The Case of the Cascading Crime Novels!

March 25, 2020 at 1:42 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

The above are all titles I’ve read fairly recently and not written about in this space. Therefore, these will be capsule reviews of varying length.

Fact is, I’ve had trouble concentrating of late. (Can’t imagine why.) And when that happens to me, I turn to Inspector Maigret. He rarely lets me down, and he didn’t this time. Below is a list of characters that appear in this series entry, as enumerated on the back of the book:

A mysterious note predicting the murder of a fortune-teller; a confused old man locked in a Paris apartment; a financier who goes fishing; a South American heiress…

A bizarre cast of characters, n’est-ce pas? And yet here is Maigret, stolid and persistent and aided mainly by the trusty Lucas, committed to solving a most perplexing murder case.

Signed, Picpus came out in 1944. It amazes me how little these novels seem to date, with the passage of years. The edition pictured above is part of Penguin’s project of issuing new translations of all the Maigret titles. This one was published in 2015 and translated by David Coward. I was somewhat surprised that the text was rendered in the present tense; once I got used to it, though, it read as smoothly as the books in this series usually do.

I’ve written much about Simenon; he is one of my favorite writers. As a human being, he was both fascinating and appalling.  But never boring.

My favorite actor in the role of Maigret is Michael Gambon.

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Wolf Pack by C.J. Box is the nineteenth novel in the Joe Pickett series. (There is also a story collection entitled Shots Fired.) The Bitterroots is fourth in the Cassie Dewell series. Cassie is a sheriff’s investigator in Montana, while Joe Pickett is a game warden in Wyoming. I enjoyed both books, though I’d give Wolf Pack a slight edge.

I’ve become a big fan of C.J. Box; I look forward to reading Long Range, the 20th Joe Pickett  novel.

C.J. Box

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E.C.R. Lorac‘s Murder in the Mill-Race is one of the more captivating classics I’ve read in recent years. Written in 1952, it has the flavor of a classic English village mystery but with fully developed characters and an involving plot. Plus the writing is lovely:

He snatched his coat and hurried out of the house, across the garden, through the gate in the yew hedge and across the dewy lawns of the Manor, taking the short cut to the steep path down through the park. All around him thrushes and blackbirds were calling from the tree tops, and chaffinches and bullfinches poured out their clear liquid song: the air was fragrant with the sweetness of midsummer, fragrance of pinks and roses in the garden, hay and meadow flowers in the park. Fat white lambs rushed to mother ewes as Ferens made his way down the steep path, the world vivid and vibrant with life and sunshine.

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Trouble Is What I Do features Leonid McGill, a private investigator in New York City. For a relatively short novel, it contained a myriad of characters and a byzantine plot. Nevertheless, some of the McGill’s sly observations on human nature made me smile. He seems to have performed innumerable favors for both shady characters and those in law enforcement, and he is continually calling in his markers.

This is the sixth novel in the Leonid McGill series, which is, I think, less familiar to readers than the series featuring Easy Rawlins. In the past, I’ve had trouble getting into Walter Mosley’s books, but this one was fun.

Walter Mosley

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The Peter Robinson was a bit of a disappointment. I guess lately I’ve been looking for mysteries that have a unique or interesting sideline. The plot of Many Rivers To Cross felt labored, as if the author were thinking, ‘I’d better come up with something and soon!’ As always, I liked hanging out with Alan Banks and his fellow officers, but that wasn’t enough to make this one a major winner, for me.

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I recently wrote a positive review of An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich.   In fact, I was so impressed by that book that I wanted to read the next one right away. So : The Good Assassin is set in Cuba just prior to Castro’s takeover. (I remember this time well. I was in high school in Miami Beach, Florida at the time, and there was a sudden influx of Spanish-speaking students, some with very limited English, others who were nearly fluent.) The atmosphere of the place is vividly evoked in this novel; however, the plotting was not as tight as in An Honorable Man, so I didn’t feel as though it quite measured up to Vidich’s first outing with his series protagonist George Muller. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading Vidich’s latest, a nonseries title called The Coldest Warrior. It has been called “A worthwhile thriller and a valuable exposé” by finicky Kirkus Reviews

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A note on the obtaining of reading material during the pandemic: I’ve been downloading from Amazon at a completely reckless rate. Except when I am traveling – when one could do such a daring thing – e-book reading is not my first choice; I usually borrow hardbacks from the library. However, that august institution is shuttered for the time being. I am trying very hard to acquire as few hard copy titles as possible. Ergo, all the downloading.

Sigh…This too shall pass. For some reason, I keep thinking of the line from Othello:

Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich

February 27, 2020 at 1:33 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was going to skip reviewing this novel, due to time constraints. But when I picked it up just now, I looked at the passages I marked with post-it flags while reading it, and I felt that at the very least I wanted to quote some lines to indicate how exceptional well written this book is.

