Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson

April 4, 2018 at 7:22 pm (Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  One of the aspects of Peter Robinson‘s Alan Banks novels that I most enjoy is Banks’s love of music. It’s an extremely eclectic affection – everything from rock to classical. In Sleeping in the Ground, I was especially pleased to encounter not one but two references to Gustav Mahler, a composer for whom my husband and I have a deep and abiding love. Banks mentions that Mahler wanted to hear Schubert’s Quintet in C as he lay on his deathbed. When you hear the Adagio from this work, you will understand this request:

Sleeping in the Ground begins with a horrendous act of violence, followed by an extremely tortuous investigation. Because of the nature of this particular crime, one is all the more appreciative of Banks’s dogged persistence, not to mention his shrewd instincts, honed by his many years on the job. He is a person of deep conviction and steadfast determination.

He is also a reserved and somewhat lonely man, divorced and the father of two adult children who have pretty much gone their own way and check in with him from time to time. Banks’s ex-wife has remarried; he has not. He’s had a few relationships, but none that have lasted. In this novel his old flame Jenny Fuller, psychologist and criminal profiler, re-enters his life, both professionally and personally. She’s been living in Australia, but now she’s back to stay. What will this mean, for the two of them?

After dinner together in the snug of a local pub, they’re still not sure. While not ruling out a renewal of their romance, Jenny nonetheless favors a go slow approach.

Banks didn’t know where his next thought came from, and he had  the good sense and quick enough wits to stop before he spoke it out aloud, but as he leaned back and reached for his beer glass, it flashed through his mind, as clear as anything: I don’t want to grow old alone.

Straight-up, unpretentious writing about straight-up unpretentious people – it’s one of the qualities I most appreciate in Peter Robinson’s wonderful long running series of procedurals.

Peter Robinson

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Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza: a book discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Bryndza himself comments on this here:

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

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

Ellis Peters, with Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Mysterious Musings

June 10, 2017 at 10:49 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Slider moved quietly until he could see into the room, and watched for a moment as the cars and plastic marines bounced and jerked to the murmuring narrative. Then George sensed him, turned, and his face lit in a ravishing smile.

No one who has ever been greeted by that ‘ravishing smile’ will ever forget it. In DCI Bill Slider’s case, it’s his second time around – in a second marriage –  with an infant to rear.

A pang of absolute love gripped Slider, making it for a moment hard to breathe. This intensity of feeling and minuteness of observation belonged to second families, and what made it worthwhile while starting all over again in middle age.

I and many of my friends have had a similar experience upon becoming grandparents. My younger grandchild is now three years old – ‘a big boy,’ as he will solemnly remind you – and those same moments, although still vividly recalled, are now consigned to the past. (They are preserved, as never before, in a profusion of photos and videos. I look at them often.)

This passage is yet another example of why I love this series.
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Have just finished Doug Selby novel number six: The D.A. Calls a Turn.The plot was exceptionally convoluted; nevertheless, I enjoyed spending time with Doug and company. I especially like the continuous sparring between reporter Sylvia Martin and Attorney Inez Stapleton, as they vie for Doug’s favor and attention. As usual, Sylvia would seem to have the edge, but in this series, as in life, you cannot be sure of the ultimate outcome. Another interesting feature of The D.A. Calls a Turn is the depiction of forensic investigation as it was done in the 1940s. In particular, the use of “a shaded light which gave a brilliant, slightly bluish illumination” to detect trace evidence on items of clothing brought to mind the use of luminol for a similar purpose.

Series entry number seven, The D.A. Breaks a Seal, is even now on its way to me.

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We bid farewell to Colin Dexter

March 22, 2017 at 12:06 am (Mystery fiction, Remembrance, The British police procedural)

I’ve been trying to brace myself for this news, but it hurts all the same.

Colin Dexter autographing my copy of The Jewel That Was Ours  at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford in 2006. Our tour group had the impression that he was enjoying himself hugely. Someone asked him why he had to kill Morse, and he responded, sounding – and looking – somewhat injured: “But I didn’t kill him – He died of natural causes!”

Few English families living in England have much direct contact with the English Breakfast. It is therefore fortunate that such an endangered institution is perpetuated by the efforts of the kitchen staff in guest houses B & B’s, transport cafes, and other no-starred and variously starred hotels. This breakfast comprises (at it  best): a milkily-opaque fried egg; two rashers of non-brittle, rindless bacon; a tomato grilled to a point where the core is no longer a hard white nodule to be operated upon by the knife;  a  sturdy sausage, deeply and evenly browned; and a slice of fried bread, golden-brown, and only just crisp, with sufficient  fat not excessively to dismay and meddlesome dietitian.

