“‘The way it’s told,…they’re invisible. But you can see them if you’re about to die.'” – Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman

July 19, 2017 at 2:42 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

On Tuesday of last week, Cheryl, one of the newer members of the Usual Suspects, did our group a very big favor. She selected, for our discussion and reading pleasure, Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman.

And what a pleasure it was to revisit the work of this master storyteller, with his unpretentious style, evocative setting, and intriguing characters. Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) is the second entry in the Joe Leaphorn series; in the fourth, People of Darkness (1980), Hillerman introduces the younger officer, Jim Chee. Leaphorn and Chee are paired as investigators for the first time in Skinwalkers (1986). It was to prove a winning direction in which to take the series.

In Dance Hall of the Dead, the investigation begins with the disappearance of two adolescent boys, Ernesto Cata and George Bowlegs. Ernesto is a Zuni; George is Navajo. They are fast friends are nearly always seen together. Ernesto goes missing first; then George, who flees from his school classroom the following day. The boys had recently been hanging around at an archeological dig in progress nearby

George envied his friend’s Zuni identity and wished to become part of his tribe. He was also said to be embroiled with a kachina, the sight of which supposedly portends death for the uninitiated. In the early part of the novel, Leaphorn himself is unnerved one night by an unanticipated sighting of what seems to be one of these same spirit beings. This occurs when he thinks he spots a youth who’d been part of a group of hippies living in an abandoned hogan:

Was this him standing so silently under  the arbor? But why would he stand there in the icy moonlight? And how had he got there without Leaphorn seeing him? As he considered this, the figure moved. With birdlike swiftness it darted out of the arbor to the side of the hogan, disappearing into  the shadow. It crouched, pressed against the logs….And then the figure straightened, its head moving upward into  the slanting moonlight. Leaphorn sucked in his breath. The head was a bird’s. Round, jaylike feathers plumes thrusting backward, a long, narrow sandpiper’s beak, a bristling ruff of feathers where  the human neck would be. The head was round. As it turned away from profile, Leaphorn saw round eyes ringed with yellow against the black. He was seeing the staring., expressionless face of a kachina. Leaphorn felt the hairs bristling at the back of his neck.

As do I, reading this mesmerizing passage, and as I did when I first read Dance Hall of the Dead over twenty years ago.

Kachina dolls in the Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ

Carol said that she’d forgotten what a wonderful writer Hillerman was. She’s right: there’s more  beautiful prose where the above came from.

Tony Hillerman was born in Oklahoma in 1925. He served with distinction in the Second World War, after which he became a journalist.

When he had returned home on convalescent leave from the Army he came upon a group of Navajos on horseback and in face paint and feathers in Crownpoint, New Mexico They were holding a Navajo Enemy Way ceremony, a curing ritual for a soldier just like himself just back from the war. The ritual exorcises all traces of the enemy from those returning from battle.

He was moved by the ceremony and by the Navajos — “I’m drawn to people who believe in something enough that their lives are affected by it” — and stirred by the vastness of the country to the extent that he resolved to live there.

From the New York Times obituary, 2008.

Hillerman’s experience of encountering the Enemy Way ceremony was key in leading him to write The Blessing Way (1970), first in what became the Leaphorn and Chee series centered on the Navajo Tribal Police. The rest, as  they say, is history.

Several of us long time Hillerman fans agreed that his work is still relevant and deserving of a wide readership. Marge reminded us of another author we’ve read whose work treats with empathy the subject of Native Americans. This is William Kent Krueger, who sets his mysteries in the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota. The tribe about which he writes is the Ojibwe. I’d like to add to that Vidar Sundstol’s The Land of Dreams, a vivid evocation of that same region and its mix of inhabitants.

We did have a  few minor reservation about Dance Hall of the Dead. For a relatively short novel – the current Harper paperback edition runs to 240 pages – there are numerous characters to keep track of. I found that to be especially true of the law enforcement professionals from various agencies who are engaged on the case.Marge felt that the description of the archeologists’ activities and goals became tedious, whereas I found the narration of the Zuni Pueblo religious and ceremonial rites to be similarly over long. Both passages slowed the pace of the narrative almost to a halt.

Yet we all felt that these were minor cavils that were more than made up  for by the privilege of spending time with these intriguing individuals as they go about their business in the exotic landscape they call home. I’d like to add here that I initially revisited this novel through the audiobook narration by George Guidall. I cannot recommend this approach to these novels highly enough; Guidall has a marvelous feel for these characters and places.

Hillerman’s novels were largely responsible for my trips in the 1990s to New Mexico and Arizona. If anything, the vivid immediacy of those experiences exceeded their written description. You have to feel the air, smell the pinon…it really is amazing. New Mexico, “Land of Enchantment” –  rarely has an entity lived up so completely to its sobriquet.

(Judith Van Giesen‘s Neil Hamel novels, written in the 1990s and set in Albuquerque, produced a  similar effect. This is a series that Marge and I were both very fond of, but it never received its due from the mystery-reading public. I tend to blame this sort of failure on weak publisher support – if any.)

