official name was The Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. In the late 1890s, as per Summerscale’s fascinating description, it was operated in a remarkably humane manor. In addition, the grounds were bucolic and offered appealing views to all who dwelt therein.

It was as idyllic a prospect as a city boy like Robert had ever seen. In this pastoral setting the inmates of Broadmoor were returned to a kind of innocence: they were stripped of their freedoms and responsibilities, rendered as powerless and unencumbered as children. In Broadmoor they were unlikely to be reproached for their crimes. They entered a suspended  existence, with little reference to the past or the future, a strange corollary to the dissociated, dreamlike state that often attended psychosis. The asylum was both gaol and sanctuary, fortress and enchanted castle. The spell by which the patients were bound within its walls could be lifted only at the behest of the queen.

(I am deeply grateful that there are still among us people who have such a marvelous command of the language.)

Having lived at Broadmoor for seventeen years, Robert was discharged in 1912.. He was thirty years old. In January of 1914 he set sail for Australia. (Nattie, who had become a seaman like their father. had also emigrated.) Once there, Robert set about creating a new life for himself as a farmer. But the outbreak of war intervened.

In August of 1914, Robert joined the 13th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force. He had already had experience playing in brass bands in England, specifically at Broadmoor; he took on that role with his mates in the battalion. He was also trained as a stretcher bearer; his task, along with his fellow bearers,  was to rescue the wounded from the battlefield and bring them to a place behind the lines where they could be treated in relative safety. His ability to perform this task effectively would be tested to the limit when, in April of 1915, his battalion set off for Gallipoli, “a peninsula squeezed between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles in what is now western Turkey.” (Smithsonian Magazine)

I’d heard of this battle and seen the 1981 film Gallipoli. I didn’t remember much about it. Possibly I repressed the memory.  I knew that words such as carnage and slaughter were frequently used to describe the battle. All I can say is that Kate Summerscale’s description of what actually happened there was so harrowing that I had to fight my way through it. If  there was ever a Hell on Earth, Gallipoli was it.

An Australian soldier lies wounded in the foreground, as hundreds of other soldiers move among the dead and wounded on the beach at Anzac Cove on the day of the landing. The soldiers wearing Red Cross armbands are tending to the wounded. Boxes of equipment are stacked among the men and the beach is also littered with discarded personal equipment. This scene is looking along the beach to the north. Photograph by Charles Atkins. [AWM PS1659]

An Australian soldier lies wounded in the foreground, as hundreds of other soldiers move among the dead and wounded on the beach at Anzac Cove on the day of the landing. The soldiers wearing Red Cross armbands are tending to the wounded. Boxes of equipment are stacked among the men and the beach is also littered with discarded personal equipment. This scene is looking along the beach to the north. Photograph by Charles Atkins. [AWM PS1659] From the site Gallipoli and the Anzacs

As for Robert, his performance as stretcher bearer under  these extreme conditions was exemplary. He managed to survive the experience, an achievement in itself. He was directly or indirectly responsible for saving numerous lives, and was awarded several medals, richly deserved by all reports.

Robert Coombes, in the late 1960s or early 1940s

Robert Coombes, in the late 1960s or early 1940s

The above summary of Kate Summerscale’s narrative is cursory in the extreme. She not only covers the trial of Robert Coombes in fascinating detail, but she also pulls back from his story to provide a wider  context for the reader. She’s especially good at conveying the mindset of the people who lived at the turn of the century, both in England and Australia.

As this book approached its conclusion, I began to appreciate its true heft. For me, The Wicked Boy addresses a most profound issue; namely, can a person live his or her in such a way as to expiate a “primal eldest” sin? It is a matter that only the individual reader and thinker can decide. But Kate Summerscale has given us the perfect case study with which to ponder the question.

A mesmerizing read; a terrific book.

Kate Summerscale

Kate Summerscale

 

 

 

 

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Crime fiction – and fact – in the New York Times

August 11, 2016 at 1:37 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, True crime)

A special issue of the July 31 edition of The New York Times Book Review – “Summer Thrills” –  was fairly bursting with great suggestions for us crime fiction fans. And there was even a two page spread allotted to true crime! The writer was none other than the paper’s long time mystery reviewer (and taste maker for many of us), Marilyn Stasio.

Before plunging into specifics, Stasio admits that “…true crime unnerves me. It’s so…real.” Well of course it is! (I found this confession rather endearing.) But plunge ahead she does, to the tune of six different titles. There’s a nice variety here: contemporary, historical, a visit to the morgue, obsession with a rare tropical fish (the Asian arowana), etc.

51ZtPrT2OHL  I’ve read two of the six: True Crime Addict and The Wicked Boy. In a way, they represent the extremes of true crime writing. In the first, journalist James Renner recounts his obsessive search for Maura Murray. On February 9 2004, while standing beside her disabled vehicle in Haverhill, New Hampshire, Murray went missing. Between the time she was spotted by a passerby who offered to help, and seven minutes later when the police arrived, she had disappeared. Just like that. One minute she was there; the next, she was gone.

Maura Murray in 2003

Maura Murray in 2003

She has not been seen or heard from since.

Renner’s determination to solve this mystery is impressive. He conducted many interviews, reviewed a great deal of evidence, and in general worked tirelessly. This is an unusual true crime narrative, though, in the sense that the writer/investigator keeps getting in his own way. There’s a definite manic aspect to this quest that seems to take root in an already volatile personality. It probably didn’t help that after taking the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, he was informed by the psychologist that “‘Your results were very similar to those of Ted Bundy, the serial killer.'”

After this bomb is dropped, Renner comments: “That’s one of those statements you just can’t unhear.” (It turns out that hard charging individuals such as law enforcement officers and CEO’s tend to score in a similar range.)

Sometimes the prose gets a bit ragged around the edges, but the book is never dull. In fact, there are times when Renner’s observations are striking. At one point, he hikes an area near where Maura disappeared. It’s treacherous going, and icy to boot. When he finally gets back to his vehicle, he’s tearful, exhausted, and drenched in sweat.

We forget how dangerous nature can be. We want to forget, I think. We don’t want to be reminded that nature is more deadly than man. Man can be cruel, but nature is indifferent. It is the unrivaled psychopath.

