The Minotaur by Barbara Vine; or, I should have known what would happen….

October 4, 2020 at 8:20 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

It was late one night. I was reading more and enjoying it less – sometimes as many as five different titles at once!. Like everyone else, I was slowly going covid- confinement crazy. Suddenly I was notified via email that I could download a title by Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell for a reasonable sum. 

I knew I’d read The  Minotaur when it came out in 2005. I remembered virtually nothing about it. So why not? I downloaded it, and began reading, just to remind myself of the story. Two days later, having ignored everything else I was reading, I finished it.

Well. What did I expect? The power of Rendell’s narratives still amazes me. I was hooked, hopelessly, from the first page.

A young woman named Kerstin Kvist travels from her native Sweden to England. She has a boyfriend in London whom she wants to spend time with. But they are not yet at the stage of moving in together, so she must find somewhere to stay. A friend recommends that she apply for a position in the Essex countryside with a family named Cosway. They have a mentally disabled son and desire someone to provide some companionship for him and at the same time to watch over him and keep him from harm.

Thus does Kerstin come to live with the Cosways. The family consists of the mother Julia, four daughters, and John, the afflicted son. All save one of the daughters live in Lydstep Old Hall, the family manor house. Ida, the eldest daughter, is the family drudge, doing virtually all the housework including meal preparation. The next two daughters, Ella and Winifred, are eccentric but in radically different ways. Zorah, the youngest, is independently wealthy, coming and going from Lydstep at erratic, unpredictable times.

I have to say, they are among the most unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction. Despite wanting to yell at them at regular intervals, I could not stop reading about them.

I should mention that this story is told in retrospect, in the first person. It actually takes place in the nineteen sixties, although you’d hardly know it, so isolated do Old Lydstep Hall and its inhabitants seem to be.

It’s hard for me to explain exactly why I found this book so compelling. You do get the sense, right from the start, that events are building towards some awful climax. Rendell is a master at creating an atmosphere of accumulating dread. The only authors I know that are her equal in this dire craft are Ian McEwan and Edgar Allan Poe.

By the by, a strange thing about the narrator. The proper Swedish pronunciation of her name, Kerstin,  is ‘Shashtin.’ I verified this by means of Google Translate. Not that I actually doubt it: Ruth Rendell’s mother was born in Sweden to Danish parents  and brought up in Denmark. (Her father was English.) The pronunciation of her name is at issue throughout the novel.

Oh, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, how I do miss the unforced genius that flowed from your pen! But I will be returning to your oeuvre more frequently, now that I know that it can still exerts such power over me.

Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine) 1930-2015

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The Talented Mr. Varg by Alexander McCall Smith

September 20, 2020 at 9:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I have just finished The Talented Mr. Varg, sequel to The Department of Sensitive Crimes. I thoroughly enjoyed it, just as I did its predecessor.

In this, the second entry in a new series, Ulf Varg pursues several  cases of possible faithlessness. These cases may also involve legal infractions; in one instance, even blackmail. While all this is going on, Ulf and his neighbor, Mrs. Högfors, are taking solicitous care of Martin, Ulf’s dog. Martin is prone to fits of depression, but has been steadily improving while in the care of a kindly veterinarian.

While all this is transpiring, Ulf must constantly attend to his  feelings for his partner Anna. She’s married, and has two daughters who are champion swimmers. He refuses to be party to the disruption of this comfortable domesticity. Nevertheless…

He rose from his desk glancing at Anna as ho did so. She looked up and caught his glance, and smiled. It was a moment of pure  bliss. Anna was everything. She was decency, courtesy, reliability, motherhood, Sweden, and love. All of that; and all of that. And she was somebody else’s. She was that too, perhaps above all those other things.

There is a sweet sadness – a sad sweetness? – in this novel, as in the numerous others by Alexander McCall Smith. It keeps them from being saccharine or sentimental. I was searching for a term to describe this quality, and I think I’ve found it: poignancy. The Oxford English dictionary defines this word as “The quality of evoking a keen sense of sadness or regret.

I recently led a discussion of The Department of Sensitive Crimes with my fellow crime fiction lovers in the Usual Suspects group. We mulled over the question of whether to classify it as a cozy mystery.    We decided that although some of the characteristics of that subgenre were present in the novel, it nevertheless featured other aspects that led to deeper waters. To wit: This is a thought that Ulf ponders as a session with his psychotherapist draws to a close:

Freud, he remembered, died of a disease that affected his jaw. Alone in London, with enemies circling, that illuminating intelligence, liberating in its perspicacity, flickered and died, leaving us to face the darkness and the creature that inhabited it.