Beginning with the publication of Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013, Tony and Marie Hillerman’s daughter Anne Hillerman has been continuing the Navajo series begun by her unassuming yet illustrious father. I’ve not ready up until now, but I hope that will change soon.

Anthony Grove Hillerman May 27, 1925-October 26, 2008

 

 

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…’Venice is a labyrinth whose streets are famously full of water.’ – Trajectory, by Richard Russo

July 14, 2017 at 8:52 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

  Interestingly, there is no story or novella in this collection that’s actually entitled “Trajectory.” Nevertheless, it’s an apt title.

Of the four works here included, I especially liked “Voice.” It takes place in Venice, always a rich venue  for storytellers. The main character is Nate, a retired English professor who has somewhat reluctantly agreed to accompany his brother on a trip to that fabled city on the occasion of the famous (notorious?) Biennale International Art Exhibition.

As is only to be expected, everything looms larger than life in this hothouse atmosphere, including the long running estrangement of Nate from his wheeler-dealer brother Julian. Nate views this trip as a chance for a possible reconciliation, or at least a thaw in relations. Whether this will happen is anybody’s guess, but not unexpectedly, the journey turns out to have larger implications, not just for Nate but for Julian and other members of the tour as well.

As anyone who has traveled with a tour group can attest, your fellow travelers can go from being strangers to intimates in no time flat. They become major players in your life’s drama with lightning speed and then disappear from view just as quickly. Your new bosom buddy from Akron or Reno will inevitably return to his or her home ground, and you, to yours. There’s a certain poignancy in this, a mixture of sadness and relief.

Regarding the few tours I myself have  been on, there are times when these ephemeral but intense relationships overshadow the trip’s stated purpose. I remember a tour I took to Yorkshire in 2005 when the woman seated next to me at dinner was going on at great length about a brand of  health food she was partial to. It’s not a subject that I would ordinarily find riveting, yet I recall being quite captivated by her speech. This, you should know, was taking place while our group was dining in the stately home of a gracious aristocratic couple, a stunning experience  that I had not known we were slated to have and which I will undoubtedly never have again. (And in my memory, it is inextricably linked to Ezekiel Bread.)

That was a bit of a digression, which I hope you’ll excuse. And definitely don’t let it detract from the sheer brilliance of Russo’s story. Nate is a character whose head I got so thoroughly into that when it came time to take my leave, I felt genuine grief at the need to do so. Can you wish a fictional creation well, with all your heart? Well, of course you can. This is one reason why people are so devoted to the novels of Jane Austen.

I love Richard Russo’s writing. His straight ahead, unpretentious style is power (rather artfully) disguised as simplicity. To wit:

From “Voice:”

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in several years and he already wanted to strangle the man.
**************************

….his last waking thoughts are of the prostitutes’ children who sang so beautifully. How did  they feel about being hidden behind those screens? Did it seem a kindness that their voices alone should represent them to the world of others? Why should these privileged others be spared the deformity its victims had no part in causing? Is it better to be known whole or to conceal what makes us unworthy of love?
**************************

Even if Julian has ulterior motives for inviting him [on this trip], does it necessarily mean he’s totally without warm brotherly feelings? People have lots of moving parts, and trying to reduce motives for simplicity’s sake is always dangerous.

As Nate views the art of the sixteenth century painter Tintoretto  at the Scuola San Rocco, he can’t help contrasting it with what he has so far seen on display at the Biennale:

How comforting it must’ve been to know that everybody was proceeding from the same basic assumptions about God and creation and arriving at the same conclusions about the eternal existential questions: Who are we? What is our purpose?…

Renaissance painting and architecture were both designed to make the individual feel inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, which to  them was, well, grand. Was it the loss of this grandeur, and of the faith that was its foundation, that led to the fragmentation of today’s world, to postmodern silliness, art as a sight gag? Possibly, though Nate has little affection for Tintoretto’s muscle-bound figures, their heavy, brutal limbs foreshortened to emphasize their relentless determination to climb up and away from Mother Earth. Even his gray-bearded elders looked ripped and ready for battle, which might be why Nate, feeling paunchy, leave the Scuola San Rocco feeling bullied.

The Miracle of St. Mark Freeing a Slave, by Tintoretto 1548

*******************************

Ray, the chief actor in “Intervention,” sells real estate in Maine. His current clients are the Bells, whom he describes as “cultural refugees from Texas.” He guesses that like many others who have vacationed in the Pine Tree State, they have wholeheartedly bought into the state’s motto, “The Way Life Should Be.”

That happened pretty often actually….”If things get really bad,” people said, “we’ll sell everything and move to Maine,” as if it were a foreign country. Liberals came fleeing conservatives, libertarians fleeing government,  traders fleeing Wall Street, film people fleeing L A, everybody felling the nation’s collective culture, as if there were no cable TV or internet access north of Boston, and by means of geography they could escape Snooki and hip-hop and Sarah Palin and bird flu.

He adds, “One rough winter, followed by a black fly-rich June, was usually sufficient to send such folks scurrying back to wherever they came from.”

