I am saddened by the passing of Anita Brookner. Over the years, my reading life has been greatly enriched by her novels. She wrote twenty-four of them; I’ve read some thirteen or fourteen. That sounds like a lot, but they are slender volumes, meticulously crafted. I’ve always admired her writing and her intellect; she possessed a large vocabulary which she deployed with pointillist precision.
As a writer for the Catholic Herald notes of Brookner, “her heroines and occasional heroes were people whom by and large life had passed by: their pleasures were small ones, and the great storms of passion were things that happened to other people.” This makes her characters sound somewhat dreary, but I think it would be more accurate to call most of them introverted, with a propensity for melancholy. At this point, one wants to assert hastily that they had rich inner lives. But if memory serves, that’s not always the case. In truth, memory is not serving me all that well at the moment, as I’ve not read anything by her since Strangers came out in 2009.
To my mind, Anita Brookner had always seemed a quintessentially English novelist. I’ll bet she’s got one of those distinguished British pedigrees that goes back several hundred years, thought I. Well she might – but not in Britain. Her parents were Polish Jews who emigrated in the early years of the 20th century. (I was genuinely surprised to learn this about her.) She was their only child.
Having earned a PhD in art history from London’s famed Courtauld Institute, Brookner went on to teach and write in that field. She wrote her first novel – A Start in Life, published here in 1981 as The Debut – when she was 53.
An interesting sidelight regarding Brookner’s time studying at the Courtauld is that one of her professors was a highly respected art historian who held the post of Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. His name was Anthony Blunt.
Ring a bell? Blunt was one of the Cambridge Spies, the most famous of which is probably Kim Philby. I’ve known for quite some time that Brookner studied art history under Blunt, but there’s a story concerning the two of them and a third individual that I’d never heard until I started looking for material for this post. It’s told by A.N. Wilson in the Daily Mail:
As a distinguished scholar at the Courtauld Institute in London, Britain’s foremost centre of art history studies, Anita Brookner worked with Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen’s pictures, who was later exposed as a traitor.
When one of their equally distinguished colleagues, Phoebe Pool, had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, Blunt asked Brookner to visit Pool regularly.
She did so happily, unaware Blunt was a Soviet agent, nor that he had used Pool — once an enthusiastic member of the Communist party — as a go-between to take messages to his Russian spymaster.
Every time Anita Brookner came back from the hospital after seeing Pool, Blunt would quiz her. How was Phoebe? Had she blurted out any names? Which names? The questions meant nothing to Brookner. She had no idea that the names Pool might have let slip could have belonged to spies.
It was only when, decades later, Blunt and the more minor figure of Pool were unmasked that she realised she had been a pawn in the Cold War. Brookner’s reactions were entirely typical. Yes, she was very angry, and went on being angry with Blunt to the end of her days.
She felt she had been ‘manipulated’ by him, and realised, going back over their conversations, that he had tried to enlist her as an agent.
Though one of the most intelligent women alive, she confessed that she had been ‘too stupid’ to realise what he was on about.
Wilson adds that despite feeling used and manipulated when the truth about Blunt became publicly known (in 1979), Brookner retained a degree of loyalty to her erstwhile mentor: “She owed her job as an art historian to Blunt, who admired her scholarship and her knowledge of 17th and 18th-century French paintings.”
Although Brookner’s fiction is usually been held in high esteem, there are some who feel that in later years, the scope of her novels became increasingly constricted. As Matt Schudel states in the Washington Post: “By the mid-1990s, some critics had become weary of what some called an attenuated, bloodless quality that seemed to owe too much to earlier styles.”
Attenuated? Bloodless? Not to this reader (nor to many others). Instead, I felt that with each new novel I was given the chance to examine a different facet of a beautiful and enigmatic jewel. The spell was cast every time. I was always grateful.
If you are new to the fiction of Anita Brookner, you should probably start with Hotel Du Lac. This is her Booker Prize winner, a justly cherished novel. I’d like to reread Latecomers; it’s the only Brookner title I’ve read that dealt specifically with Eastern European immigrants living in Britain. And I have yet to read her final fiction: At the Hairdresser’s, available in e-book format only.
