Commissario Guido Brunetti has been tasked with investigating what is essentially a cold case. Fifteen years ago a teenage girl, Manuela Lando-Continui, was found floating in one of Venice’s canals. Pietro Cavanis, a bystander, pulled her out of the water, but not before serious brain injury had occurred. Cavanis, an alcoholic, remembered almost nothing of what occurred that day. As for Manuela, she was in a coma for a period of time. When she finally awoke, it was with the mental capacity of a seven-year old. There would be no growth, no change, as the years passed.
A dinner party at the home of his wife Paola’s parents serves to introduce Brunetti to Manuela’s grandmother, Contessa Demetriana Lando-Continui. The Contessa requests a private meeting with him at a later time. At that meeting, she reveals to Brunetti the full extent to which her heart has been broken by Mauela’s cruel fate. Added to her anguish is a suspicion that there’s a dark secret hidden behind that fate. Quite simply, she wants that secret brought to light. Can Brunetti do anything to make that happen?
His initial response is negative. But the Contessa is in her eighties. She is frail and death-haunted. She yearns to know the truth before it is too late.
It did not sound to him as though the Contessa were after vengeance. Perhaps she believed that simply knowing what had happened to her granddaughter would lessen her pain. Brunetti knew how illusory that belief was: as soon as a person knew what had happened, they wanted to know why, and then they wanted to know who.
Even so, compelled by the Contessa’s urgency and her distress, Brunetti finds that he cannot refuse her. He will, he assures her, do what he can.
And so begins an investigation unlike any other, circuitous and serpentine, full of shocks and false assumptions, culminating in more than one stunning revelation.
Throughout this compelling narrative, Donna Leon’s ambivalent feelings about her adoptive homeland peek coyly around every corner. Venality and bureaucracy rear their ugly heads with depressing regularity. But there is goodness at the ready to combat them, especially in the person of Brunetti’s partner in this inquiry, Commissario Claudia Griffoni.
As for Brunetti, he finds his solace and his refuge in the literature of the ancients – Apollonius this time – and in the companionship of his close-knit family.
This scene occurs after yet another grueling day of the investigation:
His spirit was at peace by the time he reached home. Paola was happy for his kiss of greeting and the children pleased to have his full attention during dinner. As he ate his bean soup, knowing there was only lasagne to come, he wondered why this wasn’t enough for so many people….
Later, when Paola came back to place the deep dish of lasagne on the table, Brunetti looked at her, looked at his children, and said: ‘How happy this makes me.’ His family smiled their agreement, thinking he meant the food, but it was the last thing on Brunetti’s mind at that moment.
(That said, the food in this novel is described in the usual mouthwatering detail.)
I’d like to add, without inserting a spoiler, that in my view many contemporary novelists lose their way as they approach the conclusion of their respective narratives. The opposite happened with this novel: the ending was exactly apt, and deeply moving as well.
I’ll say no more except to assert how much I loved The Waters of Eternal Youth. I’m having trouble settling on what to read next; this book set the bar so high.
The Midnight Assassin was one. The Austin Axe Murderer was another. The Servant Girl Annihilator, a coinage from the pen of William Sydney Porter, was yet another. (Porter, who was living in Austin at the time of the murders, later moved to New York City and eventually gained fame for his “twist at the end” short stories, written under the pseudonym O. Henry.)
The basic facts are these: Between December of 1884 and December of 1885 eight people were brutally murdered with an axe, or axes, in the dead of night, in Austin Texas. Five of the victims were African-American woman who worked as servants in the homes of Austin’s well off denizens. In the course of one of the attacks, a male servant was also slain, most likely because he was in the perpetrator’s way. The final two killings were of white women; these both took place on Christmas Eve of 1885.
There are several striking aspects to these murders. To begin with, they were excessively cruel and brutal. The first thing that happens as you read about each one is that your sympathies are engaged in the extreme for these hapless and totally innocent victims. Then there are additional factors to ponder. After committing each depredation, the killer vanished so quickly that no one ever got a good look at him. No motive was ever clearly discerned, except for possibly a kind of generalized misogyny. He struck erratically and unpredictably and proved virtually impossible to guard against. Police and city officials were helpless in the face of this rampage. The eerie elusiveness, not to mention viciousness, of the killer gave rise to speculation that he was not merely human:
A reporter for the Fort Worth Gazette actually suggested that Austin was being terrorized by a real-life version Frankenstein’s monster, the hideous yellow-eyed creature created by Mary Shelley in her 1823 novel.