After the exhausting ordeal of house hunting, Cliff Bell is eager to go out for dinner:

“I want some of those clams you get up here. The ones with the little penises.”

His wife opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again, evidently deciding that just because it was teed up didn’t mean you had to hit it.

I really enjoyed “Intervention.” It showcases Russo’s dry and rather rueful wit, always a pleasure to encounter. The story ends, though, with the kind of sad realization that Russo is especially good at putting into words:

….people cling to folly as if it were their most prized possession, defending it, sometimes with violence, against the possibility of wisdom.

“Voice” and “Intervention” are the second and third stories respectively in this collection. While I liked the other two – “Horseman” and “Milton and Marcus” – I didn’t think that they were quite of the same caliber as “Voice” and “Intervention.”

Richard Russo

In recent weeks, I’ve read a slew of rave reviews of new story collections. Trajectory has certainly whetted my appetite for more of the same.

Additional recommendations gratefully accepted!

And as for Venice’s streets being “famously full of water,” this is probably a reference to the telegram that American humorist Robert Benchley (1889-1945) purportedly sent to Harold Ross, his editor at The New Yorker, when he – Benchley –  arrived in Venice:

Streets full of water. Please advise.

Robert Benchley

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Charismatic cows, trees contracting like drinking straws, and other wonders

July 13, 2017 at 2:31 pm (Book review, books, Nature)

  Many are the moments of beauty contained in this small gem of a book. The most central of these is the eponymous tree, a majestic red oak presiding serenely in Harvard Forest.

Author Lynda V. Mapes tells us that in the eighteenth century, surveyors would designate certain trees as boundary markers. They were the original witness trees. She decided that the term would serve admirably for the large red oak around which she would orient her year long study of the Harvard Forest and its numerous plant and animal denizens.

Mapes often waxes lyrical when describing her year long immersion in nature:

This was the splendid time of the spring ephemerals, the woodland wildflowers precisely timed. They had been coming on with the sun since the spring equinox, the display growing in color and diversity as the sun gained in its height and heat, day by day, capturing the brightest light the understory would receive all year, right between the melt of the snow and the leaf-out of the trees. Four-petaled bluets, their blooms the size of a pinkie nail, paved the crown of the wagon road in nodding blue and white flowers. Sun flecks found pools of deep purple: the broad-leaved wood violets, turning their white-whiskered faces to the sun. The elegant, single nodding bloom of sessile bellwort, with its graceful, winged leaves, stood in creamy-white perfection at the feet of the trees. Bees, wasps, flies, and beetles sought these early-spring nectar sources, returning the favor with pollination, in a meetup essential  to each.

This is particularly when she’s talking about trees:

Trees are interstitial beings, connecting the atmospheric and terrestrial realms. They are rooted in the ground, but made from thin air, conjuring the sky, the atmosphere, and the sun to earthly form. For this alchemy they embody wonder; they are a transubstantiation that has amazed people for centuries. For really, who would think something so solid and long-standing as a tree could be made from the limpid, quicksilver ingredients of sun, water, and air?

The ‘charismatic cows’ were brought into the forest to help in maintaining an area of pasture land. Their presence is something of a holdover from the days of the Sanderson Farm, “one of the core properties from which the Harvard Forest was created.”

The cows, I noticed, had charisma. They were the first thing tour groups typically wanted to stop and look at when they came to visit the Forest, and they always drew smiles. People brought their kids by on weekends just to pet the cows through the fence. The pasture is small enough that it could just as easily have been mowed twice a year, but the cows were themselves historical reenactors, co-opted into our living exhibit of a New England pastoral landscape. Using animals to defend the open meadow from the encroachment of the Forest was the whole historical point.

From Lynda Mapes I’ve  learned many fascinating facts about trees. The ‘drinking straw’ phenomenon alluded to in the title of this post is part of a lengthier explanation of how trees handle water:

The tree does all that pumping against the countervailing forces of gravity and friction, without making a sound or using a calorie of energy. The number of interconnected water transport conduits— xylem cells— can exceed hundreds of millions in the trunk of a large tree such as the big oak, and their total length can be greater than 200 kilometers, or some 124 miles. The speed of water flow up a ring-porous tree such as the oak is also impressive, on the order of twenty meters or sixty-six feet per hour. The forces involved are enormous; a tree will actually slim ever so slightly in shape on a hot, dry day, as the suction of evapotranspiration pulls in the sides of the tree like a drinking straw. The tree replumps at night, as it refills with water.

Don’t know about you, but I found this simply amazing!

I was especially pleased that Mapes found several occasions in which to reference two of my historical  heroes of the conservation cause: Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold.

 

Aldo Leopold 1887-1948

Here’s Leopold in his paper “Phenological Record for Sauk and Dane Counties, Wisconsin, 1935– 1945”:

“Each year, after the midwinter blizzards, there comes a thawy night when the tinkle of dripping water is heard in the land. It brings strange stirrings, not only to creatures abed for the night, but to some who have been asleep for the winter. The hibernating skunk, curled up in his deep den, uncurls himself and ventures forth to prowl the wet world for breakfast, dragging his belly in the melting snow. His track marks one of the earliest dateable events in that cycle of beginnings and ceasings which we call a year. From the beginnings of history, people have searched for order and meaning in these events, but only a few have discovered that keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search, and also the chance of finding order and meaning. These few are called phenologists.”

