Donna Leon’s Venice ambivalence

June 30, 2017 at 9:38 pm (Italy, Mystery fiction)

  Yes – well, this is not news, exactly. That ambivalence is once again present in Earthly Remains, the author’s latest Guido Brunetti novel.

First, there’s this:

They sat in silence for a moment, three Venetians, relatives at the wake of a city that has been an empire and was now selling off the coffee spoons to try to pay the heating  bill.

Then some ninety pages later, there’s this:

Another bridge, then open water on one side. On the other was the Basilica and the Palazzo, and Brunetti had the sudden realization that, though none of this belonged to him, he belonged to all of it.

Illegality, incompetence, indifference, venality, stunning beauty, inescapable history – all there, all part of the rich stew that makes up present day Venice.

And then, there’s that other problem….

Donna Leon’s image graced the cover of the Spring 2017 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine:

The feature piece was written by Oline H. Cogdill, whose reviews and analyses of crime fiction are always a pleasure to read. For me, the surprising nugget here was the news that Donna Leon has shifted her primary residence to a small village in Switzerland that consists, she avers of “a couple hundred people, a couple hundred cows.” Although she still spends a lot of time in Venice, she avoids the city in the summer months. The brutal influx of tourists has at last become intolerable, a sad commentary, I think.

Leon has written about this problem in previous novels. In By Its Cover, she describes Brunetti’s shock when he’s suddenly confronted by an ocean-going behemoth of a cruise ship. Here’s what I wrote in my blog post:

As we loyal readers of this series have come to expect, plenty of social and political commentary finds its way into the story. Early in the novel, Brunetti is in the police launch, piloted by the skillful and reliable Foa, when they round a curve and come upon a scene that leaves them dumbstruck. It’s the stern of a gigantic cruise ship:

Seven eight, nine, ten storeys. From their perspective, it blocked out the city, blocked out the light, blocked out all thought or sense or reason or the appropriateness of things. They trailed along behind it, watching the wake it created it avalanche slowly towards the rivas on both sides, tiny wave after tiny wave after tiny wave, and what in God’s name was the thrust of that vast expanse of displaced  water doing to those stones and to the centuries-old binding that kept them in place?

And that’s not all:

Suddenly the air was unbreathable as a capricious gust blew the ship’s exhaust down on them for a few seconds.

Earthly Remains is not concerned with the tourist scourge per se; rather, it’s about a type of ruination that Venetians themselves bring on their own city. It’s a sad story, replete with the disillusionment that Brunetti, a decent and caring man, all too frequently experiences in the course of his work. The almost total absence of his family  – the astute and shrewd Paola, and their children Raffi and Chiara – from the narrative only serves to accentuate the bleak atmosphere.

I wrote about this novel in a recent post about pacing in crime fiction in general and noir fiction and film in particular. At the time I was about a third of the way in and becoming impatient for the plot to take shape. I was also reading Colin Harrison’s thriller You Belong To Me. The latter really had me in its grip. And yet Earthly Remains ultimately won me over, while Harrison’s book began to pale beside it.

At any rate, time spent with Commissario Guido Brunetti is invariably time well spent. I am grateful that in the crowded world of mystery fiction, both he and his creator persevere.

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More mysterious musings

June 20, 2017 at 10:55 pm (books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

The noir sensibility would seem to having its moment – again…

I like this trenchant observation made by Megan Abbott in her recent New York Times review of You Belong To Me by Colin Harrison:

Noir has always had a complicated relationship with nostalgia, alternately rejecting the past as a psychological prison and romanticizing it as the lost Eden that predated our fallen present. At its heart, however, the hard, hungry gaze of noir has always been fixed instead on the future. It’s a genre filled with the kind of characters the novelist Laura Lippman calls “dreamers who become schemers.” The dedicated employee who decides to steal from the boss, the drifter who wants the rich man’s wife, the low-rent crooks who try to pull off the big con.

