The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon

May 7, 2018 at 9:21 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

  In general, I’m a big fan of Donna Leon’s mysteries. Guido Brunetti is one of the most humane and compassionate officers of the law that one could ever wish to meet, either in fiction or in real life. His family, consisting of wife and university professor (and fabulous cook) Paola and children Raffi and Chiara, now almost grown, are a pleasure to spend time with. Alas, in this latest outing, we don’t get to see much of them. This may be one of the reasons why I was less than thrilled with this particular series entry.

The writing is, in a crisp and unaffected way, wonderful. In this scene, Brunetti has seated himself by the hospital bed of an unconscious, badly bruised man.

He crossed his legs and studied  the crucifix on the wall. Did people still think He could help them? Maybe being in the hospital refreshed their belief and made it possible again for them to think that He would. One gentleman to another, Brunetti asked the Man on the cross if He would  be kind enough to help the man in the bed. He was lying there, perhaps troubled in spirit, helpless, wounded and hurt, apparently through no fault of his own. It occurred to Brunetti that much the same could be said of the Man he was asking to help; this would perhaps make Him more amenable to the request.

This scene actually surprised me, since Brunetti has, throughout this series, thought of himself as at  best, an agnostic.  Thus does belief sometimes steal upon us, taking us unaware, even if just momentarily.

(In The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, Sarah says, “I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love.”)

All this time, the victim’s wife is also in the hospital room, anxiously waiting for him to awaken. At one point, an attendant comes in and offers her a simple courtesy, which she desperately needs. Brunetti thanks the attendant for her kindness.

She was a robust women, stuffed into a uniform she seemed to be outgrowing. One loose strand of greying hair had slipped from under the transparent plastic-shower-cap thing; her hands were red and rough. She smiled. St.Augustine was wrong, Brunetti realized: it was not necessary for grace to be arrived at by prayer; it was as natural and abundant as the sunlight.

And so, what about that unconscious man? How did he get that way, and what is his fate to be? Unfortunately, this aspect of the novel was, for this reader at least, not especially compelling. The narrative dragged in places; the interviews were less than riveting. Ultimately, the solution to the mystery hinges on a fistful of discount cosmetic coupons issued by a pharmacist to an elderly lady. This transaction was analyzed at length; it was confusing and just plain dull.

Concerning Brunetti’s workplace colleagues, there are two who are portrayed in a positive light: fellow investigator Claudia Griffoni, a relatively new addition to the cast of characters; and Signorina Elettra Zorzi. Signorina Elettra, as she is usually called, is a civilian employee of the police, whose resourcefulness is legendary (as is her wardrobe).

Donna Leon has expressed her delight at the entrance of Signorina Elettra into the cast of characters in the Brunetti novels. Here’s how she puts it in an interview:

She came about one day a long time ago. I forget when she entered, the 3rd or 4th book. (the 3rd book) Really, that long ago. I was writing and someone knocked on Brunetti’s door and I didn’t have a clue who it could be or what it could be. So I went for a long walk, probably down to Sant Elena and I came back and turned on the computer and by God Signorina Elettra walked in and Thank God for the day that she did.

Not everyone is enamored of this character. One reader who most definitely isn’t is my friend Marge, whom I’ve referred to in the past as my ‘partner in crime,’ since she was the one who explained to me, when I first came to work at the library, why I should be reading mysteries. Marge is so put off by the presence – some would say the intrusive presence – of Elettra that she has stopped  reading this series altogether. Ah mon Dieu! Now I’m not crazy about her either, but I don’t dislike her quite to that extent. And as I’ve indicated above, this latest is, in my view, not Donna Leon’s best work. But in a series thus far comprising twenty-seven novels, some are bound to better than others. My favorite among the more recent titles is The Waters of Eternal Youth.

One aspect of the Brunetti novels that is a constant, and that gives great pleasure, is the setting. The city of Venice is almost a character in and of itself, unique and imperiled as it currently is. I recently read a review of a 2016 book by Salvatore Settis entitled If Venice Dies.  The cover pretty well sums up the crux of the problem (click to enlarge):

Let’s hope something can be done, and in time. Meanwhile, I along with many others will continue to read the Brunetti novels and to ponder the exasperating glory of that unique city.

 

 

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A singular type of novel that shouldn’t be suspenseful, but nonetheless is

May 6, 2018 at 2:20 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

There needs to be a special subgenre designation for novels in which the occurrence of an overarching historical event is commonly known from the outset. This event will – must –  affect the characters’ lives in ways they could never have anticipated as the narrative gets under way. In effect, the reader is vouchsafed crucial knowledge to which the characters themselves have no access.

I can think of three titles I’ve read that fall into this category:

 

I read Beryl Bainbridge’s novel of the Titanic disaster when it came out in 1996. I don’t  remember any of the particulars, only that I enjoyed it tremendously. Bainbridge has a unique take on historical fiction that’s worth seeking out. According to Queeney, the story of Dr. Johnson and his rather bizarre attachment to the hapless Hester Thrale, is my other favorite from among her works.

As for Pompeii, well, we all know the sad fate that overwhelmed the denizens of that city as well as those of Herculaneum in 79 AD. In the novel, Marcus Attlius Primus, an hydraulic engineer, has been to the region close to Mt. Vesuvius in order to investigate a malfunction of one of Rome’s famous aqueducts. (Again I must apologize for the vagueness of my recollections. I also read this book when it came out, in 2003.) At one point in the narrative, he and some others are talking and imbibing a liquid (wine? water?). A full glass is set down on the table before them, and for reasons not apparently obvious to those present, the surface of the liquid becomes strangely agitated.

For several years now, we’ve been making our morning coffee  with a Keurig machine. We always have a plastic cup filled with water at the ready so as to top up the machine’s reservoir. As the coffee is being made, the machine emits a low, rather loud droning sound for several seconds. As it does so, this happens to the surface of the water in the cup:

Every time I see it happen, I think of Pompeii – and Pompeii. (When I was in Italy, I noted the name was spelled Pompei.)

