So I’ve been rereading Capital Crimes with a view to selecting which stories to single out for discussion. This discussion – with my Usual Suspect cohorts – will not take place until July, but Pauline’s reading in this excellent anthology (and her shared enthusiasm for it) prompted me to do the same, sooner than I’d planned.
Stories by the following have made the cut: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Oxenham, Richard Marsh, Ernest Bramah, Thomas Burke, H.C. Bailey, Hugh Walpole, Anthony Berkeley,and Ethel Lina White. I so enjoyed White’s story, entitled “Cheese,” that I sought out a full length novel by her. Originally entitled The Wheel Spins, it’s now sometimes known as The Lady Vanishes, after the Hitchcock film which was based on it.
I loved this book. Iris Carr, the heroine, is plucky in the extreme. As the story unfolds, we share in her bafflement. We experience all that happens through her young eyes, share in her terror and bewilderment, and ultimately applaud her strength and her bravery.
Oh, and the writing was excellent:
As she lay with her eyes almost closed, listening to the ping of the breeze, her serenity returned. A clump of harebells, standing out against the skyline, seemed hardened and magnified to a metallic belfry, while she, herself, was dwarfed and welded into the earth— part of it, like the pebbles and the roots. In imagination she could almost hear the pumping of a giant heart underneath her head.
Click here for a review of The Wheel Spins on the blog Vintage Novels.
I am saddened by the passing of Anita Brookner. Over the years, my reading life has been greatly enriched by her novels. She wrote twenty-four of them; I’ve read some thirteen or fourteen. That sounds like a lot, but they are slender volumes, meticulously crafted. I’ve always admired her writing and her intellect; she possessed a large vocabulary which she deployed with pointillist precision.
As a writer for the Catholic Herald notes of Brookner, “her heroines and occasional heroes were people whom by and large life had passed by: their pleasures were small ones, and the great storms of passion were things that happened to other people.” This makes her characters sound somewhat dreary, but I think it would be more accurate to call most of them introverted, with a propensity for melancholy. At this point, one wants to assert hastily that they had rich inner lives. But if memory serves, that’s not always the case. In truth, memory is not serving me all that well at the moment, as I’ve not read anything by her since Strangers came out in 2009.
To my mind, Anita Brookner had always seemed a quintessentially English novelist. I’ll bet she’s got one of those distinguished British pedigrees that goes back several hundred years, thought I. Well she might – but not in Britain. Her parents were Polish Jews who emigrated in the early years of the 20th century. (I was genuinely surprised to learn this about her.) She was their only child.
Having earned a PhD in art history from London’s famed Courtauld Institute, Brookner went on to teach and write in that field. She wrote her first novel – A Start in Life, published here in 1981 as The Debut – when she was 53.
An interesting sidelight regarding Brookner’s time studying at the Courtauld is that one of her professors was a highly respected art historian who held the post of Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. His name was Anthony Blunt.
Ring a bell? Blunt was one of the Cambridge Spies, the most famous of which is probably Kim Philby. I’ve known for quite some time that Brookner studied art history under Blunt, but there’s a story concerning the two of them and a third individual that I’d never heard until I started looking for material for this post. It’s told by A.N. Wilson in the Daily Mail:
As a distinguished scholar at the Courtauld Institute in London, Britain’s foremost centre of art history studies, Anita Brookner worked with Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen’s pictures, who was later exposed as a traitor.
When one of their equally distinguished colleagues, Phoebe Pool, had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, Blunt asked Brookner to visit Pool regularly.
She did so happily, unaware Blunt was a Soviet agent, nor that he had used Pool — once an enthusiastic member of the Communist party — as a go-between to take messages to his Russian spymaster.
Every time Anita Brookner came back from the hospital after seeing Pool, Blunt would quiz her. How was Phoebe? Had she blurted out any names? Which names? The questions meant nothing to Brookner. She had no idea that the names Pool might have let slip could have belonged to spies.
It was only when, decades later, Blunt and the more minor figure of Pool were unmasked that she realised she had been a pawn in the Cold War. Brookner’s reactions were entirely typical. Yes, she was very angry, and went on being angry with Blunt to the end of her days.
She felt she had been ‘manipulated’ by him, and realised, going back over their conversations, that he had tried to enlist her as an agent.
Though one of the most intelligent women alive, she confessed that she had been ‘too stupid’ to realise what he was on about.
Wilson adds that despite feeling used and manipulated when the truth about Blunt became publicly known (in 1979), Brookner retained a degree of loyalty to her erstwhile mentor: “She owed her job as an art historian to Blunt, who admired her scholarship and her knowledge of 17th and 18th-century French paintings.”
