Crime Fiction Update III: The Rest of Them

April 12, 2021 at 5:30 pm (Mystery fiction)

Okay, as I’m eager to get back to posting about art, I’m going to fairly race  through the remaining titles on my list of mysteries:

A second reading, for a book group discussion. Loved it. I always like mysteries set in academia. (“Academic Politics Are So Vicious Because the Stakes Are So Small.”) Can hardly wait to read the next one, The Postscript Murders. So happy to know that DS Harbinder Kauer will feature in this sequel (along, hopefully, with her delightful mother).

This is a series that never lets me down. I feel so comfortable and contented hanging out with the newly promoted Chief of Police Bruno Courreges and his friends (and his outstanding dog Balzac – a basset hound, or perhaps, more properly, a Petiit Basset Griffon Vendéen) in the village of St. Denis, nestled in the beautiful and historic Dordogne region of France.

This was good but not great. I appreciated the rural Irish setting, but the novel was longer than it needed to be. Characters were interesting but not especially compelling.

Mason Falls, Georgia, has an especially resourceful and appealing police officer in P. T. Marsh. A vivid setting coupled with a briskly moving plot make this one a winner. This is the first work I’ve read by McMahon; I intend to read more.

This is the sixth book I’ve read by Quartey and the first to disappoint. Characters, plot – it just never came together for me. But I’ve enjoyed his novels so much up to this point that I intend to read the next one anyway. And the Ghana setting continues to fascinate.

Perry’s The Bomb Maker is one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve ever read. But this one did not reach that mark. It had its moments – Perry’s been at  this for a long time, and he  really is an excellent writer – but  the the plot was fairly over the top, plus the body count was so high that – well, it was just too high.

    A lighthearted romp through Christie-land, this novel is actually set in upstate New York. The premise involves a rich and eccentric old lady, Vera Van Alst, who is searching for a supposedly lost play by the Queen of Crime. Miss Van Alst uses a wheelchair, so she hires Jordan Bingham to do her sleuthing for her. Jordan is both ambitious and clueless – she didn’t even know about Christie’s famous missing days in Harrogate! The plot was all over the place and there were too many characters, but the novel did have its humorous moments. These mostly involved Vera Van Alst’s relentless cook, Signora Panetone, who is constantly scurrying about in the kitchen and dining room and exhorting Vera and Jordan to “Eat! Eat!” She was my favorite character. (Also read for a book group)

  I love reading books set in Wyoming. (My son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren are frequent visitors there.) It a place of surpassing beauty. Also, if you read the crime fiction of C.J. Box (and Craig Johnson too) a place of considerable danger, the danger emanating largely from political infighting. As regards this particular series entry, game warden Joe Pickett is once again in the thick of the action when, in a shocking incident,  a judge’s wife takes a bullet. Long Range has one of the most imaginative, beautifully written opening chapters that I’ve ever encountered in a mystery. This was a most enjoyable read; I’m greatly looking forward to the next one, Dark Sky.

 

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Crime Fiction Update II: Mysteries of Brittany, as elucidated by Jean-Luc Bannalec

April 9, 2021 at 2:30 pm (France, Mystery fiction)

Hardcover Death in Brittany Book Hardcover Murder on Brittany Shores : A Mystery Book

 

Jean-Luc Bannalec

Having hugely enjoyed Death in Brittany, I knew I’d want to follow up with this series. The second entry, Murder on Brittany Shores, concerns the relation between the lad and the sea. Unlike Death in Brittany, the story does not concern itself with the region’s rich artistic heritage. I was initially disappointed by this, but I was won over as I read on. For one thing, Bannalec’s descriptions of coastal Brittany are simply wonderful. To whit, Commissaire Georges Dupin’s ruminations early in the novel :

He had stopped saying that the sea was blue. Because that wasn’t true: the sea  was  not just blue. Not here in this magical world of light. It was azure, turquoise, cyan, cobalt, silver-grey, ultramarine, pale watercolour blue, silver-grey [sic], midnight blue, violet blue…Blue in a good ten or fifteen base colours and and infinite numbers of shades in between. Sometimes it was even green, a real green or brown – and deep black. All of this depended on various factors: the sun and its position, of course, the season, the time of day, also the weather, the air pressure, the exact water content in the air, all of which refracted the light differently and shifted the blue into this or that tone….The most important factor was a different blue though – the sky, which varied in the same way and even contrasted with the clouds. It was this blue that found itself in an infinite interplay with the various shades of the sea. The truth was this: you never saw the same sea, the same sky, not once in the exact same hour and in the exact same place.

