‘With each new sick boy, she became more of a prisoner–confined by secrets, paralyzed by the power that the stigma of mental illness held over her.’ – Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

June 24, 2021 at 9:13 pm (Uncategorized)

  This was an extremely hard book to read. It contains so much tragedy, so much suffering. Every time I thought  things could not get worse, they got worse. Some rays of happiness, some relief from trauma, does occasionally break through, but not often – certainly not often enough.

Married in December of 1944, Mimi and Don Galvin were optimistic about their future. Don was doing well in the military; Mimi was the archetypal Happy Homemaker. Settled, finally, in Colorado, they shared an interest in the arts and, rather oddly, in falconry. And the babies – well, they just kept coming…

Eventually, the number topped out at twelve – ten boys and two girls, at the end of the line. There might have been even more, but Mimi’s obstetrician laid down the law: If she got pregnant again, he would refuse to treat her. (He’d been warning her that she was endangering her health.)

Donald, the oldest and the namesake, was the first to exhibit the odd behavior that gradually overtook him. He was frequently called upon to babysit his younger brothers; while so engaged, he seemed to enjoy inciting them to violence. At first, Mimi and Don chalked it up to typical, if somewhat exaggerated, sibling rivalry. Later, they learned what was really happening: Donald was presenting the early symptoms of schizophrenia.

Jim. the second son, soon followed suit. In all, six of the ten brothers were diagnosed with the same condition. And it’s not as though each of them exhibit the same aberrant behaviors. They were all unique in the way they were affected. They could be withdrawn, bizarre, crazed, violent. Each boy was unpredictable; in Brian’s case – he was son number four – the outcome was catastrophic.

As I was reading, I was shaking my head in disbelief. I could not imagine living through such an unrelenting nightmare.

This book is not just about the Galvin family. The author provides considerable insight into the history of the treatment of schizophrenia, as well as the pioneering research done on the causes and possible treatment of what is a fiendishly difficult, not to mention devastating, illness to deal with.

As for Mimi and Don, I kept hoping as I read to gain some insight into why they decided to have so many children. Don was born and raised Catholic; Mimi converted  after they married, but the real reason for this untrammeled fecundity seemed to lay elsewhere than in religion. And it has to be said that the burden of dealing with the nonstop crises engendered by their offspring fell on their mother.

Chapter 17 of Hidden Valley Road opens with this sentence:

Don had spent years building distance between himself and his children.

To me, Don seemed like the old fashioned kind of father that one frequently encountered in mid twentieth century America. (Mine was one.) He was out in the world working; Mimi took care of the home front. But this was not like any other home front. She desperately needed his help and support. But my take is that he was somewat of a narcissist . On top of his military duties he was intent on pursuing a PhD in political science. The required a fairly large additional commitment of his time. I couldn’t help it; it made me angry.

I have to admit, I was glad when this book finally ended. It put me though an emotional wringer. But as an exercise in sheer survival, it was incredible story. And though at times I also felt frustrated with Mimi, I ended by feeling a huge amount of compassion and admiration for her.

Author Robert Kolker is from Columbia, Maryland. Like Laura Lippman, he graduated from Wilde Lake High School. He currently lives in Brooklyn, where every other resident seems to be a writer. In my view, he is greatly to be congratulated on producing this outstanding work of narrative nonfiction.

Robert Kolker


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‘Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs.’ – Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery, by William Warren

November 1, 2020 at 5:06 pm (Book review, books, True crime, Uncategorized)

It started with a comment about the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. This came about because of a Zoom class I was taking on the great choreographers of the American musical theater. We were focusing on Jerome Robbins. For me, Robbins’s genius is most clearly manifest in West Side Story, both the Broadway show and then the film. He was fired from this latter enterprise for being impossible to work with – but before that happened, we got  this:

Okay, that was a total digression, but it’s one of my all time favorite YouTube videos, so I couldn’t resist.

Anyway, back to The King and I. Robbins did the choreography for that show as well, a fact of which I was previously unaware. The presenter of this class did us the great favor of screening one of that production’s most famous scenes, the March of the Siamese Children. Here it is:

In the course of his remarks on The King and I, the presenter mentioned the sheer gorgeousness of the costumes. The silk was supplied, he informed us, by Jim Thompson, founder of the Thai Silk Company – “You know, the guy who went missing in Malaysia.”

No I don’t know. Never heard of him. While the presenter went on to other topics, I remained fixated on the missing man. I found a book on the subject and read it, with great interest.

Born in 1906, scion of a prominent Delaware family, Jim Thompson seemed headed for the kind if life and career that would be expected for one of his background. Having graduated from Princeton, he aspired to be an architect, but he was unable to pass the qualifying exam that was required for licensure. Nevertheless, was able to work in that field, for a time. Then World War Two broke out.

Having begun his military career in the Delaware National Guard, Thompson was eventually recruited to serve in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), which later came to be known as the CIA. Just as he was being posted to Bangkok, the war ended. But for Jim Thompson, Bangkok was a new beginning. He took up residence there and never wanted to leave.

Not long after his arrival, Thompson discovered a corner of Thailand which housed some Muslim silk weavers. They were barely eking out a living, yet the fabric they re producing was gorgeous. He turned Thai silk weaving into a business with a future. The Thai Silk Company became a hugely successful enterprise, especially after its product was showcased in The King and I.

Meanwhile, Jim Thompson had a rich and rewarding life in Bangkok. He built a beautiful house for himself, where he entertained numerous friends and business associates. Among these were a Dr. and Mrs T.G. Ling, and a widow, Connie Mangskau. In 1967, the Lings invited Mrs Mangskau and her friend Jim Thompson to join them at Moonlight Cottage, their holiday home in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. The invitation was accepted.

Moonlight Cottage, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

On their first full day at Moonlight Cottage, the party busied themselves with a picnic and other activities, returning to the house in the afternoon to rest before dinner. All had retired to their respective bedrooms, but Jim Thompson did not remain in his. Restless, an inveterate hiker, he decided to follow a trail that led downhill from the house.

He did not return and was never seen again.