Throughout this book, the author veers from intense concentration on the task at hand to a self-absorption that’s almost as intense. He’s married with children; they must perforce go along with him on this wild ride. (The term I’d use to describe his wife Julie is ‘long suffering.’) Renner’s taking – or not taking – the drug Cymbalta is a thread that runs through this story. He’s grateful for the calming affect it has on him. On the other hand: “…there’s a freedom in blind rage once you give yourself over to it that is as welcoming as any drug.” At one point, he gives himself over to it in court and as a result, lands in jail.

James Renner

James Renner

I actually had trouble putting this book down. I might even read it again.
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9781594205781 Kate Summerscale is the author of the terrific Victorian true crime narrative, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008). In my view, The Wicked Boy is just as good, perhaps even better. It deserves a review of its own, and will get it in this space, soon.

 

 

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‘You can never know the whole truth of anything.’ – Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman

August 6, 2016 at 8:46 pm (Book review, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

Lippman  Searching for truth, uncovering deception, both deliberate and inadvertent – these are Lu Brant’s core motivators, in both the personal and professional spheres. She’s the recently elected state’s attorney for Howard County, Maryland, and like her father who served in the position before her, she intends to be an unflinching seeker of justice. But as she starts out making her mark in the legal community, she has no idea how close to home this relentless ambition will soon take her.

A widow with two young children, Lu – short for Luisa – has chosen to move back into her childhood home so that her father, now retired, and his long time housekeeper can help her balance her overloaded life. It’s a bit like living in the past and the present simultaneously. The home in question is in the village of Wilde Lake, situated on the lake itself. Along with her parents, Lu and her much older brother AJ had been among the pioneers of the “new town” of Columbia, Maryland. (As she grew older, Lu had been told the sad facts concerning her mother’s passing.)

The above is but a brief recounting of a complex narrative which alternates back and forth between the past tense narration of the family’s early years in Columbia and the exposition of events occurring in the present. (Also, the past is related by Lu in the first person; the present, in the third person.)  The family’s past is interwoven with Columbia’s early years. In these chapters, Lippman uses the actual names of various streets and neighborhoods.

The problem with parallel narratives is that one of them often asserts a larger claim on the reader’s interest than the other. When that happens,you can become impatient with the narrative that you’re finding less compelling. Again, this was my own experience with the novel.

There is also a problem with reading something that takes place so close to home. The impulse to fact check sometimes overrides one’s attentiveness to the story. At least, that was the case with this reader. I admit it was hard not to jump up and down when ‘Rain Dream Hill’ was mentioned, as I lived there for two years in the mid-1970s, which is pretty much the time period the author is describing in those sections.

Lippman’s writing is as breezily accessible as usual, and her sense of humor is very much intact. At one point, she describes a salad set cherished by her father and referred to by him as his “‘lares and penates’.”  She confesses that “For years I thought that was Latin for oil and vinegar.” (Dictionary.com defines them as “the benevolent spirits and gods of the household.” This is how I have always regarded pets that are kept and loved in the home.)

My overall assessment of Wilde Lake? First off, the local references were fun but at the same time distracting. I found the plot rather convoluted. In addition, I don’t especially care for the technique of jumping back and forth in time, or of switching verb tenses and point of view. I like a straight ahead narration. (This may be one of the reasons I’m currently preferring to read nonfiction, the other being that there’s so much terrific nonfiction being written right now.)

But well, it is Laura Lippman, she is a home town girl and a very talented one, and Lu Brant is an exceptionally likeable and sympathetic character: a thoroughly modern woman in some ways, but still beset with the same doubts and uncertainties that, in the twenty-first century, still bedevil women in this country and elsewhere as well.

So I would say in general that despite the reservations voiced above, I liked the book. I’d recommend it especially to those who are recent residents of this area or who, like me, resided here during the same period as Lu Brant did as a child (and as Laura Lippman herself did as a teenager, graduating from Wilde Lake High School in 1977).

My favorite work by Laura Lippman is still What the Dead Know. This powerful novel from 2008 was inspired by the disappearance of  the Lyon sisters in adjacent Montgomery County in 1975. (Strangely, almost fatefully, after forty years without any substantial leads the case is once again in the news. This stunning development put me in mind of the penultimate line of the story “Dr. Henry Selwyn” by W.G. Sebald: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”

I’d like to give Lu Brant herself the final word:

The truth is not a finite commodity that can be contained within identifiable borders. The truth is messy, riotous, overrunning everything. You can never know the whole truth of anything.

And if you could, you would wish you didn’t.

Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman

 

 

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Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland

July 29, 2016 at 8:00 pm (Book review, books, History, Italy, Music)

Dynast11  I finally finished it. I didn’t think I would, but I did.

So: what was it like, spending in excess of four hundred pages in the company of the mighty, world-conquering Caesars? You may judge for yourself….

When people think of imperial Rome, it is the city of the first Caesars that is most likely to come into their minds. There is no other period of ancient history that can compare for sheer unsettling fascination with its gallery of leading characters. Their lurid glamour has resulted in them becoming the very archetypes of feuding and murderous dynasts. Monsters such as we find in the pages of Tacitus and Suetonius seem sprung from some fantasy novel or TV box-set: Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools; Caligula, lamenting that the Roman people did not have a single neck, so that he might cut it through; Agrippina, the mother of Nero, scheming to bring to power the son who would end up having her murdered; Nero himself, kicking his pregnant wife to death, marrying a eunuch, and raising a pleasure palace over the fire-gutted centre of Rome. For those who like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison and exotic extremes of perversion, the story might well seem to have everything. Murderous matriarchs, incestuous powercouples, downtrodden beta males who nevertheless end up wielding powers of life and death: all these staples of recent dramas are to be found in the sources for the period. The first Caesars, more than any comparable dynasty, remain to this day household names. Their celebrity holds.

Celebrity, admittedly. But notoriety might be closer to the mark.

Here’s the genealogy of the Caesars:

 

Julians.jpp

[Click twice to enlarge]

In Holland’s telling, Julius Caesar was indeed as dangerously ambitious as  Brutus claimed. He was a genuine threat to the Republic. But perhaps the Republic was doomed anyway. Aside from subduing the Gauls – no small feat – Caesar’s greatest gift to the Roman people was his appointment of his great-nephew Octavius as his heir.