How beautiful this passage is, both for its appreciation of the skunk’s awakening slink after its long sleep, and the connection Leopold draws for us to the pleasure of noticing the world around us and seeking to understand the land’s inner workings. He kept track of the first crowing of the pheasant, the first arrival of the marsh hawk, the emergence of the woodchuck from hibernation, and arrival of the bluebird. When the gray chipmunk first popped out of its burrow in spring, and eastern meadowlarks arrived, Leopold made a note. He tracked the first time the prairie mole made its active run up and around in broad day, the breakup of the ice on the Wisconsin River, and the arrival of the killdeer. He logged with precision the first calls of the Canada goose, woodcock, and leopard frog. He noticed when the first adult moths of the spring cankerworm flew in the trees, and the first song of the cardinal, brilliant red in the still-bare trees. He marked well the first bloom of the pasqueflower, the wood sorrel, and the toadflax, the bird-foot violet, penstemon, and coneflower.

Mapes adds at the end of this passage: “What a wonderful way to live.”

Indeed.

In aid of ongoing research,  Webcams have been placed strategically throughout Harvard Forest.  And here is a video about the Witness Tree Project:

As I was reading, one of my favorite speeches in Shakespeare kept coming back to me. It’s from As You Like It. The speaker is Orlando. He’s commenting on the unexpected pleasures of his exile to the Forest of Arden:

And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stone and good in everything.
I would not change it.

I should add here that the Harvard Forest is not “exempt from public haunt.” Visitors – both human and animal –  are cordially welcome.

You’ll note that this post is largely comprised of direct quotes. I felt it was useless, if not impossible, for me to attempt to paraphrase the text. Instead, if you care at all about trees, nature in general, climate change in particular, and a host of other related subjects, I urge you to read this book. It confers blessings one minute, promotes anxiety the next, but never relinquishes a sense of wonder. All this, in slightly over two hundred pages!

Lynda v Mapes

 

 

 

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‘The Osage found themselves surrounded by predators—“ a flock of buzzards,” as one member of the tribe complained at a council meeting.’ – Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

July 8, 2017 at 2:15 pm (Book review, books, History)

 

Yet another Osage chief, Bacon Rind by name, enlarged on the subject at a congressional hearing, testifying that the whites had

“bunched us down here in the backwoods, the roughest part of the United States, thinking ‘we will drive these Indians down to where there is a big pile of rocks and put them there in that corner.’  ” Now that the pile of rocks had turned out to be worth millions of dollars, he said, “everybody wants to get in here and get some of this money.”

Pile of rocks worth millions? What happened was this: After being driven from their land in Kansas, the Osage finally settled – were permitted to settle – on the stony ground of northeast Oklahoma, in the early 1870s. It was thought that in this region, so inimical to agricultural usage, the Osage would be left alone.

And so they were, until these began to appear on the landscape:

The Osage owned not only the land, but also the mineral rights pertaining to that land.. Oil barons like J. Paul Getty and Frank Phillips came calling; they paid enormous sums for the right to drill on Osage property. Unexpectedly, almost unimaginably, members of the tribe became wealthy. They spent lavishly on houses and cars. They were living the good life. At first.

It’s not hard to envision the reaction of their white neighbors. First, astonishment. Then resentment. These could have been borne. But they were followed by something far more dangerous: greed. Greed, in its most insidious yet ruthless guise, masquerading as friendship and benign caring. In particular, with regard to one William Hale, Hamlet’s bitter exclamation concerning his uncle comes to mind:

That one may smile and smile, and be a villain….

William Hale, supposed friend of he Osage; in reality, their scourge

The wave of crime that decimated the Osage’s rightful gain and culminated in multiple murders, committed by varied and nefarious means, was ultimately traced back to him and his henchmen. The period in the 1920s in which these depredations occurred became known as the Reign of Terror.

Who did the above tracing? To being with, local and state law enforcement. At first, the crimes having been so cunningly executed and forensic evidence gathering being so new and largely untested, the investigation proceeded at the proverbial snail’s pace. It didn’t help that while some investigators were committed and resourceful, others were being suborned with threats and payoffs. It was indeed a fiendish set of circumstances, with the deck heavily stacked against the Osage victims, real and potential.

Eventually, a key development kick started a series of breakthroughs. Because in  some cases, the crimes had been committed on federal land, the federal government was  duly brought in. A little known and relatively small agency, an arm of the Department of Justice, assumed responsibility. At the time it was called the Bureau of Investigation. Its low profile was about to change dramatically, largely because it was headed up by a man who was young, smart, incredibly focused and utterly driven:

Hoover and  the Osage had the great good fortune to have an agent in the field who was indefatigable in his pursuit of justice. His name was Tom White.

