‘Holmes smiled. He was always warmed by genuine admiration—the characteristic of the real artist.’ – The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The English Country House Mystery

March 25, 2018 at 9:37 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The May 2017 issue of CADS 75 (Crime and Detective Stories) features an article by  Kate Jackson entitled.”Doyle’s The Valley of Fear and the Country House Mystery Novel.” The author had encountered an intriguing assertion made  by Zach Dundas in The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes. Dundas contends that The Valley of Fear  stood as  “prototype for the soon-to-be-classic English country-house murder mystery.” Jackson was intrigued and decided to investigate this claim.

In the event, she was not convinced; in fact, she believes that if there is a work in the Conan Doyle canon that prefigures the English country house mystery trope, it’s The Hound of the Baskervilles rather than The Valley of Fear.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s piece served as a reminder to me that I’d never read The Valley of Fear. So I set about remedying this omission. The result: I enjoyed this novella far more than I’d expected to.

I hadn’t realized that The Valley of Fear is in a sense a bifurcated novel. The first part describes a crime that by and  large replicates the classic country house murder scenario as we know it today (although it must  be recalled that The Valley of Fear is in fact a very early exemplar, having first appeared in The Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915).

Then, much to my surprise, the scene suddenly shifts to the Great American West. According to Wikipedia, this part of the novel was inspired by the activities of the notorious Molly Maguires and by the renown and resourcefulness of Pinkerton Agency detective James McParland.

I never expected to be reading a Western by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s been a while  since I read this book, but one thing I do remember: I enjoyed it tremendously, especially the second half.

Forthwith, some excerpts from The Valley of Fear:

“A touch! A distinct touch!” cried Holmes. “You are developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson, against which I must learn to guard myself.”

(Wiktionary defines “pawky” as ‘Shrewd, sly; often also characterised by a sarcastic sense of humour,’ adding that the word originates in northern England and Scotland.)

The second speaker is Sherlock Holmes.

“You mean that he has a great income and that he must earn it in an illegal fashion?”

“Exactly. Of course I have other reasons for thinking so—dozens of exiguous threads which lead vaguely up towards the centre of the web where the poisonous, motionless creature is lurking.”

The first speaker is Sherlock Holmes:

“Have you ever read of Jonathan Wild?”

“Well, the name has a familiar sound. Someone in a novel, was he not? I don’t take much stock of detectives in novels—chaps that do things and never let you see how they do them. That’s just inspiration: not business.”

“Jonathan Wild wasn’t a detective, and he wasn’t in a novel. He was a master criminal, and he lived last century—1750 or thereabouts.”

“Then he’s no use to me. I’m a practical man.”

“Mr. Mac, the most practical thing that you ever did in your life would be to shut yourself up for three months and read twelve hours a day at the annals of crime. Everything comes in circles—even Professor Moriarty. Jonathan Wild was the hidden force of the London criminals, to whom he sold his brains and his organization on a fifteen per cent commission. The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again.”

I’m no Sherlockian scholar, but it seems to me that Conan Doyle isn’t given sufficient credit for the eloquence and inventiveness of his dialog (not to mention the sheer wittiness when you least expect it). To my mind, this is one of the chief aspects of the stories that makes them so readable even more than a hundred after they were first penned. I should also add that as I was reading reading The Valley of Fear, the character of Holmes became particularly vivid to me. He increasingly came across as congenial; dare I venture, even at times, sprightly.

The English country house murder is almost a crime fiction subgenre unto itself. Novels and stories with this setting were fairly abundant during the Golden Age; that is, the era between the two World Wars. I found several “best” lists online, such as this one from the blog Crossexamining crime, and this  from The Strand Magazine. Regarding the first, having recently finally gotten around to reading An English Murder by Cyril Hare, I confess I was somewhat disappointed. Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White has been recommended in numerous places, but I tried to read it more than once and had to give up. (This, despite very much enjoying White’s The Wheel Spins, the novel on which Hitchcock’s film The Lady Vanishes was based.) However, further down on the list I was pleased to encounter several favorites: Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie, and most especially Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers and The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey. Regarding this last, let me quote from an earlier post I wrote on The Art of the Mystery:

Franchise is one of my all time favorite novels. Tey drew her inspiration for it from two actual  criminal cases. An adolescent girl levels a bizarre, horrifying accusation against Marion Sharpe and her mother. The Sharpes, who live in genteel poverty in a house called The Franchise, are stunned and bewildered by this turn of events. They have no idea what this girl is talking about and claim never to have seen her before.  The clashing versions of reality give momentum to a narrative that is riveting from start to finish. Comic relief is provided by the elder Mrs. Sharpe, whose name fits the action of her tongue perfectly!

Of the ten titles enumerated by William Shaw for The Strand Magazine, I’ve read and enjoyed all but two: Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin and Blacklands by Belinda Bauer.I’m so glad that William Shaw makes mention of Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Height, a truly great novel in any genre. Shaw states simply: “Hill was a brilliant writer.” I could not agree more. Here’s a link to Celebrating Reginald Hill, an appreciation organized by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain in 2012 . I felt very honored to be included in this company!

  One of my favorite short story anthologies is entitled English Country House Murders. Delightfully subtitled Tales of Perfidious Albion, it’s edited by Thomas Godfrey and was published by The Mysterious Press in 1989. (Rather curiously, both the paperback and a 1988 hardback edition have a different subtitle: Classic Crime Fiction of Britain’s Upper Crust.) This collection starts off with a bang: two terrific tales, ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” by Conan Doyle and “A Marriage Tragedy” by Wilkie Collins. There are also stories by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, and numerous others.

In his Introduction, Thomas Godfrey considers this question: “How to define  the English Country House Mystery?” He comes up with some lively suggestions, several of which are offered in a decidedly decidedly tongue in cheek spirit. To wit:

Authentic English Country House Mysteries should only be written by authentic English authors. (Americans and Canadians need not apply.)

Of course, there should  be a crime, with murder being preferred.

“Poison is the prescribed means for eliminating victims in English Country House Mysteries. The alternative is a good solid wallop on the head. (I find defenestration shockingly under-utilized and commend it to new practitioners of the art.)”

“The crime, whether attempted or successful, should take place in the house on the grounds. If events take the investigation elsewhere, the earliest possible return to the house is in order.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. English Country House Murders is available from Amazon and through interlibrary loan.

 

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P.D. James and Ruth Rendell

March 21, 2018 at 2:47 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

There is a sense in which I can add nothing to this portrait of two exemplars of excellence in the writing of crime fiction. Nevertheless, I feel the need to try, especially after recently revisiting their works.