The disappearance of this prominent American businessman caused a sensation. William Warren describes in great detail the search that took place, over a period of days, weeks, stretching into months. Everyone from military personnel to psychics took part or offered theories at to what had happened to Jim Thompson. Had he strayed into the jungle area adjacent to the trail and gotten lost, or fatally mauled by a tiger? (If so, where were the remains?) Or perhaps, had an accident? Was he still involved in intelligence work for the U.S. and gotten into some sort of trouble because of this connection? Had he deliberately disappeared, wanting to end his life? Had he been preyed upon by Malaysian communists? Had he been kidnapped by aborigines, who lived in the region?

Each of these possibilities was looked into and run to  ground as  far as was possible. Large numbers of people were interviewed. The area around the trail was searched and searched again. Nothing.

Jim Thompson was 61 years old at the time of his disappearance. He had some physical issues but was generally speaking in good health.

(A mere six months after Thompson went missing, his sister was murdered in her home in Chester County, Pennsylvania. As far as I know, this crime remains unsolved.)

As the years have passed, various theories have emerged concerning the disappearance.  Claims to have solved the mystery have invariably been proved misleading or downright false – at least, until 2017. In that year, a film entitled Who Killed Jim Thompson was screened at a film festival in Eugene, Oregon. In it, producer Barry Broman claims to have uncovered evidence leading to the determination that Thompson was killed by members of the Communist Party of Malaya.  Even so, Broman admits that he would like to have more evidence to verify this conclusion.

It would be great to be able to view this film, but so far, I haven’t been able to figure out how to do  that.

Meanwhile, Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Company is still very much a going concern. His house in now maintained by a foundation as a museum, where one can view his impressive collection of Asian art in the house which he himself designed.

In 1959, W. Somerset Maugham, celebrated author and restless sojourner, was Jim Thompson’s guest for dinner in this same house. It was in the way of a farewell tour for the elderly Maugham, who throughout his years of travel had come to love the Far East. In his thank-you note to his host, Maugham wrote:

You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste.

(The quotation in the title of this post is from Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence.)



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The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

September 9, 2018 at 3:12 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural, Uncategorized)

  The Writers’ House is designed to be a sanctuary. Within its walls, those who long for literary achievement and eventual recognition can work in a peaceful setting, receive helpful suggestions from fellow aspirants, and be instructed and encouraged by guest writers acting as as tutors and exemplars.

As the novel opens, DI Vera Stanhope has been prowling the environs in search of her neighbor Joanna Tobin. Joanna has suddenly gone missing; her partner Jack thinks she’s at the Writers’ House. Vera hasn’t had any luck so far in finding her and thinks she might be on a fool’s errand.

Suddenly, from an upper balcony of the house, an bloodcurdling scream issues forth. What on earth can have happened in this quiet, remote fastness dedicated to intellectual pursuits? The police have been called, but Vera is already on the scene, ready to intervene in what must certainly be a dire crisis. And so it proves to be. But she and her team of investigators are a long time figuring out the real genesis of that scream.

I love the way this novel unfolds. The situation becomes increasingly complex as new characters emerge onto the scene – everyone in the Writers’ House, to begin with. Vera and her trusty second, Joe Ashworth, remain in charge of the investigation.

It proves a very tough nut to crack. But Vera, exulting in just this kind of chase, thinks:

Deep down, everyone loved a murder almost as much as she did. They loved the drama of it, the frisson of fear, the exhilaration of still being alive. People had been putting together stories of death and the motives for killing since the beginning of time, to thrill and to entertain.

But of course, there could be qualifying circumstances:

It was different of course if you were close to the victim. Or to the killer.

Throughout the novel, Cleeves intersperses clues to Vera’s thought processes and working methods, especially where interviewing a witness or a suspect is concerned. These nuggets tend to be expressed briefly and in pithy language:

Vera had better timing than a stand-up comedian and knew the importance of a pause.

In theory Vera liked strong women; in practice they often irritated her.

Kindness could be a great weapon.

‘There’s a casserole I made a couple of days ago when I was feeling domestic. I get the urge sometimes, but it soon passes.’

It occurred to her that there might be a greater proportion of psychopaths in Parliament than in prison.

Vera had no patience for speculation. Unless she was the one doing the speculating.

Gradually these observations coalesce to form a portrait of a singular personality. Speaking as a person who more or less devours large quantities of crime fiction – not to mention true crime – I find Vera Stanhope utterly unique.

We also learn a lot about Vera from the way she interacts with Joe Ashworth:

Joe had been listening intently. She loved that about him. The way he hung on her every word.

Vera thought Joe was a soft-hearted sod, but she liked him the better for it.

Although it is Vera’s restless intellect with which we’re primarily engaged, Joe is an important character as well, a vital sounding board for her wide-ranging thoughts and speculations. Vera is somewhere in middle age, lives alone, has no children. This in no way hinders her powers of empathy. Joe is somewhat younger, married with three small children.

An interesting thing happens to Joe in this novel: he finds himself attracted to Nina Backworth, a woman involved in the case that he and Vera are investigating. The attraction seems to be mutual. Acting on this attraction would be a bad idea for any number of reasons. Yet so perverse are the wellsprings of human desire that the worse the idea becomes, the more power it exerts. ‘Lust that felt like adultery’ is what Joe is experiencing; it’s causing him to feel desperate and distracting him from the case.

Finally at one point, Joe manages to carve out some time at home for his wife Sal and their ‘bairns:’

When they were alone at last, he sat with his wife on the sofa, his arm around her shoulders, cuddling together like teenagers. Thought there was nobody in the world he would feel so at ease with. He couldn’t imagine Nina Backworth watching old episodes of The Simpsons and laughing with him at the same jokes. Later he took Sal to bed and they made love. Afterwards he lay awake, listening to her breathing, loving her with all his heart and soul and pushing away the feeling that there should be more to life than this.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in The Glass Room. Questions beget answers, which then beget more questions. I was completely drawn in, and stayed that way till the end.

