‘The Name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him….’ – Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

November 19, 2017 at 2:30 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is like a Golden Age detective novel on steroids – not that all of those were necessarily short. There’s always Gaudy Night. And that crowning (and lengthy) achievement in crime fiction by Dorothy L Sayers does not contain a murder.

Magpie Murders is a book within a book. Or perhaps it is better described as a book alongside another book. At the very least. it is oddly structured. But it does have some recognizable features, most particularly a brainy and cultured ‘consulting’ detective who arrives on Britain’s shores as a refugee from the war on the Continent. Remind you of someone? Well, he is somewhat reminiscent of Hercule Poirot, but his finely honed powers of observation also bring to mind Sherlock Holmes.

He is Atticus Pünd. This is how he appears to a physician who is treating him:

The name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him, of course. He was often mentioned in the newspapers – a German refugee who had managed to survive the war after spending a year in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. At the time of his arrest he had been a policeman working in Berlin – or perhaps it was Vienna – and after arriving in England, he had set himself up as a private detective, helping the police on numerous occasions. He did not look like a detective. He was a small man, very neat, his hands folded in front of him. He was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a narrow black tie. His shoes were polished. If he had not known otherwise, the doctor might have mistaken him for an accountant, the sort who would work for a family firm and who would be utterly reliable.

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Inevitably, Atticus Pund has a ‘Watson,’ hired to assist him in his detecting and record keeping endeavors. This is James Fraser.

A graduate out of Oxford University, a would-be actor, broke, and perennially unemployed, he had answered an advertisement in the Spectator thinking that he would stay in the job for a few months. Six years later, he was still there.

(Later in the novel, we’re informed that James Fraser was named for actor Hugh Fraser who played Captain Hastings, the somewhat dim but extremely likable ‘associate’ of  David Suchet’s brilliant Poirot.)

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Captain Arthur Hastings

Atticus Pünd is a person possessed of deep understanding and a great capacity for empathy. Here, he is confiding to James Fraser his anxiety about the case they are investigating:

 ‘There is something about the village of Saxby-on-Avon that concerns me,’ he went on. ‘I have spoken to you before of the nature of human wickedness, my friend. How it is the small lies and evasions which nobody sees or detects but which can come together and smother you like the fumes in a house fire.’ He turned and surveyed the surrounding buildings, the shaded square. ‘They are all around us. Already there have been two deaths: three, if you include the child who died in the lake all those years ago. They are all connected. We must move quickly before there is a fourth.’

Meanwhile, Pünd is at work on a book which he hopes will encompass all the skills that he has acquired in the course of his detecting l life. It is to be entitled The Landscape of Criminal Investigation. (This immediately put me in mind of the oft-quoted tome The Principles of Private Detection,  written by Clovis Anderson and held in the highest esteem by Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Their creator, Alexander McCall Smith, has said that readers frequently ask him where they can obtain a copy of this purportedly  wondrous volume. “You can’t,” he responds. “I made it up!”)

The Atticus Pünd novels are written by Alan Conway. His London-based editor, Susan Ryeland, narrates a portion of Magpie Murders. (As I said, this is a novel within a novel, or you could say it’s two novels conflated into one. If this seems confusing, don’t worry. It’s actually quite a cunning edifice, offering numerous delights and surprises within.)

At one point, Ryeland speculates on the appeal of the English village as a setting for crime fiction:

Why do English villages lend themselves so well to murder? I used to wonder about this but got the answer when I made the mistake of renting a cottage in a village near Chichester….I soon discovered that every time I made one friend I made three enemies and that arguments about such issues as car parking, the church bells, dog waste and hanging flower baskets dominated daily life to such an extent that everyone was permanently at each other’s throats. That’s the truth of it. Emotions which are quickly lost in the noise and chaos of the city fester around the village square, driving people to psychosis and violence. It’s a gift to the whodunnit writer. There’s also the advantage of connectivity. Cities are anonymous but in a small, rural community everyone knows everyone, making it so much easier to create suspects and, for that matter, people to suspect them.

This passage put me in mind of the following exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in  the story “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” The two are traveling by train from London to Winchester:

It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and grey roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

Susan Ryeland is a lover of detective fiction, but she’s genuinely puzzled by the  frequent use of murder as a key plot device:

There are hundreds and hundreds of murders in books and television. It would be hard for narrative fiction to survive without them. And yet there are almost none in real life, unless you happen to live in the wrong area. Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us – the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable? I made a mental note to check out Alan’s sales figures in San Pedro Sula in Honduras (the murder capital of the world). It might be that they didn’t read him at all.

(It saddens me to reflect that the comment about “the wrong area” would probably not be made these days by an American. We’re learning more and more, to our collective chagrin, that the wrong area can be anywhere at all.)