 

Augustus von Prima Porta (20-17 v. Chr.), aus der Villa Livia in Prima Porta, 1863

Imperātor Caesar Dīvī Fīlius Augustus (born Gaius Octavius) 63 BC – 14 AD

(The names will drive you crazy, if nothing else does first.)

Augustus was a reasonably good ruler and, by our standards anyway, a reasonably decent man. And his wife Livia was one of  the more powerful, memorable, and upright female presences in Roman history.

She was the mother of the emperor Tiberius, paternal grandmother of the emperor Claudius, paternal great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and maternal great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero.

from the Wikipedia entry

Livia_Drusilla_Louvre_Ma1233

Livia Drusilla, also know as Julia Augusta 58 BC – 29 AD

 

 

statue of Livia Drusilla at Paestum

Statue of Livia Drusilla at Paestum

Alas, from here it was downhill all the way. Tiberius, successor to Augustus, seemed worthy at his reign’s outset, but he became increasingly erratic, finally withdrawing to his estate on the cliffs of the Isle of Capri, high above the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Sorrento. Here he indulged in grotesque orgies far from the prying eyes of Roman citizens. (But of course. tales of what was going on eventually reached the capital, a place where people indulged lavishly in rumor mongering and gossip.)

The following are pictures taken by me in Italy in 2009:

The approach to Capri by boat

The approach to Capri by boat

As we circled the island, our guide first told us about Tiberius; then he pointed to some jagged rocks sticking straight up out of the water. There, he said, is where the Sirens lured ships to their doom:

2009 May - Walking the Amalfi Coast 182-X2I was stunned. We had gone from history to prehistory, and were now reaching all the way back to the kingdom of myth.

Next comes Caligula, great-grandson of Augustus.

Ever since his childhood, …Caligula had displayed a taste for dressing up. Capri, that wonderland of stage sets, enabled him to give it free rein. Wigs and costumes of every kind were his to try on, and opportunities to participate in pornographic floor-shows freely granted. Tiberius was happy to indulge his great-nephew. He knew what he was leaving the Roman people in the form of their favourite – and he had ceased to care. ‘I am rearing them a viper.’

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka Caligula 12 AD - 41 AD

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka Caligula 12 AD – 41 AD [Photo by Louis Le Grand]

Next up: Claudius:

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 10 BC - 54 AD

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 10 BC – 54 AD

Up until now, my knowledge of Claudius derived exclusively from the TV series I Claudius, in which Sir Derek Jacoby so memorably portrayed the seemingly hapless ruler.

Derek Jacobi as Claudius. THe series caused a sensation on this side of the Atlantic and vaulted this brilliant actor to instant stardom.

Derek Jacobi as Claudius. The series created a sensation and vaulted this brilliant actor to instant stardom.

Somehow I remember Claudius as being a better man than he seems to be in Tom Holland’s telling. Oh, but he was positively saintly compared to his successor, the incredibly loathsome

Nerō Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 37 AD – 58 AD

Nero had a wife, Poppaea Sabina, whom he adored and whom he had obtained for himself by putting her husband, his closest friend, out of the way. (oh – and Nero himself had also been married, too poor, dull Octavia; she, too, was got rid of.)

As ambitious as she was glamorous, the radiance of Poppaea’s charisma exemplified everything that Nero most admired in a woman. Even the colour of her hair, neither blonde nor brunette, marked her out as eye-catching: praised by Nero as ‘amber-coloured’, it was soon setting the trend for fashion victims across the city.

But the beautiful and vainglorious Poppaea Sabina made a fatal mistake: she nagged the ruler of the known world, thus committing the unforgivable sin of discomfiting him.. Never mind that she was heavily pregnant with their child; Nero kicked and beat her to death. No sooner had he done this than he was filled with remorse. The kingdom was scoured looking for another who was just like her. The closest he could get to achieving that goal was embodied in the person of a young boy whom he called Sporus. Nero joyfully took possession of this prize: “…it was as though his dead wife had been restored to him. So completely did he imagine himself to be gazing on her face again, caressing her cheeks and taking her in his arms, that Poppaea seemed to him redeemed from the grave.” But the youth needed to be kept smooth cheeked and beardless forever. How to prevent the onset of puberty? There was only one way: Sporus was castrated.

Meanwhile, Nero’s mother had moved heaven and earth to make sure he attained Rome’s highest office.

Nero and Agripppina

Nero and Agrippina

How was she ultimately rewarded?

Nero and Agrippina had spent an harmonious evening at a villa he was then occupying on the Bay of Naples. Then , as a gesture of filial devotion, he presented his mother with the gift of a yacht.

Greatly affectionate, he gave her the place of honour next to himself, and talked with her until the early hours. By now, with night lying velvet over the Bay, it was too dark for her to take a litter back home; and so Nero, informing his mother that her new yacht was docked outside, escorted her down to the marina. There he embraced and kissed her. ‘For you I live,’ he whispered, ‘and it is thanks to you that I rule.’ A long, last look into her eyes – and then he bade her farewell. The yacht slipped its moorings. It glided out into the night. Lights twinkled on the shore, illumining the curve of ‘the loveliest bay in the world’ while stars blazed silver overhead. Oars beat, timbers creaked, voices murmured on the deck. Otherwise, all was calm.

Then abruptly the roof fell in.

By some brilliant luck – read helpful fishermen who happened to be nearby –  and her own native strength and resourcefulness, Agrippina was able to attain land and return, bleeding but alive, to her villa. But her good fortune was short lived; Nero was not through with her yet:

A column of armed men came galloping down the road. The crowds outside were roughly dispersed; soldiers surrounded the villa, then forced their way in. They found Caesar’s mother in a dimly lit room, attended by a single slave. Agrippina confronted them boldly, but her insistence that Nero could not possibly have meant them to kill her was silenced when one of the men coshed her on the head. Dazed but still conscious, Agrippina looked up to see a centurion drawing his sword. At this, rather than protest any further, she determined to die as who she was: the daughter of Germanicus and the descendant of a long line of heroes. ‘Strike my belly,’ she commanded, pointing to her womb. Then she fell beneath the hailstorm of her assassins’ swords.