Thus far I’ve read six of the eight novels in the Vera Stanhope series. I am worried about running out. No pressure, Ann, but could you write faster?

I can’t discuss this series without mentioning the television adaptations. I think they’re excellent. Some of the episodes are based directly on the novels; others use the characters and write new stories for them. As is almost always the case, the casting of the main protagonist is inspired: Brenda Blethyn as Vera Stanhope:














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Books read for a trip not taken

July 29, 2017 at 4:23 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

Crime fiction

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves
The Dungeon House by Martin Edwards
The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid
The Hennessy and Yellich series by Peter Turnbull


The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Grevel Lindop
The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James   Rebanks

  When you get your books from Amazon, you may get some surprises as well. I got one when The Crow Trap arrived: all 535 pages of it. I groaned inwardly (and outwardly too, just ask my husband), but as it turned out, I loved this book right from the get-go. It was eminently readable and completely absorbing. I finished it in a matter of days – would have done sooner, only I didn’t want my enjoyment to end prematurely.

Three women are gathering data as part of an environmental survey being conducted in the north of England. Their results will be crucial in determining whether a quarry can be established in the region.They’re at the center of a crowded canvas featuring people with various problems, motives, and intentions.

Their endeavors seem somehow to be death haunted. And this propensity brings Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope onto the scene. In a literary world replete with investigators of every type, temperament, and ethnicity, Vera seems to this reader at least to be rather unique. She doesn’t enter the narrative until almost halfway in, and when she does…well, she makes an impression, that’s for sure:

She was a large woman – big bones amply covered, a bulbous nose, man-sized feet. Her legs were bare and she wore leather sandals. Her square toes were covered in mud. Her face was blotched and pitted….Over her clothes she wore a transparent plastic mac and she stood there, the rain dripping from it onto the floor, grey hair sleeked dark to her forehead….

The Crow Trap, which came out in 1998, was the first novel featuring DI Vera Stanhope. There are now seven, with another due out in September.

I hadn’t read anything by Ann Cleeves since Blue Lightning, the fourth in the Shetland series. (I’ve also read  the three predecessors: Raven Black, White Nights, and Red Bones).  I’d forgotten what a terrific storyteller she is, a gift amply supported by the quality of her writing. I won’t forget again, for some time now at least.

Ann Cleeves met with us in Northumberland during a Smithsonian mystery tour in 2007

I’d had The Dungeon House on my Kindle for quite some time, so I made it my business to read it in advance of the planned meeting with Martin Edwards on this trip. What a pleasure! This may be my favorite of his always enjoyable Lake District series.

  Martin has recently won accolades for The Golden Age of Murder, his meticulously researched (and hugely entertaining) history of the Detection Club. And now he has come out with this gem: . I acquired this last week at Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland – only a short ferry ride from St. Michaels, where we were staying. I’ve been putting off actually having a look inside. Treasures await, I know, in the form of all kinds of titles that I simply MUST READ AT ONCE!
  I’ve written about The Grave Tattoo, a highly original and intriguing mystery, in a previous post. And finally, Peter Turnbull’s Hennessey and Yellich novels were commended to us. This is a series that I absolutely love, as much for Turnbull’s highly idiosyncratic style as for his appealing characters and strangely original plots.
  I’ve already written about the two nonfiction titles listed above. Grevel Lindop’s biography of the perpetually fascinating Thomas De Quincey held me in its thrall from beginning to end. The following passage describes De Quincey’s strange out-of-body experience at the death bed of his beloved sister Elizabeth. He was seven years old; she was nine:

After pausing a moment he walked round to the side of the bed. His sister lay there, beautiful and calm, with no sign of her recent illness and pain, but unmistakably different, with a statue-like, frozen look, the lips like marble, ‘the stiffening hands laid palm to palm’ — an awesome being, and not quite his sister any more.
His attention was caught by a low surge of wind outside the open window, and listening to it for a moment he was carried on the sound of the breeze into a kind of trance: his bodily senses were suspended, and ‘A vault seemed to open in the zenith of the far blue sky, a shaft which ran up forever; and the billows seemed to pursue the throne of God; but that also ran before us and fled away continually . . . some mighty relation between God and death struggled to evolve itself until, after what seemed ‘a very long interval’, he regained normal consciousness and found himself standing, as before, by his sister’s bed.

I doubt I will ever again read so poignant a description of a grieving child. Elizabeth had been the only reliable source of affection in Thomas’s love-starved childhood.
  I had already tried and failed to get into James Rebanks’s  chronicle of a shepherd and the vagaries of sheep herding in the modern world. I mean, slightly over three hundred pages about sheep -really?

The appearance of this title on the trip’s reading list prompted me to try again. Early on, James Rebanks has this to say about his book:

It is the story of a family and a farm, but it also tells a wider story about the people who get forgotten in the modern world. It is about how we need to open our eyes and see the forgotten people who live in our midst, whose lives are often deeply traditional and rooted in the distant past.

Give yourself a little time to get into it – the effort is very worthwhile. And I recommend my post on this delightful book. It contains some great photos as well as links to two memorable video segments. Rebanks, his sheep, and his marvelous sheep dogs – all are wonderfully photogenic.

Along with several of my mystery-loving friends, Ron and I were all set to take this British Mystery Trip to the north of England, when we were unexpectedly waylaid by a medical situation that had to be seen to in a timely fashion. The outcome, I’m relieved to report, was excellent. I’d been cleared  for take-off, as it were, but the plane had long ago left the airport.

While abroad, my friends were wonderfully supportive, sending periodic dispatches and photos.

Interior of Brantwood, John Ruskin’s home, taken by Marge T.

Alnwick Castle, home to the Dukes of Northumberland, taken by Ann R.

British Mystery Trips always provides an annotated reading list that is a very model of erudition as well as pure literary pleasure. The reading I was able to complete represents only a fraction of what was actually on the list. Needless to say, I don’t regret the time spent on it. On the contrary, I’m grateful.

Rumor has it that beautiful Britain will be around for a long time to come, thereby giving me other opportunities to visit in future. I’m already looking forward to the occasion.


