A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny: a book group discussion

September 22, 2017 at 7:10 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Despite the theme of defiled innocence that makes this such a mournful story, the immense  charm of the Gamache series survives in the magical setting and feisty residents of Three Pines, like the cranky old poet Ruth Zardo (“Bile. She’s pure bile”) and Clara Morrow, the dotty artist (“Have you ever seen  a self-portrait where the person didn’t look just a littlw insane?”).

Marilyn Stasio, from her review of The Great Reckoning in The New York Times.

The series is deep and grand and altogether extraordinary.

From Maureen Corrigan’s review in The Washington Post, entitled “There’s a bit of Nancy Drew in Louise Penny’s masterful ‘A Great Reckoning’”

Finally, there’s a video segment that was aired on CBS Sunday Morning in July, on the occasion of the release of The Great Reckoning. In it, Martha Teichner muses, “There should be a name for fans of Louise Penny’s murder mysteries: The L Pack, or the Penny Posse maybe.” She goes on:

To say they come from far and wide in large numbers to attend her book events is no exaggeration. They’ve come all the way to the Canadian town of Knowlton, in the eastern townships of Quebec, where Penny lives, and her books are set.

Indeed, the mass of fans gathered for this particular book signing event is large and impressive.

If you look at her entry on Stop! You’re Killing Me, you’ll see that her books have garnered numerous awards and nominations.

Critics  and reviewers routinely fall all over themselves in the search for superlatives to apply to the novels in this series. And yet….You probably know where this is heading.

Ably led by Mike, Usual Suspects recently discussed A Great Reckoning, and well, our sentiments were decidedly mixed. There was general acknowledgement of Penny’s skill in creating a world and filling it with memorable characters. However, we were not all unduly fond of those same characters. For myself, I find Ruth Zardo, “the old poet” with the foul mouth and the pet duck named Rosa (who goes around making a sound very like ‘cluck cluck’) supremely irritating. It’s hard for me to believe that a person with such a sour disposition and profane vocabulary could also be the author of beautiful verse. (Yes, I know there was Lord Byron and Dylan Thomas – but even so….) Myrna the bookstore owner is pleasant enough, but I wonder why Penny does not invest her with more of a love and knowledge of literature.

Not having read in this series since the first novel, Still Life, Marge was immediately made aware of a great deal of back story that was alluded to but not elaborated upon. A Great Reckoning is the twelfth novel in the series, and I can well imagine feeling quite lost of you haven’t been reading at least some of the more recent series entries.

And then there’s Armand Gamache, recently retired Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec. Marge felt that as  the book’s plot got under way, his virtuousness and uprightness were stressed ad nauseum. Others among us felt that his nearly flawless goodness was at times hard to believe in and tended to make him seem somewhat two dimensional.

It was somewhere around this point in the discussion that Frances weighed in with a lengthy and entirely eloquent plea in favor of Gamache in particular and this novel in general. My notes on her remarks are rather hasty and fragmented – I wish I could have recorded them so as to have a verbatim record of her spirited disquisition, which was both an analysis and a defense. A Great Reckoning, she averred, was in the nature of a hero’s quest, a journey through difficulties and dangers that at last arrives at a place of peace and enlightenment where, importantly, justice is served. The plot’s structure was elegantly wrought, in her judgment. She likened  the nove to a morality play. (At least, I have that phrase scribbled in my notebook!) We begin in confusion and end in clarity.

Up until the occasion of this discussion, Frances had been absent from our gatherings for quite a while.  By the time she had concluded her incisive and insightful remarks, I was reminded of her keen intellect which, combined with a compassionate heart, serves to make her so valuable as both an interlocutor and a  friend.

Even after Frances vibrantly championed A Great Reckoning, there remained dissenters among us. For the most part, we did not agree with her about the novel’s structure. The plot has numerous threads that were a challenge to untangle; moreover, there is a dauntingly large cast of characters. It was hard to keep all of this straight. It was all over the map.