Paul Vidich is a name new to me. I first encountered him in Tom Nolan’s column in the Wall Street Journal. Nolan has excellent taste in crime fiction; I’m saying this of course because I mostly agree with his assessments. The review in question is of Vidich’s third book, The Coldest Warrior:

Mr. Vidich, for many years a senior executive in the entertainment industry, proved his talent for noirish spy fiction in two earlier books featuring 1950s CIA man George Mueller. This stand-alone work reaches a new level of moral complexity and brings into stark relief the often contradictory nature of spycraft. Can a covert enterprise survive if it discloses its worst secrets? And can a good cause remain good if it sometimes brings evil?

The Honorable Man is the first of the two novels featuring George Mueller. Mueller is desperate to come in from the cold. He wants – no, needs – to spend time with his young son, who is currently living with his ex-wife. But Mueller’s own skills are partly his undoing. The Agency needs his expertise to  help ferret out a mole in their midst. Reluctantly, he agrees to stay on for this crucial mission.

Now, you’d be forgiven for fetching a deep sigh and saying to yourself, Oh, no, not again, this oft-repeated trope on spy fiction. But it’s not the plot elements that make a novel unique: it’s the specific time and place, the surrounding circumstances, and above all, the characters. Vidich brings postwar Cold War world of the 1950s vividly to life, with all its paranoid urgency. And Mueller himself – well, I felt as though I were inside his skin, an uncomfortable place to be, but necessary. I care about him deeply.

Oh – and a few of the flagged passages:

There is a madness in this country. I can’t bear the name calling the outburst of hatred and vilification, the repulsive spectacle of red baiting, and the way good men’s reputations are tarnished with innuendo.
—————

On his way down the stairwell he felt a stirring of remorse. He felt the burden of what it took to explain a corrupt world to an innocent mind.
————–

His large library, which represented a cornucopia of happy times dedicated to pure thinking, was grouped by topic, and then alphabetically. His jewel among the romantics was a Hawthorne first edition, and the  grouping of popular fiction had an old Eric Ambler, which he admired for its wisdom within a vulgar yarn spun to showcase a clever plot.
—————–

Mueller couldn’t tell how much of the man’s worry was for the work, how much for himself. Perhaps there was no difference. The thin line of judgment was porous with error, rank with self-interest. Washington was a terrible place for honorable men to work.

Remember, the events of this novel are taking place during the McCarthy hearings, when fear and hatred of the Communist menace were reaching a fever pitch among the general populace. Still, some of the words quoted above have an uncomfortable  resonance in regard to the present time. At least, it seems so to me.

An Honorable Man has its basis in a factual case. The author offers a brief explanation at the close of the story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

February 21, 2020 at 4:03 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Having greatly enjoyed Kwei Quartey’s The Missing American, a standalone novel, I decided to read Quartey’s Darko series. First up is Wife of the Gods. It’s a delight! Darko is an appealing protagonist, a policeman working is way up in the force. He has to work to control a quick temper; moreover, his love of marijuana must be indulged in secret. His family, consisting of wife Christine and much loved six-year-old son Hosiah, helps keep him on the  straight and narrow.

Several mysteries unfold in tandem in Wife of the Gods. The plotting is well done and easy to follow, but the real star of the show once again is the country of Ghana. An important element of the story is a rather disturbing custom called Trokosi.  Kwei Quartey observes that “Traditionalists, such as the Afrikania organization in Accra, are in favor of the tradition and deny that slavery is involved.” Well, maybe so, but the way it’s depicted in this novel, Trokosi makes it possible for a man to have numerous wives and to treat them like – well, slaves. And so although the title, Wife of the Gods, would seem to refer to an aspirational state, the reality is decidedly more sinister.

So this is a negative aspect of Ghanaian society and the author is honest in depicting it. But at the same time, there is much about the country that is appealing – in particular, the beauty of the countryside and the kindness and generosity of its people.

In the matter of religion, Ghana is approximately seventy per cent Christian (including a variety of denominations); although there are a number of dialects spoken, the official language is English. (verified by the CIA World Fact Book). These facts apparently give rise to the quirky and rather endearing custom of commercial establishments being named ‘Nothing But Prayer Electrical Goods,’ the “God Is Great Hair Clinic,’ and the ‘Jesus Is Lord Chop House.’ (This immediately put me in mind of Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series set in Botswana, in which Mma Makutsi’s husband is the proud proprietor of the ‘Double Comfort Furniture Shop.’)

I look forward to getting the next Darko Dawson book, Children of the Street.

 

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The Missing American by Kwei Quartey

February 8, 2020 at 9:42 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Emma Djian is uninspired – to put it mildly – by her work in the Ghana Police Service’s Commercial Crimes Unit. She longs for the excitement and challenges of the homicide division. She applies for a position in that elite group, but in the course of the interview process, an awful thing happens to her. And it happens deep within the police force itself.

Suddenly Emma is out – sacked. But a kindly soul refers her to a private investigation company, where there may be a position waiting for an enterprising soul such as herself. This, then, is the  opening into the world of criminal investigation that Emma has been seeking.