Yet in the midst of all this awfulness, life went on, as it must and does. In the 1880s, Austin was a striving city. A new state Capitol building was nearing completion; the newly established University of Texas had opened its doors earlier in the decade. Especially interesting is the picture Hollandsworth paints of the lives of the city’s inhabitants. In the late nineteenth century, Austin was indeed a busy and prosperous place. From the saloons and so-called “houses of assignation” to Millett’s Opera House, there was plenty of entertainment (of various kinds) on offer. And although the races occupied separate social spheres, with the majority of African Americans relegated to the servant class, there was little overt enmity between them. The first six murders were in no way considered to be of lesser import because of the race of the victims. (That said, in Hollandsworth’s telling, certain among Austin’s white citizens held benighted and repugnant beliefs regarding the African American populace of their city – of any city, for that matter.)
According to the New York Times, there were over four hundred arrests of both African American and white men during the course of the investigation into these crimes. Only one conviction resulted – that of Jimmy Phillips, husband of one of the white victims – and that was later vacated. As suddenly as the killings had begun, they stopped. The perpetrator was never found.
Three years later, in London in 1888, the serial murder of prostitutes began. At least five are thought to have been done by the same man. The murders were savage, the killer elusive. Although he too was never found, the sobriquet by which he is known has echoed down though history to the present day: Jack the Ripper.
The case of the Texas Servant Girl Murders was featured on a segment of the PBS series The History Detectives. Among those interviewed by the investigators are Harold Schechter, whose anthology I used as the basis for the true crime class I taught last year, and Steven Saylor. Saylor writes a wonderful series of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome. From time to time, though, he takes on a different subject. This he did in his year 2000 novel A Twist at the End, which is partly set in Austin Texas and includes a retrospective examination of the Midnight Assassin and his dark doings by the above mentioned William Sydney Porter. I’ve not yet read it, but the Hollandsworth book (plus my high regard for this author) has made me eager to do so.
We are as fascinated by what we do not know as by what we do know. Indeed, in many ways, the rampage of the Midnight Assassin is the perfect crime story–a rip-roaring whodunit of murder, madness, and scandal, replete with the sorts of twists and shocks that give a page-turner its good name.
Except there is one catch. There is no dramatic last-act revelation, no drum-roll finale. Everything ends up precisely where it started, in a gray limbo of unknowing. The trail of clues just stops, like bewildered bloodhounds baying in the night.
As May turned to June, the Roman people were invited to celebrate a profound mystery: the turning of the centuries and the dawning of a new cycle of time. Entertainments were staged; chariot races held; lavish banquets thrown. First, though, for three days in succession, the gods were given their due of sustenance and blood; and by night, illumined by the torches which had been handed out free to the entire population of the city, the Princeps himself led the celebrations. To the Moerae, the three white-robed Fates who directed the city’s destiny, he offered a sacrifice of lambs and goats; and then, to the goddess of childbirth, a gift of cakes. A golden age was being born – and just in case there was still anyone who had failed to take in the message, a poem composed specially for the occasion by Horace was sung on both the Capitol and the Palatine, with the aim of ramming it home. ‘Grant riches, and progeny, and every kind of glory to the people of Romulus.’ Many who heard this prayer sounding out across the Forum, hymned by a choir of girls and boys of spotless probity, and framed by a skyline edged with gold and gleaming marble, would doubtless have reflected that the gods had already obliged. ‘Truth, and Peace, and Honour, and our venerable tradition of Probity, and Virtus, long neglected, all venture back among us. Blessed Plenty too – why, here she is with her horn of abundance!’
Yes, the times were Golden for the Romans under the benevolent stewardship of the Princeps, otherwise know as Gaius Octavius, otherwise known as Imperator Caesar Augustus. (Names were fluid – and very confusing, at least to me – in ancient Rome.) At any rate, it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun reading about ancient Rome. Historian Tom Holland does a terrific job of bring this remote time and place to vivid and sometimes disconcerting life.
(How disconcerting? Well, I’ve just finished reading a description of the use to which a fabulously wealthy Roman named Hostius Quadra put the mirrored walls of his bedroom:
The mirrors on his walls boasted a particularly distinctive feature: everything reflected in them appeared larger than it actually was. ‘So it was that the freak made a show of his own deviancy.’
The author proceeds to specifics, but this being a family oriented blog, I shall quote no further.)
Holland’s prose is engaging; his view of the past tinged alternately with irony and wonder. It’s a marvelous book, and I highly recommend it.
As it happens, I recently encountered an article in the Wall Street Journal by Joseph Epstein, a writer I esteem highly, in which he extols the virtues of a work by Montesquieu on ancient Rome. It’s entitled Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence. This can be translated as Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of Their Decline. According to Epstein, Considerations is “…a lesser-known work but one deserving the highest acclaim.” Herewith an excerpt:
It was a maxim then among the republics of Italy, that treaties made with one king were not obligatory towards his successor. This was a sort of law of nations among them. Thus every thing which had been submitted to by one king of Rome, they thought themselves disengaged from under another, and wars continually begot wars….
