‘You can be called to a last effort, a final heroic statement….’ – Only To Sleep by Lawrence Osborne

September 14, 2018 at 3:02 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The year is 1988. Philip Marlowe is living in (theoretically) comfortable retirement in Baja, California. For recreation, he goes to the La Fonda Hotel. These words in jacket copy evoke the tenor of his life at this juncture:

‘Sipping margaritas, playing cards, his silver-tipped cane at the ready.’

Wait a minute – Philip Marlowe with a cane? Never fear: canes can conceal useful devices. (One thinks, for instance, of the famous silver-tipped cane of Hercule Poirot.)

For Marlowe, all is in a condition of calm stasis, until:

….two men from the Pacific Mutual insurance company walked into the terrace bar of La Fonda Hotel. They were dressed like undertakers and had sauntered down from the main road above the hotel, finding me seated alone with my pitcher of sangria and my silver-tipped cane as if they had known I would  be there unaccompanied within sight of my home on the Baja cliffs. They knew which house it was, too, because their eyes rose to take it in, and they smiled with the small contempt of company men.

Turns out that these two men find themselves in need of a private investigator. A wealthy Californian, Donald Zinn, has died suddenly while in Mexico. Zinn’s life was insured for a hefty sum. The folks at Pacific Mutual, however, are uneasy about the precise circumstances of his death. Could Marlowe look into the matter  for them?

They lay out the case before him, photographs included. He agrees to take it on. One of his first moves will be to interview Zinn’s widow, Dolores Araya. “‘Seeing the wife is always the fun part’,” he announces cavalierly. But of course it proves to be quite otherwise. The comely Dolores is the named beneficiary of Zinn’s life insurance policy. She is also the requisite femme fatale in the case, so emblematic of the noir genre. (I’m reminded of one of my favorite of Raymond Chandler’s literary locutions: “She looked tall and her hair was the color of a brush fire seen through a dust cloud.” (from “The King in Yellow”)

Almost all of the action in Only To Sleep takes place in Mexico, as Marlowe follows lead after lead, in his quest for the truth about Donald Zinn’s death. Meanwhile, something within him has been revived:

I bought a sugared churro and wandered about at the edge of this hidden world, feeling young for the first time in years. It happens like  that, and sometimes in a single moment. You are no longer seventy-two years old. The ocotillos bloomed red, their flowers like still paper cups, and the mesquites were filled with gracklings, as if they were the first signs of new life: an old man in a  ragged cowboy hat blinked at them and wondered if he had a year left after all. A year, maybe even two.

And yet, during his first encounter with Dolores:  “Her gaze went straight to the heart of my fog-bound decrepitude.”

It soon becomes obvious that she’s at the dead center of a very clever deception. Knowing this is one thing; proving it is quite another.

A beautiful fraud is like the merging of two elements that combine to make something fat more formidable than the merely beautiful and the merely fraudulent.

Meanwhile, other people, both Mexican nationals and expatriate Americans,  become involved in the investigation. It gets complicated, but never too complicated to  follow. There’s plenty of action, and yet the pace of the novel seemed slow at times, almost stately. There was plenty of space for description of the exotic setting, and for the rueful ruminations of the superannuated detective.

Toward the novel’s conclusion, Marlowe finds himself alone in the midst of a riotous street carnival:

The young looked at me the way you would a piece of cardboard tossed down a street on the wind. Wreckage with eyes and a pulse. The wounded animal dragging itself back to a tree it knows, a patch of shade where it can die in peace.

But of course he does not die. and nor does he succumb to sentiments quite as bathetic as this again. In fact, the ending confers a kind of benediction; Marlowe acknowledges the fact that he has indeed experienced his last hurrah and made a god job of it into the bargain.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
“Ulysses” Alfred, Lord Tennyson
**********************

Lawrence Osborne was asked by the estate of Raymond Chandler to write a novel featuring Chandler’s most famous creation, Philip Marlowe. Two other writers have been so honored: Robert B. Parker (Poodle Springs, which Wikipedia calls a “post-mortem collaboration since Chandler had already written the first four chapters, and Perchance to Dream) and John Banville writing as Benjamin Black (The Black-Eyed Blonde).