  P.D. James died in 2014 at the age of 94. This slender volume was published just last year. One does not ordinarily think of James in regard to short stories; her art was most expressive in the long form of the novel. There she had scope for her examination of the moral struggles of the men and women who were her subjects. The stories that comprise this anthology are not police procedurals; rather, they’re tales of seemingly ordinary people acting under extreme and unanticipated duress. And throughout, we are treated to Baroness James’s exquisite prose, like this passage from “The Girl Who Loved Graveyards:”

It was to be another warm day, and over the serried rows of headstones lay a thin haze pierced by the occasional obelisk and by the wing tips of marble angels whose disembodied heads seemed to be floating on particles of shimmering light. And as she watched motionless in an absorbed enchantment, the mist began to rise and the whole cemetery was revealed to her, a miracle of stone and marble, bright grass and summer-laden trees, flower-bedecked  graves and intersecting paths stretching as far as the eye could see. In the distance she could just make out the spire of a Victorian chapel, gleaming like  the spire of some magical castle in a long-forgotten fairy tale.

I enjoyed all of these tales, but I think my favorite was the first, the improbably named but cunningly plotted “The Yo-Yo.” Three of these six stories were initially published in a series of anthologies  called Winter’s Crimes. I remember these books regularly entering the library’s collection when I first went to work there in 1982. Here’s the background on those volumes, from the Internet Book List:

The Winter’s Crimes anthology series was launched in 1969 by the London publishing house, Macmillan, at first under the auspices of George Hardinge. For several years the series was edited some years by Hardinge and in other years by another Macmillan editor, Hilary Watson, except for Winter’s Crimes 5, edited by Virginia Whitaker. In 1983, Hilary Watson married her fellow Macmillan editor and literary agent James Hale, and continued the series under her pleasantly alliterative married name, Hilary Hale. With the 23rd volume in 1991, editorship passed to Maria Rejt, who finished out the series with Winter’s Crimes 24.

George Hardinge edited a 2-volume “Best of” anthology from the first 17 volumes (the ISBN for the 2-volume set is 033342106X) and Maxim Jakubowski selected Murders for the Fireside from the 24-volume series, following it with More Murders for the Fireside, which also contains stories from anthologies not in the series.

(Someone who, like me, loves graceful phrasing must have come up with “pleasantly alliterative.”)

At the time, I ignored these books. I was just discovering the joys of crime fiction and was pretty exclusively immersed in the genre’s long form. Little did I realize the gems I was cavalierly overlooking!

In 1992 an anthology came out entitled Murders for the Fireside: The Best of Winter’s Crimes. The contributors number among my favorite mystery writers: Eric Ambler, Robert Barnard, Colin Dexter, Dick Francis, P.D. James, Peter Lovesey, and others. At present, the library does not own Murders for the Fireside. (I’ve ordered a used copy from Amazon.)

I’ve rather strayed from the P.D. James book, and I have only one thing to add. The cumulative effect of reading these stories one after the other was the creation of a mood that is hard to describe, but I would say was characterized by a feeling of unease and apprehension bordering on dread. This was mixed with a strong desire to understand the human impulses at work in the story by going relentlessly forward. I was trying to think whose work this strange phenomenon reminded me of, and then I realized: It reminded me of Ruth Rendell.

I just finished revisiting Rendell’s Shake Hands Forever via audiobook, narrated by Nigel Anthony. Every once in a while I get in the mood to revisit one of her novels in this way. Usually, with my penchant for procedurals, it’s a Wexford novel, as this one is.

    Shake Hands Forever, published in 1975, is ninth in this series. At the beginning, I was somewhat dismayed by the characters. They seemed stereotypical, especially the women. First we meet the sour, mulish and domineering  mother of the protagonist, Robert Hathall. Then we meet his bitter and resentful ex-wife, who is much preferred by the mother to the new young wife.

We also meet Hathall’s near neighbor, a single fortyish person named Nancy Lake. She’s a very attractive woman, or so she strikes Wexford, who is immediately and powerfully drawn to her. This is a somewhat startling development, or at least it was for me; Reg Wexford is one of the most uxorious men I’ve encountered in crime fiction. (Another would be Commissario Guido Brunetti, the splendid creation of Donna Leon.) But the annoying aspect of this is that Nancy Lake is deliberating cranking up the charm for Wexford’s benefit – dare I say, she’s actually vamping him. It comes across as a performance from a much earlier era. In fact, Rendell waxes quite lyrical when describing Nancy’s effect:

She was of the season in which they were, a harvest-time woman, who brought to mind grape festivals and ripened fruit and long warm nights.

Nancy Lake may have information relevant to the Hathall investigation. Nevertheless:

He had to make an effort of will to keep questioning her in this impersonal way, for she exercised a spell, the magical combination of feminine niceness  and strong sexuality.

Grape festivals? Really?

Just as Wexford’s discomfort reaches its climax – “He remembered that he was not only a policeman but a husband who must be mindful of his marriage vows.” –  this situation quickly moves offstage. It is fortunate for Wexford, I would say, as well as for the (twenty-first century) reader.

As the plot unfolds, Hathall, Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, and Wexford’s nephew Howard Fortune, of the London CID, begin to take center stage in what is essentially a variant of that old saw, the cat and mouse game. There’s a very cunning plot afoot, and try as he might, Wexford can’t find  the key to unlock it. Howard is similarly baffled.

A passage in the classic mystery Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley describes the effect of a moment of  sudden realization that occurs in the course of an investigation:

Swiftly and spontaneously, when chance or effort puts one in possession of the key-fact in any system of baffling circumstances, one’s ideas seem to rush to group themselves anew in relation to that fact, so that they are suddenly rearranged almost before one has consciously grasped the significance of the key-fact itself.

Finally, after a long and frustrating slog, the ‘key-fact’ in this stubborn case hits Wexford like a thunderbolt. Trust me, it’s a moment worth waiting for.

A word about this novel’s title. The phrase “Shake hands forever” comes from a poem called “The Parting” by Micheal Drayton (1563-1631). Here it is:

INCE there’s no help, come let us kiss and part–
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And innocence is closing up his eyes,
–Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might’st him yet recover.

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‘History was never very far away in New Mexico….’ Land of Burning Heat, by Judith Van Gieson

March 18, 2018 at 1:40 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Judaism, Mystery fiction)

This past Tuesday, the Usual Suspects took up Anne’s choice for discussion, a book entitled Land of Burning Heat by Judith Van Gieson. Anne explained that in advance of a trip to New Mexico she had sought out reading that would complement her journey. Van Gieson’s novel, set in Albuquerque,  seemed just the ticket.

