As has been the case for This Reader for the past few years, the pickings in fiction were slim. I picked up several highly touted new titles, only to put them down, with a sigh of frustration. Nonetheless, there were several that made the grade.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue was a pleasant surprise. I wrote about it in a post entitled Book list for a Friend, Part One: Fiction. As I recounted therein, I expected to dislike this book and wouldn’t even have picked it up were it not book club ‘assigned reading.’ At any rate, I was glad to have read it. It has a narrow focus: the female elite, or “swans,” as their friend and acolyte Truman Capote dubbed them, who dominated the social scene in mid-twentieth century Manhattan. But give author Melanie Benjamin her due: she really nailed the zeitgeist and its principle agents.
I was living in Manhattan with my family at this time – though mostly away at college – so I actually have some memory of the comings and goings and general notoriety generated by this wealthy and idle cohort. There was copious news coverage, never more so than for Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. (Interestingly enough, on its fiftieth anniversary, this famous occasion has once again been deemed news worthy.)
Oh, and the discussion was excellent.
With Dictator, Robert Harris concludes his trilogy based on the life of Cicero. As with Imperium and Conspirata, Harris has given us a riveting account of a complex, fascinating human being navigating his way through turbulent times.
Where historical fiction is concerned, he has risen to the top of my list of favorite novelists. Hail Robert Harris!
I loved Ian McEwan’s wickedly witty Nutshell. Leave it to this inventive, amazingly gifted writer to turn an outrageous conceit like the premise of this novel into high art!
Two short story collections won me over completely this year. The first, Tongues of Flame by Mary Ward Brown – known to her friends and neighbors in Alabama as “Mary T’ – was published in 1986. I first heard of this author from Paul Theroux in his superb book Deep South. Theroux himself had never heard of her until his travels in Alabama led him to a meeting with her. Shortly before that meeting, he read Brown’s stories for the first time.
I told Mary T how pleased I was to meet her. As a short story writer she was the real thing, with a perceptive view of the South today. She wrote about the new tensions, her neighbors and her town, without affectation, in the clearest prose….
Her writing was direct, unaffected, unsentimental, and powerful for its simplicity and for its revealing the inner life of rural Alabama, the day-to-day, the provincial manners and pretensions, the conflicts racial and economic. No gothic, no dwarfs, no twelve-year-old wives, no idiots, no picturesque monstrosities, nothing that could be described as phantasmagoric.
(That last bit, an allusion to Faulkner, among others.)
In “The Amaryllis,” a retired judge, newly widowed, has been given this flower as a gift. Alone in the house, he is increasingly taken with the amaryllis’s showy, assertive beauty. As its blossoms strive toward full maturity, he finds himself yearning to share the sight with others.
He didn’t look at the amaryllis again until after supper, when he went up and turned on all the lights in the front of the house. He turned on crystal chandeliers, table lamps, all. In his mind’s eye he could see the house as it looked from the street, an 1850 colonial cottage in its original setting of trees and boxwoods, all lit up as though guests were expected….
In the handsome room, in artificial light, the amaryllis seemed to have taken on glamour, like a beautiful girl all dressed up for the evening. All dressed up and no place to go, he thought.
The strange thing was, he’d never “felt” anything for a plant before. On the contrary, he’d dismissed them all as more or less inanimate like potatoes and turnips, not animate in the way of cats and birds. He had bought dozen of hospital chrysanthemums, often delivering them himself in their foil wrapping and big bows, but they had seemed more artificial than real. The amaryllis was different, entirely. He liked just being with it. Because of its size, he supposed, it seemed to have individuality, and then he had watched it grow daily, with his naked eye. Looking at the blooms, he thought of words like pure and noble, and old lines of poetry like “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.”
The other collection is by Constance Fenimore Woolson. Written in the latter half of the 1800s, these stories have been gathered together in a single volume entitled Miss Grief and Other Stories, edited by Anne Boyd Rioux, who has also penned a biography of this inexplicably forgotten author. I’ve written about Woolson and her immaculately crafted tales in a recent post. I’ll probably write about her again. I’ll certainly be reading the stories again.
In part two of Best Fiction Reads 2016, I’ll be discussing yet another gem by Alexander McCall Smith, and a highly original and immensely powerful novel by Argentine writer César Aira.
[Click here for part one.]
I always return to books about the classical world. This year I read three: Searching for Sappho: the lost songs and world of the first woman poet, by Philip Freeman; The Classical World: the foundations of the West and the enduring legacy of antiquity, by Nigel Spivey; and Dynasty: the rise and fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland. All excellent, highly readable, and recommended.
I must say, I found some fabulous images for the post I wrote on A.S. Byatt’s Peacock & Vine. Have a look!
Pursuits of both an intellectual and an amorous nature are gracefully intertwined in John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story. And in The Vanishing Velasquez, author Laura Cumming, motivated by the need to escape the pain of a deep personal loss, embarks on an investigation into a fascinating mystery of the art world.