Our tour group met Dexter at the Randolph hotel in downtown Oxford. A room was set aside where he could wax expansive and witty, chatting with us agreeably and holding us spellbound.

I felt very lucky that day. I’d met my favorite author and enjoyed some precious time in his company.

Lewis smiled in spite of himself. Why he ever enjoyed working with this strange, often unsympathetic, superficially quite humorless man, well, he never quite knew. He didn’t even know if he did enjoy it.

Dexter wrote thirteen Morse novels and also some short stories. He was not especially prolific (though the filmmakers were: There are thirty-three episodes in all). Dexter closed out the series in 1999 with The Remorseful Day. Although I’ve read the novel, I was never able to bring myself to watch the tv episode. The death of 60-year-old  John Thaw, three years after the demise of his fictional counterpart, was especially poignant.

Morse thought it must be the splendid grandfather clock he’d seen somewhere that he  heard chiming the three-quarters (10:45 a.m.) as he and Lewis sat beside each other in a deep settee in the Lancaster Room. Drinking coffee.

“We’re getting plenty of suspects, sir.”

“Mm. We’re getting pretty  high on content but very low on analysis, wouldn’t you say? I’ll be all right though once the bar opens.”

“Is is open–opened half-past ten.”

“Why are  we drinking this stuff, then?”

One of the most memorable book discussions I led while still at the library was of The Jewel That Was Ours. The quoted passages  above are all from that novel. Somewhat confusingly, the tv  version is title The Wolvercote Tongue. (The tv script apparently preceded the novel in order of composition.) At the end of that episode, divers are shown making  desperate effort recover the jewel from the river. When one of them finds it, he holds it aloft in a manner that instantly puts one in mind of the Lady of the Lake clutching Excalibur.

As we were leaving, Oxford, Colin Dexter joined us as our bus proceeded through ‘leafy North Oxford.’ He graciously offered to point out the sights along the way. My husband recorded his commentary.

John Thaw, Colin Dexter, and Kevin Whately (Sergeant Lewis)

I especially like the obituary in The Independent.

For his services to literature, Colin Dexter was awarded the OBE in 2000.

Norman Colin Dexter September 29, 1930-March 21, 2017

 

 

 

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Of crime fiction, ye shall never have sufficient…

October 10, 2016 at 5:17 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

51pzwxh1abl  Peter Robinson’s Children of the Revolution more than fulfilled my expectations. Intriguing story, wonderful team of investigators headed up as always by the ever-reliable though sometimes stubborn Alan Banks, nice North Yorkshire atmospherics, and the usual music references. How do I love the British police procedural? Let me count the ways…. (And that goes especially for this long running, very fine series.)
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Leave it to me to start with Book Two, then wish I’d read the first one – well, first. I did it with Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful Corduroy Mansions; now I’ve done it again with Slough House, the highly original series penned by Mick Herron. Having read the second, Dead Lions (and inadvertently skipped the award-winning first, Slow Horses), I proceeded immediately to the third, Real Tigers.

Whoever heard of an espionage series in which the dramatis personae almost never get out of London? Usually we have to struggle to keep up with spies as they ricochet from one exotic locale to the next. Not here. The Slow Horses of Slough House are agents who have messed up big time. For reasons best known to their handlers, it would be imprudent to fire  them outright. So they’re pensioned off and exiled to no man’s land, in the fervent hope that they’ll stay out of trouble. Fat chance! Jackson Lamb and his ill-sorted, gifted but wayward crew want only to prove themselves worthy of reinstatement in the intelligence pantheon. In pursuit of this elusive goal, they manage to stir up all sorts of fresh trouble.

In Literary Review, critic and novelist Jessica Mann – see my review of A Private Inquiry embedded in this post – had this to say about Real Tigers:

Although this is Mick Herron’s ninth book, and despite the fact that he has won the prestigious Gold Dagger award for his crime fiction, Real Tigers is the first of his books to come my way. What a find!…The story, though good, is not the main reason to read this book. Rather, it is its elegant style, original viewpoint, dry wit and spring-to-life characters, some recognisable.

Mick Herron writes great dialog and is a master storyteller with a sly sense of humor and an ironic world view. He might be the best thing that’s happened to spy fiction since the great LeCarre. Jessica Mann’s prediction: “I think Herron’s is the next big name in crime fiction.”
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In the July issue of The Atlantic, Terence Rafferty proclaimed that “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels.” (His article also has the variant title, “‘Gone Girl’ and the Rise of Crime Novels by Women.”) Rafferty is alluding to a specific subgenre of crime fiction, what he calls “tortuous, doomy domestic thrillers.” Women writers, he asserts, are uniquely capable of delivering the goods where these kinds of narratives are concerned.

ywkm One of the titles Rafferty mentions is Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. I decided to read this book during the Summer Olympics primarily because it deals with young female gymnasts. It was also getting excellent reviews.