Despite a certain unease, Susan Ryeland readily confesses her love for the crime fiction genre:

I’ve always loved whodunnits. I’ve not just edited them. I’ve read them for pleasure throughout my life, gorging on them actually. You must know that feeling when it’s raining outside and the heating’s on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book. You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover. That is the particular power of the whodunnit which has, I think, a special place within the general panoply of literary fiction because, of all characters, the detective enjoys a particular, indeed a unique relationship with the reader. Whodunnits are all about truth: nothing more, nothing less.

Ah, yes – the pages slipping through your fingers, a delicious sensation hard to replicate with an e-reader…. And speaking of pages, don’t be daunted  by the novel’s length. It’s about 450 pages long but they fly by. (And why can’t I tell you exactly how long it is? Well, I’d have to do some arithmetic first. But really, just get it and you will see for yourself.)

Magpie Murders is a splendid hommage to the crime fiction of a bygone era. I’m immensely grateful to Anthony Horowitz for writing it.

Anthony Horowitz, named Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to literature in 2014

 

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Trace, by Archer Mayor: a Joe Gunther novel

October 30, 2017 at 6:55 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Joe Gunther, former Lieutenant in the Brattleboro Police Department and now  Special Agent field commander for the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI), always knew that if for any reason he were to be sidelined, all ‘heck’ would break loose at the VBI.

He was right.

As the events of Trace get under way, Joe’s elderly mother has fallen ill with a variant of Lyme Disease. The best treatment for her is only available at a hospital in the Midwest. Joe must accompany his mother to this facility and say with her for the duration, leaving his trusty subordinate Sammie Martens in charge.

Sure enough, no sooner has he left the premises, then things start to happen. An investigation into a police shooting  that occurred two years previous is reopened due to the discovery of new evidence. That case goes to Lester Spinney. Next, some strange objects found on a stretch of of railroad track – a crushed battery and several human teeth (!) – seems to point to an infraction that could involve Homeland Security. The elusive and slippery Willy Kunkle catches this one.

Finally, there’s a break-in at the apartment of Rachel Reiling, daughter of state medical examiner Beverly Hillstrom. Beverly and Joe are in a relationship, so Joe is particularly anguished at being hors  de combat at this critical moment. As per Beverly’s request, Sammie becomes part of the team investigating this crime and its weighty, complex consequences.

Archer Mayor handles all of this with his usual skill and aplomb. In my opinion, he is one of the best in the business when it comes to constructing tight, consistent plots. His team members are beautifully drawn characters. We  get engrossing insights into their personal lives minus the soap opera aspect that can become so grating in some crime fiction.

As always, Archer Mayor’s deep knowledge of and affection for Vermont provide a rich backdrop for the narrative:

They were traveling north on I-91, in preparation for catching the state’s only other interstate – I-89 -that cut diagonally through thee Green Mountains to reach Burlington on the western border. It was a beautiful, scenic, thinly traveled road, showing off some of the best views that northern New England had to offer.At this time of year–the soothing, seductive, emerald green stretch of time between the end of mud season and early fall, when this patch of earth holds out the brief glimpse of perfection–it was difficult for even a  hard-bitten soul not to be influenced.

Mayor can also gently chaff the Green Mountain State, as when he notes that the locals refer to the frequently sighted abandoned cars dotting the countryside as ‘Vermont planters.’

I think that this is one of the best entries I’ve read in this long running series. It’s beyond my understanding why Archer Mayor is not better known, his excellence more widely acknowledged. These novels are outstanding.

The following is from Archer Mayor’s site:

Archer Mayor is a death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, a detective for the Windham County Sheriff’s Office, the publisher of his own backlist, a travel writer for AAA, and he travels the Northeast giving speeches and conducting workshops. He has 25 years of experience as a volunteer firefighter/EMT. Mayor was brought up in the US, Canada and France and had been employed as a scholarly editor, a researcher for TIME-LIFE Books, a political advance-man, a theater photographer, a newspaper writer/editor, a lab technician for Paris-Match Magazine in Paris, France, and a medical illustrator. In addition to writing novels and occasional articles, Mayor gives talks and workshops all around the country, including the Bread Loaf Young Writers conference in Middlebury, Vermont, and the Colby College seminar on forensic sciences in Waterville, Maine.

Archer Mayor: From what I can see, a deeply accomplished and thoroughly admirable person

 

 

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‘See what a rent the envious Casca made…’ (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)

October 18, 2017 at 7:57 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

To find that his own ill-humour had quenched the gaiety of his guests appeared to afford him considerable gratification.

Thus does Nathaniel Herriard derive smug satisfaction in Envious Casca (1941), Georgette Heyer‘s gleeful send-up of the upper class guests and denizens of Lexham Manor. If he sounds an unpleasant creature, well, that’s more or less on the mark.