Jonathan Yardley, formerly a writer and reviewer for The Washington Post Book World, used to run an occasional column called Second Reading, where he called attention to older titles that might be worth revisiting as well as current authors who might be unjustly neglected. It was a marvelous feature. My favorite of all those columns was ostensibly about Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party, but Yardley ended up writing about five additional authors as well, all women. Anita Brookner was one of them, as well as two other favorites of mine (in addition to Colegate): the Penelope’s, Fitzgerald and Lively. (Yardley’s ‘Second Reading’ pieces are collected in a book of the same name.)
Yesterday, I was saddened by news of the passing of Henning Mankell. I’ve enjoyed his crime fiction a great deal. The first Kurt Wallander novel I read was One Step Behind; from that moment, I knew I’d be reading more. (Among other things, Wallander was struggling with Type Two Diabetes, just as I was. So I guess that helped me to bond with this character.) Other Kurt Wallander novels I’ve read and greatly liked by Mankell are The Dogs of Riga and Firewall. In 2009 (2011 in this country), Mankell closed this series out with The Troubled Man, a real tour de force, in my opinion.
I also read Before the Frost, in which Wallander’s daughter Linda takes center stage. Mankell had intended to continue with this series, but a tragedy intervened that it made it impossible for him to write any more novels featuring Linda Wallander. Click here to read more about what happened.
Stieg Larsson, author of the Dragon Tattoo novels featuring the memorable Lisbeth Salander, is often given credit for initiating a second Golden Age in Swedish crime fiction. (The first began with the great creative team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, whose Martin Beck series dates from 1965 to 1975.) There’s no getting around the sensation caused by Larsson‘s singular and highly original creation, but Henning Mankell also deserves credit for once again focusing the spotlight on the masterful mysteries issuing from his native land.
I regret that there will be no further insightful, ruminative prose issuing from his pen.
I’d like to acknowledge the passing of Oliver Sacks, physician and writer. Dr. Sacks has been submitting luminous essays and op-ed pieces to the New York Times regularly, knowing that the time of his demise was drawing near. I was particularly moved by the one entitled Sabbath.
I am reminded of the words with which Walter Mondale eulogized Hubert Humphrey in 1978:
He taught us all how to hope and how to live, how to win and how to lose, he taught us how to live, and finally, he taught us how to die.
By the example of your grace and your courage, what a gift you have given us, Dr. Sacks.
I didn’t know where to begin. But an article in the Guardian helped. It listed five key works by this author. They are as follows:
1. From Doon with Death (1964). Ruth Rendell’s first published novel. In it, she introduces her policeman protagonist Reginald Wexford.
2. A Judgement in Stone (1977). A standalone containing one of the best known opening sentences in modern crime fiction.
3. A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986). Winner of the 1987 Edgar Award for best mystery, this is the first work that Rendell published using the pseudonym (alternate identity?) of Barbara Vine. A book I’ve always meant to read and still haven’t.
4. Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (2001). This choice, another standalone, threw me. I know I read it, but I remember nothing about it. Time to revisit, I suppose.
5. Not in the Flesh (2007). A later Wexford, and one of the best in the series, in my view.
I think by “five key works,” authors Alison Flood and Vanessa Thorpe mean to suggest good entry points into Ruth Rendell’s large and varied body of work. Looking at this list, the one choice they made that I totally agree with is A Judgement in Stone. I’ve led book discussions on it, and I’ve read it three times. And every single time I’m filled with dread and awe, despite already knowing what the shattering climax will be. The build-up of tension over the course of the narrative is simply incredible.
For me, the Wexford novels, good from the very beginning, became increasingly compelling from the mid-1980s to the present. From An Unkindness of Ravens (1985) to No Man’s Nightingale (2013), I’ve loved them all. Somehow, when I’m reading them, my critical faculties are suspended. I’m held in the thrall by the writing, the story, the characters, Wexford and his utterly ordinary yet fascinating family life, his second in command Mike Burden, whose starchy, conservative exterior serves to protect the vulnerable man within.
I thought The Vault was an especially cunning work. It’s a sequel to A Sight for Sore Eyes, in which Rendell gave us one of the most uniquely frightening characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction: Teddy Brex. The Vault is a Wexford novel; A Sight for Sore Eyes was a standalone. In The Vault, Rendell brings in a retired Wexford to help investigate an extremely strange discovery: the remains of four bodies found in the sealed off basement of a house. If you’ve read A Sight for Eyes, you the reader have some recollection of who these people are. Wexford and company lack that advantage.