Although Brookner’s fiction is usually been held in high esteem, there are some who feel that in later years, the scope of her novels became increasingly constricted. As Matt Schudel states in the Washington Post: “By the mid-1990s, some critics had become weary of what some called an attenuated, bloodless quality that seemed to owe too much to earlier styles.”
Attenuated? Bloodless? Not to this reader (nor to many others). Instead, I felt that with each new novel I was given the chance to examine a different facet of a beautiful and enigmatic jewel. The spell was cast every time. I was always grateful.
If you are new to the fiction of Anita Brookner, you should probably start with Hotel Du Lac. This is her Booker Prize winner, a justly cherished novel. I’d like to reread Latecomers; it’s the only Brookner title I’ve read that dealt specifically with Eastern European immigrants living in Britain. And I have yet to read her final fiction: At the Hairdresser’s, available in e-book format only.
Jonathan Yardley, formerly a writer and reviewer for The Washington Post Book World, used to run an occasional column called Second Reading, where he called attention to older titles that might be worth revisiting as well as current authors who might be unjustly neglected. It was a marvelous feature. My favorite of all those columns was ostensibly about Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party, but Yardley ended up writing about five additional authors as well, all women. Anita Brookner was one of them, as well as two other favorites of mine (in addition to Colegate): the Penelope’s, Fitzgerald and Lively. (Yardley’s ‘Second Reading’ pieces are collected in a book of the same name.)
A Thousand Hills to Heaven is just such a book.
Subtitled Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda, it’s the story of Josh and Alissa Ruxin, who arrived in 2005 to assist in the effort to get a shattered country back on its feet. Newly married and filled with dreams and determination, they were also clear-eyed about the challenges they would face.
And face them they did. They hired the right people. Many native Rwandans and also Africans from neighboring countries proved ready and willing to staff the various undertakings comprising the Millennium Village that Josh was so keen to establish.
Josh Ruxin formulated these rules for making a lasting and meaningful difference:
- If people are hungry, they must be fed, first and foremost.
- Demand high standards, especially when they mean improvement in task performance. Wherever institutions already exist that benefit people, those should be upgraded.
- Corruption of any kind, especially in government, is a deal breaker. Meaningful and lasting change cannot happen unless and until complete honesty and transparency are effected.
- Any project that you undertake should be sustainable; i.e. doable even when you have gone.
- The free market can provide powerful incentives for job creation and general improvement of living conditions.
The Ruxins did not arrive in Rwanda with these rules already in place and ready to put into practice. Rather, they are the result of experience and relentless effort. Some were learned the hard way. But all produced gratifying results. People who had endured – or barely escaped from – the horror of the genocide were finding ways to live again. Not only to live, but to live in a meaningful way, and even to prosper.
Josh Ruxin is also a founding member of Health Builders, an organization devoted to making affordable health care available to all through the establishment of high quality regional clinics. The organization establishes the parameters and initially provides the tools for these facilities; the local population is then empowered to build and run the clinics.
Ruxin earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in the history of Science and Medicine at Yale University. He also holds a Masters in Public Health from Columbia and a PhD in History from the University of London. He is currently on the faculty of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Work on the Millennium Village – helping the farmers revive the devastated soil, assisting with the establishment of the schools and clinics, finding and hiring top flight local help – Josh was a prime movers in each of these endeavors.
Aren’t you wondering what he does with his spare time? And what has Alissa Ruxin been doing?
Only raising three young children and creating and running a restaurant in a place where there is virtually no restaurant culture. With Josh’s help and support, Heaven became a reality. It is now a terrific place to eat and to hold celebrations; it’s also a great job creator.
So A Thousand Hills to Heaven is in a sense two books combined into a single narrative. There’s the story of the Millennium Village and Health Builders, in all its complexity, and it’s the story of Heaven, in all its complexity.
If you’re thinking that this must perforce be a long book, you’d be wrong. Josh Ruxin has packed a tremendous amount of material into just under 300 pages (including several pages of enticing recipes from the chef’s kitchen at Heaven). There is some background on the genocide – just enough to make you appreciate its ghastly reality. While acknowledging the suffering of the Rwandan people in the not-so-distant past, Ruxin is focused like a laser on the country’s present and immediate future. One gets the sense that this is what the Rwandans want, too. At the same time, though, they have instituted a system of adjudication called the Gacaca Court:
The Gacaca courts are a method of transitional justice and are designed to promote communal healing and rebuilding in the wake of the Rwandan Genocide.
From the Wikipedia entry
Rwanda has had a very dark cloud hovering over it; emerging from this devastation takes no small act of courage. That it is possible at all is due in part to people like the Ruxins, and even more so to the Rwandan people themselves, whose perseverance and determination is nothing short of amazing.
In A Thousand Hills to Heaven, one meets some truly fascinating individuals and hears some memorable stories. One of my favorites concerns the restaurant. Here, in Josh’s retelling, is what happened:
At one point, one of our chefs asked for “fresh” goat, and in the midst of service for eighty customers, a live goat was delivered to the kitchen.