Our discussion ranged far and wide. The plot was rather convoluted, and we didn’t spend very much time trying to untangle it. This is because at the center of the novel there resides a fascinating subject: the saga of the Conversos, sometimes called Marranos or more lately, crypto-Jews. These were Jews who escaped the Inquisition by pretending to convert to Catholicism, while all the time practicing their Jewish faith in secret.

Most of us think of the Inquisition as an event – and a despicable one at  that – that happened exclusively in Spain in the late fifteenth century. But as the expelled Jews fled to Portugal and to other Spanish speaking lands, the practices of the Inquisition followed them, first to Peru and then to Mexico City. Eventually some of these superficially converted individuals found their way north of the border.

NPR’s site has an interesting feature piece on this subject. In addition, there’s a first person narrative from a 2009 issue of Harper’s that I simply must link to because it has a title that delights me.   Also, if you’re interested in learning more on this subject, I recommend the book The Mezuzah in the Madonna’s Foot by Trudi Alexy.

We did spend some time talking about the series protagonist, Claire Reynier. Claire is an archivist at the University of New Mexico. As such, she has a natural interest in the region’s varied and colorful past.

History was never very far away in New Mexico, which was one of the things she liked about it. She enjoyed the sensation of moving from one century to another.

This is especially true as regards the rich mixture of ethnicities that have resided in the Land of Enchantment over the course of centuries.

A young woman named Isabel Santos comes to Claire’s office at the University to ask for her help. She has recently moved into the family home in nearby Bernalillo. In the process, she’s made a strange discovery. Under a loose brick in the house’s flooring, she found a wooden cross with a hole in its bottom. From this hole, Isabel extracted  a small piece of paper with writing on it. She has copied  out the text and brought it with her to show Claire. The language was not immediately recognizable, It  seemed to be a mixture of archaic Spanish and Hebrew.

Isabel Santos wanted to know what it all meant. She felt that as an archivist, Claire might be able to assist her with this conundrum. Claire is clearly intrigued. But before she can take even the smallest step toward investigating this possibly valuable find, murder rears its ugly head. And the cross and its precious secret disappear.

Rather than being the end of Claire’s involvement in the case, this turns out to be just the  beginning.

Anne provided us with a list of probing discussion questions. Here is the first:

Did you find Claire Reyner an unusual detective? What attribute equipped her for solving this case when the police and everyone else believed it was a simple interrupted burglary?

The short form answer would be that in light of her training as an historian, Claire tends to take the long view, placing that alongside factors that are more immediately relevant. As for Claire herself being an unusual detective, we thought she was, for several reasons. First of all, as an academic with a decidedly intellectual bent, she seems an unlikely person to get involved with some of the vain and venal characters she encounters as the plot unfolds. But on a more personal level, she does not come across as a strong, aggressive distaff version of the classic male tough guy cop or private eye. Nor is she as matter-of -fact, (relatively) nerveless, and upbeat as say, Kinsey Millhone. On the contrary, she seems clear-headed, thoughtful, and a bit unsure of herself. Why doesn’t she just pull out? Because she has a very clear concept of right and wrong; in other words, a conscience that won’t let her off easily, if at all.

Currently in early middle age, Claire lives alone but is kept intermittent (and not always welcome) company by her cat, Nemesis. She’s divorced and has two grown children, a son and a daughter. Neither of them lives locally, and they don’t seem to figure very prominently in her emotional life. Although she enjoys her work and has plenty of friends and colleagues in Albuquerque, she seems to be in the grip of an inchoate yearning. In other words, she’s  prey to loneliness. At least, she seemed so to me.

I found her believable, likable, and admirable.

How great it was to come back to Judith Van Gieson, a writer who so effectively evokes the otherworldly magic of New Mexico.

  I’ve been a fan of this author since I first read The Other Side of Death when it came out in 1991. The protagonist of that series is Neil Hamel, a twice divorced attorney living, like Claire Reynier, in Albuquerque. At the time the events in this series take place, Neil has a younger lover whom she calls the Kid,  an auto mechanic by day – he has his own shop – and a musician at night.

The first two pages of this novel are…well, let me quote some of it for you:

Spring moves north about as  fast as a person on foot would–fifteen to twenty miles a day. It crosses the border at El Paso and enters New Mexico at Fort Bliss….following the twists of the Rio Grande, it wanders through Las Cruces and Radium Springs, bringing chile back to Hatch. A few more days and it has entered Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte. The whooping cranes leave Bosque del Apache, relief comes to Socorro….By mi-March the season gets to those of us who live in the Duke City, Albuquerque. On 12th Street fruit trees blossom in ice cream colors. The pansies  return with purple vigor to Civic Plaza.The Lobos are eliminated from NCAA competition. The hookers on East Central hike up their skirts. The cholos in Roosevelt Park  rip the sleeves off their black T-shirts, exposing the purple bruises of tattoos….

This intense and lyrical description is in the first paragraph on the first page. It goes on for  a while, and then becomes more specific on page 2. Now we see that there’s another kind of magic Van Gieson is equally good at summoning up:

At my place in La Vista Luxury Apartment Complex, the yellow shag carpet needed mowing; the Kid’s hair was getting a trim. His hair is thick, black and wound tight and the way to cut it is to pull out a curl and lop off an inch. The hair bounces back, the Kid’s head looks a little narrower, the floor gets littered with curls.

He sat, skinny and bare chested, in front of my bedroom mirror, and I took a hand mirror and moved it around behind him so he could see the effect of the trim. “Looks good, Chiquita,” he said. I vacuumed up the curls and helped him out of his jeans, then we got into bed.

The afternoon is the very best time: the window open to the sound of kids playing in the arroyo, motorcycles revving in the parking lot, boom box music but not too close, the polyester drapes not quite closed and sunlight playing across the wall and the Kid’s skin. Warm enough to be nice and sweaty, but not so hot as to stick together. And in the breeze the reckless, restless wanderer— spring.

“Oh, my God,” I said in a way I hadn’t all winter.

Chiquita mia,” said the Kid.

I was a real fan of the Neil Hamel novels, having read all eight of them, when the series ended – abruptly, I thought – in 1999 with Ditch Rider. The new series featuring Claire Reynier began the following year with The Stolen Blue. I read it but I remember being underwhelmed at the time, most likely because I was missing the wisecracking,  free spirited Neil Hamel. Reading Land of Burning Heat has changed my mind and made me more receptive to the Claire Reynier series. That said, The Shadow of Venus, the fifth and last entry in the series, is dated 2004. Van Gieson’s present efforts would appear to be centered on publishing. ABQ Press is an initiative aimed at promoting and sustaining New Mexico writers. What the future holds for her as a writer remains unclear – at least, to me. I’ve examined her website for clues but found none. (For a complete listing of the books in both series, see Stop! You’re Killing Me.)