A Thousand Hills To Heaven by Josh Ruxin is a book I’d planned to read out of a sense of duty. But it turned out to be a joy and an inspiration. From the horrors of genocide, Rwanda is emerging as a country ready and eager to enter the modern world. Help from committed individuals like Josh and Alissa Ruxin combined with the resilience and resourcefulness of the native population is creating a wondrous new reality. (Be sure to watch the video embedded in this post – it is heart-lifting.)
Finally, two biographies and one travel book – all three absolutely super.
It’s been a while since I read Andrea Wulf’s revelatory life of Alexander Von Humboldt. I can only say that while reading this book – mesmerized by it – the ‘new world’ of this brilliant scientist became my new world as well. I feel deeply grateful to Andrea Wulf for this gift. (Calling this work a “thrilling new biography,” the write-up in The New York Review of Books pretty much says it all.)
“Erased from history: Too many women writers — like Constance Fenimore Woolson — are left to languish in moldy archives. What will it take to bring them back?”
Thus did Anne Boyd Rioux title an article she wrote for Salon earlier this year. Rioux herself has done yeoman work in restoring a worthy author to her rightful place in the history of American literature.
I began this particular reading adventure with the short stories featured in Miss Grief. Woolson was writing about post-Civil War American, in particular the Great Lakes Region and then the South. It seems to me that she was writing about people and places that had been overlooked by others. And having lived in both regions, she wrote about them knowledgeably and beautifully.
The word “marsh” does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind, and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen,— an enchanted land, whose memory haunts me as an idea unwritten, a melody unsung, a picture unpainted, haunts the artist, and will not away. On each side and in front, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores. In and out, now running into each other for a moment, now setting off each for himself again, these many channels flowed along with a rippling current; zigzag as they were, they never seemed to loiter, but, as if knowing just where they were going and what they had to do, they found time to take their own pleasant roundabout way, visiting the secluded households of their friends the flags, who, poor souls, must always stay at home. These currents were as clear as crystal, and green as the water-grasses that fringed their miniature shores. The bristling reeds, like companies of free-lances, rode boldly out here and
there into the deeps, trying to conquer more territory for the grasses, but the currents were hard to conquer; they dismounted the free-lances, and flowed over their submerged heads; they beat them down with assaulting ripples; they broke their backs so effectually that the bravest had no spirit left, but trailed along, limp and bedraggled. And, if by chance the lances succeeded in stretching their forces across from one little shore to another, then the unconquered currents forced their way between the closely serried ranks of the enemy, and flowed on as gayly as ever, leaving the grasses sitting hopeless on the bank; for they needed solid ground for their delicate feet, these graceful ladies in green.
From “St. Clair Flats” in Castle Nowhere:Lake Country Sketches, 1875
At first, I thought Anne Boyd Rioux’s introduction to this volume would satisfy my curiosity about Constance Fenimore Woolson. Informative as it was, however, it proved inadequate, for this reader, at least. I decided to read Rioux’s full length biography of this unaccountably neglected writer. It proved fascinating. As with most really good biographies, it opened a window onto a whole period of history; namely, post-Civil War America and the European expatriate scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Born in New Hampshire in 1840, Woolson grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where her family moved after the death of three of her sisters. Her father died in 1869, at which point she began publishing stories and essays in various magazines. She felt called to be a writer but money was also a very present problem.
As her story unfolds, Woolson’s life seems more and more poignant. Despite her obvious literary gifts, she had to struggle for recognition. She was befriended and aided by many, most notably Henry James. In fact, I ‘d heard of her previously through my reading about James. Her relationship with him is a very intriguing subject, one not easily resolved. I believe she was rather overshadowed by him; his attitude toward her authorial endeavors was distinctly ambivalent.
Woolson endured a lifelong struggle with encroaching deafness. She never married, and died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 53.
Reading these two books in tandem provided yet another example of the enriching experience of paired reading. Highly recommended, both for solitary readers and for book groups.
Finally, there is Deep South. There are simply not enough superlatives in the language for me to summon up in praise of Paul Theroux’s marvelous travelogue. He himself did not indulge in such language, describing his experiences with the places and people of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas in prose at once artless and powerful.
I just finished rereading Deep South in preparation for presenting it for a book group next month. At that time, I’ll write about it in more detail. Meanwhile I have already spoken of it, albeit briefly, in a post entitled Book list for a Friend, Part Two: Nonfiction.
In that same post, I wrote about some of the gorgeous art books that I’ve recently either acquired or obtained through interlibrary loan. These have been a big part of my nonfiction immersion this year. This trend continues, with these two titles from the library:
And finally, there’s this gift to myself, the Mother of All Art Books!
If you happen to be in the market for a gift for an art lover, this weighty tome is brand new and really quite sensational.
Meanwhile, I shall return, before too long, to Paul Theroux. In my opinion, with Deep South, he has written his masterwork.
Okay, here goes:
I had a great reading year in nonfiction; in fact, it’s probably accurate to say that this is where most of my 2016 reading joy resided.