One cause of the prosperity of Rome was, that all her kings were great men. No other history presents us with an uninterrupted succession of such statesmen and such captains.
In the infancy of societies, the leading men in the republic form the constitution; afterwards, the constitution forms the leading men in the republic.
Considerations appears to be replete with such provocative observations. Of course, the fact that it was written in 1734 and that we are reading it in translation makes it rather a challenge to take on. The author’s full name is Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. He was a leading figure of the French Enlightenment.
Finally, I’ve been listening to one of the Great Courses entitled “Famous Romans.” The material is presented by J. Rufus Fears. Professor Fears punctuates his narrative with war whoops; he’s an exhilarating and enthusiastic raconteur. I could not help envying the students who had the good fortune to be in his classes.
I found to my dismay that J. Rufus Fears, Professor of Classics at Oklahoma University, passed away in 2012. He was 67 years old. David L. Boren, current president of the university (and former senator) praised Fears as “one of the greatest teachers in the history of our state.” One of his former students, in a moving tribute, declares that “Dr. Fears taught a class that was basically everything I had hoped college would be.”
I’ve also been enjoying yet another of Taschen’s wonderful art books – that’s Gaius Julius Caesar on the cover. And the Khan Academy’s Smarthistory series offers a rare glimpse inside Livia’s villa:
Here are the three novels in the trilogy:
I just finished Dictator. Words fail me, but luckily they did not fail Robert Harris. Quite, in fact, the opposite:
I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium— their yearning, keening howls, like animals in heat— and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.
It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.
The story of Cicero’s turbulent life and dramatic death is told to us by Tiro, a former slave who remained in Cicero’s service as scribe and factotum after Cicero had freed him. Tiro supposedly invented a type of shorthand writing; moreover, it is said that he penned a biography of Cicero. This document has never come to light – at least, not until Robert Harris resurrected it through the power of his imagination. It is a brilliant conceit, brilliantly executed.
Whether writing about contemporary political intrigue or ancient history, Robert Harris produces works that are compelling, convincing, and altogether satisfying.The Fear Index was a high tech thriller, at times difficult to follow but nonetheless enjoyable. The Ghost is a riff on post-Blair Britain and America. It was turned into a terrific film entitled The Ghost Writer:
Pompeii was about…well, the volcano of course, but Harris fleshes out the story with fascinating characters and incidents. (There is something uniquely powerful about fiction in which an impending catastrophe looms over the narrative and you know it’s coming but the characters don’t. One thinks of Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself about the sinking of the Titanic. And of course, Ruth Rendell’s Judgement in Stone, with its famous opening sentence that at the time – 1977 – astonished the world of crime fiction: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”)
Finally there is An Officer and a Spy, in which Harris tells the story of the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Lieutenant Georges Picquart. In the course of the novel, Picquart becomes increasingly convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence and ends up putting his career and even his freedom on the line as he doggedly pursued the truth of the matter.
So I wish to salute Robert Harris, master storyteller.
For a musical accompaniment, may I suggest the finale of The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. You may have to adjust the volume as this piece attains its blazing climax!
The Vanishing Velasquez: A 19th Century Bookseller’s Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece, by Laura Cumming
In this book, the author tells a fascinating if convoluted story. I admit that I lost the thread several times. But it didn’t matter. Laura Cumming’s exquisite writing and keen powers of observation take you to a whole other place, a magical realm saturated with the genius that was Diego Velasquez.
The scene is a darkened tavern filled with objects, each gleaming in its own spotlight. A red onion, an egg, a white bowl balancing a silver knife, a brass vessel full of reflected glory: all appear as if laid out on an altar, singular, mysterious and sacramental. Velasquez pays the greatest respect to each humble item, and each is painted with mesmerizing beauty. Even the strung melon cradled by the young boy on the left shines like some strange new gift to the world.
More to come on this, at a later time.
And who. pray tell, is Inspector Chopra? The creation of author Vaseem Khan, Inspector Ashwin Chopra is a self-effacing, rigorously upright member of the Mumbai Police Department. On the day that we meet him, he’s in the process of retiring after a long and distinguished career.
True, he can do this officially and physically, but from a psychological and emotional standpoint, police work is in his blood. He cannot stop himself. No sooner has he cleared out his office than he begins, on his own, to investigate the mysterious death of a boy. Although ruled accidental, Chopra becomes increasingly convinced that it was murder – a murder that’s being too conveniently swept under the rug.