Houses are often fateful places in Rendell’s fiction; so it is with this one, named Orcadia Cottage.
The Girl Next Door, a standalone that came out last year, stands as a kind of summation of Rendell’s art. The vagaries and the irony of the human condition find rich embodiment in the cast of characters that people this narrative. I thought it was outstanding.
I’ll save my final words of praise for novel written in 1987 but not read by me until 2012: A Fatal Inversion. This is probably the most riveting and haunting work of psychological suspense that I’ve ever read. Read my review to find out why.
Ruth Rendell was an outstanding & hugely popular figure in British literature & served in the House of Lords with great loyalty & passion.
Oh – and the famous first line of A Judgement in Stone?
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.
The first Adam Dalgliesh novel I read was A Taste for Death, published in 1986. I remember little of the actual plot except for the crime described early on in the book. The author’s depiction is both shockingly out of place and totally bewildering. I was later to learn that James makes frequent use of this kind of scenario, to wit:
I think it was W.H. Auden who said that there is the potential for more horror in that one single body on the drawing room floor than there is in a dozen bullet-riddled bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets. That one body is out of place: It’s shocking because it’s in the wrong place. We don’t associate murder with the vicarage drawing room. I use that quite a lot, that contrast between the awfulness of the deed and perhaps the beauty of what’s surrounding it. We get it with the murder in Cambridge in high summer, in “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.” We get the bodies in the church in “A Taste for Death,” brutally murdered in what is, after all, a holy place.
(from a 1998 Salon Magazine interview )
Here is the actual quote from W.H. Auden’s 1948 essay, “The Guilty Vicarage:”
In the detective story, as in its mirror image, the Quest for the Grail, maps (the ritual of space) and timetables (the ritual of time) are desirable. Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder. The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighborhood (but not too well-to-do-or there will be a suspicion of ill-gotten gains) better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.
In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, mention is made of the possibility of W. H. Auden writing some verse especially for James to insert into one of her novels, attributing it to her poet/detective Adam Dalgliesh. The idea never bore fruit, though James notes with justifiable pride that “Auden loved detective stories – he always read my books.”
The other thing I remember from that reading of A Taste for Death is more subtle. I’d describe it as the sense of something more elemental at work in the pages of the novel, a deeper quest into the very essence of human nature. In other words, the mystery was eventually solved, but not the Mystery. (I encountered similar elements in The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie. In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, Christie scholar John Curran says of this novel that it evokes “……a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.”)
At any rate, we who love crime fiction owe a debt of gratitude to P.D. James, a writer whose elegant style, masterful storytelling, and singular characters have for decades kept us engrossed, entertained, and edified. It was a life well lived, and a body of work that will stand the test of time.
A mist lay over the valley, so that the rounded hilltops looked like islands in a pale-silver sea. It had been a clear and cold night. The grass on the narrow stretch of lawn under her windows was pale and stiffened by frost, but already the misty sun was beginning to green and soften it. On the high twigs of a leaf-denuded oak three rooks were perched, unusually silent and motionless, like carefully placed black portents. Below stretched a lime avenue which led to a stone wall, and beyond it a small circle of stones. At first only the tops of the stones were visible, but as she watched, the mist rose and the circle became complete. At this distance, and with the ring partly obscured by the wall, she could see only that the stones were of different sizes, crude misshapen lumps around a central, taller stone.
(from The Private Patient)
Among my favorites:
Ave atque vale, Baroness James . You will be sorely missed.
No one could be immersed in the world of popular fiction in 1984 and not be impressed by Tom Clancy’s sensational entry into the field. With The Hunt for Red October, he virtually invented the subgenre of techno-thriller.
At that time, I had been working at the library for only two years, and I well remember the heavy demand for that title. Our patrons were especially intrigued by the fact that Clancy was something of a local celebrity, hailing as he did from Calvert County in Southern Maryland.