Meanwhile, a world away in the U.S., Gordon Tilson, a widower, has been corresponding with a Ghanaiain woman via social media. She identifies herself as Helena Barfour. A romance develops, in the course of which Tilson sends money to Helena, to help her with a family emergency. At length, the lovers affirm  their desire to be together. In pursuit of this goal, Gordon Tilson boards a plane that will take him to Ghana, and to his love.

As you have probably guessed, things do not go as planned. Or at least, not as Gordon had planned.

The Missing American provides a rich immersion in the culture of Ghana, a country about which I know very little. And Emma Djian is a wonderful character – bright, personable, and in her own quiet way determined to make  career in law enforcement. I’m hoping we’ll see more of her in the future.

A character in The  Missing American disguises himself in the same manner as the man in this photo:

Kwei Quartey has written five novels featuring Darko Dawson, a CID detective in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. I was sufficiently taken with The Missing American that I am now reading the first book in this series, Wife of the Gods.

Kwei Quartey’s dedication at the front of this novel reads as follows:

To Ahmed Hussein-Suale, a Ghanaian journalist martyred on Wednesday, January 16, 2019

You can read about this in a BBC article entitled Murder in Accra.

 

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Best Reading in Crime Fiction 2019: Part Two

December 21, 2019 at 2:42 am (Best of 2019, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Karin Fossum

Jill Ciment

Dervla McTiernan

Killing with Confetti by Peter Lovesey. Always reliable, always enjoyable

The Whisperer by Karin Fossum. Okay, I put it on the list, but this would never be my favorite Fossum novel. The writing was excellent, as always, but the narrative was almost entirely given over to an interiority that quickly became, for this reader, downright suffocating. The plot was somewhere betweem slow and inert.

Unto Us a Son Is Given by Donna Leon. Up to Leon’s usual high standard. Trace Elements, the twenty-ninth novel featuring the indefatigable Commissario Guido Brunetti, is due out on March 3 of the coming year.

Joe Country by Mick Herron. Another entertaining entry in the Sough House series

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment. A trial concerning an unspeakable crime gives rise to a powerful and illicit passion.

The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan. A worthy follow-up to The Ruin.

Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith. Everything he does delights me! I’ve chosen this book for my 2020 Usual Suspects presentation and discussion.

Cold Wrath by Peter Turnbull. A procedural set in York, with a cast of characters that I feel as if I’ve known for a long time. And no wonder – this is the twenty-fifth entry in the Hennessey and Yellich series!

A Suspicion of Silver by P.F. Chisolm. The ninth entry in an historical series that I love.

Tombland by C.J. Sansom. Marilyn Stasio opens her New York Times review with this lively exclamation:

Oh, goody! An 800-page novel about the peasant uprisings of 1549!

This venerable crime fiction reviewer goes on to  state:

Sansom describes 16th-century events in the crisply realistic style of someone watching them transpire right outside his window.

All I can say is, it just flew by…all 800 pages of it!!

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly. The king of the American procedural just keeps getting better.

A Rising Man, A Necessary Evil, and Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee. Here’s a new series that takes place in India just after the First World War. Mukherjee really hit the ground running with these books. A Rising Man is excellent; so are the two that follow it. All you need to do is look at the awards and nominations garnered by these novels.
I just finished Smoke and Ashes, and though I very much enjoyed it, I do want to register a critical note. Toward the novel’s conclusion, a situation arises in which a dastardly plot endangering many lives, must be foiled as soon as possible. I thought this section of the narrative was longer and more convoluted than it needed to be; moreover, Captain Sam Wyndham, the series protagonist, was constantly running from one place to another, putting out fires literally and figuratively and seeming to be the only person able to intuit what the enemy was up to.

I thought it was a bit over the top.

Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts. Another classic worthy of rediscovery. I particularly like this author’s writing: it’s succinct, vivid – and not dated.

Freeman Wills Crofts, 1879-1957

Diary of a Dead Man On Leave by David Downing. Quoting myself here:

The setting is pre-World-War-Two Germany, in Hamm, to be specific, in the far north of the country. Josef Hoffmann has come there in order to do work on behalf of international Communism. But he becomes involved in the life of Walter, the young son of the woman who runs his boarding house. Gradually he becomes like a substitute father to the boy.

As Josef’s emotional commitment to Walter grows, his commitment to “the cause” recedes. Eventually he must make a crucial decision.

What could be better than espionage with a beating heart at its center? I loved this book and would definitely read another by this author, David Downing.

Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman. Having read and very much liked two of Fesperman’s earlier books – The Small Boat of Great Sorrows and The Warlord’s Son – I kept meaning to get back to him. With Safe Houses, I accomplished this return, and I’m glad that I did. Fesperman, a former foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, knows well the secret world, and brings it and its denizens vividly to life.