And maps, as it happens, are a key element in this story. A hundred year old map of Three Pines and the surrounding area is found concealed within the walls of the building that now serves as the village bistro. This map has some very curious features and obviously cries out for investigation. This process is the springboard for much of what subsequently unfolds in the novel’s plot.

Meanwhile, several faithful readers have tried their hands at more conventional re-creations of Three Pines, to wit:

Then there is the matter of Louise Penny’s prose style. It is definitely distinctive. For some readers, it is brimful of charm and a kind of eccentric beauty. For others, not so much. In our group, Pauline found it pretentious. I described it as highly idiosyncratic. Marge said that it simply did not work for her.

It’s my feeling that the style of a written work should serve as a vehicle for the story. This does not mean that it can’t possess a lyrical quality, but it does mean that it shouldn’t call it attention to itself at the expense of that story.

I fear that this write-up is coming across as overly negative. Certainly Louise Penny has created a body of work that resonates powerfully for many people. I think we all felt that she seems to be a lovely person, kind and generous. Recently widowed, she has had to fight through the pain to continue her work. Undoubtedly the devotion of her many readers has been a great help in that effort.

Louise Penny

Of the thirteen novels in this series, I’ve red eight. My favorite is without doubt Bury Your Dead. That book made me want to board a flight to Quebec City tout de suite!

This was a terrific discussion. I was reminded once again of what a pleasure it is to be among lovers of our wonderful crime fiction genre who are both great “discussers” and wonderful people.

 

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Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller

September 15, 2017 at 12:31 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Poor Acker’s Gap, West Virginia.

Staggering under a load of misery, its denizens have turned to drugs for solace and a numbing of the pain. But suddenly the number of dying increases exponentially. The heroin has been mixed with a deadly substance called carfentanil.   Prosecutor Bell Elkins, Deputy Sheriff Jake Oakes, and others in both medicine and law enforcement are desperate to track this substance to its source so as to prevent yet more overdoses.

Having lived away from Acker’s Gap for a period of time, Bell Elkins, feeling a strong imperative, has returned home. She’s determined to help in whatever way she can, as her community and others in the state struggle with this nefarious plague:

The highest compliment you could pay to a place and its people, she believed, was to insist on justice. On the rule of law. To say to the dark anarchical currents that were always threatening to overwhelm this area: No. I won’t let that happen.

Bell and Jake are  having to deal with those ‘anarchical currents’ – wonderful phrase, that – in both their professional and personal lives. This, despite dauntless courage and perseverance exhibited by the two of them in the most trying circumstances.

I’ve been hearing good things about this series ever since it debuted with A Killing in the Hills in 2012. This is the first entry I’ve read, and judging by this one, I’d say the praise is entirely justified. Julia Keller’s skill at plotting and character creation are exemplary; in addition, her writing is beautiful.

Julia Keller

With regard to her chosen profession, Bell reflects that “…prosecutors had to believe, at least theoretically, in the possibility of redemption.” Sadly, there’s very little redemption in evidence in this extremely downbeat novel. Things seem always to be going from bad to worse, as characters that you’ve come to care about catch one bad break after another. I would love to talk about this book with other readers, but I’m hesitant to propose it for a book discussion; the mood is so relentlessly somber.

At one point  in the narrative, one of Bell’s staffers, a woman of staunch but restrained religious conviction, asks Bell if she’s familiar with the hymn “Abide With Me.” Bell says she is not. (This response surprised me. I was raised Jewish, in an overwhelmingly Jewish community, and I know that hymn.) The staffer recites some verses for her, thinking they may provide some comfort in a time of great stress.

“Abide With Me” was written by Henry Francis Lyte. a Scottish clergyman. At the time he penned this hymn, Lyte was desperately ill with tuberculosis. He passed away in November of 1847.

 

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‘Murder, without cause, by a madman with his wits astray, monstrous, terrible….’