I just learned from Martin Edwards’s blog that Robert Barnard has passed away. Barnard has long been one of my favorite writers of crime fiction. He was a master of the cozy style of British mystery writing; as Mike Ripley says in his appreciation, “It was a term he [Barnard] never denied or disparaged as he felt strongly that the goal of the crime writer was simply to entertain.” It’s something he did wonderfully well.
In addition to mysteries, Robert Barnard authored studies of Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens. He was also a stalwart of the Bronte Society. We had the great good fortune to hear him speak in 2007, at the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth. I wrote about this memorable occasion in a post entitled Haworth and the Brontes. I included several snapshots of Barnard and others in this post. Click on the thumbnails and they become full size. (This event was part of a Smithsonian Journeys Mystery Lovers Tour.)
In addition to numerous standalone novels, Robert Barnard authored several series. Most recently his police procedurals have featured Charlie Peace, who first worked out of Scotland Yard and subsequently moved north to Leeds. The novel on the reading list for the Smithsonian trip was from an earlier series featuring Perry Trethowen of Scotland Yard. It was called Death by Sheer Torture, and I found it wonderfully entertaining. Click here for a complete list of Barnard’s crime fiction. (Please note that four novels were written under the name Bernard Bastable.)
Martin Edwards has written a fine piece on Barnard’s life and work for Mystery Scene Magazine. The article is already posted on his site.
In addition to Death by Sheer Torture, I’ve written up several other Barnard’s titles in this space: A Fall from Grace, Last Post, and A Stranger in the Family. Other favorites of mine from among his works are:
In 2003, the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger to Robert Barnard for lifetime achievement in crime writing.
We have lost a member of our Usual Suspects Mystery Book Club.
Barb has long been one of the group’s most enthusiastic participants. In fact, along with her friend Susan, she was slated to lead a discussion earlier this month. The title they chose was I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman, one of Barb’s favorite authors. In the event, Barb was unable to attend. Susan, a relatively new addition to the group, did an excellent job as solo facilitator, but she made it clear that she was greatly aided by Barb’s insights and suggestions, shared with her prior to the night in question.
We in the Usual Suspects group have always appreciated Barb’s intelligence and perceptiveness, as well as her ready wit and sense of humor. She was with us in spirit the night of the Lippman discussion; in like manner, she’ll be a presence at future gatherings of the Usual Suspects, as the months and years unfold.
She was a good friend and a good person, and will be missed by all of us.
One of my favorite authors of crime fiction has passed away.
Reginald Hill was the author of the Dalziel and Pascoe procedurals as well as a number of standalones, and as of 1993, a series featuring private investigator Joe Sixsmith. He also wrote seven thrillers under the name Patrick Ruell. Here’s the complete list.
It’s a large body of work, and its quality was consistently high. I’ve always looked to Hill’s novels for elegant prose, prodigious erudition, ingenious plots, and that wry, biting wit that we Anglophiles so cherish in British writers.
My reading of Reginald Hill’s oeuvre has been pretty much confined to the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. My favorites among them are The Wood Beyond, On Beulah Height, Dialogues of the Dead, Death’s Jest Book, Good morning, Midnight…well, as you can see, I’m having trouble choosing. If I had to pick a masterpiece from the lot, I’d choose On Beulah Height, a crime story which possesses an added dimension of urgency because of a dire situation involving one of the main characters in the series. The psychological acuity at work in this novel took my breath away. In her New York Times review of On Beulah Height, Marilyn Stasio called Reginald Hill “ever the master of form and sorcerer of style.” Click here for an appreciation of Hill’s work that I wrote in 2008.
For the 2007 Smithsonian Tour “Mystery Lovers’ England and Scotland,” Recalled To Life was on our list of suggested reading. This is my brief review, including a lengthy quoted passage:
I had deliberately saved Recalled To Life, a nicely compact mass market paperback, to read on the plane. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would still be reading it on the way back! I am a dedicated reader of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels, but I found this one, published here in 1992 and located about half way through the series, to be exceptionally dense and complex. It’s a country house murder, all right, but with an enormous cast of characters; I had trouble keeping track of who was who. Nevertheless, it has all the trademarks of Hill’s wonderful writing. Dalziel in particular is in exceptionally fine fettle here: pushy, coarse, low class – sometimes rather deliberately so – but also capable of compassion and insight. He’s a real brawler, too when the occasion calls for it, which it does several times in this book.