As for the famous fire of 64 AD that Nero supposedly waited out while playing the fiddle, that’s a slightly erroneous legend. He didn’t play the fiddle; he played the lyre. And he played the lyre so he could accompany his singing performances. Nero sang everywhere and anywhere there was a stage – or not –  and an audience. He entered innumerable vocal competitions and naturally enough was awarded first prize in every one of them.

Nero as he might have looked at one of his 'shows'

Nero as he might have looked at one of his ‘shows’

Down through history, unconfirmed rumors have held that Nero himself torched the city. The accusation was made during his own lifetime. He in turn blamed the Christians, thus initiating their persecution.

Soon it became clear that Rome had had quite enough of this particular despot:

‘Murderer of mother and wife, a driver of chariots, a performer on the public stage, an arsonist.’ 70 The list of charges was long. Few in the upper echelons of Roman society doubted that Nero, if permitted to live, would add to it. To kill a Caesar was, of course, a fearsome thing; but by early 65, enough were convinced of its necessity to start plotting Nero’s liquidation.

The deed was finally accomplished in 68 AD. Knowing his death at the hands of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard was imminent, Nero took his own life.

‘What an artist perishes with me.’ So Nero, with his customary lack of modesty, had declared as he steeled himself to commit suicide. He had not exaggerated. He had indeed been an artist – he and his predecessors too. Augustus and Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius: each, in his own way, had succeeded in fashioning out of his rule of the world a legend that would for ever afterwards mark the House of Caesar as something eerie and more than mortal. Painted in blood and gold, its record would never cease to haunt the Roman people as a thing of mingled wonder and horror. If not necessarily divine, then it had at any rate become immortal.

Thank you, Tom Holland, for this book. You are a terrific storyteller, and this was one wild and totally engrossing ride.

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A number of fiction titles, some read by me and some not, kept entering my thoughts as I was reading Dynasty. Not all of them were directly related to the specific time frame covered in this book, but they did deal with some aspect of ancient Rome.

These I have not read but have long known of and hope to get to some day:

  89231   tumblr_mk1jczyHLs1rrnekqo1_1280

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These were the first two books to appear in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mystery series. I’ve read nearly all of them and recommend them most highly. (Later titles actually go back in time – see the link provided above.)

Roman_Blood_cover  17406306411

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KeyJaro  I read this novel when it first came out in 1988 and loved it. Benita Kane Jaro, who lives in this area, came into the Central Library shortly after I’d finished her novel, and we had a chance to chat. I’ve always meant to go back and read the two subsequent books in her Ancient Rome Trilogy – The Lock and The Door in the Wall.  I’m delighted that that Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers are keeping these works in print. (The Key, newly purchased, is currently on my night stand.)

Finally, there is this: once read, never to be forgotten: 12172 . Marguerite Yourcenour’s masterpiece, decades in the making, was first published in France in 1951. It is not a fast read; rather, it is slow, majestic, and deeply rewarding.

This passage is quoted in Wikipedia:

Of all our games, love’s play is the only one which threatens to unsettle our soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body’s ecstasy. …Nailed to the beloved body like a slave to a cross, I have learned some secrets of life which are now dimmed in my memory by the operation of that same law which ordained that the convalescent, once cured, ceases to understand the mysterious truths laid bare by illness, and that the prisoner, set free, forgets his torture, or the conqueror, his triumph passed, forgets his glory.

IMG_20160728_201332  This is my own copy of Memoirs of Hadrian. I’ve had it since 1982 and intend to have it always.

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Tom Holland’s translation of The Histories of Herodotus came out in 2014.  61HHV3wB42L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_  It’s a regular doorstop of a tome, so this reader is both grateful and admiring. I’ve long wanted to read Herodotus on the Egyptians, and I believe Holland’s lively prose reworking will facilitate this goal:

After the meal at any party where the hosts are well-to-do, a man carries round the likeness of a corpse in a coffin, carved out of a block of wood and painted to look as lifelike as possible, which in size can be anything between one and two cubits. Showing it to each guest in turn, he says: ‘Look on this carefully as you drink and enjoy yourself, for as it is now, so will you be when you are dead.’ Such is the practice at any drinking-party.

Well, not exactly a laugh a minute, those Egyptians – at least, in this particular setting.


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Let’s conclude with The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. If you don’t have the time to hear the entire symphonic poem, then go forward to 15:25 on the drag bar and listen to the final section, “The Pines of the Appian Way.” This is the most heaven-storming music imaginable. If you ever have the chance to hear it performed live – drop everything and go!

The Pines of the Appian Way is a representation of dawn on the great military road leading into Rome. Respighi recalls the past glories of the Roman Republic. The legions approach to the sound of trumpets, where possible in the form of ancient Roman buccine, instruments best imitated by the modern flügelhorn, and the Consul, elected leader of the Republic, advances, as the sun rises, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.

From the Naxos site

 

 

 

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College of literary knowledge

July 24, 2016 at 2:17 pm (books)

Recently the Times ran a feature on New York City’s famous Strand Bookstore.

17STRAND-JUMBO-superJumboThe Strand is everything you want a bookstore to be: crammed with literary treats for bibliophiles and staffed by knowledgeable people who understand passionate readers. In order to join that select cohort – the store’s staff, I mean – it is necessary to take and pass a multiple choice quiz. The Times very generously posted several iterations of that test on its site. If you click here, you can test your knowledge of the written word.

strand

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So, intellectuals read mysteries! Whaddaya know….

July 21, 2016 at 9:13 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

It started with a profile of Hillary Clinton that appeared in the May 10 issue of New York Magazine. Among other topics, author Rebecca Traister wrote about Clinton’s reading preferences:

In person, she presents, at 68, as a nana. When she tells me what she reads, she sounds just like my mother and so many other women I know, describing how she has become addicted to mystery novels. She cites the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear and Donna Leon’s series set in Venice, explaining, “I’ve read so much over the course of my life that now I’m much more into easier things to read. I like a lot of women authors, novels about women, mysteries where a woman is the protagonist … It’s relaxing.”