Dan Fesperman

To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear and Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny. Both these titles were Usual Suspects selections. I’ve put them together because in both cases, they are written by highly regarded authors whose novels sometimes work for me and sometimes don’t. I remember the Winspear title as having its worthwhile moments and an appealing protagonist in Maisie Dobbs. But the narrative was all over the place and rather hard to follow.

And as for Louise Penny, well I must register a mildly dissenting voice amidst the swell of admiration on the part of her many fans. I know her readers are charmed by the cast of characters in their almost magical village of Three Pines somewhere in darkest Quebec, but alas, I sometimes find them more annoying than endearing. I admit,though, that I have had some good reading in this series. Bury Your Dead, my favorite entry, takes place in Quebec City and brought the place so vividly to life that I wanted to drop everything  and go there at once!

Maigret and the Nahour Case by Georges Simenon. I recently told my fellow mystery lovers in Usual Suspects that I read the Maigret novels as palate cleansers between longer and more involved reading matter. I do not mean to deprecate them; rather, to me the Maigret stories are gleaming jewels of the mystery world.

Love this cover – Love that car!

Broken Ground by Val McDermid. Loved it – Just the kind of meticulous, action-packed British police procedural that I find utterly satisfying. It was a Suspects selection (thanks, Carol!), but I’d already read it.

Although I’ve not quite finished it, I want to slip The Old Success by Maryland resident Martha Grimes onto this list before I finish. I have a sentimental attachment to this series, as you’ll see.

The Man with a Load of Mischief and The Old Fox Deceiv’d were hot off the press in the early 1980s when I first read them. I had just started work at the library, and was commencing on my own Magical Mystery Tour, as it was. I was at once charmed by Grimes’s style and her unique, and uniquely appealing cast of characters. And I’m happy to report that, after all these years their attraction has not lessened one bit. Richard Jury of Scotland Yard,  Lord Ardry, aka Melrose Plant, and the other denizens of Long Piddleton – they’re all still very much on the scene. Plus we’re introduced to three singular  denizens of the animal world; namely, a horse, a goat and a dog, named respectively Aggrieved, Aghast, and Aggro. That’s the kind of thing Grimes does that pleases me no end!

And so I salute you. Martha Grimes, on the occasion of this, your twenty-fifth Richard Jury novel.

Val McDermid

David Downing

Martha Grimes

 

 

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Mysteries piling up, due dates fast approaching…

October 20, 2019 at 4:59 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Having fallen hopelessly behind, I hereby offer some quick reviews of crime fiction I’ve recently borrowed and read.

  When I read The Poacher’s Son, the first entry in the Mike Bowditch series, I was immediately impressed by Paul Doiron’s storytelling savvy, rendered as it is in writing which is both elegant and precise.. These novels vividly evoke Maine in all its sylvan beauty:

Nearby a robin laughed maniacally. I caught a flash of red has he flew off through the bare trees. The hints of color were subtle in the spring woods: green buds of birches, purplish catkins of alders, maroon spathes of skunk cabbage emerging from holes in the snow they had melted with their own thermogenesis.

Some readers of crime fiction get impatient with descriptive passages like this, feeling that they impede the narrative’s momentum. I on the other hand am delighted to encounter such felicitous prose as this. Almost Midnight is the tenth Mike Bowditch novel. From what I can tell, these books are just getting  better and better.

Grade: A+
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  I decided to read Force of Nature mainly because I was so impressed with Jane Harper‘s standalone novel The Lost Man. Force of Nature is the second novel to feature Federal Agent Aaron Falk; the first is entitled The Dry. I also read The Dry and enjoyed it, but not as much as The Lost Man. The latter took me into the deepest reaches of the Australian outback, a place that seems in equal measure forbidding and fascinating.

In Force of Nature, a company undertakes to send two teams – one comprised of just the women, the other, of their male counterparts –  into the Australian bush, with maps, basic supplies, and with luck, their own resourcefulness. Alas, for the women, this team building exercise turns into an utterly harrowing team destroying exercise instead.

Gripping and compelling, but just a bit too “talky” at the end  a flaw, by the way, which I encounter in numerous crime novels.

Grade: A-
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  In a presentation on current trends in crime fiction, I spoke of the resurgence of the private eye in recent crime novels. One example of this trend is August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones. Having attained the status of reviled whistle blower in the Detroit Police Department, August has had to reinvent himself as a private eye. A case falls into his lap almost at once when Eleanor Paget, a wealthy businesswoman, prevails upon him to undertake an investigation on her behalf. She then dies suddenly before much can be gotten under way. Her death is supposedly a suicide, but August doesn’t believe it and sets out to discover the truth of the matter.

August Snow is the first entry in a projected series; the second, the poetically titled Lives Laid Away, came out this past January. August Snow is a dark novel; for my taste, the violence, minutely described, was at times over the top. On the other hand, the writing was excellent, characters were believable and sometimes sympathetic.  And somewhat to my surprise, I really enjoyed the description of Detroit, on the cusp of a comeback, with many interesting features that you have to seek out in order to fully appreciate (It reminds me of Baltimore, in that way.).