The true crime subgenre came through for me as it almost always does. In The Midnight Assassin, Skip Hollandsworth tells the harrowing story of a serial killer, all the while bringing late nineteenth Texas history vividly to life. Hollandsworth writes for Texas Monthly Magazine, which has for some time featured exceptional true crime reportage.
True Crime Addict differs from most books in this genre that I’ve heretofore read in that journalist James Renner’s obsession with the case of young woman’s baffling disappearance results in his personal life becoming hopelessly entangled in the investigation.
In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale once again proves herself a master of the true crime narrative. As with the award-winning Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), meticulous research combined with a compelling story results in yet another outstanding book. There are more questions than answers in The Wicked Boy, and there is one questions that, when all is said and done, hangs over this whole affair of a misbegotten son and his fatally impulsive act: one of the profoundest questions we humans can ask of ourselves, or of one another.
In 2009, I chose The Suspicions of Mr Whicher to present to the Usual Suspects. In April of next year, I’ll be doing the same with The Wicked Boy. (I recommend Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, also by Kate Summerscale. Not exactly true crime, but the book provides a fascinating window onto the mores of Victorian Britain.)
This particular trend may not be as hot as it was in the heyday of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (published posthumously in 2005), but it’s still with us. For one thing, we continue to be fairly inundated by the Scandinavians. My long running favorites among them are Karin Fossum of Norway and Kjell Eriksson of Sweden. Jo Nesbo, also of Norway, is a perennial favorite of many crime fiction readers.
Icelandic authors have been receiving favorable notices: Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Arnaldur Indridason. And I’ve just learned of yet another from the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine: Ragnar Jonasson. Author of the Dark Iceland series – consisting so far of Snowblind and Nightblind – Mr. Jonasson is the recipient of the 2016 Mörda Dead Good Reader Award.
Currently I’m intrigued by a new (or newly translated) series written by Harri Nykänen. It’s set in Finland and features Inspector Ariel Kafka of the Violent Crime Unit; he’s identified by StopYoureKillingMe.com as “one of only two Jewish cops in the country.” Thus far, the first two series entries, Nights of Awe and Behind God’s Back, have been translated into English. I’ve just started Nights of Awe and it looks promising. Right off the bat it provides a vivid illustration of the challenges to English-speaking readers that can be posed by novels such as this:
Around eight I headed into town. I always took the same route: Fredrikinkatu to Iso Roobertinkatu, and once I hit Erottaja I headed past the Swedish Theatre down Keskuskatu to Aleksi, where I jumped on a tram.
Well, I’m glad he caught that tram; the spell checker was about to have a breakdown!
Last year, the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group focused mainly on international titles. As a result, we had some exceptionally good reading. My favorites were The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Japan), Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson (Sweden), and A Possibility of Violence by D. A. Mishani. I’m especially eager to read Mishani’s next entry in the Avraham Avraham series. The title in the States is The Man Who Wanted To Know Everything; it was released in this countryr on November 8 of this year.
The international crime fiction scene can be roughly divided into two categories: novels in translation and novels written in English and set in a foreign land. With regard to this latter category, the author is often one who over the years has acquired a deep knowledge of the locale in which his or her stories unfold. My favorite example of this scenario is Martin Walker’s series, Bruno, Chief of Police. As each of these novels unfolds, the reader is transported to the beautiful Perigord region in the south of of France. Indeed, while immersed in these delicious entertainments, I often give myself over to transports of delight: the scenery, the history – starting with the prehistory, the intriguing characters – oh, and the food!
The latest in the series is entitled Fatal Pursuit. As always, the communal life of the village is vividly depicted; it make one envious of what these people possess.
“Crepuscule, one of the loveliest words in our language, for one of the loveliest times of the day just as it gives way to night,” the baron said softly, gazing at the shifting planes of red and crimson light on the river. “Sitting here with wine and food and surrounded by friends as generations must have done before us in this very place, makes all the world’s troubles seem very far away.”
Immersed in the rich history of the region, the baron adds:
“Sometimes I imagine the prehistoric people sitting here on the riverbank, sharing their roast mammoth or whatever it was and watching the sun go down just like us.”
Concluding his reverie, the baron raises his glass in a toast: “‘I drink to them, whoever they were’.”
The baron has been conversing with Bruno, who knows hinself to be lucky to work and live in this caring and vibrant community. Among his many tasks, he’s in the process of training up his basset puppy, the wonderfully named Balzac, to hunt for black truffles, the diamonds of the Perigord.
Young as he was, Balzac seemed fearless, ready to chase away even a big fox. Feeling a sudden burst of affection, Bruno knelt down to stroke him and tell him what a fine hunting dog he would be.
A scene that encapsulated in a nutshell why I love both Bruno and Balzac.
