‘I loved the cold because it always made me more conscious of my animal self….’ – Dead by Dawn by Paul Doiron

October 17, 2021 at 3:43 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Mike Bowditch, Game Warden Investigator for the state of Maine, has been tasked with reopening a case of death by drowning. Eben Chamberlain’s death had been ruled an accident, but his daughter-in-law Mariette isn’t buying that judgment. Wealthy, powerful, and forceful, Mariette believes Eben’s death was deliberately brought about. Murder, in other words – a murder that the Warden’s Service was either too lazy or too incompetent to thoroughly investigate.

The deeper Mike  delves into this case, the greater the danger that looms. The story is told in chapters that alternate between the progress of the investigation and a harrowing predicament in which Mike finds himself: His truck has veered off the road and plunged into the Androscoggin River (an actual river in Maine, by the way – else, who could make up such a name?) He manages to extricate himself from the fast-filling vehicle, thinking himself lucky. Little does he know  the worst of this ordeal is yet to come.

At first I was not sure that the structure of the novel was a successful device. I had some trouble keeping track of the timeline. (The investigation chapters are narrated in the past tense; the survival chapters, in the present tense.) But gradually the narrative began to tighten; it began to work. And I have to say that the chapters describing Mike’s desperate efforts to stay alive are among the most gripping I’ve ever read.

In summary, Paul Doiron has written one humdinger of a novel. It kept me turning the pages at a great rate, an experience I’ve had with surprisingly few recent mysteries. At the same time, the characters are vivid and authentic, if not always likeable. (I prefer interesting to likeable anyway.)

It’s always a pleasure to begin a series at the beginning and watch the main characters grow and mature in subsequent entries. (The first title in the Mike Bowditch series is The Poacher’s Son, which I read and liked when it came out in 2010.) Dead by Dawn, the twelfth entry, is the best yet, in my opinion. It combines the elements of a thriller with those of a more literary work, with great character delineation and vivid descriptions of the beautiful (and sometimes treacherous) Maine landscape.

And the excellent writing is informed with a keen sense of history:

For much of my youth, I had suffered under  the delusion of having been born  too late. I was a displaced person from the era of the Voyageurs who had set out across the Great Lakes in bateaux in search of furs; I was a temporal fugitive from the age of  the Klondike Gold Rush when men literally bet their lives against nature with more than riches on the line. Sometimes I still succumbed to this mode of thinking. An overfondness for nostalgia was the crack running down  the middle of my character.

I await with happy anticipation the next Mike Bowditch adventure. Thank you, Paul Doiron, for this outstanding series.

Paul Doiron

 

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Bounding, from wave to wave…

September 1, 2021 at 1:11 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories, The British police procedural, True crime)

…on the internet, that is, rather than on the actual ‘bounding main.’

I speak of two recent research adventures on the web, both inspired by Laura Lippman’s
new novel.

First – the premise itself. Novelist Gerry Andersen is confined to a hospital bed in his apartment in Baltimore. These are brand new digs, and he was blindsided by one of  those architectural features so cheerfully touted by real estate agents: a so-called floating staircase. Having tumbled down said design feature and badly broken his leg, he finds himself temporarily immobilized.

Gerry is not a detective – or not a professional one, that is – but his plight reminded me of two series protagonists who were: Morse and Alan Grant. In fact, Lippman at one point makes mention of Josephine Tey‘s Daughter of Time. In that classic of detective fiction, Scotland Yard’s Alan Grant, likewise laid up with a broken leg, occupies his mind with an effort to prove the innocence of Richard III in regard to the disappearance and supposed murder of Prince Edward and Prince Richard.

Then there’s The Wench Is Dead, the eighth entry in the Morse series written by Colin Dexter. (This novel was the 1989 Gold Dagger winner.) Morse, like Alan Grant, is hospitalized, not with a broken leg but with a bleeding ulcer. Like Alan Grant (and Gerry Andersen, for that matter), Morse needs  a way to occupy his mind while he’s recuperating. Someone gives him a book about a crime that occurred on a canal boat, in 1839, as it was making its way through Oxford. A passenger on the craft, Joanna Franks, was murdered; two men were hanged for killing her. The more he reads, the more convinced Morse becomes that the two men were in fact innocent.

I always assumed that the Joanna Franks case was fictional; it turns out that it was based on an actual occurrence. The victim’s real name was Christina Collins. She’d been traveling via canal boat to meet her husband, but she never made it. Her lifeless body was later pulled from the canal. Colin Dexter used these basic facts in constructing his narrative, changing the location from Staffordshire, where the crime actually occurred, to Oxford.

The Murder of Christina Collins by John Godwin came out in 2011. It features an introduction by Colin Dexter. Click here for an article with excellent photographs of the site.