The situation is this: Joseph, Nathaniel’s brother, has planned a good old fashioned Christmas celebration  to take place at Lexham Manor. Joseph and his wife Maud also live at the grand establishment, though one does not detect an particular amity between the brothers. In fact, as has already been noted, there’s no particular amity between Nathaniel and anyone else. He’s a solitary curmudgeon, best left to his own devices. But he’s  also heir to Lexham, and thus a wealthy man.

Inevitably , a murder takes place, this muting the gaiety of the  occasion – not that there was much of that in evidence to begin with. (A more mutually ill-suited gathering would be hard to find.) This is a locked room mystery, and a particularly cunning one at that. It’s also a classic country house murder, although perhaps spiked with more venom that is usually present in such scenarios. On the other hand, there’s a most welcome romance that blossoms late in the narrative.

Envious Casca was Ann R.’s choice for the August discussion meeting of the Usual Suspects. Reaction to it was for the most part rather tepid, if not downright negative. I initially had some trouble getting into the novel, but once I did, I really enjoyed it. Heyer’s sparkling wit added greatly to my reading pleasure. There are three other Inspector Hemingway novels; I hope to read another before too long.

Georgette Heyer 1902-1974

 

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Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza: a book discussion

October 14, 2017 at 9:10 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Before Chris G. put this on the reading list for Usual Suspects, I had not heard of this author. I read Girl in the Ice some two months ago and was pleasantly surprised by the experience. I was initially daunted by the novel’s length, but it was such a compelling read that I fairly raced through it. Bryndza writes great dialog; his characters were interesting, if not always likeable; he had an intriguing, if complex tale to tell, and he told it well – or so I thought, at the time, at any rate.

As last Tuesday evening’s discussion progressed, it became clear that others did not share my enthusiasm. Several gaps and inconsistencies  in the plot (not to mention a disappearing subplot) were pointed out. Procedural matters were deemed to be flawed. Frank N. felt that due to the paucity of clues, Girl in the Ice did not play fair with the reader.

But the most glaring criticism was reserved for the main protagonist, DCI Erika Foster. She was described by several Suspects as “over the top” and as a result, not likable. By the time our discussion took place, I was too far removed from my actual reading of the novel to be able to clearly recall the plot issues that were brought up, but I did retain a vivid memory of the character of Erika Foster.

I concede that Foster could be strident and blunt to a fault. But she was also a person of firm convictions and great integrity. Even though she was warned to go “softly, softly” with the victim’s upper class and influential parents, she would not let this deter her in the search for the truth about the death of Andrea Douglas-Brown. Fairly early on, we learn that Erika Foster’s life had been shattered not that long ago by a shooting that was both personally and professionally devastating. (This material is related as back story; Girl in the Ice is the first book in the series.) To my mind, this accounts at least partly for her difficult, rather unyielding persona – a brusque facade  that conceals pain that’s still sharp and deep. For this reader, it made her seem more real.

Erika Foster put me in mind of Helen Mirren’s  brilliantly realized portrayal of DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect.

Robert Bryndza himself comments on this here:

(This has to be one of one of the most  self-effacing, downright endearing  promotional videos I’ve ever seen!)

When I first saw the title The Girl in the Ice, I immediately thought of The Virgin in the Ice, a Brother Cadfael novel by the late, lamented Ellis Peters.

Ellis Peters, with Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael

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The Usual Suspects are currently making their selections for next year’s discussions. Unlike many book discussion groups which rely on consensus to decide on titles, we have each member choose a title to present to  the group. My choice for next year is A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm, one of my favorite historical novels and first in a series that is, for the most part, both meticulously researched and wonderfully entertaining.   It’s always interesting to see what each of the Suspects selects for the coming year. I feel lucky to be a part of this group, where people can express their views openly in an atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship.
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Before I conclude this post, I have to deliver a shout-out for a terrific mystery that I just finished: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. Horowitz has written six episodes of Midsomer Murders; in addition, he created Foyle’s War and wrote twenty-five episodes for that outstanding program. There’s much more.   If there were an Anthony Horowitz fan club, I’d be in it.

There will be more about Magpie Murders in a later post. 

 

 

 

 

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‘…there is a haunted atmosphere, of evil, of struggling good in the ascendant, of the quiet, busy, Englishness of life.’

October 8, 2017 at 8:07 pm (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction)

  While I was sifting through a cache of old papers, a printout entitled “Agatha Christie: Overview” rose to the surface. It is from an article that I found on a Gale database on the library’s site some seventeen years ago.

