Brief Lives: Wilkie Collins, by Melisa Klimaszewski

September 26, 2011 at 2:41 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

London-based Hesperus is one of the many fine small presses that have sprung up in recent years both here and in the UK. I’ve just had the pleasure of reading a short biography of Wilkie Collins, one of the titles in the Brief Lives series put out by Hesperus.

  In her traversal of the life of Wilkie Collins, Melisa Klimaszewski places primary emphasis on the works of this great Victorian novelist and playwright. This is not to say that we don’t learn about Collins’s private life – we do, and a most unconventional life it was, at least by the perceived standards of the day. Collins maintained not one but two households. He loved both Caroline Crane and Martha Rudd, and although he had children by both, he never married either one.

This reluctance to wed was born primarily of a dislike of the institution of marriage. I can’t help feeling that Collins’s own home life, with two loving but rather rigid and straitlaced parents, may have also had something to do with his aversion to matrimony.

William Wilkie Collins was born in London in 1824. From the outset, he was an odd looking little chap. On the right side of his forehead was a singularly noticeable bulge. “The firm protuberance, looking something like a tennis ball trying to press its way out of his cranium, is visible in depictions spanning Collins’ life, from an early sketch of him as an infant to photographs of the elderly Collins.”   As the boy grew, another anomaly became evident: his hands and feet did not keep pace with the rest of him, and remained unnaturally small when he had attained adulthood. In order to find shoes and boots that he could wear comfortably, he looked for sizes smaller than those that a woman would require. In some cases, items sized for young children fit him as well.

These irregularities in his physique seem to have troubled him very little:

He admired those with more ideal physical forms, but he did not develop an intense or bitter desire to fit in with the masses.

Klimaszewski adds that “from a young age, Collins was comfortable confronting and disputing social custom.” So in his case, one might almost say that form followed function.

Collins’s first published stories appeared in the early 1840s. Soon he had completed his first novel, entitled Iolani. Collins was never able to find a publisher for that work. In fact, the manuscript disappeared, only surfacing once again in 1991. It was sold to a private collector in New York City and then finally published. According to Klimaszewski, Iolani “…has provided a fresh and amusing look into Collins’ early writing.”

In 1851, an event occurred that influenced Collins profoundly, from both a personal and a professional standpoint, and for the rest of his life. He met Charles Dickens. Though the latter was twelve years his senior, Collins formed a close bond with the great novelist:

They shared an energetic disposition, a passion for detail, a taste for extravagant dress and a creative spark. Both men were also drawn to what others regarded as the seedy underside of Victorian life. Dickens had a lifelong habit of walking for miles, often through the streets of rough neighborhoods, and Collins now joined him in regular jaunts through pub- and prostitute-lined streets….Dickens favoured carousing with Collins above staying home with his nine young children and wife of nearly fifteen years.

They may have celebrated life with a certain abandon, but as writers, they were serious and extremely effective collaborators. They co-wrote and produced dramas based on their own novels; Collins contributed stories to popular literary magazines such as Household Words and All the Year Round, both of which were published by Dickens. 

Klimaszewski is careful to point out the innovations in detective fiction that can be attributed to Wilkie Collins. “The Lawyer’s Story of the Stolen Letter,” written in 1856, “…has the distinction of being regarded as the first British detective story.” That same year, with “The Diary of Anne Rodway,” Collins gave us the first woman detective protagonist to appear in a short story. “Who Is the Thief?” was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1858. Now known as “The Biter Bit,” this was the first comic detective story and also the first to be written in the epistolary form. (“The Biter Bit” can be found in Masters of Mystery, along with a terrific story by Dicken called “Hunted Down.” “A Terribly Strange Bed,” another tale by Collins that’s both highly atmospheric and genuinely frightening, can be found in Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a superb anthology originally published in 1944 and brought back into print by Random House’s Modern Library division.) 

In the 1860s, Wilkie Collins produced his four greatest novels: The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone. The Woman in White, first serialized in All the Year Round and subsequently published in three volumes, was wildly popular from the moment it first appeared on the literary scene. The same happy fate befell The Moonstone.        


Klimeszewski does a fine job of elucidating the original and distinguishing qualities of each of these four works of fiction. In regard to The Moonstone, she admits that the designation “first” can almost always provoke an argument: “Perhaps it is more useful to discuss The Moonstone as the detective novel whose plot devices, characterisation, and narrative methods would become standards for the form and as the first to achieve such instant and widespread fame.” The Moonstone contained within its pages a synthesis of several literary subgenres: the Gothic, psychological realism, and sensationalism.

I’d like to take a moment to look at that last category, because Klimaszewski offers an excellent definition of the novel of sensation, a designation I’ve run across frequently in the annals of literary criticism but rarely seen pinned down with such clarity. “Sensation fiction,” she explains, “was by no means a discrete entity.”

It regularly overlapped with Gothic fiction, domestic realism, psychological realism, melodrama, and the development of detective fiction. In seeking to categorise a work as as sensational, one looks  for some combination of the elements above, an especially heavy dependence on strained coincidences, and settings where the most shocking of intrigues are discovered within familiar domestic spaces often belonging to the higher social classes.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it became a commonplace trope that in the pantheon of great literature. sensation fiction was of a lower order. It was considered a time waster, and worse: “…a vice akin to addiction that would fuel moral degeneration and vice in impressionable, and mostly women, readers.” According to Klimaszewski, a revaluation of this much maligned subgenre got under way in the late twentieth century. With regard specifically to The Moonstone, the process was kick started even earlier by T.S. Eliot in his 1927 essay, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens.” Eliot declares that work to be “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels…in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe.”

Here’s Klimaszewski on The Moonstone:

The novel’s plot twists are surprising but often so plausible that they do not feel as ‘sensational’ as the shocking developments in many of Collins’ other novels. As Collins’ writing emerged in the detective and mystery form, surprising elements became clues, not simply shock tactics. The revelation of those clues ultimately had much more to do with characters or readers overlooking something than with Collins attempting to produce gratuitous surprise.

In other words, exactly as it should  be in a well wrought mystery.

Serialization of The Moonstone began in 1868. Eight years prior, a terrible murder had occurred in the small village of Road, in Wiltshre in the south west of England. A three year old boy named Saville Kent had gone missing in the night. The next day, an extensive search of the house and grounds resulted in the finding of his small body stuffed down  privy.

It was felt from the outset that some member of the household was the perpetrator. But between the parents, older children, and numerous servants, there was  large cast of characters from which to choose. The Met sent its finest, in the person of Detective Inspector Jack Whicher. to head up the investigation.

Meanwhile there was a major piling on by the press, where speculation was rife as to who had committed this abomination. In a letter to Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens weighed in with his own hypothesis:

‘Mr. Kent [victim’s father], intriguing with nursemaid, poor little child wakes in Crib, and sits up, contemplating blissful proceedings. Nursemaid strangles him then and there. Mr. Kent gashes  body, to mystify discoverers, and disposes of same.’

Very ingenious – one almost wants to say, very Dickensian! But true…? Find out for yourself by reading The Suspicions of Mr.Whicher, Kate Summerscale’s fascinating look at the facts and circumstances surrounding the murder at Road Hill House. ( This article makes me hope fervently that we get the opportunity to view the filmed version of Summerscale’s book here in the States. Rebecca Eaton, are you listening?)

Detective Inspector Whicher’s theory of the crime differed from that of Charles Dickens. Unfortunately, Whicher’s was a voice crying in the wilderness, at least at the time of the initial inquiry. Five years later, by which time he had left the Metropolitan Police Force, the culprit confessed, in the process proving Jack Whicher  right in his belief concerning the case. Whicher was the model for Sergeant Cuff, the investigating officer in The Moonstone. 

