I’ve been very late getting this done, I know. This is mainly due to my work on what was the most challenging book discussion preparation I’ve ever undertaken. The book was Paul Theroux’s Deep South. The discussion took place on this Thursday past, and I’m glad to report that it went quite well, mainly due to the lively and insightful comments of my colleagues in AAUW Readers.
Mostly it’s done. And what a sweet relief!
Audiobooks are very vital to me. I only listen to them in my car, and I want to feel a sense of happy anticipation when, belted in and ready to roll, I fire up my current choice. I knew I’d get that good feeling from a work by Alexander McCall Smith, and so I am now listening to the 44 Scotland street series.
Love Over Scotland, the third entry, features a prose passage so moving – at least it was to me – that as soon as I got back home, I downloaded the novel in its entirety.
The excerpt I refer to consists of a letter being written by the artist Angus Lordie to his friend , the beautifully named Domenica Macdonald. Domenica, described as a “freelance anthropologist,” is at that time halfway around the world studying the mores and folkways of a community of pirates inhabiting the Malacca Straits. (McCall Smith’s imagination as usual, ranges freely from the domestic to the remote to the downright bizarre.)
In this missive, Angus gives voice to his feelings upon the loss of a friend in strange and sad circumstances. I’m going to quote the whole thing here:
“My dear Domenica,” he began. “I write this letter seated at the kitchen table. It is one of those cold, bright winter mornings that I know you love so much, and which make this city sparkle so. But the letter I write you will be a sad one, and I am sorry for that. When one is alone and far from home, as you are, then one longs for light-hearted, gossipy letters. This is not one of those.
“Yesterday, as I was painting his portrait, Ramsey Dunbarton, a person I have known for a good many years, died in my studio. He was seated in my portrait chair, talking to me, when he suddenly stopped, mid-anecdote. I thought nothing of it and continued to paint, but when I glanced from behind my canvas I saw him sitting there, absolutely still. I thought that he had gone to sleep and went back to my painting, but then, when I looked again, he was still motionless. I realised that something was wrong, and indeed it was. Ramsey had died. It was very peaceful, almost as if somebody had silently gone away, somewhere else, had left the room. How strange is the human body in death–so still, and so vacated. That vitality, that spark, which makes for life, is simply not there. The tiny movements of the muscles, the sense of there being somebody keeping the whole physical entity orchestrated in space–that goes so utterly and completely. It is no longer there.
“You did not know Ramsey. I thought that you might perhaps have met him at one of my drinks parties, but then, on reflection, I decided that you had not. I do not think that you and he would necessarily have got along. I would never accuse you of lacking charity, dear one, but I suspect that you might have thought that Ramsey was a little stuffy for you; a little bit old-fashioned, perhaps.
“And indeed he was. Many people thought of him as an old bore, always going on about having played the part of the Duke of Plaza-Toro at the Church Hill Theatre. Well, so he did, and he mentioned it yesterday afternoon, which was his last afternoon as himself, as Auden puts it in his poem about the death of Yeats. But don’t we all have our little triumphs, which we remember and which we like to talk about? And if Ramsey was unduly proud of having been the Duke of Plaza-Toro, then should we begrudge him that highlight in what must have been a fairly uneventful life? I don’t think we should.
“He was a kind man, and a good one too. He loved his wife. He loved his country–he was a Scottish patriot at heart, but proud of being British too. He said that we should not be ashamed of these things, however much fashionable people decry love of one’s country and one’s people. And in that he was right.
“He only wanted to do good. He was not a selfish man. He did not set out to make a lot of money or get ahead at the expense of others. He was not like that. He would have loved to have had public office, but it never came his way. So he served in a quiet, rather bumbling way on all sorts of committees. He was conservative in his views and instincts. He believed in an ordered society in which people would help and respect one another, but he also believed in the responsibility of each of us to make the most of our lives. He called that ‘duty’, not a word we hear much of today.
“There is a thoughtless tendency in Scotland to denigrate those who have conservative views. I have never subscribed to that, and I hope that as a nation we get beyond such a limited vision of the world. It is possible to love one’s fellow man in a number of ways, and socialism does not have the monopoly on justice and concern. Far from it. There are good men and women who believe passionately in the public good perspectives. Ramsey was as much concerned with the welfare and good of his fellow man as anybody I know.