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So many mysteries or thrillers or novels of suspense, especially the newly hot “domestic suspense” subgenre…

September 13, 2016 at 12:26 pm (Uncategorized)

Let’s just say: So much crime fiction, so little time. We do want to  get on with this post, after all!

Herewith, to get started: Brief reviews of four works of crime fiction recently read by Yours Truly:

61gwxurkabl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ I loved it – but when have I not loved a Peter Lovesey novel? (A lot of love there – and rightly so!) Another Peter Diamond investigation set in beautiful historic Bath and filled with the usual twists and turns – including the bizarre discovery of a cache of Fortuny gowns alluded to in a previous post.  Lovesey’s signature wit and style are present in abundance. And there’s Diamond’s  unexpectedly powerful reaction as he works to save the life of an elderly accident victim:

He stooped lower for more mouth-to-mouth. The first instinctive revulsion had gone. He cared, he really cared. Hot lips against cold. Two lungfuls of air.

Then back to the compressions. Already he felt the emotional bond that lifesaving creates. He couldn’t allow himself to think this might already be a corpse. He and his mate here were not letting go. There had to be life. Come on, old friend, he urged as he worked his aching shoulders, you and I can do this.

26114382 I read The Poacher’s Son, the first entry in this series, when it came out in 2010. It was immediately recognized by readers and reviewers as a superior first novel, and I could see why. For whatever reason, I didn’t return to the series until this year. That may be due to the unusually laudatory reviews it was receiving.

Well,  this time around, I thoroughly enjoyed the exploits and tribulations of Maine game warden Mike Bowditch. His efforts to solve a difficult murder, his entanglement with authorities who seem bent on thwarting instead of helping him, his efforts to keep his relationship with his girlfriend, a wildlife biologist, from veering off course – I was happily engaged with all of these aspects of young Bowditch’s busy and often stressful life. He’s the kind of protagonist you root for wholeheartedly. And Paul Doiron‘s vivid descriptions of Maine in winter add a welcome texture to the novel.

Highly recommended.

too-close-to-the-edge-pascal-garnier Gosh…what was that? This novel begins with a poignant description of a widow coming to terms with her grief. making a life for herself at a house in the French countryside that should have been the retirement abode for both herself and her husband.

At the outset, the reader encounters some felicitous prose:

Buffeted and battered by a year of uncontainable sobs, her heart had at last steadied itself like the green bubble in a spirit level. There was no particular reason for this new-found calm, or rather, there were a thousand: it was May, the rain was beating against the windows, there was baroque music playing on France Musique; she was making her first vegetable jardinière of the season (fresh peas, lettuce hearts, carrots, potatoes, turnips, spring onions, and not forgetting the lardons!); the Colette biography she had picked up the day before at Meysse library was propped open at page 48 on the living-room table; she wasn’t expecting anyone, and no one was expecting her.

All these little things along with countless others meant that for the first time since Charles’s death she did not feel lonely in the house by herself, but one and indivisible.

The mood, while melancholy, is resolute. The pace is slow, even stately.

And then, all of a sudden – or at least, so it seems – chaos and threats of violence – followed by actual violence! It’s a disruption with multiple sources, one of which is literally right  next door. And a grand passion emerges, right smack in the middle of it all.

Pascal Garnier has been compared to Simenon, but I’m not sure I see the likeness. Simenon’s books are blessedly short, as is this one, but to my mind the similarity ends there.

Did I like Too Close To the Edge? Let’s say I was intrigued by it – and at certain points shocked and amazed by it. Do I recommend it? If you’re feeling adventurous, and can stomach occasional extremes in language and in action, give it a try.


515spi0ucl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ Yet another entertaining Harpur and Iles novel, replete with the highly stylized, piquant turn of phrase that has characterized this series from its beginning. For instance, there’s this exchange between two of my favorite series characters, Ralph ‘Panicking Ralphy’ Ember and Mansel ‘Manse’ Shale. Shale is explaining the nature of a revelatory experience he recently had in church:

‘That kind of closed-off, solid capsule in the pew was a first-class site for one deeply personal revelation to yours truly. Privileged. Divine-sourced? Who can tell? But, anyway, it arrived.’

‘Which name, Manse?’

‘Besmirched, Ralph,’ Shale replied.

‘A strong word, Manse. In which particular? You feel, felt, besmirched? How was that?’

‘Not so much self, Ralph.’

‘I’m glad. You deserve no such suffering.’

‘That name, suddenly brought to me in a sanctified setting – I felt it besmirched the very structure, fabric, atmosphere of a blameless church.’

‘You were obviously in a profound religious state at that time. I think of Cardinal Newman and “lead kindly light”, when an epiphany came to him to do with leaving the Protestant church.’

‘There are some first-rate epiphanies about, Ralph. Yes, profound is right. I believe if I had not been in that profound state I might not of received the name and how to deal with it.’

‘Ah, I didn’t realize you’d been advised how to deal with it.’

‘That’s the beauty of religion, Ralph. If you ever come across it you’ll discover that it recognizes there is rubbish in the world but it also tells you how to get rid of it. I saw during this specially delivered revelation in the church, like coming from my sub-conscious, that there’s an old film called Stranglers On A Train.’

‘I think it’s “Strangers”.’

‘Whatever. To do with death, anyway. To do with death and with that recently referred to mutuality and interweaving.’

‘It’s a crazy plot, couldn’t possibly be to do with real life.’

‘When I gets a vision in a church, Ralph, I think of it as being full of accuracy.’

‘But it had the name of the film wrong.’

‘Neither here nor there. Merely I made an error in the label. We know what its message is, don’t we? Its message is mutuality, interweaving and interdependence.’

And on it goes. What Manse is actually leading up to is a plan for taking revenge on the man he believes is responsible for the assassination of his wife and son. And Ralph is to play a key role in this plan – a plan derived from a famous Hitchcock film.

I’m told that the books comprising this series are an acquired taste. I acquired it long ago. I find them hugely entertaining, even at times brilliant.


