“When we first meet someone, before words are ever spoken, there are already lies and half-truths.” Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

May 1, 2020 at 2:44 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Peter Swanson and his novel, a gift to us lovers of crime fiction

That title makes it sound like a right blood bath, doesn’t it? But it actually refers to a list of crime novels:

The Red House Mystery (1922)- A.A. Milne
Malice Aforethought (1931)- Francis Iles
The A.B.C. Murders (1936)- Agatha Christie
Double Indemnity (1943)- James Cain
Strangers on a Train (1950)- Patricia Highsmith
The Drowner (1963)- John MacDonald
Deathtrap (1978)- Ira Levin
The Secret History (1992)- Donna Tartt

The list was compiled by one Malcolm Kershaw, part owner and proprietor of The Old Devils Bookstore in Boston. He placed this list on the store’s blog, and  it created something of a stir among mystery aficionados.  By far the most notable and bizarre reaction to it is that of a dedicated murderer who has apparently decided, by means of his own depraved methods, to replicate the scenarios set forth in each of the titles on the list.

Eight Perfect Murders is exceptionally well plotted, with enough twists and turns to keep  the reader thoroughly engaged. To a degree, the book is about the mystery genre itself, and why so many of us love it. Especially toward the beginning, the author is tossing out titles and authors left and right – there’s something for everyone. When he casually mentions to the fact that Ruth Rendell once presented a reading at The Ole Devils, I just wanted to cheer! But soon enough, things begin to get somewhat grim….

That said, Malcolm Kershaw does have his flippant moments, such as this one, when he’s describing the plot of The Red House Mystery:

There’s a rich man named Mark Ablett who lives in a country house, the kind of English one that seems specifically designed to have a murder occur in it.

(Now the fact is, that after you’ve read as many country house mysteries as I have, you start to feel as though the whole purpose of the English country house is to serve as a setting for a slaying.)

Before he took on The Old Devils, Malcolm had worked at a bookstore in Harvard Square. He recalls that the owner’s wife had given him a list of her favorite books, almost all of which were mysteries:

Besides Malice Aforethought, she’d listed Gaudy Night and The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the first two Sue Grafton books, The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, even though she said she’d never finished it (“I just love the beginning so much”). Her other favorite book was Bleak House by Charles Dickens; I guess you could say that it has mystery elements, as well.

Well, of course, I can’t see a list like this without putting in my two cents, as it were. In general, I think it’s pretty good, although I’ve never  been able to warm to Faye Kellerman and I couldn’t get through The Name of the Rose. On the other hand, I revere Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter novels, and I love, and miss very much, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. The Daughter of Time is Josephine Tey’s most famous book, but not, in my view, her best. That accolade, I think, should go to two of her other titles: Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair.

Finally I’d like to note my surprise at the rather dismissive attitude toward Bleak House. I’ve not read it – though I keep meaning to, alas – but I did watch the superb 2005 BBC miniseries. (Who could forget the lowering evil of Mr. Tulkinghorn, so masterfully portrayed by Charles Dance?) There is indeed a significant “mystery element’ in that novel; it is present in the person of Inspector Bucket. On the Victorian Web, there’s an excellent essay entitled “Inspector Bucket Points the Way.”

I do have  several reservations about this book. First, it seems a bit of a stretch – to me, at least – that Malcolm Kershaw  makes  such a good living from The Old Devils Bookstore that he’s able to employ two full time assistants there. Second, I don’t recall a single mention of the advent of e-books, an issue looming so very large in the book business right now and affecting it in every possible way. (No mention – or if there is, it’s very cursory – of Amazon, either.)

Toward the end of Eight Perfect Murders, Malcolm Kershaw talks about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. This 1926 novel, the third to feature the suave Belgian Hercule Poirot, caused something of a sensation because of the ingenious and wholly unexpected twist at the end. Kershaw, alas, gives it away in his brief summary. If you haven’t read or seen The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you’ll want to skip over that (very brief) portion of Eight Perfect Murders. That denouement in the Christie novel is much more fun if you come upon it completely unprepared, as I was lucky enough to do when I first read it.

These are minor cavils, really. Over all, this novel was a very enjoyable and immersive read. It kept my mind off a certain nasty bug currently lying in wait, and for that, I am very grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Be especially diligent in cultivating. Mind you that my barley seed is guarded and that all my property is guarded.’

April 20, 2020 at 3:03 pm (Book review, books, Egypt, Mystery fiction)

This is the original cover of the first edition, published in the U.S., October 1944

  Death Comes as the End is something of an anomaly in Agatha Christie’s oeuvre. Set in Egypt circa 2000 BCE, it is her only historical novel. The main character is called Resinenb, a young woman recently widowed, who has returned with her small daughter to live in her family home. This home is a well-populated establishment. Renisenb’s father, the farmer Imhotep, is the somewhat fussy, imperious paterfamilias; in addition, there are two married brothers, a younger brother in his teens, a grandmother called Esa, a hanger-on and all purpose busybody named Henet, and of course the necessary complement of scribes, servants, and slaves. Then, not long after Renisenb’s arrival, Imhotep introduces Nofret, his new concubine, into this already turbulent mix of striving individuals. She proves to be the catalyst for all that follows….

(Initially, I found myself wrestling with the question of  how to pronounce the name ‘Renisenb;’ specifically, deciding which of the two final consonants was silent. I decided to jettison the ‘n.’ purely for the purpose of pronunciation and smooth reading. Hence phonetically, for this reader at least, ‘Reniseb.’)