The chef let it be known that this was not exactly what he had in mind!
A Thousand Hills to Heaven was suggested for our AAUW discussion group by Barbara, one of our chapter’s members. Since 2006, she’s had the extraordinary good fortune to travel to Rwanda several times as a member of People to People and as part of a delegation of nurses. The following are her observations:
Rwanda is a beautiful, peaceful small country with friendly gracious people. Most people speak English so it is easy to get around. The people are very proud of their government which is very transparent. There are signs all over asking people to report corruption immediately. They are very self sufficient and ask that visitors not to directly give the children anything, including an empty water bottle. They do not want children “begging”. Each time I have gone to “Heaven” restaurant and it is as wonderful as described in the book.
As it happens, I am going to miss the discussion, but I want to emphasize what a great choice this book is for that purpose. (I can barely stop talking about it myself.)
The Ruxins are Jewish. In 2013, many Jewish families celebrated “Thanksgivukkah,” when the dates of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincided. The Ruxins duly celebrated this holiday at Heaven.
There exists in the Jewish religion a concept called “Tikkun Olam,” or literally “world repair.” Jews are urged to go out into the world and do whatever they can to fix what needs fixing, especially as it pertains to people in need of help. Most of us do this through various sponsorship activities and donations to worthy causes. The Ruxins have done it by working to build a Millennium Village, to establish health facilities and schools, and to restore depleted farm land and make it productive once again. Oh, and by opening a beautiful restaurant, thereby adding many jobs, a place for people to gather, and a source of pride for everyone involved.
Talk about a purpose driven life!
Having just moved into a house in a desirable part of London, Carl Martin is one lucky guy. The house, inherited from his recently deceased father to whom he was not especially close, is spacious enough for Carl to be able to let the top floor to a tenant of his choosing. Dermot McKinnon, he decides, will fill the bill nicely.
Carl is fortunate in other ways as well. His first novel, Death’s Door, has just been published and has been well received. And to top it all off, he has Nicola, his openhearted and beautiful girlfriend.
As Dark Corners opens, these various benevolent elements of Carl’s life are nicely in place and he is just setting to work on his next book. There is but one dark cloud on the horizon: money is at the moment tight. But with Death’s Door selling nicely, and rent money coming in, that shouldn’t be a problem for very long.
But a lack of funds, even if temporary, makes some people very uneasy. It can be a powerful motivator. And motivates Carl to do something he should not have done. And the ramifications of this fateful act…well, read the book and they will gradually become known to you.
There is a parallel subplot involving a character named Lizzie Milsom. Lizzie is a cheerful and inventive liar; moreover, she’s a type that I recognized from other Rendell novels of psychological suspense. (See Joan Smith, a far more evil prototype, in A Judgement in Stone.) Perhaps for this reason, I found Lizzie’s presence in the narrative rather less than compelling Her fate was of much less interest to me than Carl’s. She does serve a purpose in his story, though, through a significant coincidence which I wasn’t sure I found entirely convincing.
In sum, I would say that this is not in the first rank of this author’s work, but I still enjoyed it. It was short, tightly wound, and thoroughly engrossing. Most of all, it’s characterized by that mounting sense of dread that generates such powerful suspense in so many of Rendell’s novels.
The title comes from a description that Carl recalls from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: “the duke of dark corners.” The entire phrase is “the old fantastical duke of dark corners.” With its hint of sinister import, it’s exactly apt.
Dark Corners is the final work from the pen of this unique and supremely gifted writer. It saddens me to see her picture on the back cover and beneath it the dates, 1930-2015. Still, I am grateful that she lived and wrote – and that she was as prolific as she was brilliant.
I shall be reading her, and rereading her, for a long time to come.
Sometimes it pays to take a deep breath and attack an unruly pile of papers. I did this the other day, and while the vast majority of items ended up in recycling, a few gems did rise to the surface.
First find: this piece from the Sunday New York Times Magazine dated August 20 2015 on the rise of Europa Editions. Originating in Italy, this publishing enterprise puts out books with a distinctive look and feel; their list features lesser known international authors that are worthy of the attention of discerning readers.
Europa has scored a coup with Elena Ferrante’s wildly popular Neapolitan novels. I’m waiting for my reserve on My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the series. I’m currently number sixteen out of sixty-eight names on the list. I have read, and do recommend, the Jane Gardam titles, Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat (see above). These novels seem to me quintessentially English; moreover,Gardam’s a unique and mercurial prose style had me hooked from the get-go.