Ashwin Chopra and his wife Poppy live in an apartment block in Mumbai. Early in the novel, a baby elephant arrives to disrupt their rather simple existence. It seems that this lovable but somewhat depressed creature has been left to Chopra in the will of his recently deceased uncle. Part of the fun of The Unexpected Inheritance lies in watching Poppy and Chopra attempting to cope with this rather cumbersome legacy. At one point, “Baby Ganesh” ends up actually inside the Chopra’s apartment!
Ashwin and Poppy are extremely appealing individuals; even more so, the city of Mumbai itself can be considered a character in this novel. Chopra has much to say about the city he loves, and indeed, generally speaking, about his native country in its present incarnation. Upon visiting a mall filled with high end luxury goods, these are his thoughts:
Chopra did not need Van Heusen and Louis Philippe shirts, he had no use for Apple accessories and Ray Ban sunglasses. Sometimes it seemed to him that the whole country was being rebranded. He imagined the lines of Indians moving past booths manned by representatives of foreign multinationals as each Indian went past he was stripped of his traditional clothes, his traditional values, and given new things to wear and new things to think. Branded and rewired, this new model of Indian went back to his home thinking that he was now a truly modern Indian and what a fine thing that was, but all Chopra saw was the gradual death of the culture that had always made him proud of his incredible country.
That sounds rather gloomy and heavy, but this novel is for the most part optimistic, if cautiously, and even at times humorous.
In the biography on his website, London-born Vaseem Khan tells how when, arriving in Mumbai in 1997 to work as a management consultant, he beheld an elephant walking down the middle of the road. This amazing vision…”served as the inspiration behind my Baby Ganesh series of light-hearted crime novels.” Khan concludes his biographical sketch thus:
Elephants are third on my list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, not always in that order.
(For the complete biography, click here.)
Just for fun, to get you in the mood for things Indian, here’s one of my favorite music videos, the manically cheerful and riotously colorful “Kal Ho Naa Ho – Maahi Ve:”
Last February, I wrote a post in which I expressed my disappointment in A Murder of Crows, then the latest installment in P.F. Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey series. I was not sure that I wanted to read A Chorus of Innocents, the novel following that one. Then I saw the Kirkus review, in which the writer concludes with this assessment:
One of Chisholm’s best Elizabethan mysteries… combining all the historical information readers have come to expect with a swiftly moving story featuring a strong woman whose romantic aspirations have yet to be fulfilled.
The strong woman in question is Lady Elizabeth Widdrington. In A Chorus of Innocents, she is determined to solve a murder that smites her sense of justice deeply. It is more or less unheard of that a woman, even – or especially – a noble woman, should involve herself in a murder investigation, but such considerations do not weigh greatly with Lady Widdrington.
She has the great misfortune to be married to a thoroughly nasty man who beats her and refuses to share her bed. The same unbending rectitude that impels her to pursue the malefactor in this case also governs her behavior as a wife. She believes she must submit to her husband because he is her lord. Unlike many women of her rank, she is without exception faithful to her spouse, no matter how odious his treatment of her. What makes this situation especially remarkable, not to mention painful, is that she is deeply in love with another man, Sir Robert Carey, and he, equally with her. Sir Robert serves in Queen Elizabeth’s court when he’s in London and serves as Deputy Warden of one of the Marches located in the border country between England and Scotland. (This is an altogether tough region to police; it very much reminds of the early days of the American West.)
P.F Chisholm is on record as having taken her inspiration for this series of novels from her reading of The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser. I’ve only read the first few pages of this book, but I hit almost at once upon this quote:
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.
Chisholm’s depiction of this clash of civilizations is robust and amazingly vivid and convincing. She writes terrific dialog, redolent of the speech patterns and eccentric vocabulary of those who dwell in the border regions. They are as lively and irreverent a gang of folk as I’ve met in a long time, or perhaps ever. Religion is invariably a hot topic in these parts, and in the midst of a debate over the afterlife, this view is offered to Elizabeth:
“….all the borderers go to hell; it’s warmer there and better company.”
Quite naturally, she can’t think how to reply and so remains silent.
Throughout this novel, times of intense activity and excruciating suspense alternate with moments of tenderness and heartache. Along the way there is a good deal of humor, though mostly laced with irony and sometimes even bitterness. The Kirkus reviewer is right on the mark: this is outstanding historical fiction.
A Chorus of Innocents is the sixth entry in the Sir Robert Carey series. As I’ve read the five previous titles, I’m undecided as to whether a reader can begin here, or whether it’s needful to go back to the first book, A Famine of Horses. That novel was similarly wonderful; the three immediately following were enjoyable rather than stellar, and the fifth, as I’ve already said, was below par in my view.