  Megan Abbott is the author of the excellent You Will Know Me.   As for the subject of this particular review, I immediately downloaded You Belong To Me and started reading it. I’m now  55 pages in – eighteen per cent, as the Kindle Reader helpfully informs me – and let’s put it this way: it’s not my usual thing. For one thing, the thoughts attributed to various characters can be exceedingly harsh, judgmental, and cynical; I’m not comfortable quoting them here. Nevertheless, assailed by a kind of coruscating wit one moment and provoked to astonishment and dread the next, I can’t seem to put the book down! (Judging by where I am currently in the narrative, the novel can best be described as Henry James on speed. It’s a quintessentially New York novel of manners, all right – but updated to  the twenty-first century. And what manners!)

Interviewed in the latest issue of Mystery Scene Magazine, writer and critic Eddie Muller offers these thoughts on the essence of noir:

It was the artists who created it and fostered it, not the executives….Some of the films made money, sure–but this had more to do with artists feeling a sense of liberation after the constraints that the Depression and World War II put on them to be “uplifting.” Now they could write adult stories that didn’t have to end well. And that often meant making “bad guys” of the protagonists, which was really the revolutionary, subversive aspect of these films. The central character didn’t have to be a good guy–but he or she was relatable and even someone with whom you could empathize. That’s sort of how I define noir, both literary and cinematic.

  Meanwhile, while trying to control my compulsion to devour You Belong To Me in several gargantuan gulps, I’m also reading Earthly Remains, the latest entry in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series.   From the standpoint of pacing, this novel is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Harrison’s mile-a-minute thriller. I’m a third of the way in – sorry not to be more specific, I’m reading it the old fashioned way – and almost nothing has happened. Brunetti is taking a solo vacation in a house owned by his wife Paola’s wealthy relations. So far, he’s done a lot of rowing, bicycling, reading, and eating. Sounds pleasant, but it doesn’t exactly make for riveting reading.

Still, I’m inordinately fond of Guido Brunetti, so I don’t mind hanging out with him in this way – for a while. And I was deeply moved by the novel immediately preceding this one: The Waters of Eternal Youth.And I do sense the presence of something indefinably ominous in the air. Ah well – pazienza….

  Meanwhile, I shall make it my business to get hold of Dark City, Eddie Muller’s highly praised book on noir. And I want to take this opportunity to remind those who have an interest in the subject of David Meyer’s terrific work A Girl and a Gun. I shall here quote Meyer as well as myself, from a post I wrote in September 2011 on the occasion of a discussion of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity.

Here’s how Meyer describes the “fortuitous clash of cultures” that gave birth to noir:

As purely an American art form as jazz or the Western, noir sprang from a specific set of social and creative circumstances: the end of World War II, the impact of European refugees on an American art form, the mainstream film studios’ need for a steady supply of low budgets, lurid pictures, and the ascendance of a particular writing style….The hard-bitten, American pulp energy of James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, B. Traven, Raymond Chandler, and others was filtered through the refined, ironic sensibilities of cultured European directors.The writers created heroes who dealt with spiritual crisis (caused by the emptiness of Amercian middle-class life) by alternating between emotional withdrawal and attack. The refugee directors preferred a more sardonic, alienated approach.

Meyer sums up: “The combining of these sensibilities helped create one of the great creative outpourings in American history.”

The title of Meyer’s book is taken from a quote by Jean Luc Godard: “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.” 

 

 

 

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The Crossing by Michael Connelly: a book discussion

June 15, 2017 at 12:55 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

  Last night, Frank took the discussion of a specific book – Michael Connelly’s The Crossing – and broadened it until it was about mystery fiction in general: its chief characteristics, what makes it work, why we love it.

An aspiring author himself, Frank tends to approach book discussions from a writer’s point of view. His kickoff question concerned a crucial  aspect of narrative: the Major Dramatic Question. The MDQ, as it’s sometimes called for the sake of brevity, is the story element that initially hooks the reader and keeps him or her committed right through to the book’s end. The hunger for the answer to that question is the chief generator of suspense.

Frank asked us what that question traditionally is in a romance novel. We had no trouble with that one: Will the guy get the girl (or vice versa). With crime novels, the question is more often specific to the situation posited by the author. In The Crossing, we learn early on that defense attorney Micky Haller, Harry Bosch‘s half-brother, needs the help of an experienced investigator to prove his client’s innocence. He appeals to Harry to take on the job.

Will Harry accede to Mickey’s request? He has plenty of reasons not to. He’s retired from the Homicide Division of the Los Angeles PD, utilizing his newly freed up time to restore a vintage motorcycle. More importantly, he’s concentrating on his relationship with his daughter Maddie, soon to go off to college.