In his author’s notes, Osborne admits to feeling  both honored and challenged by “stepping into the mind” of one of crime fiction’s most iconic creations. In my reading of Only To Sleep, I get the sense  that he made some deliberate decision with regard to style. Very little if any hard-boiled slang, not much in the way of snarky one liners. But some very effective use of figurative language – similes and the like.

The autumnal atmosphere hangs heavily over the story. Marlowe is well aware that his strength and his reflexes are no longer those of a younger man. Most poignantly, the desire evoked by a beautiful women has not been tamped down, but the impulse to act on that desire has been muted. The need not to appear overweening or foolish is powerful.

Many are the images that film and television have given us of Philip Marlowe.

Dick Powell

 

 

Robert Mitchum

Elliot Gould

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

In all of these iterations, Marlowe appears to be in his late thirties or early forties. (A letter written by Chandler in 1951 gives his detective’s age as thirty-eight.) As I was reading, I found myself in need of a mental image of Philip Marlowe as he would have looked in his early seventies. I wanted a visage that might look like Ulysses in the poem quoted above: weathered but resolute. Here’s what I came up with at length, with apologies to Clint Eastwood:

Philip Marlowe at 72? Maybe…

Permalink 1 Comment

The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

September 9, 2018 at 3:12 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural, Uncategorized)

  The Writers’ House is designed to be a sanctuary. Within its walls, those who long for literary achievement and eventual recognition can work in a peaceful setting, receive helpful suggestions from fellow aspirants, and be instructed and encouraged by guest writers acting as as tutors and exemplars.

As the novel opens, DI Vera Stanhope has been prowling the environs in search of her neighbor Joanna Tobin. Joanna has suddenly gone missing; her partner Jack thinks she’s at the Writers’ House. Vera hasn’t had any luck so far in finding her and thinks she might be on a fool’s errand.

Suddenly, from an upper balcony of the house, an bloodcurdling scream issues forth. What on earth can have happened in this quiet, remote fastness dedicated to intellectual pursuits? The police have been called, but Vera is already on the scene, ready to intervene in what must certainly be a dire crisis. And so it proves to be. But she and her team of investigators are a long time figuring out the real genesis of that scream.

I love the way this novel unfolds. The situation becomes increasingly complex as new characters emerge onto the scene – everyone in the Writers’ House, to begin with. Vera and her trusty second, Joe Ashworth, remain in charge of the investigation.

It proves a very tough nut to crack. But Vera, exulting in just this kind of chase, thinks:

Deep down, everyone loved a murder almost as much as she did. They loved the drama of it, the frisson of fear, the exhilaration of still being alive. People had been putting together stories of death and the motives for killing since the beginning of time, to thrill and to entertain.

But of course, there could be qualifying circumstances:

It was different of course if you were close to the victim. Or to the killer.

Throughout the novel, Cleeves intersperses clues to Vera’s thought processes and working methods, especially where interviewing a witness or a suspect is concerned. These nuggets tend to be expressed briefly and in pithy language:

Vera had better timing than a stand-up comedian and knew the importance of a pause.

In theory Vera liked strong women; in practice they often irritated her.

Kindness could be a great weapon.

‘There’s a casserole I made a couple of days ago when I was feeling domestic. I get the urge sometimes, but it soon passes.’

It occurred to her that there might be a greater proportion of psychopaths in Parliament than in prison.

Vera had no patience for speculation. Unless she was the one doing the speculating.

Gradually these observations coalesce to form a portrait of a singular personality. Speaking as a person who more or less devours large quantities of crime fiction – not to mention true crime – I find Vera Stanhope utterly unique.

We also learn a lot about Vera from the way she interacts with Joe Ashworth:

Joe had been listening intently. She loved that about him. The way he hung on her every word.

Vera thought Joe was a soft-hearted sod, but she liked him the better for it.

Although it is Vera’s restless intellect with which we’re primarily engaged, Joe is an important character as well, a vital sounding board for her wide-ranging thoughts and speculations. Vera is somewhere in middle age, lives alone, has no children. This in no way hinders her powers of empathy. Joe is somewhat younger, married with three small children.