Judith Van Gieson

I corresponded briefly with Judith van Gieson in the early 1990s, when I was preparing a presentation and discussion of The Other Side of Death. I recall that she was generous in providing me with background information on herself and her books. This was all done via snail mail. I may still have those notes and articles, but I have no idea where to look for them. With luck, in the course of the Great Clean-up that looms in my future, they will turn up.

Judith Van Gieson in her home in Albuquerque’s North Valley. I seem to recall reading that she was able to purchase this lovely domicile when one of her novels – or perhaps the whole series – was optioned for either film or TV by a production company. Alas, as so often happens, those plans never materialized.

One more point concerning our discussion of Land of Burning Heat: Prompted by Marge’s curiosity, we explored the subject of what it means to be Jewish; specifically, why being Jewish is different from being, say, Presbyterian or Catholic. I, for instance, tread very lightly when it comes to the observance of the Jewish religion (and that includes even the High Holy Days). Yet I consider myself unquestionably Jewish. It is an identity, in fact, of which I am singularly proud. In 2010, David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times in which he cited the following:

Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates.

Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38 percent of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.

All of this is quite splendid, but it still doesn’t answer Marge’s question. (By the way, I remember this same subject being raised when I was in Religious School: “Is being Jewish a religious identity? An ethnic identity? A nationality?” I remember being very impatient with the whole topic and just wanting to get home so I could have some Matzoh Brei.)

Finally Hilda observed: “You don’t ever hear of someone being a ‘lapsed Jew.'” Somehow that seemed to sum things up. It was a bracing discussion; it’s nice to have one of those in connection with the reading of crime fiction.

When I got back from New Mexico (the first time? second time?), I listened to Ottmar Liebert’s “Santa Fe” over and over again.

 

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The Art Institute of Chicago: the third visit…

March 13, 2018 at 4:19 pm (Art, Family)

…And this time Mom and little brother Welles came with Etta and me. After we got inside the museum, we split up: Welles and his Mom went off to see the miniature rooms, the paper weights, and other items of interest. Etta and I had sampled  these delights on a previous visit, and we hope to visit them again in the future. But meanwhile, wet went off in search of certain other favorites.

Such as:

Little Dancer, Age 14, by Edgar Degas (with littler dancer, age 7)

Etta calls this “The Dot Painting.” (A close look at it reveals the artist’s signature use of the Pointillist technique):

Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte) by Georges Seurat, 1884

And then, there’s this character:

These tasks happily accomplished, we wandered off to do further exploration. Quite by happy accident, we found ourselves in The Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and Armor. This new installation opened only last year and is really stunning.

St. Francis Before the Pope, by Spinello Aretino 1390-1400

 

Left – St. Lucy Vergos workshop ca. 1500 Right – St .Agatha Vergos workshop ca. 1500

 

Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin Made for Pedro López de Ayala, 1396

Adam and Eve, engraving by Albrecht Durer, 1504

 

Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533-1537

Medieval and Renaissance music played softly in the background. We fell under the spell of these beautiful works. Etta was inspired to dance!

The arms and armor display was  also quite striking. We were especially impressed by these two who were jousting on foot:

In the European Decorative Arts collection, we saw a beautiful door whose design is attributed to Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo:

I think of the Art Institute as having three iconic paintings: L’Apres-midi Sur La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (see above), American Gothic by Grant Wood, and Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. I’ve been eager to lay eyes on the Hopper, painted in 1942, for quite some time, and finally – finally! – we did:

Here’s a somewhat better close-up:

About ten people were clustered around this painting. We waited a few minutes for a clearer view. Etta stared intently.

I said: “Etta, what do you think is going on in this picture? The two people facing us seem to be discussing something important. The man around the corner may just happen to have dropped in – or maybe he’s there for a reason. What do you think?”

She thought for a moment and  then replied: “I think he’s onto them.”

She left it at that, and so did I. 

The Khan Academy has an interesting video on Nighthawks:

Singer-songwriter Tom Waits has his own take on Nighthawks:

As for American Gothic, painted in 1930, it was once again out on loan – sigh… Later in the gift shop, when we were lamenting its absence, a person within hearing commented that she’d been to the museum three times in recent years and missed American Gothic every time!

Here it is, anyway, absent yet still in our hearts:

While Etta and I were covering all this territory, Welles and his Mom were also ranging far and wide:

The Family Room in the Ryan Learning Center, also one of Etta’s favorite places

 

 

Enchanted by the Thorne Miniature Rooms

Thanks to Welles and Etta’s Mom for these snapshots of Welles in action!

The four of us met up in a room filled with colorful helium balloons:

This was followed by lunch at Terzo Piano on the third floor:

At last, we rounded out the day with a visit to the Museum Shop, where we all did ourselves proud!

My daughter-in-law Erica took this picture of the children and me across the street from the Museum:

With her usual generosity, Erica made this day possible for all of us. I especially admire her skillful driving in the city and her negotiation of the interior of an especially challenging parking garage. Thanks so much, Erica! And bountiful thanks to my very special grandchildren, Welles and Etta: You make all things possible and joyful in my life.

 

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Gleanings from Vasari’s LIVES and THE COLLECTOR OF LIVES, by Rowland and Charney

March 8, 2018 at 11:54 pm (Art, Italy)

 

This is the second and final post on Vasari’s Vite (Lives) and the biography Collector of Lives.

As Michelangelo was preparing to unveil his monumental sculpture of David, Piero Soderini, who occupied the  high post of Gonfoloniere of Justice in the government of Florence, arrived on the scene. As he gazed upon the great artist’s masterwork, he voiced the opinion that David’s nose was too thick. Whereupon Michelangelo proceeded – or appeared to proceed – to remedy this imperfection. Vasari describes what happened next:

Michelangelo, realizing that the Gonfaloniere was standing under the giant and that his viewpoint did not allow him to see it properly, climbed up the scaffolding to satisfy Soderini (who was behind him nearby), and having quickly grabbed his chisel in his left hand along with a little marble dust that he found on the planks in the scaffolding, Michelangelo began to tap lightly with the chisel, allowing the dust to fall little by little without retouching the nose from the way it was. Then, looking down at the Gonfaloniere who stood there watching, he ordered:

‘Look at it now.’

‘I like it better,’ replied the Gonfaloniere: ‘you’ve made it come alive.’

David by Michelangelo Florence Galleria dell’Accademia

Vasari knew many of the artists that he wrote about it; he also knew that  people loved hearing inside jokes and gossip about those same artists. His Lives is thus filled with such anecdotal material. Some of it may be apocryphal; but such stories enliven his text and are a major aspect of what makes it still so readable and entertaining.