There’s yet another reason to refuse this request, and it has to do with Harry’s identification as a law enforcement professional. Among his cadre of fellow police, it is considered traitorous to work in any capacity for a legal defense team. It is tantamount to going over to the dark side. This is the prevailing perception, even when there are indications that the defendant in question is innocent. Harry’s internal struggle with this dilemma is the chief element that propels the story forward right from the beginning.

Frank also brought up the concept of the sympathetic character. How does an author create such a character, and what’s the advantage of having him or her having a part in the narrative? We responded that a sympathetic character is one that you feel a bond with and whose values you as a reader can identify with. You become invested in that person’s fate, and so you feel compelled to stick with the story.

We Suspects were not in complete agreement as to whether there was such a character in Connelly’s novel. The closest we came to one was Bosch’s daughter Maddie.

Frank also brought up  ‘free indirect style’ or ‘free indirect discourse.’ As best as I can make out, this term refers to instances in which the author describes a character’s inner thoughts and/or feelings while continuing to tell the story in the third person. Wikipedia calls it ‘free indirect speech’ and defines it as “a style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech.”

Harking back to my English major instruction in literary terminology, I recall this mode of writing being called ‘third person limited,’ as opposed to ‘third person omniscient.’ All of this comes under the rubric  ‘point of view,’ as explained here:

Point of view: the perspective from which the story is told.

The most obvious point of view is probably first person or “I.”
The omniscient narrator knows everything, may reveal the motivations, thoughts and feelings of the characters, and gives the reader information.
With a limited omniscient narrator, the material is presented from the point of view of a character, in third person.
The objective point of view presents the action and the characters’ speech, without comment or emotion. The reader has to interpret them and uncover their meaning.

Taken from “Literary Terms,”  a very helpful list on the Brooklyn College site

(I recall first learning of the way in which Henry James made brilliant use of  the limited omniscient narrator. Since my college days, I’ve had numerous occasions to observe with wonder as the master plies his trade, both in full length novels and  short stories.)

Commenting that to him, The Crossing seems more of a thriller than a murder mystery, Frank pointed out the element of banter that one encounters in the novel’s dialog. This is just one way of keeping the plot moving briskly. I was immediately put in mind of  Old Bones, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s latest Bill Slider procedural. Harrod-Eagles makes liberal use of banter; it ricochets among members of Slider’s team and veers from laugh out loud funny to insightful and reflective.

Several of us recalled fondly how well Robert B Parker deployed this technique of dialog construction in the Spenser novels. (Has it actually been seven years? You are still much missed, Mr Parker.)

The Harry Bosch novels are  set in greater Los Angeles, and Connelly displays a nice feel for the region. I wondered aloud at how Southern California has been used repeatedly and effectively in crime fiction by Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanlety Gardner, Ross MacDonald, Sue Grafton, James Ellroy, and Connelly, among others. Someone suggested that the presence of the entertainment industry might have something to do with this phenomenon. Frank oberved that whereas films require the viewer’s unwavering attention for some two hours, the novel reader may stop at any point and take time to reflect on what has taken place, and what may follow. (I don’t believe  that any of us present last night had watched any episodes of Amazon’s Bosch series. I listened to this novel narrated by Titus Welliver, who plays the title role in the TV series. He does an excellent job.)

Ross MacDonald’s take on the City of Angels  and its environs can be pretty devastating:

MacDonald’s depiction of mid-twentieth century southern California as a land of material riches and moral and spiritual bankruptcy has rarely been equaled. His mix of noir cynicism with an empathetic view of human vulnerability makes for a strangely heartbreaking reading experience.

(Penned by Yours Truly, in a letter to the Washington Post)

We talked about the way in which mysteries are often, at least in part, about a hero’s journey: from innocence to experience, ignorance to knowledge, naivete to a kind of knowingness that will make it possible for him or her to survive in an often hostile word. At some point, Frank mentioned – or someone else did – that in the course of the narrative, the protagonist ought to change in some way. And yet, in crime fiction, that often does not happen, at least not in an overt manner, especially if you’re reading about a character in a series. In fact, some of us don’t want that protagonist to change. (Please stay just as you are, noble Commissario Brunetti!)