Tom White and J Edgar Hoover

Mollie Burkhart and her long suffering family are the heart and soul of Killers of the Flower Moon.

Mollie Burkhart, center, with sister Annie at left and another sister Minnie. Annie was shot and killed execution style, Minnie died of “a peculiar wasting illness,” their mother Lizzie was almost certainly poisoned, yet another sister, Rita, was killed when her house was bombed.

The story David Grann tells in this book should never have been allowed to lapse into obscurity. It is both mesmerizing and enraging and needs to be remembered. Although the Osage paid a terrible price, justice was done, at least to some extent. Grann believes that there are more murders than those officially acknowledged in the public record. What a job of research he has done here; I cannot praise his efforts highly enough. It’s the good fortune of readers that his skills as a researcher are matched by his gifts as a storyteller. Still, I think he remains haunted by “the ones that got away.” We should all feel the same.

Click here to view a segment on David Grann and Killers of the Flower Moon aired on April 30th on CBS Sunday Morning.

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Donna Leon’s Venice ambivalence

June 30, 2017 at 9:38 pm (Italy, Mystery fiction)

  Yes – well, this is not news, exactly. That ambivalence is once again present in Earthly Remains, the author’s latest Guido Brunetti novel.

First, there’s this:

They sat in silence for a moment, three Venetians, relatives at the wake of a city that has been an empire and was now selling off the coffee spoons to try to pay the heating  bill.

Then some ninety pages later, there’s this:

Another bridge, then open water on one side. On the other was the Basilica and the Palazzo, and Brunetti had the sudden realization that, though none of this belonged to him, he belonged to all of it.

Illegality, incompetence, indifference, venality, stunning beauty, inescapable history – all there, all part of the rich stew that makes up present day Venice.

And then, there’s that other problem….

Donna Leon’s image graced the cover of the Spring 2017 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine:

The feature piece was written by Oline H. Cogdill, whose reviews and analyses of crime fiction are always a pleasure to read. For me, the surprising nugget here was the news that Donna Leon has shifted her primary residence to a small village in Switzerland that consists, she avers of “a couple hundred people, a couple hundred cows.” Although she still spends a lot of time in Venice, she avoids the city in the summer months. The brutal influx of tourists has at last become intolerable, a sad commentary, I think.

Leon has written about this problem in previous novels. In By Its Cover, she describes Brunetti’s shock when he’s suddenly confronted by an ocean-going behemoth of a cruise ship. Here’s what I wrote in my blog post:

As we loyal readers of this series have come to expect, plenty of social and political commentary finds its way into the story. Early in the novel, Brunetti is in the police launch, piloted by the skillful and reliable Foa, when they round a curve and come upon a scene that leaves them dumbstruck. It’s the stern of a gigantic cruise ship:

Seven eight, nine, ten storeys. From their perspective, it blocked out the city, blocked out the light, blocked out all thought or sense or reason or the appropriateness of things. They trailed along behind it, watching the wake it created it avalanche slowly towards the rivas on both sides, tiny wave after tiny wave after tiny wave, and what in God’s name was the thrust of that vast expanse of displaced  water doing to those stones and to the centuries-old binding that kept them in place?

And that’s not all:

Suddenly the air was unbreathable as a capricious gust blew the ship’s exhaust down on them for a few seconds.

Earthly Remains is not concerned with the tourist scourge per se; rather, it’s about a type of ruination that Venetians themselves bring on their own city. It’s a sad story, replete with the disillusionment that Brunetti, a decent and caring man, all too frequently experiences in the course of his work. The almost total absence of his family  – the astute and shrewd Paola, and their children Raffi and Chiara – from the narrative only serves to accentuate the bleak atmosphere.

I wrote about this novel in a recent post about pacing in crime fiction in general and noir fiction and film in particular. At the time I was about a third of the way in and becoming impatient for the plot to take shape. I was also reading Colin Harrison’s thriller You Belong To Me. The latter really had me in its grip. And yet Earthly Remains ultimately won me over, while Harrison’s book began to pale beside it.

At any rate, time spent with Commissario Guido Brunetti is invariably time well spent. I am grateful that in the crowded world of mystery fiction, both he and his creator persevere.

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More mysterious musings

June 20, 2017 at 10:55 pm (books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

The noir sensibility would seem to having its moment – again…

I like this trenchant observation made by Megan Abbott in her recent New York Times review of You Belong To Me by Colin Harrison:

Noir has always had a complicated relationship with nostalgia, alternately rejecting the past as a psychological prison and romanticizing it as the lost Eden that predated our fallen present. At its heart, however, the hard, hungry gaze of noir has always been fixed instead on the future. It’s a genre filled with the kind of characters the novelist Laura Lippman calls “dreamers who become schemers.” The dedicated employee who decides to steal from the boss, the drifter who wants the rich man’s wife, the low-rent crooks who try to pull off the big con.