I find these observations by J.B. Lethbridge to be intriguing and elegantly expressed:

Christie makes effective use of the reader’s unconscious, often making crucial references to its depths, with lines from great literature or nursery rhymes, about which there hovers in the darkness of half-remembered things the suggestion of the answer to the whole mystery….Then, too, she makes use of proverbs, folklore, local legend, Gypsy warnings and prophecies, old-fashioned and forgotten wisdom from nannies and gardeners.

Christie’s characters are always a trifle  thin, for she is not a fully-fledged novelist, but their psychology is convincing and consistent, and this together with her vivid and characteristic descriptions give them the illusion of more rotundity than they possess….

But it is this apparent thinness of characterisation, story, atmosphere, and setting which makes the books so enduring. They have something of the spare style of a more ancient literature: nothing superfluous, nothing irrelevant, just the very basic necessities of storytelling and character: but nothing missing either. And yet in the interstices there is a haunted atmosphere, of evil, of struggling good in the ascendant, of the quiet, busy, Englishness of life. Perhaps this is why her books are so popular world wide; they recall to the English an idyllic lost country, and to the rest, suggest the charming perfection of the English way….

But perhaps what most sets Christie apart from other detective writers is her homely and secure wisdom; never tendentious, Christie is a little like a favourite nanny telling sometimes macabre fairy tales to her rapt charges, interspersed with the quiet, wise, homely but firm advice and wisdom which only an intelligent and acute observer of the ways of men could accumulate and disperse almost unconsciously: rather like her own Miss Marple in fact.

That passage  about “an idyllic lost country” brought to mind these stanzas from “A Shropshire Lad” by A.E. Housman:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

In the past twelve years, ever since my trip to Yorkshire reawakened my dormant love of England, I’ve seen these verses quoted over and over. In addition, I’ve read two crime novels with the same title, possibly drawn from the same source:

      I recommend both, by the way.

For me, the Miss Marple novels and stories most closely epitomize the qualities that Lethbridge enumerates above. I’m especially fond of The Body in the Library.   For one thing, I love the way the novel opens:

Mrs. Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show. The vicar, dressed in cassock and surplice, was giving out the prizes in church. His wife wandered past, dressed in a bathing suit, but as is the blessed habit of dreams this fact did not arouse the disapproval of the parish in the way it would assuredly have done in real life…

Christie then comments that “Mrs. Bantry was enjoying her dream a good deal.” Poor Dolly Bantry! Her happy dream world is about to implode. Naturally, her first thought is to call for help from her most reliable and intuitive friend, Miss Jane Marple.

As for the filmed versions, I love Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. (These were made for television and filmed from 1984 to 1992.) Having none of the clownishness of  Margaret Rutherford, she portrays the elderly sleuth as if she were a kind of seer. She’s as the still center of every mystery she encounters, ranging her fragile physique and powerful intellect against a crime that personifies evil. Her goodness and steady belief in justice carry the day.

In The Body in the Library, retired Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering describes her as follows:

“The finest detective God ever made. Natural genius cultivated in suitable soil.”

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple with Raymond Francis as Sir Henry Clithering, 1984

 

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The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards: the gift that keeps on giving

September 29, 2017 at 12:37 am (Mystery fiction)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my review of Death Walks in Eastrepps, I referred to Martin Edwards’s new book as “this splendid if somewhat exasperating compendium.” Why exasperating? Because as I read his short essays on each title, I developed a strong – nearly overmastering! – desire to read the book itself – and sooner, not later. Obviously there was a need to exercise some restraint here. So I decided consider The Story of Classic Crime as a reference work, only dipping into it when I was overpowered by curiosity (which was often) or in desperate need of a work of fiction that would be gratifying rather than annoying (also often – we  all have these dry spells, I think).

As it happens, I’d already read some of the featured works, e.g. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Conan Doyle (I probably have lots of company there), Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne, The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham, The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton, The Franchise Affair by Joesphine Tey, and two or three others. But there is so much more on offer here!

I began the rather entertaining process of seeing which titles I could download. Here I had better luck than I’d hoped for: not only were quite a few available but they were for the most part quite inexpensive. Thus far, the following are newly resident on my Kindle app:

 

 

 

Death Walks in Eastrepps proved not to be downloadable, but I was able to acquire it through interlibrary loan. As my review clearly indicates, the effort was well worthwhile; furthermore, as with the downloading, this method of obtaining the book was helpful in my effort to cut back on the purchasing of hard copy volumes. (Forsooth, I am drowning in them, at this point.)