The TV episode of The Wench Is Dead can be seen on YouTube:

In addition, the DVD is owned by the library – two copies, to be exact. Watch for Colin Dexter; he appears in the museum crowd at the beginning of the film.

This viewing experience may make you nostalgic for the days when this superb series was first aired, and in particular for John Thaw, whom we lost way too soon.
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The second adventure was sparked by this brief passage in Dream Girl:

It’s a fine little story, as clever and compact as the ones he used to read in those Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies. Kill your husband with a leg of lamb, serve the leg of lamb to the detectives.

What??

The story being referenced here is “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl. I read it several years ago; the mention of it in this context made me want to read it again. I found it in an excellent anthology that I own called Murder Short & Sweet. In his introduction to the Dahl story, the editor Paul D. Staudohar says:

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect short story than this one, both in plot and in presentation.

I couldn’t agree more.

This story can be downloaded by clicking on this link.

Murder Short & Sweet is available from Amazon.

And finally, do read Dream Girl. I loved it!

 

 

 

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‘….there must be no room for love in my heart now – I am quite alone, and I must stay quite alone.’ – The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

August 27, 2021 at 4:09 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

I am going to kill a man. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him …

Thus begins a strange and haunting narrative…

I’ve wanted to read this crime fiction classic for some time, so when I heard that it was being adapted for television, I decided  the time had come.

The novel is compelling, but drags in places. It begins with the diary of Felix Lane, the nom de plume of Frank Cairnes, and then about half way through switches to an omnipotent narrator. I found the abrupt change of tone somewhat jarring. Felix/Frank’s diary entries are weighted down with an almost unbearable grief; the second part of the book is given over to a detached, almost clinical recounting of the steps taken to solve the murder. (I’d rather not divulge who’s been murdered, at this point.)

This adaptation is strange in many ways. It retains some elements of the novel, but alters a number of them, most significantly, the gender of the main protagonist: Frank Cairnes becomes Frances Cairnes. And the North Devon setting is changed to the Isle of Wight. Also, Nigel Strangeways (played by Billy Howle), the methodical investigator coolly at work in the novel, is here portrayed as a barely functioning police detective, subject to panic attacks and all manner of other unexplained emotional difficulties and who, near the end of the series, lets loose with a blubbering mass of face-contorting weeping that I, for one, found nearly impossible to watch.

Nicholas Blake is the pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis, novelist and poet (Poet Laureate, in fact, from 1968 until his death in 1972), and yes, father of Daniel Day-Lewis. Sean Day-Lewis, Daniel’s much older half-brother, wrote a letter to the The Guardian about the TV adaptation:

….this version of the story is a bit of a travesty. I should know, as I was, in my father’s imagination, the six-year-old Martin or Martie… My father, the then-fashionable poet Cecil Day-Lewis, kept our family going with 20 detective novels written as Nicholas Blake. The father who saw the accident, and swore vengeance, was a detective story writer just like my dad.

In addition:

Considering the filmic attraction of Lyme Regis, it is hard to know why the TV version moves to the Isle of Wight as well as to an aggrieved mother. And by the way, Nigel Strangeways, originally a detective who looked and behaved just like WH Auden, was regularly on hand to achieve justice with mercy in all but one of the stories.

The TV version of The Beast Must Die possesses a bewildering number of characters, but one dark secret lies at the story’s heart. It is encapsulated in the chilling opening lines of the novel, quoted above.

The main reason to watch this series is to witness the performance of the lead actors. Cush Jumbo is a wonderful actress; those of us who followed her progress as the smart, irreverent attorney in The Good Fight already knew that. My husband objected to what might be termed Jumbo’s ‘uglification.’ It was hard to see what purpose was served by her painfully short gray hair and stark makeup. (Was she, in fact, wearing any makeup?) He says, and I agree with him, let’s allow beautiful people to remain beautiful, unless there’s a specific reason to degrade their appearance. Yes, she is grieving, but all the more reason to preserve her comeliness.

Cush Jumbo, as she appears in The Beast Must Die

Cush Jumbo in The Good Fight

A word also about Jared Harris, whose performance as the loathsome George Rattery is chilling and note perfect.He is, in fact, the best screen villain I’ve seen since Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn in Bleak House.

(The British seem to specialize in this species.)

 

 

I didn’t feel that the title of the novel needed explaining; nevertheless, Blake/Day-Lewis does explain it, at the very end:

In the first of Brahms’s four Serious Songs, he paraphrases Ecclesiastes 3, 19, as follows: ‘The beast must die, the man dieth also, yea both must die.’

 

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Dark Sky by C.J. Box: One Wild – and Very Satisfying – Ride

July 18, 2021 at 11:19 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

   So I was searching Google trying to come up with adjectives that would describe the experience of reading this book: spine-tingling, bloodcurdling, electrifying, gripping, edge-of-your seat… You get the idea. It was all of the aforementioned, and more.