Then he cannot help adding:

And it was always a spectacle.

All credit to this eloquent writer – Jean-Luc Bannalec, pseudonym of Jörg Bong, a German national and deep lover of all things Breton. Equal praise is due to to the translator, Sorcha McDonagh.

One is given to believe that Brittany’s Celtic heritage is alive and well. Folk tales and legends are retold, with gusto. Here, for instance, is a retelling of the story of Groac’h, a species of supernatural being that (supposedly) inhabits the Breton landscape:

‘If she calls your name, you have no choice. She leads you to the Baie des Trépassés, the Bay of the Deceased. A boat is waiting for you. It’s low in the water and seems to be heavily laden and yet it’s totally empty. The Skiff of the Dead is waiting for your crossing. A sail hoists, as though by a ghostly hand, and you are tasked  with steering it safely to the Ile de Sein. As soon as the skiff reaches the island, the souls leave it. Then you may come back, to your family. Everything is just a shadow, but you are never the same.’

As I read the above passage, I got chills, because I recalled coming across the same tale in a book of Celtic legends some years ago.

Meanwhile, my liking for Commissaire Dupin is steadily growing. It helps greatly that these novels are police procedurals.

I went on to read the third book in the series, The Fleur de Sel Murders. In a way, the subject matter this time was the most exotic I’d yet encountered. As defined by Wikipedia, Fleur de Sel “…a salt that forms as a thin, delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates.” It has apparently been harvested from the Atlantic since ancient times.

Commissaire Dupin notes:

The fleur de sel gave off a curious fragrance in the days after the harvest; it mingles with the smell of rich clay and the salt and iodine in the air that people here in the middle of the white land–the Gwenn Rann. the far-reaching salt marshes of the Guerande–smelled and tasted more strongly with every breath than anywhere else on the coast.

Here is what this substance looks like just prior to harvesting:

And here it is, made ready for commercial consumption:

All this was quite intriguing to me. I’d never  before heard of fleur de sel; the same is probably true for you as well, Dear Reader. I might just betake myself to Wiliams-Sonoma and purchase this little item, provided the price is not overly outrageous.

Square plots of salt marsh are carefully laid out, zealously guarded and harvested by the paludiers, or salt farmers, who are responsible for their maintenance.

Now, as fascinating as all this may be, the plot of The Fleur de Sel Murders never developed any big momentum. There were times when I had to push myself to keep going. Mostly it was the substance itself that held my interest.

Despite this somewhat disappointing reading experience, I intend to stick with this series. On to The Missing Corpse! my hopes are high. Mostly I love spending time in Brittany, even if it as at a wide, wide remove. In my dreams, I will go there….

 

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Crime Fiction Update I: Classics

April 7, 2021 at 5:22 pm (Mystery fiction)

So: Due to general slothfulness and specific pandemic dullness, I have fallen woefully behind in my book blogging. This is especially true of mysteries, which I’ve been devouring like candy (a handy metaphor for one who can no longer consume actual candy – thanks for that, Type 2).

Let us now attempt to remedy  this woeful state of affairs. I will start with several classics.

Some weeks ago, I had the pleasure of viewing a webinar on crime fiction set at Oxford. This was presented by Daniel Stashower, a writer and critic. I recommend his book The Beautiful Cigar Girl, which tells the story behind the events that gave rise to one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget.”