There is an impressive plenitude of books mentioned in this survey, other titles  being brought forward in Edwards’s essays in addition to the canonical one hundred. The following is from the review by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:

To my mind, Edwards particularly shines in the prefatory essays to his 24 categories, in which he mentions some of his own favorite books, such as Henry Wade’s “Lonely Magdalen” — about the murder of a nameless prostitute — and Robert Player’s twisty “The Ingenious Mr. Stone,” which “signaled the end of the era” or, most intriguing of all, Cameron McCabe’s “The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor,” described by Julian Symons as “the detective story to end detective stories.” Introducing “Fiction From Fact,” Edwards naturally zeroes in on the true-life Julia Wallace case, which Raymond Chandler dubbed “the nonpareil of all murder mysteries.” Both Dorothy Sayers and P.D. James were comparably fascinated by this beating death in a locked room.

Dirda is deeply and widely read, both in genre fiction and mainstream works. He is also possessed of very definite opinions. (Oh dear – Do I know anyone else like that?) I was amused by the section in his review in which he differed  with Edwards concerning which were the landmark works of Agatha Christie. Edwards cites The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder at the Vicarage, and The ABC Murders; Dirda counters – gently but firmly – with And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Murder on the Orient Express. I agree with Dirda that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was a game changer and should be high on the list of works that helped define  the genre. But I would also add two works by Christie which are my personal favorites and which I think are outstanding, even brilliant, although they’re rarely cited by Christie aficionados: The Pale Horse and The Labors of Hercules.

Dirda goes on to offer this caveat; namely, that “…Edwards’s history shouldn’t be viewed as a list of the absolutely greatest works of mystery and detection.” For that, he suggests consulting H.R.F. Keating’s “Crime and Mystery: The Hundred  Best Books” and “Classic Crime Fiction: The Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones.”.  Those are both good recommendations, and I have more to add: the CWA (Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain) Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, compiled in 1990; which was responded to in kind by the Mystery Writers America five years later. And very importantly there’s the list put together by the Independent Mystery Booksellers’ Association (IMBA). Those folks read voraciously in the field, as I was again reminded on my visit to Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland, this summer.

So – Have I managed to read any of the above recently downloaded titles? So far, two. At the Villa Rose was absorbing and elegantly written, though somewhat oddly structured. It was refreshing to be on the continent, for a change – mainly in France but also in Geneva for several brief but crucial intervals. I enjoyed being in the company of French police Inspector Hanaud, whom I couldn’t help but think of as a forerunner of Jules Maigret. In his investigations, the Inspector is frequently accompanied by a ‘Watson:’  the well meaning Julius Ricardo, who is often in the midst of some great revelation that is almost always wide of the mark, as Hanaud is at pains to point out to him.

Interestingly, Edwards informs us that Mason derived the inspiration for this novel from an actual crime. This was the murder of Eugenie Fougere in 1903.

After reading At the Villa Rose, I immediately plunged into Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman. I’d been intrigued by what Martin Edwards had written about it. For now, I will say that this book merits a separate post, and it will get one. I was astonished by how good it was. I was pretty well riveted. Edwards describes it as “polished and distinctive;” it is that, and much more. A witty, urbane narrative told in the first person by a young man who has come up with a rather unique plan for self-actualization.. Israel Rank’s conflicted psychic make-up is partly due to the fact that he is half Jewish. This novel has been accused of being anti-Semitic. I don’t happen to agree with that assessment, but I understand how others might agree with it.

More on this in a later post. Meanwhile, more classics await This Reader. Thanks, Martin Edwards, for this treasure trove of reading pleasures.

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A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny: a book group discussion

September 22, 2017 at 7:10 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Despite the theme of defiled innocence that makes this such a mournful story, the immense  charm of the Gamache series survives in the magical setting and feisty residents of Three Pines, like the cranky old poet Ruth Zardo (“Bile. She’s pure bile”) and Clara Morrow, the dotty artist (“Have you ever seen  a self-portrait where the person didn’t look just a littlw insane?”).

Marilyn Stasio, from her review of The Great Reckoning in The New York Times.

The series is deep and grand and altogether extraordinary.

From Maureen Corrigan’s review in The Washington Post, entitled “There’s a bit of Nancy Drew in Louise Penny’s masterful ‘A Great Reckoning’”

Finally, there’s a video segment that was aired on CBS Sunday Morning in July, on the occasion of the release of The Great Reckoning. In it, Martha Teichner muses, “There should be a name for fans of Louise Penny’s murder mysteries: The L Pack, or the Penny Posse maybe.” She goes on:

To say they come from far and wide in large numbers to attend her book events is no exaggeration. They’ve come all the way to the Canadian town of Knowlton, in the eastern townships of Quebec, where Penny lives, and her books are set.

Indeed, the mass of fans gathered for this particular book signing event is large and impressive.

If you look at her entry on Stop! You’re Killing Me, you’ll see that her books have garnered numerous awards and nominations.

Critics  and reviewers routinely fall all over themselves in the search for superlatives to apply to the novels in this series. And yet….You probably know where this is heading.