Robert Harris is an amazing writer. He seems to be able to tackle any kind of scenario, whether historical or contemporary, and tell a story so gripping that you want only to be left alone to read it.

  The third work I’m thinking of is not concerned not with a cataclysm that is part of the greater historical  record. Rather, it has to do with the fate of one family. How then is the reader apprised of this particular event that waits malevolently in the wings? Simple: the author of A Judgement in Stone, Ruth Rendell, states bluntly in the first sentence:

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

What Rendell has done is to set up the pull of an enormous dread that runs throughout the novel. It is a gigantic thread whose strength the reader struggles against even as it grows ineluctably stronger. Can nothing be done to prevent this horror – to save these blameless people? you ask yourself. Of  course, the answer is no, nothing can.

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two, the King cries out in anguish: “O God, that one might read the book of fate…” A Judgement in Stone can make you feel relieved – even glad – that you cannot do so.
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This line of thought was occasioned by my recent reading of The Throne of Caesar, Steven Saylor’s superb new novel of Gordianus the Finder.

 

 

 

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‘–a man as close to godhead as any mortal who had ever lived–could such a man be alive one moment…and dead the next?’ – The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor

May 4, 2018 at 12:59 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Italy, Mystery fiction)

  The Throne of Caesar begins in this wise:

Once upon a time, a young slave came to fetch me on a warm spring morning. That was the first time I met Tiro.

Gordianus hastens to inform us that this was a long time ago. Now, Tiro is no longer a slave. He is a freedman, having been manumitted some years ago by his master Cicero. And after the passage of many years and the experience of numerous adventures, Gordianus, called Finder, is quite a bit older and, he hopes, wiser. His family is flourishing. The omens are propitious. And he himself is about to be receive an unexpected and significant honor, bestowed by none other than the great Julius Caesar, with whom he has become a favorite.

What could possibly go wrong? Here’s a clue: the novel opens with a page upon which only  the date is divulged. That date is March 10.

That’s right; six days before one of the most famous dates in the history of the Western World: March 15, the Ides of March.

So: do we readers just wait in dread of the inevitable? Well, that element of suspense is certainly present from the start, but much else is going on as well. Gordianus’s son Meto has  become indispensable to Caesar as his secretary and general right hand man. Daughter Diana and her husband, the hulking bodyguard Davus, live with Gordianus and his wife, the beautiful and imperious Bethesda. (One imagines that no one has ever done “imperious” quite the way the Roman matrons did.) Cinna the poet is a favorite drinking buddy of Gordianus’s. The great orator Cicero, somewhat past his prime, is nervously on the scene. And then there’s the haruspex Spurinna….

A haruspex was a soothsayer who specialized in the reading of entrails. This skill was closely identified with the religion of the Etruscans.

Bronze statue of a haruspex, from about the 4th century BC, currently housed in the Vatican Museum

Spurinna was supposedly the name of the soothsayer who has warned Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March.” One of the most chilling moments in Shakespeare’s play occurs when, on his way to the Senate, Caesar encounters Spurinna for the second time. Feeling rather full of himself, Caesar observes that “The Ides of March are come.” To which the  soothsayer responds, without missing a beat, “Ay, Caesar, but not gone.”

And yet, in the days before the Ides, life goes on, filled with plots, counter- plots, and various intrigues, and gossip, just as the Romans loved it. Also, at the time, poetry played a big part in the cultural life of the people. Cinna’s latest opus, entitled Zmyrna, was incessantly read and talked about. (The author’s full name is Helvius Cinna, not to be confused with Lucius Cornelius Cinna, praetor and conspirator. Alas, despite the protestations of Helvius Cinna, that confusion does in fact occur, with disastrous results for the poet. You’ll recall Shakespeare’s memorable line: “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.”)

At any rate, back to Zmyrna: Impatient with his father’s delay in reading this putative masterpiece, Meto begins reading aloud to him. Here’s how Gordianus responds:

I thought I would prefer those moments when Meto read aloud, for he had a beautiful voice and knew exactly where to place each stress depending on the secret meanings of the words. But I enjoyed just as much the experience of reading the verses aloud myself, letting my lips and tongue play upon the absurdly convoluted edifice of language. Even when I didn’t quite understand what I was reading, the words themselves produced music. When I did understand not merely the outermost level of meaning but also the multiple puns and learned references, I felt an added thrill, as if the words that emerged from my mouth were truly something more than air, compounded of some enchanted substance that encircled and gently caressed both Meto and myself.

Beautiful description that, and how eloquently it limns the closeness and mutual affection of father and son. (When I went in search of the actual Zmyrna, I was informed succinctly by Wikipedia that “The poem has not survived.”)

Oh and speaking of ‘learned references,’ Caesar, during a later literary-themed conversation, comes up with this idea:

“Imagine a series of life stories told in parallel, to compare and contrast the careers and fortunes of great men.”

Of course, Plutarch not only imagined this, he wrote it, some hundred and fifty years after Caesar’s fanciful speculation, as rendered by Steven Saylor.

Here’s another set piece that I love. This is actually the same occasion at which Caesar made the comment above:

To either side of me, braziers burned. Torches flickered from various sconces in the surrounding portico. The last faint light of day lit the ashen sky, in which the first stars had begun to shine. The four men moved amid green shrubs and tall statues. The ever-changing light, the men in their finery, the looming figures of marble, and bronze–all combined in a moment of surpassing strangeness. I looked at Meto, wondering if he, too, felt it. On his face I saw a look of deep contentment that increased with each step that brought Caesar nearer.

Scenes like  this, with their portentous quietude, serve to make the intimations of coming bloodshed feel all the more harrowing.