So, Reader, it’s up to you. Whatever you do, don’t miss the series opener and this latest installment. You will be amply rewarded by both.
Last Thursday’s AAUW Readers planning session was most enjoyable and productive. Here are some of the highlights:
As she was not able to come, Susan suggested via email that we read Richard Russo’s EVERYBODY’S FOOL. This is the “rollicking sequel” (as per The Seattle Times) to NOBODY’S FOOL from 1993. The latter was made into a film starring Paul Newman, of blessed memory. (While I’ve read neither of these titles, I do have a fond recollection of Russo’s EMPIRE FALLS.) Additionally recommended by Jean was Russo’s STRAIGHT MAN, a novel that sounds made to order for those of us who have labored, at some point in our working lives, in the groves of academe.
Barb brought WILDE LAKE by Laura Lippman. Columbia, a planned community in Maryland where most of us live and some of us work, is composed of ten villages, of which Wilde Lake (est. 1967) was one of the first (possibly THE first?). Laura Lippman graduated from Wilde Lake High School in 1977. Her novels are usually set in Baltimore, but this time, she’s brought the action back home to Howard County.
It’s safe to say that many readers in this area are eager to get their hands on this book. As of this writing, the local library has 360 reserves on it. (I’m number 165.)
Phyllis recommended THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE by Melanie Benjamin. At this suggestion, several of us chimed in enthusiastically. The Literary Ladies – another book group to which I belong – had a terrific discussion of this title last month. Click here for a brief review and some striking photographs of a bygone era.
My recommendations were as follows:
THE INVENTION OF NATURE: ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT’S NEW WORLD, by Andrea Wulf: An amazing book about a great scientist and a true visionary. Essential reading for anyone who cares about the environment, science, botany, conservation – anything related to the natural world. Beautifully written and fascinating from beginning to end. (I’m gushing, I know, but I can’t help it.)
DEEP SOUTH: FOUR SEASONS ON THE BACK ROADS, by Paul Theroux. After a lifetime of fruitful laboring in the vineyard of literature, Theroux may now have written his masterpiece. Sick of dealing with airplanes and airports, he got in his car and drove to points south – deep south, primarily Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. His goal was to see how the people in these places were faring. What he found was poignant, heartbreaking, and at times inspiring.
For me, reading DEEP SOUTH was both an exalting and a humbling experience. How could I have been so oblivious to the pain and the vitality inherent these lives, in this vast swath of the country which is theirs as much as it is mine? He made me want to go there.
THE NATURE OF THE BEAST by Louise Penny. Penny’s Three Pines mysteries don’t always work for me. The denizens of this strangely obscure village seem overly precious at times, except for the nasty poet Ruth and her pet duck, who veer in quite the opposite direction. In this particular series outing, all of these characters and more get tangled up in a truly Byzantine plot. Nevertheless, it’s an absorbing read, and it’s based on a highly unusual, not to say bizarre, true story. (Gentle hint to this author: Could you possibly make more sparing use of the expletive “G-d damn?” Maybe it jumped out at me repeatedly the way it did because I was listening to the audiobook.)
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout was suggested by Rosemarie, who also mentioned THE MORNING THEY CAME FOR US: DISPATCHES FROM SYRIA by Janine di Giovanni. LUCY BARTON looks good – not least because it’s blessedly short – but I have to admit that Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE, beloved by book clubs and awards committees, left me cold. Rarely have I encountered a drearier, more humorless cast of characters! (On the other hand the film, with Frances McDormand in the title role, was a real tour de force.)
In addition to THE NATURE OF THE BEAST and WILDE LAKE, two other crime and suspense novels were mentioned at our meeting. Dottie suggested MALICE by the Japanese crime writer Keigo Higashino. (The Usual Suspects discussed THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X by this same author as part of our “international mystery” year in 2015. Most of us were favorably impressed by it.) And Jean brought IN A DARK, DARK WOOD, by Ruth Ware, a novel designated “a slick debut thriller” by NPR reviewer Jean Zimmerman.
Additional recommendations were as follows:
FIRST WOMEN: THE GRACE AND POWER OF AMERICA’S MODERN FIRST LADIES, by Kate Andersen Brower
WHAT YOUR BODY SAYS (AND HOW TO MASTER THE MESSAGE), by Sharon Sayler
DEGREES OF EQUALITY: THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF UNIVERSITY WOMEN AND THE CHALLENGE OF TWENTIETH CENTURY FEMINISM by Susan Levine
THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert
AHAB’S WIFE: OR, THE STAR-GAZER by Sena Jeter Naslund
WHAT JEFFERSON READ, IKE WATCHED AND OBAMA TWEETED: TWO HUNDRED YEARS OF POPULAR CULTURE IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Tevi Troy
MAESTRA by L.S. Hilton.