Detective Inspector Jack Whicher


(The Usual Suspects book group has discussed  both The Moonstone and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Both are wonderful books; both provided plenty of matter for a lively discussion.)

In the final chapter of her book, Klimaszewski names several works by other authors who have used the writing, or the life, of Wilkie Collins in crafting their own fictions. She’s enthusiastic about Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, whose novel The Little Stranger I so enjoyed. In addition, several of the stories in an anthology called Death By Dickens are warmly recommended.   I was able to get this book from the library and have just read “The House of the Red Candle” by Martin Edwards. This is a locked room mystery – or to be more precise, a locked room-in-a-brothel mystery. Here’s how Klimaszewski describes it: “Concern for a prostitute leads Collins and Dickens to a brothel where a suspected murderess seems to have disappeared impossibly, and their slowly developing detective skills result in an entertaining exposition of the mystery.” In fact, this delightful tale is both entertaining and highly imaginative.

We have just passed the anniversary of the death of Wilkie Collins: he died on September 23, 1889. This is how Melisa Klimeszewski concludes this short but enlightening and highly enjoyable work:

The inclusion of repellent as well as sympathetic misfits throughout Collins’ body of work insists upon a diversity of difference and grants a flawed – and therefore accessible, recognisable – humanity to characters so often drawn in other fiction as one-dimensionally odd. These complexities, in addition to fast-paced and intriguing plots, continue to draw new readers to (and inspire new imaginings of) Collins’ tales. Exploring the power of lust, the inequities of marriage, a mysterious disappearance, or a comic scenario, the works of Wilkie Collins stand as a testament to the lasting and varied legacies of a supreme storyteller.

Portrait of Wilkie Collins by Rudolph Lehmann

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“It was always impossible to know…why one small spark caused a large fire and why another was destined to extinguish itself before it had even flared.” – “Silence,” by Colm Toibin

February 16, 2011 at 11:35 pm (Book review, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Short stories)

Of late, I have been enjoying the short stories in Colm Toibin’s new collection, The Empty Family. I particularly like “The Silence,” in which Toibin imagines himself into social and literary world of turn of the century London. One of that world’s brightest stars is Henry James. Lady Gregory, a young widow, has been listening to him as he holds forth on the subject of Americans in Venice:

James sighed and mentioned how a warm personality, especially of the American sort, had a way of cooling one’s appreciation of ancient beauty, irrespective of how grand the palazzo of which this personality was in possession, indeed irrespective of how fine or fast-moving her gondola.

Once he has concluded this eloquent if rather idiosyncratic disquisition, Lady Gregory informs James that she has a story to tell him. The story concerns a newly married clergyman and his bride. Would James like to hear it? Or is he weary of people’s relish for telling him tales to use in his fiction? The author, in his turn, is reassuring; he is more than amenable to hearing her recitation. And so she commences  her tale:

There was an eminent London man, a clergyman known to dine at the best tables, a man of great experience who had many friends, friends who were both surprised and delighted when this man finally married. The lady in question was known to be highly respectable….

“The Silence” is prefaced by an entry purportedly from one of Henry James’s notebooks; in it, James divulges the particulars of the rest of this story. He also states that it was related to him by  “Lady G.” So what I want to know is this: Is this an actual notebook excerpt? For that matter, is there a story by Henry James that more or less conforms to the plot points in that notebook entry?

These are tantalizing questions (They tantalize me, at any rate.).  In addition to being a literary puzzle, “The Silence” is about a rapturous love affair, boldly entered into and culminating in the expected way. A beautifully wrought gem of a story.

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This volume’s title story showcases Toibin’s intense lyrical bent as the narrator, coming to terms with his life and his fate, meditates on  what Henry James called “the distinguished thing:”

One of these days I will go and stand in that graveyard and contemplate the light over the Slaney, the simple beauty of grey Irish light over water, and know that I, like anyone else who was born, will be condemned eventually to lie in darkness as long as time lasts. And all I have in the meantime is this house, this light, this freedom, and I will, if I have the courage, spend my time watching the sea, noting its changes and the sounds it makes, studying the horizon, listening to the wind or relishing the clam when there is no wind. I will not fly even in my deepest dreams too close to the sun or too close to the sea. The chance for all that has passed.

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I have one complaint about The Empty Family, and it has nothing to do with the contents thereof. I very much appreciate short story collections in which the title of the story I’m reading appears not only at its beginning, but also at the top of succeeding pages. I’m referring to what I believe are called “running heads,” or “headers,” in contemporary computer-influenced parlance. In this collection, the words “The Empty Family” served as the headers throughout, on the right, while the author’s name appears top left in likewise fashion.  This is a small cavil, but worth mentioning, IMHO.

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Colm Toibin will be reading from his works at the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s 33rd annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry. What a wonderful tradition “HoCoPoLitSo” has established with this series! I had the good fortune to attend this event both last year and the year before that. I’m glad I went, especially in 2009.

Colm Toibin

Claire Keegan

Frank McCourt

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“Somerset Maugham, the great teller of tales”

February 2, 2011 at 1:50 am (books, Short stories)

Once again, here is Selina Hastings on the works of Somerset Maugham:

To the vast majority of his readers, Somerset Maugham has come to be associated with the latter days of the British Empire, and in particular with the British Empire in the Far East. Just as Kipling is identified with India and the Raj, so is Maugham identified with the Malayan archipelago. Those famous tales of his set on rubber estates, on remote outstations, in the card rooms of the local club, those stories of incest and adultery, of sex-starved missionaries and alcoholic planters, of footsteps in the jungle and murder on the veranda, are what remain in the minds of many as the very image and epitome of Maugham’s fictional territory.

Many consider the two collections pictured above as containing some of the best work this author ever did. This is especially true of The Casuarina Tree. This collection is comprised of six stories. Thus far I’ve read three of them: “Before the Party,” “The Letter,” and “The Yellow Streak.” The first two are tales of murder. The setting may be exotic, but the passions aroused and acted upon are all too familiar. In “The Yellow Streak,” Maugham describes what happens when a group of men making their way downriver suddenly encounter a tidal bore. This is a type of tsunami in much narrower quarters than its oceanic counterpart and apparently every bit as terrifying:

In a moment the waves were upon them. It was a great wall of water that seemed to tower over them, and it might have been ten or twelve feet high, but you could measure it only with your horror. It was quite plain that no boat could weather it. The first wave dashed over them, drenching them all, half filling the boat with water, and then immediately another wave struck them. The boatmen began t shout. They pulled madly at their oars and the steersman yelled  an order. But in that surging torrent they were helpless, and it was frightening to see how soon they lost all control of the boat. The force of the water turned it broadside on and it was carried along, helter-skelter, upon the crest of the Bore. Another great wave dashed over them and the boat began to sink.

This harrowing description is  based on an incident that actually happened to Maugham. It very nearly cost him his life.

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In 1911 Ethel Proudlock, wife of a school teacher in Kuala Lumpur, shot and killed one William Steward, manager of a tin mine. The case became a sensation at the time. (A book on the subject, Murder on the Verandah by Eric Lawlor, came out in 1999. The New Statesman’s review contains spoilers, so be aware.) Mrs Proudlock’s lawyer told Maugham about it ten years after the fact, when both were in Kuala Lumpur.  Maugham, ever on the alert for good story material, turned it into “The Letter,” which was published in 1927 and has had a remarkable afterlife extending to the present day. Maugham himself turned the narrative into a successful play. Bette Davis starred in the 1940 film. “The Letter” was made into a TV film in 1982 starring Lee Remick.  Most recently it became an opera, with music by Paul Moravec and libretto by Terry Teachout. The work premiered at the Sana Fe Opera in 2009.