I was pleased to learn that Clinton enjoys the works of Jacqueline Winspear and Donna Leon. Both are fine novelists, especially Leon who, with The Waters of Eternal Youth, has just hit it right out of the ball park. May I venture an opinion that by saying these books are easy to read, Clinton is comparing them to some of the policy papers and similar material that she has to not only wade through but also master. To then allow herself to become engrossed in a good story well told and peopled with interesting characters must be a profound relief.

In late June, an article by Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post amplified the subject of Hillary Clinton’s reading taste. Corrigan claimed that in the New York Magazine piece, Clinton was guilty of “a minor flub.” She quotes Rebecca Traister’s ad hoc clarification to the effect that “…Clinton is no cinnamon-scented Mrs Tiggy-Winkle” (a reference which I found baffling and had to look up). Corrigan counters:

But that is, indeed, the patronizing image that bedevils female readers of cozy mysteries. The idea that these writers — and “women’s mysteries” in general — are “easier to read” sounds a tad trivializing.

Right off the bat, let’s assume that Maureen Corrigan – frequent reviewer of mysteries for the Post  – did not mean to imply that Donna Leon is a writer of cozy crime fiction. On the contrary, her novels are concerned with the most  basic truths and the fathomless complexity of human motivations. Winspear’s works may be somewhat lighter, but I don’t know that I’d call them cozies either. (The last one I read, Pardonable Lies, was excellent.)

Mrs Tiggy Winkle, created by Beatrix Potter (as I should have guessed)

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, created by Beatrix Potter (as I should have guessed)

So, then – what exactly is a cozy:

From Wikipedia:

Cozy mysteries, also referred to simply as “cozies”, are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.

From “The Immense Popularity of Cozy Mysteries,” a piece by Kristen Houghton on the Huffington Post site:

Cozies are fun to read. There’s a formula to the cozies that work very well drawing readers back again and again. The amateurs in such stories are nearly always well educated, intuitive women. Books, especially in series form usually have the story line relate to the detective’s job or hobby. Murderers in cozy mysteries are generally intelligent, rational, articulate people, and murders are pretty much bloodless and neat. Violence and sex are low-key and supporting background characters bring comic relief to the story. Some cozy series are set during holidays such as Valentine Day or Christmas making them more intimate to the reader.

See the article on the Cozy Mystery List site for a yet more extended treatment of this subject.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that Lawrence Block defines a cozy mystery as one in which a cat figures prominently in the plot. (I believe this was a tongue-in-cheek offering, but one can never be sure, especially where Block is concerned.)

Finally, a spirited riposte appeared earlier this month in the Post’s Letters to the Editor column. Written by Claire Tieder, it’s entitled “Intellectuals like reading mysteries, thank you very much:”

As one egghead to another, and on behalf of my many egghead friends: Thanks Claire!

Donna Leon

Donna Leon

Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear

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Let me also add that I read my share of cozy mysteries, chief among them M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth novels and the No.1 Ladies’ Detective novels and the Corduroy Mansions series by the prodigiously gifted Alexander McCall Smith.

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Part Three of the Capital Crimes discussion: “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White

July 18, 2016 at 1:09 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

[Click here for Part One of this post, and here for Part Two.]
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At one point in his book The Golden Age of Murder, after naming several of the outstanding male authors of the period, Martin Edwards poses this question:

One of the mysteries of the Golden Age is – why have they been airbrushed out of its history so completely that it is often seen as the exclusive territory of the ‘Queens of Crime’?

In actuality, the aforementioned ‘Queens’ – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham, with the somewhat later Josephine Tey often thrown into the mix for good measure – not only crowded out a large number of male writers by dint of their sheer brilliance, but also a fair number of other women writers as well. One of those in this latter group was Ethel Lina White.

White’s story “Cheese” was the final selection from Capital Crimes to be considered by the Usual Suspects at last Tuesday’s discussion. The framework for this story is so elegantly – and eloquently – set forth that I’m going to quote it in its entirety:

This story begins with a murder. It ends with a mouse-trap.

The murder can be disposed of in a paragraph. An attractive girl, carefully reared and educated for a future which held only a twisted throat. At the end of seven months, an unsolved mystery and a reward of £ 500.

It is a long way from a murder to a mouse-trap— and one with no finger-posts; but the police knew every inch of the way. In spite of a prestige punctured by the press and public, they had solved the identity of the killer. There remained the problem of tracking this wary and treacherous rodent from his unknown sewer in the underworld into their trap.

They failed repeatedly for lack of the right bait.

And unexpectedly, one spring evening, the bait turned up in the person of a young girl.

Cheese.

The principal dramatis personae in this tight, suspenseful little drama:

Jenny Morgan, freshly arrived from the blooming English countryside, eagerly seeking her fortune – quite literally, as she’s in dire need of funds.

Inspector Angus Duncan, “…a red-haired Scot, handsome in a dour fashion, with the chin of a prize-fighter and keen blue eyes.” (Please excuse all the direct quotes; I do love White’s writing.)

Jenny may be keen, but she’s also cautious. She’s received a letter detailing a job offer as a traveling companion and secretary to an elderly lady, but the instructions she’s been given concerning the initial interview for the position have made her uneasy. A friend connected with the police has advised her to seek their counsel. She goes, describes her situation, and asks for their advice – more specifically, for Angus Duncan’s advice, as he is the detective who has caught the case.

(Oh – and watching all this is a Great Dane, resting placidly by the office fireplace. Jenny longs to go over pet him, but she lacks the nerve to move from her chair. Trust me; this is an important detail.)

Inspector Duncan says he needs to have this letter checked out by an expert. Can he take it for that purpose, and will she please come back the next day?

Jenny says yes.

It turns out that by answering just such a summons, the hapless young victim alluded to in the passage quoted above met her tragic fate. As is also stated in that passage, the identity of the perpetrator is known; his whereabouts are not. What’s needed is bait with which to lure this rat out of hiding. As Angus Duncan stares across his desk at Jenny Morgan, a plan, plain as day, reveals itself to him.