For the record, Sigmund Freud died in September of 1939, of cancer of the jaw. He was 83 years old. My researches into the life and interests of Alexander McCall Smith revealed that he is an avid reader of philosophy.

 

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‘…one of California’s wildest places–mountain lions, bighorn sheep, abundant reptiles, birds, eye-popping wildflowers, and desert-dwelling arachnids, including scorpions.’ – Then She Vanished by T. Jefferson Parker

September 5, 2020 at 9:11 pm (Book review, books, California, Family, Mystery fiction)

This is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest state park and one of the most beautiful, otherworldly places I have ever seen.

I was there many years ago, with my sister-in-law Joan. We drove there from Solana Beach, just north of San Diego. I recall the drive in the mountains as being breathtaking, even harrowing. Joan was doing most of the driving. At one point, she asked if I’d like to take over for a little while. Timid soul that I am, I assented, with much trepidation. But as soon as we go going again, I was loving it – it felt like flight! The huge blue sky of southern California lay open before us. A small pink cloud the shape of a sombrero hovered at the horizon. Oh, I can never forget this.

Upon arriving, we checked in at La Casa del Zorro, a lovely spa resort nestled serenely in the desert landscape. We shared a room; it looked much like this one:

I remember Joan asking to borrow my mousse (both of us having super curly  hair). We hiked a gentle uphill grade. We went to the Visitors’ Center, which delighted me with its large selection of books.

We stayed for two nights at ‘The House of the Fox.’

So why am I thinking about this excursion right now? I just finished a mystery/thriller by T. Jefferson Parker called Then She Vanished. Parker is a veteran writer in the field; I’ve read and enjoyed several of his older titles. This one is part of new series featuring a private investigator named Roland Ford. These novels are set in northern San Diego County, where pretty much all of the action of this particular novel takes place. A very crucial part of the story is set in the desert town of Borrego Springs, home to Anza_Borrego Desert State Park. The description in the title of this post is a quote from the novel,  courtesy of Roland Ford.

Then She Vanished is, unsurprisingly, about a woman who goes missing, but it’s about more than that. There’s a terrorist group on the loose, called the Chaos Committee. Some of their pronouncements sound eerily like what we’re currently hearing from extremist groups. Their actions are horrific. So this is the backdrop for the search for one Natalie Strait. Her husband Dalton does not have faith in the efforts of the police, so he has hired Roland Ford to help in locating Natalie.

Parker is a wonderful writer who has lived in Southern California his whole life. So he’s ideally positioned to render this setting vividly. As a person who has spent time there and who loves the place – especially the desert, I’m grateful to him.

Joan has been gone for a little over three years now, and I miss her very much. A kinder, more  genuinely goodhearted person would be hard to find.

 

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‘…gossip and insinuation, those Venetian twins of truth.” – Trace Elements by Donna Leon

August 22, 2020 at 6:53 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

  I enjoyed the latest novel by Donna Leon, as I knew I would. In this one, the police are dealing with  some chronic pickpockets; they are caught, punished, and then go on plying their trade as before. A more serious case involves a dying woman, Benedetta Toso, whose husband was recently killed in a motorcycle accident. She has expressed an urgent need to talk to the police about what happened to her husband.

Commissario Guido Brunetti and his colleague Commissario Claudia Griffoni go to the hospice where Signora Toso is currently being cared for, in order to hear what she has to say. But she is only able to gasp out a few words before she too is overtaken by death.

Being present at the passing of the Signora is emotionally devastating for both Brunetti and Griffoni. It strengthens their resolve to work jointly to get to the bottom of the case.

Once again, the city of Venice gleams in the prose of Donna Leon. I would have liked to spend more time with Brunetti’s family: his children, Raffi and Chiara, who are fast leaving childhood  behind, and his wife, the fiery and uncompromising Paola, a professor of English who has a highly laudable specialty in the novels of Henry James.

Nevertheless, a most enjoyable read. Leon’s writing is a joy, filled as it is with classical allusions:

Like Nausicaa listening at her father’s court to Ulysses’ account of his travels, Signorina Elettra sat enthralled.