With regard to French crime fiction: on the other hand…
Pascal Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge opens with a sympathetic portrait of a recently widowed woman in her sixties. Eliette Velard finds herself unexpectedly alone in the country house in which she and her husband had planned to live for the duration of his retirement years. She is melancholy but determined to make something meaningful of the years remaining to her. The pace of novel’s plot is at first quite leisurely, with Eliette meticulously preparing a jardiniere, a dish of thickly cut fresh vegetables. Cooking is followed by eating, which in turn is followed by a nap. Meanwhile, the nature of the countryside exerts its beneficent influence:
By the time she woke up, the rain had stopped. A baby-blue sky extended as far as the eye could see. There was a smell of washing powder in the air, of sheets drying on the breeze. In the garden the bay leaves were fringed with water, each droplet holding a ray of sunshine within it. All around, the mountains were steaming, streaked ochre and purple and foaming minty green to freshen the wind’s breath.
Oh, good, I thought: a slow-paced, reflective character study with, as Dorothy L. Sayers would say, ‘detective interruptions.’
Boy, was I wrong! First, there’s the apparition of sudden passion, followed by a neighbor gone inexplicably rogue, and…well, I invite you to read it and find out for yourself (available as a Kindle download for $8.99).
Of course, we cannot leave the subject of crime fiction in La Belle France without a nod and a salute to Georges Simenon. I’ve read and liked several of the so-called romans durs – Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Act of Passion – but the go-to books for me are the Maigret titles. I find it oddly consoling to spend time with L’Inspecteur and his team, all steady workers not prone to hysterics or high drama. And then there’s Madame Maigret, so low key she is almost no key, cooking and cleaning in their apartment on Boulevard Richard le Noir, cosseting her husband as if he were the child they never had.
Penguin’s reissues of these treasures, with newly commissioned translations, continue to appear with gratifying regularity. The latest one I’ve read is Maigret Gets Angry (Maigret Se Fâche), translated by Roz Schwartz. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself in Meung-sur-Loire, at the Maigret’s country house, where they’ve begun spending summers since his recent retirement.
It was cool inside the house, where there was a pleasant smell of wax polish, cut hay, ripening fruit and food simmering on the stove. It had taken Maigret fifty years to rediscover that smell, the smell of his childhood, of his parents’ house.
Inevitably, as with so many fictional detectives, retirement proves temporary. Maigret is soon summoned back into the thick of things, this time with a troubled family where death has paid a highly suspicious call.
I’ve only skimmed the surface of this subject in this post. The most comprehensive list of international crime fiction that I know of can be found on the StopYoureKillingMe site. Similar information can be found on Eurocrime. For several years now I’ve enjoyed G.J. Demko’s Landscapes in Crime. Demko, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Dartmouth, passed away in 2014; nevertheless, his site is still accessible online and is well worth visiting.
‘There was a chilled, numb feeling at the back of his mind, the feeling of one who has had ideals shattered, who has lost confidence in a friend, and a sense of vague, impending disaster hung over him.’ – The D.A. Calls It Murder, by Erle Stanley Gardner
The year is 1937. Doug Selby is a recently elected District Attorney in Madison City, a town of modest size not far from Los Angeles. Although he’s untested, he’s very keen. A mysterious death in a downtown hotel tests his mettle in ways that couldn’t have been foreseen.
The D.A. Calls It Murder is an excellent yarn, well told and bristling with the kind of snappy dialog that characterizes crime fiction of that era. More than that, it was, at least for this reader, an experience in time travel. We find ourselves in a world where telephones are not always available when and where needed, and sending telegrams is often easier – and cheaper – than making long distance calls The idiosyncrasies of typewriters can provide crucial evidence in a murder case, as can laundry marks found on the victims clothing, including his starched collars.
I became intrigued with this brief series after reading an article in the Fall 2016 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine. In “Erle Stanley Gardner…for the Prosecution?” author Michael Mallory provides a number of useful insights on the Selby novels:
Clever plotting was always among Gardner’s strongest skills, and the plots for the Selby books are complex, ingenious, and follow a distinct pattern in which one story thread emanates from within Madison City while a second story thread arrives in town like a visitor from the outside world.
This is, in fact, just what happens in The D.A. Calls It Murder. The novel could certainly be describes as plot-driven; nevertheless, I was pleased to encounter several almost lyrical descriptive passages. In fact, the writing as a whole was better than I’d expected it to be:
It was one of those clear, cold nights with a dry cold wind blowing in from the desert. The stars blazed down with steady brilliance. The northeast wind was surprisingly insistent. Selby buttoned his coat, pushed his hands into the deep side pockets and walked with long, swinging strides.
I could not help but be reminded of the famous opening of Raymond Chandler’s 1938 short story “Red Wind”:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
Selby is a likeable protagonist; Mallory describes him as “a handsome, pipe-puffing, remarkably even-tempered reformer….” Another character whose presence on the scene I greatly enjoyed is Sylvia Martin, the enterprising reporter and friend – possibly more than friend? – of Selby’s. (She’s rather in the Lois Lane mode.) As the novel’s setting is not far from Hollywood, show business almost inevitably manages to intrude upon the proceedings. The intrusion takes the form of the actress Shirley Arden, a seductive beauty whose connection to the hotel killing is key to unraveling the mystery.