Second find: Laura Miller on Don Winslow’s The Cartel. This piece, which appeared in The New Yorker last summer, is in my view the high water mark of the reviewer’s art. It’s incisive, beautifully written, and bolstered by the author’s deep knowledge of crime fiction. (I’ve long enjoyed her writing in Salon.com’s book sections.) And the novel? Well, she makes you want to read it – that is, if you don’t scare too easily. This I have not yet done (either read or scare). I have read Winslow’s Savages, though. ‘Twas a memorable experience! Like James Ellroy, Winslow can be rough and uncompromising; his prose is less mannered than Ellroy’s.
I liked this observation by Laura Miller:
Most crime novelists, especially those reaching for a momentous effect, are obliged to turbocharge their villains. The perpetrator of the locked-room mystery is supernaturally ingenious, the serial killer far more baroquely sadistic than his real-life counterparts, the Mob boss too comprehensively powerful to be believed.
She goes on to say that “Mexico’s criminal cartels have never presented such a problem to Don Winslow, who has written two extensively researched sagas about the war on drugs: “The Power of the Dog,” in 2006, and now “The Cartel” (Knopf).”
Third find: “Easy Writers” by Arthur Krystal, an article featured in a May 2012 issue of The New Yorker. (What can I say – this was a very deep pile, deep and sprawling.) Here we have yet another foray into the (seemingly endless) controversy over whether readers of genre fiction, and in particular of crime fiction, are getting any “literary” nourishment or are merely slumming. Krystal leaps fearlessly into the subject matter with both feet and obviously has great fun doing so. That enjoyment is liberally communicated to the reader. (The article is subtitled “Guilty pleasures without guilt.”)
Here’s how Krystal starts out:
When Matthew Arnold keeled over, in April, 1888, while hurrying to catch the Liverpool tram, Walt Whitman managed to contain his grief. “He will not be missed,” Whitman told a friend. Arnold reaffirmed all that was “rich, hefted, lousy, reeking with delicacy, refinement, elegance, prettiness, propriety, criticism, analysis.” He was, in short, “one of the dudes of literature.” Whitman probably figured that his own gnarly hirsuteness would save him from becoming a dude. He was wrong, and therein lies a lesson for all hardworking scribblers: stick around long enough, develop a cult following, gain the approval of one or two literary dudes (in Whitman’s case: Henry James, Ezra Pound, and F. O. Matthiessen), and you, too, can become respectable.
This insouciant tone prevails throughout the piece and bestows great pleasure on the reader – or, it did on this reader, at any rate.
Here are some of the works and authors that receive mention in “Easy Writers:”
The Novel Habits of Happiness is the latest in Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series. It’s not fresh in my mind at this point. I only know that I loved it. McCall Smith’s writing, as always, is precise and lyrical; his wit, gentle. His intellectual world is a place of play and revelation. Most of all, his insight into the human heart – especially into the heart of one woman – continues to amaze me.
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.
“Babar!” demanded Charlie, and snuggled down in his bed, holding his mother’s hand. Isabel felt an overwhelming tenderness. My little boy; this little creature I have created; the person I love more than anything or anybody in this world; who means absolutely everything to me; who provides my answers in the way in which no philosophy, however brilliant, can ever do; mine.
Frequently one reads that Denise Mina is currently one of today’s leading exponents of Tartan Noir. Having recently consumed The Red Road, I can but concur with that sentiment. This is a harrowing roller coaster of a novel. Alongside Detective Sergeant Alex Morrow, one hangs on for dear life! Exceptional writing (especially as regards dialog), cunning (if somewhat Byzantine) plotting, and memorably limned characters combine to make this one outstanding read.
The Red Road is the fourth in the Alex Morrow series. The fifth, Blood, Salt, Water, came out last year. I look forward to reading it – after I’ve fastened my seat belt, that is!
After breezing through the first four novels of P.F. Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey series and enjoying them, albeit in varying degree, I regret to report that the fifth, A Murder of Crows, was disappointing. The London setting does little to enhance the plot, and the story itself was so convoluted that by the time I was about two thirds of the way through the book, I was hopelessly confused. But the most dismaying development in the novel was the gradual disappearance of Sir Robert Carey from the action. I like his second-in-command, Sergeant Henry Dodd, well enough, but for me, Sir Robert is the guiding star of this series. I missed him sorely.
Now this should by no means discourage you from reading the stellar first entry in this series. A Famine of Horses is one of the most original and entertaining historical novels I’ve ever read. Chisholm brings the Anglo-Scottish Border country vividly to life. The action takes place in the 16th century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. In her introduction to the novel, P.F Chisholm (the nom de plume of noted historical fiction writer Patricia Finney) describes the conditions that prevailed at the time:
The Anglo-Scottish Border at that time made Dodge City look like a health farm. It was the most chaotic part of the kingdom and was full of cattle-rustlers, murderers, arsonists, horse-thieves, kidnappers and general all-purpose outlaws. This was where they invented the word “gang”— or the men “ye gang oot wi’ “— and also the word “blackmail” which then simply meant protection money.