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During the First World War, Maugham worked for British Military Intelligence. His main base of operations was Geneva, but he was also sent on a mission to Russia. He arrived in Petrograd in 1917,  plunging, as it were, directly into the eye of the storm. While there, he met Louise Bryant and John Reed,  the couple portrayed by Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty in the film Reds. (Reed wrote an eyewitness account of the revolution that went on to become a classic: Ten Days That Shook the World.) Maugham himself invariably played the part of the bon vivant, peripatetic writer, always on the lookout for a good “scoop.” The role provided the perfect cover for him. At one point, while dining with Reed and Bryant, he confided to the latter, assuming his best roguish manner: “‘You won’t reveal you had lunch with a British Secret Agent, will you?'” She found the suggestion risible: “‘It couldn’t have been funnier if he’d said he was an ambassador of the Pope,’ she remarked afterward.”

Maugham drew on his experiences as an agent in the field, primarily in neutral Switzerland and to some extent in Russia, when he wrote the volume of linked stories entitled Ashenden; or, the British Agent. Maugham clearly enjoyed intelligence work. His friend Lord Kenneth Clark said that he spoke of it often: “‘I suppose he liked the light that it shed on human nature.” Maugham’s accounts of Ashenden’s various missions are dispassionate and distinctly unglamorous. He gives credit to acts of courage, but also depicts in an unblinking manner the inevitable hypocrisy and moral ambiguity that attend such work. Selina Hastings comments: “It is this clear-eyed vision that largely accounts for the extraordinary impact that Ashenden made on the writing of espionage fiction.”

Ashenden is out of print and not owned by the local library, so I’m currently reading a large print edition I got through interlibrary loan. I’m loving these stories; they’re atmospheric, cunningly plotted and of course, beautifully written. Like Maugham, his alter ego, Ashenden is a cultured person. In “A Domiciliary Visit,” two large policemen confront Ashenden in his hotel room in Geneva. In his mind he dubs them Fasolt and Fafner, after the giants from Wagner’s Ring operas. In the story “Miss King,” Ashenden is called to the bedside of an extremely old women whom he barely knows:

It gave Ashenden a shock to look at her. She wore a large white  cotton night-cap…tied under the  chin and a white, voluminous nightdress that came high up in the neck. Night-cap and nightdress belonged to a past age and reminded you of Cruikshank’s illustrations to the novels of Charles Dickens.

(This is one of the few stories in this collection that I feel I didn’t actually “get,” although I was fascinated by it anyway.)

Some quite “fabulous” characters, in the literal sense of the word, come and go in these tales; “The Hairless Mexican” is certainly one of the more memorable among them. At one point, this person, whose actual name is Manuel Carmona, nearly causes Ashenden to miss a crucial rail journey:

When the time drew near for the arrival of the train from Paris that was to take them directly to Rome and the Hairless Mexican did not appear Ashenden, beginning to grow a trifle anxious, went out on the platform to look for him. Ashenden suffered from that distressing malady known as train fever: ann hour before his train was due he began to have apprehensions lest he should miss it; he was impatient with the porters who would never bring his luggage down from his room in time and he could not understand why the hotel bus cut it so fine; a block in the street would drive him to frenzy and the languid movements of the station porters infuriated him….

As I too suffer from “train fever,” I was empathizing powerfully with Ashenden at that moment. As you can probably guess, the Hairless Mexican saunters onto the platform at the last possible moment, acting as though he had not a  care in the world. While making conversation on the train (finally!), Ashenden explains that although he is a writer of fiction, he eschews the writing of detective stories:

‘They are very difficult. You need an incredible amount of invention. I devised a murder story once, but the murder was so ingenious that I could never find a way of bringing it home to the murderer, and after all, one of the conventions of the detective story is that the mystery should in the end be solved and the criminal brought to justice.’

This put me in mind of the famous anecdote concerning the movie version of The Big Sleep. Neither the director nor the screenwriters could work out who had murdered the chauffeur. They asked the question of Raymond Chandler, author of the novel, who replied that he didn’t know either! Chandler, by the way, greatly admired Maugham’s work, saying of it: “His plots are cool and deadly and his timing is absolutely flawless.”

Ashenden is included the recent compendium Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads. In her essay for that collection, Melodie Johnson Howe tells us:

In creating the Eton-educated Ashenden, Maugham paved the way for Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, John Le Carre, and many more. I even see Ashenden in P.D. James’s Inspector Dalgliesh. [And now that she mentions it, so do I.]

Howe makes special mention of the story “Giulia Lazzari,” in which a woman is presented with an extremely stark choice either to betray her lover into enemy hands or herself suffer intolerable consequences. I agree with Howe that this is an exceptionally powerful tale, but I was dismayed by the use of an abominable racial epithet. It is uttered not by Ashenden but by his boss and handler, know only as “R.” Giulia and her beloved come across as  the real heroes here.

Howe states in her conclusion:

This group of stories was written on a long-ago era. The element of the ticking time bomb so popular in thriller writing today does not exist in them. But the human element does.

Turns out that the CIA has a highly selective list of best spy novels: “Ashenden or the British Agent is on it.”

(I’ve had no luck finding that list, BTW.)

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“Before the Party,” “The Yellow Streak,” and “The Letter” can all be found in Collected Stories by W. Somerset Maugham, from Everyman’s Library. The following stories from Ashenden can be found in this same volume: “Miss King,” “The Hairless Mexican,” “Guilia Lazzari,” “The Traitor,” and “His Excellency.”

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One of the great pleasures of Selina Hastings’s biography is the number of famous people from all walks of life that cycle in and out of the narrative. Here  are just a few of them:

Noel Coward

Winston Churchill

Virginia Woolf

Bette Davis

Cary Grant

Lytton Strachey, portrait by Dora Carrington

Osbert, Edith, and Sacheverell Sitwell

Dorothy Parker

Eleanor Roosevelt

George Bernard Shaw

Evelyn Waugh

Charlie Chaplin

Graham Greene

H.G. Wells

Rebecca West

Henry James

Thomas Hardy

Ian Fleming

Rudyard Kipling

Anthony Blunt

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor

And there are many, many others…

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Selina Hastings

At the conclusion of this magisterial work, Selina Hastings proclaims W. Somerset Maugham to be “the great teller of tales.” So he was – and Hastings has done a magnificent job of bringing this complex, gifted individual vividly to life.

I’ll let writer and reviewer Diana Athill have the last word: “An impressively perceptive and often moving account of an extraordinarily interesting man.”

Somerset Maugham, portrait by Graham Sutherland

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“An ingenious and amusing conceit!” – The Labors of Hercules, by Agatha Christie

September 12, 2010 at 10:59 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

The Labors of Hercules is a story cycle comprising twelve tales. These are preceded by a foreword which is a must-read, as it sets up the premise of all that is to follow.

Hercule Poirot and his friend Dr. Burton are taking their ease in Poirot’s flat. Poirot is discussing his plans to retire to the countryside. The following exchange is initiated by a seemingly idle query from Dr. Burton:

“Why Hercule?”
“You mean, my Christian name?”
“Hardly a Christian name,” the other demurred. “Definitely pagan. But why? That’s what I want to know. Father’s fancy? Mother’s whim? If I remember rightly – though my memory isn’t what it was – you also had a brother called Achille, did you not?”
Poirot’s mind raced back over the details of Achille Poirot’s career. Had all that really happened?
“Only for a short space of time,” he replied.
Dr. Burton passed tactfully from the subject of Achille Poirot.

(Want to know more about the mysterious Achille? Click here.)