Paul Doiron

Paul Doiron

Bill James

Bill James

Pascal Garnier 1949 - 2010

Pascal Garnier 1949 – 2010


Peter Lovesey. In November, the Detection Club will publish an anthology entitled Motives for Murder, dedicated to Peter Lovesey on his 80th birthday.

Peter Lovesey. In November, the Detection Club will publish an anthology entitled Motives for Murder, dedicated to Peter Lovesey on his 80th birthday.


More crime fiction reviews are coming, after a suitable art interlude.


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Discussing the stories in Capital Crimes, Part Two: “The Silver Mask” by Hugh Walpole

July 16, 2016 at 3:04 pm (Uncategorized)

[Click here for Part One of this post.]


Hugh Walpole’s father, Somerset Walpole, was an Anglican priest. At the time of his son’s birth in 1884, he was the incumbent at a cathedral in Auckland, New Zealand. Five years later, Rev. Walpole accepted a teaching position at a theological seminary in New York. In 1893, Hugh Walpole was sent to England where, for the next four years, he endured the seemingly inevitable miseries of the English boarding school. Even when his family finally returned to England and Hugh was  able to attend a day school, the unhappiness persisted. He spent most of his time in the library, devouring the works of the nineteenth century’s great novelists.

He wrote:

I grew up … discontented, ugly, abnormally sensitive, and excessively conceited. No one liked me – not masters, boys, friends of the family, nor relations who came to stay; and I do not in the least wonder at it. I was untidy, uncleanly, excessively gauche. I believed that I was profoundly misunderstood, that people took my pale and pimpled countenance for the mirror of my soul, that I had marvellous things of interest in me that would one day be discovered.

[quoted in Wikipedia]

In 1903, Walpole began his study of history at Cambridge University. Now he began to find himself as a scholar and as a writer. At the same time, he was struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. (Homosexual acts were decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967.)

Walpole became a prolific writer whose works were widely read and admired. And yet nowadays he is relatively unknown. One reason for this is that he was the victim of a masterful take-down by a rival author: W. Somerset Maugham. (The name “Somerset” seems to have figured fatefully in Walpole’s life.) This occurred in one of Maugham’s most popular novels, Cakes and Ale. Why would Maugham have done this?

Initially, Walpole and Maugham were friends. But according to Selena Hastings’s landmark biography The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,

…the ruthlessness of Walpole’s self-promotion coupled with a lack of generosity…had begun to repel him. Hugh, it seems, had behaved badly to a couple of  good friends of Maugham’s…; he had also, in the course of a recent and prestigious Cambridge lecture, omitted Maugham’s name from a list of well-regarded contemporary novelists….

One can well imagine that last item being the straw the broke the camel’s back. Still, Hastings feels that these are insufficient motivations for the attack, which apparently struck home with devastating force. There was probably more to it, and she opines that it may have had to do with jealousy of a more personal nature. (I’ve not read Cakes and Ale and so can offer no first hand view.)

At any rate, there is now renewed interest in Walpole’s works, and a welcome reissue by Valancourt Books of a collection of his stories can only help in this cause. 6391677 Among other tales, All Souls’ Night, like Capital Crimes, contains “The Silver Mask.”

Poor Sonia Herries! She skates along on the surface of things, going out with friends and collecting beautiful things for her home. Yet she feels the lack of a deeper meaning to her life.

Sonia Herries was a woman of her time in that outwardly she was cynical and destructive while inwardly she was a creature longing for affection and appreciation. For though she had white hair and was fifty she was outwardly active, young, could do with little sleep and less food, could dance and drink cocktails and play bridge to the end of all time. Inwardly she cared for neither cocktails nor bridge. She was above all things maternal and she had a weak heart, not only a spiritual weak heart but also a physical one. When she suffered, must take her drops, lie down and rest, she allowed no one to see her. Like all the other women of her period and manner of life she had a courage worthy of a better cause.

And fatefully, into  her life comes a young man who knows precisely how to play on this neediness. Henry Abbott first presents himself to Sonia as desperately poor, with a wife and infant who are suffering even more than he is. Reluctantly, Sonia admits him into her home. He professes himself awestruck by the  beauty of her objets d’art – above all, by a silver mask crafted by a master artisan. Sonia tells herself:

No one who cared so passionately for beautiful things could be quite worthless.

And so begins an insidious form  of seduction by a master manipulator and his accomplices.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Michael Dirda observes the following concerning Walpole:

…he produced a small handful of superior psychological shockers and ghostly tales. As John Howard notes in his introduction to the Valancourt reissue of “All Souls’ Night,” Walpole was a master of mood, uncanny atmosphere and the quietly chilling vignette. His stories are carried along, too, by an exceptionally easygoing and seductive narrative voice, what the costive Henry James described as his acolyte’s enviable “flow.”

During our discussion, Ann said that as she was reading this story, the mounting sense of dread was so powerful and disturbing that she was unable to finish it.

By contrast, Frank’s experience as a psychotherapist caused him to view Sonia Herries as a kind of case study. She was exhibiting, he said, a fatal lack of agency. By this, he meant (as I understand it) that she was allowing people and events to attain dominance over her instead of asserting herself in response to them.  She needed to gain and maintain a measure of control over her own life – control which, as a sovereign human being, she was absolutely entitled to possess and to use.

In Michael Dirda’s view, “The Silver Mask” is

…an absolute masterpiece, so eerily inexorable in its development that it should be as famous as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Louise wondered if the mask itself were not a symbolic as well as a literal object. We agreed that this was a reasonable conjecture. I added that after repeated readings of this story, I was  developing a desire to see the actual silver mask – or at least, an example of one. Upon performing a Google image search, I found myself staring at numerous images of silver masks. They range from exquisite to grotesque; some seem rather sinister. One is at the top of this post; here are several others:

363-mask_eye_mask_lux_silver_white 55_mask_eye_mask_stella_silver_white_large


There are at least two film versions of “The Silver Mask,” retitled as “Kind Lady.” The 1951 version features a rather interesting cast: Angela Lansbury, Maurice Evans, Keenan Wynn, and Ethel Barrymore as the eponymous lady. Here’s the trailer:


“The Silver Mask” is the second story in the All Souls’ Night collection. The first is called “The Whistle.” I almost had the same reaction to it as Ann had to “The Silver Mask.” “The Whistle” is about the intense mutual love and devotion that develops between a man named Blake and a dog named Adam, and what happens to them both. It is beautifully written, but I’m a great worrier when it comes to dogs, both fictional and real.