Frank had each of us weigh in on what we liked or didn’t like about the book. I mentioned the two elements of a novel that I consider supremely important: structural excellence and good writing. He challenged me to define what I meant by ‘structure.’ This made me realize that I have to think and read some more about this subject! I do think that The Crossing was structured in an unusual and very effective way. For me. this element of the narrative ratcheted up the suspense a great deal. As for the writing, I thought it was extremely good. Connelly is not trying to compose a literary masterpiece, but rather heart stopping thriller. In this, he succeeded.

(Here’s an illuminating piece on story structure in Writer’s Digest Magazine.)

Toward the conclusion of this extremely invigorating exchange of ideas, I found myself scribbling fragments in my notebook: life is a mystery…shades of gray…intellectual morality plays…start with confusion and end with clarity…ambiguity…legal response…justice?

In a subsequent email, Pauline used the word ‘erudite’ to describe our discussion. She further complimented Frank on his “unique and creative approach” to the material.

I wholeheartedly agree.

 

 

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Mysterious Musings

June 10, 2017 at 10:49 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Slider moved quietly until he could see into the room, and watched for a moment as the cars and plastic marines bounced and jerked to the murmuring narrative. Then George sensed him, turned, and his face lit in a ravishing smile.

No one who has ever been greeted by that ‘ravishing smile’ will ever forget it. In DCI Bill Slider’s case, it’s his second time around – in a second marriage –  with an infant to rear.

A pang of absolute love gripped Slider, making it for a moment hard to breathe. This intensity of feeling and minuteness of observation belonged to second families, and what made it worthwhile while starting all over again in middle age.

I and many of my friends have had a similar experience upon becoming grandparents. My younger grandchild is now three years old – ‘a big boy,’ as he will solemnly remind you – and those same moments, although still vividly recalled, are now consigned to the past. (They are preserved, as never before, in a profusion of photos and videos. I look at them often.)

This passage is yet another example of why I love this series.
**********************************

Have just finished Doug Selby novel number six: The D.A. Calls a Turn.The plot was exceptionally convoluted; nevertheless, I enjoyed spending time with Doug and company. I especially like the continuous sparring between reporter Sylvia Martin and Attorney Inez Stapleton, as they vie for Doug’s favor and attention. As usual, Sylvia would seem to have the edge, but in this series, as in life, you cannot be sure of the ultimate outcome. Another interesting feature of The D.A. Calls a Turn is the depiction of forensic investigation as it was done in the 1940s. In particular, the use of “a shaded light which gave a brilliant, slightly bluish illumination” to detect trace evidence on items of clothing brought to mind the use of luminol for a similar purpose.

Series entry number seven, The D.A. Breaks a Seal, is even now on its way to me.

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There’s no stopping Your Faithful Blogger as she polishes off yet another Doug Selby DA novel:

May 26, 2017 at 9:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

This time it’s The D.A. Cooks a Goose.

Who are these fools anyway, who think they can escape the relentless justice, meted out against steep odds, by the young and fearless Doug Selby?

I’ve decided that what most attracts me to this series is its vivid evocation of a time gone by, in this country in general and in California in particular. Often it’s the small gestures that tell: the lighting of cigarettes anywhere and any time; uninsured  cars having the freedom of the road, with predictable consequences.

Each time I’ve read one of these books, I’ve been struck by the brief and unexpected beauty of various descriptive passages:

Selby found the atmosphere in San Francisco was a sharp change from the desert-tanged, dry air of Madison City.Cold fog which had swept in from the ocean surrounded the street lights with a golden aura of suspended globules.The clanging bells of cable cars, the monotonous whine of mechanical fog signals and the deep booming of whistles from steamboats drifted upward through the fog mantle, muffled into a soft medley of sound by the thick white blanket which lay over the city.

At the other end of the spectrum,  Gardner rarely misses an opportunity to dish up a nice helping of noir lingo:

“I was a pen-pusher once, and a  good one. I did my time in stir and got a clean bill of health – as much as  they can give you when you get out of the big house. But with that record of mine, all they need is just a little evidence, and  they could frame a murder  rap on me. I’ve seen those things done lost of times.”