He asks Jenny if she’d be willing to help the police capture the malefactor. True, she’ll need to summon her courage, but she need not be too concerned: She will be surreptitiously watched over and guarded every step of the way. Oh – and she will earn a reward: five hundred pounds!

Once again, Jenny says yes.

What happens next is – well, I won’t give away any more. As Frank would say, White summons a plot device into being that the reader has no trouble buying into and that generates edge-of-the-seat suspense. Finally, added to the mix is the beginning of a romance, always a welcome development in a mystery story.
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Ethel Lina White was born in Abergavenny, Wales, in 1887. Upon moving to London, she took a job with the Ministry of Pensions. Eventually she left that employment in order to devote herself to writing full time. During the 1920s and 1930s, she was both prolific and popular. Although not as well known these days, she’s still remembered for two novels which were made into successful motion pictures: The Wheel Spins, filmed in 1938  by Alfred Hitchcock and retitled The Lady Vanishes, and Some Must Watch, which was released in 1946 as The Spiral Staircase and directed by Robert Siodmak. (The Lady Vanishes was remade for theatrical release in 1979 and for television in 2013. The Spiral Staircase was remade for theatrical release in 1975 and for television in 2000.)

In his introduction to “Cheese,” Martin Edwards states:

White’s speciality was ‘woman in jeopardy’ suspense fiction, and her ability to evoke a mood of mounting fear has seldom been matched.

The ‘woman in jeopardy’ trope was, of course, one of the keys to the effectiveness of “Cheese.” White deploys it on a larger canvas and with great success in The Wheel Spins, a novel I recommend with great enthusiasm. (Some Must Watch is high up on my to-read list, but as is the way with such lists, one makes no promises.)

Very little is known of Ethel Lina White’s personal life – witness the sketchiness of the Wikipedia entry. (It’s  interesting how is frequently this is the case with women writers of that era who have never married or had children. One thinks of Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey, although a new biography of the latter by Jennifer Morag Henderson is said to have unearthed some new information about that famously elusive author.) The lengthiest research I found on White is in the Gale database Biography in Context (available through many library websites), and even there, the piece was almost exclusively focused on her work. Frank and I both tried without success to find a date for the initial appearance of “Cheese.”

To recapitulate: the four stories from Capital Crimes that we read for this discussion were “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Hands of Mr Ottermole” by Thomas Burke, “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole, and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White. I think I’m safe in saying that “Cheese” was the favorite among those present at the meeting. (Suspects and others, please feel to offer additions, corrections, or other comments.)

WhiteEthelLina

This is the sole image I was able to find of Ethel Lina White 1876 – 1944

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At the start of the discussion, I handed out the following very subjective list of recommended reading in the classics.

FURTHER READING IN THE CLASSICS INSPIRED BY BRITISH LIBRARY CRIME CLASSICS, MARTIN EDWARDS (BOTH HIS BLOG ‘DO YOU WRITE UNDER YOUR OWN NAME’ AND HIS AWARD WINNING BOOK THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER), THE GOLDEN AGE DETECTION GROUP ON FACEBOOK, ETC.

I enjoyed the following by authors appearing in the Capital Crimes collection:

“The Leather Funnel” and “Lot No. 249” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Complete Adventures of Judith Lee by Richard Marsh (first few stories)

“The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles” from The Silver Thorn by Hugh Walpole

“The Whistle” from All Souls’ Night by Hugh Walpole

Mist in the Saltings by Henry Wade

Before the Fact by Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)

Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham

The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) by Ethel Lina White

In addition, I recommend the following:

The Emperor’s Snuff Box by John Dickson Carr

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

 

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Usual Suspects discuss stories from Capital Crimes – Part One

July 15, 2016 at 1:30 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

 

But first, a bit of background: 9-FarjeonBook

From The Independent December 20, 2014:

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing

A Christmas detective tale not seen in shops for more than 70 years has become a festive sleeper hit and resurrected interest in a long-forgotten crime writer.

Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon is selling in “astonishing numbers”, according to the Waterstones book chain. It has outsold rival paperbacks Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on the high street, while Amazon temporarily ran out of stock last week due to surging demand.

I kicked off our discussion of Capital Crimes with this article. I then expounded a bit further on the opening chapters of Farjeon’s novel. The situation is this: a train has gotten stuck in a snowstorm, and a party of passengers decides to disembark and attempt to reach the next railway station on foot.

With renewed hope they resumed their difficult way. They twisted round another bend. On either side of them great white trees rose, and the foliage increased. Once they walked into the foliage. Then the lane dipped. This was unwelcome, for it appeared to increase the depth of the snow and to augment the sense that they were enclosed in it. With their retreat cut off, they were advancing into a white prison.
The atmosphere became momentarily stifling. Then, suddenly, the clerk gave a shout.
“What? Where?” cried David.
“Here; the house!” gulped the clerk.
Almost blinded by the whirling snowflakes, he had lowered his head; and when the building loomed abruptly in his path he only just saved himself from colliding with the front door.

To their astonishment, they’ve come upon a gracious dwelling all lit up and decorated for the holidays. It’s as if a special welcome had been prepared for them. Yet this cannot be: their decision to leave the train could not have been anticipated. Even more bizarre, as they look around the house, they can find no other living being. The place is completely empty. For whom then is this festive reception intended?

It’s a great set-up. The story takes off from that point, and unlike the aforementioned unfortunate railway transport, never loses its momentum until the full-of-surprises denouement.

Having come out in 2012, The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (Charles Warren Adams) was the first reissue in The British Library Crime Classics series. Two years later, however, Mystery in White was the first to make a major impression on the reading public. At this point, there have been some thirty-six titles released or planned for release by the publishing division of the British Library.

 Joseph Knobbs, crime fiction buyer for Waterstone Books, observes:

‘Mystery in White has been our bestselling paperback this Christmas [2014] and one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

“The Crime Classics stand out against the darker crop of contemporary crime fiction and offer something a bit different. A lot of modern stuff skews closer to thriller than mystery. It has been a treat to see mystery writers such as John Bude, Mavis Doriel Hay and J Jefferson Farjeon get their due. I think that’s a credit to the British Library, which has not only done the important work of archiving this material, but now brought it to a wider audience.’