JEFFERSON’S SONS: A FOUNDING FATHER’S SECRET CHILDREN by Kimberly Bradley
THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE by Ann Packer
So there we were, faced with the challenge of narrowing the list down. We needed to decide on five titles for the coming year. (We meet every other month.) Lorraine’s suggestion that we put it to a vote worked extremely well. Those present could vote for multiple titles, if they so desired. We decided on the following:
THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE
I think everyone present felt that we’d generated some terrific ideas for worthwhile reading, whether for group discussion or for individual enjoyment.
I feel lucky to be a part of this articulate and passionate group of fellow book lovers. Thanks to all of you!
“None of us can tell the future,” said Gamache. It was an intentionally banal response….
“Oh, I think some can, don’t you?”
Something in his tone made Gamache refocus and give the scientist his attention. “What do you mean?”
“I mean some can predict the future because they create it,” said Rosenblatt. “Oh, not the good things. We can’t make someone love us, or even like us. But we can make someone hate us. We can’t guarantee we’ll be hired for a job, but we can make sure we’re fired.” He put down his apple cider and stared at Gamache. “We can’t be sure we’ll win a war, but we can lose one.”
From The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny
There is always a garish carnival across the boulevard. We are born, we eat and sleep, conspire and mourn, a birth, a betrayal, an excursion to the harbor, and it’s done. All of it, done.
From “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta” by Kate Braverman
(This story can also be found in Best American Short Stories 1991.)
In the silence that followed, Dodd reflected that it was always interesting to watch the way a man held a sword, providing he wasn’t facing you at the time.
From A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm (Patricia Finney)
The People in the Castle is a new collection of short stories by Joan Aiken. In her introduction to this volume, Kelly Link makes some insightful observations about the form. These came about as a result of a literary festival she attended, where she detected, on the part of certain participants, a decided negative attitude toward the short story:
The general feeling was that short stories could be difficult because their subject matter was so often grim; tragic. A novel you had time to settle into— novels wanted you to like them, it was agreed, whereas short stories were like Tuesday’s child, full of woe, and required a certain kind of moral fortitude to properly digest.
Link, herself a distinguished writer of stories, respectfully disagrees:
…. it has always seemed to me that short stories have a kind of wild delight to them even when their subject is grim. They come at you in a rush and spin you about in an unsettling way and then go rushing off again. There is a kind of joy in the speed and compression necessary to make something very large happen in a small space.
I think she’s really on to something in that last sentence. (It puts me in mind of Shakespeare’s telling locution, “a great reckoning in a little room.”) For instance, in Guy de Maupassant’s story “Looking Back,” a world of feeling opens up toward the end of a conversation between an aristocratic woman and the parish priest who has been her dinner guest. This short tale is both specific to its time and place, and universal in the poignant sensation it evokes in the reader.
I came upon this story in an unassuming little paperback anthology I picked up at an airport several years ago. Edited by Milton Crane, 50 Great Short Stories first came out in 1952; it was reissued several times subsequently, the last being in 2005. This terrific collection contains some of my favorites:
Poe’s terrifying and memorable “Masque of the Red Death”
Shirley Jackson’s iconic “The Lottery”
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” by Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite authors. Her blend of dark – very dark – humor with the apocalyptic onslaught of fate scares me senseless!
“The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. His ability to move and to disturb the reader remains undiminished over the years.
I fear that the airport bookstore is fast becoming a thing of the past. I especially lament the passing of the Hudson Bookstore at BWI (Baltimore-Washington International), a store with a carefully curated stock where I formerly loved to browse. At any rate, it appears that 50 Great Short Stories is still in print and for all I know still turns up now and again in airport outlets. I recommend it.
At the front of the book, Professor Crane asks the question, “What makes a great short story?” In response, he offers the following:
The sudden unforgettable revelation of character; the vision of a world through another’s eyes; the glimpse of truth; the capture of a moment in time….
He goes on to suggest that a short story “…can discover depths of meaning in the casual word or action; it can suggest in a page what could not be stated in a volume.” It’s instructive to reflect on precepts such as these now and again while reading the stories.
An anthology I’m particularly fond of is The Library of America’s two volume set of American Fantastic Tales. Selected by master of the genre Peter Straub, this collection features one gem after another.