Walpole gets inside Adam’s head in a way that reminds me of Alexander McCall Smith’s uncanny depiction of the famed Pimlico terrier, Freddie de la Hay:

The two went out into the thin misty autumn sunshine, down through the garden into the garage. The Alsatian walked very close beside Blake, as though some invisible cord held them together. All his life, now two years in length, it had been his instant principle to attach himself to somebody. For, in this curious world where he was, not his natural world at all, every breath, every movement, rustle of wind, sound of voices, patter of rain, ringing of bells, filled him with nervous alarm. He went always on guard, keeping his secret soul to himself, surrendering nothing, a captive in the country of the enemy. There might exist a human being to whom he would surrender himself. Although he had been attached to several he had not, in his two years, yet found one to whom he could give himself. Now as he trod softly over the amber and rosy leaves he was not sure that this man beside whom he walked might not be the one.

I intend to read more of these beautifully crafted (yet seemingly artless) stories.

Hugh Walpole2

Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole 1884 – 1941


The next and  final post on this discussion will focus on the story “Cheese” by Ethel Lina White.



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A thriller that never lets up: I Am Your Judge, by Nele Neuhaus

February 12, 2016 at 12:39 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)


It’s always exciting to discover a new writer whose work you deeply admire. At least, that’s how I felt upon finishing I Am Your Judge by Nele Neuhaus. Granted, I’m basing this rave on just one book – but what a book! At the moment, it is right next to me on my desk, and I’m gazing at it with rapt approbation.

In this German police procedural, a sniper is targeting a variety of seemingly random individuals. Fear grips the populace at large. There  is something especially unnerving about the presence on the scene of a malevolent sharpshooter who seems to vanish after his every hit. (Those of us who were living in the greater Washington DC area in 2002 will remember the frightening sense of vulnerability brought about by the depredations of the ‘DC Sniper.’ The case is cited early in this novel.)

It is the job of Chief Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff and Chief Superintendent Oliver von Bodenstein to identify this nefarious predator and run him to ground. Fairly early on, they and their team of investigators are able to determine that the targets are actually not all that random. What then constitutes the shooter’s motivation? Is it some sort of retribution? And if so, what was the offense – and who were the offenders? As Pia and Oliver struggle to find the answers to these questions, the killings continue.

The plotting is cunning; the characters, fully realized. I very much liked the two leads. We learn just enough about their private lives to make them interesting – no over-the-top soap opera scenarios. (In my view, these have become depressingly familiar in certain works of contemporary crime fiction, perhaps helping to account for their unwieldy heft.)

By my estimate, I Am Your Judge is the seventh book in this series. If you look at the listing on Stop You’re Killing Me, you’ll see why I’m hedging my bets. Dates of original publication in Germany, then dates of translation into English – somewhat confusing. (We dealt with a similar situation when Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels were first released in this country.) Another interesting fact about I Am Your judge: its original German language title is Die Lebenden und die Toten, which translates as The Living and the Dead. The English language title differs quite  bit. I like it much better; it is powerful and sinister and gives the reader an accurate, if disturbing, idea of what’s about to unfold.

Will I experience another read as riveting as this was any time in the near future? O God of Literature, please say that I will.

Nele Neuhaus

Nele Neuhaus

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“…a unique, irresistible contraption of a book” – The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

November 19, 2013 at 7:44 pm (Uncategorized)

9780374102418_custom-ee9a42e2ad4808c0d3b65458a4adad25b91fb217-s6-c30  Of late I have been avoiding long books. My heart sinks at the sight of their size – never mind their weight. Of course the e-book format rather artfully conceals these factors, but I am still doing most of my reading the old-fashioned way. (And as I write this, I cannot help thinking of my mother, who instilled in me a lifelong passion for the written word and who, were she alive, would find the locution ‘old fashioned book’ incomprehensible.)

This aversion to lengthy tomes is due to my desire to read so many books as soon as possible. Of late I’ve been reading several simultaneously, some in e-book format and others in hard copy. Can this become confusing? Indeed it can – and occasionally does. Am I reading more and enjoying it less? Well, no, I still love it – but I can’t deny that in recent years, my reading has taken on a somewhat manic aspect…

On the other hand, there are few experiences as rewarding as settling into a magisterial work of literature, one that quite literally transports you to another time, another place, another world. Most of the time,  but not always, such books have considerable heft. They take some time to work their magic (and in some cases, it is a dark magic). Oh but is it ever time well spent!

I’m thinking, for example, of A Passion for Nature, Donald Worster’s biography of John Muir; Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard; The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes; Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel; The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings; People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry; Nature’s Engraver, Jenny Uglow’s biography of Thomas Bewick; and Robert K. Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great. To this august company I now gladly add The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer.

The Unwinding is very much a book of the present moment and not the sort toward which I ordinarily gravitate. But as I read the reviews,  I found myself thinking, I really want to read this. I felt drawn by the description of its contents. The Unwinding more than fulfilled its promise.

That said, this is a difficult book to describe. Packer’s crowded canvas includes portraits of the famous, the infamous, and everyday people. It’s that last group that is most compelling. It’s comprised of a wide variety of individuals, some pursuing their dreams, others just trying to keep their heads above water.

For example:

Dean Price of Rockingham County, North Carolina.

The plateau of hardwood hills and red clay fields between the Appalachian range and the Atlantic coastal plain is called the Piedmont. Along the order between Virginia and North Carolina, from Dansville and Martinsville down to Greensboro and Winston-Salem, the mainstays of Piedmont life in the twentieth century were tobacco, textiles, and furniture. In the last years of the century they all started to die, more or less simultaneously, as if a mysterious and highly communicable plague swept through the region.