Robert Davies, from British Library Publishing, adds:

‘For years, publishers have been concentrating on dark, violent, psychological crime novels, but we spotted a gap in the market for readers seeking escapist detective fiction with superb plots and period atmosphere.’

(At this juncture, Louise interjected the view that the stories selected for this discussion were actually quite dark – anything  but escapist! She had a point.)

10369010_298511050330330_755245799971716_o

The runaway success of the British Library Crime Classics was instrumental in bringing into being a conference on Golden Age Mysteries called Bodies from the Library. The first of these was held last year; the second, last month. The conference’s site features a list of suggested reading in Golden Age classics that’s enough to bring tears to your eyes. There’s simply not enough time!

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Like the dutiful librarian I was for many gratifying years, I set out some display items for the group:

IMG_1975-X2IMG_1968-X2*************************************

51cyk9jgbjl-_sx342_bo12042000_1 Capital Crimes is a short story collection that was published here last year. (The Crime Classics entries are now being published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press.) The seventeen stories contained therein were selected by Martin Edwards, who has performed the same function for several other anthologies in this series. Silent-Nights-cover-900x12929781464203756_FC-900x1308

9781464205736_FC-900x1390 9781464205750_FC-900x1296  (You’ll note that one of the display items above is Martin Edwards’s award-winning book The Golden Age of Murder.) I’d chosen four stories from Capital Crimes for us to consider. The first was “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle. (Although Martin Edwards does give the year in which this story first appeared – 1893 – that information was not readily available for most of the other stories in this anthology. We all agreed that this was omission we’d like to see remedied, if possible.)

This is not a Sherlock Holmes story; rather, it is a tale of adultery and revenge, with no detective in the cast of characters. I have to say that upon my first reading, I was so shocked by the events therein described that I slammed the book shut, looked up, and uttered an oath, I don’t remember what, exactly.

Upon subsequent readings, I was able to be somewhat more analytical. Were the events of the story credible? Does Conan Doyle play fair with the reader? The group tossed these questions around for a while; ultimately we concluded that the answer to both questions was yes. Conan Doyle’s masterful touch as a storyteller was everywhere apparent.

Frank directed our attention in this and the other stories to the way in which information about the characters is imparted. In a novel, the author has the time to develop in an almost leisurely manner the personalities of those characters. By contrast, in a short story the time and space are limited. There’s no room for extended descriptions; words must be chosen for their economy of meaning. We agreed that Conan Doyle achieved this aim in “Lady Sannox.”

Here’s what we’re told about Douglas Stone, an eminent surgeon who also happens to be the lover of Lady Sannox:

He was born to be great, for he could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare not plan. In surgery none could follow him. His nerve, his judgment, his intuition, were things apart. Again and again his knife cut away death, but grazed the very springs of life in doing it, until his assistants were as white as the patient. His energy, his audacity, his full-blooded self-confidence— does not the memory of them still linger to the south of Marylebone Road and the north of Oxford Street?

And his vices were as magnificent as his virtues, and infinitely more picturesque. Large as was his income, and it was the third largest of all professional men in London, it was far beneath the luxury of his living. Deep in his complex nature lay a rich vein of sensualism, at the sport of which he placed all the prizes of his life. The eye, the ear, the touch, the palate, all were his masters. The bouquet of old vintages, the scent of rare exotics, the curves and tints of the daintiest potteries of Europe, it was to these that the quick-running stream of gold was transformed.

Douglas Stone himself would have readily agreed with all this praise: he had an ego the size of West Texas!

The complete story can be accessed at this site.

There exists a film version of “The Case of Lady Sannox.” For today’s viewer, I’m afraid it comes across as rather campy. The acting is over-the-top histrionic; in addition, the actress playing Lady Sannox is woefully miscast. But the strangest thing about this version of the story is the way in which the ending is altered. I suggest reading the story, then watching the film, and drawing your own conclusions concerning what was changed and why.

This story sparked an especially lively discussion. Unfortunately, many of the details have escaped me. But I’m grateful to Marge, Louise, Frank, and Ann for engaging with such enthusiasm.

It is difficult to talk about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle without also talking about his most famous creation. That fact was illustrated by this oft-reproduced 1926 cartoon from Punch Magazine:4e35f6a58b76f36e5aa3c53cc1cb73ac  Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist bringing this along for show and tell: IMG_1976-X2 This book is a companion to a special exhibit at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. We were for fortunate enough to see this exhibit and tour this remarkable facility when we were on our 2007 Smithsonian Mystery excursion. On that occasion, Dr. Alan Mackaill was our guide and speaker: DSCN0472-X2

The book’s back cover features an 1892 letter from Conan Doyle to his mentor Dr. Joseph Bell: IMG_1978-X2 In it, Conan Doyle states the following:

It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes … round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1859 - 1930

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1859 – 1930

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Our next story was “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” (1931) by Thomas Burke. This is a fairly famous piece and is included in quite a few mystery anthologies. It’s the story of a serial killer who roams the streets of London, striking innocent people at random and then seeming to disappear into thin air. The first victim is  a gentleman by  the name of Mr Whybrow. He’s headed home after a hard day’s work and looking forward to having tea with his wife. You get the sense of a perfectly ordinary man married to a likewise ordinary woman; they’re fond of each other and neither would hurt a fly. But their domestic tranquility, taken for granted up until now, is doomed to be shattered by “A man with a dead heart eating into itself and bringing forth the foul organisms that arise from death and corruption.” He murders them both, husband and wife. Then quick as you like, he’s gone. Or is he?

Burke’s description of this fiend in human form comes with a large dose of irony and black humor:

He wasn’t, this man, a bad man. Indeed, he had many of the social and amiable qualities, and passed as a respectable man, as most successful criminals do. But the thought had come into his moldering mind that he would like to murder somebody, and as he held no fear of God or man, he was going to do it, and would then go home to his tea. I don’t say that flippantly, but as a statement of fact. Strange as it may seem to the humane, murderers must and do sit down to meals after a murder. There is no reason why they shouldn’t, and many reasons why they should. For one thing, they need to keep their physical and mental vitality at full beat for the business of covering their crime. For another, the strain of their effort makes them hungry, and satisfaction at the accomplishment of a desired thing brings a feeling of relaxation toward human pleasures.