  Megan Abbott is the author of the excellent You Will Know Me.   As for the subject of this particular review, I immediately downloaded You Belong To Me and started reading it. I’m now  55 pages in – eighteen per cent, as the Kindle Reader helpfully informs me – and let’s put it this way: it’s not my usual thing. For one thing, the thoughts attributed to various characters can be exceedingly harsh, judgmental, and cynical; I’m not comfortable quoting them here. Nevertheless, assailed by a kind of coruscating wit one moment and provoked to astonishment and dread the next, I can’t seem to put the book down! (Judging by where I am currently in the narrative, the novel can best be described as Henry James on speed. It’s a quintessentially New York novel of manners, all right – but updated to  the twenty-first century. And what manners!)

Interviewed in the latest issue of Mystery Scene Magazine, writer and critic Eddie Muller offers these thoughts on the essence of noir:

It was the artists who created it and fostered it, not the executives….Some of the films made money, sure–but this had more to do with artists feeling a sense of liberation after the constraints that the Depression and World War II put on them to be “uplifting.” Now they could write adult stories that didn’t have to end well. And that often meant making “bad guys” of the protagonists, which was really the revolutionary, subversive aspect of these films. The central character didn’t have to be a good guy–but he or she was relatable and even someone with whom you could empathize. That’s sort of how I define noir, both literary and cinematic.

  Meanwhile, while trying to control my compulsion to devour You Belong To Me in several gargantuan gulps, I’m also reading Earthly Remains, the latest entry in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series.   From the standpoint of pacing, this novel is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Harrison’s mile-a-minute thriller. I’m a third of the way in – sorry not to be more specific, I’m reading it the old fashioned way – and almost nothing has happened. Brunetti is taking a solo vacation in a house owned by his wife Paola’s wealthy relations. So far, he’s done a lot of rowing, bicycling, reading, and eating. Sounds pleasant, but it doesn’t exactly make for riveting reading.

Still, I’m inordinately fond of Guido Brunetti, so I don’t mind hanging out with him in this way – for a while. And I was deeply moved by the novel immediately preceding this one: The Waters of Eternal Youth.And I do sense the presence of something indefinably ominous in the air. Ah well – pazienza….

  Meanwhile, I shall make it my business to get hold of Dark City, Eddie Muller’s highly praised book on noir. And I want to take this opportunity to remind those who have an interest in the subject of David Meyer’s terrific work A Girl and a Gun. I shall here quote Meyer as well as myself, from a post I wrote in September 2011 on the occasion of a discussion of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity.

Here’s how Meyer describes the “fortuitous clash of cultures” that gave birth to noir:

As purely an American art form as jazz or the Western, noir sprang from a specific set of social and creative circumstances: the end of World War II, the impact of European refugees on an American art form, the mainstream film studios’ need for a steady supply of low budgets, lurid pictures, and the ascendance of a particular writing style….The hard-bitten, American pulp energy of James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, B. Traven, Raymond Chandler, and others was filtered through the refined, ironic sensibilities of cultured European directors.The writers created heroes who dealt with spiritual crisis (caused by the emptiness of Amercian middle-class life) by alternating between emotional withdrawal and attack. The refugee directors preferred a more sardonic, alienated approach.

Meyer sums up: “The combining of these sensibilities helped create one of the great creative outpourings in American history.”

The title of Meyer’s book is taken from a quote by Jean Luc Godard: “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.” 

 

 

 

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The Crossing by Michael Connelly: a book discussion

June 15, 2017 at 12:55 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

  Last night, Frank took the discussion of a specific book – Michael Connelly’s The Crossing – and broadened it until it was about mystery fiction in general: its chief characteristics, what makes it work, why we love it.

An aspiring author himself, Frank tends to approach book discussions from a writer’s point of view. His kickoff question concerned a crucial  aspect of narrative: the Major Dramatic Question. The MDQ, as it’s sometimes called for the sake of brevity, is the story element that initially hooks the reader and keeps him or her committed right through to the book’s end. The hunger for the answer to that question is the chief generator of suspense.

Frank asked us what that question traditionally is in a romance novel. We had no trouble with that one: Will the guy get the girl (or vice versa). With crime novels, the question is more often specific to the situation posited by the author. In The Crossing, we learn early on that defense attorney Micky Haller, Harry Bosch‘s half-brother, needs the help of an experienced investigator to prove his client’s innocence. He appeals to Harry to take on the job.

Will Harry accede to Mickey’s request? He has plenty of reasons not to. He’s retired from the Homicide Division of the Los Angeles PD, utilizing his newly freed up time to restore a vintage motorcycle. More importantly, he’s concentrating on his relationship with his daughter Maddie, soon to go off to college.

There’s yet another reason to refuse this request, and it has to do with Harry’s identification as a law enforcement professional. Among his cadre of fellow police, it is considered traitorous to work in any capacity for a legal defense team. It is tantamount to going over to the dark side. This is the prevailing perception, even when there are indications that the defendant in question is innocent. Harry’s internal struggle with this dilemma is the chief element that propels the story forward right from the beginning.

Frank also brought up the concept of the sympathetic character. How does an author create such a character, and what’s the advantage of having him or her having a part in the narrative? We responded that a sympathetic character is one that you feel a bond with and whose values you as a reader can identify with. You become invested in that person’s fate, and so you feel compelled to stick with the story.