Herewith the contents of the handout that accompanied this webinar:

An Oxford Tragedy, by J.C. Masterman

Death at the President’s Lodging, by Michael Innes

The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers

Trick of the Dark, by Val McDermid

Landscape with Dead Dons, by Robert Robinson

Oxford Blood, by Antonia Fraser

An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Ian Pears

The Oxford Murders, by Guillermo Martinez

The Inspector Morse series, by Colin Dexter

An Oxford Tragedy was a new one on me. Finding that it was available for downloading on Amazon for a mere $4.74, I acquired it and read it. Turns out, there was good reason for never having heard of this title: John Cecil Masterman was an academic, associated for almost his entire life with Oxford. In that time he wrote only two mysteries, of which An Oxford Tragedy, published in 1933, is the first. (The second, The Case of the Four Friends, did not appear until 1957.)

For the most part, I found this an enjoyable work of crime fiction. The enclosed world of the fictional St. Thomas College is beautifully realized, as seen through the eyes of the novel’s narrator, the sixty-year-old Senior Tutor Francis Wheatley Winn. Here he describes one of his favorite regular rituals:

To a middle-aged don, as I might describe myself, or to an old don, as I might almost be described, there is no place more pleasant  than Common Room, no hour more wholly pleasurable than that spent in it immediately after dinner. For here the fellows of St. Thomas’s, having dined, settled down to enjoy the comfort of port and desert, of coffee and cigars,

I really like reading this kind of gently antiquated prose.

Since we are at Oxford in the 1930s, we are dwelling in a largely exclusive male preserve. However, there are women in the lives of several of Wheatley’s colleagues. They are, in fact, crucial to the plot of this novel.

My one reservation concerning An Oxford Tragedy has to do with the conclusion. Masterman piles on a whole lot of explanatory material at the very end. By the time he had finished this exposition, I found myself not caring very much, having been wearied by the whole exercise. I need to mention at this point that I’ve encountered this tendency as well in numerous contemporary crime novels.


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I’d like to mention briefly two other classics. Martin Edwards has said of Julian Symons that his distinguished work as a critic – he’s the author of Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History –  has tended to overshadow his achievements as a novelist. I’d like to sing the praises of one of those achievements. It is entitled The Progress of a Crime. This book received the 1961 Edgar Award for Best Novel. Upon reading it, I could easily see why. Highly recommended.


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Finally, an entry in the American Mystery Classics series. These works are currently being published by Otto Penzler, whose services to the field of crime fiction are great and much appreciated. That said, I was not overly enamored of the several series entries I’d read – until I picked up The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong. This tale is set once again in Southern California, that favored haunt of American crime fiction:

It was a bright afternoon, windy and clear. On all sides the hills were visible and sharp, cutting the flat land into valleys. The brilliant light picked out the brightest colors, greens in the landscape, red, orange, magenta flowers, and beat them to a sparkling blend. No color could be garish in this sun. The bright air consumed it all.

Twenty-three-year-old Amanda Garth, attractive and restless, manages to insinuate herself into the Garrison family. This distinguished, distinctive, yet in some ways secretive clan had as its patriarch, the painter Tobias Garrison. Matters evolve inevitably, and things become frightening and beyond Amanda’s control.

The Chocolate Cobweb came out in 1948. Charlotte Armstrong won the Edgar Award in 1957 for her novel A Dram of Poison. Have a look at her Wikipedia entry and you’ll see how prolific she was. And highly respected as well.

 

 

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Crime Fiction in the Grand Tradition: Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

March 7, 2021 at 8:54 pm (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction)

  What do I mean by ‘the grand tradition?” Well, I mean that Moonflower Murders is a whodunnit in the classic mode of Agatha Christie and her legion of imitators. Not that I would call Anthony Horowitz an imitator as such. On the contrary, he’s one of the more creative minds at work in the crime fiction field at the present time.