The D.A, Calls It Murder came out as the noir style in crime fiction was in its ascendancy. Dashiell Hammett’s career as a writer was pretty well over (hard to believe), while Raymond Chandler, who’d been churning out stories and articles at a rapid rate, was about to embark on a stellar career as a novelist, starting with 1939’s fully formed masterpiece, The Big Sleep. In this first Doug Selby novel, Gardner does not partake much of that ethos, although the flavor of noir lingo can be detected in certain snatches of dialog. Here, Selby has one of his rare flare-ups of temper directed at actress Shirley Arden’s slippery manager:
“You promised me to have Shirley Arden here at eight o’clock. I’m already being put on the pan for falling for this Hollywood hooey. I don’t propose to be made the goat.”
Here’s the list of Doug Selby novels:
The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937)
The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)
The sheer volume of Erle Stanley Gardner’s literary output is truly staggering. Obtaining individual items from this vast oeuvre can be something of a challenge. Here’s what the sole copy of The D.A. Calls It Murder available from Interlibrary Loan looks like:
Michael Mallory concludes his article thus:
With their amazingly deft plots, lightning pacing, constant twists, and offbeat characters, Erle Stanley Gardner’s D.A. novels deserve to be better known and read.
I agree completely. I’ve already got my request into Interlibrary Loan for The D.A. Holds a Candle.
In 1984, a book about the early music revival came out. It was entitled Reprise and was co-authored by Joel Cohen of the Boston Camerata and Herbert Snitzer. It iwas a delightful work whose its first chapter is “The Avant Garde of the Distant Past.” I love the way that phrase rolls off the tongue! This elegant locution has been recurring in my mind as I think about the resurgent interest in classic mysteries.
This is a trend that was kick started by the British Library’s series Crime Fiction Classics. The reissue in 2014 of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story – originally published in 1937 – proved to be a runaway success, an unexpected and happy development in the British publishing world. I read it, loved it, and immediately wanted more of the same – or at least, something similar. My wish was soon granted: new entries in the series were rolling off the presses at a brisk tempo.
Joseph Knobbs, crime fiction buyer for Waterstones, put it nicely:
“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.”
I’ve written about this gratifying phenomenon in previous posts. At the risk of repeating myself – and because, after all, we have entered the season of gift giving – I’d like to note first of all the titles that I’ve read and enjoyed in the British Crime Classics series:
A couple of comments in passing: Capital Crimes and Resorting To Murder are short story collections. And if I had to pick my absolute favorites from among the above six, they would be Mystery in White and Murder of a Lady.
Reading in the British Library series has led to the reading of other classics. An appreciation by A.S. Byatt of the novels or Margery Allingham led me to Police at the Funeral, a witty and thoroughly enjoyable take on the English country house mystery featuring the unflappable Albert Campion and his “man,” the resourceful if cantankerous Magersfontein Lugg, called simply – and often – ‘Lugg’ by his boss.
Another favorite, highly recommended is The Emperor’s Snuff-Box by John Dickson Carr. (I also read this author’s The Judas Window, which exemplifies Carr’s renowned cunning in the crafting of locked room mysteries. I did not, however, like it nearly as much as Snuff-Box.)
Finally, two terrific novels of psychological suspense: Before the Fact is the book on which Hitchcock’s film Suspicion is based. As for Mist on the Saltings, it deserves to be much better known than it is. I was alerted to the excellence of Henry Wade’s works by a post on Martin Edwards’s blog. Edwards calls Mist on the Saltings “a study in character that was ahead of its time.” I agree.
The most recent pleasant surprise for me in this category is a book called The D.A. Calls It Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner. Yes, that’s the Erle Stanley Gardner of Perry Mason fame. I’ve never read any of the novels featuring this most famous fictional defense attorney, but just about everyone from my generation remembers the TV show starring Raymond Burr.
More on The D.A. Calls It Murder in the next post.
This is a rather unusual book – at least, for this reader it was. A lively yet dense traversal of the history of American philosophy is interwoven with the story of a sense of personal inadequacy brought on by the failure of a marriage. But our hero’s quest culminates in the excavation and salvation of a precious collection of books. At the same time that this intellectual quest is playing out, our hero – John Kaag by name – is falling in love with a fellow researcher.
Redemption on two fronts!
The philosophers Kaag writes about were deep thinkers and, at times, profound pessimists. They thought a great deal about questions such as the meaning of life; often their response to these inquiries was bleak. Preeminent among these is William James, older brother brother of the novelist Henry and a famed philosopher and psychologist in his own right:
James knew something the faithful often miss: that believing in life’s worth, for many people, is a recurring struggle.
Kaag goes on to tell us that in the 1870s, James deliberately overdoes on chloral hydrate “for the fun of it.” He wrote Henry that he wanted to see how close he could get to death without actually dying. Around this time, he would have been in his thirties.
