Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance, by Wendy Lesser

December 18, 2018 at 2:10 pm (Ballet, Book review, books, Music)

  This brief biography was a pleasure to read. There is so much more to Jerome Robbins than West Side Story – although just that one stupendous achievement in and of itself would have sufficed.

West Side Story was the second Broadway show I ever saw. I had the privilege of attending a performance featuring the original cast. I remember sitting in the audience at the end, tears streaming. I was fourteen years old and had no idea how lucky I’d been to see what I had just seen. (My first Broadway show was Damn Yankees, also with the original cast.)

I was also familiar with Fancy Free, Robbins’s first staged work. It’s a ballet about three sailors on shore leave basically looking for some action. (Robbins danced  the role of one of them.) He had been watching young men like these as they breezed through Manhattan while on shore leave. It was 1944 and there was a war on, so they were looking to pack as much fun into their lives in a short time as they possibly could.

This is the only video of the complete ballet that I could locate on YouTube. The quality is not great, but it’s more than enough to show the sheer wonderfulness of Fancy Free:

This video with Tyler Angle and Tiler Peck, both principal dancers at the New York City Ballet, is shorter but worth watching, for the rehearsal footage and for Tyler Angle’s commentary:

The music for Fancy Free was written by Leonard Bernstein, at Jerome Robbins’s specific request. It was the beginning of a collaboration that culminated, years later, with West Side Story. The task was never easy – these were two enormously gifted men with egos to match. But the results – what a gift to the rest of us!

Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins was a choreographer, dancer, and script doctor. His work, in one or more of those capacities, can  be seen in some of the most popular shows ever seen on Broadway: The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, and West Side Story, to name a few. But being as I’ve become such a balletomane of late, it was the ballets which I found especially fascinating.

And it was his work in ballet choreography that brought him into the orbit of probably the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century: George Balanchine.

Along with Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine founded the the New York City Ballet in 1948. From that year, Balanchine was the artistic director/ballet master – the soul of the company, really – up until his death in 1983.

Jerome Robbins made a number of works for the New York City Ballet. Unavoidably, there was an element of rivalry in his relationship with Balanchine. But it was the public and the news media that reflected a certain attitude toward the place in the pantheon properly occupied by these two artists. Wendy Lesser puts it this way:

Precisely the things that made him [Robbins] unique as a choreographer- the modern, folk, and even street-style gestures that he added to his ballets; the function of plot and character in his works; the presence of humor and gentle self-mockery in his dances; even the fact that his women were not elongated, rarefied, unattainable muses, but strong, feisty dancers equivalent to the men- defined him as a second-rater.

It should be noted that Robbins’s admiration for Balanchine was boundless. He did not like to think of himself as a competitor. The two men managed to stay on cordial terms throughout their long association. Each had brilliant careers and were duly recognized for their achievements. And I personally do not think that at this time, Jerome Robbins is classified as a ‘second-rater’ by anyone knowledgeable in the history of twentieth century dance.

The life of Jerome Robbins had its turbulent aspects, especially as regards Robbins’s sexual ambivalence and his uneasy relationship with Judaism, the faith into which he was born. Wendy Lesser deals with these issues in a clear  and balanced way. She also alludes to Robbins’s strong feelings for Tanaquil Le Clercq, the brilliant and beautiful dancer who, in 1952, became George Balanchine’s fourth wife.

The tragedy of Tanaquil LeClercq is surely one of  the saddest stories in all the performing arts. ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now…’

I did plenty of running to YouTube in the course of my reading of this book. Here are some of the better videos that I found:

 

 

Suite of Dances was originally written by Jerome Robbins for Mikhail Barychnikov.

 

 

Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance is part of a series put out by Yale University Press called Jewish Lives.

I highly recommend the film Jerome Robbins: Something To Dance About. It’s part of the American Masters series made by PBS; the local library has the DVD.

Permalink Leave a Comment

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of the Body at the Belvedere, by Mikita Brottman

December 16, 2018 at 3:02 pm (Book review, books)

Rey O. Rivera was last seen on the evening of May 16, 2006. He left his home hurriedly in response to a phone call, returned briefly to retrieve something, then left again. After that, his wife Allison, heading home to Baltimore from a business trip, was unable to reach him.

The police were notified. Rey was declared a missing person.

When it comes to missing people, the first day or two after they have gone, it is as though they have left a door open behind them, and they can still turn around and come back. But after five or six days, you get the sense they have crossed all the way over. All that remains, if you’re lucky, is a vague glimpse, caught on tape somewhere, of a pixelated ghost.