Packer concludes this succinct, dystopian summary by telling us that “Dean Price returned home just as the first bad signs were showing up across the landscape.”

Then there’s Jeff Connaughton of Alabama. Connaughton wanted to contribute to the betterment of America through political engagement. A self-confessed “Biden guy,” Connaughton’s odyssey through the power  corridors of Washington makes for very illuminating reading.

The more familiar names come from all walks of life: Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Colin Powell, master chef Alice Waters, rapper Jay-Z – the list goes on. The celebrity chapters are short but enlightening. This holds true especially for Peter Thiel. Packer chooses the German-born Thiel to represent the phenomenon of Silicon Valley. The chapter on him might have been entitled, “Inside the Mind of a 46-year-old Billionaire.” Not unexpectedly, one finds some unusual things in that mind.

As a poster child for the ravages of the housing bust, the city of Tampa rates several chapters of its own. Starting in the seventies, numerous residential developments had sprung up, most of them miles from any kind of commerce. As long as people continued to come in ever increasing numbers, building would continue at a rapid pace, facilitated by generous allowances and perquisites for developers courtesy of the city fathers. “A few local critics pointed out the strategy’s resemblance to a Ponzi scheme. But everything kept growing and no one paid attention.”

In the fullness of time, those Cassandra’s were proven all too prescient

Packer’s description of what was happening to the land during this period is straightforward and unflinching:

The growth machine cleared out the pine trees and palmettos and orange groves along State Road 54 up in Pasco County. It cut don the mangroves on Apollo Beach and asphalt over the strawberry farms around Plant City. Farther south down Interstate 75, in Lee County, the growth machine built a university on the wetlands near Fort Myers (Senator Connie Mack put in a call to the Army Corps of Engineers),and it sold quarter-acre lots on the installment plan between the drainage canals of Cape Coral. Farmers and ranchers cashed out and suddenly, where there had been orchards or pastures or swampland, developers put up instant communities–they were called ””boomburgs”–and christened them with names that evoked the ease of English manor life: Ashton Oaks, Saddle Ridge Estates, the Hammocks at Kingsway….

And on and on. Followed of course by the inevitable implosion. And with no way to reinvigorate the fragile and destroyed ecology of the place. (As one whose childhood was mostly spent  in South Florida, I am tempted to say that in that part of the country, it was ever thus.)

For some folks, life was good in Tampa. This was especially true for certain four-star generals attached to MacDill Air force Base, home of the United States Central Command: “They enjoyed the lavish hospitality of Tampa society hostesses while shaping U.S. foreign policy and the fate of nations across the most volatile region of the globe, from Egypt to Pakistan, with all the authority of Roman proconsuls.” Four blocks from this hive of weighty activity lived Danny and Ronale Hartzell, their two kids, and Danny’s younger brother Dennis. All inhabited a ground floor apartment in a complex where drugs were regularly bought and sold. It was all in the way of living quarters they could afford. All three adults were willing to do any kind of work but had trouble finding and keeping jobs.

Of Danny Hartzell:

He was in his late thirties, short, with a pot belly on him, a wispy goatee, and a nearly hairless head under his Steelers cap. He was missing a bunch of teeth and spoke in a loud hoarse voice because of deafness in one ear. He classified himself as a “blue-collar-type guy,” not a “behind -the-counter-take-your-money-can-I-help-you-find-your-dress-size-type guy,” but the only jobs left were in retail and he lacked the right look and manner.

Danny took full responsibility (more so than necessary, I think) for the family’s problems, although he honestly questioned why “…all those people out there view me as such a bad person?”

Like her husband, Ronale had bad teeth and was overweight. The couple had numerous other difficulties, but these paled when, in the spring of 2009, they learned that their daughter Danielle was suffering from bone cancer in her left leg. Up to that time, the Hartzells had not owned a vehicle, but then a stranger gave them money to purchase a 2003 Chevy Cavalier so that they could drive to Danielle’s medical appointments. Here’s the upshot:

A prosthesis that would require regular four-millimeter adjustments as she grew was sewn inside the length of Danielle’s skinny little leg. she went a whole year cancer free. They thanked God. Otherwise, nothing changed for the Hartzells.


The summing up of the people, events, and experiences depicted in The Unwinding is presented through the eyes of Peter Thiel. In his view, 1973, the year of the oil shock, was when things began to go wrong:

A lot of institutions stopped working. Science and technology stopped progressing, the growth model broke down, government no longer worked as well as in the past, middle-class life started to fray. It was pretty much a roller coaster ride until the “seismic events” of 2008. “Four decade–down,up, up, down–After forty years, you were flat.”

Thiel calls those middle decades an Indian summer of sorts. They were characterized by “a series of bubbles: the bond bubble, the tech bubble, the stock bubble, the emerging markets bubble, the housing bubble….” And all of these went the way that all bubbles inevitably go, so that the one salient remaining fact to be discerned amid the wreckage was that “things were fundamentally not working.”

Thiel sees the information age as a disappointment in that it has failed to generate anywhere near enough jobs or to raise the standard of living across the board or to improve conditions for the populace in general – for people, in other words, like the Hartzells:

The creation of virtual worlds had taken  the place of advances in the physical world.


In his blurb for The Unwinding, writer David M. Kennedy says the following:

George Packer has crafted a unique, irresistible contraption of a book. Not since John Dos Passos’s celebrated U.S.A. trilogy, which The Unwinding recollects and rivals, has a writer so cunningly plumbed the seething undercurrents of American life. The result is a sad but delicious jazz-tempo  requiem for the post World War II American social contract. You will often laugh through your tears at these tails of lives of ever-less-quiet desperation in a land going ever-more-noisily berserk.

The Unwinding is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction. I hope it wins.

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And now for something completely different: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, by Fred Vargas

October 13, 2013 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

“The Ghost Riders of Ordebec” by Fred Vargas (Penguin).

“That night,” she said slowly, “Lina saw the Furious Army.”

“The what?”

“The Furious Army,” the woman repeated, in a whisper. “And Herbier was with them. And he was screaming. And three others with him.”