“Vasari’s stories tend to endure, even when scholarship overturns them.” Rowland and Charney in The Collector of Lives

In 1506, during the excavation of a vineyard in Rome, workers broke through to the remains of the Golden House (Domus Aureus). This was an elaborate palace-cum-park created by Nero, built from 64 to 68 AD following the destruction wrought by the Great Fire of 64 AD. Workers soon found  themselves uncovering an extraordinary sculpture: the Laocoon Group.

Not only was this work astonishing in and of itself, but it exercised a profound influence on Michelangelo, who happened to be in Rome when it was first brought out of the earth and back into to the light of day. (When the work of excavation was complete, the Laocoon Group was brought to the Vatican, where it still is, and where I saw it several decades ago.)

Here are Rowland and Charney on the subject of the Laocoon:

The statue is astonishing for its realism, the hyper-accurate musculature of Laocoon and the adolescent bodies of his sons as they struggle against the tightening coils of the serpents, one of which is about to bite Laocoon’s flank. It is a frozen moment of highest tension. Muscles are taut, the serpent’s jaw is set to clamp down, an expression of adrenaline-pumped effort,, pain, and hopelessness can be read in the face of Laocoon.

The authors go on to point out that this is an extremely different effect than that which Renaissance sculptors normally strove to convey in their work.

During the High Renaissance, when so many great artists were at work in northern Italy and in Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, painters established workshops where apprentices ground pigments, prepared canvases, and performed other tasks. If an apprentice showed promise, he could learn technique from the master. In fact, many masters emerged from this system, Vasari himself among them.

Painter’s workshop, by Philip Galle, c.1595

There’s an interesting post on this subject at the Art Post Blog.

Rowland and Charney have a vivid description of what it must have been like to work in such a place:

In a Florentine painter’s studio…scents of linseed oil, sweat, and sawdust would have greeted the visitor outside the door. Ideally, the large windows would face south to catch the best possible light, and  the studio had to be tall enough, and wide enough, to accommodate altarpieces of all sized. Sawdust, scattered on the floor, absorbed splatters and facilitated cleaning as apprentices. like Vasari, aged eight to eighteen, mingled with older paid assistants, bustling around the space, sweating profusely into grimy leather smocks, laughing, cursing, mopping, grinding pigments, creating an atmosphere that was surprisingly lively and social.

They add that the image many of us carry in our minds of the lone artist struggling to achieve his  goal simply did not apply here. For example, Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) of Wittenberg ran “a veritable factory.”

(I can never hear of Wittenberg without thinking of Hamlet: “Go not to Wittenberg,” the Queen implores her son, thereby sealing her fate, his, and that of many others at the ill-fated Danish court.)

This paragraph on Leonardo da Vinci pretty well sums up the man’s astonishing achievements:

Leonardo’s legacy in art was far greater than his modest output would suggest. The development of techniques like sfumato (the intentional blurring of color to create a smoky, atmospheric effect),  chiaroscuro (the dramatic focus on emerging from darkness),  and replicating nature with as much accuracy as possible (such as employing “atmospheric perspective,” in which objects far in the distance appear hazier, as we view them through layers of atmosphere, and pinpoint accurate anatomy as studied from dissections) all made a lasting impression and influenced future generations of artists. His books (on art, and on mathematics) helped to disseminate his ideas. His inventions, more of them designed than actually built, showed tremendous forethought: he was the first to conceive of helicopters, machine guns, tanks, parachutes, foldable bridges, and more.

(And still with me is the moment last December when my sister-in-law Donna and I stood before Leonardo’s other worldly masterpiece The Virgin of the Rocks, in London’s National Gallery.)

Vasari did not want to elevate any artist to the level of his revered and beloved Michelangelo; nevertheless, he readily acknowledged the supreme gifts of Raphael:

His colours were finer than those found in nature, and his invention was original and unforced, as anyone can realize by looking at his scenes, which have the narrative flow of a written story. They bring before our eyes sites and buildings, the ways and customs of our own or of foreign peoples, just as Raphael wished to show them. In addition to the graceful qualities of the heads shown in his paintings, whether old or young, men or women, his figures expressed perfectly the character of those they represented, the modest or the bold being shown just as they are. The children in his pictures were depicted now with mischief in their eyes, now in playful attitudes. And his draperies are neither too simple nor too involved but appear wholly realistic.

The School of Athens, Raphael’s famous fresco in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican (1509-1511)

 

Raphael’s Alba Madonna has long been one of my favorite works of art in Washington’s National Gallery. Painted circa 1510

Vasari brought home to me the importance of Masaccio in the evolution of Italian painting. I hadn’t realized how key his contribution was:

The superb Masaccio completely freed himself of Giotto’s style and adopted a new manner for his heads, his draperies, buildings, and nudes, his colours and foreshortenings. He thus brought into existence the modern style which, beginning during his period, has been employed by all our artists until the present day, enriched and embellished from time to time by new inventions, adornments, and grace.

Masaccio’s achievement and influence are all the more astonishing when the brevity of his life is taken into account: he died at the age of 26. Vasari appends a rather provocative speculation to his remarks on this artist:

Although Masaccio’s works have always had a high reputation, there are those who believe, or rather there are many who insist, that he would have produced even more impressive results if his life had not ended prematurely when he was twenty-six. However, because of the envy of fortune, or because good things rarely last for long, he was cut off in the flower of his youth, his death being so sudden that there were some who even suspected that he had been poisoned.

Vasari does not elaborate on this startling conjecture; rather, he goes on to note that upon hearing the news, the great painter  and architect Filippo Brunelleschi was grief stricken and exclaimed: “‘We have suffered a terrible loss in the death of Masaccio.’”

Masaccio, San Giovenale Triptych, 1422

 

Masaccio Expulsion, 1424-25

Rowland and Charney assert that had Vasari not made note of several women artists, we might not know about them. They refer specifically to Sofonisba Anguissola and her sisters – she had six of them! – and Properzia de’ Rossi of Bologna. Vasari had actually had occasion to meet Sofonisba and three of her sisters when he was visiting Cremona, where their family belonged to the local aristocracy. He  was deeply impressed by a particular work of Sofonisba’s:

The Chess Game, 1555

 

This year in Cremona I saw in her father’s  house a painting by her hand made with great diligence showing her  three sisters playing chess, and with them an old housemaid, with such diligence and attention that they truly seem to be alive and missing nothing but the power of speech.