September 8, 2017 at 6:58 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Here’s the quotation in its entirety:

Murder, without cause, by a madman with his wits astray, monstrous, terrible, fascinated and filled them with an irrational and panic fear. It let loose the Devil among them, and people still believed in the Devil. He struck only here and  there, but threatened all alike, for once he got the upper hand of law, order and all good things, he might regain the world, and use it for his ancient purposes.

No wonder they call it the Eastrepps Evil…. 

I haven’t been blogging for a couple of days. I have  been reading instead. In a mesmerized fashion. Compulsively. Until positively bleary-eyed.

These days, I tend to read several titles at the same time. Invariably one is crime fiction, usually another is nonfiction. Perhaps there’s another fiction title thrown in, often a collection of short stories such as Tessa Hadley’s recent outstanding Bad Dreams. But from time to time, I am so thoroughly grabbed by one particular book that other reading gets elbowed aside.

Thus it has been with Death Walks in Eastrepps .

The author’s name, given as Francis Beeding, actually served as a pseudonym for John Leslie Palmer  and Hilary Aidan St. George Saunders. These two collaborated on a series of crime novels published  between 1925 and 1946. Death Walks in Eastrepps  was the tenth; twenty-two more followed.

Published in 1931, this novel seems at first to be the story of a serial killer let loose in the placid seaside town of Eastrepps. One murder after another has residents terrified. Tourists flee, understandably spooked. The local police are baffled. Obviously additional expertise is needed; soon Chief Inspector Wilkins of Scotland Yard is  called to the scene to offer what aid he can.

The denizens of Eastrepps are rendered with exceptional clarity. The reader comes quickly to care about them as individuals, and to worry for their safety. An atmosphere of dread hangs over the bewildered little hamlet; you as the reader become party to that pervasive fear. And while all of these  seemingly senseless things are happening, a poignant and secret love story is unfolding.

There’s some exceptional writing in this novel. One of my favorite passages is this description of a garden and its owner’s pleasure in it:

Mrs. Dampier finished her coffee, and, rising from her chair in the summer-house, began to walk slowly towards her roses. They were drooping a little in the heat…But they were very lovely, a superb mass of blossom, banked for twenty feet from the edge of the lawn to the top of the pergola that ran behind. Here in her garden beauty was caught in a net of shining petals, and to guard against unlovely invasions, the lilies and lupins stood about like sentinels, with the tall hollyhocks stiff as grenadiers towards the gate. To her right shone ever so faintly a still pool, with little newts and tiny Japanese fish that darted silently about their business in the cool depths. And beyond the pool was a gracious company of trees.

As riveting a read as Death Walks in Eastrepps was for me, it must be admitted that the novel contains two disparaging references. First, an emotionally  disturbed individual is called a “degenerate.” Then a wandering group of players called minstrels are said to blacken their faces when they perform;  at one point, the “n” word is used as an adjective to describe their appearance. Yes, I know we must take into account the times – the 1930s, in this case – when terms such as these were likely considered less unacceptable than they are now. Still, when confronted with usages of this sort, I’m disconcerted and pulled momentarily out of the narrative. Unfortunately, this is a problem one encounters from time to time when reading the literature of a different era.

The edition of this novel that I read was published by W.W. Norton & Company in 1966. It features a short introduction by Vincent Starrett. Starrett opens by quoting Ellery Queen on the question of what makes a great crime novel. Queen believes the answer is retrospective in nature:

“….if, years and years later, you still have a vivid recollection of the original impact; if the significance of the story, its point, or its subtle overtone still sticks in the pigeonhole of your mind, then surely the story has the quality of greatness.”

Starrett goes on to declare that “Death Walks in Eastrepps has remained in my memory for half a lifetime.” (If, in fact, you obtain this particular edition, I would caution you against reading Starrett’s essay first. He gives away rather too much of the plot.)