Steven Saylor obviously derives a deep joy from a lifelong immersion in the life and literature of ancient Rome. He passes that joy directly on to us, the readers of his Roma Sub Rosa series. His erudition is everywhere evident, but it never hijacks the narratives, which are invariably compelling, set as they are against a background of actual events from ancient times. Those times spring vividly to life in his stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. It cannot be an easy task to conjure a world whose inhabitants had such a drastically different world view than our own. (It’s hard, for instance, to accept the fact that educated, cultured individuals gave credence to the reading of animal entrails.) And yet this author accomplishes this feat, with conviction and brio.

The art work that graces the cover of The Throne of Caesar is by Karl Theodor Piloty and was painted in 1865.

I also like this version of the event, painted by Jean-Leon Jerome in 1867.

On Steven Saylor’s richly informative site, I note with delight a celebration of  the 25th anniversary of the publication of Roman Blood. How well I remember reading it when it came out in 1991 and thinking, Wow, what a winner this is!

I ask only this of any work of historical fiction that I read: Put me there, in that place, at that time. This is, after all, the only form of time travel we have, so make it work. In his marvelous series of novels treating of the life and times of Gordianus the Finder, proud and resourceful citizen of ancient  Rome, Steven Saylor (whom we had the pleasure of meeting at Crimefest  in 2011) does exactly  that.

Steven Saylor

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‘The wet air was as cold as the ashes of love.’ – Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

April 14, 2018 at 10:01 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I just finished Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler and my head is so full of this astonishing jumble of (at times, frustrating) episodic brilliance that I can’t at the moment think or write about anything else.

There’s plenty of tension in this yarn, some of it generated by the interplay of opposites: good cop versus bad cop, a beautiful but deadly female versus a woman of genuine virtue and compassion. There are lots more characters, from the large yet love-struck and improbably named Moose Malloy to the unlikely – and distinctly unlikable – ‘Psychic Consultant’ names Jules Amthor.

And in the midst of it all, Philip Marlowe, licensed private eye, trying to make sense of it all.

For this reader, the strangest, almost inexplicable interaction occurs between Marlowe and a man called Red Norgaard. Marlowe is in search of a power broker named Laird Brunette. Red – he of the fire-colored hair and outsized build – plies the offshore waters of the Pacific in his motor boat, He offers to help Marlowe board a gambling ship illegally – i.e., with a gun. Their interaction is quite lengthy; in the course of it, Marlowe is moved to disclose something of himself that’s normally kept well out of sight. He begins by stating bluntly that he’s scared, then going on to elaborate.

“I’m afraid of  death and despair,” I said. “Of dark water and drowned men’s  faces and skulls with empty eyesockets. I’m afraid of dying, of being nothing, of not finding a man named Brunette.”

Red is a straight arrow of a guy. He’s not at all stupid but he’s not given to existential ruminations either. His reaction to Marlowe’s disclosure:

He chuckled. “You had me going for a minute. You sure give yourself a pep talk.”

Somehow, though, Red has touched something deep in Marlowe. Perhaps it was a his straightforward kindness, his willingness to help a stranger on a dangerous mission.

Hardboiled protagonists are famously portrayed as loners. But in this instance, Marlowe needed a friend and, like a blessing, one appeared at precisely the right moment. Later, after his harrowing adventure at sea:

I thought of the giant with the red hair and violet eyes, who was probably the nicest man I had ever met.

(It’s a safe assumption that Marlowe does not meet many ‘nice’ men – nor women, for that matter – in his line of work.)

Figurative language abounds in Farewell, My Lovely, sometimes it’s almost hypnotic. Of Nulty the cop:

He hung up and scribbled on a pad and  there was a  faint gleam in his eyes, a light far back in a dusty corridor.

Other times it’s downright disconcerting. Of Moose Malloy, on the novel’s first page:

He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.

(This made me think of Mercutio’s riposte to Romeo: “‘…’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a  church-door…'”)

Subsequently, still descriptive of Moose Malloy:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

Of a room just entered:

A couple of frayed lamps with once gaudy shades that were now as gay as superannuated streetwalkers.

There’s more, this mode of expression being one of the hallmarks of hardboiled prose. And this is probably as  good a place as any to quote a paragraph that seems to me emblematic of the style:

I got up on my feet and over to the bowl in the corner and threw cold water on my face. After a little while I felt a little better, but very little. I needed a drink. I needed a lot of life insurance. I needed a vacation. I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.

And the plot? On the site Detnovel.com, Prof. William Marling calls it “disjointed.” Hah!  I call it all but incomprehensible. A multipliicity of twists and turns. A McGuffin in the form of a supposedly priceless jade necklace. Strange hand rolled cigarettes with secrets inside. Really, I was pretty much lost by the time we reached the back stretch. But you know what? It didn’t matter. By then I was all but mesmerized by the at times almost poetic urgency of the first person prose.

It has to be mentioned that Farewell, My Lovely has its share of ethnic slurs.The instances are not overabundant, but they are there, and they are jarring. Say what you will about “the times,” one wishes – I wish – that they could be made to go away. (This was in fact actually done in this country with post-World-War-Two editions of the works of Agatha Christie.)

I was prompted to read Farewell, My Lovely by the fact that it’s the June selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group. I’d actually been wanting to get back to Chandler for some time. This forms part of my extremely enjoyable program of returning to the classics of crime fiction. I’ve recently read these two:

 

Trent’s Last Case (1913) was termed by Dorothy L. Sayers to be “…a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original”; Agatha Christie called it “One of the three best detective stories  ever written.” (I’d like very much to know what Christie’s other two choices for this designation were.) The Robthorne Mystery is less well known. Published in 1934, this quintessential English village mystery turns on a puzzling question of identity. I though the plot exceptionally well wrought. John Rhode’s real name was Cecil John Charles Street. Also writing as Miles Burton and Cecil Wayne, he was extremely prolific. (See the ‘Bibliography’ section of his Wikipedia entry.)  I enjoyed The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton.

Farewell, My Lovely exists in two notable screen versions. The first was released in 1944, titled Murder, My Sweet, and starring Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe and Claire Trevor as Mrs. Lewin Lockridge Grayle –  sometimes called Helen Grayle, other times called something else.

The second version from 1975 retains the original title and stars Robert Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling.