Dr. Burton inquires of Poirot as to whether he is conversant with the classics. When his interlocutor admits that he is not, the good doctor holds forth on his love of the literature of that period. Almost inevitably, he makes mention of the famous twelve labors of Hercules.

After Dr. Burton has left, Poirot admits to being intrigued by the subject. He sends Miss Lemon forth to obtain a reference work on classical mythology. At first, after studying this  famous legend, Poirot is at first dismissive: “Take this Hercules – this hero! Hero indeed? what was he but a large muscular creature of low intelligence and criminal tendencies!”  (Can’t you just picture David Suchet spluttering indignantly?) And yet, and yet…a seed has been planted…

Poirot decides to take on twelve more cases before he retires. Each one of these must in some way be analogous to a Herculean undertaking from classical literature. Each story title corresponds to one of the labors. In each case, I’ve linked to an explanation of what that labor consisted of.

1. The Nemean Lion.

The “lion” in this story is actually a Pekingese dog, or more accurately, several Pekingese dogs.  Someone is kidnapping the little darlings and holding them for ransom. It’s a clever scheme, and it takes a sleuth with Poirot’s resourcefulness to work out how it is being pulled off – and who is behind it. A cast of spoiled and doting upper class ladies and their hapless “companions,” enlivens the scenario:

Lady Hoggin was a stout, petulant-looking woman with dyed henna red hair. Her companion, the fluttering Miss Carnaby, was a plump, amiable-looking creature between forty and fifty. She treated Lady Hoggin with great deference and was clearly frightened to death of her.

This one of my favorite tales in the collection.

(“Lady’s companion” –  an odd designation, isn’t it? It invariably puts me in mind of a far darker scenario limned in such compelling fashion in the Daphne DuMaurier classic, Rebecca.)

2. The Lernean Hydra.

Dr. Charles Oldfield lives and practices his profession in the small village of Market Loughborough. His wife has recently passed away, having been an invalid for some years prior. Unfortunately, rumors are running rampant in the village as to the cause of her death. It is being whispered that she was poisoned – by none other than her husband, with the possible collusion of his lover. Poirot observes: “Rumor is indeed the nine-headed Hydra of Lernea which cannot be exterminated because as  fast as one head is cropped off two grow in its place.”

The desperate doctor could not agree more. He swears he is innocent and begs Poirot to help him prove it before his livelihood and life are destroyed. As it happens, there are several suspects to hand. Poirot pronounces himself game:

“I have no doubt that the nurse companion talked, that the servants talked, that everyone talked! You have all the materials there for the starting of a very enjoyable village scandal.”

He naturally goes on to save the day – not to mention Dr. Oldfield’s reputation.

3. The Arcadian Deer.

It is winter. Poirot’s  car having broken down on a journey to the countryside, the Belgian detective is obliged to spend the night at an inn while repairs are being effected. Ted Williamson, the garage mechanic, comes to see him with good news about his vehicle. But there’s more. Young Williamson has a request for Poirot.

It seems that in the Spring of that year, he had had occasion to render a service at a nearby country estate called Grasslawn. A famous Russian ballerina, Katrina Samoushenka, was visiting there at the time; she had with her a lady’s maid, a young girl named Nita. When Ted arrived at the estate, Nita was the only person there, all the guests and their host being out for an excursion on the river. Ted and Nita connected. They went for a walk. When they returned to the house, Nita told Ted that her mistress would be returning in two weeks, and she with her. Katrina Samoushenka did indeed  return, but Nita was not with her. Ted has since been unable to learn anything concerning her whereabouts. He wants Poirot to find her for him.

Talk about a needle in a haystack! This will involve traveling to the continent, for Nita is French – or is she Italian? And all this for a young man of exceedingly modest means. But Poirot loves nothing more than a challenge of this nature. And he is touched by Ted’s simple and sincere ardor. He decides to take the case.

Late into this endeavor, Poirot suddenly recalls having once seen Samouchenka perform. The ballet told the story of a Hunter, danced by Michael Novgin, pursuing a Deer. This was Samouchenka:

…he remembered the lovely flying Hind, eternally pursued, eternally desirable – a golden beautiful creature with horns on her head and twinkling bronze feet. He remembered her final collapse, shot and wounded, and Michael Novgin standing bewildered, with the body of the slain Deer in his arms.

“The Arcadian Deer” is an amazing story, with more momentous  events and plot twists crowded into it than some novels I’ve read. It tugs deeply at the heartstrings and is almost unbearably poignant. A masterpiece in miniature.

4. The Erymanthian Boar.

Poirot is supposedly vacationing in Switzerland but finds himself enlisted by the local police in their effort to capture a notorious criminal. Poirot’s former colleague Lementeuil warns him: “It is important, my friend, tht Marrascaud should be taken – and taken alive. He is not a man – he is a wild boar – one of the most dangerous killers alive today.”

Before long, Poirot finds himself marooned at a ski resort high up in the mountains with a curious  cast of characters, one of whom is Schwartz, an overly friendly American. It is the off  season. The funicular, the only means of reaching the resort, has been disabled. And somewhere, possibly hiding in plain sight, is Maarascaud.

5. The Augean Stables.

Of all the labors of Hercules, this is probably the best known. It has given rise to the expression “cleaning the Augean stables,” meaning the cleaning up of a mess of historic proportions (your teenager’s bedroom, for instance).

(In Donna Leon’s latest Guido Brunetti novel, A Question of Belief, Toni Brusca, a friend of Brunetti’s who works for the municipal government, hands him some potentially troubling court documents. When Brunetti asks his friend to what purpose he’s being shown the papers, Brusca replies that he hopes Brunetti will be outraged enough to take some kind of action: “Perhaps that’s what I admire in you, that you can  still hope that things can turn right and Augean Stables will be cleansed.”)

In the highest echelons of government, there is extreme anxiety. The office of the Prime Minister is about to be engulfed in scandal. A scurrilous  rag called the X-Ray News is about to print a damning story about the former Prime Minister, John Hammett. How to counter the outrageous charges – especially when they are, in the main, based on fact? What makes this turn-up especially awkward is the fact  that the current Prime Minister, Edward Ferrier, is John Hammett’s son-in-law.

To the British, John Hammett is a veritable icon:

He represented every quality which was dear to Englishmen….Anecdotes were told of his simple home life, of his fondness for gardening. Corresponding to Baldwin’s pipe and Chamberlain’s umbrella, there was John Hammett’s raincoat. He always carried it – a weather-worn garment. It stood as a symbol – of the English climate, of the prudent forethought of the English race, of their attachment to old possessions.

So the question is: can Poirot possibly do anything to avert this looming disaster? Can he, in other words, cleanse the Augean Stables of this messy confluence of personal malfeasance and journalistic rapacity? Can he save John Hammett’s reputation?

No sooner has Poirot agreed to this undertaking than yet another scandal threatens to blacken the name of an even more unlikely target: John Hammett’s daughter – and Edward Ferrier’s wife – the heretofore immaculate Dagmar Ferrier.

What is going on? Poirot is more determined than ever to serve his adopted country by rendering aid to the besieged. He resorts to a  daring act of subterfuge. Can it possibly succeed? Stay tuned…

6. The Stymphalean Birds.

Harold Waring is in a good place, both physically and metaphorically. His political career is in the ascendant. He is treating himself to a vacation at Lake Stempka, in scenic Herzoslovakia (what a delightful coinage!). And he might be falling in love.

The object of his growing affections is Elsie Clayton. Elsie, who’s  traveling with her congenial mother, is desperate to escape the clutches of an abusive husband. Delicate and vulnerable, Elsie commends herself to Harold’s protective instincts.