Turns out that Dame Agatha got the idea for this volatile combination of characters from some letters that were found in the early 1920s near what was then ancient Thebes, close to the end of the 11th Dynasty, ca. 2130 BCE-1991 BCE, the era known as the First Intermediate Period. They are called the Hekanakht Letters, after the farmer and ka-priest who wrote them. (The Ancient History Encyclopedia defines a ka-priest as  as one who “…was paid by a family to perform the daily offerings at the tomb of the deceased.”):

….the two letters that Hekhanacht sent to his family are unparalleled in ancient Egypt, both for the light that they shed on the personality of the elderly farmer living in the fall of 2002 BC and for  the inherent interest in the matters discussed in them. They are virtually the only source for Egyptian agriculture before the New Kingdom and the sole surviving texts from ancient Egypt to give the cultivator’s point of view rather than that of  the administrator and landlord. They have suggested the plot for  novel by Agatha Christie, Death Comes as the End, and are likely in the future to be used as sources outside the limited circle of Egyptologists.

From “An Eleventh Dynasty Farmer’s Letters to His Family” by Klaus Baer, in The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March, 1963

As the tale unfolds, the various characters in Death Comes as the End come vividly to life – more so than in some of the other Christie works I’ve read. Renisenb is especially appealing:

She would sit in the shade of the rock chamber entrance with one knee raised and her hands clasped round it, and stare out over the green belt of cultivation to where the Nile showed a pale gleaming blue and beyond it to a distance of pale soft fawns and creams and pinks, all melting hazily into each other.
She had come the first time, months ago now, on a sudden wish to escape from a world of intense femininity. She wanted stillness and companionship—and she had found them here. The wish to escape was still with her, but it was no longer a mere revulsion from the stress and fret of domesticity.

Also the  writing, as you may perceive in this passage, is somewhat more poetic than that which one normally encounters in Christie’s novels, focused as they usually are on the relentless advancing of the plot. (And I have to say, I love that aspect of her writing!)

At any rate, Renisenb is the most appealing of the dramatis personae in this book. That is just as well, because as events move forward, the others begin to drop like flies….

For a more detailed summary of the plot, have a look at this article on the BBC site. Be wary, though: this piece comes dangerously close to containing spoilers. Actually, what it reveals is how cunningly Christie has made use of the content of the remarkable Hekanakht Letters.

Chapter Three of the novel concludes thus, with Esa speaking:

“Men are made fools by the gleaming limbs of women, and lo, in a minute they are become discoloured cornelians. . . .”
Her voice deepened as she quoted:
“A trifle, a little, the likeness of a dream, and death comes as the end . . .”

Christie does not provide an attribution for this quote. I thought perhaps she herself had invented it. But it turns out to be one of the sayings of Ptah-hotep:

The Maxims of Ptahhotep or Instruction of Ptahhotep is an ancient Egyptian literary composition based on the Vizier Ptahhotep’s wisdom and experiences. The Instructions were composed by the Vizier Ptahhotep around 2375-2350 BC, during the rule of King Djedkare Isesi of the Fifth Dynasty.[1] The text was discovered in Thebes in 1847 by Egyptologist M. Prisse d’Avennes.[2] The Instructions of Ptahhotep are called wisdom literature, specifically under the genre of Instructions that teach something.[3] There are four copies of the Instructions, and the only complete version, Papyrus Prisse, is located in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.  (Wikipedia)

Here is the complete quotation:

If you would prolong friendship in a house to which you have admittance, as master, or as brother, or as friend, into whatsoever place you enter, beware of approaching the women. It is not good in the place where this is done. Men are made fools by their gleaming limbs of carnelian. A trifle, a little, a likeness of a dream, and death comes as the end of knowing her.

The title of this post is taken from a translation of the first Hekanakht Letter. More of this text can be found on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

Mentuhotep, an Eleventh Dynasty Pharoah

 

This is a tomb painting of Nefertari. I like to think that with her placid, far-seeing beauty, this young woman looks a bit like Renisenb.

 

 

 

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Readings, in challenging times

April 8, 2020 at 8:49 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction, Poetry)

I’ve read that at the moment, some people are having trouble concentrating on the printed word. Perfectly understandable. Speaking only for myself,  books, magazines, and newspapers have been Heaven sent. As long as I’ve got something immersive to read, I figure I’ll get through this.

I admit that when the library closed, I had a moment of panic. I rely on that worthy institution to provide me with hardbacks and paperbacks. But needs must, as they say. So I’ve been downloading books like crazy.

Kwei Quartey’s Darko Dawson novels are keeping me sane. With their exotic setting – one that is sometimes cruel rather than exotic – they’re providing a great escape. And Darko himself is a wonderful character, quick to anger yet always compassionate, and with a very engaging family life to boot. I’m currently reading the third title in the series, Murder at Cape Three Points. There are two more in the series.

Kwei Quartey has already begun a new series with The Missing American. I really enjoyed  that book but please, Mr. Quartey, do not abandon Darko!

NPR had an interesting feature on Kwei Quartey several years ago.
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I’m almost half way  through The Mirror & the Light. It’s very good, Possibly I’m not quite as  entranced with it as I was with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but  it’s the fault of the current health crisis, I think. Certainly Hilary Mantel is a wonderful writer with an uncanny ability to bring the past to life.
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These Fevered Days, on the other hand, was the perfect for this troubles time. It is subtitled, Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, and brings the poet near to the reader in a way that is almost uncanny. For the first time, I feel as though I really know Emily Dickinson – know what moved her, why she made certain decisions, why she lived her life the way she did, and finally, and most vitally, how she came to her write her brilliant verse.

Thank you, Martha Ackmann! More on this very special book at a later time.

Here are two poems by Dickinson that have long haunted me:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
—————–
Not one of all the Purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory
——————-
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear.
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After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

(Emily Dickinson did not give her poems titles. They are usually referred to by their first lines.)

 

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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.

****************

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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