As the plot of Dark Sky unfolds, the unwary reader may be forgiven for assuming that this will be a more or less traditional mystery, traditionally paced. But no! Do not make such an unthinking assumption.

Joe Pickett is a game warden in Wyoming; he’s also a family man. Wife Marybeth is the director of the town library; they have three daughters, all quickly reaching adulthood. Sheridan, the oldest, has an important supporting part in the drama that’s about to unfold.

Joe has been chosen by the state’s governor to lead an elk hunting expedition in the Bighorn Mountains. This would not ordinarily be part of Joe’s remit, but  the circumstances are special: the expedition is being mounted on behalf of one Steve Price, a star of California’s Silicon Valley elite. Steve is the founder and owner of a wildly popular social media site called Confab and also of another company called Aloft. The governor has his reasons  for wanting this tech billionaire to have an excellent experience on this outing.

At first, all goes as planned. But there’s a party of malefactors roaming the mountains who have a bone to pick with Steve Price. And due to Steve’s compulsive – and very up to date – posts on Confab, they know where he is,  who he is with, and what he’s doing. Other forces are arrayed against Steve, and therefore against Joe as well, as they undertake their arduous journey up into the Bighorns.

There’s a subplot involving a falconry outfit owned and operated by one Nate Romanowski. He’s a good friend of the Pickett family, but he has a tendency to play by his own rules, rules which sometimes skirt the law. Dark Sky is also about the ethics of hunting and the treatment of animals living in the wild. (In beautiful and sparsely populated Wyoming, there are plenty of those.) Horses too play a major role in the lives of the protagonists.

Box’s writing is wonderful, and his characters are fully three-dimensional and believable. And yes, this is one of those novels about which people exclaim, “I couldn’t put it down!” But I have to say, Dear Reader, that this is actually not my favorite reading experience. I like fiction that causes me to pause, think, evaluate, and wonder. And  Dark Sky caused me to do all of these things. That’s not to say that the narrative didn’t also scare me in places, because it most certainly did.

This is the twenty-first entry in the Joe Pickett series. I read Open Season, the first one, when it came out in 2001. I enjoyed it, but for whatever reason, as the series continued, I didn’t keep up with it. However, as time went on, the reviews got increasingly laudatory. (Plus I’d developed a relationship with Wyoming for the best of reasons.) So I returned to the fold with 2019’s Wolf Pack. I liked it so much I stuck around for Long Range, which was even better. And as for Dark Sky – it was simply the best.

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Latest entries in three long running mystery series of which I am inordinately fond (good grief…)

June 13, 2021 at 8:39 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

Well, gosh, I can hardly believe that we’re already up to Number 27 in the Inspector Banks series. It seems like only yesterday when the first in the series, Gallows View (1987), came out. My library buddy Marge and I scarfed it up at once, and have remained more or less faithful throughout. A glance at the listing on the StopYoureKillingMe site shows the accolades this series has deservedly garnered.

So – What about this one? The dual plots involve the shady dealings of a developer and the disappearance of Ray Cabbot’s lover Zelda. (Ray is the father of Banks’s colleague Annie Cabbot.) Of the two, the latter is the more compelling. It’s overall a reliably good yarn, especially for those of us who have been hanging out with Banks and his circle for over  two decades. We’re updated on his family news, and as usual, his amazingly wide ranging musical tastes are precisely noted, as in this sentence:

The Bach finished, and Banks switched to Xuefei Yang playing music by Debussy, Satie, and others arranged for guitar.

This latter is of particular interest, as he’s trying to learn to play that instrument, with a little help from his rock musician son Brian.

Not spectacular, but enjoyable and involving nonetheless.
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Reading the Guido Brunetti novels is, for me, a situation similar to what I described above regarding the Alan Banks books. And this is an even longer running series: Transient Desires is number 30!

I recall how back in the 1990s, we had difficulty getting these books. They were coming to us from overseas – Donna Leon was at the time living in Venice – and they arrived here erratically and in no particular order. U.S. publishers didn’t think they’d be of interest to American readers. A police procedural set in Venice? A detective who’s a totally straight arrow and a devoted family man to boot? Who wants to read that?

We do. Especially when the novels are so beautifully written and so artfully conceived.

Anyway, I thought this entry was an especially good one. One night, two young men in a motorboat leave two even younger American tourists, who have been badly injured, at the docking area of a hospital. The men then flee before anyone can note their identity. It’s a good example of a case that seems to be about one thing, but turns out to be about something else entirely.

Meanwhile, we get lovely scenes of the Brunetti family dining together and having lively discussions on a variety of subjects. Guido and Paola’s offspring, Chiara and Raffi, are approaching adulthood, seemingly with the same effortless grace and integrity they’ve observed over the years in their parents.