Understandably, Harold has taken little notice of the hotel’s other guests. That is until he beholds these two, approaching toward him:

Surely there was something odd about these two women? They had long curved noses, like birds, and their faces, which were curiously alike, were quite immobile. Over their shoulders, they wore loose cloaks that flapped in the wind like the wings of two big birds.
Harold thought to himself:
“They are like birds -” He added, almost without volition, “birds of ill omen.”

But what, if anything, are they harbingers of? That question would seem to have been answered by the unwelcome arrival of Elsie’s estranged – and enraged – husband.

Luckily for Harold Waring, Poirot appears on the scene – late, but still in time to set things aright.

This probably my favorite story in this collection. It is a masterpiece of misdirection, an exceptionally cunning construction even from the Master Plotter herself. “The Stymphalean Birds” is atmospheric and extremely suspenseful; its clever use of doubling and mistaken identity brought to mind one of the most genuinely frightening tales I have ever read: “Don’t Look Now,” by Daphne Du Maurier.

7. The Cretan Bull.

Diana Maberly and Hugh Chandler are deeply in love and planning to be married. But Hugh suddenly breaks off their engagement. The reason? He believes he is going mad.

It seems there’s a hereditary “taint” on Hugh’s father’s side of the family. Some ominous, disturbing acts have lately been committed on or near Lyde Manor, the family estate. Evidence points to Hugh having done these things, either while sleepwalking or in some kind of fugue state. Either way – he certainly cannot marry, and more certainly, cannot father children who could very well inherit this propensity. Hugh’s father, Admiral Chandler, intends to keep his son at the family estate, under lock and key. If the authorities get wind of Hugh’s possibly violent tendencies, they might insist that he be institutionalized.

This state of affairs is devastating not only to Diana but to the Admiral. Hugh is the last of the Chandler line. He had been hoping for grandchildren to carry on the family name and estate, but that can never happen now.

Thing is, though, Diana is a fighter. She’s not accepting this fatalistic conclusion or her broken engagement lying down. She entreats Hercule Poirot to look into the situation. When Poirot arrives at Lyde Manor, he is at once impressed with the fine physique and the virile good looks of Hugh Chandler: “He is the young Bull – yes, one might say the Bull dedicated to Poseidon…A perfect specimen of healthy manhood.” Can this be the same person who is about to descend into the pit of insanity?

It was interesting to encounter, in this story, the peculiar horror of hereditary mental illness that seemed to haunt people of Agatha Christie’s generation. Ngaio Marsh, another Golden Age mystery writer, makes very effective use of this aversion in an early novel called The Nursing Home Murder.

8. The Horses of Diomedes.

In this story, these wild and ungovernable animals are personified by the wild, ungovernable daughters of General Grant of Ashley Lodge in Mertonshire. At the urging of Dr. Stoddart, a young physician friend, Poirot goes to Mertonshire to investigate matters. The girls have gotten involved with drugs and drug dealers, and both Stoddart and Poirot want to put a stop to this dangerous, not to mention illegal, activity.

Before presenting himself at Ashley Lodge, Poirot decides to see what kind of intelligence concerning the Grant family he can obtain from one Lady Carmichael, a friend who lives nearby. He tells her the following: “I emulate my great predecessor Hercules. One of the Labors of Hercules was the taming of the wild horses of Diomedes.”

Now Lady Carmichael is a rather literal soul; at first, she takes it into her head  that Poirot has come into the country in order to train horses! Once reassured that this is not the nature of his errand, she launches into a rant on the subject of classical literature, especially as it is made use by the local clergy:

“I always do think these ancient Greeks and Romans are very unpleasant. I can’t think why clergymen are so fond of quoting the classics – for one thing one never understands what they mean and it always seems to be that the whole subject matter of the classics is very unsuitable  for clergymen. So much incest, and all those statues with nothing on – not that I mind that myself, but you know what clergymen are – quite upset if girls come to church with no stockings on….”

This is Dame Agatha at her most delightful, employing the sly wit that enlivens so much of her work.

“The Horses of Diomedes” has a particular cunning twist at the end – the kind of thing that makes you exclaim, “What? WHAT??”

9. The Girdle of Hyppolita.

This time it’s a case of a purloined painting. Rubens is by no means a favorite artist of Poirot’s; nonetheless, it is a highly esteemed and very valuable work of art, stolen in broad daylight  by means of an audacious ruse. Poirot is about to begin his investigation into the  crime when he is deflected from this course by a more  urgent dilemma: the need to locate a missing schoolgirl. Like the painting, Winnie King had disappeared in broad daylight – and from a train carriage locked at both ends! Here is a classic locked room mystery, given a new twist by the endlessly inventive Dame Agatha.

But what of the painting? Has Poirot forgotten about it, in the rush of activity connected with the search for Winnie King? By no means…

Hyppolita’s hand was on her girdle – she was wearing nothing else…Hercules had a lion skin thrown lightly over one shoulder. The flesh of Rubens is rich voluptuous flesh…

10. The Flock of Geryon.

Miss Carnaby of “The Nemean Lion” makes a return appearance, as does her Pekingese dog, Augustus. Before divulging the essence of her problem to her old friend, Miss Carnaby cannot resist offering this anecdote illustrative of the sheer brilliance of little Augustus:

“We say ‘Die for Sherlock Holmes, die  for Mr. Fortune, die  for Sir Henry Merrivale, and then die for M. Hercule Poirot’ and he goes down and lies like a log – lies absolutely still without moving until we say the word!”

But on to more serious matters…

It seems that her friend, a widow by the name of Emmeline Clegg, has become involved with a fringe religious sect. On the surface, it all seems quite  correct, if a bit eccentric. But the sharp-eyed Miss Carnaby is not fooled. She is determined to rescue Miss Clegg from the clutches of The Flock of the Shepherd and their leader, a Dr. Andersen who styles himself the Great Shepherd.

Poirot devises a plan whereby Miss Carnaby penetrates the Flock by going undercover. Ostensibly, she has come around to her friend’s point of view and is now a committed follower. As such, she takes part in a ritual called the Festival of the Full Pasture. The faithful gather in a group. They wear blindfolds. They extend their arms. Miss Carnaby feels a prick “…a sharp stinging pain like the prick of a needle…”

And then:

She felt suddenly uplifted, happy. She sank down on a soft grassy bank. Why had she ever thought she was a lonely, unwanted middle-aged woman? Life was wonderful – she herself was wonderful! She had the power of thought – of dreaming. There was nothing she could not accomplish!

Just what is going on here? Poirot is pretty sure he knows just what this self-styled “Great Shepherd” is up to. But the proof? Ah, that is another matter…

11. The Apples of the Hesperides.

Poirot’s services are engaged by one Emery Power, a wealthy art collector. Power had paid handsomely for a finely wrought goblet dating from the Renaissance. But before he could take possession of this priceless objet d’art, it was stolen from its owner, the Marchese di San Veretrino. That gentleman had immediately offered Power his money back, but Power does not want the money: he wants the goblet. Why?

“The workmanship is exquisite (it is said to have been made by Benvenuto Cellini). The design represents a tree round which a jewelled serpent is coiled and the apples on the tree are formed of very beautiful emeralds.”

Well heck – I want it too! And to add to its intrinsic beauty: “It is said to be the goblet used by Pope Alexander VI – Roderigo Borgia.” Borgia was apparently in the habit of offering drink to certain of his guests in this lovely vessel. It was often, alas, the last liquid quaffed by said guest in this life.

At its conclusion, “The Apples of the Hesperides” veers off in a direction that for this reader was totally unexpected, more than a bit ironic, and at the same time strangely uplifting.