Ably led by Mike, Usual Suspects recently discussed A Great Reckoning, and well, our sentiments were decidedly mixed. There was general acknowledgement of Penny’s skill in creating a world and filling it with memorable characters. However, we were not all unduly fond of those same characters. For myself, I find Ruth Zardo, “the old poet” with the foul mouth and the pet duck named Rosa (who goes around making a sound very like ‘cluck cluck’) supremely irritating. It’s hard for me to believe that a person with such a sour disposition and profane vocabulary could also be the author of beautiful verse. (Yes, I know there was Lord Byron and Dylan Thomas – but even so….) Myrna the bookstore owner is pleasant enough, but I wonder why Penny does not invest her with more of a love and knowledge of literature.

Not having read in this series since the first novel, Still Life, Marge was immediately made aware of a great deal of back story that was alluded to but not elaborated upon. A Great Reckoning is the twelfth novel in the series, and I can well imagine feeling quite lost of you haven’t been reading at least some of the more recent series entries.

And then there’s Armand Gamache, recently retired Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec. Marge felt that as  the book’s plot got under way, his virtuousness and uprightness were stressed ad nauseum. Others among us felt that his nearly flawless goodness was at times hard to believe in and tended to make him seem somewhat two dimensional.

It was somewhere around this point in the discussion that Frances weighed in with a lengthy and entirely eloquent plea in favor of Gamache in particular and this novel in general. My notes on her remarks are rather hasty and fragmented – I wish I could have recorded them so as to have a verbatim record of her spirited disquisition, which was both an analysis and a defense. A Great Reckoning, she averred, was in the nature of a hero’s quest, a journey through difficulties and dangers that at last arrives at a place of peace and enlightenment where, importantly, justice is served. The plot’s structure was elegantly wrought, in her judgment. She likened  the nove to a morality play. (At least, I have that phrase scribbled in my notebook!) We begin in confusion and end in clarity.

Up until the occasion of this discussion, Frances had been absent from our gatherings for quite a while.  By the time she had concluded her incisive and insightful remarks, I was reminded of her keen intellect which, combined with a compassionate heart, serves to make her so valuable as both an interlocutor and a  friend.

Even after Frances vibrantly championed A Great Reckoning, there remained dissenters among us. For the most part, we did not agree with her about the novel’s structure. The plot has numerous threads that were a challenge to untangle; moreover, there is a dauntingly large cast of characters. It was hard to keep all of this straight. It was all over the map.

And maps, as it happens, are a key element in this story. A hundred year old map of Three Pines and the surrounding area is found concealed within the walls of the building that now serves as the village bistro. This map has some very curious features and obviously cries out for investigation. This process is the springboard for much of what subsequently unfolds in the novel’s plot.

Meanwhile, several faithful readers have tried their hands at more conventional re-creations of Three Pines, to wit:

Then there is the matter of Louise Penny’s prose style. It is definitely distinctive. For some readers, it is brimful of charm and a kind of eccentric beauty. For others, not so much. In our group, Pauline found it pretentious. I described it as highly idiosyncratic. Marge said that it simply did not work for her.

It’s my feeling that the style of a written work should serve as a vehicle for the story. This does not mean that it can’t possess a lyrical quality, but it does mean that it shouldn’t call it attention to itself at the expense of that story.

I fear that this write-up is coming across as overly negative. Certainly Louise Penny has created a body of work that resonates powerfully for many people. I think we all felt that she seems to be a lovely person, kind and generous. Recently widowed, she has had to fight through the pain to continue her work. Undoubtedly the devotion of her many readers has been a great help in that effort.

Louise Penny

Of the thirteen novels in this series, I’ve red eight. My favorite is without doubt Bury Your Dead. That book made me want to board a flight to Quebec City tout de suite!

This was a terrific discussion. I was reminded once again of what a pleasure it is to be among lovers of our wonderful crime fiction genre who are both great “discussers” and wonderful people.

 

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Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller

September 15, 2017 at 12:31 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Poor Acker’s Gap, West Virginia.

Staggering under a load of misery, its denizens have turned to drugs for solace and a numbing of the pain. But suddenly the number of dying increases exponentially. The heroin has been mixed with a deadly substance called carfentanil.   Prosecutor Bell Elkins, Deputy Sheriff Jake Oakes, and others in both medicine and law enforcement are desperate to track this substance to its source so as to prevent yet more overdoses.

Having lived away from Acker’s Gap for a period of time, Bell Elkins, feeling a strong imperative, has returned home. She’s determined to help in whatever way she can, as her community and others in the state struggle with this nefarious plague:

The highest compliment you could pay to a place and its people, she believed, was to insist on justice. On the rule of law. To say to the dark anarchical currents that were always threatening to overwhelm this area: No. I won’t let that happen.