Sound like fun? Is it ever. It was the closest thing to a sort of cheerful, robust lawlessness that you can imagine. The austere stateliness and discipline of the Queen’s court – where Sir Robert had previously served Her Majesty – was so remote that it might as well not exist.
The author was inspired to write this novel by her reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s history of the period, The Steel Bonnets (available as a Kindle download for $9.99). I was only a few pages into Fraser’s book when I encountered a sentence that delighted me:
The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.
The sixth novel in this series came out last year and is called A Chorus of Innocents. Kirkus calls it “One of Chisholm’s best Elizabethan mysteries,” so my hopes are again high for this latest entry.
This past Tuesday, the Usual Suspects enjoyed an exceptionally bracing discussion of Learning To Swim by Sara J. Henry. It had been a while since I’d read this novel, and my recollection of details was somewhat hazy. Not so for the others present – they dove in head first, displaying an abundance of both insight and enthusiasm.
It was clear from the outset that the reaction to this book was overwhelmingly favorable. Learning To Swim opens with a high octane drama that grabs the reader right from the get-go. The setting, actually dual settings, both in the Lake Champlain region – and for a few scarifying moments IN Lake Champlain! – and in Ottawa, contribute to the story’s unique flavor. But I think the elements of this novel that were most intriguing reposed in the character and personality of the main protagonist, Troy Chance.
When we first meet Troy, she is attempting to rescue a child, who, without her intervention, would surely have died. The rescue succeeds – and then the mystery takes over. Who is this boy? How did he come to be in such a harrowing circumstance? All she has been able to glean from him is that his name is Paul, and he speaks French almost exclusively.
As Troy struggles to comprehend the situation, we get to know her better. She’s a free lance journalist, living in a house in Lake Placid, New York with several male renters. Except for a brother who’s a policeman in Florida, she’s not close to her family. She’s not especially close to her (supposed) boyfriend either. But in a very short time, she finds herself becoming deeply attached to little Paul.
Troy’s character and proclivities were a major topic of discussion. To begin with, she endeared herself to me by being named (by her father) after Agatha Troy, the society painter who is the love interest and then wife of Roderick Alleyn, the protagonist featured in Ngaio Marsh’s series of detective novels. Troy observes:
I liked the character I was named after: slim, thoughtful, graceful, a talented painter and a watcher of people.
(Interestingly, Agatha Troy was initially reluctant to enter fully into a relationship with Alleyn. It took the traumatic events of Death in a White Tie – a novel I love – to make her finally willing to commit to him.)
We mainly had a positive view of Troy. However, Frank dissented from that view, and the reasons for that dissent were interesting. As I understood it, he felt that in the depiction of Troy, Sara J. Henry failed to make her character sufficiently womanly. At first, he averred, he felt uncertain even as to whether she was male or female. He attributed this impression partly to her lack of strong commitment to, and feelings for, her friends and family. She seemed to him like a person floating through life, with no particular aspirations either of a professional or personal nature.
Other group members received this pronouncement with some perplexity. I think that by and large, most of us accepted Troy Chance as a woman, albeit one who is keeping the world at arm’s length. Of course, this stance is suddenly and radically altered by the entry of Paul into her life. Frances suggested that Troy, still young, was in the process of becoming – “learning to swim,” in other words. Moreover, we’re given hints that her upbringing gave cause for wanting to preserve a distance between herself and the world: “…I’ve often wondered if my mother would have liked me better if I had been a Christina or a Sharon or Jennifer.”
Frank also found a number of “plot holes,” points on which he elaborated. We agreed with him about some of these, but not all. My own feeling about the novel is that from the point of view of structure, it’s somewhat problematic.After a highly dramatic opening that provided plenty of momentum, it sagged somewhat in the middle. (I think some of the others agreed with that assessment.) Frank, himself an author, commented that this is a common problem in crime fiction, one that sometimes requires the addition of a sub plot in order to keep things moving.
(At one point, someone asked Frank whether writers necessarily know from the outset how the plots of their novels are going to unfold. He then introduced us to the concept of “plotters and pantsers,” an expression new to me.)
Published in 2011, Learning To Swim is the first in what I assume will be a series featuring Troy Chance. It was a winner of multiple awards:
2011 Agatha Award for Best First Novel
2012 Anthony Award for Best First Novel
2012 Mary Higgins Clark Award
Finalist 2012 Barry Award for Best First Novel
Finalist 2012 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery
(With thanks to the entry on Stop! You’re Killing Me!)
Our presenter for this book discussion was Louise. We owe her thanks for making such a good choice to begin with, and then leading a fine session in which we were allowed to give full vent to our opinions – something we rarely have trouble doing!