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  The Modern Library edition of Farewell, My Lovely that I just read also contains The Big Sleep, which I read years ago. This volume was published in 1995. Right after the last page of the novel, there’s a list of those who were on the editorial board at the time of publication:

Maya Angelou
Daniel J. Boorstin
A.S. Byatt
Christopher Cerf
Shelby Foote
Vartan Gregorian
Larry McMurtry
Edmund Morris
John Richardson
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
William Styron
Gore Vidal

Some very distinguished names. Most – but not all – have now passed from the scene.

I love the photo of Chandler on the cover of the Modern Library edition. The other photo of Chandler that I cherish is this one: Chandler and his wife Cissy both doted on Taki the cat.

The story of Raymond Chandler’s life is both fascinating and surprising. I recommend  A Mysterious Something in the Light: A Life of Raymond Chandler by Tom Williams.

 

 

 

 

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‘A light, almost transparent mist floated a few inches above a run of water near the trees, and the mist clung between the trees like a fallen cloud.’ – Jackrabbit Smile, by Joe R. Lansdale

April 8, 2018 at 4:15 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I’m always happy to encounter lovely descriptive writing, never more so than when I’m immersed in a work of crime fiction. The line quoted above in the title occurs about a third of the way in. It is not the only instance of lyrical prose in the novel.

There’s quite a bit of humor too, mostly consisting of snappy dialog and self-deprecating putdowns, all in the hoary tradition of hard-boiled prose. That aspect of Jackrabbit Smile reminded of me of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels; in addition there’s the banter between Hap and Leonard that’s reminiscent of the rapid fire quips exchanged by Spenser and Hawk. (Similar, but not the same; for this reader, Parker’s Spenser novels are irreplaceable.)

Joe Lansdale’s novel The Bottoms won the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel; in addition, it was a finalist for several other accolades. (See his entry in Stop!You’reKillingMe.com.) There’s something about crime fiction set in Texas that seems to lend an enveloping at times almost suffocating, atmosphere to the action. One thinks first of last year’s memorable Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke.Then there’s true crime that likewise unfolds in The Lone Star State: The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth and the older but riveting and unforgettable  Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson.

So at this point, are you sensing a “but” hovering over this write-up? The fact is, I have reservations about this book. They can be simply expressed in three words: vulgarity, profanity, and violence. Maybe it was just me, but it seemed as  though all three of these elements became increasingly prominent as the narrative unfolded.

I can accept a certain amount of coarse dialog in mystery fiction. And violence – well, we are talking about crime. But at what point do one, or both, become intolerable? I can’t pinpoint the moment. It’s down to the individual reader, I think.

And so I ended by being somewhat disappointed, albeit in a wistful way, with Jackrabbit Smile. I consider Joe Lansdale to be a fine writer with a sure grip on the conventions of crime writing. He has the ability to push the outer envelope in good ways, too. Hap and Leonard are genuinely appealing characters. (As this novel opens, Hap has just married his business partner Brett.) I can’t say how similar the other Hap and Leonard books are to this one, it being the only one that I’ve read. I may come back to the series in time – but not right away.

The Hap and Leonard series has been adapted for television by the Sundance Channel.

Joe R. Lansdale’s Wikipedia entry lists his occupations as “Writer, author, martial arts instructor.” He appears to be a lifelong Texan, currently residing in Nacogdoches. (The Nacogdoche are a Native American tribe originating in eastern Texas.)

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Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson

April 4, 2018 at 7:22 pm (Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  One of the aspects of Peter Robinson‘s Alan Banks novels that I most enjoy is Banks’s love of music. It’s an extremely eclectic affection – everything from rock to classical. In Sleeping in the Ground, I was especially pleased to encounter not one but two references to Gustav Mahler, a composer for whom my husband and I have a deep and abiding love. Banks mentions that Mahler wanted to hear Schubert’s Quintet in C as he lay on his deathbed. When you hear the Adagio from this work, you will understand this request:

Sleeping in the Ground begins with a horrendous act of violence, followed by an extremely tortuous investigation. Because of the nature of this particular crime, one is all the more appreciative of Banks’s dogged persistence, not to mention his shrewd instincts, honed by his many years on the job. He is a person of deep conviction and steadfast determination.

He is also a reserved and somewhat lonely man, divorced and the father of two adult children who have pretty much gone their own way and check in with him from time to time. Banks’s ex-wife has remarried; he has not. He’s had a few relationships, but none that have lasted. In this novel his old flame Jenny Fuller, psychologist and criminal profiler, re-enters his life, both professionally and personally. She’s been living in Australia, but now she’s back to stay. What will this mean, for the two of them?

After dinner together in the snug of a local pub, they’re still not sure. While not ruling out a renewal of their romance, Jenny nonetheless favors a go slow approach.

Banks didn’t know where his next thought came from, and he had  the good sense and quick enough wits to stop before he spoke it out aloud, but as he leaned back and reached for his beer glass, it flashed through his mind, as clear as anything: I don’t want to grow old alone.

Straight-up, unpretentious writing about straight-up unpretentious people – it’s one of the qualities I most appreciate in Peter Robinson’s wonderful long running series of procedurals.

Peter Robinson

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‘Holmes smiled. He was always warmed by genuine admiration—the characteristic of the real artist.’ – The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The English Country House Mystery

March 25, 2018 at 9:37 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The May 2017 issue of CADS 75 (Crime and Detective Stories) features an article by  Kate Jackson entitled.”Doyle’s The Valley of Fear and the Country House Mystery Novel.” The author had encountered an intriguing assertion made  by Zach Dundas in The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes. Dundas contends that The Valley of Fear  stood as  “prototype for the soon-to-be-classic English country-house murder mystery.” Jackson was intrigued and decided to investigate this claim.

In the event, she was not convinced; in fact, she believes that if there is a work in the Conan Doyle canon that prefigures the English country house mystery trope, it’s The Hound of the Baskervilles rather than The Valley of Fear.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s piece served as a reminder to me that I’d never read The Valley of Fear. So I set about remedying this omission. The result: I enjoyed this novella far more than I’d expected to.

I hadn’t realized that The Valley of Fear is in a sense a bifurcated novel. The first part describes a crime that by and  large replicates the classic country house murder scenario as we know it today (although it must  be recalled that The Valley of Fear is in fact a very early exemplar, having first appeared in The Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915).

Then, much to my surprise, the scene suddenly shifts to the Great American West. According to Wikipedia, this part of the novel was inspired by the activities of the notorious Molly Maguires and by the renown and resourcefulness of Pinkerton Agency detective James McParland.

I never expected to be reading a Western by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s been a while  since I read this book, but one thing I do remember: I enjoyed it tremendously, especially the second half.

Forthwith, some excerpts from The Valley of Fear:

“A touch! A distinct touch!” cried Holmes. “You are developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson, against which I must learn to guard myself.”

(Wiktionary defines “pawky” as ‘Shrewd, sly; often also characterised by a sarcastic sense of humour,’ adding that the word originates in northern England and Scotland.)

The second speaker is Sherlock Holmes.

“You mean that he has a great income and that he must earn it in an illegal fashion?”

“Exactly. Of course I have other reasons for thinking so—dozens of exiguous threads which lead vaguely up towards the centre of the web where the poisonous, motionless creature is lurking.”

The first speaker is Sherlock Holmes:

“Have you ever read of Jonathan Wild?”

“Well, the name has a familiar sound. Someone in a novel, was he not? I don’t take much stock of detectives in novels—chaps that do things and never let you see how they do them. That’s just inspiration: not business.”

“Jonathan Wild wasn’t a detective, and he wasn’t in a novel. He was a master criminal, and he lived last century—1750 or thereabouts.”

“Then he’s no use to me. I’m a practical man.”

“Mr. Mac, the most practical thing that you ever did in your life would be to shut yourself up for three months and read twelve hours a day at the annals of crime. Everything comes in circles—even Professor Moriarty. Jonathan Wild was the hidden force of the London criminals, to whom he sold his brains and his organization on a fifteen per cent commission. The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again.”

I’m no Sherlockian scholar, but it seems to me that Conan Doyle isn’t given sufficient credit for the eloquence and inventiveness of his dialog (not to mention the sheer wittiness when you least expect it). To my mind, this is one of the chief aspects of the stories that makes them so readable even more than a hundred after they were first penned. I should also add that as I was reading reading The Valley of Fear, the character of Holmes became particularly vivid to me. He increasingly came across as congenial; dare I venture, even at times, sprightly.

The English country house murder is almost a crime fiction subgenre unto itself. Novels and stories with this setting were fairly abundant during the Golden Age; that is, the era between the two World Wars. I found several “best” lists online, such as this one from the blog Crossexamining crime, and this  from The Strand Magazine. Regarding the first, having recently finally gotten around to reading An English Murder by Cyril Hare, I confess I was somewhat disappointed. Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White has been recommended in numerous places, but I tried to read it more than once and had to give up. (This, despite very much enjoying White’s The Wheel Spins, the novel on which Hitchcock’s film The Lady Vanishes was based.) However, further down on the list I was pleased to encounter several favorites: Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie, and most especially Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers and The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey. Regarding this last, let me quote from an earlier post I wrote on The Art of the Mystery:

Franchise is one of my all time favorite novels. Tey drew her inspiration for it from two actual  criminal cases. An adolescent girl levels a bizarre, horrifying accusation against Marion Sharpe and her mother. The Sharpes, who live in genteel poverty in a house called The Franchise, are stunned and bewildered by this turn of events. They have no idea what this girl is talking about and claim never to have seen her before.  The clashing versions of reality give momentum to a narrative that is riveting from start to finish. Comic relief is provided by the elder Mrs. Sharpe, whose name fits the action of her tongue perfectly!

Of the ten titles enumerated by William Shaw for The Strand Magazine, I’ve read and enjoyed all but two: Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin and Blacklands by Belinda Bauer.I’m so glad that William Shaw makes mention of Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Height, a truly great novel in any genre. Shaw states simply: “Hill was a brilliant writer.” I could not agree more. Here’s a link to Celebrating Reginald Hill, an appreciation organized by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain in 2012 . I felt very honored to be included in this company!

  One of my favorite short story anthologies is entitled English Country House Murders. Delightfully subtitled Tales of Perfidious Albion, it’s edited by Thomas Godfrey and was published by The Mysterious Press in 1989. (Rather curiously, both the paperback and a 1988 hardback edition have a different subtitle: Classic Crime Fiction of Britain’s Upper Crust.) This collection starts off with a bang: two terrific tales, ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” by Conan Doyle and “A Marriage Tragedy” by Wilkie Collins. There are also stories by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, and numerous others.

In his Introduction, Thomas Godfrey considers this question: “How to define  the English Country House Mystery?” He comes up with some lively suggestions, several of which are offered in a decidedly decidedly tongue in cheek spirit. To wit:

Authentic English Country House Mysteries should only be written by authentic English authors. (Americans and Canadians need not apply.)

Of course, there should  be a crime, with murder being preferred.

“Poison is the prescribed means for eliminating victims in English Country House Mysteries. The alternative is a good solid wallop on the head. (I find defenestration shockingly under-utilized and commend it to new practitioners of the art.)”

“The crime, whether attempted or successful, should take place in the house on the grounds. If events take the investigation elsewhere, the earliest possible return to the house is in order.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. English Country House Murders is available from Amazon and through interlibrary loan.

 

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P.D. James and Ruth Rendell

March 21, 2018 at 2:47 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

There is a sense in which I can add nothing to this portrait of two exemplars of excellence in the writing of crime fiction. Nevertheless, I feel the need to try, especially after recently revisiting their works.