Bell and Jake are  having to deal with those ‘anarchical currents’ – wonderful phrase, that – in both their professional and personal lives. This, despite dauntless courage and perseverance exhibited by the two of them in the most trying circumstances.

I’ve been hearing good things about this series ever since it debuted with A Killing in the Hills in 2012. This is the first entry I’ve read, and judging by this one, I’d say the praise is entirely justified. Julia Keller’s skill at plotting and character creation are exemplary; in addition, her writing is beautiful.

Julia Keller

With regard to her chosen profession, Bell reflects that “…prosecutors had to believe, at least theoretically, in the possibility of redemption.” Sadly, there’s very little redemption in evidence in this extremely downbeat novel. Things seem always to be going from bad to worse, as characters that you’ve come to care about catch one bad break after another. I would love to talk about this book with other readers, but I’m hesitant to propose it for a book discussion; the mood is so relentlessly somber.

At one point  in the narrative, one of Bell’s staffers, a woman of staunch but restrained religious conviction, asks Bell if she’s familiar with the hymn “Abide With Me.” Bell says she is not. (This response surprised me. I was raised Jewish, in an overwhelmingly Jewish community, and I know that hymn.) The staffer recites some verses for her, thinking they may provide some comfort in a time of great stress.

“Abide With Me” was written by Henry Francis Lyte. a Scottish clergyman. At the time he penned this hymn, Lyte was desperately ill with tuberculosis. He passed away in November of 1847.

 

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‘Murder, without cause, by a madman with his wits astray, monstrous, terrible….’

September 8, 2017 at 6:58 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Here’s the quotation in its entirety:

Murder, without cause, by a madman with his wits astray, monstrous, terrible, fascinated and filled them with an irrational and panic fear. It let loose the Devil among them, and people still believed in the Devil. He struck only here and  there, but threatened all alike, for once he got the upper hand of law, order and all good things, he might regain the world, and use it for his ancient purposes.

No wonder they call it the Eastrepps Evil…. 

I haven’t been blogging for a couple of days. I have  been reading instead. In a mesmerized fashion. Compulsively. Until positively bleary-eyed.

These days, I tend to read several titles at the same time. Invariably one is crime fiction, usually another is nonfiction. Perhaps there’s another fiction title thrown in, often a collection of short stories such as Tessa Hadley’s recent outstanding Bad Dreams. But from time to time, I am so thoroughly grabbed by one particular book that other reading gets elbowed aside.

Thus it has been with Death Walks in Eastrepps .

The author’s name, given as Francis Beeding, actually served as a pseudonym for John Leslie Palmer  and Hilary Aidan St. George Saunders. These two collaborated on a series of crime novels published  between 1925 and 1946. Death Walks in Eastrepps  was the tenth; twenty-two more followed.

Published in 1931, this novel seems at first to be the story of a serial killer let loose in the placid seaside town of Eastrepps. One murder after another has residents terrified. Tourists flee, understandably spooked. The local police are baffled. Obviously additional expertise is needed; soon Chief Inspector Wilkins of Scotland Yard is  called to the scene to offer what aid he can.

The denizens of Eastrepps are rendered with exceptional clarity. The reader comes quickly to care about them as individuals, and to worry for their safety. An atmosphere of dread hangs over the bewildered little hamlet; you as the reader become party to that pervasive fear. And while all of these  seemingly senseless things are happening, a poignant and secret love story is unfolding.

There’s some exceptional writing in this novel. One of my favorite passages is this description of a garden and its owner’s pleasure in it:

Mrs. Dampier finished her coffee, and, rising from her chair in the summer-house, began to walk slowly towards her roses. They were drooping a little in the heat…But they were very lovely, a superb mass of blossom, banked for twenty feet from the edge of the lawn to the top of the pergola that ran behind. Here in her garden beauty was caught in a net of shining petals, and to guard against unlovely invasions, the lilies and lupins stood about like sentinels, with the tall hollyhocks stiff as grenadiers towards the gate. To her right shone ever so faintly a still pool, with little newts and tiny Japanese fish that darted silently about their business in the cool depths. And beyond the pool was a gracious company of trees.

As riveting a read as Death Walks in Eastrepps was for me, it must be admitted that the novel contains two disparaging references. First, an emotionally  disturbed individual is called a “degenerate.” Then a wandering group of players called minstrels are said to blacken their faces when they perform;  at one point, the “n” word is used as an adjective to describe their appearance. Yes, I know we must take into account the times – the 1930s, in this case – when terms such as these were likely considered less unacceptable than they are now. Still, when confronted with usages of this sort, I’m disconcerted and pulled momentarily out of the narrative. Unfortunately, this is a problem one encounters from time to time when reading the literature of a different era.