I have several people to thank for putting me on to this novel. First, it appears in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards (more on this splendid if somewhat exasperating compendium in a subsequent post). Secondly, my friend Carol of Usual Suspects forwarded a blog post by Harriet Devine of Shiny New Books, in which Ms Devine sang the praises of Eastrepps. “There is so much to love admire here,” she enthuses. I agree, though my own admiration is somewhat tempered by the presence of the above mentioned instances of denigration. Individual readers, I think, must make their own decisions regarding these issues. (I’ve written at greater length on this problem in a post on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.)

One more observation: I’ve rarely been as stumped as to the culprit’s true identity as I was while reading this book. It was positively awash in false leads and red herrings, deployed with great cunning. I arrived at the truth at about the same moment as it stood revealed to law  enforcement and to another character as well. I gasped aloud; my husband, walking by, exclaimed, “What?” It took me a  few minutes to find my voice, and tell him.

John Leslie Palmer, 1885-1944

 

Hilary Aidan St. George
Saunders,  1898-1951

 

 

 

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Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Striking Writing

August 18, 2017 at 2:35 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

This post is an addendum to a previous post about this short story collection.

Patricia Highsmith

In “The Heroine” by Patricia Highsmith, Louise is a newly hired nanny in the Christiansen household. The children she is to look after are Nicky and Heloise.

The two children lay on the floor in one corner, amid scattered crayons and picture books.
“Children, this is your new nurse,” their mother said. “Her name is Lucille.”
The little boy stood up and said, “How do you do,” as he solemnly held out a crayon-stained hand.
Lucille took it, and with a slow nod of her head repeated his greeting.
“And Heloise,” Mrs. Christiansen said, leading the second child, who was smaller, toward Louise.
Heloise stared up at the figure in white and said, “How do you do.”
….

“Nightfall,” Louise whispered as she went back into the nursery. “What a beautiful word!”
….
She noticed and loved many things: the way Heloise drank her milk in little gulps at the back of her throat, how the blond down on their backs swirled up to meet the hair on the napes of their necks, and when she bathed them the painful vulnerability of their bodies.

Right from the get-go, this story is suffused with a palpable sense of dread. You want to put it away yet are  compelled to keep reading. (It reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates at her creepiest.)
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Vera Caspary

She neither spoke nor stirred. In her  greens and reds and golds, with the big hoops in her ears, she was like one of those haughty, rebellious duchesses that Goya loved to paint.
….
Every woman at the party envied Phyllis. Gilbert wore his good looks like an advertisement of superior masculinity.
….
Phyllis was being frightfully gay at this time, spending Fred Miller’s money wildly and surrounding herself with good-looking young men. She had  become extremely chic. This Mike thought was an affectation. Like so many bored women, she was seeking compensation for  the dullness of her nights by exhibiting herself in costumes whose extravagance advertised her loneliness.

“Sugar and Spice,” by Vera Caspary
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Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

Long ago, when he had  been a proud and rather pompous little boy, he had heard in Sunday school about  Abraham and Isaac; he could still remember the picture he had seen of a thin and resigned young Isaac lying on the sacrificial stone while his bearded father stood over him with a knife.

“The Stranger in the Car,” by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

How many young people, one wonders, have been transfixed by this terrifying story? And adults too. I recall, in my college seminar in existentialism, having to confront it head on in Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
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Charlotte Armstrong

The door of the enormous bedroom stood wide and her sister’s bed, neatly made, shouted that poor Alice was gone. Mr. Brady sampled the little recurring shock. It was not exactly lessening, but it was changing character. Yes, it was going over from feeling to thinking. She could perceive with her mind the hole in the fabric, the loss of a presence, the absence of a force.
….
Maybe Henny felt guilty  because, during that seemingly normal afternoon,  Henny herself had gone up to the third floor to “lie down” as usual, and had not made even a token resistance to the coming of the angel of death, by being alert to his imminence. Nobody had expected Alice to die–not on Monday.
….
He was a tall man, a bit thick in the middle these days; his hair was graying; his long face had acquired a permanent look of slight anxiety. He was a quiet man, who ran well in light harness, grateful for peace whenever he got it.