A week later, Rey’s body was discovered in an unused meeting room adjacent to the lower roof of the Belvedere Hotel.

The Belvedere is a storied Baltimore landmark. Built in 1903, it began as a hotel, went through several iterations before being converted to condominiums in 1991.

Mikita Brottman and her partner currently reside in one of those units. They were living there when Rey’s body was  discovered. In fact, Brottman surmises that they may have heard the sound of the body landing on the nearby roof space. So: small wonder that she was drawn to this case.

Although the Belvedere is now comprised of private dwellings, it still features venues that are available to the public. These include three ballrooms on the first floor, one on the twelfth floor, and a banquet and reception room on the thirteenth floor. Finally, back on the first floor, there’s the Owl Bar., part of the original 1903 construction. Formerly a speakeasy, it is now a restaurant. Mikita Brottman met a number of people there while she was investigating Rey Rivera’s death.

The Owl Bar, 1934 [click to enlarge]

The Owl Bar today [click to enlarge]

The examination of Rey’s body showed that his injuries resulted from a fall from a considerable height. No other evidence – gunshot wound, stabbing, ligature marks – was discovered. From a Baltimore Sun article a year later:

Medical examiners determined he died from multiple and severe injuries consistent with a fall from a height. But they made no ruling as to homicide, suicide or an accident. Instead, they declared it undetermined, because the circumstances surrounding the incident were and still are unclear.

Three questions concerning the death of Rey Rivera are therefore left hanging: Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Or was it something else?

Mikita Brottman, a professor of humanities at the Maryland Institute College of Art (known locally as MICA, pronounced ‘Mike-ah’), did not have the credentials of a journalist. She had to struggle to obtain the information she felt she needed to make progress with her inquiry.

In the end, after a expending a tremendous amount of time, not to mention money, while still maintaining her day job, Brottman came to a  conclusion of sorts. I won’t tell you what it is, but it seems somewhat tentative to me, possibly to her as well. In a way, it follows Sherlock Holmes’s famous dictum to the effect that “…when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Mikita Brottman has a fascinating story to tell, and she tells in in a compelling, at times almost poetic, fashion. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the true cause of Rey Rivera’s death will ever  be determined.

Author Mikita Brottman with Oliver

Permalink Leave a Comment

Best of 2018, One: Nail biting, pulse pounding suspense….

December 14, 2018 at 9:31 pm (Best of 2018)

That’s what the blurb writers promise. And yet sometimes I find myself in a yawn induced torpor, instead.

But that was definitely not the case with these two novels…


****************
These two nonfiction titles were likewise compelling:

The White Darkness I’ve written about. It haunts me still, especially now that winter has come.

The Spy and the Traitor was a riveting read. In it, Ben Macintyre tells the story of Oleg Gordievsky, who became a KGB officer in 1963. His extraordinary abilities quickly propelled him to the top ranks of the organization. Yet as he skillfully performed in his capacity as an operative, he became increasingly revolted by the cruelty and hypocrisy of the agency in which he was serving.

To anyone who cared to look closely (and few Russians did), the contrast between the myth and reality of the KGB was self-evident. The Center [headquarters] was a spotlessly clean, brightly lit, amoral bureaucracy, a place at once ruthless, prissy, and puritanical, where international crimes were conceived with punctilious attention to detail. From its earliest days, Soviet intelligence operated without ethical restraint. In addition to collecting and analyzing intelligence, the KGB organized political warfare, media manipulation, disinformation, forgery, intimidation, kidnapping, and murder. The Thirteenth Department, or “The Directorate for Special Tasks,” specialized in sabotage and assassination.

And so he decides to offer his services to Britain’s MI6. And the story of what happens after that is truly heart stopping.

The latter part of the book consists of the story of Gordievsky’s exfiltration from the Soviet Union. A team of MI6 agents and workers at the British Embassy are assigned to manage this feat. Getting an exposed KGB double agent out of Russia had never before been successfully attempted. And this one was a known by his pay masters to be a traitor. How had he become known? Through the treacherous offices of one of America’s most notorious informers: Aldrich Ames.

The exfiltration team journeyed north to Finland in a desperate attempt to free Gordievsky once and for all from the clutches of the KGB and thus save his life. I did not know if they would ultimately succeed or not. All manner of subterfuge was employed. KGB operatives were in hot pursuit. My heart was literally pounding as I read.