  P.D. James died in 2014 at the age of 94. This slender volume was published just last year. One does not ordinarily think of James in regard to short stories; her art was most expressive in the long form of the novel. There she had scope for her examination of the moral struggles of the men and women who were her subjects. The stories that comprise this anthology are not police procedurals; rather, they’re tales of seemingly ordinary people acting under extreme and unanticipated duress. And throughout, we are treated to Baroness James’s exquisite prose, like this passage from “The Girl Who Loved Graveyards:”

It was to be another warm day, and over the serried rows of headstones lay a thin haze pierced by the occasional obelisk and by the wing tips of marble angels whose disembodied heads seemed to be floating on particles of shimmering light. And as she watched motionless in an absorbed enchantment, the mist began to rise and the whole cemetery was revealed to her, a miracle of stone and marble, bright grass and summer-laden trees, flower-bedecked  graves and intersecting paths stretching as far as the eye could see. In the distance she could just make out the spire of a Victorian chapel, gleaming like  the spire of some magical castle in a long-forgotten fairy tale.

I enjoyed all of these tales, but I think my favorite was the first, the improbably named but cunningly plotted “The Yo-Yo.” Three of these six stories were initially published in a series of anthologies  called Winter’s Crimes. I remember these books regularly entering the library’s collection when I first went to work there in 1982. Here’s the background on those volumes, from the Internet Book List:

The Winter’s Crimes anthology series was launched in 1969 by the London publishing house, Macmillan, at first under the auspices of George Hardinge. For several years the series was edited some years by Hardinge and in other years by another Macmillan editor, Hilary Watson, except for Winter’s Crimes 5, edited by Virginia Whitaker. In 1983, Hilary Watson married her fellow Macmillan editor and literary agent James Hale, and continued the series under her pleasantly alliterative married name, Hilary Hale. With the 23rd volume in 1991, editorship passed to Maria Rejt, who finished out the series with Winter’s Crimes 24.

George Hardinge edited a 2-volume “Best of” anthology from the first 17 volumes (the ISBN for the 2-volume set is 033342106X) and Maxim Jakubowski selected Murders for the Fireside from the 24-volume series, following it with More Murders for the Fireside, which also contains stories from anthologies not in the series.

(Someone who, like me, loves graceful phrasing must have come up with “pleasantly alliterative.”)

At the time, I ignored these books. I was just discovering the joys of crime fiction and was pretty exclusively immersed in the genre’s long form. Little did I realize the gems I was cavalierly overlooking!

In 1992 an anthology came out entitled Murders for the Fireside: The Best of Winter’s Crimes. The contributors number among my favorite mystery writers: Eric Ambler, Robert Barnard, Colin Dexter, Dick Francis, P.D. James, Peter Lovesey, and others. At present, the library does not own Murders for the Fireside. (I’ve ordered a used copy from Amazon.)

I’ve rather strayed from the P.D. James book, and I have only one thing to add. The cumulative effect of reading these stories one after the other was the creation of a mood that is hard to describe, but I would say was characterized by a feeling of unease and apprehension bordering on dread. This was mixed with a strong desire to understand the human impulses at work in the story by going relentlessly forward. I was trying to think whose work this strange phenomenon reminded me of, and then I realized: It reminded me of Ruth Rendell.

I just finished revisiting Rendell’s Shake Hands Forever via audiobook, narrated by Nigel Anthony. Every once in a while I get in the mood to revisit one of her novels in this way. Usually, with my penchant for procedurals, it’s a Wexford novel, as this one is.

    Shake Hands Forever, published in 1975, is ninth in this series. At the beginning, I was somewhat dismayed by the characters. They seemed stereotypical, especially the women. First we meet the sour, mulish and domineering  mother of the protagonist, Robert Hathall. Then we meet his bitter and resentful ex-wife, who is much preferred by the mother to the new young wife.

We also meet Hathall’s near neighbor, a single fortyish person named Nancy Lake. She’s a very attractive woman, or so she strikes Wexford, who is immediately and powerfully drawn to her. This is a somewhat startling development, or at least it was for me; Reg Wexford is one of the most uxorious men I’ve encountered in crime fiction. (Another would be Commissario Guido Brunetti, the splendid creation of Donna Leon.) But the annoying aspect of this is that Nancy Lake is deliberating cranking up the charm for Wexford’s benefit – dare I say, she’s actually vamping him. It comes across as a performance from a much earlier era. In fact, Rendell waxes quite lyrical when describing Nancy’s effect:

She was of the season in which they were, a harvest-time woman, who brought to mind grape festivals and ripened fruit and long warm nights.

Nancy Lake may have information relevant to the Hathall investigation. Nevertheless:

He had to make an effort of will to keep questioning her in this impersonal way, for she exercised a spell, the magical combination of feminine niceness  and strong sexuality.

Grape festivals? Really?

Just as Wexford’s discomfort reaches its climax – “He remembered that he was not only a policeman but a husband who must be mindful of his marriage vows.” –  this situation quickly moves offstage. It is fortunate for Wexford, I would say, as well as for the (twenty-first century) reader.

As the plot unfolds, Hathall, Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, and Wexford’s nephew Howard Fortune, of the London CID, begin to take center stage in what is essentially a variant of that old saw, the cat and mouse game. There’s a very cunning plot afoot, and try as he might, Wexford can’t find  the key to unlock it. Howard is similarly baffled.

A passage in the classic mystery Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley describes the effect of a moment of  sudden realization that occurs in the course of an investigation:

Swiftly and spontaneously, when chance or effort puts one in possession of the key-fact in any system of baffling circumstances, one’s ideas seem to rush to group themselves anew in relation to that fact, so that they are suddenly rearranged almost before one has consciously grasped the significance of the key-fact itself.

Finally, after a long and frustrating slog, the ‘key-fact’ in this stubborn case hits Wexford like a thunderbolt. Trust me, it’s a moment worth waiting for.

A word about this novel’s title. The phrase “Shake hands forever” comes from a poem called “The Parting” by Micheal Drayton (1563-1631). Here it is:

INCE there’s no help, come let us kiss and part–
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And innocence is closing up his eyes,
–Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might’st him yet recover.