Normally, on the theory that life is too short, I avoid reading anything about sports, with the exception of “The Sport of Kings,” for which I have a lingering fondness from my childhood. But You Will Know Me seemed worth a shot, for the reasons enumerated above. And the fact is, it was good – very good. The crime forms an intriguing subplot, but the novel is really about these young gymnasts, their fierce dedication to the sport, and the cost of that dedication to their minds, bodies, and families. The writing is excellent.

The particular teenage gymnast – and potential Olympian – around whom  this novel’s events center is called Devon; the story unfolds from the point of view of her mother Katie. Their relationship is close and intense, and prone to sudden bouts of disequilibrium:

It was remarkable, when Katie thought about it. How her daughter, so strong already, her body an air-to-air missile, had metamorphosed into this force. Shoulders now like a ship mast, rope-knot biceps, legs corded, arms sinewed, a straight, hard line from trunk to neck, her hipless torso resting on thighs like oak beams. Sometimes Katie couldn’t believe it was the same girl.

I recommend reading the Rafferty article referenced above. He makes some interesting points about the history of American crime fiction as well as its current state. As for the ascendant status of domestic suspense, he may be right, but it’s not my first choice in this genre and probably never will be. (I’m a dissenter from the ranks of Gone Girl enthusiasts; Gillian Flynn’s writing rubbed me the wrong way for some reason, and I found the “Amazing Amy” trope contrived and irritating.) Call me old fashioned and/or out of touch, but my favorite mystery subgenre remains the police procedural.

By the way, For my money, where You Will Know Me is concerned, I found Devon’s sweet younger brother Drew to be the unsung hero of the whole scenario. Read it and see if you don’t agree with me.

Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson

Mick Herron

Mick Herron

Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott

 

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Crime fiction: three good ones

June 21, 2015 at 1:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

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In a recent post on historical fiction, I wrote that I was reading Lamentation, the latest entry in C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. This series has won critical acclaim, and justly so, for the most part, I think. Yet as much as I was enjoying it, I found that the author’s research was obtruding upon the narrative. I have now finished the book and am happy to report that as the story gathered steam, that particular problem pretty much disappeared. I got caught up in this tale of  court intrigue in the dying days of King Henry VIII’s  reign. The fact that Queen Catherine Parr figures prominently in this story further enlivens the proceedings.

At over six hundred pages, Lamentation is something of  an undertaking. Be patient, though; the immersion in a turbulent and fascinating past is worth the effort. This is the only form of time travel we can aspire to – at least, so far.
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Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s Bill Slider series is one of the few that I follow without question, and without troubling to read the reviews first. I know I’ll be thoroughly entertained, and thus it was with Star Fall, the seventeenth novel featuring Slider, Atherton, Swilley, and the rest of the Shepherd’s Bush crew. Their task this time around is to solve the murder of Rowland Egerton, a television personality whose program Antiques Galore has a large and enthusiastic following. Egerton is one of those celebrities whose publicly displayed bonhomie conceals a dubious personality rife with nasty proclivities. He’s a hard person to grieve for, but murder is murder and justice must be served. This is the kind of tightly wound contemporary British police procedural that I cherish. It follows a formula with delightful variations.

As usual, Harrod-Eagles’s writing is liberally spiced with irreverent wit and clever asides. Chapter titles feature the inevitable wordplay – “Hairline Pilot” followed by “Men Behaving Baldly” – groan-inducing but fun nonetheless. Then,  at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a sentence in this novel that stopped me in my tracks:

He had the look of a man who had heard the leathery creak of the Erinyes’ wings in the darkness, smelled the chthonic reek of their breath, felt the clammy touch of their lips on the back of his neck.

Well, gosh…Parse that, you grammarians! Although I consider myself one of their number, I admit I was flummoxed. It turns out that the Erinyes are better known as the Furies of ancient Greek mythology; “chthonic” literally means “subterranean.” (Thus saith Wikipedia, at any rate.) I sympathize wholeheartedly with this author’s apparently irresistible urge to show off her erudition.
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10  Appointed To Die by Kate Charles appeared on the reading list for the mystery tour we took in 2011.  Ms Charles is the author of several crime fiction series; this particular novel is third in The Book of Psalms sequence. I very much enjoyed Appointed To Die. It put me in mind of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, of happy memory. In addition, the author showcased her love and knowledge of British music, something we share, especially regarding the great Ralph Vaughan Williams. (In the course of the above mentioned tour, we had the pleasure of meeting with Ms Charles.)