And Venice, that troubled and glorious place, is, as always, like a character in the narrative, in and of itself – a marvelous and mysterious entity. (I highly recommend the Smithsonian Associates webinar Venice: 1000 Years of History.)
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What great TV the Bill Slider series would make. They could lift the dialog right from the books themselves.

Some examples:

Slider and his partner Atherton are searching the house of a murder victim. Eric Lingoss, a personal trainer, was a health nut as well as a fitness fanatic. At one point, while rummaging through rummaging through Lingoss’s cabinets, a container of Omega Three supplement falls out and lands on Atherton’s head. This exchange follows, initiated by Slider’s inquiry:

“Are you hurt?”

“Super fish oil injuries. The man’s a health nut.”

“The body is a temple,” Slider reminded him.

“Up to a point. Let he who is without sin bore the pants off everyone else.”

And later, this:

“Did you know,” said Atherton, as they turned into Lime Grove, “that A Tale of Two Cities was first serialized in two English newspapers?”

“Really? Which ones?”

It was the Bicester Times, it was the Worcester Times.”

This exchange prompts an inquiry about Atherton’s Significant Other, who’s currently out of town:

Slider looked at him. “When is Emily coming back?”

“Sunday. Why?”

“You need  someone to take the edge off you.”

You don’t understand what it’s like, having curatorship of a magnificent brain,” Atherton complained.

Well, none of this is very serious, but it is fun to  read. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is famously fond of puns and other forms of humor. Though every shot doesn’t hit the mark, enough off them do so that the reader is given plenty to smile about.

This series features a long story arc involving Slider’s personal life, so it’s advisable to being at the beginning. (Orchestrated Death is the first.) Current wife Joanna, an orchestral violinist, is in the final stages of pregnancy. Inevitably, the novel concludes with the birth of their second child, a daughter. Slider has two older children from his first marriage, so it’s all very modern, and a lot of fun to follow.

Oh, and the investigation is interesting, too, tougher than usual and all the more satisfying when it’s successfully resolved.

Peter Robinson

Donna Leon

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

 

 

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The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B. Hughes

June 9, 2021 at 2:19 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Published in 1963, this is a strange, most intriguing little book. The time is the early 1960s. The place is the Desert Southwest, more specifically the border between California and Arizona. Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, is traveling this route home to his family in Phoenix. The occasion is the upcoming wedding of his niece.

When he sees a young girl by the side of the road, he stops for her. She is desperate  for a ride to Phoenix. Feeling that her situation is deeply unsafe, he agrees to let her come with him.

The heavy hand of fate is poised above this irrevocable  act…

The background to this story consists of escalating social and political turmoil of the 1960s. Hughes describes this strife as the eyewitness that she was. Her depiction of the desperation of a pregnant teenager is especially vivid. It occurred to me while reading this compelling novel  that I didn’t recall ever reading about this explosive issue in a work of fiction actually written during that time.

In these pages you will find a word that I for one had never before encountered: ‘aborticide.’

And yet…there is grace in Hughes’s writing, especially when she is describing the desert landscape:

This was the desert as it should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaro standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and the brushy mesquite. Because there had  been some winter rain, the desert was in bloom.The saguaro wore creamy crowns on their tall heads, the ocotillo spikes were tipped with vermilion, and the brush bloomed yellow  as forsythia.

No one who has seen the bleak desert terrain suddenly burst into wild color will ever forget the sight.

Dorothy B. Hughes’s best known work of fiction is probably In a Lonely Place. This is no doubt because of the fact that it was made into a great film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

I tried to read that book but couldn’t – I don’t remember why. But The Expendable Man was an entirely different story. I couldn’t put it down. There are many twists and turns in this story; possibly the most surprising one concerns Hugh himself. However, some things about him remain constant throughout: his courage, and his integrity.

This was Hughes’s final work of fiction.

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Crime Fiction Update III: The Rest of Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Jean-Luc Bannalec

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

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

Then he cannot help adding:

And it was always a spectacle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commissaire Dupin notes:

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

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

And here it is, made ready for commercial consumption:

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

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

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

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

 

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Crime Fiction Update I: Classics

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

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

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

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

Herewith the contents of the handout that accompanied this webinar:

An Oxford Tragedy, by J.C. Masterman

Death at the President’s Lodging, by Michael Innes

The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers

Trick of the Dark, by Val McDermid

Landscape with Dead Dons, by Robert Robinson

Oxford Blood, by Antonia Fraser

An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Ian Pears

The Oxford Murders, by Guillermo Martinez

The Inspector Morse series, by Colin Dexter

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

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

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

I really like reading this kind of gently antiquated prose.

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony Horowitz

 

 

 

 

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