We Suspects were not in complete agreement as to whether there was such a character in Connelly’s novel. The closest we came to one was Bosch’s daughter Maddie.

Frank also brought up  ‘free indirect style’ or ‘free indirect discourse.’ As best as I can make out, this term refers to instances in which the author describes a character’s inner thoughts and/or feelings while continuing to tell the story in the third person. Wikipedia calls it ‘free indirect speech’ and defines it as “a style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech.”

Harking back to my English major instruction in literary terminology, I recall this mode of writing being called ‘third person limited,’ as opposed to ‘third person omniscient.’ All of this comes under the rubric  ‘point of view,’ as explained here:

Point of view: the perspective from which the story is told.

The most obvious point of view is probably first person or “I.”
The omniscient narrator knows everything, may reveal the motivations, thoughts and feelings of the characters, and gives the reader information.
With a limited omniscient narrator, the material is presented from the point of view of a character, in third person.
The objective point of view presents the action and the characters’ speech, without comment or emotion. The reader has to interpret them and uncover their meaning.

Taken from “Literary Terms,”  a very helpful list on the Brooklyn College site

(I recall first learning of the way in which Henry James made brilliant use of  the limited omniscient narrator. Since my college days, I’ve had numerous occasions to observe with wonder as the master plies his trade, both in full length novels and  short stories.)

Commenting that to him, The Crossing seems more of a thriller than a murder mystery, Frank pointed out the element of banter that one encounters in the novel’s dialog. This is just one way of keeping the plot moving briskly. I was immediately put in mind of  Old Bones, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s latest Bill Slider procedural. Harrod-Eagles makes liberal use of banter; it ricochets among members of Slider’s team and veers from laugh out loud funny to insightful and reflective.

Several of us recalled fondly how well Robert B Parker deployed this technique of dialog construction in the Spenser novels. (Has it actually been seven years? You are still much missed, Mr Parker.)

The Harry Bosch novels are  set in greater Los Angeles, and Connelly displays a nice feel for the region. I wondered aloud at how Southern California has been used repeatedly and effectively in crime fiction by Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanlety Gardner, Ross MacDonald, Sue Grafton, James Ellroy, and Connelly, among others. Someone suggested that the presence of the entertainment industry might have something to do with this phenomenon. Frank oberved that whereas films require the viewer’s unwavering attention for some two hours, the novel reader may stop at any point and take time to reflect on what has taken place, and what may follow. (I don’t believe  that any of us present last night had watched any episodes of Amazon’s Bosch series. I listened to this novel narrated by Titus Welliver, who plays the title role in the TV series. He does an excellent job.)

Ross MacDonald’s take on the City of Angels  and its environs can be pretty devastating:

MacDonald’s depiction of mid-twentieth century southern California as a land of material riches and moral and spiritual bankruptcy has rarely been equaled. His mix of noir cynicism with an empathetic view of human vulnerability makes for a strangely heartbreaking reading experience.

(Penned by Yours Truly, in a letter to the Washington Post)

We talked about the way in which mysteries are often, at least in part, about a hero’s journey: from innocence to experience, ignorance to knowledge, naivete to a kind of knowingness that will make it possible for him or her to survive in an often hostile word. At some point, Frank mentioned – or someone else did – that in the course of the narrative, the protagonist ought to change in some way. And yet, in crime fiction, that often does not happen, at least not in an overt manner, especially if you’re reading about a character in a series. In fact, some of us don’t want that protagonist to change. (Please stay just as you are, noble Commissario Brunetti!)

Frank had each of us weigh in on what we liked or didn’t like about the book. I mentioned the two elements of a novel that I consider supremely important: structural excellence and good writing. He challenged me to define what I meant by ‘structure.’ This made me realize that I have to think and read some more about this subject! I do think that The Crossing was structured in an unusual and very effective way. For me. this element of the narrative ratcheted up the suspense a great deal. As for the writing, I thought it was extremely good. Connelly is not trying to compose a literary masterpiece, but rather heart stopping thriller. In this, he succeeded.

(Here’s an illuminating piece on story structure in Writer’s Digest Magazine.)

Toward the conclusion of this extremely invigorating exchange of ideas, I found myself scribbling fragments in my notebook: life is a mystery…shades of gray…intellectual morality plays…start with confusion and end with clarity…ambiguity…legal response…justice?

In a subsequent email, Pauline used the word ‘erudite’ to describe our discussion. She further complimented Frank on his “unique and creative approach” to the material.

I wholeheartedly agree.

 

 

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Inez Milholland Boissevain, Sophie Irene Loeb, and Grace Quackenbos Humiston

June 12, 2017 at 9:50 pm (books, History, True crime narratives)

  I am learning a great deal from Brad Ricca’s fascinating book. Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is chiefly the story of Grace Quackenbos Humiston, attorney at law and crusader for the oppressed and maltreated, especially those found among the immigrant population in this country in the early years of the last century. Peonage, a cruel system that kept workers in debt and tied to their employers indefinitely, was bad enough – but there’s more. Grace also worked to free those wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The case of Charles Stielow in particular is a real cliff hanger. As with all the cases that came her way, Grace worked tirelessly on this one. She was helped in her efforts by two equally extraordinary women: Sophie Irene Loeb and Inez Milholland Boissevain. Plagued by ill health and prone to push herself to the limit, Inez died in November of 1916 at the age of thirty.