Recalled to Life is named for the title of the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. Quotes at the head of each chapter are taken from the Dickens work. Hill’s novel is indeed about people being “recalled to life” in various ways: released from prison after over two decades, in the case of one character; given a new, if brief, lease on life as in the case of Ellie Pascoe’s aging mother. Towards the conclusion, as Dalziel and Peter Pascoe are heading north on the A 1, Hill treats us to this poignant, eloquent paragraph, as good an illustration as any of the way in which the British are never very far from an awareness of their rich, extraordinary, and sometimes brutal history:
“This was the Great North Road, or had been before modern traffic made it necessary for roads to miss the townships they had once joined. Hatfield they passed, where Elizabeth the First learned of her accession, and Hitchin, where George Chapman translated Homer into English and John Keats into the realms of gold; Biggleswade where the Romans, driving their own road north, forded a river and founded a town; Norman Cross, near which a bronze eagle broods over the memory of eighteen hundred of Napoleon’s dead, not on a field of battle but in a British prison camp; then into what had been Rutland before it was destroyed by little men whose power outstripped their vision by a Scotch mile; and now began the long flat acres of Lincolnshire, and the road ran by Stamford, once the busy capital of the Fens and later badly damaged during the Wars of the Roses; and Grantham, where God said, ‘let Newton be,’ and there was light, though in a later century the same town ushered in some of the country’s most twilit years…”
Dwelling in his Cumbrian fastness, Mr. Hill has always avoided the limelight. (This short, lively bio has been on the Random House site for as long as I can remember.) His books will stand as a fitting monument to a life well lived in the realm of literature.
Yesterday’s Washington Post brought news of the passing of British author Beryl Bainbridge. In the course of her writing life (she was an actress first), Bainbridge was nominated for the Man Booker Prize five times. She never actually won and, as a result, was sometimes referred to as a “Booker bridesmaid.”
She did, however, win other literary awards, most notably the Whitbread – twice – for Injury Time and Every Man for Himself. I really enjoyed the second title. In Every Man for Himself, Bainbridge takes us on board the Titanic and places us among the doomed vessel’s passengers and crew members. You may think there’s no opportunity to create suspense here, but you’d be wrong. Yes, we readers know what’s going to happen, but the characters, of course, do not. You want to cry out a warning. I’m reminded of a scene in Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii in which the aquarius, Marcus Attilius Primus, is riding his horse up the slopes of Vesuvius. I wanted to grab the reins and shout, “Be afraid! Turn this horse around and ride like the wind in the other direction!”
(This serves to remind me that a little over a year ago, I was in a tour bus riding up the slopes of Vesuvius. I and my fellow travelers then got out and hiked a further way up the mountain. Was I fearful? No – I was exhilarated. On the way up, we saw lovely houses with pantile roofs and gardens nurtured by the rich volcanic soil. This is the so-called Red Zone. People live here because it is a beautiful place affording stunning views of the Bay of Naples. The mountain is, for the time being, quiescent. The scene put me in mind of spectacular dwellings I’ve seen magnificently and precariously perched on the steep hillsides of California.)
My favorite Bainbridge novel is According To Queeney. In it, the author vividly depicts eighteenth century England as she tells the story of Dr. Samuel Johnson and his intense, rather strange friendship with Hester Thrale, wife of a wealthy brewer. I read this book a awhile ago, but I still recall Hester’s repeated childbearing. Unfortunately, her infants tended to be frail and did not live long after their birth.
Bainbridge practiced the less-is-more method of writing historical fiction. Her novels are short. With a few masterful strokes, she brings the past to life. Sometimes a well placed detail can be more evocative than a grand, broad canvas. While it’s true that I loved every word of Hilary Mantel’s magisterial Wolf Hall, I love several much shorter historical novels just as much. There are the two by Beryl Bainbridge, discussed above, and these marvelous masterworks by Penelope Fitzgerald:
Click here for a complete list of works by Beryl Bainbridge. Her name also appears on a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945,” compiled by the Sunday Times of London in 2008. Don’t know about you, but the names of a fair number of my favorite authors appear on this list.