Kate Charles grew up in the U.S. and was “transplanted,” in her own words, to Great Britain in 1986. She now lives in the Welsh border country, a place of almost unearthly beauty replete with the riches of history. (Not that I”m at all envious….)

Recently I read False Tongues, the latest entry in a different series featuring Callie Anson, identified on Stop!YoureKillingMe – Kate Charles as “a newly ordained Anglican cleric.” Callie is a tenderhearted young woman, empathetic, sensitive, and easily hurt. To a certain degree, she is well suited to minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of others.  At any rate, in False Tongues, she is struggling to recover from a broken heart so that, from both a personal and vocational perspective, she can once again feel whole and complete and ready to give of herself to others.

This novel is enlivened by a host of interesting secondary characters, including Canon John Kingsley, a man of warmth and generous spirit who also appears in Appointed To Die. Like that earlier work, False Tongues is beautifully written and a thoroughly gratifying read.

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Ruth Rendell

May 3, 2015 at 1:26 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Remembrance, The British police procedural)

 

Ruth Rendell and P.D. James

Ruth Rendell and P.D. James

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. 51i7a47GOZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

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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.

112745.png  The-Vault

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.  rendellnextdoor2

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. inversion2

I’m running out of superlatives. I leave you with this insightful encomium by Val McDermid, as well as this gracious tribute from British  Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband:

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.

Ruth Barbara Rendell, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, CBE  February 17, 1930 - May 2, 2015

Ruth Barbara Rendell, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, CBE February 17, 1930 – May 2, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

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With the passing of P.D. James, the end of an era

November 27, 2014 at 10:16 pm (books, Mystery fiction, Remembrance, The British police procedural)

9781400096473 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:

Unsuitable  Private Patient

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Ave atque vale, Baroness James . You will be sorely missed.

PDJameswriting

Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL  August 3, 1920 – November 27,  2014

Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL August 3, 1920 – November 27, 2014

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“She had come alive for him, a recognizable human being from seven centuries ago.” – The Stone Wife, by Peter Lovesey

October 13, 2014 at 6:54 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

I finished this a while ago, but the pleasure of Peter Lovesey’s ingenious plotting and witty dialog has stayed with me. As is frequently the case with books in this series, the opening scene delivers a palpable shock, with sudden violence erupting in an ultra civilized venue.

Chaucer on horseback

The novel is enriched with the lore and legend of Geoffrey Chaucer. The eponymous stone wife is, in fact, a sculpted figure purportedly of the Wife of Bath, one of the more memorable, one could  say more colorful, of the pilgrims who inhabit The Canterbury Tales. As Peter Diamond’s investigation progresses, one of the more important witnesses to emerge is the murder victim’s ex-wife. She proves to be a multiply married woman who, as she approaches late middle age, is yet possessed of a healthy libido. She is, in other words, something of a modern day Wife of Bath.

For me, one of the special pleasures of this book was the fact that although most of it takes place in Bath, excursions are made to Bristol. At least one scene takes place at he Clifton Suspension Bridge. I was privileged to see this engineering marvel for myself in 2011. The day was windy, so I declined the guide’s invitation to walk across, but my game husband and several others in our group made the trek.

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a diminutive man (just over five feet tall) with outsize ambition and the abilities to with it.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, designer of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, a diminutive man (just over five feet tall) with outsize ambition and the talent to match

With every new entry, this series just gets better and better. Skeleton Hill, Stagestruck, Cop To Corpse, The Tooth Tattoo – all were excellent.  With The Stone Wife,  Peter Lovesey has once again surpassed himself. As if you hadn’t guessed by now – highly recommended!

lovesey-stonewife

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The Usual Suspects discuss Reginald Hill’s Bones and Silence

April 14, 2014 at 10:31 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

bonesandsilence  On Tuesday of last week, the Usual Suspects took on Reginald Hill’s Gold Dagger winning novel  Bones and Silence. This book is not an easy read, but it is the work of an author whose verbal pyrotechnics and witty asides never fail to delight. At least, they never fail to delight Your Faithful Blogger. But it quickly became clear that a good number of the Suspects were rather less than delighted.

The three principal motifs of this novel are set forth in its opening chapters. Chapter One consists entirely of a letter to Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel. In it, the writer declares his (her?) intention of committing suicide. No name is given, and no reason, either for the intention or for making Dalziel the recipient of  this disconcerting information. The tone is oddly upbeat, even cheerful.