“Is it a club? Something to do with hunting?”

Madame Vendremot was staring at Adamsberg in disbelief.

“The Furious Army,” she whispered again. “The Great Hunt. The Ghost Riders. Haven’t you heard of them?”

“No,” said Adamsberg, staring back at her stupefied gaze. “Come back some other time and you can tell me all about it.”

“But you don’t even recognize the name? Hellequin’s Horde,” she whispered.

Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is baffled by this exchange. So was I. A tiny, nervous woman from Ordebec in Normandy has come to Paris expressly to see the Commissaire and warn him of the threat of sudden death for certain citizens of the town. Because of her sighting, Madame Vendremot’s daughter Lina knows who they are – all except one, that is. For his part, Adamsberg finds the purport of her message almost incomprehensible. Nevertheless, he decides to travel to Ordebec himself, to see the how the land lies.

I’ve known about the Commissaire Adamsberg series for quite some time. I knew they were highly thought of by  crime fiction cognoscenti. I tried several, but I couldn’t get into them. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, though, was getting such enthusiastic reviews, I decided to try again. And this one worked for me – worked, in fact, extremely well.

Adamsberg is an unusual, rather enigmatic character. “I like the way his mind works,” Frances of Usual Suspects told me when she recommended the series. I do too. Flashes of insight can be succeeded – or preceded – with profound inertia. The Commissaire is a master of lateral thinking. Or rather, of thinking about anything but the crime he’s attempting to solve. The Ordebec investigation provides scope for his strangeness. He likes to sit outside beneath a tree munching on an apple, even when it’s raining. He uses up a fair amount of mental energy trying to figure out why the cows in a distant field seem never to move.

And he takes slow, solitary walks along the Chemin de Bonnival, in the forest of Alance. This is the place where Lina claims to have seen the Furious Army. Just what is this strange, threatening entity?

Adamsberg’s second in command is Adrien Danglard, a close friend as well as a valued colleague. At Adamsberg’s house one evening, Danglard, who takes a passionate interest in all things medieval, seeks to enlighten his boss on the subject of the Ghost Riders.

….this ancient cavalcade causing havoc in the countryside is damaged. The horses and their riders have no flesh and many of their limbs are missing. It’s an army of the dead, of the putrefied dead, an army of ghostly riders, wild-eyed and screaming, unable to get to heaven.

Danglard concludes this vivid description with two words: “Imagine that.”

The Commissaire struggles to do just that:

Adamsberg approached the fireplace again, curious to hear a little more, and leaned against the brick hearth. The fact that the Riders singled out unpunished villains interested him…. You can tell yourself you don’t believe this kind of thing, but it’s difficult not to believe it. The pernicious idea digs a deep channel. It silently infiltrates the the unavowed corridors of the mind, penetrates, and trickles through. You suppress the idea, it lies dormant for a while, then it returns.

The Furious Army, Hellequin’s Horde, the Ghost Riders, the Wild Hunt – it’s a legend of many names, with many manifestations. Most likely it originated in Scandinavia.

Even in Winter, you are not safe. Stay indoors, attend your hearths. Try to keep the night at bay by the telling of your tongue. Remember your kin, honor your ancestors. For at this time the dead begin to stir, riding upon hallowed and familiar roads, galloping through villages and wastes, flying through the forests of the mind. Such raids are reminders that the past is not a dead thing, but may return, like a hunter, to follow us for a time.

(The above excerpt is from an essay entitled “Penance, Power, and Pursuit – On the Trail of the Wild Hunt,” by Ari Berk and William Spytma.)

Adamsberg is strongly attracted to Lina – he claims that she “irradiated” him – but he makes no move toward her, and nothing comes of it. This is of a piece with the general tenor of a novel in which things seem to progress – if you can call it progress – in a halting, dreamy way, punctuated by episodes of high drama. It’s an extremely effective narrative style, especially with the author’s sly wit, reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, interspersed throughout.

And what of this author? Fred Vargas was born in Paris in 1957. She has trained as an historian and an archeologist. (Her real name is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.) And she has won the CWA International Dagger Award four times, in 2006 for The Three Evangelists, in 2007 for Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, in 2009 for The Chalk Circle Man, and this year for The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, an honor given jointly to her and to Pierre Lemaitre for his novel Alex. (One is tempted to exclaim: “The French are coming, the French are coming; watch out, Scandinavians!”) A complete list pf Vargas’s novels can be found at Stop! You’re Killing Me.

While the Ordebec story moves forward – or sideways, depending on any number of things – other things are happening. Adamsberg’s twenty-eight year old son Armel, nicknamed Zerk, is currently living with him. This is a progeny whose existence was unknown to the Commissaire until a short while ago. Zerk is helping to care for a wounded pigeon. The bird’s misfortune was caused by a deliberate, cruel trick; father and son are determined to nurse it back to health. (And Adamsberg would dearly love to apprehend the responsible party.) Zerk also helps the Commissaire to  shield a hapless young man who is about to be framed for a murder he did not commit.

It’s desirable in a police procedural that the author include believable and interesting people in the protagonist’s team of investigators.  Team members can be characterized by their strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies. Vargas is especially good at this (as is Peter Turnbull).

To sum up, I liked this novel very much. Vargas writes  beautifully, and credit must also go to the translator Sian Reynolds. I look forward to  the further adventures of Commissaire Adamsberg, the singular detective with an equally singular team.

Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas

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Deepest Condolences

December 14, 2012 at 11:44 pm (Uncategorized)

I wish to express my deepest condolences for the victims of the tragedy in Connecticut, and their families. Please know that we are heartsick for all of you.

President Obama said, “‘We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years…'” One can but agree, although this one is especially horrific. It also serves as a fearful reminder: This could happen to any one of us.

I keep thinking of what Francisco Goldman wrote in Say Her Name about the loss of his young wife:

Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight, I thought, that’s my advice to all the living. Breathe her in, put your nose in her hair and breathe her in deeply. Say her name. It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it.

As the President also said, these communities are our communities; these children belong to all Americans.  We are all mourners today.

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