An interesting thing happens to Joe in this novel: he finds himself attracted to Nina Backworth, a woman involved in the case that he and Vera are investigating. The attraction seems to be mutual. Acting on this attraction would be a bad idea for any number of reasons. Yet so perverse are the wellsprings of human desire that the worse the idea becomes, the more power it exerts. ‘Lust that felt like adultery’ is what Joe is experiencing; it’s causing him to feel desperate and distracting him from the case.

Finally at one point, Joe manages to carve out some time at home for his wife Sal and their ‘bairns:’

When they were alone at last, he sat with his wife on the sofa, his arm around her shoulders, cuddling together like teenagers. Thought there was nobody in the world he would feel so at ease with. He couldn’t imagine Nina Backworth watching old episodes of The Simpsons and laughing with him at the same jokes. Later he took Sal to bed and they made love. Afterwards he lay awake, listening to her breathing, loving her with all his heart and soul and pushing away the feeling that there should be more to life than this.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in The Glass Room. Questions beget answers, which then beget more questions. I was completely drawn in, and stayed that way till the end.

Thus far I’ve read six of the eight novels in the Vera Stanhope series. I am worried about running out. No pressure, Ann, but could you write faster?

I can’t discuss this series without mentioning the television adaptations. I think they’re excellent. Some of the episodes are based directly on the novels; others use the characters and write new stories for them. As is almost always the case, the casting of the main protagonist is inspired: Brenda Blethyn as Vera Stanhope:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

‘If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.’ – Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt

September 3, 2018 at 1:34 am (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  Meet Andy Carpenter – the brash and  breezy, confident – some might say, overconfident – attorney for the defense, based in Passaic County, New Jersey. Andy well knows how to antagonize judges and prosecutors alike. He’ll do just about anything to score a win for his client. But with Willie Miller, he’s really up against it.

Willie was apprehended by police as he stood in an alley over the body of Denise McGregor, victim of a brutal murder. A bloodied knife found at the scene has Willie’s prints on it. Genetic material later recovered from under her fingernails later traces back to him. It really does look like an open and shut case.

But of course, it isn’t.

Willie has already been convicted of this crime and has served seven years on death row. But he’s recently won the right to an new trial- and to be represented by a new lawyer. Upon entering Willie’s death row cell,  Andy asks, in the most inoffensive way possible, how Willie is doing. Willie responds by practically biting his new attorney’s head off. To which Andy responds,

“What is it about death row that makes people so damned cranky?”

That breaks the ice, and they’re able to get into a serious discussion of Willie’s situation. As is often the case in these (fictional) situations, things are more complicated than they seem at first. Also, as is often the case in crime fiction, this current murder case has its roots deep in the past.

I very much appreciated this author’s light touch. Things get serious, but rarely so serious that a good wisecrack can’t supply a bit of leavening. Moreover, for me, the setting was a big plus: northern New Jersey, my ancestral home.  (I was at the same time reminded of the historical mystery Girl Waits with Gun. Like Open and Shut, it was mainly set in Passaic County, due north of Essex County, my birthplace.)

There’s plenty of courtroom action in Open and Shut. These scenes were tense and engaging; moreover, they were like a lesson in courtroom procedure. I learned a lot, painlessly.

You’ll note that the cover of the  book features the picture a golden retriever. Andy Carpenter has one, and he is unabashed in his adoration of her.

There is nothing like a golden retriever. I know, I know, it’s a big planet with a lot of wonderful things, but golden retrievers are the absolute best. Mine is named Tara. She is seven years old and the most perfect companion anyone could ever have.

I love his love for this endearing animal. And despite what I said earlier, Andy has a basic sense of decency. He can be very kind, to people as well as dogs. I really like the guy. This is the first entry in the Andy Carpenter series; I hope to read more.

This book was recommended to me by my friend Angie. I’m now reading another of her excellent recommendations: Final Resting Place by Jonathan F. Putnam. Set in Springfield, Illinois in 1838, it features a young Abraham Lincoln as a protagonist; his friend. and roommate Joshua Speed is the narrator. I’m about half way through and enjoying it very much.

Thanks, Angie!

Permalink 1 Comment

“…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.

 

 

 

 

 

Permalink 1 Comment

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

Permalink Leave a Comment

‘…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.

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

‘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.

 

 

 

 

Permalink 2 Comments

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

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.

Permalink 1 Comment

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!

Permalink 1 Comment

Next page »