And then suddenly, in the midst of this well nigh unendurable suspense, Viscount Roy Ascot, one of the team members, was driving toward the dawning day when he came upon a sight of startling beauty. He describes it thus:

“A thick mist had risen from the lakes and rivers, extending into long belts besides the  hills and through the trees and villages. The land slowly coalesced into substantial forms out of these foaming banks of violet and rose. Three very bright planets shone out in perfect symmetry, one to the left, one to the right, and one straight ahead. We passed solitary figures already scything hay, picking herbs, or taking cows to pasture along the slopes and gullies of common land. It was a stunning sight, an idyllic moment. It was difficult to believe that any harm could come out of a day of such beginnings.”

How very British, to respond to unexpected beauty with such a lyrical passage of prose, even in the midst of terrible tension and danger.

This is the second book I’ve read by Ben Macintyre. The first was A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal.  He is my kind of writer, for sure – one terrific storyteller.

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

Two books that simply must go back to the library

December 9, 2018 at 2:39 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Don’t know about you, but I hate being overdue. So here goes:

  It’s late November, 1963. We meet the following in quick succession:

A small town housewife and mother – think June Cleaver undermined by a restless streak (and a well-intentioned alcoholic husband). Throw in a small time hood and glad hander steeped in the ethos of the Big Easy. Then there’s a vicious mob boss and his highly unconventional enforcer.

It’s a combustible combination. And into its midst bursts an assassination that shakes the world. What has that got to do with this oddball cast of characters? More that you’d think….

This was an amazing read. Toward the end I got so tense and agitated, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to race through the rest of the book or hide it under a stack of magazines – anything to avoid the conclusion I was dreading.

Memorable lines, spoken after a snappy exchange of dialog:

Guidry laughed and glanced at her, taking a fresh look. He liked a woman who could hit the ball back over the net.

An outstanding thriller, on a par with The Bomb Maker.
**************
  I was deeply impressed with You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott, and so was eager to read her next foray into the land of literary suspense. Give Me Your Hand is a worthy follow-up, though for some reason it didn’t grip me with quite the force of its predecessor.

Kit Owens has landed a coveted position in a lab where investigation is under way on the causes of a debilitating form of premenstrual syndrome –  PMS. She has the world figuratively on a string when her old nemesis Diane Fleming is added to the roster of researchers. Nemesis? – surely not; they were friends once. Then whence the atmosphere of dread that Diane brings with her?

I very much liked this novel’s setting. The tangle of relationships within the hothouse lab atmosphere are vividly rendered.  The sense of urgency and uncertainty is heightened by the first person narration. The milieu of scientific research is convincingly portrayed, and made to seem every bit as fraught and competitive as the world of athletics.

An absorbing and worthwhile read.

The brain itself is built with the battered beams of our early years. What the conscious mind forgets, the neurons remember.

 

 

Permalink 1 Comment

…“the long trail, the lone trail, the outward trail, the darkward trail.” – The White Darkness by David Grann

December 2, 2018 at 6:20 pm (Book review, books)

How do you get from this: to this:

  Here is the book that explains how it happened.

From boyhood, Henry Worsley had been captivated by the story of the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. He wanted desperately to follow in the footsteps of his idol. Shackleton had actually not achieved his goal of reaching the South Pole. His ship became icebound; he realized that if he were to save his men, he would have to turn back – walk back, in fact. This he did. He lost not a single member of his crew.

[I’d like to inject a brief personal note here: When we were in Edinburgh in 2007, we stayed at the Channings Hotel. This hostelry was made up of an agglomeration of townhouses. Ernest Shackleton and his family had resided in one of them while Sir Ernest served as Secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographic Society, a posted he acceded to in 1904. We stood in the library and drawing room, which remained as Shackleton had left them.
Rrecent research has revealed that The Channings closed last year. Hopefully the rooms that we saw have been preserved.]

After an exemplary thirty-six year career in the British Army, Henry Worsley set about realizing his boyhood dream of walking in the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton His first attempt, made with with two other men, was a resounding success. On January 18, 2009, they reached the South Pole.

Henry Adams, Henry Worsley and Will Gow at the South Pole in 2009

One feels this should have been enough. But sadly it was not. Worsley was not finished. He was driven to make yet another expedition – alone.

This solo undertaking was also a fundraiser for Endeavour, an organization that provides succor, financial and otherwise, for individuals injured in the line of duty to their country. Prince William is a patron. The Endeavour Fund continues its work today and into the future.

That said, I felt deeply frustrated by this story. