“…this strange land they called ‘la France profonde,’ deepest France.” – Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker

August 19, 2018 at 12:52 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is the opening paragraph of Bruno, Chief of Police:

On a bright May morning, so early that the last of the mist was still lingering low over a bend in the Vézère River, a white van drew to a halt on the ridge that overlooked  the small French town. A man climbed out, strode to the edge of the road and stretched mightily as he admired  the familiar view of St. Denis. The town emerged from the lush green of the trees and meadows like a tumbled heap of treasure; the golden stone of the buildings, the ruby red tiles of the rooftops and the silver curve of the river running through it. The houses clustered down the slope and around the main square of the Hôtel de Ville where the council chamber, its Mairie [mayor’s office], and the office of the town’s own policeman perched above the thick stone columns that framed the covered market. The grime of three centuries only lately scrubbed away, its honey-colored stone glowed richly in the morning sun.

This vivid descriptive passage segues nicely into a short lesson on the region’s history:

On the far side of the square stood the venerable church, its thick walls and squat tower a reminder of the ages past when churches, too, were part of the town’s defenses, guarding the river crossing and the approach to the  great stone bridge. A great “N” carved into the rock above the central of the three arches asserted that the bridge had  been rebuilt on the orders of Napoleon himself. This did not greatly impress the town’s inhabitants, who knew  that the upstart emperor had but restored a bridge their ancestors had first built five centuries earlier. And now it had been established that the first bridge over their river dated from Roman times.

Then a final return to the present era:

Across the river stretched  the new part of town, the Crédit Agricole bank and its parking lot, the supermarket ad the rugby stadium discreetly shaded by tall oaks and think belts of walnut trees.

Thus we are drawn into the world of St. Denis, a small, seemingly pristine commune nestled in the verdant Dordogne region of southwestern France. (St. Denis is a fictional town. For more on the sources used to create it, click here.)

The Dordogne department takes its name from the river that runs through it:

France’s green and pleasant land….Don’t know about you, but one look at this picture and I was ready to pack up and move. [Click to enlarge]

The man in that first paragraph surveys the land before him with deep contentment and a certain sense of  proprietorship. He is Benoît Courrèges, known to his fellow townsfolk as Bruno. Having survived a difficult childhood, Bruno fought in Bosnia for a time before joining law enforcement. He chose to live in St. Denis, perceiving it to be “the quiet heart of rural France.”

But alas, as so often happens, there is a serpent dwelling in this Eden, a serpent  that periodically bares its fangs. When an elderly man living alone is brutally killed, it’s up to Bruno to solve the terrible crime.The deeper the investigation goes, the more apparent it becomes that the root cause of this murder lies buried in the old man’s past – in fact, in France’s past.

Ann, our presenter, was particularly fascinated by the role of Algerian fighters in the Second World War. The rest of us shared that interest. But even more, we found the author’s depiction of this region of France, with its distinctive culture, physical beauty, and meticulously detailed cuisine, to be utterly captivating. (Is that too many adjectives? Oh well – that’s what they’re for, n’est-ce pas?)

There was another aspect of the novel that folks were eager to discuss; namely, the civic and social aspects of small town governance. (Here we have one of  the reasons I so appreciate the Suspects: their interest in all aspects of the work being considered – even the wonky ones!)

We also talked about the famous cave paintings that can be found in the Dordogne. I recommended Werner Herzog’s documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams:

Surely one of the major attractions of this novel and succeeding ones is the character of Bruno himself. He is not only a skilled and conscientious policeman, but he’s also deeply embedded in the town’s social and political life. It’s easy to believe in his affection for his fellow citizens of St. Denis; it’s bodied forth in everything he says and does with regard to them. And then there’s his love life….

In Bruno, Chief of Police, we become acquainted with, among others, Pamela, a relocated Scotswoman who’s become an innkeeper, and Isabelle, a rising star in French law enforcement. Bruno is attracted to both women. What will ultimately come of this attraction is anyone’s guess, but I can tell you that they both appear in subsequent entries in the series.

Oh, and Bruno’s love of the Périgord extends to its denizens of the animal world. He owns a horse named Hector, whose stabling is provided by the aforementioned Pamela. And he has a basset hound named Gigi. (Eventually Bruno acquires a basset puppy named Balzac – un nom parfait pour un chien français, je pense (a perfect name for a French dog, I think). And here’s one of my favorite sentences in the novel:

As Bruno fed his chickens, he pondered what to wear fro dinner that evening.

If you follow this series, you’ll find that the present in St. Denis is often shadowed by the events of the Second World War. There were some heroes, to be sure, but there were also some who sought the coward’s way of survival. There were even traitors. There are moments when the past simply refuses to stay buried; when this happens, sometimes crime results, and pain comes along with it. This happens in Bruno, Chief of Police.

And yet, the beauty of the present day can still be celebrated by good and decent people whom it’s a pleasure to know. Chief among them is Bruno Courrèges.

The reaction of the Suspects to this novel was generally positive, I’d say. There were some reservations; for instance, Marge felt that the proliferating involvement of multiple law enforcement entities was confusing. (Hard to argue with that.) And Carol felt that Martin Walker’s writing did not compare favorably with that of one of her favorite writers, Peter May. May is indeed a fine writer; we read The Black House in 2013 and were suitably impressed. Frank observed that Bruno, Chief of Police was not as much a conventional detective novel as it was a story about how things could be resolved for the greatest good of the greatest number of people. That’s actually a good description of the series as a whole, as it happens. (As for me, it’s impossible to maintain objectivity on this subject. I simply love  these  books.)

For whatever reason, our discussion ranged far and wide, often straying from the book itself. We never worry too much about that; we return to the matter at hand, eventually. Our surroundings at Hilda’s house were gracious and comfortable – thanks, Hilda! – and Cookie, the resident canine, was uniformly affectionate and companionable.

I confess that the novels in this series always arouse the latent Francophile in me. While reading one, I tend to wander through the house articulating phrases in that most beautiful of languages. (Luckily my husband gets it, being, like me, a Francophile with a small but carefully tended knowledge of la langue française.)

From top down, left to right: prefecture building in Périgueux, Château de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Lourde River and La Roque-Gageac. [Courtesy of Wikipedia; click to enlarge]

Ah the glories of French culture! Here is one of my favorite music videos:

The biography on Martin Walker’s website states that he and his wife, novelist and food writer Julia Watson, “divide their time between Washington DC and the Périgord region of France.”

In the Acknowledgments at the end of Fatal Pursuit (2016), Martin Walker states the following:

All the Bruno books are indebted to my friends and neighbors in the Périgord and the lovely landscape they nurture. It has fertile soil, wonderful food, excellent wines, a temperate climate and more history packed into its borders than anywhere else on earth. It is a very special place, filled with enchantments.

The bookstore Politics and Prose is something of an institution in Washington DC. The venue has been favored by numerous author appearances. Martin Walker was there on the occasion of the publication of The Devil’s Cave, fifth entry in the Bruno series:

It’s been a pleasure, but I must fly: A Taste for Vengeance (2018) is waiting on my night table.

 

 

 

 

 

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Stay Hidden, a Mike Bowditch mystery by Paul Doiron

August 8, 2018 at 1:48 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was very impressed by The Poacher’s Son, the first entry in Paul Doiron’s series featuring Maine game warden Mike Bowditch. So were other readers, apparently: the book was a finalist for the 2011 Anthony, Edgar, and Macavity Awards for Best First Novel. It won the Barry Award in that same category.

For whatever reasons – mostly having to do with the”so many books, so little time” mantra – I did not continue with the series until I was lured back by positive reviews to Widowmaker (#5). My reaction: “This guy is only getting better and better!” The next book, Knife Creek, was also excellent. And so, on to number seven, Stay Hidden.

Mike Bowditch has achieved his long-sought goal of becoming a Warden Investigator. But the case he’s investigating – his first in that capacity – is a real puzzler. It takes him to the remote island of Maquoit, off the coast of Maine. A woman has been shot and killed while in the prosaic act of hanging laundry outside her rented home. Ariel Evans was an investigative journalist. More significant, she was an incomer, not native to the island or even to the state. That made her presence on Maquoit suspect, to begin with. At least, that’s how the natives saw things.

Hunting is a major activity on the island, and accidents do happen. Ariel Evans was a stranger who presumably was not well versed in the folkways of the natives. Although she was out of doors during hunting season, she was not wearing blaze orange.

Was this shooting in fact, an accident? Or is there something more to this story? Mike’s brief while on this island is to drill down to the truth. This will not be easy; some of  the long time residents consider him as much of an alien as Ariel Levy was.

One of the pleasures of this novel, as with others in the series, is Paul Doiron’s vivid descriptions. To wit:

Autumn is the season of rot in the Maine woods. Out of the sun and wind, under the scraggly boughs of the apple  trees, the light had an almost-sepia tint. The air was still and the odor of decomposition was strong. The miasma blotted out even the smell of the sea.

I particularly like this sentence:

Past the seawall were the remains of vanished wharfs in the form of pilings rising like a submerged forest from the surface of the sea.

Doiron clearly appreciates the beauty of the Pine Tree State, but at the same time he is clear-eyed and unsentimental. In this passage, he’s out on the water:

I came upon a raftlike float called a lobster car. In a month the island lobstermen would tie up crates to it. But for now it waited. A cormorant surfaced from beneath the raft and confronted me with red eyes. Clamped in its cruel bill was a writhing pollack, which the bird swallowed whole.

Nature red in tooth and claw….

Mike Bowditch is the kind of protagonist you find yourself empathizing with and rooting for. His  dogged efforts in the face thinly disguised and sometimes mean spirited opposition are admirable. His personal life is characterized by thwarted romance. In this, and in other particulars, he reminds me of Martin Walker’s wonderful series featuring Bruno Courrèges, Chief of Police in St. Denis, a fictional town in the southwest of France.

In an interview in Yankee Magazine from last year, Paul Doiron says this of his background:

Well, I grew up in Maine—my family is from Sanford originally, but I grew up in Scarborough. I come from a family of mill workers, and growing up I had relatives who were working as dishwashers and those sorts of jobs. I was fortunate to have a very different kind of experience. I grew up in a suburb and I went to Cheverus High School in Portland and I got a Jesuit education, and then went to Yale. I’ve always felt as if I am a child of “the two Maines,” as they are often spoken of.

Pine trees on the coast at Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine; photo by John Schinker on Flickr

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‘…who has the gun, where is the gun–‘ Sunburn, by Laura Lippman

July 30, 2018 at 9:23 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

When’s the last time you read a crime novel  set in Delaware?

This may have been a first for me. Be that as it may, that’s where we find ourselves in Sunburn. Polly (Pauline) Costello has fled the beach retreat she was sharing with husband Gregg and three-year-old daughter Jani. She hasn’t gone far: just inland to the town of Belleville. As she sits on a bar stool in a restaurant oddly named High-Ho, she is noticed by Adam Bosk. There’s an instant attraction, but only on his part – at first.

These two have plenty of secrets, but Lippman reveals them gradually and obliquely. It’s a good technique for hooking the reader, and I was duly hooked. More  characters enter the scenario, but the spotlight remains firmly fixed on Polly and Adam. As is invariably the case with Lippman, these characters are real and believable. No one is completely good or irredeemably bad. The core truth of what’s really going on stays hidden for a long time, though, and the outcome remains uncertain right up to the end.

I had an interesting moment when I read this description of Polly Costello: “Her figure’s pretty good, but she has that narrow, foxy look common to redheads.” Suddenly Polly’s image materialized very precisely in my mind. For me, anyway, it was an extremely telling passage. Here’s another one that resonated.  Adam is  reminiscing tenderly about his mother and father:

How he misses his parents, those sad, sweet hippies who ate macrobiotic, smoked dope, and died before they were sixty – a heart attack for him, a stroke for her – because some people do everything right and still don’t catch a break.

I don’t ordinarily like  fiction written in the present tense, but in this novel it worked beautifully. And anyway, I almost never don’t like Laura Lippman‘s writing.

We here in the Free State get an extra kick out of Lippman’s novels, since  they almost always contain some local lore. Sunburn features several trips to ‘Bawlamer,’ specifically referencing Northern Parkway, a route I’ve traveled on a number of occasions. It’s a sort of partial inner beltway; one wishes more cities had such a route. (Baltimore also has an outer beltway, which is becoming increasingly congested despite relentless efforts to widen it.)

I think Sunburn would be an excellent selection for discussion groups, especially those in this region. As with all Laura Lippman’s novels, it grabs you from the start, it’s witty, and it moves along at a good clip. One other point: I’m not sure  how I feel about the ending, and I’d welcome the chance to talk to other readers about it.

 

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‘It was just that in her own mind the house itself was tainted by something evil right at its heart.’

July 18, 2018 at 11:59 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Just a quick word on this one. Although I read this mystery a while ago, I don’t want to miss the chance to recommend it to my fellow crime fiction fans.

On a remote corner of the Isle of Skye, in Scotland, Human Face has its headquarters. This is a charity that provides aid and comfort to Third World Children. For Beatrice Lacey, Human Face represents a passionate and powerful commitment. Co-founded and funded by herself, it takes its name from “The Divine Image,” a poem by William Blake:

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Beatrice’s other great passion is for Adam Carnegie, Human Face’s other founder. Adam is a manipulative user and a guileful charmer, but Beatrice, overweight, ungainly, and filled with thwarted yearning, sees him solely through the eyes of (hopeless) love.

Other forces are at work, both within the house that serves as Human Face’s headquarters and on the larger island itself. An unexplained disappearance occasions police involvement. There’s worse to come.

For its mixture of fully developed and engaging characters along with vividness of setting, I give Human Face high marks. And the writing by Aline Templeton, an author new to me, is excellent:

In the city there was always ambient light and Kelso was uncomfortable in darkness like this: it had an intense, almost physical presence. It seemed to wrap itself about you till the air itself felt thick and smothering. There were no stars, only a greenish pallor that was the moon, heavily veiled by cloud.

The reader will encounter some piquant Scottish locutions. Here are some examples:

The word teuchter is used by those in Lowland areas of Scotland to describe those from the Highlands, specifically those in rural areas who speak Gaelic. More loosely, the term is used for a country-dweller.

From the newspaper The Scotsman

Laldy
 To give it Laldy means to do anything with great gusto or to get laid in to someone big style whether physically or verbally.Ye shooda seen big Effie it the karaoke,she wiz geein it laldy aw night.

From TalkingScot.com

Scunner: The first definition is something that disgusts, or causes dislike, for example his attitude fair scunners me. The second usage describes the actual feeling of disgust or dislike. It’s unclear whether some definitions of this word stem from the word ‘sickener’ or whether the similarities in pronunciation and meaning are coincidental. The final definition is used for someone or something who causes the dislike or disgust, such as It’s a right scunner that the match has been cancelled ‘cause of the weather.’ This particular word is used widely, with the original meaning – to shrink back, or recoil – falling by the wayside somewhat, in preference for the more generic term we know today.

From The Scotsman

Then there’s the strange phenomenon known as a Brocken spectre. This is originally a German term rather than a Scottish one, but one can imagine that it’s a concept that that the Scots, with their rich folkloric tradition, might be receptive to. At one point in the novel, Beatrice is terrified by the sight of this eerie manifestation in the nearby mountains, but her friend Vicky, who has also seen it, explains it to her thus:

‘It’s a sort of light effect when there’s fog and the sun comes up…. It’s your own shadow and you move, it does too.’

Here’s a visual, from the Wikipedia entry:

A semi-artificial Brocken spectre created by standing in front of the headlight of a car, on a foggy night. [Photographed by Bob Blaylock]

I owe thanks to Carol from the Usual Suspects group for this fine recommendation.

 

 

 

 

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A Famine of Horses: a book discussion

July 16, 2018 at 12:24 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

Somehow I managed to work myself up into quite a state for this book discussion. There always seemed to be more research that needed to be done, more questions needing to be answered, more tangled webs to untangle…. In the end, though, I was really please with how it went. This is mostly because the group members were simply outstanding. They caught the  ball and ran with it. I didn’t have many discussion questions prepared and as it turned out, for the most part, I didn’t need them.

I began, in the usual way, with author information. P.F. Chisholm is a nom de plume  for Patricia Finney. Born in London in 1958, Finney attended Wadham College, Oxford, earning a B.A. degree  and graduating with honors. According to Biography in Context, she has had an extremely varied work life, having worked as a journalist, a medical magazine editor, hospital administrator, scriptwriter, entrepreneur, and – most intriguing – a “property empress.”

Patricia Finney

(The above information was gleaned from an entry in the Biography in Context database. I highly recommend this research tool, although, at least on the local library’s website, you have jump through several hoops to get to it.)

Along with this wide ranging work experience, Finney’s abiding passion, from youth onward, was for storytelling. I shared  with the group this story, recounted on her blog:

One of my first memories is of being in hospital to have my tonsils out, aged 5 (they did tonsillectomies on youngsters with more enthusiasm then). I was doing what I always did to get to sleep, when a nurse came to me and asked if I was having a bad dream. No, I told her with withering patronage, I was telling a story about a hamster. Why was I shouting, she wanted to know? Because the hamster was being silly and trying to jump out of his balloon basket without his rocket pack and I was warning him. She told me to stop telling stories at once and be quiet. She went away rather hurriedly.

I then moved on to the historical background for the novel. During the late 1590s, the time of A Famine of Horses, the north of England near the Scottish border was a land of lawlessness and depredation. Lawlessness might not be the correct  term: the Borderers did have a sort of homegrown legal system. It was based primarily on tit for tat, an eye  for an eye, thieving and reiving and cattle rustling and endless retribution among powerful warlike clans: the Elliots, the Grahams, the Nixons, and the seemingly always belligerent and bellicose Armstrongs.

(The Debatable Land was an area in the border country that seemed to belong simultaneously to everyone and no one. It served as a haven for outlaws and for “broken men,” those who had no declared allegiance to a particular lord or sovereign power.)

Patricia Finney has cited her reading of Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser as the inspiration for this series. That book contains a wonderful sentence that boldly sets the scene:

The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.

That about sums it up, sure enough. Consideration of the enormous contributions in the spheres of literature, science, medicine, philosophy, etc. made by both England and Scotland over the past centuries is enough to convince anyone that these two small nations have consistently punched well above their weight.

Sir Robert Carey, Chisholm’s chief protagonist in Famine and throughout this series was an actual historical personage. He served at the court of Queen Elizabeth and later, at his Sovereign’s request, as Warden of the Border country, where his efforts to institute the rule of law were eventually proven effective.

Sir Robert’s father, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, was a  favorite cousin of the Queen’s. His mother Mary Boleyn was sister to the Queen’s ill-fated mother, Anne Boleyn. Mary was married twice, but she was also, for a time, mistress to Henry VIII. She supposedly bore him two children, although he acknowledged neither of them.

Carey returned to London in 1603 as Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and her life, were coming to an end. Most importantly, his written memoirs have come down to us. They provide a first hand, eyewitness account of the Queen’s passing:

When I came to court I found the Queen ill disposed; and she kept to her inner lodging; yet she, hearing of my arrival, sent  for me. I found her in one of her withdrawing  chambers, sitting low upon her cushions. She called me to her: I kissed her hand, and told her it was my chiefest happiness to see her in safety and in health, which I wished might long continue. She took me by the hand, and wrung it hard, and said, “No, Robin, I am not well,” and then discoursed with me of her indisposition, and that her heart had been sad and heavy for ten or twelve days, and in her discourse  she fetched not so few as forty of fifty great sighs.

Carey found these sighs particularly disconcerting; he hadn’t heard her sigh like that, he averred, since the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots.

Upon retiring, Carey left word that he was to be notified immediately of the Queen’s death. And so it came to pass, in the middle of the night:

…I entered the gate, and came up to the Cofferer‘s chamber, where I found all the ladies weeping bitterly.

Queen Elizabeth: the Ditchley Portrait

There follows a narration of the exploit for which Sir Robert Carey is best known: His breakneck ride north to Edinburgh to hail the Scottish King James VI as James I of England. (Just before her death, Elizabeth had declared this to be her wish in regard to her successor as ruler of England. It signified the end of the Tudor dynasty, which then gave way to the reign of the Stuart kings.)

Finally – on to A Famine of Horses. I discerned a range of  reactions to the novel among the Suspects. Several were put off by the author’s use of antiquated vocabulary. Terms like dag (early firearm type), caliver (a standardized arquebus), collops (slices of beef), and cramoisie (crimson) were found, understandably, to be bewildering. Others, however, maintained that their meaning, at least generally speaking, could be determined from the context in which they appeared. I admit that I was in that second group. I failed utterly to perceive that the vocabulary used in the novel would serve as a stumbling block. to some readers. (This might be partly due to the fact that so much of what I read, both fiction and nonfiction, historical and contemporary, takes place in Britain.)

We all agreed that a glossary would have been very helpful. Another inclusion that would have helped is a list of the characters – who they are, how they’re related, etc. For one thing, there are a great many of them and they’re hard to keep straight. Of course, this impacts the plot, which, as the narrative progresses, becomes increasingly Byzantine.

The Kirkus review of A Famine of Horses was generally favorable, with reviewer describing the the book as “A briskly paced debut rich in spiky characters, eccentric accents, and, above all, a charismatic hero with a sense of honor and a sense of humor.” On the other hand, the Publishers Weekly reviewer was distinctly underwhelmed. That review concludes thus:

Chisholm’s short digressions on the new concept of due process are thoughtful but blunted by archaic terms. And Carey, an upright courtier with the gift of guile, remains too distant, never fully retaining the reader’s sympathies.

That last sentence left me scratching my head. Did this reviewer read the same book I read? In Patricia Finney’s introduction to the year 2000 paperback edition (published by Poisoned Pen Press), she confesses that she’s fallen “hook, line and sinker, for the elegant and charming Sir Robert Carey.” I felt the same way.

Sir Robert Carey, First Earl of Monmouth

Our discussion ranged freely over various aspects of this book. Frank mentioned the fear felt by ordinary people when venturing out alone, especially at night. Marge said that there was a fair amount of humor in the novel, more, at any rate, than she had expected to encounter. She also reminded us of another historical novelist whom we’ve read enjoyed: Candace Robb.

We talked about the way in which details of clothing and food add greatly to the novel’s verisimilitude. And oh, the fleas! Some of us began to itch with empathy for the beleaguered characters.

I think just about everyone agreed that the plot was very complicated. It was hard not to get lost in the thicket of events, some of which seemed to careen into the narrative with sudden and unexpected force. The murder described at the book’s very outset almost seems to have  been shoved aside by the general melee. The solution almost seems hastily arrived  at, toward the very conclusion of the narrative. I had to reread that section several times to make sure I’d gotten in right. (That ending was not at all satisfactory to Pauline. She found it very dismaying.)

However, the novel has many strengths, one in particular being the creation of especially vivid female characters. Elizabeth Widdrington, Sir Robert’s (unfortunately chastely married) lady love; Janet Dodd, Henry’s fearless wife; and the wonderfully named Philadelphia Scrope, wife of the chief Warden and beloved sister to Sir Robert, will probably stay with you for a while after you’ve finished the book.

In my previous post on Famine, I recounted two of my favorite scenes. I’d like to add another. This one takes place at a banquet at Netherby, stronghold of the Earl of Bothwell:

  As the procession reached the high table and the chief men were served, the Earl stood up and threw half a breadroll at a nervous-looking priest in the corner.

“Say a grace for us, Reverend,” he shouted.

The Reverend stood up and gabbled some Latin, which was in fact a part of the old wedding service, if Carey’s feeble classical knowledge served him right. Everyone shouted Amen, bent their heads and began shovelling food into their guts as if they were half starved.

I can just see this happening. In fact, I found many scenes in Famine exceptionally rich visually. I think the book would make a great movie or television series.

Once more, thank you, Suspects. You make the effort well worthwhile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Word Is ‘Mesmerizing’

July 11, 2018 at 5:02 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Got through it in 48 hours. It may be 387 pages long (hardback, U.S. edition), but somehow it felt much shorter.

Anthony Horowitz has pulled off something very cunning in this novel: He has made himself the main character. Yes, I mean the actual Anthony Horowitz, author of the immensely popular Alex Rider series for young adults, creator of the Foyle’s War series on Masterpiece Mystery, author of the delightful Magpie Murders, and plenty more.

Oh – and by the way, it’s now Anthony Horowitz, OBE.

The novel opens with a very odd chain of events. A woman, Diana Cowper, visits an undertaker with the purpose of planning her own funeral. That in itself is not so very unusual. What is unusual is that six hours later, she is found dead – unquestionably murdered (as Paula Zahn would say – with special emphasis – on her program On the Case) in her own home!

One of the persons tasked with doing the detecting in this case is Daniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne is a former policeman, having left the force under a cloud. But his skills are such that he is retained by the force from time to time as a consulting detective.

Hawthorne, not short of a certain egotistical self-regard, wants a book to be written about his exploits. He requires, therefore, a recorder equal to the task; an accomplished writer who will shadow him as he investigates but who will not  intrude on the investigative process. Who better than Anthony Horowitz? He it is that narrates the events of the novel in the first person.

Sound like another pair you may have encountered in your reading of classic crime fiction? I assure you, that is not a coincidence. Poor Anthony, though: He cannot resist asking what he believes to be perceptive questions in the course of various interviews. Almost invariably, said questions are adjudged to be intrusive, or even detrimental to the proceedings by Daniel Hawthorne. This exasperates Hawthorne, but it exasperates Anthony even more. After all, he – Anthony – is accustomed to thinking himself superior in perceptiveness and intellect. Who does this Hawthorne person think he is, to be denigrating the Great Author in this way?

In the course of the narrative, one encounters flashes of wit from time to time. At one point, Hathrone and Anthony encounter the official investigator, Detective Inspector Meadows, at yet another crime scene. D.I. Meadows orders Hawthorne to vacate the premises. “And take Agatha Christie here with you.”

Horowitz reacts thus:

He meant me. Agatha Christie is something of a  hero of mine but I was still offended.

In The Word Is Murder, you will not find lyrical description, lengthy expository passages, ruminations on the evils of mankind. What you will find is a plot that moves at breakneck speed, pulling the reader inescapably along.

Observing me turning up in various places through the house, oblivious of all except the text before me, my husband commented that this must surely the ideal summer read. I agree. Great fun, and highly recommended, for any season, actually.

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Working on A Famine of Horses while finishing the latest Bill Slider novel

June 28, 2018 at 2:05 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  My choice for the next Usual Suspects mystery discussion is A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm. I like this book mainly because of the way it brings a distant time so vividly to life. One way Chisholm does this is by weaving particulars about dress, food, and other specifics into a narrative that has an actual historical personage as its hero. I refer to Sir Robert Carey, cousin to Queen Elizabeth I – His father, Lord Hunsdon, was the son of Mary Boleyn, sister to the ill-fated Anne, Elizabeth’s mother.

Sir Robert Carey, First Earl of Monmouth, circa 1591

The historical Sir Robert Carey’s main claim to fame is his breakneck horseback journey in 1603 from London to Edinburgh. His purpose: To inform King James VI of Scotland that he was now King James I of England:

When the Queen died at Richmond Palace Lady Scrope threw the blue ring from a casement window to her brother. Carey, who had previously told King James that he would be the first man to bring the news, set off immediately for London and from there started his epic ride to Edinburgh. He completed the journey in less than three days, and on his way caused King James to be proclaimed by his brother (the governor) at Berwick upon Tweed, the strongest fortress on the road from Scotland. On arrival at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, he hailed King James as King of England and Scotland.

From The Great North Ride

P.F. Chisholm’s prose style is uniquely suited to the time and place of which she writes. It helps cast a spell; I feel transported to that era. One of my favorite of her locutions occurs when she’s describing Sir Robert’s fast-growing goatee as “invading upland pastures.”

Then there’s the passage in which he strives to convey to Henry Dodd, his second-in-command, the flavor of the language used by those who wish to survive at the Queen’s court:

“Well,” he said consideringly, “a scurvy Scotsman might say she is a wild old bat who knows more of governorship and statecraft than the Privy Councils of both realms put together, but I say she is like Aurora in her beauty, her hair puts the sun in splendour to shame, her face holds the heavens within its compass and her glance is like the falling dew.”

Dodd, astonished by this recitation, asks if all the courtiers are required to speak in this manner. Sir Robert replies with unaccustomed bluntness:

“If they want to keep out of the Tower, they do.”

Queen Elizabeth I, the Darnley portrait, circa 1575

My favorite scene in Famine is one in which the characters move seamlessly from discussing a murder investigation – the killing of one Sweetmilk Graham –  to making music together:

“And then,” continued Carey, as he dug in a canvas bag for the latest madrigal sheets he had carried with him faithfully from London, “there’s where he put the body. After all, Solway field’s a very odd place. The marshes or the sea would give him a better chance of the body never being found. It’s almost as if he couldn’t think of anywhere else. And how did Swanders come by the horse?”

“Killed Sweetmilk?” asked Henry Widdrington, picking up one of the sheets and squinting at it. “

“Not Swanders. He doesn’t own a dag. A knife in the ribs would be more his mark. Can you take the bass part?”

Henry Widdrington whistled at the music. “I can try.”

Meanwhile Lord Scrope, Chief Warden and husband to Sir Robert’s sister Philadelphia, is hard at work tuning the virginals in a corner of the room they’re currently occupying. Scrope may be a lackluster administrator, but he’s a genuine music lover and an excellent keyboardist.

And so, they’re off and singing! The effect they’re striving for would have sounded something like this:

or, more informally, this (‘O Eyes of My Beloved’ by Orlando di Lasso – such a beautiful song!):

(Now in my youth, I sang with a madrigal group, and I can tell you from experience, it’s a fiendishly tricky business for nonprofessionals.)

Another way in which Chisholm strives to achieve authenticity is through liberal use of vocabulary appropriate to the times. Here I must insert a caveat. Words such as Cramoisie and dag do not trip lightly off the tongue of a modern reader. The author does not provide a glossary; I rather wish that she had. Even a few footnotes at the bottom of the page would have been helpful. The degree to which this is a problem will of course vary from reader to reader. (I put together a brief glossary for my fellow Suspects. It’s available upon request!)

A Famine of Horses is the first in a series that at present comprises eight novels. I have read all of them. In the main, they are quite entertaining. I thought A Murder of Crows (2010) rather sub par, to the extent that I had trouble finishing it. On the other hand, I found A Chorus of Innocents (2015), a real triumph and, in my opinion, the best series entry since the series itself began. A Suspicion of Silver, entry number nine, is due out in December of this year. (P.F. Chisholm is a pseudonym used by Patricia Finney, a writer of historical fiction and children’s books.)

Another series of which I’m inordinately fond is the Bill Slider series written by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. These novels have the same sparkling irreverence and wit that I prize in the Sir Robert Carey novels. The latest, which I just finished, is entitled Shadow Play.

The dialog that characterized Slider’s team is often quite delightful. To wit:

“I’ve never been there,” Atherton said. “Don’t need to. It’s a totally justified irrational prejudice based on subliminal impressions gained over a lifetime.”

“I wish you came with subtitles,” Loessop complained.

And I love this description of a top speed race to capture a suspect on the run, so dizzying it’s positively cinematic:

It was a glorious, adrenalin-fueled chase, through the narrow streets of Soho, dodging the evening revellers and the crawling traffic; down Wardour Street, left into Noel, left again into Poland, across Broadwick Street, into Lexington. Onlookers stepped helpfully out of the way, even when LaSalle shouted, ‘Police!’ In the old days someone would have stuck out a foot. Loessup began to fall behind, but LaSalle had long legs. Where were the two men carrying a sheet of glass, the tottering stack of cardboard  boxes, the young mother pushing a pram, when you needed them?

Having just finished the twentieth installment of the adventures of Bill Slider and company, I find myself so enamored of this series that I’m thinking of going back to the beginning and starting it all over again!

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“‘The void, the waste, the black blackness.'” – The Knowledge, by Martha Grimes

June 14, 2018 at 7:25 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  In 1981, Martha Grimes burst onto the mystery scene with The Man with a Load of Mischief. In that novel, we were introduced to DCI Richard Jury and a colorful cast of supporting characters. This has been followed by twenty-three additional novels in the series, the titles all standing for the names of pubs or similar establishments.

The Man with the Load of Mischief – wonderful title, that – was one of the first mysteries pressed eagerly into my hands when I came to work at the library in 1982. It was swiftly followed by The Old Fox Deceiv’d, published that same year. I stayed with the novels for a while, then left off reading them, and came back to it in 2006, intrigued by the reviews of that year’s series entry. In The Old Wine Shades, a mother and  son and their dog mysteriously go missing. Some nine months later, the dog reappears – but only the dog. What is one to make of these strange circumstances? I am reminded that Grimes wrote about this curious canine with especial eloquence and charm. I love this kind of writing! It may be time to reread this book. 