The second novel, A Cold and Lonely Place, came out in 2013. I believe that Frances mentioned having already read it.
If you look at the author information provided on Sara J. Henry’s website, you’ll readily perceive that she has quite a bit in common with Troy Chance.
I’ve only touched on certain points in this discussion; it was actually quite wide ranging and lots of fun. Judging by the strength of Learning To Swim, Sara J. Henry has a definitely got something going here. I’d be interested in reading the next in the series.
[As always, comments, corrections, etc. from the Suspects – indeed, from any reader of this blog – are most welcome.]
I’ve written a great deal on true crime in the past year, and it was my intention to stay away from the subject for a while – really! – but I wanted to write about the presentation I made for my AAUW branch this past Saturday. It was entitled “Time for Crime: True and Imagined.” This was a rather outrageous attempt on my part to condense twelve hours of instructional material – assembled for the course I taught last year – into a fifty-minute program of book talks interspersed with other items of interest.
I then spoke of some of the more intriguing aspects of true crime:
1. The influence of actual crimes on crime fiction (see the post Further Adventures in True Crime for more on this.)
2. Crimes that resonate down through the years
3. Writers whose lives have been personally impacted by crime:
4. Murders that have never been solved:
5. The emergence of the subgenre of historical true crime:
Guiteau is a cold, demonic, livid figure. He resembles nothing so much as a wild pig: he has the gleaming eyes, full of hatred, the thick, bristling hair, the same way of charging to the attack, taking fright, running away. It would be impossible to imagine him any uglier than he is–he is a fantastical creature out of the tales of Hoffmann.
included in the Schechter anthology (course text cited above)
American Experience on PBS recently featured Murder of a President, based on Candice Millard’s book.
Finally, there is the question of why we are fascinated by true crime. Or, as Professor Jean Murley of Queensborough Community College rather plaintively asks: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”
Professor Murley, author of The Rise of True Crime: Twentieth Century Murder and American Popular Culture, offers some interesting insight on this question. I like her simple and forthright summation:
A desire to make sense of the (seemingly) senseless
A desire to illuminate the sordid with beams of truth
After reading briefly from William Bradford’s “The Hanging of John Billington” (1651), I proceeded to Celia Thaxter and “A Memorable Murder.” I was amazed never to have heard of this terrible crime, the murder of two innocent young women, part of a group of five Norwegian immigrants living on Smuttynose Island, one of The Isles of Shoals, a group of islands located off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. In 1873, when the Smuttynose murders occurred, Celia Thaxter was living on nearby Appledore Island. She knew the victims, as well as the alleged perpetrator, Louis Wagner. Here she depicts him making his way to Smuttynose from the mainland:
A terrible piece of rowing must that have been, in one night! Twelve miles from the city to the Shoals,– three to the light-houses, where the river meets the open sea, nine more to the islands; nine back again to Newcastle next morning! He took that boat, and with the favoring tide dropped down the rapid river where the swift current is so strong that oars are scarcely needed, except to keep the boat steady. Truly all nature seemed to play into his hands; this first relenting night of earliest spring favored him with its stillness, the tide was fair, the wind was fair, the little moon gave him just enough light, without betraying him to any curious eyes, as he glided down the three miles between the river banks, in haste to reach the sea. Doubtless the light west wind played about him as delicately as if he had been the most human of God’s creatures; nothing breathed remonstrance in his ear, nothing whispered in the whispering water that rippled about his inexorable keel, steering straight for the Shoals through the quiet darkness.
I also wanted to cover the murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette – again alleged, but almost certainly he was the cause of her death, as they were out rowing on a lonely lake in upstate New York in 1906. (More rowing, strangely – at this point, I am thinking of the poetry collection by Anne Sexton entitled The Awful Rowing Toward God. Alas – as Celia Thaxter would say – these rowings were going in a quite different direction.)
Twenty years later, Theodore Dreiser made the murder of Grace Brown the centerpiece of his monumental novel An American Tragedy. As a result of my involvement with this subject, I finally read this book. Although it dragged in some places, and Dreiser’s writing can be exasperating, it was also powerful enough to keep me up at night and in a deep state of dread. I ended up loving it.
This crime is also depicted in a 1951 movie of excruciating tension and uncommon beauty: A Place in the Sun starred an impossibly good looking Montgomery Clift, an equally impossibly beautiful nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters as the hapless victim in this classic love triangle.
An operatic version of An American Tragedy by American composer Tobias Picker was premiered in New York City in 2005:
I wanted to be sure to touch on story of the murder of white physician Clifford LeRoy Adams Jr. by Ruby McCollum, a comfortably off African American housewife. The killing, which took place in Florida in 1952, was covered by Zora Neale Hurston for the Pittsburgh Courier. As fascinating and strange as this case was, I found the life and work of Hurston even more fascinating. Raised in poverty in Florida, she left her family home at the age of fourteen and worked her way north. After a fruitful stop in the Washington area – she attended Morgan Academy, later Morgan State, and Howard University – she made it to New York City.