There are more of these mysterious missives to come.

The second motif concerns the plans of local theater impresario Eileen Chung to stage the York Cycle of mystery plays on mobile stages that will roll through the streets of the city. The aim is to recreate as closely as possible the the way in which the plays were originally experienced by their medieval audience:

…through her mind’s eye…ran pictures brimming with colour and excitement of the great pageant wagons rumbling over the cobbles, harbinged by music and dancers and trailing a long wash of jugglers, tumblers, fire-eaters, fools, flagellants, giants, dwarves, dancing bears, merry monks, cut-price pardoners, knights on horseback, Saracens in chains, nubile Nubians….

Chung, a woman with a vivid personality and an  imagination to match, has gone a bit wild here, but the vision is no less enticing for it.

The third motif is kicked off by a bizarre homicide that takes place in a house in Dalziel’s own neighborhood. Dalziel himself comes crashing into a bedroom in the dwelling right after the ear shattering sound of gunshot. He finds a man holding a gun, another man cowering in terror on the floor, and a naked woman sprawled on the bed, dead, with most of her face blown away.

Murder, of course. But was it, really? As so often is the case in Reginald Hill’s cunningly spun narratives, nothing is quite what it seems.

As the plot of the novel gained in complexity, so did the frustration of some of the Suspects. And there were other problems, chief among them being the antipathy aroused by Andy Dalziel.  Rather than being amusing, his crude behavior and irreverent speech were perceived as annoying and  even offensive. Pauline made no bones about her dislike of the book, criticizing among other flaws its messy structure. (I respectfully disagreed with her on this point!) Someone else said that she disliked not only  Dalziel, but Peter Pascoe and Ellie as well. (I, on the other hand, find them quite appealing, both as individuals and as a couple.)

Susan mentioned that characters would suddenly turn up dead with no prior intimation that this was likely to occur and no explanation why.  Just about everyone agreed that the book was too long, resulting in a periodically sluggish reading experience (that dreaded slogging sensation, feared by all readers).

No one, even ardent Hill fans like Yours Truly, argued with this last assertion. The novel was not a page turner. Yet even the dissenters among us had to admire this author’s sly and irreverent wit. At a point early in the story, Sergeant Wield, a resourceful and intelligent officer, is sent to interview a witness (suspect?) in the hospital. That would be Waterson the cowering fellow in the above described murder scenario. Upon entering the hospital room, Wield gets more than he bargained for:

It occurred to him instantly that Waterson must have private medical insurance. A nurse in a ward sister’s uniform was leaning over him. Their mouths were locked together and his hands were inside her starched blouse, roaming freely. No way did you get this on the National Health.

The nurse turns out to be Waterson’s estranged wife – estranged, that is, until that memorable encounter!
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Mike was our discussion leader for Bones and Silence. Like me, she loves British mysteries in general and Reginald Hill in particular. This title is a particular favorite of hers, which is why she selected it for the group. In my view, she presented a persuasive case for the book, but one of the great lessons you learn in book groups is that you can’t predict how people are going to react to your choice. I admit that it pained me somewhat to hear such negative comments about a writer whom I hold in such high esteem, but that’s how these things go some times, and you have to be philosophical about it.There’s little point in having these discussions if participants don’t feel that they can express themselves directly and honestly.

While I do like Bones and Silence, it’s not my favorite in the Dalziel and Pascoe series. That designation would have to go to On Beulah Height. (Several others in last Tuesday’s group felt the same way.) I also have to say that as the series was reaching its (regrettable) conclusion, I felt that Hill’s writing was getting better and better.  Dialogues of the Dead, Death’s Jest Book, Midnight Fugue – I loved all of them.

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Quite a few in our group had watched the Dalziel & Pascoe series on DVD. I recommend them highly, especially series one through four, which contain episodes drawn directly from the novels. (Inspector Morse fans will recognize the soundtrack as being by the inimitable Barrington Pheloung.) 590913 In Bones and Silence, The role of Philip Swain, he who held the gun in the above described homicide scene, is played – beautifully underplayed I should say – by veteran British actor Michael Kitchen, whose portrayal of Christopher Foyle in the series Foyle’s War has been admired and enjoyed by many of us. (Dalziel’s relentless pursuit of Swain puts one in mind of Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Miserables.)

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Reginald Hill passed away in January of 2012. A site was organized that summer, with the purpose of celebrating Hill both as a writer and a friend to other writers.

Reginald Hill

Reginald Hill

 

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