“The Splintered Monday,” by Charlotte Armstrong
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Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: stellar stories

August 16, 2017 at 5:52 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

    This distinctive collection of short stories, meticulously curated by Sarah Weinman, comes as something of a revelation.

The anthology is subtitled, “Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense.” In her introduction, Sarah Weinman declares her attraction to contemporary crime fiction written by women. She names several: Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame), Tana French, Louise Penny, Sophie Hannah, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott. She avers that in their fiction, these writers and others have in effect taken “a scalpel to contemporary society,” revealing the moral rot lying just beneath the congenial seeming veneer. In particular, they often portray the struggles faced by women trying, in the face of insidious opposition, to lead meaningful lives.

When Weinman went in search of those who may have preceded the current wave of women authors of crime fiction, she made a surprising and disconcerting discovery; namely, that there was “an entire generation of female crime writers who have faded from view.” Troubled, Daughters, Twisted Wives is the start of an effort to rectify that situation by bringing these forerunners – “trailblazers” as Weinman rightly calls them –  and their intriguing, sometimes idiosyncratic works back into public view.

There are some  familiar names here: Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson being among the most notable. Vera Caspary’s fame rests mainly on her novel Laura, which was made into one of the great noir films of the 1940s starring Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, and Dana Andrews. Margaret Millar is known primarily as the wife of the great Ross MacDonald, but she deserves to be recognized in her own right for the fine writer  that she is. The prolific Dorothy B. Hughes, winner of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1978, wrote In a Lonely Place, which also became a distinguished noir film starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

 

Other names in this collection were barely familiar – to me, anyway – or not previously known at all: Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Helen Nielsen, Joyce Harrington, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding. It would be difficult for me to name a favorite or favorites in this collection. I thought they were all, in varying degree, very much worth reading. So much so, in fact, that I intend to read them through a second time. (Weinman provides a page or so of valuable material about the author’s life and work before each story.)

Taken together, these stories evoke a vivid picture of a lost mid twentieth century America. You had to wait around to place a long distance call and then calculate the cost of it. Everyone had servants, even families of modest income. Men oscillated between exploiting women and protecting them (and making a show of protecting them). Men were schemers and so were women. Civilization sometimes seemed a perilously thin veneer, poised on the knife edge, always threatening to topple over into chaos. The past is a different country, for sure, but on the other hand, the more things change….

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives came out in 2013. Two years later, with Sarah Weinman as editor, the Library of America brought out Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s. The authors featured in this two volume collection are Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1940s); Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith, and Dolores Hitchens (1950s).

 

Earlier this month, I had  the pleasure of hearing Sarah Weinman speak at the Sisters in Crime Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration. She spoke about her work as an editor and a critic in the field of crime fiction, where she’s making, as you can see from the above, an outstanding contribution to the field. (With her efforts to bring worthy writers back from undeserved obscurity, I see her as a sort of American counterpart to Martin Edwards.)

In the course of her talk (which alas I had some trouble hearing in its entirety), Sarah Weinman extolled in particular the virtues of the following: Celia Fremlin (in whose Edgar Award winning novel The Hours Before Dawn I’m currently engrossed), Marie Belloc Lowndes, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Lowndes wrote The Lodger, a famously chilling thriller made into a silent film in 1927 by a neophyte director named Alfred Hitchcock.   Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, whose story “The Stranger in the Car” I found especially effective, authored a novel called The Blank Wall. After hearing Weinman discuss it, I’m very eager to read it.

As for Dorothy Salisbury Davis, her story “Lost Generation” was one of the shorter ones in the collection, and also one of  the most powerful. Sarah Weinman enthused about the fact that she’d had the opportunity to meet and talk with Ms Davis. At the time of the publication of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (2013), Davis was 96 years old. She passed away the following year.

Celia Fremlin

Shirley Jackson

Patricia Highsmith

Dorothy B. Hughes

Margaret Millar

Vera Caspary

Dorothy Salisbury Davis

Sarah Weinman at Sisters in Crime

Sarah Weinman in better focus!