In small Madison City, Doug has a lot to contend with: an ambitious sheriff, a hostile press, a scheming defense lawyer, and the general intransigence of the state’s legal machinery. And then there are the women in his life: Sylvia Martin and Inez Stapleton, one a reporter and the other a lawyer. There’s a hint of the femme fatale in Inez; nevertheless, she’s a thoroughgoing professional. The same may be said of Sylvia, whose unswerving loyalty to Doug is never allowed to interfere with her getting the scoop ahead of everyone else.

Now it’s on to the sixth in the series: The DA Calls a Turn. This title and the seventh, The DA Breaks a Seal, are in print, courtesy of House of Stratus.

On the back of The DA Calls a Turn, readers are informed that Erle Stanley Gardner “…wrote 146 books, 88 of which feature Perry Mason.” Alack, he only wrote nine in the Doug Selby series. For this reader, it will probably be on to the enormous Perry Mason oeuvre after that.

This has been escapist reading of the first order, especially welcome right now.

(For the complete list, see the entry at Stop! YoureKillingMe.Com.)

 

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The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume

May 22, 2017 at 11:21 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I had already heard of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab when I chanced upon a short story written by that novel’s author, Fergus Hume. The story, entitled, “The Ghost’s Touch,” is the lead piece in Crimson Snow, an anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series. Editor Martin Edwards says of it:

This highly traditional mystery is a period piece, yes, but also offers a reminder that Hume was a capable storyteller; he deserves more than to be remembered solely on the strength of a single book.

I liked “The Ghost’s Touch” so much that I decided to dive right into the ‘single book’ upon which Fergus Hume’s somewhat elusive fame rests:

I would call this novel a locked room mystery, except for the fact that the murder happened in the middle of  the night, in the open air. In order to fully comprehend what took place, it’s necessary to know just what a hansom cab is. The Wikipedia entry offers a succinct description of  the vehicle’s design (and  features some excellent visuals as well):

The cab, a type of fly, sat two passengers (three if squeezed in) and a driver who sat on a sprung seat behind the vehicle. The passengers could give their instructions to the driver through a trap door near the rear of the roof. They could pay the driver through this hatch and he would then operate a lever to release the doors so they could alight. In some cabs, the driver could operate a device that balanced the cab and reduced strain on the horse. The passengers were protected from the elements by the cab, and by folding wooden doors that enclosed their feet and legs, protecting their clothes from splashing mud. Later versions also had an up-and-over glass window above the doors to complete the enclosure of the passengers. Additionally, a curved fender mounted forward of the doors protected passengers from the stones thrown up by the flying hooves of the horse.

It’s easy to see that at night, a criminal act could take place within the close confines of the carriage, without being observed by the driver, or by anyone else for that matter. And that is exactly what happens right at the outset of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. The deceased was found to have no identification on him; thus, the police  are left with two perplexing questions: What is the identity of the victim? Who killed him?

Hume gradually fills in the picture with the relevant dramatis personae: among them are Brian Fitzgerald, a young man about town who knew the victim; Madge Frettlby, Brian’s fiancee, a woman of uncommon grit and determination; Madge’s father Mark Frettlby, and Mr. Gorby, the police inspector. (There are many more supporting characters.) Gorby goes after Brian Fitzgerald like Javert pursuing Jean Valjean. He’s the very avatar of the investigator who, the more wrongheaded his theory of the crime, the more relentlessly he pursues its fanciful dictates.

While this conundrum is being set forth, the city of Melbourne, Australia comes vividly to life. I freely admit that the only things I know about this locale have been gleaned from watching the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries. Whereas these delightful productions are set in the 1920s, Fergus Hume’s novel was published several decades earlier. So the setting reaches further back in time, becoming even more exotic and intriguing in the process. Here, Hume describes one Melbourne’s more elegant venues:

It was Saturday morning, and of course all fashionable Melbourne was doing the Block. With regard to its ‘Block,’ Collins Street corresponds to New York’s Broadway, London’s Regent Street sand Rotten Row, and to the Boulevards of Paris. It is on the Block that people show off their new dresses, bow to their friends, cut their enemies, and chatter small talk.