Grade: B+ 

For more information on this excellent magazine, click here.

 

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The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

October 16, 2019 at 9:54 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

   

This is a novel that begins with a desperate plea,then goes back in time to delineate the beginning of an innocuous, even hopeful undertaking, only to move forward with inexorable speed and mounting dread,  to culminate in…well, Reader, you’ll see.

The evocatively named Rowan Caine has taken a position as nanny to three small children who live with their parents in the remote Highlands of Scotland. The post has much to recommend it: the setting is beautiful, and Sandra, the children’s mother, is warm and welcoming. Best of all, it will provide Rowan with an  escape from London. The city’s crowded confusion had come to weight on her unpleasantly. (And was there something else weighing on her as well?)

Rowan is to be a live-in child minder; her room, on the top floor of the spacious dwelling, is cozy and inviting. But she’s no sooner moved in than her expectations are confounded, in ways large and small. First of all, she finds out that the Elincourts, husband and wife who are partners in an architecture firm, are leaving almost at once to attend an important conference. Rowan will basically be left to cope on her own in a strange establishment.

It quickly becomes apparent that two of the young daughters, Maddie and Ellie, are less than thrilled by Rowan’s presence on the scene. (The third, Petra, is barely a toddler and a fourth, teen-aged Rhiannon, is away at boarding school.) Maddie in particular is downright hostile. The more Rowan tries to win her over, the more malevolent she becomes. When her behavior turns suddenly congenial, that’s the time to be especially wary.

The Elincourt domicile may have a venerable – if somewhat sinister – history, but Sandra’s husband Bill has tricked it up with all the latest in technological gadgetry. There are times when the house itself seems determined to thwart Rowan’s efforts to keep the family ship on an even keel.

By now, you have probably become aware of a certain classic ghost story hovering in the background of this novel. For one thing, the title pretty much gives the game away: The Turn of the Key versus The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Despite this and other similarities, there are significant differences between these two novels.

James’s work features a housekeeper who is benign and sympathetic; the counterpart in Ware’s tale is contemptuous and spiteful. In The Turn of the Key, the parents are anxious and protective; in The Turn of the Screw, the young gentleman who hires the governess cares almost not at all for the niece and nephew whose custody he’s been saddled with. He desires the governess to take over their care and keep them out of harm’s way (and out of  his way as well). The Turn of the Key is narrated in the first person by Rowan herself, making the her situation feel all the more immediate and urgent to the reader. In contrast,  the governess in The Turn of the Screw is isolated by having her story told in the third person – and told by another, completely unrelated individual in what is referred to as ‘framing device.’

More could be said about this comparison but I’d rather not do so, at this juncture. Instead, I’d like to quote what I said about The Turn of the Screw in a post from 2013:

 I’ve listened to this recording (narrated by Flo Gibson) before, and I’ve read the book at least three times. I’ve seen “The Innocents,”  the terrific (in the literal sense of the word) 1961  film version starring Deborah Kerr. I’ve seen a film version (not sure which one)  of the opera by Benjamin Britten. All of this has taken place over the course of many years, decades actually.

So, as you can see, I’ve been trying for a long time to get to the bottom of it, to uncover the truth about what really happened at Bly – or at least, to decide once and for all what I believe happened.  From time to time, I feel the need to revisit The Turn of the Screw.You could say that this ghost story has haunted me for the better part of my life (and I know I’ve got plenty of company, in that regard).

Every time I revisit this maddening tale, I become aware of some new element. This time, the insistence on propriety and conventional appearance seems almost grating. When, for instance, it is learned that little Flora has gone out on her own, Mrs. Grose immediately exclaims, “Without a hat?” Flora, upon seeing the governess and Mrs Grose, is moved in her own turn to ask where their “things” are. The early emphasis on the sweetness and innocence of the children recalls Victorian sentimentality on the subject. Of course, this serves to heighten the contrast between the governess’s initial impression and her growing suspicions that the innocence of Miles and Flora has been fatally compromised by the forces of evil personified by the ghostly emanations of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.

Whenever I am once again immersed in The Turn of the Screw, I begin looking for interesting commentary. In an essay called “Edmund Wilson and The Turn of the Screw,” M. Slaughter paraphrases the critic Edmund Wilson as follows: “James’s personal and authorial blind spot was sex, and his inability to confront, perhaps even to understand, sexual feelings, was transformed into the ambiguity of the governess.” That’s a subject for an entire book in and of itself…

Having come to Paris in 1875, Henry James was spending a considerable amount of time in the company of the greatest French writers of the day, Zola, Flaubert, and de Maupassant among them. Here’s what Michael Gorra says about the latter: “Guy de Maupassant wrote hundreds of short stories, many of them so frank in their account of sexual life that few young persons in England would have been allowed to read them.” So yes, there must have been a fairly wide gap between what James knew, and what he was able to acknowledge knowing. And as for what he could write about, that gap was much wider. He shared that reserve regarding sex with virtually all American and British writers of the late Victorian era. Even so, his reticence strikes the contemporary reader as extreme. Ironically, this need to approach the subject by the most oblique of routes often adds to the power of his writing rather than diminishing it (at least, it seems so to me).