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The Templars’ Last Secret by Martin Walker

August 5, 2017 at 12:15 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

  “In Paris you forget that France is like this.”

So exclaims Amélie, special agent sent down by the Ministry of Justice from the City of Light to observe and report on policing in the remote provinces.

In this case, the particular remote province is St. Denis, felicitously located in France’s fabled Perigord region; the person doing the policing is our old friend Bruno Courrèges.

When I say “old friend,” I refer to the nine novels that precede this one in the Bruno Chief of Police series. I’ve read seven of them and have now reached the point that I grab the newest without looking at the reviews first. (This is uncharacteristic of me. Normally I rely on knowledgeable friends and/or reviewers to swiftly steer me away from books that don’t or won’t work for me, so as to save time, currently my most precious commodity.)

The occasion of Amélie’s amazement is the peacefulness and quiet beauty of the Perigord countryside, as exemplified by scenes like this:

It had  become a perfect spring afternoon, bright sunshine with scattered clouds like white puffballs and gentle breezes that set the young green leaves of the willows by the river quivering so that the trees seemed almost to dance on the water. Mother ducks paddled serenely, each with a  row of tiny ducklings behind her like warships in a line of battle.An angler standing in the shallows was castling his fly in a long, flickering curve that just kissed the surface of the river.

Don’t know about you, but I not only want to visit there – I want to live there. And there’s much, much more.

The prehistoric art and archaeology of the region are of paramount importance to the plot of this novel. So, as you’ll have guessed from the title, is the medieval period when the Knights Templar were going about their strange and often secretive business.

In PerigordSarlat, medieval town (Dordogne)This town is well known for its medieval heritage, in the heart of a beautiful region and a landscape full of superb feudal castles. The old town has a Templar cemetery, around the cathedral, where you can see a number of tombs marked with the distinctive cross. There is also a curious tower in the form of an arch known as the “lantern of the dead”.
From The Epic of the Templar Knights in France
Having become deeply fascinated by the prehistory of the Perigord, Bruno regrets that he was never able to undertake a formal study of the subject. He wonders:

Why were those supposedly primitive creatures suddenly inspired to start making art that is instantly appealing to modern humans, who recognize instinctively an aesthetic sensibility akin to our own?

Still, he’s able to learn quite a bit from being surrounded by museums and other artifacts, most especially the art in the complex of caves known collectively as Lascaux.  (The French site features a virtual tour  that is exceptionally detailed, not to mention eerie and evocative. Be sure to turn up the sound.)

As you may have already deduced, Bruno himself is one of the chief attractions of these novels. With the chickens out behind his house – he’s always having to rush home to feed them – his endearing and ever-present scent hound Balzac, his horse Hector, his lively and restless intellect, and his maddeningly irresolute love life, he is quite simply a pleasure to spend time with, and never dull. Oh, and might I add, he is a world class cook, whose culinary ventures are set forth in loving detail and  by the author:

His fish stock had almost defrosted, so he cut  the cod he’d bought into small cubes. He put two large spoons of duck fat into the bottom of his favorite flameproof casserole and put it onto the heat. Then he peeled two potatoes and half-a-dozen cloves of garlic. He diced the potatoes and crushed the garlic with the back of his knife, mixed them together and tossed them into  the casserole. He let that cook on low heat while he went out to the garden to pick some salad, washed and chopped it and put it to one side while he added the cubes of cod, the fish stock and a can of tomatoes to  the casserole. He poured a  large glass from the five-liter box of simple white Bergerac that he kept in the pantry, added it to the fish, stirred and tasted. A touch more salt was needed, and he adjusted the heat to a very low simmer.

Surely there should be some sort of award for a recipe description that makes me yearn to partake of a meal featuring fish as the main course, something I almost never experience.

(Recipes can be found at Bruno Chief of Police.   There is a cookbook as well, but as far as I can tell, it’s only available in German. Here are the particulars, courtesy of Martin Walker:

The Bruno cookbook has been named ‘World’s Best Book on French Cuisine’ at the Gourmand International awards, which were held this year in Yantai, China, home of China’s booming new wine industry.