“People said that he had a tendency to go on and on, and I suppose he did. But those long stories of his, sometimes without any apparent point to them, were stories that were filled, yes filled, with enthusiasm for life. Ramsey found things fascinating, even when others found them dull. In his own peculiar way, he celebrated the life of ordinary people, ordinary places, ordinary things.
“I suspect that Scotland is full of people like Ramsey Dunbarton. They are people whose lives never amount to very much in terms of achievement. They are not celebrated or fêted in any way. But there they are, doing their best, showing goodwill to others, paying their taxes scrupulously, not cheating in any way, supporting the public good. These people are the backbone of the country and we should never forget that.
“His death leaves me feeling empty. I feel guilty, too, at the thought of the occasions when I have seen him heaving into sight and I have scuttled off, unable to face another long-winded story. I feel that I should have done more to reciprocate the feelings of friendship he undoubtedly had for me. I never asked him to lunch with me; the invitations always came from him. I never even acknowledged him as a friend. I never told him that I enjoyed his company. I never told him that I thought he was a good man. I gave him no sign of appreciation.
“But we make such mistakes all the time, all through our lives. Wisdom, I suppose, is seeing this and acting upon it before it is too late. But it is often too late, isn’t it?–and those things that we should have said are unsaid, and remain unsaid for ever.
“I am heart-sore, Domenica. I am heart-sore. I shall get over it, I know, but that is how I feel now. Heart-sore.”
He finished, read it through, and then very slowly tore it up. He would not send it to Domenica, even if he meant every word, every single word of it.
I’d never heard of Cesar Aira until I encountered him in a review in the Wall Street Journal written by Nathaniel Popkin. Popkiin was actually reviewing a novel called Zama by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto. In the concluding paragraph, reference was made to Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira, Di Benedetto’s fellow Argentinian.
Two things about Episode immediately piqued my interest. First, there was the fact that the protagonist was a painter; his name is Johann Moritz Rugendas. Secondly, Rugendas had been encouraged to travel to South America in order to find new and exotic subjects with which to fuel his artistic impulses. The individual urging him on this course of action was none other than the great explorer and natural scientist Alexander Von Humboldt. Early last year I read The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Von Humboldt’s “New World” became my new world – what an absolutely terrific read this was! Had it been up to me, Andrea Wulf would have won every existing literary award and then some.
The following is from Aira’s novel:
Rugendas was a genre painter. His genre was the physiognomy of nature, based on a procedure invented by Humboldt. The great naturalist was the father of a discipline that virtually died with him: Erdtheorie or La Physique du monde, a kind of artistic geography, an aesthetic understanding of the world, a science of landscape. Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an all-embracing scholar, perhaps the last of his kind: his aim was to apprehend the world in its totality; and the way to do this, he believed, in conformity with a long tradition, was through vision.
And so I read Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Though slight in length – more a novella than a novel – it is one of the most unusual and powerful works of fiction I have ever encountered. Johann Moritz Rugendas was an actual historical personage, a German artist of the early nineteenth century who traveled to South America in search of new vistas to paint. But although this novel takes Rugendas’s life as its starting point, it diverges significantly from his actual biography. This is nowhere more true than in regard to the episode in the title. Actually, ‘episode’ is a misleadingly innocuous term to describe what actually happens to Rugendas shortly before the novel’s midpoint. I don’t want to say anything more about it except this: it haunts me.
I do think I can say that for me, this novel is about two things: the courage that individuals are capable of in extreme circumstances, and the sustaining devotion that one friend freely gives to another.
The writing is extraordinary. Kudos to Cesar Aira for his intense lyricism and meticulous descriptions, and to Chris Andrews, the translator.
At a recent book club discussion I attended, some readers expressed impatience with descriptive passages that impede the pace of a book’s plot. While I have encountered this from time to time in my own reading, the sheer beauty of the prose in Episode was one of the main things that kept me riveted to the narrative.
It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away . . . and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alternations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness. Each day was larger and more distant. As the mountains took on weight, the air became lighter and more changeable in its meteoric content, a sheer optics of superposed heights and depths.
I hope to read more of the works of Cesar Aira; I’d like to read Zama as well.