Last year, Donna Leon was interviewed in the New York Times Book Review’s feature ‘By the Book.’ When asked how she first got hooked on crime fiction, she said this:

Ross Macdonald impressed me for the quality and beauty of his writing. I still, reading through them, come upon passages, especially his descriptions of characters, that I wish I had the courage to steal. He’s also a master at the well-honed plot that takes Lew Archer, and thus the reader, back a generation to find the source of the crime. He’s compassionate, apparently well read, and decent.

I was, of course, no end pleased by this. It’s most gratifying when the writers you esteem praise one another.

Donna Leon is 78 years old or thereabouts; she now divides her time between Venice and Switzerland. I wish her well, and of course I look forward to more novels featuring the investigations of Commissario Guido Brunetti.

Donna Leon

 

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‘Another silence, broken by the sound of waves and the long call of gulls.’ – The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

August 13, 2020 at 3:00 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  When I first found out that Ann Cleeves was starting yet another series, I was dismayed. I want more Vera! I moaned to myself (and to anyone else within range). I was ready to give this book a pass, only the reviews were so exemplary that I changed my mind.

Also I was desperate for a British police procedural with some depth, and I was pretty sure I could depend on Cleeves to deliver. I was right.

This protagonist of this series is Matthew Venn. Estranged from his own parents, he lives with his husband Jonathan in a cottage in North Devon. They are well suited, and happy together. But Matthew’s vocation as detective places heavy demands on his time, and on his attention. The Long Call is the story of a mysterious death, the investigation of which becomes increasingly tangled as Matthew pursued various leads. The cast of characters includes several artists, as well as others whose lives have crossed at some point with that of the victim. They are each interesting people in their own right.

The author has placed an open letter to her readers before the novel actually begins. It begins with a statement that is almost a plea for patience and understanding:

…I feel nervous introducing Matthew Venn to you, almost like a teenager bringing a new girlfriend or boyfriend home  for the first time.

Cleeves also explains that she spent a large part of her childhood in North Devon and so is happy to be back there and writing about it. On the page opposite this letter is a map of the region, a courtesy deeply appreciated by many readers. One of the strong points of this very strong novel is  the vivid way in which Cleeves portrays this setting.

Ilfracombe, North Devon

Ann Cleeves has a great way of enlarging on a person’s character  by showing how he or she reacts to an particular situation. Here Jen Rafferty, Matthew’s second-in-command, is being shown the rooms in a church where group therapy takes place:

There were posters on the walls, semi-religious imagery of rainbows and doves, slogans about taking power, and loving the inner you. Here it seemed hope and the possibility of redemption abounded. It made Jen feel like punching someone.

In the most recent issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, critic Kristopher Zgorski says this:

As far as titles go, The Long Call works so well because it not only harkens to the bird-watching elements that so often play a part in the works of Ann Cleeves, but in this case it also speaks to the long reach of trauma and the toxic legacy of conspiracy and cover-up at the heart of this book.

Zgorski also reveals the welcome news that this work has already optioned  for television. If the result is as good as the Vera series and the Shetland Island series featuring Jimmy Perez, then we have much to look forward to.

Oh – and there is another Vera in the works: The Darkest Evening, due out September 8.

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

This is probably as good a place as any to mention that the issue if Deadly Pleasures to which I’ve just alluded is the last one that will appear in hard copy. I very much regret this change, but I understand the necessity. The magazine is a terrific resource for fans of crime fiction. For more information, visit the newly revamped Deadly Pleasures website. To begin a subscription, see this link.

 

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Reading in a roundabout manner

August 9, 2020 at 1:13 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Most Thursdays in the Washington Post there appears a column by Michael Dirda in which an unusual book or literary trend is profiled. These pieces are always worthy of attention. This past Thursday’s, for instance, concerned the classic Japanese tradition of the locked room in crime writing. One of Dirda’s recommendations is a collection of short stories by Tetsuya Ayukawa; these were written  between 1954 and 1961, and the book containing them is called The Red Locked Room.   So I’ve now read the first story, “The White Locked Room,” and found it most cunning.  Currently, I’m part of the way through the next story, which is quite a bit longer. It’s called “Whose Body” (a title that of course at once put me in mind of the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel of the same title.) I’m enjoying these tales a great deal.

Meanwhile, the volume’s title put me in mind of a  classic American mystery that I read recently. It’s called The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers, a writer previously not known to me. Wikipedia tells us that Rogers  “…was an American writer who wrote science fiction, air-adventure, and mystery stories and a handful of mystery novels.”