When we venture away from Collins Street toward Burke Street, though, we encounter an altogether different, far less salubrious scene:

The restless crowd which jostles and pushes along the pavements is grimy in the main, but the grimyness is lightened in many places by the presence of the ladies of the demi-monde,who flaunt about in gorgeous robes of the  brightest colours. These gay-plumaged birds of ill omen collect at the corners of the street, and converse loudly with their male acquaintances, till desired by some white-helmeted policeman to move on, which they do, after a good deal of unnecessary chatter.

In other words, Melbourne in the 1880s resembles in some ways London of the same period.

Hume’s writing is sprightly and inventive and filled with literary allusions, from the classics of the ancient world to contemporaneous crime literature – and that includes both detective fiction and true crime. I was pleased to see Thomas De Quincey referenced more than once; likewise Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose Lady Audley’s Secret was so fearfully entertaining, not to mention compulsively readable.

Hume knows how to render characters vividly. Here’s his description of Brian’s landlady Mrs.Sampson:

She was a small, dried-up little woman with a wrinkled yellow face, and looked so parched and brittle that strangers could not help thinking it would do her good if she were soaked in water for a year, in order to soften her a little. Whenever she moved she crackled, and one was in constant dread of seeing one of her wizen-looking limbs break off short, like the branch of a dead tree.

There’s more, but doubtless you get the idea.

Fergus Hume and Arthur Conan Doyle were both born in 1859. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab came out in 1886; A Study in Scarlet, the work that first introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes, appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887.   Scarlet barely created a ripple of interest in the reading public, whereas Hansom Cab created a sensation, first in Australia and then in Britain. The Sign of the Four, Conan Doyle’s second novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, came out in 1890. Like Scarlet, it did not make much of an impression on the reading public, although this delightful story of how it came to be written is recounted in the Wikipedia entry:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described how he was commissioned to write the story over a dinner with Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of an American publication Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, at the Langham Hotel in London on 30 August 1889. Stoddart wanted to produce an English version of Lippincott’s with a British editor and British contributors. The dinner was also attended by Oscar Wilde, who eventually contributed The Picture of Dorian Gray to the July 1890 issue. Doyle discussed what he called this “golden evening” in his 1924 autobiography Memories and Adventures.

(Oh, to have  been a fly on the wall at that dinner party!)

“A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first short story featuring Holmes, appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1891. This was the work that kick started the mania for Conan Doyle’s brilliant eccentric creation. That fascination is with us still; if anything, it has grown in stature and intensity, spawning innumerable spin-offs and being handily adapted to modern media .  

Fergus Hume’s literary fortunes followed an opposite course. After Hansom Cab, he penned numerous novels and short stories, but none grabbed readers as his first novel had done, so widely and so unexpectedly.

If I have a criticism of The Mystery of  Hansom Cab, it’s that it is rather longer than necessary. The pace flags somewhat toward the end, and the plot becomes unnecessarily tangled. But for the most part it was a terrific read, filled with colorful characters and featuring a compelling love story.. I highly recommend  it.

Fergus Hume 1859-1932

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The Dungeon House by Martin Edwards

April 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was happy to return to the Lake District Series of crime novels written by Martin Edwards. In The Dungeon House, a cold case casts a sinister shadow over the lives of those who still feel its effects. Meanwhile, the relationship between Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind is getting warmer, albeit rather cautiously.

Twenty years prior to the novel’s main action, Malcolm Whiteley hosted a barbecue for friends and family at his residence, the rather ominously named Dungeon House. This seemingly celebratory occasion ended in terrible violence, but the question of exactly who was responsible has never been resolved in a manner that satisfied everyone. This is the cold case that DCI Hannah Scarlett inherits. As her investigation proceeds, troubling new events occur: disappearances, and even deaths, darken the beautiful Lake District landscape which forms the novel’s setting.

Meanwhile Daniel Kind, a gifted and sought after lecturer, is preparing to give a talk on the history of murder. Daniel has a penchant for choosing provocative topics. In The Serpent Pool (2010), his subject is the mercurial Thomas De Quincey. (I’ve read The Serpent Pool, but I may return to it, my interest in De Quincey having recently been stimulated by Grevel Lindop’s fascinating biography.)

In the words of the Kirkus review of Dungeon House, Martin Edwards “works exceptionally close to his characters.” Because of this, Hannah, Daniel and company are vivid and true to life. The plot is extremely complex – I admit that I lost the thread at several points – but as is invariably the case when I read crime fiction, my connection with the characters more than compensated.