This is a great honour and the credit goes to my wife and co-author, Julia, who is the real cook in the family; to my brilliant German photographer, Klaus Einwanger; to book designer Kobi Benezri (from Israel) and to the glorious production by my Swiss publishing house, Diogenes; and my editor at Diogenes, Anna von Planta.

It says something about globalisation that a book on French cuisine, written by a Brit of Scottish origin who lives in the Perigord and published in German by a Swiss publisher, wins an international prize awarded in China.)

Were you wondering about the plot? There certainly is one, and it begins with a woman’s lifeless body found below a cliff, above which looms the Chateau de Commarque, a former castle stronghold of the fabled Templar Knights.

Chateau de Commarque

She had apparently been trying to climb high enough to daub some sort of graffiti on the structure’s side.But right from the beginning, nothing  is as it appears. They don’t know if her death was an accident or murder. And there is no clue as to her identity.

It’s a fairly straightforward beginning to what becomes an extremely convoluted investigation. The cast of characters seemed to expand exponentially. Matters were further complicated by the involvement of numerous law enforcement entities. Then terrorism suddenly enters the mix.

(Warning to  future readers: there is a truly awful torture scene in this novel. Mercifully it is short, but in my view, it is glaringly out of place and superfluous, not to mention horribly cruel. I wish it hadn’t been there.)

To be honest, with regard to the plot, I got lost around the back stretch. But it didn’t worry me, as I was so absorbed with the doings of the main characters as they went about their business against the back drop of the numberless attractions of the Perigord.


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

Kathy, proud proprietor of Mystery Loves Company Booksellers & Chesapeake Books in Oxford, Maryland, went to to Dordogne to see “Bruno Chief of Police” country for herself. She was so enchanted by what she found there that she bought a house! It is now available for rent.   
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Whenever I write about France – or even think about France – two musical compositions come to mind: Les Chants D’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne) by Joseph Canteloube, and the Farandole from L’Arlesienne by Georges Bizet.

 

 

 

 

 

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Books read for a trip not taken

July 29, 2017 at 4:23 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

Crime fiction

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves
The Dungeon House by Martin Edwards
The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid
The Hennessy and Yellich series by Peter Turnbull

Nonfiction

The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Grevel Lindop
The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James   Rebanks

  When you get your books from Amazon, you may get some surprises as well. I got one when The Crow Trap arrived: all 535 pages of it. I groaned inwardly (and outwardly too, just ask my husband), but as it turned out, I loved this book right from the get-go. It was eminently readable and completely absorbing. I finished it in a matter of days – would have done sooner, only I didn’t want my enjoyment to end prematurely.

Three women are gathering data as part of an environmental survey being conducted in the north of England. Their results will be crucial in determining whether a quarry can be established in the region.They’re at the center of a crowded canvas featuring people with various problems, motives, and intentions.

Their endeavors seem somehow to be death haunted. And this propensity brings Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope onto the scene. In a literary world replete with investigators of every type, temperament, and ethnicity, Vera seems to this reader at least to be rather unique. She doesn’t enter the narrative until almost halfway in, and when she does…well, she makes an impression, that’s for sure:

She was a large woman – big bones amply covered, a bulbous nose, man-sized feet. Her legs were bare and she wore leather sandals. Her square toes were covered in mud. Her face was blotched and pitted….Over her clothes she wore a transparent plastic mac and she stood there, the rain dripping from it onto the floor, grey hair sleeked dark to her forehead….

The Crow Trap, which came out in 1998, was the first novel featuring DI Vera Stanhope. There are now seven, with another due out in September.

I hadn’t read anything by Ann Cleeves since Blue Lightning, the fourth in the Shetland series. (I’ve also read  the three predecessors: Raven Black, White Nights, and Red Bones).  I’d forgotten what a terrific storyteller she is, a gift amply supported by the quality of her writing. I won’t forget again, for some time now at least.