Sophie Loeb wrote a eulogy in the Evening World titled “The Example of Inez Milholland.” Loeb wrote of her “dear, dear friend” by telling readers that you could always find her not in the usual spots for women, but in asylums, Sing Sing, and political marches. “How easy it might have been for so lovely a creature as she to sit idly by,” Sophie wrote. “But no. She could not enjoy the world while it suffered … she went forth to fight and used every asset to gain something for others, even unto the very end.” Inez, according to Sophie, was

An example for the idle rich girl who is poor indeed, whose time hangs heavy because it is full of nothingness. An example for the pretty girl who believes that all life means is to smile and dress. An example of the woman of brains who hides them under her marcel wave because she has become a parasite. An example for the woman who thinks that she can gain love when she acquires a man’s bank account. An example for all womanhood.

Grace Quackenbos Humiston 1869-1948

Sophie Irene Loeb 1876-1929

Inez Milholland Boissevain 1886-1916

How I wish I could have known them!

 

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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.
**********************************

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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The Past, by Tessa Hadley

May 30, 2017 at 10:44 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

At a recent book group planning session with the AAUW Readers, I gave voice to my frustration with much of the recent fiction that I’ve tried – and failed – to read. Where is the elegance of structure, I moaned plaintively? Where is the graceful, eloquently expressive writing? (You’re talking about craft, my dear friend Helene pointed out, when she and I had  this same conversation several years ago.)

As I was concluding my litany of woes, Debbie, a colleague sitting beside me, leaned over and asked in a whisper if I’d read The Past by Tessa Hadley. “It’s only that you’re passionate about good writing; that’s why I ask.” 

Now I had previously read two novels by this author, The London Train and Clever Girl. I recall enjoying them both a great deal. And I actually had The Past already downloaded onto my Kindle. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Debbie’s words resonated with me. I started Tessa Hadley’s book as soon as I got home. And I knew at once that Debbie was right on the mark with this recommendation.

The Past is a family story, and it reflects generously the messy realities of family life. The Crane family have temporarily abandoned their busy city lives and convened at the house of their late grandparents in the country. There is a question before them: Should  they keep and maintain the house, seat of so many of their childhood memories, or should they sell it? If they decide to keep it, they’ll need to arrange to have work done on it, with all the attendant inconvenience and expense. It would be much simpler to sell up. But then something intangible yet terribly vital will be lost to them forever.

Dramatis personae here consists of three sisters, Harriet, Alice, and Fran, their brother Roland, Roland’s new wife Pilar (or should I say latest wife – apparently he’s had several), Fran’s children Ivy and Arthur, Roland’s teen-aged daughter Molly, and Kasim, Alice’s – well, it’s rather unclear, actually. As you may well imagine, the house becomes a veritable laboratory of tension generation, the level rising and subsiding as argument and irritation are followed by a period of (transitory) calm. And there’s a derelict cottage not far away that’s familiar to Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland from their childhood. It catches some of the spillover from the grandparent house.

This is one of those novels in which as you’re reading, the characters become increasingly vivid, to the extent that you feel you must know them, or at least have known them, at some point in your own life. The conflicts and the emotions are that real.

Hadley’s feel for natural surroundings seems, to this reader, profound:

The lane was strewn with branches fallen in the last high wind; huge oaks growing out of the banks were contorted and bulging with age, their grey hides deeply fissured and crusty. In the high hedgerows the delicate flowering plants of early summer had yielded to coarsely thriving nettles and bramble and dock, rank in the heat. She crossed a stile, then climbed a stubble field up to where cylindrical bales of straw were stored in a Dutch barn. At the top of the hill the wide landscape was proffered bleached and basking, purged of its darkness: there were views across the shining estuary all the way to the blue hills of Wales and, behind her, inland to the moors.

She’s also extremely astute in her observations of children. (In this, she reminds me of Joanna Trollope and Ann Patchett.) Fran’s daughter Ivy is at a volatile age, often beset by surging anger and resentment and prone to misinterpret the words and actions of those around her. And yet she’s pretty much allowed the run of the place. Various people are assigned supervision of Ivy and her little brother Arthur, with the result sometimes being they they’re being supervised by no one in particular. It  seems to me only sheer luck that prevents her from precipitating a full blown disaster.

The odd result of all this commotion is that although The Past hasn’t get an especially dynamic plot, it has still got plenty of suspense. Oh – and lest I forget to mention it – Tessa Hadley has a wonderfully wry and subtle sense of humor.

This is a marvelous novel written by a master of her craft. I recommend it highly; I also think it would make an excellent subject for a book discussion group.

Tessa Hadley

 

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