(I think it’s worth noting here that from 1930 to 1968, American films were restricted by the Hays Code  as to how frankly they could deal with the subject of sex. Those limitations prompted screenwriters to approach the subject obliquely, producing dialog that was both provocative, suggestive, and at times downright terrific. See the famous “How fast was I going, Officer” scene written by Raymond Chandler for the 1944 film Double Indemnity.)

Basically, I enjoyed The Turn of the Key in the way you’re supposed to enjoy a thriller: It kept me turning the pages while generating a fair amount of dread. There were a couple of things I didn’t love, though. For one thing, there was a  very liberal amount of profanity, most of it coming from Rowan herself. At times it seemed as though every other word she uttered was either s–t or f–k. That got old fast. And as for Rowan herself – well, at times I was well in her corner, but at other times, she appeared rather clueless. I wanted to cry out, Get your head together, Woman! But I guess that makes her more or less normal.

As for The Turn of the Screw, it remains among my all time favorite novels – frightening, bewildering,  brilliant.

 

 

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Big effort combined with big schlep culminates in a rewarding experience: Current Trends in Mystery Fiction

October 4, 2019 at 5:07 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

This was a program I presented to some members of The Village in Howard, a fine local organization (with a national affiliation) which I have the privilege to belong to.

I prefaced my remarks by saying that this was a subjective assessment – by me – of how things currently stand in the field of crime fiction. I had written this reminder at the top of my notes:

Enthusiasm does not equal Expertise!

Evidence of the Big Schlep:

Thank goodness for the capacious trunk of our beloved 2019 Camry XLE V6

Thus began the program, guided by this reading list:

The return of the private eye:

No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Dead Man’s Mistress by David Housewright
Only To Sleep by Lawrence Osborne
The Last Good Guy by T. Jefferson Parker
     Case Histories and Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
The Word Is Murder and The Sentence Is Death by Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz

Kate Atkinson

Domestic / psychological suspense:

You Will Know Me and Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross

Megan Abbott

Classic of the genre:

 A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey

Rediscoveries: three anthologies edited by Sarah Weinman:

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense
Women crime writers : four suspense novels of the 1940s:

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. More about this novel to come. Let me just say right now that I thought it was absolutey terrific!

Women crime writers : four suspense novels of the 1950s

Classic reissues and rediscoveries

Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics

The Case of the Careless Kitten (Perry Mason) by Erle Stanley Gardner

The D.A. Calls It Murder (Doug Selby) by Erle Stanley Gardner

British Library Crime Classics:

Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon
Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne
Capital Crimes: London Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Novels in which the crime has its basis in historical fact:

Snap by Belinda Bauer
What the Dead Know and Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman

Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller

Classic of the (sub)genre:

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
“The Mystery of Marie Roget” by Edgar Allan Poe

 Edge of your seat page-turner:

The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry
November Road by Lou Berney

International authors and settings:

Don’t Look Back, and He Who Fears the Wolf by Karin Fossum (Norway)
The Demon of Dakar and The Stone Coffin by Kjell Eriksson (Sweden)
The Department of Sensitive Cases by Alexander McCall Smith (Sweden)
The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon (Italy)
Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio (Italy)
Bruno Chief of Police by Martin Walker (France)
The Lost Man and The Dry by Jane Harper
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee (India)
The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (India)
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan (India). Be sure to watch the delightful video embedded in this post!

Alexander McCall Smith

Jane Harper

Louise Penny

Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny (Quebec)

 


Ah, Louise Penny, and her quaint little village of Three Pines filled with lovable eccentrics….At least, most of them are endearing. Elderly poet Ruth Zardo and her pet duck Rosa are anything but! Ruth spews profanity at every opportunity, and the villagers just grin and take it in stride. I, on the other hand, have a different reaction to her. But credit where it’s due: Several members of the group began praising this series as soon as I mentioned it. I personally blow hot and cold on this subject. I found A Beautiful Mystery, which many reader loved, impossibly inert. I couldn’t finish it. The series entry I like best is still Bury Your Dead, which brought Quebec City wonderfully to life.