From the Publishers Weekly review:

The author’s gift at melding suspense, logical twists and wry humor makes this one of the stronger entries in this deservedly popular series.

The Old Wine Shades was followed by Dust, a novel to which I am particularly partial because of its references to Henry James, specifically to Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, where The Master dwelt from 1897 to 1914 (two years prior to his death). 

So: The Knowledge. This, of course, is the name of a pub – but one shrouded in mystery. Rumors of its existence persist, but those who should be most in the know – namely, London cab drivers, deny any knowledge of it. Yet those same men  and women are required to pass an incredibly difficult test known as – what else? – The Knowledge. It is reputedly

…a test which is amongst the hardest to pass in the world, it has been described as like having an atlas of London implanted into your brain.

The Knowledge Taxi – London Knowledge

An appalling crime is committed in front of the Artemis Club, an elite London establishment. Robbie Parsons, a London cab driver, is a witness. What happens next defies expectation – especially on Robbie’s part. From this act there grows a larger mystery, and a fiendishly complex one at that. This is a case  for Superintendent Richard Jury. He’ll need maximum brains and expertise to figure this one out.

At one point, fairly early on, the action switches to Africa, where Melrose Plant, Jury’s longtime unofficial assistant sleuth, is pursuing a crucial line of inquiry. Plant, aka Lord Ardry, is assisted in his endeavors by one Patty Haigh, a ten- (eleven?) -year-old girl of preternatural resourcefulness. She was my favorite character in the novel. Back in London, Patty’s confederates habitually stationed themselves at Heathrow and other key venues. They reminded me of the Baker Street Irregulars in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

In fact, for this reader, the appeal of these novels lies in their characters rather than their plots. This one was especially convoluted; I’d be hard pressed to unravel its complexities. No matter; I enjoyed spending time with this diverse and invariably entertaining dramatis personae. Melrose Plant in particular has a line in pained bewilderment that always makes me smile.

We here in greater Howard County have always had a special pride in Martha Grimes, a resident of Bethesda, one county to the south of us. Grimes also represents a small but significant group of American mystery writers who set their books in Britain. Two others that come to mind are Deborah Crombie and Elizabeth George. I’ve read and enjoyed several titles by Crombie. (If you’re going to read just one, I recommend Dreaming of the Bones.) I fear I must number myself among a small band of Elizabeth George dissenters. She’s hugely popular with readers and critics alike, I know. But for the most part I have found her writing to be ponderous and humorless. I readily concede, though, that the book that I did get through, With No One As Witness, was extraordinarily powerful (not to mention apparently enraging to some of her faithful readers).

At any rate: back to The Knowledge. It did get a bit sluggish in some places, but for the most part I enjoyed it and recommend it.

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The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry

June 9, 2018 at 7:15 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was busily at work on another post but I have to interrupt myself in order to write about this book. It is quite possibly the most gripping thriller I’ve ever read.

Or listened to, actually. The reader is Joe Barrett. His voice is somewhat gravelly; his reading, low key. I wasn’t sure I would like it. But  about half way into the first disc – there are nine altogether – it grabbed me.

And would not let go. I used any and every excuse to get into my car. I got everywhere early. I sat and listened, mesmerized and full of dread.

So: all plot and no character development, right? Wrong. The bomb maker – we never learn his real name – squares off against Dick Stahl, an experienced professional in the fields of both law enforcement and private security. Stahl’s deep knowledge of a seemingly limitless variety of explosive devices, detonators, and the deadly ways in which they can be deployed is combined with an equally deep understanding of the human potential for depravity. This makes him a formidable adversary. But the bomb maker himself is equally formidable. And unlike Dick Stahl, he has no moral compass at all.

The Kirkus review of The Bomb Maker describes Dick Stahl as “a hero worth caring about.” I could not agree more. And to add to the gifts abundantly present in this novel is a love story with just as much suspense inherent as the crime story possesses. Oh, and did I mention: the writing is excellent.

The part that remained remarkable to her was that on the first night they had both known they were very likely to die in days or weeks, and they had each accepted the other as the ideal person with whom to share those days and nights. Her impulsive attraction to the nearest wise and brave man had turned into something huge and real.

Where has Thomas Perry been all my life? After some twenty-five years of gorging myself on crime fiction, I’ve somehow managed to have read just this one of Perry’s twenty-five novels.  That will now change. (Anyone have any recommendations?)

The Bomb Maker opens with a bang. It builds to an hair-raising climax. And the ending is – well, you’ll see. You will, won’t you?

 

 

 

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Robicheaux fatigue, and a suggested remedy

May 26, 2018 at 8:18 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Herewith are some excerpts from media reviews of Robicheaux:

James Lee Burke is what fellow writers call a wordsmith. He can make your eyes water with a lyrical description of tropical rain falling on a Louisiana bayou: “I love the mist hanging in the trees,” he tells us… “a hint of wraiths that would not let heavy stones weigh them down in their graves, the raindrops clicking on the lily pads, the fish rising as though in celebration.” But in the next breath, he’ll offer a comprehensive account of an excruciating death by torture: “The guy who did him took his time.” And to satisfy our appetite for Southern eccentricity, he’ll introduce us to great characters like Baby Cakes Babineau and Pookie the Possum Domingue.

Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times

Is this the last in the series of the great crime writer James Lee Burke’s novels featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux? That eponymous title and an air of mortality as pungent as the semi-tropical Louisiana setting of these outstanding novels would suggest this may be the case.