12. The Capture of Cerberus.

After an absence of some twenty years, the  inimitable Countess Vera Rossakoff reenters Poirot’s life. The Countess made her first appearance in the story “The Double Clue.” (This story first came out in the U.S. in Blue Book Magazine in 1925; it was later anthologized in the collection Double Sin.)

In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson has this to say of Irene Adler: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” One could say the same of Poirot’s feelings for Countess Vera Rossakoff – though in the case of Poirot, those feelings are more overtly tender, if not downright amorous. In “The Double Clue,” the Countess, a member of the dispossessed Russian nobility, is found to be a jewel thief. This discovery is made by none other than Poirot himself. Instead of informing the authorities, however, he facilitates her egress from the country. (The film version features a poignant final scene in which Poirot waves farewell to the Countess’s departing train.)

Eh, bien! To return to the present: just what is the canny and charming Countess up to now? Initially, it’s a hard question to answer. Her surprise meeting with Poirot takes place on opposing escalators: he is heading up; she is heading down. When he calls after her, begging to know where she can be found, her response is beyond enigmatic: “In Hell…”

“Hell” turns out to be a night club currently being run by none other than the Countess herself. But who is financing this audacious high end venture? This and other questions present themselves to Poirot’s ever restless mind. And so he takes himself off to Hell itself, where he finds a veritable constellation of fascinating characters, from the innocently carefree to the distinctly suspect. Among the club’s more distinctive features is the “ruddy great dog” that guards the premises. His name is – what else? – Cerberus.

On the surface, all seems festive and carefree. But Poirot detect sinister undercurrents. He fears that the club and the Countess along with it are being used as a front for a  criminal enterprise. His old friend Inspector Japp validates his suspicions.

Poirot’s task his clear: he must expose the evildoers as quickly as possible. The Countess – the dear Countess! – may herself be in mortal danger.

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These stories work beautifully as cunning little puzzles and masterpieces of misdirection, but in a larger sense, they recreate an entire world. We are back in the early years of the twentieth century. England retains a certain smugness regarding its perceived superior status in the world. The aristocracy still holds sway, but the nouveau riche are fast encroaching on their territory. The revolution in psychiatry and the introduction of psychoanalysis, so revolutionary at the beginning of the century,  still have considerable influence on the way human nature is perceived.

Certain minority groups can be denigrated with impunity. (This criticism is often leveled at the Golden Age writers. It is a whole other subject and is, I believe, reflective of society as a whole in that particular era, not just in Britain but in America as well. Fortunately very little of this offhand verbal cruelty appears in these tales.) Drugs and excessive alcohol consumption were a blight on the landscape, as  they still are.

The stories in The Labors of Hercules are like twelve tiny novels. They are richer in content and character creation than many a full length novel I’ve read, particularly contemporary ones. Each time, the reader is drawn in and riveted – at least, this reader was, even on the second reading.

Michael E. Grost, whose Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has long been my go-to site for information and astute commentary, calls this collection “one of Christie’s most delightful books.” I agree.

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Bonus Features

Readers looking for more information about Agatha Christie’s short stories have a fine new resource to turn to:

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If you’re a long time viewer of the Poirot films starring David Suchet, you may be familiar with a country house that appears repeatedly in the series. The house, called High & Over, is in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. It was built in 1929 by the architect Amyas Connell for his friend Bernard Ashmole. According to the August 4 edition of Country Life Magazine, it is for sale!

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I enjoyed The Tuesday Club Murders, also known as The Thirteen Problems, as much as I did The Labors of Hercules. These stories feature Miss Marple and a circle of her friends, including  her ever solicitous nephew the writer Raymond West, and the retired head of Scotland Yard, Sir Henry Clithering.

If you’ve never seen the film clip in which David Suchet as Poirot and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple meet for the first time in Torquay, Agatha Christie’s birthplace – it appears on this video, about eighteen minutes in:

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Friday night, February 19: we emerge gratefully from our snowbound solitude to celebrate the Thirty-Second Annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry

February 22, 2010 at 12:51 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music, Performing arts, Short stories)

Plus  a gem of a short story called “Walk the Blue Fields.” Claire Keegan  read us her story in a gentle, lilting accent, heightening the effect of her reading by voicing the parts of various characters. From time to time she interpolated material, often of a wry or humorous nature. I can’t recall any of those comments specifically; I can only say that it was a captivating performance.

Claire Keegan

I wrote about this story in a previous post, and I feel  that I benefited greatly from hearing the author herself read it. It seems to me now a profound meditation on the essential sadness of the human condition. Something my mother used to say kept coming back to me: “People are always demanding justice, when they should be begging for mercy.” Or words to that effect. Anyway, ultimately there is a mercy to be found in “Walk the Blue Fields,” albeit a small one. But in the circumstances, it will have to suffice.

The story concerns a priest who is officiating at a marriage  ceremony. This should be a happy occasion, and it is for some, but not for others – and certainly not for the priest himself. At one point, one of his parishioners makes a deprecating remark about herself, and the priest gallantly contradicts her. All the time he’s thinking of how often he is forced to perform this tedious little dance. Here was an incident whose specificity made it ring absolutely true.

Claire Keegan’s story “Foster” appears in the February 15 & 22 issue of The New Yorker.

I should mention that Ms Keegan was introduced by His Excellency Michael Collins, the Republic of Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S. Ambassador Collins was also on hand last year to introduce Frank McCourt.

After intermission, it was time for music and dancing. The music was supplied by the excellent Narrowbacks: the Brothers Winch, Terence and Jesse, were joined by consummate fiddler Brendan Mulvihill, singer and guitarist Eileen Korn Estes (whose velvety voice I love), and piper and  flutist Linda Hickman.

The Narrowbacks. Bottom row: Terence Winch, Brendan Mulvihill, Jesse Winch. Top: Linda Hickman and Eileen Korn Estes

Jesse Winch plays the guitar and the harmonica, but he really wowed the audience with solo gig on the bodhram, or Irish drum. Here’s a video of a student of his playing that singular instrument.

Jesse’s brother Terence plays the button accordion and is also a songwriter and poet. He read us several of his poems, which I found quite delightful.

The Narrowbacks provided the musical accompaniment for the step dancers from the Culkin School. They were great! (See below):

Once again, our master of ceremonies was Catherine McLoughlin-Hayes, the Irish Evening chair for HoCoPoLitSo.. Among her several tasks for the evening was to issue a plaintive plea for donations. She mentioned that this was a hard thing for her to do, and I think we all appreciated her efforts and tried to respond in kind. (One does worry about the arts organizations in this country, what with the perilous times in which we’re living. We lost the Baltimore Opera, seemingly over night. Let’s hope that fate does not befall too many similar entities.)

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There’s a moment in one of Alexander McCall Smith’s recent Isabel Dalhousie novels when Isabel reflects on the many gifts that Ireland has given to the world. To that, one can only respond with a heartfelt Amen.

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Irish evening, and Claire Keegan

February 3, 2010 at 8:33 pm (Book review, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Short stories)

Here in Howard County, we are blessed with the presence of a wonderful, and wonderfully named, organization. The stated aim of  the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society – commonly known in these parts as HoCoPoLitSo – is “… to enlarge the audience for contemporary poetry and literature and the world literary heritage.” A noble goal! And one that is assiduously pursued by this fine group.

The best known event organized by HoCoPoLitSo is the Annual Irish Evening of Poetry and Music. Every February, we Howard Countians are given the chance to replenish our inner Irishman and Irishwoman with music, dance, and a talk by a literary light from the Emerald Isle. (Click here for more information about the Irish evening, which will take place on Friday night February 19.)

This year’s speaker is Claire Keegan.