From Straub’s Introduction:
For now, let us at least take note that loss, grief, and terror echo throughout the two volumes of American Fantastic Tales. If the fantastic story originates in such emotions, as I believe it does, it is constantly confessing its origins, and with helpless fervor. Gothic literature in general is inherently melancholy, and melancholy is generally its most cheerful aspect….in most of the cases here we are dealing with the gothic sensibility, the many avatars of which are riddled with isolation, loneliness, and dread.
(This eloquent exposition has put me in mind of the plight of Helen Clarvoe in Margaret Millar’s novel Beast in View.)
In point of fact, not only I have I not yet gotten to Volume Two, I have yet to get past the half way point of Volume One (Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”).
The first story is entitled “Somnambulism: A Fragment,” by Charles Brockden Brown. The tale itself is preceded by an italicized superscription which largely consists of an excerpt from the Vienna Gazette of 14 June 1784. The article relate the events of an actual crime which supposedly took place in Silesia and upon which the fictional story is based. There is some reason to doubt the veracity of this piece:
That Brown himself created this “extract” is possible. Scholars have been unable to locate this story either in the Vienna Gazette or in any of the periodical literature from that time. No one has been able to produce a copy of the article, nor has anyone been able to find for certain that the Gazette was even published in 1784….
[from Charles Brockden Brown and the Literary Magazine: Cultural Journalism in the Early American Republic, by Michael Cody, published in 2004]
From the actual short story:
All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments. Ideas haunt them in spite of all their efforts to discard them. Prepossessions are entertained, for which their reason is unable to discover any adequate cause. The strength of a belief, when it is destitute of any rational foundation, seems, of itself, to furnish a new ground for credulity. We first admit a powerful persuasion, and then, from reflecting on the insufficiency of the ground on which it is built, instead of being prompted to dismiss it, we become more forcibly attached to it.
A home truth, eloquently articulated and crucial to the feeling of dread that gradually and inexorably accrues in “Somnambulism.” (I’m reminded of Blaise Pascal‘s aphorism: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.”)
Like his novels Wieland and Edgar Huntly, Charles Brockden Brown’s fragment of fiction called “Somnambulism” is set on the American frontier between civilization and the wilderness. And as is the case with the novels, the fragment’s setting and action reaffirm Brown’s ability to use this frontier as a space for exploring ideas about an American life in transition. Within this setting, Brown utilizes some rather typical Gothic conventions—darkness of night, a young woman in danger, an unknown presence, and the like—to tell the story of a tragic murder and the search for information that hopefully will lead to the author of the crime.
[from “Sleepwalking into the Nineteenth Century: Charles Brockden Brown’s ‘Somnambulism'” by Michael Cody]
Poor Charles Brockden Brown: his life was brief and his literary renown, apparently even briefer. Yet he was arguably the forerunner of Hawthorne, Poe, and other bright literary lights. His story is immediately followed by a veritable roll call of greatest hits of early American literature:
And numerous others.
Lately, my reading in the mystery genre has been guided by these factors:
The appearance of British Library Crime Classics, which led to my reading of
Additional classics, several suggested by a Facebook group and several terrific bloggers;
Titles selected by the always discerning Usual Suspects Mystery Book Group;
Latest additions to beloved series;
Lucky strikes gleaned from perceptive reviews and recommendations.
I’ll start with the British Library’s hugely successful foray into the world of classic crime fiction. The first volume in this series, Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon, was a surprise bestseller in 2014. It’s been followed by novels and short story collections along the same lines, by which I mean early twentieth century crime fiction by authors who are not currently as well known as their Golden Age counterparts; namely Sayers, Christie, Marsh, Allingham, and Tey.
“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 enjoyed Mystery in White so much that I could hardly wait to read more from this series. The short story collections are especially welcome, as they provide the reader with an introduction to several of these “hidden gem” authors in one volume. So far I’ve read two in this category:
I enjoyed both so much that I selected Capital Crimes as my July discussion presentation for the Usual Suspects. It’s almost always the case with collections that some tales will stand out more than others. For me, three of the stories in the Capital Crimes anthology were especially impressive: “The Case of Lady Sannox” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole, and “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White. The Walpole story led me to anthology of his tales called The Silver Thorn – an inexpensive download. I’ve only just read the first story. It’s called “The Little Donkeys with The Crimson Saddles.” Not a crime story, but a sheer delight all the same.
I knew that Ethel Lina White wrote the book on which the Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes was based. The novel’s original title is The Wheel Spins. I decided it was time to read it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read somewhere that White specialized in young heroines in danger who rise to the occasion and, with a combination of courage and perseverance, overcome the threat with which they’re confronted. Iris Carr’s story is illustrative of this scenario. I was rooting for her – sometimes anxiously – throughout!