As for Properzia de’ Rossi, she was famous primarily for her carvings on nuts and on fruit pits.  I read somewhere that this meticulous endeavor was deemd especially well suited for a woman to undertake, as it required both patience and diligence.

 

Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone (Simone) Cassai, called Masaccio 1401-1428

Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael), 1483-1520

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519

Properzia de’ Rossi (?), 1490-1530

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giorgio Vasari, self-portrait, (1511-1574)

Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475-1564

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sofonisba Anguissola self-portrait 1532-1625

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“‘The dead are attached to the living, and those who have lost them are attached to the dead.'” – Ghosts of the Tsunami, by Richard Lloyd Parry

February 25, 2018 at 11:48 pm (Book review, books)

  This is a gracious and compassionate book on an extremely painful subject.

In March of 2011, a tsunami struck the Pacific coast of Japan. It was was preceded by an temblor that registered 9.0 on the Richter Scale. Known as the Tohoku Earthquake, its epicenter was situated off the country’s coast. Its effects were certainly felt and damage was done, but worse – much worse – was to come.

Most of the reporting on this calamity concentrated on the earthquake damage sustained by the nuclear power plants located in Fukushima Prefecture. There was plenty to worry about on that score. Yet that was only a small portion of the toll exacted by a series of catastrophic events.

About an hour and forty minutes after the earthquake struck, a tsunami hurled itself inland.This paragraph from Parry’s book is a succinct, horrifying summation of what happened as a result:

It was the biggest earthquake ever known to have struck Japan,and the fourth most powerful in the history of seismology. It knocked the earth ten inches off its axis; it moved Japan four feet closer to America.In the tsunami that followed, 18,500 people were drowned, burned, or crushed to death. at its peak, the water was 120 feet high. Half a million people were driven out of their homes. Three reactors in the Fukushima Dai-ichi power station melted down, spilling their radioactivity across the countryside, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The earthquake and tsunami caused more than $210 billion of damage, making it the most costly natural disaster ever.

Parry’s book focuses on the fate of the teachers and the children at Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. An evacuation plan existed; it was spelled out in the pages of a notebook. But those charged with implementing it succumbed to uncertainty and confusion. In the end, they waited too long.

Writing about extreme grief from the outside is a very difficult thing to do. By exercising great empathy and sensitivity, Richard Lloyd Parry is able to accomplish this – but only just. In many cases, he allows the bereaved to speak for themselves, when they can and if they are able to.(At the time of these events, he and his wife were expecting their second child.)

He was also able to extract, from a welter of eyewitness testimony, some extraordinary stories. In one case, he describes the experience of Teruo Konno. Konno had been aiding in the effort to recover bodies from the midst of the destruction when he himself was suddenly engulfed by the wave. Through the expenditure of every every ounce of his strength and resourcefulness, and with a large dollop of luck thrown in, Konno was able to survive an incredibly harrowing ordeal. As soon as he had sufficiently recovered, he went back to helping the living in their effort to unearth the newly deceased.

They were dreadful, crushing tasks, even for one who had not gone through such an experience. But Konno found that it had left him with an indifference to mental hardship, and an absence of trepidation of any kind. He had no fear, of life or of death. He was like a man who had suffered a dangerous disease, to survive with complete immunity to future infection. The prospect of his own extinction–now, soon, or far in the future–was a matter to him of no concern at all.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, there were some strange manifestations. In some cases, survivors seemed possessed by the incorporeal presence of the dead. In others, it seemed as though ghosts were dwelling, albeit briefly, among the living:

At a refugee community in Onagawa, an old neighbor would appear in the living rooms of the temporary houses and sit down for a cup of tea with their startled occupants. No one had the heart to tell her that she was dead; the cushion on which she had sat was wet with seawater.

This narrative gets its driving force from the bitter recriminations in the aftermath of the failure to save the children at Okawa Elementary School. A suit was filed, and ultimately the city of Ishinomaki and Miyagi Prefecture were ordered to pay substantial damages to  the bereaved families who had participated as plaintiffs in the action. The courtroom confrontation was aimed more at ascertaining the truth rather than obtaining a large payout (although many survivors were in desperate need of assistance). The terrible pain of the loss, however, could not be assuaged in this way – or in any way.

The true mystery of Okawa School was the one we all face. No mind can encompass it; consciousness recoils in panic. The idea of conspiracy is what we supply to make sense of what will never be sensible–the fiery fact of death.

 

Born in northern England in 1969 and a graduate of Oxford, Richard Lloyd Parry is now the Asia editor of The Times of London. He has lived and worked in Tokyo since 1995. He is also the author of People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up. This was a riveting read.

Towards the conclusion of Ghosts of the Tsunami, Parry pays tribute to the people among whom he has had the privilege of living for over two decades:

There were many terrible and fearful scenes, and bottomless pain, but the horror was offset, and almost eclipsed, by  the resilience and decency of the victims. It seemed to me at the time that this was the best of Japan, the best of humanity, one of the things I loved and admired most about this country: the practical, unsensational, irrepressible strength of communities.

Richard Lloyd Parry

 

 

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A (somewhat different) Passage To India: The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

February 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is a novel that succeeds on several levels: as an examination of a particular culture at a specific moment; as the narrative of a complex mystery that unfolds in the context of that culture; and finally, as a look into the heart of a vibrant, intelligent, and vulnerable young woman.

In post World War One India, Perveen Mistry aspires to be an attorney. She has before  her the example of her father Jamshedji. He is a superb lawyer of upright character and unquestioned integrity; moreover, he is devoted to Perveen and fiercely protective of her. He  would like nothing more than for her to join him in his legal practice. But they both must figuratively walk through fire before realizing this goal.

I knew almost nothing about India during this period, so reading this novel was a learning experience for me. I didn’t realize what a rich mixture of ethnic origins and creeds the country was at that time. (Perveen and her family are part of the Parsi minority dwelling in Bombay at that time.) It should be emphasized, though, that Massey wears her erudition lightly. There’s no dry academic tone here; rather,  aspects of the different cultures are presented in service to the narrative and to the characters and their often turbulent lives.

Perveen Mistry is a wonderful creation. For me as a reader, she came along at just the right moment. I was beginning to tire of the trope in which the Plucky and Resourceful Female takes on big challenges and, by means of unwavering determination and perseverance, surmounts them (with little, if any, material assistance from nearby males.) Perveen does waver; she’s not absolutely sure of herself at every turn, and she readily acknowledges her mistakes. Ultimately, she prevails, both personally and professionally, through a combination of her own native courage and the unwavering support of friends and family.