Ms Keegan, who hails from County Wicklow in Ireland, has won several prizes for her stories. Having just read a good portion of her collection Walk the Blue Fields, I can understand why. These stories are both luminous and heartbreaking. 

In “A Long and Painful Death,” a writer comes to Boll House on Achill Island in order to work in peace and quiet. But her solitude is violated by a visitor, a man unknown to her and to whom she takes an almost instant dislike. He disrupts her world, but in keeping with that world, she gets the better of him. “The Forester’s Daughter,” the longest story in the book, is about the frustration ordinary people can encounter when they seek contentment within the family circle. Deegan’s great possession and purpose in life is Aghowle, his farm. He needs a wife and so he proposes to Martha Dunne. “Martha’s instinct told her to refuse but she was thirty years of age and if she said no this question might never be asked of her again.” And so she consents.

The couple have three children. The middle one, a boy, is afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. The youngest, their only daughter,  is a child with a rare spirit, much doted on by her mother. And there’s a dog, given by Deegan to the girl on her twelfth birthday. She names him Judge. I love the way Keegan writes about this animal, getting inside his head in a way that is utterly believable and not a bit saccharine. Judge plays a crucial role in the events that unfold in this compelling tale.

I really liked the title story, in which a priest is faced with an agonizing dilemma. Much of the writing in this collection is powerful and eloquent; this is especially true of “Walk the Blue Fields:”

‘On either side the trees are tall and here the wind is strangely human. A tender speech is combing through  the willows. In a bare whisper, the elms lean. Something about the place conjures up that ancient past: the hound, the spear, the spinning wheel. There’s pleasure to be had in history. What’s recent is another matter and painful to recall.

How true that last bit about the painful present as opposed to the distant past. And what a marvelous evocation of that past! I reminded of what the late Donald Dewar, then Secretary of State for Scotland, said in 1999 in his speech to the newly reconstituted Scottish Parliament.

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Last year’s Irish evening featured a very special speaker: Frank McCourt. Although he appeared physically frail that night, McCourt had lost none of his fiery power of expression. Quite simply, he was great.

And just a few months later, he was gone.

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Alice Munro, genius of the short form, does it again with Too Much Happiness

January 1, 2010 at 2:03 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

Alice Munro’s economy of expression conveys a disproportionate impact. From “Face”:

‘Something happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places.

From “Child’s Play”:

‘I suppose I hated her as some people hate snakes or caterpillars or mice or slugs. For no decent reason. Not for any certain harm she could do but for the way she could disturb your innards and make you sick of your life.

In “Child’s Play,” the animosity conceived by one young girl for another is as powerful as it is irrational. You know almost from the outset that if this feeling is ever acted on, bad things will happen. Even so, I was not prepared…

This study in the generative effect of a baseless loathing put me in mind of the story that sets the standard: “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. “Child’s Play” is included in Best American Mystery Stories 2008  (this despite the fact that Ms Munro is Canadian – go figure).

The first story in this collection, “Dimensions,” initially appeared in a June 2006 issue of The New Yorker. As I soon as I began reading it I knew I had encountered it before. It is not a story you’d forget: its central event is as shattering as it is inevitable, born as it is from the actions of a deeply flawed character. It is also about consolation, which, in this instance, comes in an unexpected form from an equally unexpected source.

“Free Radicals,” on the other hand, surprised me because in form and substance it is much like the classic short stories I studied in high school. In it, a widow suddenly finds herself at the mercy of a jumpy sociopath who has talked his way into her home by taking advantage of her kindness. In her own turn, she  proceeds to talk her own way out of the situation by means of an extremely clever stratagem. “Free Radicals” is quite the cunning little invention – it even reminded me, albeit faintly, of O.Henry at his most ingenious.

Munro’s dialog tends to be terse. The same is true of her descriptive powers. Even so, she can make a setting spring vividly to life, as in this passage from “Wenlock Edge”:

‘The college library was a high beautiful space, designed and built and paid for by people who believed that those who sat at the long tables before open books–even those who were hung-over, sleepy, resentful, and uncomprehending–should have a space above them, panels of dark gleaming wood around them, high windows bordered with Latin admonitions, through which to look at the sky. For a few years before they went into schoolteaching or business or began to rear children, they should have that.

How beautifully she evokes this special time in a young person’s life when he or she is given this unique gift of a time and place apart from the world.

In “Deep-Holes,” Sally, a nursing mother, is made to feel shame, even mortification, not when among strangers but within the confines of her own immediate family. This story covers the span of a lifetime; Sally’s children grow up. Stiff necked Kent, the eldest, finds new ways to inflict pain on his mother. One may fairly ask: when does it end? (This is a story I would love to discuss with someone.)

The title story is placed at the end of the collection. It concerns one Sophia Kovalevsky, whom Wikipedia describes as “the first major Russian female mathematician.”  In a note at the end, Munro explains that she ran across this fascinating character while doing research on another subject. (This kind of serendipitous discovery is, of course, one of the prime joys of doing research.) Munro’s re-imagining of Kovalevsky’s turbulent life features a large cast of characters, and I lost my way from time to time in the thicket of names and places. Nevertheless I loved sojourning in the heady world of late nineteenth century European intellectuals. (A  word to the wise: Don’t read the end note until you’ve finished the story, as it contains a “spoiler.”)

“Too Much Happiness” brought to mind two other contemporary collections that feature masterful historical short stories: 

One last word on Munro: all is not weighty seriousness. Throughout these stories one finds a liberal scattering of  sly, provocative observations on the human condition. There is this, from “Too Much Happiness”:

“‘Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind….When a woman goes out she carries everything that happened in the room along with her.'”

Finally in the story “Wood,” there’s this description of a large extended family: ‘It was a clan that didn’t always enjoy one another’s  company but who made  sure they got plenty of it.’ I laughed out loud when I read that. I’ve known such families – haven’t you?

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Here’s an extremely interesting and perceptive piece on Alice Munro. (And aren’t I delighted to have found this fine blog!)

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Alice Munro, consummate artificer

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Best books of 2009: The Atlantic

December 4, 2009 at 1:24 pm (Best of 2009, books, Short stories)

The December issue of the Atlantic features critic Benjamin Schwarz’s picks for the twenty-five best books of 2009. It’s an excellent list – an eclectic mixtures of novels, short stories, and nonfiction, the latter consisting primarily of works of history and biography. (Alas no genre fiction, but no surprises there.) Schwarz begins with his top five, followed by twenty additional runners up.

But wait – what’s this I see? In that list of the top five is a short story collection that I loved, by an author whose works I recommend at every opportunity:

Take the time to listen to the short interview with Schwarz: he packs a number of provocative observations into a discussion that’s under five minutes in length. Among other topics, he addresses the contention that we have now arrived at “the end of the history of the book.”  (Got anything sharp I can slit my wrists with? No – just kidding…)

Schwarz calls It’s Beginning To Hurt “an almost perfect book.” Such a perceptive man!

After you’ve read these stories, you can then proceed to Lasdun’s two fine novels of psychological suspense:

End of the book indeed! Not while I’m still here to pester you with recommendations, Dear Reader.

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‘All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments’ – “Somnambulism: a fragment,” by Charles Brockden Brown

November 17, 2009 at 2:38 am (books, Short stories)

Here is the passage in its entirety:

“All men are, at times, influenced by inexplicable sentiments. Ideas haunt them in spite of all their efforts to discard them. Prepossessions are entertained, for which their reason is unable to discover any adequate  cause. The strength of a belief when it is destitute of any rational foundation, seems, of itself, to furnish a new ground for credulity. We first admit a powerful persuasion, and then, from reflecting on the insufficiency of the ground on which it is built, instead of being prompted to dismiss it, we become more forcibly attached to it.