Encouraged by novelist Fanny Hurst, who had employed her as an assistant, Hurston attended Barnard College on a scholarship. She completed a BA degree in anthropology in 1928. She was 37 years old and had been the only African-American student on campus.
Hurston went on to do some graduate work at Columbia with the distinguished anthropologist Franz Boas. He it was who urged her to return to Florida and collect the folk tales that she’d heard growing up there. Reflecting later on this directive, she wrote:
I was glad when somebody told me, “You may go and collect Negro folklore.” In a way it would not be a new experience for me. When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism. From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top. But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.
Obscure and impoverished, Zora Neale Hurston died in Florida in 1960. Inspired by her example, author Alice Walker made it her mission to resurrect Hurston’s life and work. With some difficulty, she located Zora’s final resting place and caused this headstone to be placed there:
At this point, I was running out of time – and breath! – so I did several rapid fire book talks on titles drawn from this handout which I’d prepared:
POSTWAR CLASSICS OF THE TRUE CRIME GENRE
POSSIBLE FUTURE CLASSICS OF THE GENRE
- DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC: a tale of medicine, madness and the murder of a president, by Candice Millard
- BLOOD ROYAL: a true tale of crime and detection in medieval Paris, by Eric Jager
- THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF: the story of a murder trial, by Helen Garner (Australian)
- GHETTOSIDE: a true story of murder in America, by Jill Leovy
- WITCHES: SALEM, 1692, by Tracy Schiff
- MURDER BY CANDLELIGHT: The Gruesome Crimes Behind Our Romance with the Macabre, by Michael Knox Beran
- MY DARK PLACES: An L.A. Crime Memoir, by James Ellroy
- JUSTICE: Trials, Crimes, and Punishments, by Dominick Dunne
- THE GOOD NURSE: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, by Charles Graeber
- THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK: Murder and the birth of forensic medicine in jazz age New York, by Deborah Blum
- THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF WALWORTH: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America, by Geoffrey O’Brien
- SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER: A shocking murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective, by Kate Summerscale (British)
Nomination for pre-war classic:
GANGS OF NEW YORK: an informal history of the underworld, by Herbert Asbury
As much as Thoreau, [Thomas] De Quincey believed that there is “a chasm between knowledge and ignorance which the arches of science can never span.” The same conclusion was reached by the physicist Max Planck. Having devoted, he said, “his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter,” he concluded that science “cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” The solution to the ultimate mystery of evil is perhaps no less elusive.
Murder by Candlelight, Thomas Knox Beran
‘Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.’
Thomas De Quincey, On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts
[End of handout]
I’m glad I had the chance to talk about James Ellroy’s quest for his mother’s killer. I find Ellroy’s fiction nearly impossible to read – short, staccato sentences and lots of profanity – but My Dark Places was extremely poignant and moving.
An apostrophe to his mother prefaces this memoir:
A cheap Saturday night took you down. You dies stupidly and harshly and without the means to hold your own life dear.
Your run to safety was a brief reprieve. You brought me into hiding as your good-luck charm. I failed you as a talisman–so I stand now as your witness.
Your death defines my life. I want to find the love we never had and explicate it in your name.
I want to take your secrets public. I want to burn down the distance between us.
I want to give you breath.
This combined power of anguish and rage is also present – very much so – in the first piece in Dominick Dunne’s collection. The title says it all: Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of His Daughter’s Killer.
When you have read this, you will know that the word “Justice” fairly drips with a kind of savage irony.
I had every intention of extolling the virtues of Thomas Thompson’s terrific Blood and Money. I didn’t get to it then, but you can read about it, and much else besides, in a post entitled A great deal of work with abundant rewards: the True Crime class concludes.
Finally, I said a few words on the vast subject of crime fiction. I wanted to make everyone aware of the delightful new series British Library Crime Classics. I’ve already read several of these reissues. While they’re not all uniformly engaging, there are some that are veritable treasures. My favorites so far:
Then I said a few words in praise of the late and very much lamented Ruth Rendell. My favorites: they are too great in number to enumerate here. But I will say this: A Fatal Inversion, published in 1987 under Rendell’s nom de plume Barbara Vine, is as powerful a work of psychological suspense as any I’ve ever read.
And on a completely different note, there’s the ever dependable Sue Grafton and her equally dependable creation Kinsey Millhone. I thoroughly enjoyed X!
And I thoroughly enjoyed this get-together with my AAUW colleagues. These intriguing titles proved the springboard for a lively give and take among group members. In a spirited discussion, we covered both books and recent media related to true crime.