USA

Maine: Paul Doiron
Vermont: Archer Mayor
Wyoming: Craig Johnson, C.J. Box
Minnesota: John Sandford, Vidar Sundstol, William Kent Krueger,
P.J. Tracy

Historical mysteries:

The Apothecary Rose by Candace Robb
A Famine of Horses by PF Chisholm
A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake
The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor
The Face of a Stranger and Sins of the Wolf by Anne Perry

Legal thrillers:

David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series (with Tara the Golden Retriever)

Police procedurals – authors and their protagonists:

Michael Connelly: Harry Bosch   (I Gotta Brag department: A slightly altered version of this article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Mystery Readers Journal.)
Archer Mayor: Joe Gunther   Mention of the  excellent Mr. Mayor gives me the chance to review several occasions on which my friends and I have encountered our favorite authors in the flesh! Marge has met numerous writers on her British Mystery Trip excursions, the writing team of Charles Todd, mother and  son, among them; Jean encountered Donna Leon in Florence – though at the time, Ms Leon failed to acknowledge her identity; I stood next to Archer Mayor at BWI Airport, meeting confirmed subsequently via email.

Archer Mayor

Meanwhile I’d like to congratulate Mr. Mayor on his thirtieth Joe Gunther novel, Bomber’s Moon. Rarely has a series maintained such consistent high quality as this one has.
Peter Robinson: Alan Banks
Val McDermid: Karen Pirie (Just reread Broken Ground for a book discussion and enjoyed it even more the second time around.)
Alexander McCall Smith: Inspector Varg
Jussi Adler-Olsen: Carl Mork, Department Q
Ann Cleeves: Vera Stanhope  I love this series, both the books and the television series.


Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad

Georges Simenon: Inspector Maigret

Regional/local:

Lady in the Lake and Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman

Comments in passing:

One person in the group – so sorry, I can’t recall just who – said that in the works of Donna Leon and Louise Penny, she found a certain philosophical bent – “almost existential.”

Jean recommended the mysteries of J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels. (These were originally written using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.) Her protagonist has  the memorable first name of Cormoran Strike. I read the first one, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and enjoyed it.

Jean also recommended – very highly –  The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware. This book has been getting great reviews. I impatiently await the arrival of my library reserve copy.

Someone recommended the novels of Charles Todd, commenting that the books had given her insight into what life was like for veterans of the First World War who were psychically damaged by the experience of serving in that horrendous conflict. Marge is also an enthusiastic reader of this author’s works.

There were other insightful questions and comments offered by the participants in this session. It made for a stimulating and enjoyable morning.

Rewarding indeed!

It’s about crime:

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, by Martin Edwards

Books To Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels, ed. By John Connolly and Declan Burke

The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, by Barry Forshaw

The Black Mask Boys: Masters of the Hard-Boiled School of Detective Fiction, by William F. Nolan (1985) From William Nolan’s introduction:

Black Mask, and the fiction it printed, grew directly out of the era between the two wars, when machine guns flashed fire from low-slung black limousines, when the corner speakeasy served rotgut gin, when swift rum-runners made night drops in dark coastal waters, when police and politicians were as corrupt as the gangsters they protected, when cons and crooks prowled New York alleys and lurked in trackside hobo jungles, when Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and Al Capone made daily headlines and terrorized a nation….

The elegant, deductive sleuth, the calm, calculating sifter of clues, gave way to a new breed–the wary, wisecracking knight of the .45, an often violent, always unpredictable urban vigilante fashioned in the rugged frontier tradition of the western gunfighter.

In the pages of Black Mask, the private eye was born.

www.stopyourekillingme.com,

The Crimereads Brief

Periodicals:

Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine – George Easter, editor
Mystery Scene Magazine
Mystery Readers Journal – Janet Rudolph, editor

We lovers of crime fiction owe a debt of gratitude to these three scholars of the field:

 

Martin Edwards

 

Sarah Weinman

 

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‘The night was no longer silent; she could hear the seven billion people who lived on this earth.’ – The Whisperer by Karin Fossum

September 16, 2019 at 7:33 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This was a tough one.

Tough to get through, I mean. The problem was not excessive violence or a byzantine plot. There was, in fact, very little violence – at least until the long-awaited crime actually takes place. And by that time, I was actually relieved. This is because the plot had been moving with all due sluggishness.  In fact, it often seemed not to be moving at all.

Instead, we were spending page after page delving into the mind of one Ragna Riegel, a middle aged woman who suffers from an unusual and poignant disability, brought about by a surgeon’s error. Ragna lives alone in the house she grew up in. She has a day job in a retail establishment called Europris. It’s nothing special, but it pays the bills and provides her with a modicum of human contact.

Ragna Riegel dwells in an almost painful obscurity. The one bright light in her life is her son, but he has gone to live and work in Berlin and her contact with him is very sporadic.

We’re delivered from an almost relentless introspection by excerpts of Ragna’s lengthy interviews with Inspector Sejer. Sejer is the continuing character in Fossum’s series. He’s appealing and conscientious, if somewhat low key; his dog Frank, a small but portly Shar Pei, provides the sole comic relief in this downbeat narrative.

I’ve read seven or eight books in this series. Obviously I liked  them, or I wouldn’t have kept coming back for more. But I must admit, I found The Whisperer challenging.   Jake Kerridge, who reviews  crime fiction for Britain’s Telegraph, wrote an article several years ago with the rather piquant title, “Efficient Mystery with Light Emotional Wallowing.” In it, he opined that “The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die…” This novel partakes of that melancholy world view.