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‘History was never very far away in New Mexico….’ Land of Burning Heat, by Judith Van Gieson

March 18, 2018 at 1:40 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Judaism, Mystery fiction)

This past Tuesday, the Usual Suspects took up Anne’s choice for discussion, a book entitled Land of Burning Heat by Judith Van Gieson. Anne explained that in advance of a trip to New Mexico she had sought out reading that would complement her journey. Van Gieson’s novel, set in Albuquerque,  seemed just the ticket.

Our discussion ranged far and wide. The plot was rather convoluted, and we didn’t spend very much time trying to untangle it. This is because at the center of the novel there resides a fascinating subject: the saga of the Conversos, sometimes called Marranos or more lately, crypto-Jews. These were Jews who escaped the Inquisition by pretending to convert to Catholicism, while all the time practicing their Jewish faith in secret.

Most of us think of the Inquisition as an event – and a despicable one at  that – that happened exclusively in Spain in the late fifteenth century. But as the expelled Jews fled to Portugal and to other Spanish speaking lands, the practices of the Inquisition followed them, first to Peru and then to Mexico City. Eventually some of these superficially converted individuals found their way north of the border.

NPR’s site has an interesting feature piece on this subject. In addition, there’s a first person narrative from a 2009 issue of Harper’s that I simply must link to because it has a title that delights me.   Also, if you’re interested in learning more on this subject, I recommend the book The Mezuzah in the Madonna’s Foot by Trudi Alexy.

We did spend some time talking about the series protagonist, Claire Reynier. Claire is an archivist at the University of New Mexico. As such, she has a natural interest in the region’s varied and colorful past.

History was never very far away in New Mexico, which was one of the things she liked about it. She enjoyed the sensation of moving from one century to another.

This is especially true as regards the rich mixture of ethnicities that have resided in the Land of Enchantment over the course of centuries.

A young woman named Isabel Santos comes to Claire’s office at the University to ask for her help. She has recently moved into the family home in nearby Bernalillo. In the process, she’s made a strange discovery. Under a loose brick in the house’s flooring, she found a wooden cross with a hole in its bottom. From this hole, Isabel extracted  a small piece of paper with writing on it. She has copied  out the text and brought it with her to show Claire. The language was not immediately recognizable, It  seemed to be a mixture of archaic Spanish and Hebrew.

Isabel Santos wanted to know what it all meant. She felt that as an archivist, Claire might be able to assist her with this conundrum. Claire is clearly intrigued. But before she can take even the smallest step toward investigating this possibly valuable find, murder rears its ugly head. And the cross and its precious secret disappear.

Rather than being the end of Claire’s involvement in the case, this turns out to be just the  beginning.

Anne provided us with a list of probing discussion questions. Here is the first:

Did you find Claire Reyner an unusual detective? What attribute equipped her for solving this case when the police and everyone else believed it was a simple interrupted burglary?

The short form answer would be that in light of her training as an historian, Claire tends to take the long view, placing that alongside factors that are more immediately relevant. As for Claire herself being an unusual detective, we thought she was, for several reasons. First of all, as an academic with a decidedly intellectual bent, she seems an unlikely person to get involved with some of the vain and venal characters she encounters as the plot unfolds. But on a more personal level, she does not come across as a strong, aggressive distaff version of the classic male tough guy cop or private eye. Nor is she as matter-of -fact, (relatively) nerveless, and upbeat as say, Kinsey Millhone. On the contrary, she seems clear-headed, thoughtful, and a bit unsure of herself. Why doesn’t she just pull out? Because she has a very clear concept of right and wrong; in other words, a conscience that won’t let her off easily, if at all.

Currently in early middle age, Claire lives alone but is kept intermittent (and not always welcome) company by her cat, Nemesis. She’s divorced and has two grown children, a son and a daughter. Neither of them lives locally, and they don’t seem to figure very prominently in her emotional life. Although she enjoys her work and has plenty of friends and colleagues in Albuquerque, she seems to be in the grip of an inchoate yearning. In other words, she’s  prey to loneliness. At least, she seemed so to me.

I found her believable, likable, and admirable.

How great it was to come back to Judith Van Gieson, a writer who so effectively evokes the otherworldly magic of New Mexico.

  I’ve been a fan of this author since I first read The Other Side of Death when it came out in 1991. The protagonist of that series is Neil Hamel, a twice divorced attorney living, like Claire Reynier, in Albuquerque. At the time the events in this series take place, Neil has a younger lover whom she calls the Kid,  an auto mechanic by day – he has his own shop – and a musician at night.

The first two pages of this novel are…well, let me quote some of it for you:

Spring moves north about as  fast as a person on foot would–fifteen to twenty miles a day. It crosses the border at El Paso and enters New Mexico at Fort Bliss….following the twists of the Rio Grande, it wanders through Las Cruces and Radium Springs, bringing chile back to Hatch. A few more days and it has entered Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte. The whooping cranes leave Bosque del Apache, relief comes to Socorro….By mi-March the season gets to those of us who live in the Duke City, Albuquerque. On 12th Street fruit trees blossom in ice cream colors. The pansies  return with purple vigor to Civic Plaza.The Lobos are eliminated from NCAA competition. The hookers on East Central hike up their skirts. The cholos in Roosevelt Park  rip the sleeves off their black T-shirts, exposing the purple bruises of tattoos….

This intense and lyrical description is in the first paragraph on the first page. It goes on for  a while, and then becomes more specific on page 2. Now we see that there’s another kind of magic Van Gieson is equally good at summoning up:

At my place in La Vista Luxury Apartment Complex, the yellow shag carpet needed mowing; the Kid’s hair was getting a trim. His hair is thick, black and wound tight and the way to cut it is to pull out a curl and lop off an inch. The hair bounces back, the Kid’s head looks a little narrower, the floor gets littered with curls.