In particular, we wanted to know more about the root causes of murder, the most evil of acts. What about guilt and remorse – what role do they play in the grimmest of scenarios? Someone mentioned the role of forgiveness, and I think everyone agreed that if this could be achieved by those most affected, perhaps a sort of grace could be attained.
I recommend the interview with Harold Schechter that appears on the Library of America’s website.
It was great to have Jennifer back with us, working hard for the branch, as always. And we wish Diane a full and speedy recovery.
Finally, I’d like to mention Kathy, who revealed that she’s read everything she could find on the subject of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. The riddle of this man and his horrible acts is one she has long been trying to understand. At the end of my talk – during what I call the “post-presentation shmooze” – she came up to me and confided that when she was ten, she read two books that changed her life: In Cold Blood and The Diary of Anne Frank. Her eyes were shining as she was telling me this. I was delighted: look what books have been able to do for people! Hopefully they still can, and always will, no matter the time, place, or the format.
It’s always exciting to discover a new writer whose work you deeply admire. At least, that’s how I felt upon finishing I Am Your Judge by Nele Neuhaus. Granted, I’m basing this rave on just one book – but what a book! At the moment, it is right next to me on my desk, and I’m gazing at it with rapt approbation.
In this German police procedural, a sniper is targeting a variety of seemingly random individuals. Fear grips the populace at large. There is something especially unnerving about the presence on the scene of a malevolent sharpshooter who seems to vanish after his every hit. (Those of us who were living in the greater Washington DC area in 2002 will remember the frightening sense of vulnerability brought about by the depredations of the ‘DC Sniper.’ The case is cited early in this novel.)
It is the job of Chief Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff and Chief Superintendent Oliver von Bodenstein to identify this nefarious predator and run him to ground. Fairly early on, they and their team of investigators are able to determine that the targets are actually not all that random. What then constitutes the shooter’s motivation? Is it some sort of retribution? And if so, what was the offense – and who were the offenders? As Pia and Oliver struggle to find the answers to these questions, the killings continue.
The plotting is cunning; the characters, fully realized. I very much liked the two leads. We learn just enough about their private lives to make them interesting – no over-the-top soap opera scenarios. (In my view, these have become depressingly familiar in certain works of contemporary crime fiction, perhaps helping to account for their unwieldy heft.)
By my estimate, I Am Your Judge is the seventh book in this series. If you look at the listing on Stop You’re Killing Me, you’ll see why I’m hedging my bets. Dates of original publication in Germany, then dates of translation into English – somewhat confusing. (We dealt with a similar situation when Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels were first released in this country.) Another interesting fact about I Am Your judge: its original German language title is Die Lebenden und die Toten, which translates as The Living and the Dead. The English language title differs quite bit. I like it much better; it is powerful and sinister and gives the reader an accurate, if disturbing, idea of what’s about to unfold.
Will I experience another read as riveting as this was any time in the near future? O God of Literature, please say that I will.
A beautiful sight greeted me Wednesday morning: two rolled-up packages of newspaper lay in the (barely navigable) driveway. When I brought them in, I discovered that I had received not only that day’s paper, but all those that I’d missed due to the snow storm. Five issues awaited my joyful perusal!
Thank you so much, Washington Post.
Meanwhile, I’ve made progress on my upcoming presentations. This has consisted mainly of coming up with a script for Book Bash and gathering books for the presentation (entitled “Time for Crime: True and Imagined”), and selecting the stories I want to emphasize for my July discussion of Capital Crimes: London Stories.
I’ve already mentioned the crowd that surged through the Central Branch right before the blizzard. I was gratified that so many people were searching for books as well as DVDs. How nice, thought I, they’ll be taking home some gentle and soothing tomes, like Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective series or Jan Karon’s Mitford novels – and cookbooks, too, judging by the stripped shelves of local supermarkets – to help them get through the coming storm. This assumption is probably accurate, generally speaking. But on Wednesday, when I began searching in earnest for books I need for Book Bash, there were no available copies at any of the six library branches of the following:
All needed to be reserved and are only now coming in. Clearly, escapism means different things to different people.
And finally, something from the Department of Transitory Phenomena:
I am sitting at my computer desk yesterday morning at about a quarter to nine, when I become aware of the sunlight entering through the window on my left and falling across the desk’s cluttered surface and the adjoining bookcase.
Problem: the room is on the west side of the house. Remember: it is 8:45 AM.
I get up and go to the window, where I observe the sun glinting madly of the window of the house opposite. It is acting as a powerful reflector – but only for a short time.
The strange thing is, this room – formerly my son’s bedroom, as you might have guessed from the wall art – has been my de facto “office” for some ten years now, and I don’t recall ever noting this phenomenon.