I’ll definitely be reading more by this author. In addition to The Wheel Spins, Some Must Watch (filmed as The Spiral Staircase) and The First Time He Died have also been recommended.
Back to the British Library series for a moment: In addition to Mystery in White, I’ve so far read these three novels: . I enjoyed each of them, but I’d award top marks to Murder of a Lady for its exceptionally cunning plot, which unfolds against the backdrop of a vivid Scottish setting.
In recent months, I’ve read quite a few mysteries not included in the British Library series (or at least, not yet). I’ve already mentioned The Wheel Spins, and I’ve written about Mist in the Saltings by Henry Wade and Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham in this post.
The Usual Suspects kicked off this year’s program of discussions with Margaret Millar’s Beast in View. Both creepy and compelling, and set against the Los Angeles backdrop used so effectively by Millar’s husband Ross MacDonald, Beast in View was the Edgar Award winner for Best Novel in 1956. Helen Clarvoe is a highly nervous young woman and a virtual recluse. She’s living alone in a hotel and feeling reasonably safe until she begins receiving a series of menacing phone calls. “And from there unspools one of the most terrifying stories you will ever read.” Thus saith Laura Lippman and forsooth, she is right!
I always know that I’ve really loved a novel when I immediately want more from the same author. This was absolutely the case with The Emperor’s Snuff Box (1942) by John Dickson Carr. What a gem this is! From its atmospheric setting in rural France, its memorable cast of characters, exceptionally fine writing – well, and just about everything else you desire in quality crime fiction. Carr was well known and appreciated in his day, and in my view, it’s time for a revival of interest in his work.
Herewith, some general observations regarding the classics. I’d like to deal first with the most troubling factor; namely, the degree to which racial and ethnic slurs appear in the stories and novels of early to mid-twentieth century. (And let us acknowledge that this problem is not exclusive to crime fiction.) You can read any number of mysteries without coming across this sort of thing and then bang, there it is, jarring to say the least, especially if you’re a member of the ethnic, racial, or even gender group that’s being disparaged. In The Emperor’s Snuff Box, for instance, Carr tosses off several statements along the lines of “You know what women are.” I just sighed deeply and read on.
The worst examples that I’ve yet encountered in a crime classic occur in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. (I’m talking about the original, not the “cleaned up” version that was published in this country after the Second World War.) I know that for many Christie fans, this book is her crowning achievement. For me, it took a while after I read it to recapture my old affection for this writer. (The Miss Marple short stories were a big help there.) I’ve written in more detail on this subject in this post.
One of the reasons that the British Library’s Crime Classics initiative is so welcome is that some of the lesser known classics are now hard to obtain. Many are out of print. If you’re lucky, you’ll find an e-book download for only a few dollars. Mist on the Saltings was neither in print nor available in e-book format. I ended up getting a rather worse for wear paperback from Amazon. (It was more than worth it.) There are some small publishers who for several years now have been doing excellent work in keeping the classics in print. I’m thinking in particular of Felony and Mayhem Press and their editions of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels.
Not only are some of these older volumes a challenge to find, they’re also a challenge to identify correctly. This is also true of their authors. John Dickson Carr’s life and work nicely exemplify the occurrence of these conundrums. In addition to using his real name, Carr also wrote under the pseudonyms Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson, and Roger Fairbairn. The Hollow Man is often considered to be his finest work – but you’d best also search for it by its American title, The Three Coffins. An Amazon search by the latter title disclosed no e-book edition and edition currently in print. (A number of used copies are on offer, though, ranging in price from $3.61 to $80.02 – take your pick!)
So: back to The Hollow Man. Yes! there’s a Kindle download, and at a nice price, too. Alas, when you click on it, you get this message: “
In the course of researching this and other mystery related posts, I’ve come across some truly excellent blogs. In the past, I’ve referred to Martin Edwards’s Do You Write Under Your Own Name. His recurring feature on “Forgotten Books” offers a wealth of information and recommendations. Martin Edwards‘s steady advocacy of classic crime novels and stories has lately received well-deserved recognition. Since 1914, he’s been consultant to the British Library for their Crime Classics series. In addition, he’s the current President of the prestigious Detection Club. He’s the author of The Golden Age of Murder, a history of that organization that sheds light on its distinguished, fascinating, and sometimes elusive members. Finally, he’s the author of several fictional series and stand-alones. (I’ve particularly enjoyed the Lake District series featuring DCI Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind.)
Other blogs I’d like to recommend are as follows:
Other blog recommendations would be gratefully received by me – also more recommendations of classic mysteries! (What more proof is needed that I can never get enough?)