Ann Cleeves met with us in Northumberland during a Smithsonian mystery tour in 2007

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I’d had The Dungeon House on my Kindle for quite some time, so I made it my business to read it in advance of the planned meeting with Martin Edwards on this trip. What a pleasure! This may be my favorite of his always enjoyable Lake District series.

  Martin has recently won accolades for The Golden Age of Murder, his meticulously researched (and hugely entertaining) history of the Detection Club. And now he has come out with this gem: . I acquired this last week at Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland – only a short ferry ride from St. Michaels, where we were staying. I’ve been putting off actually having a look inside. Treasures await, I know, in the form of all kinds of titles that I simply MUST READ AT ONCE!
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  I’ve written about The Grave Tattoo, a highly original and intriguing mystery, in a previous post. And finally, Peter Turnbull’s Hennessey and Yellich novels were commended to us. This is a series that I absolutely love, as much for Turnbull’s highly idiosyncratic style as for his appealing characters and strangely original plots.
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  I’ve already written about the two nonfiction titles listed above. Grevel Lindop’s biography of the perpetually fascinating Thomas De Quincey held me in its thrall from beginning to end. The following passage describes De Quincey’s strange out-of-body experience at the death bed of his beloved sister Elizabeth. He was seven years old; she was nine:

After pausing a moment he walked round to the side of the bed. His sister lay there, beautiful and calm, with no sign of her recent illness and pain, but unmistakably different, with a statue-like, frozen look, the lips like marble, ‘the stiffening hands laid palm to palm’ — an awesome being, and not quite his sister any more.
His attention was caught by a low surge of wind outside the open window, and listening to it for a moment he was carried on the sound of the breeze into a kind of trance: his bodily senses were suspended, and ‘A vault seemed to open in the zenith of the far blue sky, a shaft which ran up forever; and the billows seemed to pursue the throne of God; but that also ran before us and fled away continually . . . some mighty relation between God and death struggled to evolve itself until, after what seemed ‘a very long interval’, he regained normal consciousness and found himself standing, as before, by his sister’s bed.

I doubt I will ever again read so poignant a description of a grieving child. Elizabeth had been the only reliable source of affection in Thomas’s love-starved childhood.
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  I had already tried and failed to get into James Rebanks’s  chronicle of a shepherd and the vagaries of sheep herding in the modern world. I mean, slightly over three hundred pages about sheep -really?

The appearance of this title on the trip’s reading list prompted me to try again. Early on, James Rebanks has this to say about his book:

It is the story of a family and a farm, but it also tells a wider story about the people who get forgotten in the modern world. It is about how we need to open our eyes and see the forgotten people who live in our midst, whose lives are often deeply traditional and rooted in the distant past.

Give yourself a little time to get into it – the effort is very worthwhile. And I recommend my post on this delightful book. It contains some great photos as well as links to two memorable video segments. Rebanks, his sheep, and his marvelous sheep dogs – all are wonderfully photogenic.


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Along with several of my mystery-loving friends, Ron and I were all set to take this British Mystery Trip to the north of England, when we were unexpectedly waylaid by a medical situation that had to be seen to in a timely fashion. The outcome, I’m relieved to report, was excellent. I’d been cleared  for take-off, as it were, but the plane had long ago left the airport.

While abroad, my friends were wonderfully supportive, sending periodic dispatches and photos.

Interior of Brantwood, John Ruskin’s home, taken by Marge T.

Alnwick Castle, home to the Dukes of Northumberland, taken by Ann R.

British Mystery Trips always provides an annotated reading list that is a very model of erudition as well as pure literary pleasure. The reading I was able to complete represents only a fraction of what was actually on the list. Needless to say, I don’t regret the time spent on it. On the contrary, I’m grateful.

Rumor has it that beautiful Britain will be around for a long time to come, thereby giving me other opportunities to visit in future. I’m already looking forward to the occasion.

 

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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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