Sujata Massey appends the following information in her Acknowledgments pages:

Perveen Mistry was inspired by India’s earliest women lawyers: Cornelia Sorabji of Poona, the first woman to read law at Oxford and the first woman to sit the British law  exam in 1892, and Mithan Tata Lam of Bombay, who also read law at Oxford and was the first woman admitted to  the Bombay Bar in 1923.

Some readers might feel that there is too much time spent on Perveen’s personal life and not enough on the actual mystery. For this reader, the former was substantially more compelling than the latter. When the novel begins, a complex legal situation has already presented itself and is made yet more complicated by  murder. The cast of characters is large and diverse. Add to all of this, it’s difficult to care about the victim. But from the outset, I was so enthralled by Perveen herself that I was glad to remain on board for the privilege of being in her company.

One other caveat about The Widows of Malabar Hill: it jumps back and forth in time. This can be disconcerting. It is almost always my preference that a fictional narrative adhere to a strict chronology. If it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope, it should be good enough for other novelists as well. (Not that I have definite opinions on this subject!)

That said, I consider these reservations to be minor. I still loved this book and recommend it highly.

******************
I confess that when I learned the name of this protagonist, and that of Mistry Law, the firm headed by her father, I was reminded of the novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I read this novel shortly after it came out in 1996. It is without doubt one of the most moving and powerful works of fiction I have ever encountered.

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Giorgio Vasari and Michelangelo Buonarroti

February 18, 2018 at 1:45 pm (Art, Italy, Music)

  I feel as though The Collector of Lives were written just for me. Admittedly, it is a rather specialized narrative, concentrating as it does on the work of the great Giorgio Vasari and the Italian painters of the Renaissance whom he celebrates in his magnum opus, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. (‘Excellent’ is sometimes rendered as ‘Eminent.’)

Amazingly, there were those who practiced more than one of these arts – in some cases, with a varying degree of proficiency, all three. Vasari himself was proficient both as a painter and an architect; it was he who designed the Uffizi, now Florence’s preeminent art museum. Add to which, of course, he was an extremely skilled writer. By means of this one book,  he legitimized art history as a field of study. He was helped in this endeavor by  he fact that he knew personally a good number of the artists whose lives and works he describes in such a lively and engaging manner.

(Vasari’s book is sometimes referred to simply as The Lives. You will see it occasionally called in Italian  Vite – pronounced ‘veetay.’)

The cover of The Collector of Lives features a detail from St. Luke Painting the Virgin by Vasari; it dates from about 1565. My copy of Vasari’s book has the same work on its cover:   Here is the actual painting:

I often see comments to the effect that while Vasari achieved greatness through his writing, he was not quite great as a painter. I find this airy dismissal rather unwarranted. True, in his era he was up against some incredibly gifted artists; nevertheless, I find his own work singularly compelling.

Vasari’s own hero in the arts was unquestionably Michelangelo. Many of us are familiar with Michelangelo’s most famous creations, but I think, especially in this age of anguish in which we now seem to dwell, it might do us good to look at them again:

The Sistine Chapel

 

1508-1512

 

1537-1541

 

1508-1512

 

1498-1499

It would be impossible for any craftsman or sculptor no matter how brilliant ever to surpass the grace or design of this work or try to cut and polish the marble with the skill that Michelangelo displayed. For the Pietà was a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture. Among the many beautiful features (including the inspired draperies) this is notably demonstrated by the body of Christ itself. It would be impossible to find a body showing greater mastery of art and possessing more beautiful members, or a nude with more detail in the muscles, veins, and nerves stretched over their framework of bones, or a more deathly corpse. The lovely expression of the head, the harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the fine tracery of pulses and veins are all so wonderful that it staggers belief that the hand of an artist could have executed this inspired and admirable work so perfectly and in so short a time. It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

 

1501-1504

The legs are skilfully outlined, the slender flanks are beautifully shaped and the limbs are joined faultlessly to the trunk. The grace of this figure and the serenity of its pose have never been surpassed, nor have the feet, the hands, and the head, whose harmonious proportions and loveliness are in keeping with the rest. To be sure, anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by any other sculptor, living or dead.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists

I only found out recently that Michelangelo was also a poet:

“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel” (1509)

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

Just in case you thought painting that ceiling was in any way an easy undertaking….

Michelangelo also wrote poems of a more lyrical nature, such as this one in praise of the author of The Divine Comedy:

DANTE

What should be said of him cannot be said;
By too great splendor is his name attended;
To blame is easier than those who him offended,
Than reach the faintest glory round him shed.
This man descended to the doomed and dead
For our instruction; then to God ascended;
Heaven opened wide to him its portals splendid,
Who from his country’s, closed against him, fled.
Ungrateful land! To its own prejudice
Nurse of his fortunes; and this showeth well
That the most perfect most of grief shall see.
Among a thousand proofs let one suffice,
That as his exile hath no parallel,
Ne’er walked the earth a greater man than he.
Translated into English by H.W. Longfellow (1807-1882).

More poetry by Michelangelo can be found at the Michelangelo Gallery.

In The Collector of Lives, Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney offer this assessment:

There are many bones one can pick with Vasari, but he makes a persuasive argument for his candidate as the “greatest” artist in history. To this day, Michelangelo Buonarroti seems a reasonable choice as Giorgio’s ultimate hero.

There are many other genius artists of the Italian Renaissance whom Vasari admired and wrote about. I’ll return to these in a later post.

A hundred years after Michelangelo, Gregorio Allegri composed the Miserere Mei, Deus expressly to be sung in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. Here, it is performed by the King’s College Choir in their magnificent Chapel.

British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has made a two part film about Giorgio Vasari:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen, read by Graeme Malcolm

February 13, 2018 at 6:18 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Many things interrupted my getting through this recorded book. (I do my listening only in the car.) But I finally finished a couple of days ago. The experience has not quite left me.

A Conspiracy of Faith by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen is basically a story of revenge. A man who was brought up by a despotic father according to the tenets of a rigid creed decides to take out out his anger and resentment on other religious families. Most of these people are blameless and quite unlike his own family of origin. That doesn’t matter to him. He works out a system where he gets close to them and then betrays them in the cruelest way imaginable.  Equally frightening is the fact that he has a wife and a young child. He seems devoted to them, at least on the surface.

A Conspiracy of Faith is the third novel in the Department Q series. The name comes from the place to which Detective Carl Mørck and his team have been exiled: the police station’s basement. It’s about as inhospitable as it sounds. Mørck’s second-in-command is Assad, Syrian born but now a resident of Denmark, which, in his exasperation with the climate, he calls “this refrigerator country!” Assad was not even a trained officer when he was first assigned to Department Q. But in the event, he turns out to be a gifted detective. (He has to provide proofs of this gift, in order to counter Carl’s initial skepticism.) In this novel, Assad’s resourcefulness proves nothing less than crucial in solving this terrible mystery. At one point, after he has unearthed several vital but hidden clues, Carl at last gives way to feelings of amazement:

And then he looked up at Assad in disbelief. What the hell would he do without him?