Both Grevel Lindop and Martin Edwards are scheduled to meet with us on our British Mystery Trip in July.

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The D.A. Goes To Trial: another Doug Selby novel by Erle Stanley Gardner

April 16, 2017 at 1:16 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I continue to enjoy Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby novels. There are nine in total; The D.A. Goes To Trial, published in 1940, is the fourth in the series.

Unsurprisingly, this novel is quite plot driven. But there are also descriptive passages like the one with which the story commences:

Streaks of eastern color appeared behind the mountains separating the rich orchard land from the desert. The night had been cold, although not cold enough for smudging. A light layer of frost coated the lower levels where the railroad trestled its way across the dry, sandy wash.

Out on the mesa land could be heard the hoarse bark of tractors as ranchers, bundled against the cold, pulled plows across the fertile soil.

Gardner says a lot with a little, I think. (And how I love all things California, both past and present….)

At any rate, as I said, the Selby novels are primarily plot driven, this one especially so. I have to admit, I got lost around the far turn several times. But it didn’t matter; I was so enjoying the company I was in.

Reminders abounded of how times have changed between now and then. In one scene Sylvia Martin, who is accompanying Doug on a chartered flight to Arizona, makes the following suggestion: “Let’s switch out the lights while we have our cigarettes….”

In addition, there are the old fashioned dial telephones without so much as a voicemail service, the cigarettes rolled on the spot with papers and loose tobacco, and the hobos – defined by Wikipedia as  “a migratory worker or homeless vagabond, especially one who is impoverished.” –  Such individuals are still a presence on the landscape, even as the Depression gives way to the industrial boom brought on by the Second World War.

The publisher provides this handy come-on at the front of the book:

   Here you will find a battered body under a railroad trestle…a vanished bookkeeper…a wire from a man who wasn’t there…a girl who fought Doug because she couldn’t have him…a political game with Doug as the goat. And a set of fingerprints that simply had to be where they weren’t–and couldn’t be where they were!
Doug’s on his way again, with the able assistance of Sylvia Martin, the lovely young reporter with a nose for news and an eye for Doug.

Regrettably,  in the course of  this narrative, Gardner occasionally refers to Mexican laborers in derogatory terms. This kind of heedless denigration is something one encounters from time to time in crime fiction from the 1930s and 1940s. On the other hand, Sylvia Martin, “the lovely young reporter” alluded to above, is a woman whose brains are more than equal to her looks. She’s a welcome contrast to the female characters who frequently populate works in this genre, in the same period. These tend to be either poor broken flowers wholly dependent on a man – or several men – to fix their lives, or else they are dangerous sirens who use their sexual allure to tame and trap the men in their lives.

That said, there is another continuing female character in this series who treads a somewhat odd middle ground. Her name is Inez Stapleton; she’s connected to Doug via common experiences shared in years past. Read the books and try to figure out for yourself what her game is.

Here’s the complete list of  novels in this series::

Doug Selby, the district attorney in fictional Madison County, California:
The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937)

The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)

The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)

The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)

The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)

The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)

The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)

The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)

The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)

(Thanks to StopYoureKillingMe.com for this information.)

I’ve recently discovered  that two of these books are currently in print courtesy of a small press called House of Stratus:

Why just these two? No idea. However, I’m grateful, anyway.

My copy of The D.A. Goes To Trial, obtained through interlibrary loan, is in a gray library binding. But I had fun looking on line for something more colorful. Here are several that I found:

 

And now: on to The D.A. Cooks a Goose!

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‘Metta Fuller Victor was the first writer, male or female, to produce full-length detective novels in the United States….’

April 3, 2017 at 8:36 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

There is something unearthly in the scream of the “steam-eagle,” especially when heard at night.

Indeed: a train roars into Peekskill, New York, and with it comes heartbreak.

Metta Fuller Victor evokes fear, anxiety, and above all, compulsive curiosity in The Dead Letter. Right at this remarkable novel’s outset, a blameless young man is  found brutally murdered. Lives are upended; one in particular, devoured by grief, will never recover. It is left to others to solve this baffling crime.