Yet just few pages later, the author hastens to reassure us:
The appropriate response to our existential situation is not, at least for James, utter despair or suicide, but rather the repeated,ardent, yearning attempt to make good on life’s tenuous possibilities.
Kaag adds that “the possibilities are out there, often in the most unlikely places.”
Well, gosh, do tell – and quickly, please.
And he does.
For Kaag, in the short term, those possibilities lie in the exploration of the library of the Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking. The library is located at West Wind, the Hocking estate located in a remote area of rural New Hampshire. This aging and sadly neglected edifice is filled with priceless volumes – first editions of seminal works in philosophy, classics containing marginalia by William James and others.
A tremendous amount of food for thought, the collection had also for some time served as food for various insects and vermin. In addition, mouse droppings were frequently found. In other words, the library was in desperate need of rescuing. Kaag plunges in with a will. He clearly loves his subject. And he just as clearly needs to be distracted from his personal problems. The work of examining and cataloguing numerous volumes provides the scaffolding for the story of American philosophy that Kaag sets about constructing.
The cast of characters in this book is large. Some of the names were familiar; others not, at least not to me. It was a pleasure to encounter Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and to have a chance to view them in the context of the history of philosophy. Charles Sanders Peirce and Josiah Royce were names unknown to me; I was glad to make their acquaintance. To my surprise and pleasure, May Sarton and Pearl Buck also figure in this story. (I remember from my early days at the library a slender volume by Sarton that we cat lovers cherished: The Fur Person.)
The presence of Dante in this narrative both intrigued and enlightened this reader. The Divine Comedy was though to contained the summit of human wisdom – so much so that in the 1860s, it was installed as the central text in Harvard’s intellectual firmament. The poet James Russell Lowell proclaimed it to be “‘…a diary of the human soul in its journey upwards from error through repentance to atonement with God.'”
Personal salvation wasn’t just a single triumphant moment of beatific insight, as some of the Transcendentalists had suggested. Moments of insight do occasionally happen, but Dante’s point is that the real trick to salvation is that there is no trick to salvation. It’s just work, plain and not at all simple. Salvation is revealed in the long road of freedom and love.
Then there were the eye glazing moments during which I felt that the discipline being described was the secular version of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This was nowhere more true than when Kaag was enlarging on the subject of analytic philosophy:
Analytic philosophers tend to understand philosophy as the task of parsing arguments, breaking down complex and confusing phenomena by analyzing their constituent parts. Like scientists at a laboratory bench, these thinkers dissect human experience in order to see how it ticks. Of course, this dissection often results in the distortion or destruction of the experience itself, but many analytic philosophers don’t seem to care. They scrutinize for a living.
Don’t know about you, but this sort of thing makes me want to run out to the nearest bar for a short beer (or not so short). But then, just a few pages on, you get this:
The beautiful soul was worth sacrificing everything for. Everything! Socrates stands before his neighbors and says the unthinkable–that there is something worse than death: living an ugly, wicked, boring life. This is not the stuff of Kant’s “pure reason.” It’s the stuff of personal vision, insight, and a foolhardy courage to speak the truth.
And finally, there’s this quotation from Hocking:
“The lover widens his experience as the non-lover cannot. He adds to the mass of his idea-world, and acquires thereby enhanced power to appreciate all things.”
(Oh – and speaking of love, there’s a most intriguing revelation concerning William James. I refer you to a New York Times article entitled “The Geography of Religious Experience” by Christopher Shaw.)
I could go on to expand on subjects such as pragmatism and determinism, but really, it would be just too darn hard – for me, anyway, and possibly for you too, Dear Reader. Instead, I’ll note this strange and fascinating phenomenon from history that Kaag shares with his readers toward the end of the book:
In the medieval era it was not uncommon to bury the bones of the dead in buildings–for example, in the floors and walls of chapels across the British Isles. It is believed that these remains not only served as safeguards against demons but also had a more practical function: They were good for the acoustics. The songs of the living, reverberating through these dead remains, could escape the earthen walls and begin their ascent.
(In 2005, while we were visiting the ruins of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, our guide explained to us at one point that we were standing in the room in which the monks offered up their chants in praise of God. “I like to think,” she added, “that these walls are impregnated with their song.”)
I’m interested in the relationship between philosophy and religion. I sometimes think that for some people, philosophical thought is a substitute for religious belief. But from what I’ve gathered, from this book at least, one does not preclude the other.
I’ve only skimmed the surface in this write-up. Though getting through this book requires some perseverance, it is well worth it. Highly recommended.
This is the title I’ve selected for a program I’ll be presenting in the not too distant future. I was pleased – probably too much so – with myself for coming up with it.
Once the first few moments of self-satisfaction passed, I began casting about for content. I came up with this list:
- Domestic (i.e. psychological) suspense
- Classics reissues and rediscoveries
- International authors and settings
- Use of actual historical personages as detectives
- Historical mysteries
- Regional mysteries (U.S.)