The edition of this novel that I read was published by W.W. Norton & Company in 1966. It features a short introduction by Vincent Starrett. Starrett opens by quoting Ellery Queen on the question of what makes a great crime novel. Queen believes the answer is retrospective in nature:

“….if, years and years later, you still have a vivid recollection of the original impact; if the significance of the story, its point, or its subtle overtone still sticks in the pigeonhole of your mind, then surely the story has the quality of greatness.”

Starrett goes on to declare that “Death Walks in Eastrepps has remained in my memory for half a lifetime.” (If, in fact, you obtain this particular edition, I would caution you against reading Starrett’s essay first. He gives away rather too much of the plot.)

I have several people to thank for putting me on to this novel. First, it appears in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards (more on this splendid if somewhat exasperating compendium in a subsequent post). Secondly, my friend Carol of Usual Suspects forwarded a blog post by Harriet Devine of Shiny New Books, in which Ms Devine sang the praises of Eastrepps. “There is so much to love admire here,” she enthuses. I agree, though my own admiration is somewhat tempered by the presence of the above mentioned instances of denigration. Individual readers, I think, must make their own decisions regarding these issues. (I’ve written at greater length on this problem in a post on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.)

One more observation: I’ve rarely been as stumped as to the culprit’s true identity as I was while reading this book. It was positively awash in false leads and red herrings, deployed with great cunning. I arrived at the truth at about the same moment as it stood revealed to law  enforcement and to another character as well. I gasped aloud; my husband, walking by, exclaimed, “What?” It took me a  few minutes to find my voice, and tell him.

John Leslie Palmer, 1885-1944

 

Hilary Aidan St. George
Saunders,  1898-1951

 

 

 

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Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Striking Writing

August 18, 2017 at 2:35 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

This post is an addendum to a previous post about this short story collection.

Patricia Highsmith

In “The Heroine” by Patricia Highsmith, Louise is a newly hired nanny in the Christiansen household. The children she is to look after are Nicky and Heloise.

The two children lay on the floor in one corner, amid scattered crayons and picture books.
“Children, this is your new nurse,” their mother said. “Her name is Lucille.”
The little boy stood up and said, “How do you do,” as he solemnly held out a crayon-stained hand.
Lucille took it, and with a slow nod of her head repeated his greeting.
“And Heloise,” Mrs. Christiansen said, leading the second child, who was smaller, toward Louise.
Heloise stared up at the figure in white and said, “How do you do.”
….

“Nightfall,” Louise whispered as she went back into the nursery. “What a beautiful word!”
….
She noticed and loved many things: the way Heloise drank her milk in little gulps at the back of her throat, how the blond down on their backs swirled up to meet the hair on the napes of their necks, and when she bathed them the painful vulnerability of their bodies.

Right from the get-go, this story is suffused with a palpable sense of dread. You want to put it away yet are  compelled to keep reading. (It reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates at her creepiest.)
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Vera Caspary

She neither spoke nor stirred. In her  greens and reds and golds, with the big hoops in her ears, she was like one of those haughty, rebellious duchesses that Goya loved to paint.
….
Every woman at the party envied Phyllis. Gilbert wore his good looks like an advertisement of superior masculinity.
….
Phyllis was being frightfully gay at this time, spending Fred Miller’s money wildly and surrounding herself with good-looking young men. She had  become extremely chic. This Mike thought was an affectation. Like so many bored women, she was seeking compensation for  the dullness of her nights by exhibiting herself in costumes whose extravagance advertised her loneliness.

“Sugar and Spice,” by Vera Caspary
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Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

Long ago, when he had  been a proud and rather pompous little boy, he had heard in Sunday school about  Abraham and Isaac; he could still remember the picture he had seen of a thin and resigned young Isaac lying on the sacrificial stone while his bearded father stood over him with a knife.

“The Stranger in the Car,” by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

How many young people, one wonders, have been transfixed by this terrifying story? And adults too. I recall, in my college seminar in existentialism, having to confront it head on in Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
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Charlotte Armstrong

The door of the enormous bedroom stood wide and her sister’s bed, neatly made, shouted that poor Alice was gone. Mr. Brady sampled the little recurring shock. It was not exactly lessening, but it was changing character. Yes, it was going over from feeling to thinking. She could perceive with her mind the hole in the fabric, the loss of a presence, the absence of a force.
….
Maybe Henny felt guilty  because, during that seemingly normal afternoon,  Henny herself had gone up to the third floor to “lie down” as usual, and had not made even a token resistance to the coming of the angel of death, by being alert to his imminence. Nobody had expected Alice to die–not on Monday.
….
He was a tall man, a bit thick in the middle these days; his hair was graying; his long face had acquired a permanent look of slight anxiety. He was a quiet man, who ran well in light harness, grateful for peace whenever he got it.

“The Splintered Monday,” by Charlotte Armstrong
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