Susan Ryeland is a  former editor and publisher. As this novel opens, she is running a hotel and the island of Crete, along with her lover Andreas. (To find the reason for her sudden career switch, one must read Magpie Murders – a delightful task!) Susan finds herself summoned back to England  to help uncover the truth about the murder of a hotel guest named Frank Parris. The killing occurred in 2008 at Branlow Hall, an inn on the Suffolk coast. Adding urgency to the situation is the fact that Cecily Treherne, the daughter of Pauline and Lawrence Treherne, the hotel’s owners, has recently gone missing.

In her time as an editor, one of Susan’s authors had been Alan Conway, writer of a popular series of mysteries featuring Private Investigator Atticus Pund. Intrigued by the killing at Branlow Hall, Conway decides to make use of the crime in his next novel, to  be entitled Atticus Pund Takes the Case.

Cecily Treherne is married and the mother of a little girl. Before vanishing, she stated that she had unmasked  the true identity of the murderer of Frank Parris. How had she done this? By stumbling upon a crucial clue in Alan Conway’s novel.

Susan Ryeland realizes that in order to solve this present-day mystery, she must solve the past one as well. And to finally arrive at the truth concerning both, she must  revisit an experience that torpedoed her life’s work in 2008: She has to  read, for the second time, Atticus Pund Takes the Case.

And so she does, and so do we, right along with her. For this is not one book but two: The complete text of Alan Conway’s novel is contained within the pages of Moonflower Murders. I cannot forebear to mention that within the pages of Atticus Pund Takes the Case, I came across a reference that delighted me. It concerns the diminutive detective’s choice of reading matter to take on a rail journey:

Pund passed the time absorbed in a study that he had received from the highly respected American Academy of Forensic Sciences: an examination of the so-called Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee, who had constructed intricate models of complicated crime scenes in order to analyse them.

I first became aware of the Nutshell Studies when I was doing research for a course I taught several years ago. It was called Stranger Than Fiction: The Literature of True Crime. As for Frances Glessner Lee, she  became, almost accidentally, a pioneer in Forensic Science. I was fortunate enough to see the Nutshell Studies two years ago when  they were exhibited at the Renwick Gallery.

Meanwhile, on the same train trip alluded to above, Pund’s secretary Miss Cain was reading A Daughter’s a Daughter by Mary Westmacott. Mary Westmacott is a pseudonym used by Agatha Christie for works she wrote that were not in the crime fiction genre.

Moonflower Murders is a regular romp of a  novel. It contains no larger lessons about the human condition, at least none that I could  readily detect. It was written to entertain, and it succeeds beautifully. It’s long – some 580 pages – but I tore through it in a matter of days.

Anthony Horowitz is the creator of the tv series Foyle’s War; in addition, he wrote eleven episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot and six episodes of Midsomer Murders. He’s the author of the popular Alex Rider series for young adults as well as numerous other novels and plays. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If  there were an Anthony Horowitz Fan Club, I’d be in it.

Anthony Horowitz

 

 

 

 

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The Coldest Warrior, by Paul Vidich

December 11, 2020 at 4:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  An investigation into the death of a scientist working for the CIA yields shocking results.

The year is 1975. Jack Gabriel, an Agency veteran, has submitted his retirement to the Director. But his departure is put on hold. Instead, he is tasked  with finding out the truth about the death, just over twenty years ago, of Charles Wilson.

Jack has always had a degree of ambivalence concerning his chosen profession.

Lawyer? Investment banker? College professor? Those were the careers he had contemplated, but still the allure of espionage drew him to her bosom. The cerebral challenge of the work, the immediacy of the problems and  their complexity, the urgent call to fight  the great Cold War against Communism. These were what drew him.

He reluctantly embarks on this investigation, only to find that every step of the way, obstacles are placed in his path.

Charles Wilson had been a family man, with a wife and children. Antony, the eldest, has never been able to accept the verdict of suicide in his father’s death.

“What happened!”Antony snapped. “He died. Fell or jumped. That’s pretty clear, clear as mud.”
Gabriel was impatient with Antony’s testiness. “We both believe someone needs to be held accountable.”
“Really?” Antony stared. “He suffered the killing love of his friends.”