- “Crime fiction is finally getting the critical respect it deserves”
I was immediately filled with unease. Are these trends necessarily hot? Are they especially new? Are they even trends, properly called? And what about that pert little exclamation point? Perhaps I should at least modify the punctuation, e.g. ‘Hot new trends in crime fiction?’ But what a woeful lack of confidence is betrayed thereby!
More often than not, domestic suspense involves a family menaced by a threat from outside (and sometimes, from inside) the family unit. Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me is a good example of the subgenre. Gone Girl, a book I couldn’t get through, is, from what I know of it, yet another, and can possibly be credited with jump starting the present trend.
Another book that could possibly fit into this category is What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross. I’d never heard of this novel until it was chosen by one of my book groups. The plot hinges on a kidnapping rather than a murder. The writing isn’t brilliant, but the story grabbed me. Both the kidnapper and the circumstances are unusual, but the motive behind the crime is all too understandable. The abduction occurs near the beginning of the narrative; the description of the fallout from it is very compelling. My emotional response was unexpectedly strong.
It should be mentioned that domestic suspense is more often written by women, with a woman as the featured protagonist. The Library of America’s two volume edition of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s contains some excellent examples. This collection was curated by Sarah Weinman, whose knowledge of this field is deep, as is her enthusiasm for it. (Last year the Usual Suspects discussed one of the novels included in this collection, Margaret Millar’s Edgar winner Beast in View.)
These mid-twentieth century works provide a neat segue into the subject of crime fiction classics. Stay tuned…
Peter Robinson’s Children of the Revolution more than fulfilled my expectations. Intriguing story, wonderful team of investigators headed up as always by the ever-reliable though sometimes stubborn Alan Banks, nice North Yorkshire atmospherics, and the usual music references. How do I love the British police procedural? Let me count the ways…. (And that goes especially for this long running, very fine series.)
Leave it to me to start with Book Two, then wish I’d read the first one – well, first. I did it with Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful Corduroy Mansions; now I’ve done it again with Slough House, the highly original series penned by Mick Herron. Having read the second, Dead Lions (and inadvertently skipped the award-winning first, Slow Horses), I proceeded immediately to the third, Real Tigers.
Whoever heard of an espionage series in which the dramatis personae almost never get out of London? Usually we have to struggle to keep up with spies as they ricochet from one exotic locale to the next. Not here. The Slow Horses of Slough House are agents who have messed up big time. For reasons best known to their handlers, it would be imprudent to fire them outright. So they’re pensioned off and exiled to no man’s land, in the fervent hope that they’ll stay out of trouble. Fat chance! Jackson Lamb and his ill-sorted, gifted but wayward crew want only to prove themselves worthy of reinstatement in the intelligence pantheon. In pursuit of this elusive goal, they manage to stir up all sorts of fresh trouble.
In Literary Review, critic and novelist Jessica Mann – see my review of A Private Inquiry embedded in this post – had this to say about Real Tigers:
Although this is Mick Herron’s ninth book, and despite the fact that he has won the prestigious Gold Dagger award for his crime fiction, Real Tigers is the first of his books to come my way. What a find!…The story, though good, is not the main reason to read this book. Rather, it is its elegant style, original viewpoint, dry wit and spring-to-life characters, some recognisable.
Mick Herron writes great dialog and is a master storyteller with a sly sense of humor and an ironic world view. He might be the best thing that’s happened to spy fiction since the great LeCarre. Jessica Mann’s prediction: “I think Herron’s is the next big name in crime fiction.”
In the July issue of The Atlantic, Terence Rafferty proclaimed that “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels.” (His article also has the variant title, “‘Gone Girl’ and the Rise of Crime Novels by Women.”) Rafferty is alluding to a specific subgenre of crime fiction, what he calls “tortuous, doomy domestic thrillers.” Women writers, he asserts, are uniquely capable of delivering the goods where these kinds of narratives are concerned.
One of the titles Rafferty mentions is Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. I decided to read this book during the Summer Olympics primarily because it deals with young female gymnasts. It was also getting excellent reviews.
Normally, on the theory that life is too short, I avoid reading anything about sports, with the exception of “The Sport of Kings,” for which I have a lingering fondness from my childhood. But You Will Know Me seemed worth a shot, for the reasons enumerated above. And the fact is, it was good – very good. The crime forms an intriguing subplot, but the novel is really about these young gymnasts, their fierce dedication to the sport, and the cost of that dedication to their minds, bodies, and families. The writing is excellent.
The particular teenage gymnast – and potential Olympian – around whom this novel’s events center is called Devon; the story unfolds from the point of view of her mother Katie. Their relationship is close and intense, and prone to sudden bouts of disequilibrium:
It was remarkable, when Katie thought about it. How her daughter, so strong already, her body an air-to-air missile, had metamorphosed into this force. Shoulders now like a ship mast, rope-knot biceps, legs corded, arms sinewed, a straight, hard line from trunk to neck, her hipless torso resting on thighs like oak beams. Sometimes Katie couldn’t believe it was the same girl.