The total number of murders stands at eight. Following the last, “…he was to pass into history as the unknown London horror, and return to the decent life that he had always led, remembering little of what he had done and worried not at all by the memory.” This could be a description of Jack the Ripper, or of the perpetrator of the so-called Texas Servant Girl Murders. Burke’s tone here, located somewhere between satire and black humor, is reminiscent of that of Thomas de Quincey in “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts.”

In an article on “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole,” the venerated critic Anthony Boucher explains why he and others have such a high opinion of this work:

It is a sheerly terrifying story. It imparts to the reader a quality of horror and shock usually associated with tales of the supernatural or of pure sensation, while staying in the bounds of the strict detective story.

I more or less concur with this view, which is why I was somewhat surprised at the negative reaction to this story on the part of my fellow Suspects. Marge felt that the narrative would have worked better as a full length novel, in which the character of the victims could be more fully explored and the reader’s sympathy engaged accordingly.

Frank mentioned the effectiveness of a passage told in the second person, a rarely used device in fiction. It harkens back to poor Mr. Whybrow, as his fate draws near:

You are nearly home now. You have turned into your street— Caspar Street— and you are in the center of the chessboard. You can see the front window of your little four-roomed house. The street is dark, and its three lamps give only a smut of light that is more confusing than darkness. It is dark— empty, too. Nobody about; no lights in the front parlors of the houses, for the families are at tea in their kitchens; and only a random glow in a few upper rooms occupied by lodgers. Nobody about but you and your following companion, and you don’t notice him. You see him so often that he is never seen. Even if you turned your head and saw him, you would only say ‘Good evening’ to him, and walk on. A suggestion that he was a possible murderer would not even make you laugh. It would be too silly.

And now you are at your gate. And now you have found your door key. And now you are in, and hanging up your hat and coat. The Missis has just called a greeting from the kitchen, whose smell is an echo of that greeting (herrings!), and you have answered it, when the door shakes under a sharp knock.

It’s as though you are perched on Whybrow’s shoulder (Frank’s comment), heading along with him into that awful abyss.

At one point near the conclusion, Burke gives  some examples of recent history’s most notorious killers. One was Constance Kent, whom we encountered in Kate Summerscale’s masterful true crime narrative The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Another one was Eugene Aram, whose strange story I came across while researching the town of Knaresborough, which lies a short distance from Harrogate in North Yorkshire.

“The Hands of Mr Ottermole” was  filmed in 1958 as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It can be viewed on Hulu.com, but the commercials make it hard going. The other option is to purchase it from Amazon streaming for $1.99. (It helps to know that particular episode occurs in Season Two, where it’s number 32.)

As with “The Case of Lady Sannox,” the ending of “Mr Ottermole” has been altered. In both cases, this change violates the intent of the author, and in the exact same way.

Thomas Burke 1886 - 1945

Thomas Burke  1886 – 1945

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In Part Two, I’ll cover “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White, plus a few other related items of interest.

 

 

 

 

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The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon

July 10, 2016 at 6:22 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

51h0TPh95SL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_  Commissario Guido Brunetti has been tasked with investigating what is essentially a cold case. Fifteen years ago a teenage girl, Manuela Lando-Continui, was found floating in one of Venice’s canals. Pietro Cavanis, a bystander, pulled her out of the water, but not before serious brain injury had occurred. Cavanis, an alcoholic, remembered almost nothing of what occurred that day. As for Manuela, she was in a coma for a period of time. When she finally awoke, it was with the mental capacity of a seven-year old. There would be no growth, no change, as the years passed.

A dinner party at the home of his wife Paola’s parents serves to introduce Brunetti to Manuela’s grandmother, Contessa Demetriana Lando-Continui. The Contessa requests a private meeting with him at a later time. At that meeting, she reveals to Brunetti the full extent to which her heart has been broken by Mauela’s  cruel fate. Added to her anguish is a suspicion that there’s a dark secret hidden behind that fate. Quite simply, she wants that secret brought to light. Can Brunetti do anything to make that happen?

His initial response is negative. But the Contessa is in her eighties. She is frail and death-haunted. She yearns to know the truth before it is too late.

It did not sound to him as though the Contessa were after vengeance. Perhaps she believed that simply knowing what had happened to her granddaughter would lessen her pain. Brunetti knew how illusory that belief was: as soon as a person knew what had happened, they wanted to know why, and then they wanted to know who.

Even so, compelled by the Contessa’s urgency and her distress, Brunetti finds that he cannot refuse her. He will, he assures her, do what he can.

And so begins an investigation unlike any other, circuitous and serpentine, full of shocks and false assumptions, culminating in more than one stunning revelation.

Throughout this compelling narrative, Donna Leon’s ambivalent feelings about her adoptive homeland peek coyly around every corner. Venality and bureaucracy rear their ugly heads with depressing regularity. But there is goodness at the ready to combat them, especially in the person of Brunetti’s partner in this inquiry, Commissario Claudia Griffoni.

As for Brunetti, he finds his solace and his refuge in the literature of the ancients – Apollonius this time – and in the companionship of his close-knit family.

This scene occurs after yet another grueling day of the investigation:

His spirit was at peace by the time he reached home. Paola was happy for his kiss of greeting and the children pleased to have his full attention during dinner. As he ate his bean soup, knowing there was only lasagne to come, he wondered why this wasn’t enough for so many people….

Later, when Paola came back to place the deep dish of lasagne on the table, Brunetti looked at her, looked at his children, and said: ‘How happy this makes me.’ His family smiled their agreement, thinking he meant the  food, but it was the last thing on Brunetti’s mind at that moment.

(That said, the food in this novel is described in the usual mouthwatering detail.)

I’d like to add, without inserting a spoiler, that in my view many contemporary novelists lose their way as they approach the conclusion of their respective narratives. The opposite happened with this novel: the ending was exactly apt, and deeply moving as well.

I’ll say no more except to assert  how much I loved The Waters of Eternal Youth. I’m having trouble settling on what to read next; this book set the bar so high.

Donna Leon

Donna Leon

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