Paul Vidich’s prose is salted with allusions to classic literature: At one point, a character remarks that “Men strut their time in power and then are  heard from no more.” Or, as Shakespeare says in MacBeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
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For me, this is one of the most genuinely shocking passages in all of Shakespeare’s works. Even in the tragedies, he  usually seems so life affirming. But here – a blank void of night, sheer nihilism.
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The Coldest Warrior is based on a true story. I knew that, going in. I’m interested in the field of intelligence work, and had encountered a description of the actual events in my reading. What I was not aware of was that this author, Paul Vidich, has a personal connection to these events. I won’t say any more here. He reveals all in the acknowledgement section that follows the novel’s conclusion.
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I will say, though, that this novel has a greater impact if you read it in conjunction with a viewing of Errol Morris’s Wormwood. Available on Netflix, this six part documentary film recounts the actual story of the death of Frank Olson and the subsequent investigation – or perhaps, one should say, the subsequent cover-up. Some reviewers have felt that Wormwood is longer than necessary, and that in places it drags and is repetitious.
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I thought it was excellent. For one thing, the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia was evoked in a way that was positively uncanny. It lay dark and heavy over the unfolding events of the story. For another, the extended interview material with Frank Olson’s son Eric was riveting. Eric Olson simply refuses to let go of this inquiry until those responsible for his father’s death are named and held accountable. Quite a few of the individuals involved are now deceased. No matter. Dead or alive, they must be made to take responsibility.
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I came away from Wormwood with enormous respect and compassion for  this man who, decades ago at the age of nine, suddenly and unaccountably lost his father. The Olson family has had more than its share of tragedy. But decades after his father’s death, Eric Olson is still fighting the good fight.
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All the Devils Are Here, by Louise Penny

December 1, 2020 at 3:57 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

  I must dash this review off, lest I start forgetting what I’ve just read. Oops! – it’s already started!

Okay, so:

Armand Gamache, former head of the Sûreté du Québec, and his wife Reine-Marie have recently arrived in Paris from their home in the village of Three Pines, in Quebec. They’ve come to await the birth of their fourth grandchild. Also present is Stephen Horowitz, Armand’s godfather. Horowitz is a very wealthy man who presents a mysterious face to the world, but not to the Gamache family, who know and love him.

Having established the mise en scene in the City of Light and peopled it with her familiar characters, Penny proceeds to launch the story almost immediately with a dastardly transgression committed right in their midst, a crime whose evil intent very nearly succeeds. From this point on, events unfold rapidly, with Armand forced to pit his wits against an extremely ruthless and cunning foe.

This plunge directly into the icy water of criminal intent has  become a familiar trope in contemporary crime fiction – in other words, don’t waste time on description, get things moving at once! (You can just hear the editor/first reader exhorting the author.) It didn’t trouble me this time, mainly because Penny kept the pace lively right up until the home stretch when, at least for me, the plot became labored and overly complex. I find that when that happens  in a crime novel, I start to zone out, not really caring whay happens next – or worse, not being able to believe in the increasingly arcane developments.

As for the characters, all the members of the famille Gamache are front and center. Everyone does not love everyone equally, which refreshing. Armand is ferociously devoted to everyone, which can be grating at times. Also grating is his Superman schtick – he is always there to save the day (Oh wait – should  that be Mighty Mouse?), always on the side of Right, always stronger and more resourceful than the next guy (or woman). As if to affirm her wokeness, Penny has grown men crying and declaring “I love you!” to one another – again, this is usually Armand.

I loved the Paris setting. I don’t always read Penny because I don’t always like her novels, but when I realized that this one was not set in the overly cute little Québécois village of Three Pines, I thought I’d give it a go. (I was especially pleased not to have to spend time in the company of one of my least favorite denizens of Three Pines, the truculent poet Ruth Zardo and her pet duck Rosa.)

Finally, a point concerning grammar. Penny makes frequent use of ‘this’s’ as a contraction of ‘this is.’ I did a bit of research on this, and as is frequent with question of usage, I got widely differing results. My conclusion is that while ‘this’s’ is not flat out wrong, it could still be termed nonstandard. Now this may seem like a small point, but I’m something of a grammarian – blame long years as an English major and then an English teacher – so things like this matter to me.