I recommend reading the Rafferty article referenced above. He makes some interesting points about the history of American crime fiction as well as its current state. As for the ascendant status of domestic suspense, he may be right, but it’s not my first choice in this genre and probably never will be. (I’m a dissenter from the ranks of Gone Girl enthusiasts; Gillian Flynn’s writing rubbed me the wrong way for some reason, and I found the “Amazing Amy” trope contrived and irritating.) Call me old fashioned and/or out of touch, but my favorite mystery subgenre remains the police procedural.
By the way, For my money, where You Will Know Me is concerned, I found Devon’s sweet younger brother Drew to be the unsung hero of the whole scenario. Read it and see if you don’t agree with me.
Quite an opener, that. Right up there, I’d say, with Kafka’s metamorphosed insect.
And it strikes just the right note from the outset, since this testy speaker is in fact a late-term male fetus, impatient with his cramped and watery surroundings, more than ready to be born, to claim his right to a life. “I’m owed a handful of decades to try my luck on a freewheeling planet,” he proclaims.
We aren’t given a name for this rather unique narrator. But wait: his mother’s name is Trudy; her lover is called Claude. Together they are conspiring to cause the death of John, Trudy’s estranged husband and Claude’s brother. Oh – and the biological father of our pre-born raconteur. He is the silent witness to these machinations, helpless save for his ability to deliver, from time to time, a well placed kick.
This quotation appears in the book’s front matter:
“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet, II.ii
I’ve worked out what’s meant by most of the dialog in that play – but I’ve never understood this particular line. Ah well, no matter – McEwan has here put it to very cunning use.
In many ways, this is a strange and wondrous novel, a bravura performance. The fireworks and provocative observations that characteristically enliven McEwan’s prose are everywhere on display. These thoughts, for example, are entertained by the little mini-Hamlet (micro-Hamlet?) in response to a podcast filled with bleak thoughts and bleaker predictions. (Trudy had listened to it and he – inevitably – had overheard):
Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions….Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived? When fewer die in wars and childbirth than ever before – and more knowledge, more truth by way of science, was never so available to us all? When tender sympathies – for children, animals, alien religions, unknown, distant foreigners- swell daily?…When smallpox, polio, cholera, measles, high infant mortality, illiteracy, public executions and routine state torture have been banished from so many countries? Not so long ago, all these curses were everywhere….what of the commonplace miracles that would make a manual labourer the envy of Caesar Augustus: pain-free dentistry [and this, from a little guy who doesn’t even have teeth yet!], electric light, instant contact with people we love, with the best music the world has known, with the cuisine if a dozen cultures?
He could go on – and believe me, he does – yet he ends on this plangent note:
We’ll always be troubled by how things are–that’s how it stands with the difficult gift of consciousness.
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all….
The background presence of Shakespeare’s masterpiece is at times even more powerfully resonant. Here the fetus has retreated into a decidedly more melancholy disposition:
But lately, don’t ask why, I’ve no taste for comedy, no inclination to exercise, even if I had the space, no delight in fire on earth, in words that once revealed a golden world of majestical stars, the beauty of poetic apprehension, the infinite joy of reason. These admirable radio talks and bulletins, the excellent podcasts that moved me, seem at best hot air, at worst a vaporous stench.
And here is the Prince of Denmark’s famous “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy:
I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so.
(This passage contains what is, for me, the single most astonishing locution in all of English literature: ‘…a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” Amazing!)
I don’t want to give the impression that Nutshell is an exercise in dreary pessimism. Quite the opposite: It’s alive with sheer inventiveness. In the course of its short duration – just under two hundred pages – you rarely know what’s going to happen next, or if you do, you still don’t know how it’s going to happen. From time to time, the author’s mordant wit enlivens the proceedings. Even given its brevity, the novel is an exceptionally fast read – at least, it was for me.
I have to admit that when I first learned of the novel’s premise, I thought, well, this is rather bizarre! And more than one book-loving friend has admitted to finding it rather off putting. Having now read it, I have to say that I enjoyed it. It seems to have been undertaken in the spirit of, Can I pull this off? A literary sleight of hand, in other words. Very clever. But not especially deep.
When Ian McEwan told his editor his new novel would be told from the point of view of a foetus, fully inverted in his mother’s womb, “I got a rather glassy look. He [the editor] said ‘Oh, great’ in a rather flat tone; he was not sort of throwing his hat in the air,’’ McEwan recalls with a chuckle so dry and light, it barely registers down the phone line.
I would love to discuss this novel, but possibly with just one other person, and I’d be more comfortable if that person were a woman. You see – and I haven’t got around to mentioning this yet – Nutshell contains the most explicit sex scenes that I’ve encountered since On Chesil Beach.
I really love Ian McEwan’s work. I consider him brilliant. So, while this book was fun, I’m ready for a return to profundity. Ready, in other words, for another novel like The Children Act.