Joel Townsley Rogers (1896-1984)

  This novel is one of a series called American Mystery Classics currently  being issued by Otto Penzler. Mr. Penzler, proprietor of New York City’s venerable Mysterious Bookshop, can be depended upon to further the interest in, and appreciation of, crime fiction among the general populace. In launching this excellent series (with, I might add, its delightful covers), he is doing all of us mystery lovers a great service.

Right from the get go, The Red Right Hand unnerved me. This is one of the most genuinely bewildering mysteries I’ve ever read. But over and above the strangeness of  the plot, there’s a feeling of dread that steadily deepens as the story moves forward. The time is just after the Second World War. Dr. Henry Riddle, a young surgeon from New York City, is driving upstate when he encounters a young woman in desperate need of help. She and her fiance, Inis St. Erme, had been on their way to Connecticut to get married when they picked up a hitchhiker. This strange little man seemed harmless enough – until he wasn’t. He had attacked Inis and made off with their vehicle. She herself had barely managed to escape before they drove off.

What happens next is…well, you need to read it and experience it for your self. Meanwhile, here is what e Booklist reviewer Emily Melton says:

When the full story is finally revealed in this disturbing nightmare of a whodunnit, it will well leave readers reeling. A must-read masterpiece, thankfully resurrected.

 

 

 

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‘For a brief moment, she smiled, and I glimpsed an angel far from Paradise.’ Death in Delft: A 17th Century historical murder mystery by Graham Brack

July 19, 2020 at 12:28 pm (Art, Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  This little novel found me out via one of Amazon’s cunning algorithms. I had previously not heard of it, nor of its author Graham Brack. As the cover explains, the setting is Delft, in the Netherlands, and the time is the 17th century.

This was the era of the Dutch Golden Age. Its characteristics are summed up as follows in the Wikipedia entry:

The Dutch Golden Age … was a period in the history of the Netherlands, roughly spanning the era from 1581 (the birth of the Dutch republic) to 1672 (the disaster year), in which Dutch trade, science, and art and the Dutch military were among the most acclaimed in the world. The first section is characterized by the Eighty Years’ War, which ended in 1648. The Golden Age continued in peacetime during the Dutch Republic until the end of the century.

For many of us, this remarkable era primarily means the following:

Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt

 

The Laughing Cavalier, Frans Hals

 

Soldier and Laughing Girl, Vermeer

 

The Young Bull by Paulus Potter

 

The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede by Jacob van Ruisdael

Not to mention this:

Antique Delftware plate

Well, I did let myself get sidetracked there, didn’t I?

Master Mercurius is – well, a curious character. A cleric attached in some capacity to the University of Leiden, he is ordained both as a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister. The latter serves as a cover, at a time when Catholics were not generally esteemed or welcome in the Netherlands.

Having been recognized by his superiors as something of a natural sleuth hound, Mercurius is sent to Delft to look into the disappearance and possible kidnapping of three young girls. Once established in this city which is new to him, he is assisted with his endeavors by a number of individuals, among them two of Delft’s most notable citizens: Anton van Leuwenhoek and Joannes Vermeer.

The story of the achievements of these two gifted individuals is woven seamlessly into this engrossing narrative. In fact, it is a discovery made by Vermeer that provides a clue that proves crucial to  the solving of the mystery of the missing girls (one of whom, alas, is found deceased early on in the story).

Mercurius himself is a very appealing and believable character. Despite being in holy orders, he is as vulnerable to the world’s temptations as any man would be. But he is also genuinely self-effacing, empathetic, and above all, kind. One instinctively has faith in his commitment to the cause.

The book is full of memorable scenes. After van Leowenhoek has shown some of his works in microscopy to Mercurius, the latter exclaims:

‘I hope, mijnheer, that you will publish your drawings and receive the credit your work deserves. You have opened our eyes to the smallest works of our Creator, and are therefore a benefactor to mankind.’

Religious doubts and convictions play an important role in this narrative, but they never overpower or interfere  with the action. I like this quote:

 I remembered a prayer that I was told was used by an English soldier during their Civil War: “Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be today. If I do forget Thee, do not Thou forget me.”

Mercurius adds, with fervor, “I knew exactly how he felt.”

The second book in Graham Brack’s Master Mercurius series is entitles Untrue Till Death. It’s due out on August 10, and I very much look forward to reading it.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the complete quotation:

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

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

Mentuhotep, an Eleventh Dynasty Pharoah

 

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

 

 

 

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Readings, in challenging times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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