Looking over this write-up, it would appear that this is a negative review. If so, I’ve conveyed a not quite accurate impression. I actually enjoyed the book and pretty well raced through it – at least, up until the closing chapters, where too much was happening that was confusing and strained credulity. Nevertheless, a thumbs, up, although with reservations.

My favorite Gamache novel is still Bury Your Dead.

 

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More on the Post-Impressionists

November 22, 2020 at 9:10 pm (Art, France, Mystery fiction)

[Click here for the previous post on this subject.]

Roderic O’Conor was an Irish artists who lived and worked with the Pont Aven painters, for a time.

Yellow Landscape 1892, by Roderic O’Conor

 

Moonlit Lndscape, Roderic O’Conor

On the Irish Times site, there’s an excellent piece on O’Conor. Be sure to watch the video; there’s a presentation by an exceptionally eloquent curator.
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  Our instructor recommended to us a mystery novel set in Brittany. Death in Brittany, translated and published here in 2014,  features Commissaire Georges Dupin. Judging by  the name, c’est un hommage, I assume, to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous Parisian armchair sleuth. But this Dupin spends very little time sitting around waxing intellectual. Instead, he traverses the length and breadth of his adopted  home, trying to solve first one murder, then another.

Being as he’s a newcomer – only lived in Brittany for three years, specifically resident in Concarneau – he is still in the process of getting to know the place, and to understand it:

Inhale in Concarneau and you tasted salt, iodine, seaweed, mussels in every breath, like a distillation of the entire endless expanse of the Atlantic, brightness  and light. In Pont Aven it was the river, moist, rich earth, hay, trees, woods, the valley and shadows, melancholy fog-the countryside.

And there’s more:

The landscape became more and more enchanting as the narrow little streets of Pont-Aven gave way to thick woodland. The trees were dripping with mistletoe and ivy, overgrown and moss-covered. some of the trees here had entwined as they grew, forming a log dark green tunnel. now and then the Aven shimmered between the trees on the left hand side as though it were electrically charged, a pale silver color. The last of the day’s light bathed everything in its glow, lending the landscape even more of a fairytale atmosphere.

As for the painters of more than a century ago – their traces are still very much present. Dupin enters a room in the main floor of a hotel that’s central to his investigation and at once  beholds stunning collection:

There were twenty-five of these by his estimation, maybe thirty, by artists from the famous artists’ colony such as Paul Serusier, Laval, Emile Bernard, Armand Seguin, Jacob Meyer de Haan and of course Gauguin….

The Talisman, an 1888 work by Paul Serusier, so called because it attained an iconic status for Les Nabis. They thought of it as the jumping off point for their artistic movement.

The author of Death in Brittany writes under the pseudonym. Jean-Luc Bannalec is German but spends much of his time in Brittany. Monsieur Bannalec is the holder of a doctorate from l’Université Johann Wolfgang Goethe de Francfort-sur-le-Main. He has worked as an editor and journalist. There’s a Wikipedia entry for him in French under his real name, Jorg Bong.

The Georges Dupin novels currently number five. I look forward to reading the next one.

Breton Girls Dancing, by Paul Gauguin

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Although Van Gogh is classified as a Post-Impressionist, he did not go to Brittany to paint. He famously went to the south of France instead, hoping to found an artists’ colony there. Gauguin joined him there for two months. It did not go well.

There’s an interesting book on this failed experiment: 

Alas, poor Van Gogh; very little went well in his short, sad life. I read a biography of him recently that was excellent, very engrossing, but…”If you have tears, prepare to shed them now….

Many of us wish that Van Gogh could somehow come to know how much his art is loved and valued in the present era. There’s an episode of the long running British series Doctor Who that made  that happen. I for one am very grateful to them:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine) 1930-2015

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The Talented Mr. Varg by Alexander McCall Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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