Assad may be brilliant in his way, but he does not have the native knowledge of Danish ways and the Danish people that Carl possesses by right. He is at the same time both astute and naive, sometimes touchingly so. He’s a wonderful character, in my view, an inspired creation.

And this is probably the right moment to praise Graeme Malcolm’s outstanding narration. Malcolm, a Scottish actor, gets it exactly right in his reading of this novel. He’s especially good at rendering Assad’s lines in an utterly convincing manner.

I read the first entry in Department Q series, The Keeper of Lost Causes, shortly after it came out here in 2011. I was seriously impressed by Adler-Olsen’s storytelling gifts, yet I have to say also that the novel approached the extremity of the violence that I’m able to tolerate in crime fiction. Still, I found myself wanting to revisit the characters and the milieu they inhabit. Hence, my decision to listen to A Conspiracy of Faith. (I had previously encountered Graeme Malcolm as a reader of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth novels, so I already knew how good a narrator he was.)

Incidentally, there exists some confusion regarding the titles of the Department Q novels. There are currently seven in the series; the first four were released with different titles here and in the UK.  (The latest one, The Scarred Woman, also has a variant title.) Your best bet is to view the listing on StopYoureKillingMe.com.

The first three novels have been made into films. Trailers can be viewed on YouTube. I confess I’m wary of them, but of course you can decide for yourself.

A few more words on A Conspiracy of Faith. You will note that I’ve not identified the perpetrator by name. In the course of the novel, he goes by several of them: Mads Christian Fog, Lars Sorensen, Mikkel Laust. He’s extremely slippery, I almost want to say slithery. One of the most thoroughly cunning and evil humans I have ever encountered in fiction.

Finally I’d like to make this observation. I’ve read many mysteries in which the ending was, for one reason or another, a disappointment. (That actually goes for ‘literary fiction’ as well.) A Conspiracy of Faith concluded beautifully – a very moving ending that to me, seemed exactly apt.

Jussi Adler-Olsen

 

Graeme Malcolm

 

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Haunted by the genius of Hugo van der Goes

February 7, 2018 at 6:51 pm (Art)

It’s hard not to be, once you know his story. But first, several of his works:

Portinari Altarpiece, open c. 1475

 

Portinari Altarpiece, closed (This style painting, which imitates the qualities of sculpture, is termed grisaille.)

 

Death of the Virgin c. 1472-80

 

The Fall, 1480. (I find that conniving reptile with the human head profoundly unnerving.)

Hugo van der Goes (pronounced ‘hooss,’ with the ‘h’ being guttural) was born in or around Ghent, in present-day Belgium, in or around the year 1440. As with many of the artists of this early period of the Northern Renaissance, little is known of his childhood. It’s known that he became a master in the painters’ guild of Ghent in 1467. (Bless these good people for keeping such meticulous records.)

By 1477, van der Goes had achieved considerable success. Nevertheless, in that year he closed down his workshop with a view to entering the Roode Klooster, or Red Cloister. He had been living there for five years when the brothers of this monastery sent him, along with his half-brother and another monk of the order, to Cologne. On the return trip, he suffered a breakdown, declaring himself to be damned and attempting suicide. He was conveyed back to the Roode Klooster, where he experienced a brief recovery before dying in that same year, 1482.

Knowledge of this turn taken in van der Goes’s life became lost in obscurity until it was rediscovered by Belgian historian Alphonse Wauters in 1863. Wauters’s nephew Emile made a painting on the subject in 1872. That work of art in turn made a profound impression on Vincent van Gogh.

Here’s more detailed recounting:

In 1863, the Belgian historian Alphonse Wauters published a startling revelation: that the great Ghent painter Hugo van der Goes had experienced a disastrous episode of insanity around 1480. This information was discovered by Wauters in “The Chronicle of the Red Cloister,” written by Gaspar Ofhuys, prior of the monastery in the early sixteenth century. Ofhuys had known van der Goes personally, having taken vows at the same time as the painter.

According to the chronicler, Hugo van der Goes became demented while returning from a trip to Cologne with a party of fellow monks. Shortly before reaching Brussels, Hugo, without any prior signs of distress, suddenly erupted. He insisted that he was a lost soul, that he was doomed to perdition, and tried to commit suicide. His brothers had to forcibly restrain him from violently taking his life. When the travellers finally attained Brussels, treatment for Hugo was ready. The prior of the Red Cloister had arranged for the appropriate remedies– music therapy and performances. Unfortunately, these proved ineffective and van der Goes returned to the Red Cloister incapacitated. Remission occurred some time after his return but we do not know whether it was complete. About a year after this incident the artist was dead.

Wauters’ remarkable discovery did not have any immediate impact upon historians but it did impress painters. Emile Wauters, Alphonse’s nephew, caused a sensation in 1872 with his painting of Hugo van der Goes Undergoing Treatment at the Red Cloister. And as early as 1873  Vincent van Gogh referred to this painting in a letter to his brother Theo. On at least two further occasions the Dutch artist likened his own appearance to that of Hugo’s as recreated by Wauters, and identified emotionally with the fifteenth–century painter.

From a 1978 paper presented  By Susan Koslow

Here is the painting by Emile Wauters:

It’s my understanding that this is a depiction of an effort to ameliorate van der Goes’s suffering with music.

The Portinari Altarpiece is widely considered to be Hugo van der Goes’s masterpiece. It can be studied in its particulars while still inspiring wonder as a whole. At some point I was alerted to the presence of a dragon-like creature in the right hand panel. I had trouble focusing on it at first. It’s directly below Saint Margaret, who wears the red robe. The dragon is, in fact, her attribute. Attributes are objects that are depicted along with a particular saint, in order to specify his or identity. (Think of Saint Catherine and the wheel.)

Apparently several versions of Saint Margaret’s story exist. In one, she is swallowed by a dragon, but once inside the beast, she makes the sign of the cross; this causes the dragon to burst asunder. In another, somewhat less drastic retelling by Voragine in The Golden Legend, the dragon rushes toward Saint Margaret, but when she makes the sign of the cross, it vanishes.

I cannot thank Professor Catherine B. Scallen enough for her enormously enriching work on two Great Courses DVD sets: Museum Masterpieces: The National Gallery, London; and Art of the Northern Renaissance.   Ron and I have now watched both of them twice. We fervently wish that Professor Scallen would make more of these.

 

 

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