A man called Althorpe tries to warn a certain Mr. Davis and his daughter against embarking on a nighttime journey. He is sure  they will come to some harm. The more frantically he entreats them the more determined they become to execute their proposed plan.

Althorpe is especially agonized over the possibility – in his eyes, the probability – of harm coming to Miss Davis. She is beautiful; she is loved by him – and she is betrothed to another. In his desperation, he offers to accompany them on their sojourn. His offer is politely but firmly declined. And so they set off, father and daughter, along with a carriage driver also acting as a guide.

Meanwhile Althorpe is at war with himself. He knows his fears are irrational, yet he is powerless to quiet them: “How ignominious to be thus the slave of a fortuitous and inexplicable impulse! To be the victim of terrors more chimerical than those which haunt the dreams of idiots and children!”

On reading those lines, I was immediately put in mind of this one:  “TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” It is the opening sentence of Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart.” The content is not exactly the same, but it’s close enough. Even more remarkable is the similarity of tone – the urgency, the near panic, the fear of encroaching insanity.

So, who is Charles Brockden Brown? Here’s the first paragraph of the  Wikipedia entry:

“Charles Brockden Brown (January 17, 1771 – February 22, 1810), an American novelist, historian, and editor of the Early National period, is generally regarded by scholars as the most ambitious and accomplished US novelist before James Fenimore Cooper. He is the most frequently studied and republished practitioner of the “early American novel,” or the US novel between 1789 and roughly 1820. Although Brown was by no means the first American novelist, as some early criticism claimed, the breadth and complexity of his achievement as a writer in multiple genres (novels, short stories, essays and periodical writings of every sort, poetry, historiography, reviews) makes him a crucial figure in US literature and culture of the 1790s and 1800s, and a significant public intellectual in the wider Atlantic print culture and public sphere of the era of the French Revolution.

To which one can only append the question: Who knew?

And here’s another question: Why am I reading this story in the first place? The answer is that it is the first selection in a splendid new two-volume anthology called American Fantastic Tales, from Library of America:

I vaguely remember Charles Brockden Brown from my undergraduate English major days. But his is not a name that I have often encountered since then. “Somnambulism”  makes extremely compelling reading, not least because of the remarkable way in which it prefigures the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. (Brown died one year prior to Poe’s birth.)

That there exists a Charles Brockden Brown Society gives me hope for civilization. (The site is hosted by the University of Central Florida.)

Charles Brockden Brown

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“Was this it? Was this the catastrophe he had felt preparing itself inside of him?” – It’s Beginning To Hurt: Stories, by James Lasdun

October 1, 2009 at 12:41 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

Recently in a New Yorker profile, Daniel Zalewski called Ian McEwan a connoisseur of dread. James Lasdun has a pretty good line in that regard himself. Like the better known McEwan, Lasdun, a Londoner now residing in upstate New York, creates compelling characters, puts them in disturbing situations, then proceeds to worry the heck out of the reader.

lasdunwebcopy I’ve written about James Lasdun on previous occasions. IMHO, as a writer of psychological suspense he has few peers. I very much liked his two novels: I was riveted by The Horned Man but that work has the peculiar distinction of being the novel I’ve recommended most frequently to people who disliked it with various degrees of intensity. Lasdun shares with Ruth Rendell the power to inflict discomfort to an extent that the reader stops enjoying the experience and simply wants to bail. (At least, I think that’s the problem!)

Like Ian McEwan, Jasmes Lasdun is a terrific writer. In my post on the Horned Man, I quote this passage:

“I had come to realize that I no longer wanted a ‘lover’ or a ‘girlfriend’; that I wanted a wife. I wanted something durable about me–a fortress and a sanctuary. I wanted a women whom I could love–as a character in a book I’d read put it–sincerely, without irony, and without resignation. I had been observing a self-imposed celibacy as I waited for the right woman to come along; partly so as not to be entangled when I met her, but also, more positively, in order to create in myself the state of receptiveness and high sensitization I considered necessary for an auspicious first meeting. I believed that human relations were capable of partaking in a certain mystery; that under the right conditions something larger than the sum of what each individual brought with them, could transfuse itself into the encounter, elevating it and permanently shielding it from the grinding destructiveness of everyday life. And just such a mystery, such a baptism-in-love, was what I felt to be sweetly impending as I stood beside Carol in my room that afternoon.

beginning I’ve just finished Lasdun’s story collection It’s Beginning To Hurt. It is as excellent as I expected it to be. The short form actually gives Lasdun greater scope for exercising his ability to evoke unease, to depict scenarios in which small details and occurrences suddenly acquire a huge, threatening scope.

He is a master at limning the precariousness of the human condition. Just when you think, ah, no more worries, something happens…

In 2005, the BBC established its National Short Story Prize.  The first winner, announced in 2006, was “An Anxious Man” by James Lasdun. It’s the first story in this collection, and it is indeed masterly. As the value of Joseph Nagel’s investment portfolio plunges to ever lower depths, his anxiety becomes global and begins to encompass the things in the world that are most precious to him: his wife and his small daughter:

“Was this it? Was this the catastrophe he had felt preparing itself inside of him? His obscure, abiding sense of himself as a flawed and fallen human being seemed suddenly clarified: he was guilty, and he was being punished. A feeling of dread gripped him. Childlike thoughts arose in his mind: propitiation, sacrifice…

Read on, and you’ll discover just how childlike, in this age of materialism, those thoughts are.

In “The Incalculable Life Gesture,” Richard Timmerman, an elementary school principal and family man, finds a swelling under his chin. It’s a discovery that threatens to derail completely his busy, well-ordered existence:

“Was it death itself that frightened him? Not exactly….More upsetting was the prospect of being reassigned in the minds of others from the category of the living to that of the dying, which appeared to him a kind of sudden ruin, an abrupt, calamitous coming down in the world, with all the disgrace and shame that accompany such a circumstance.

It gets worse:

“If you didn’t believe in God or the soul or the hereafter, then what was a human being if not merely living meat? And if that was so, then surely it was natural to want to be healthy, nubile, muscular, lusty…Better that than tainted meat, as he had become! It was he himself who was grotesque, surely, with this little death kernel growing in his throat.

Living meat, tainted meat… I found myself thinking, If this is what you’re left with when you’ve lost belief – better to be a believer, if there’s any way you can find it in yourself to be one. (As I was transcribing the above, in my mind I began hearing the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Lasdun describes rapture as vividly as he does despair. In “The Old Man,” Conrad, a widower inured to loneliness, unexpectedly finds himself embroiled in a passionate affair:

“They entered then on a phase of rapidly deepening intimacy.Was this possible, at the age of fifty, to have desire suddenly running through your days like a torrent from some underground spring? Such things apparently had a life and logic of their own. Before long every trace of reserve had  vanished from their lovemaking. No woman Conrad had known before, not even Margot, seemed quite so sheerly, so poignantly naked as Lydia when she undressed and none had ever come to his bed with such open delight.

The title story in this collection was written for the Small Wonder Short Story Festival. A tiny masterpiece, it can be read in full here – in a matter of a few short minutes.

“Caterpillar,” the final story in the collection, is about Craig, an ideologue, and the effect that his unbending convictions have on those around him.  His first utterance in the story is this: “Human beings…are disgusting.” “Caterpillar” features a peculiarly satisfying denouement, heavy with irony but relayed in the author’s trademark straightforward, almost affectless prose. (I happen to know someone very like Craig, so this  story struck me with a special force.)

I loved It’s Beginning To Hurt and recommend it highly, along with Lasdun’s two other novels:  horned-man lies

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