Here the mansion lay, bathed in the rich sunshine; the garden sparkled with flowers as the river with ripples, so full, as it were, of conscious, joyous life, while the master of all lay in a darkened room awaiting his narrow coffin. Never had the uncertainty of human purposes so impressed me as when I looked abroad over that stately residence and thought of the prosperous future which had come to so awful a standstill.

I am much drawn to the loveliness and grace of this writing, and it is here present in abundance. If at times it shades into melodrama, no matter. The core sentiments are real and moving.

The edition pictured above comes from the Duke University Press; as you can see, it includes a second work by Victor, The Figure Eight. This I have not read yet but am greatly looking forward to doing so. I  strongly recommend Catherine Ross Nickerson’s highly informative and enlightening introduction to this volume, from which the title of this post is taken. She offers this pithy summation of Victor’s life:

We do not have a great deal of information on the life of Metta Fuller Victor, though we do have her prolific legacy of fiction. Born in 1831, she grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio and attended a female seminary. She began to write poetry as a teenager, often with her sister Frances Fuller, and the two published a volume of poetry when Metta Fuller was twenty.

She went on to a remarkable career in the dime novel and was successful in several genres for both children and adults: the western, the romance, temperance novels, and rags-to-riches tales. She wrote relatively little under her own name and chose different pseudonyms for different genres, a practice that allowed her to develop a following among several sectors of readers. When she was twenty-five, she married Orville Victor, editor of Beadle and Adams, and it seems fair to say that she built the Beadle empire of publications with him. She was editor of Beadle’s Home and Beadle’s Monthly, in which The Dead Letter first appeared in serial form in 1866. Victor was best known for an abolitionist dime novel (which she published under her own name) called Maum Guinea and Her Plantation “Children” (1861). Alongside this highly productive career in letters, she raised nine children.

As for Victor’s work, Nickerson is of the opinion that Victor was instrumental in

…creating an identifiable tradition of women’s detective fiction that extends well into the twentieth century. The close association of that tradition with an earlier body of popular women’s writing, the domestic novel of the 1850s, produced a style we can call domestic detective fiction because of its distinctive interest in moral questions regarding family, home, and women’s experience.

The Dead Letter held me from beginning to end. The characters were believable and sympathetic; the plot was elegantly constructed and at the same time gripping. As a window on a past world, it was particularly appealing.

Hard to believe that this eminently readable novel was published in 1867.

Metta Victoria Fuller Victor
1931-1885

 

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‘A few prayers, word of the Book, nod of the head, and into the ground sharp.’ – Skin and Bone by Robin Blake

March 23, 2017 at 1:08 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

 

Titus Cragg is Coroner to the town of Preston, in Lancashire, in the 1740s. I do not give the exact date because this series advances one year per entry. Skin and Bone is the fourth such.

In the first, A Dark Anatomy, we meet Titus and his close friend, the physician Luke Fidelis. From time to time, Luke lends his assistance in Titus’s death investigations. His expertise often proves invaluable.

In Skin and Bone, the mystery commences with the discovery of the body of an infant. Neither the child’s identity nor the cause of death are known. Pursuing the answer to these questions lands Titus in a world of trouble he could not have anticipated.

Blake’s plots are well wrought, but the real joy of this series lies in his meticulous evocation of mid-eighteenth century England. Details describing the workings of the coroner’s office are particularly fascinating. The characters are eminently real. believable, and appealing, for the most part. A particular pleasure is the depiction of the marriage of Titus Cragg and his wife Elizabeth. With their steadfast devotion to one another, and in particular her staunch loyalty to her often beleaguered husband, we witness first hand the source of their strength.

Titus and Elizabeth eagerly await the coming of a child into their lives. Elizabeth in particular has to fight impatience and anxiety on this score. Titus is well aware of her struggle. Early in the novel, this exchange occurs:

Her mocking tone had long gone and, now, tears were glinting in her eyes.

‘My dearest wife,’ I said, kneeling by her chair and clasping her hands. ‘You are not yet thirty and God is merciful. It is not too late for you–for us–I am sure of it.’

A simple yet moving statement of faith.

I am somewhat perplexed that this series is not better known. I would rate it without hesitation among the very best of the  historical mysteries. One thinks of the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters and C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series.

Do yourself a  favor and  start with the first, so that the novels’ cumulative effect can work freely on your imagination. For myself, I eagerly await the fifth.

 

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