How is it that I read only one historical mystery this year? I’m a great fan of historical fiction, so I can’t quite figure this out. Anyway, the book in question is The Lady Chapel by Candace Robb, Marge’s choice for our November Suspects discussion. This novel is the second in Robb’s Owen Archer series. I’d read the first, The Apothecary Rose, several years ago, when I needed a Middle Ages “fix.” It did the job admirably. I therefore had high hopes for The Lady Chapel and I”m glad to say those hopes were fulfilled. I’ve already downloaded the next book in the series, The Nun’s Tale. I look forward to reading it.
Elizabeth Edmondson’s two entries in the series A Very English Mystery are a delight, tailor made for the Anglophiles among us. With their setting in the quintessential village of Selchester in the postwar years, the milieu is rife with rumor, scheming and gossip, readily inviting comparison to the world of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead.
A Man of Some Repute combines the classic murder mystery formula with the intrigue of intelligence work. Thus there are twice as many secrets and intrigues for the varied cast of characters to contend with. What fun! I’m still in the midst of reading A Question of Inheritance, but similar plot elements are already in play.
On the occasion of the 2014 Oxford Literary Festival, Elizabeth Edmondson penned a spirited defense of genre fiction. Unfortunately, we’ve lost this gifted author: she passed away early last year.
I continue to be a one-person Alexander McCall Smith Fan Club. This year I reread The Sunday Philosophy Club, Chris’s pick for the Usual Suspects. Once again, Once again, I reveled in this narrative. Isabel Dalhousie, with her love of art and music, and of the city of Edinburgh, and of deep thought and ethical conundrums – both fascinates and attracts me.
As always, McCall Smith’s writing is beautiful.
Although it was a pleasant spring evening, a stiff breeze had arisen and the clouds were scudding energetically across the sky, towards Norway. This was a northern light, the light of a city that belonged as much to the great, steely plains of the North Sea as it did to the soft hills of its hinterland. This was not Glasgow, with its soft, western light, and its proximity to Ireland and to the Gaeldom of the Highlands. This was a townscape raised in the teeth of cold winds from the east; a city of winding cobbled streets and haughty pillars; a city of dark nights and candlelight, and intellect.
Similar pleasures are to be found in The Novel Habit of Happiness, the latest full length entry in this series:
She looked at Jamie. “It may well be right to say that God doesn’t care. But…” She was not sure what she wanted to say about God. She thought that he might be there— embodied somehow in the perfection of the world, or in the sublime harmonies of a great work of music. Of course, if he was anywhere in music, she felt he was in the grave beauty of the motets of John Tavener, or in the more sublime passages of Bach. The architecture of such music was incompatible, Isabel thought, with a world that was meaningless.
Admittedly, the element of mystery tends to be at best tangential in these novels, but if you wish to spend time in the company of a woman whose restless personality is made up of equal parts intellect and passion – both, I would venture to say in prodigious amounts – then these books are for you.
I started Mick Herron’s Slough House series with the second entry, Dead Lions. Would that I had started at the beginning. Stylishly crafted and hugely entertaining, these novels are part murder mystery, part espionage, and feature fiendishly ingenious plots. Moreover, the cast of characters is…well, read them and find out for yourself. Here are the first three: . The fourth is due out here late next month. Oh, do hurry up; I’m no end impatient!
Finally, there’s my recent quirky predilection for Erle Stanley Gardners’s legal thrillers from the thirties. No, I don’t mean the Perry Mason novels but rather a series featuring District Attorney Doug Selby. As the series commences, Selby has recently been swept into office on the promise of cleansing the office of a recently acquired taint of corruption. He’s young and green, but he’s got fire in the belly. I’m rooting for him – and for his friend, reporter Sylvia Martin.
So far, I’ve read the above two novels in the series. I look forward to reading more. From what I can tell, they’re out of print and not available as ebooks. However, the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam books, written by Gardner under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, have begun to appear courtesy of Hard Case Crime. I’ve already downloaded this one:
Erle Stanley Gardner eventually had to shutter his law practice in order to make room in his life for his writing compulsion. Have a look at his bibliography and you’ll understand why.
I wrote about the newly hot domestic suspense subgenre in a recent post. Admittedly I did not write at great length, the reason being that this is not my favorite area of crime fiction. That said, I really do want to single out these two titles to praise:
What Was Mine seems to have come and gone in obscurity; You Will Know Me, on the other hand, has made quite a few Best of 2016 lists (such as this one from the Washington Post). In my view, both are excellent and provocative novels, good for book discussions – and possible film adaptation.