One of the reasons I stick with Inspector Sejer is that these books invariably contain some striking passages of prose. They’re not necessarily spectacular, but in their quiet way they make you stop and think.

She looked up at  the black sky over the town. They all believed that it stretched on for eternity, whereas in reality, the atmosphere was as thin as a bride’s veil and the sky stopped just beyond the tallest skyscraper, or after twenty minutes in a rocket, Twenty minutes, she thought, and then nothing. Beyond was just dark and cold, and beneath the veil, tiny people lived inside a glass cloche.

(One must of course credit the seemingly meticulous translation from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson.)

Do I recommend The Whisperer? Yes, but cautiously. The ponderousness of the plot could understandably defeat some readers. Yet in some ways, it’s a  rather profound work. And there does emerge, toward the end, a small ray of hope for redemption, for Ragna and her constricted world.

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O Baltimore! Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

August 30, 2019 at 1:15 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I had fun reading this novel, mainly due to all the references to sixties era Baltimore, and especially to its Jewish population. Several Yiddish expressions appear in the text: shidduch (matchmaking – see Fiddler on the Roof) and shanda (a shame or a scandal) are examples. Mention is made of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, which in the time frame of the novel was getting ready to move out of the city to a new building in Baltimore County. The Gilbert branch of my family have been members of this congregation for many years.

Here’s the building:

The distinctive shape of this edifice has been likened to that of a certain marine mammal “(very like a whale,” as Hamlet would have said). This makes me think of my Uncle Hal, of blessed memory, who frequently referred to Chizuk Amuno “a whale of a schul.” (‘Schul’ or ‘shul’ denotes a synagogue, or any Jewish place of worship. Yiddish is written using the Hebrew alphabet. For more on the language, click here.)

Numerous other Baltimore streets and place names appear in this novel. One of the more curious street names is Auchentoroly Terrace. According to  the Baltimore Sun:

The word derives from an old estate, Auchentorlie, that once stood nearby. The name has a Scottish origin and refers to a flower similar to heather.

There are two Baltimore places that figure importantly in this narrative: the lake in Druid Hill Park and Cylburn Arboretum. They are directly involved in the two fatalities that are crucial to The Lady in the Lake. 

The William Wallace monument in Druid Hill Park [Click to enlarge]

There’s a nice page devoted to this park on the Park School website. This distinguished Baltimore private school also figures in Lady in the Lake.

Cylburn Arboretum [Click to enlarge]

Both of the fatalities referenced  above were inspired by actual crimes.  Lippman has used this device before, most effectively in her award winning novel from 2008, What the Dead Know.

(To read an article about the actual crimes that inform Lady in the Lake, click here.)

With regard to the plots of her novels, Lippman insists on the difference between ‘based on’ as opposed to ‘inspired by.’ She clarifies the distinction in this video:

In Lady in the Lake, Laura Lippman weaves an intriguing tale. Early on, Madeline Schwartz, the main character who’s in search of gainful employment, becomes a newspaper reporter. This is a world that Lippman knows well and she portrays it in a convincing and entertaining manner. However, I have to say that the way in which she’s chosen to structure her narrative made for a challenging reading experience. In particular, in the earlier sections, there’s a frequent switching out of first person narrators that, at least for this reader, seriously impeded the flow of the story. Some of these narrators were of only tangential importance to the tale being told. Why did we have to hear from them? I got impatient with this technique, and was relieved that as I turned the pages, these interruptions became less frequent and the narrative became more tightly focused.

At one point, Madeline – pretty much always called ‘Maddie’ – inveigles her way into the morgue in order to see the body of one of the victims. It is, predictably, a harrowing experience.

Nature was vicious. When Marilyn Monroe had died four years ago, people had said she was undone by her age, her fading looks, that she wanted to leave a  beautiful corpse. No one leaves a beautiful corpse.

I had a strange and startling experience myself while reading this novel. At one point, in the course of her independent investigation, Maddie visits a medium with a bad cold. She thinks to herself, ‘Madame Claire has a cold’ and is immediately pleased at her ability to come with this allusion to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” At the same time, she’s frustrated because she cannot come up with the name of the clairvoyant in Eliot’s poem.

I have not sat down and read all the way through that poem in a very long time. But as soon as I read  the above passage, I whispered softly, ‘Madame Sosotris? No, Madame Sosostris.’ I quickly verified this via google. The second guess was exactly right. I had no idea that  this obscure bit of knowledge resided still in my memory, from all those years – decades- ago, when I took a graduate school seminar in the works of T.S. Eliot at Georgetown University, taught precisely and perceptively by Father Bishoff.

I don’t want to conclude without mentioning that Laura Lippman has dedicated Lady in the Lake to the memory of five of her fellow journalists at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, who were gunned down in a mass shooting on June 28, 2018:

Rob Hiassen
Gerald Fischman
John McNamara
Rebecca Smith
Wendi Winters

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