He sat, skinny and bare chested, in front of my bedroom mirror, and I took a hand mirror and moved it around behind him so he could see the effect of the trim. “Looks good, Chiquita,” he said. I vacuumed up the curls and helped him out of his jeans, then we got into bed.

The afternoon is the very best time: the window open to the sound of kids playing in the arroyo, motorcycles revving in the parking lot, boom box music but not too close, the polyester drapes not quite closed and sunlight playing across the wall and the Kid’s skin. Warm enough to be nice and sweaty, but not so hot as to stick together. And in the breeze the reckless, restless wanderer— spring.

“Oh, my God,” I said in a way I hadn’t all winter.

Chiquita mia,” said the Kid.

I was a real fan of the Neil Hamel novels, having read all eight of them, when the series ended – abruptly, I thought – in 1999 with Ditch Rider. The new series featuring Claire Reynier began the following year with The Stolen Blue. I read it but I remember being underwhelmed at the time, most likely because I was missing the wisecracking,  free spirited Neil Hamel. Reading Land of Burning Heat has changed my mind and made me more receptive to the Claire Reynier series. That said, The Shadow of Venus, the fifth and last entry in the series, is dated 2004. Van Gieson’s present efforts would appear to be centered on publishing. ABQ Press is an initiative aimed at promoting and sustaining New Mexico writers. What the future holds for her as a writer remains unclear – at least, to me. I’ve examined her website for clues but found none. (For a complete listing of the books in both series, see Stop! You’re Killing Me.)

Judith Van Gieson

I corresponded briefly with Judith van Gieson in the early 1990s, when I was preparing a presentation and discussion of The Other Side of Death. I recall that she was generous in providing me with background information on herself and her books. This was all done via snail mail. I may still have those notes and articles, but I have no idea where to look for them. With luck, in the course of the Great Clean-up that looms in my future, they will turn up.

Judith Van Gieson in her home in Albuquerque’s North Valley. I seem to recall reading that she was able to purchase this lovely domicile when one of her novels – or perhaps the whole series – was optioned for either film or TV by a production company. Alas, as so often happens, those plans never materialized.

One more point concerning our discussion of Land of Burning Heat: Prompted by Marge’s curiosity, we explored the subject of what it means to be Jewish; specifically, why being Jewish is different from being, say, Presbyterian or Catholic. I, for instance, tread very lightly when it comes to the observance of the Jewish religion (and that includes even the High Holy Days). Yet I consider myself unquestionably Jewish. It is an identity, in fact, of which I am singularly proud. In 2010, David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times in which he cited the following:

Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates.

Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38 percent of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.

All of this is quite splendid, but it still doesn’t answer Marge’s question. (By the way, I remember this same subject being raised when I was in Religious School: “Is being Jewish a religious identity? An ethnic identity? A nationality?” I remember being very impatient with the whole topic and just wanting to get home so I could have some Matzoh Brei.)

Finally Hilda observed: “You don’t ever hear of someone being a ‘lapsed Jew.'” Somehow that seemed to sum things up. It was a bracing discussion; it’s nice to have one of those in connection with the reading of crime fiction.

When I got back from New Mexico (the first time? second time?), I listened to Ottmar Liebert’s “Santa Fe” over and over again.

 

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A (somewhat different) Passage To India: The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

February 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is a novel that succeeds on several levels: as an examination of a particular culture at a specific moment; as the narrative of a complex mystery that unfolds in the context of that culture; and finally, as a look into the heart of a vibrant, intelligent, and vulnerable young woman.

In post World War One India, Perveen Mistry aspires to be an attorney. She has before  her the example of her father Jamshedji. He is a superb lawyer of upright character and unquestioned integrity; moreover, he is devoted to Perveen and fiercely protective of her. He  would like nothing more than for her to join him in his legal practice. But they both must figuratively walk through fire before realizing this goal.

I knew almost nothing about India during this period, so reading this novel was a learning experience for me. I didn’t realize what a rich mixture of ethnic origins and creeds the country was at that time. (Perveen and her family are part of the Parsi minority dwelling in Bombay at that time.) It should be emphasized, though, that Massey wears her erudition lightly. There’s no dry academic tone here; rather,  aspects of the different cultures are presented in service to the narrative and to the characters and their often turbulent lives.

Perveen Mistry is a wonderful creation. For me as a reader, she came along at just the right moment. I was beginning to tire of the trope in which the Plucky and Resourceful Female takes on big challenges and, by means of unwavering determination and perseverance, surmounts them (with little, if any, material assistance from nearby males.) Perveen does waver; she’s not absolutely sure of herself at every turn, and she readily acknowledges her mistakes. Ultimately, she prevails, both personally and professionally, through a combination of her own native courage and the unwavering support of friends and family.

Sujata Massey appends the following information in her Acknowledgments pages:

Perveen Mistry was inspired by India’s earliest women lawyers: Cornelia Sorabji of Poona, the first woman to read law at Oxford and the first woman to sit the British law  exam in 1892, and Mithan Tata Lam of Bombay, who also read law at Oxford and was the first woman admitted to  the Bombay Bar in 1923.

Some readers might feel that there is too much time spent on Perveen’s personal life and not enough on the actual mystery. For this reader, the former was substantially more compelling than the latter. When the novel begins, a complex legal situation has already presented itself and is made yet more complicated by  murder. The cast of characters is large and diverse. Add to all of this, it’s difficult to care about the victim. But from the outset, I was so enthralled by Perveen herself that I was glad to remain on board for the privilege of being in her company.

One other caveat about The Widows of Malabar Hill: it jumps back and forth in time. This can be disconcerting. It is almost always my preference that a fictional narrative adhere to a strict chronology. If it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope, it should be good enough for other novelists as well. (Not that I have definite opinions on this subject!)

That said, I consider these reservations to be minor. I still loved this book and recommend it highly.

******************
I confess that when I learned the name of this protagonist, and that of Mistry Law, the firm headed by her father, I was reminded of the novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I read this novel shortly after it came out in 1996. It is without doubt one of the most moving and powerful works of fiction I have ever encountered.

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