I had other good reading this year that more or less belongs in this category. Learning To Swim by Sara J. Henry, a book I’d never heard of, was Louise’s selection for the Suspects. Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman was a must-read for all of us who live in this area; it was filled with local references, including one to a street that I myself lived on for several years in the seventies. (Oh good grief; where has the time gone?) I have three – count ’em, three! – book discussions of Wilde Lake coming up this year. Unfortunately, as regards plotting and character development, this novel was not Lippman at her best. At least, that’s how it struck me. (You can read my review here.)
This was the year of saying farewell to the brilliant Ruth Rendell. Dark Corners, her last book, did not feature the now-retired Detective Inspector Reginald Wexford. I found it very satisfying, though not in the same league as A Fatal Inversion and A Judgement on Stone, two of the most devastating works of psychological suspense that I’ve ever read, or probably ever will read.
Some works of crime fiction combine elements of two subgenres in their narratives. I’m thinking in particular of psychological/domestic suspense and police procedural. Clare Macintosh’s I Let You Go is a good example of this. The book begins with an exceptionally tragic hit-and-run accident. The search for the perpetrator uncovers a whole host of secrets that the reader has had scant reason to suspect. And just a bit more than half way though this fairly long (384 pages in hardback) novel, there’s an completely unexpected plot twist that’s nothing short of mind-boggling – or at least, I found it so.
Most readers of I Let You Go were blown away by it. It received numerous rave reviews and won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, edging out some pretty stiff competition in the process.
Now, you are probably sensing the approach of a dissenting view. And here it is. Let me say first that after a false start, I found I Let You Go to be very nearly unputdownable. For such a plot-driven novel, the characters were well drawn. I cared what happened to them. This is especially true of Jenna Gray, the woman whose turbulent life is at the center of the narrative. And yet…
It seems to me that the problem with a book like this is that if word gets out prematurely about the plot twists – there were actually several – the element of suspense is compromised. An even more serious concern, for me at least, is that when I finished it, I felt that I’d been manipulated in a way that wasn’t entirely pleasant. Also, I found that in the aftermath of that completion, I was not left with very much. The Kirkus review of I Let You Go – a starred review – concludes with the statement that “Mackintosh has written the kind of book that sticks in the reader’s mind well after the final sentence.” I’m afraid I did not share in that sensation. On the contrary, I felt as though I’d just gorged myself on a large helping of empty calories.
A really good police procedural, on the other hand, rarely leaves me feeling that way. And Peter Lovesey has never left me feeling that way. Instead, I devour his books with a mixture of delight, admiration, and total absorption. The 2016 entry in the Peter Diamond series, Another One Goes Tonight, was no exception. Lovesey was recently honored by his admiring colleagues with anthology produced in honor of his eightieth birthday. The collection was undertaken by the Detection Club and edited by Martin Edwards:
I finally caught up with Peter Robinson’s Children of the Revolution. It was a highly enjoyable read for procedural fans like myself. DCI Alan Banks is up to his old tricks, playing fast and loose with procedure, not to mention the repeated warnings from his superior officer, in order to solve a mystery with roots – as is often the case with this series – in the past. What a pleasure it is to see the Banks novels going from strength to strength, starting with the first, Gallows View, from 1987. After we’d both read it, Marge (my “partner in crime” on the library staff) and I predicted a great future for this series. And we were right.
Up until now, I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring out what it was that people liked so much about Tana French’s Murder Squad series. I read Broken Harbor for the Suspects, and I would never have gotten through it without the aid of the recorded book. But the reviews for French’s latest, The Trespasser, lured me back. I decided to give it another shot. It worked! I loved the feisty protagonist Antoinette Conway, the depiction of her colleagues and her work environment, and above all her dogged determination in following a case in the opposite direction from where everyone else was headed and all the evidence seemed to lead. I also really appreciated the flashes of humor, which were at times rather acidic but welcome nonetheless.
Not done yet but must pause. Part three will cover historical mysteries (in lamentably short supply on my reading list), hard to classify titles, and my picks for the best of the best.
I meant to embed these along with the comments on international crime novels in the post I just finished. From what I can gather, Time Shift is a BBC series that covers a variety of topics. The first one is “Italian Noir;” the second is “Nordic Noir:”
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.