It isn’t down to a diminishing of Burke’s powers at the age of 81 if so: this 21st instalment is as rewarding and superbly written as any in the series since the first, 1987’s The Neon Rain.

Alasdair Leeds in The Independent

Five years after his last case in far-off Montana (Light of the World, 2013), sometime sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux returns to Iberia Parish, Louisiana, for another 15 rounds of high-fatality crime, alcohol-soaked ruminations, and heaven-storming prose….

Despite a plot and a cast of characters formulaic by Burke’s standards (though wholly original for anyone else), the intimations of mortality that have hovered over this series for 30 years have never been sharper or sadder.

Kirkus

This is one of the best entries in one of the best ongoing crime-fiction series currently being published, and like all its predecessors, it’ll have readers eagerly waiting for the next installment.

Steve Donoghue in Open Letters Monthly

The novel’s murders and lies—both committed with unsettling smiles—will captivate, start to finish.

Publishers Weekly

Arthur Miller once said that what separates the great artists from their merely proficient peers is not talent, intelligence, or dedication, but an “unquenchable moral thirst.”

If the late playwright was correct, then his insight serves as explanation for why and how James Lee Burke, one of America’s best novelists, continues to write profound, poetic and important books at the age of 81, after already having won two Edgar Awards — the most prestigious honor for crime writers — a Guggenheim fellowship, and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. Burke infuses into his art a theological treatment of ethics, allowing for acts against humanity — both of the smallest repute and the largest consequence — to crack open the essence of reality in contemporary America, but also resting in what Poe famously called, “the tell-tale heart.”

David Masciotra in Salon

I don’t usually read a book’s reviews right before writing up my own assessment. This time is different. I wanted to get some sense of what the reviewers had been saying that had made me want to return to this series, after having abandoned it more than twenty years ago.

Well, now I know. And am none the wiser. Which is to say, I’m somewhat perplexed at all the unqualified raves. In Robicheaux, there are a multitude of characters. This in itself is not unusual in full length mysteries these days. But a number of these characters veer into the action sideways, only to disappear just as abruptly. They were hard to keep track of, to the point where I stopped caring – always a bad sign. As  for the plot: one of the reviewers described it as “multilayered.” I would have used the adjective “incoherent.” I cant be more specific at this time, since I read the book several weeks ago. But I doubt if I could have achieved an orderly retelling of the story even if I’d sat down to write this right after finishing the book.

And back to the characters, I recognized only two besides Dave Robicheaux, from previous books: Cletis “Clete” Purcel, Dave’s close buddy still wearing his signature pork pie hat, and Dave’s daughter Alafair, now grown and a successful novelist (like Burke’s real life daughter, also named Alafair). Other characters came and went; some stayed, like the shape changing Jimmy Nightingale. Some of these people verged on caricatures of Big Bad Southerners, obsessed with their guns, their drinking, and occasionally, their drugs.

Dave himself was still – well, Dave himself, ethical and upright to a fault (except when he wasn’t), still battling alcoholism, fiercely protective – overprotective I’d say – of Alafair. There were times when his air of moral superiority struck me as smug and irritating. A touch of comic relief would have helped, but there was very little of that on offer.

Regarding his home in southwestern Louisiana, Dave entertains a certain ambivalence. On the one hand:

Yes, Louisiana has produced some statesmen and stateswomen, but they are the exception and not the norm. For many years our state legislature has been known as a mental asylum run by ExxonMobil. Since Huey Long, demagoguery has bee a given; misogamy and racism and homophobia have become religious virtues, and self-congratulatory ignorance has  become a source of pride.

Yet, on the other:

I looked the oaks, the moss lifting in the wind, purple dust rising from a cane field, Bayou Teche glinting in the sun like a Byzantine shield. La Louisiane, the love of my life, the home of Jolie Blon and Evangeline and the great Whore of Babylon, the place for which I would die, the place for which there was no answer or cure.

And yes, there is plenty more writing of that caliber. Burke is well known for his way with words in general, and for his poetical descriptions of Louisiana in particular. Tony Hillerman managed to lure me – twice – into visiting New Mexico. (I’d go again in a heartbeat.) James Lee Burke’s depiction of south central Louisiana doesn’t have quite the same effect. Although….

Bayou Teche, near Dave’s home, is a real place.

I found two aspects of this novel profoundly off putting. First, the language was beyond coarse and vulgar, filled with profanity and references to body parts that you’d rather not talk about. Second, the violence was frequent, graphic, and spiked with sickening acts of sadism.

Even so, I pushed ahead to the end, wanting to give the novel every chance to redeem itself in my eyes. And well, the ending was rather fitting, ironic, even sad. It made you wonder what all the effort was for.

Mostly I was just glad it was over. Would I ever read another? If I thought there were a hope for something more humane and less savage, I might.

There was a time when I was so hooked on this series that its unearthly setting invaded my dreams. From 1989, the pub year  of the Edgar-award-winning Black Cherry Blues, through A Morning For Flamingos and A Stained White Radiance to In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, published in 1993, I was a faithful reader. In that last novel, Burke evoked the spirits of the doomed soldiers of the Old South, as they slogged through the swamps and lit their campfires where they could. Those men still haunt Robicheaux in this novel. It’s a powerful and haunting trope.

James Lee Burke

I went straight from this unsettling reading experience to another of Ann Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope mysteries. Vera’s no paragon of perfection either, but she’s honest with herself and with others, smart as a whip, and very sympathetic where sympathy is  called for. The violence is muted; the language is low key yet devastating. This one was called Harbour Street.

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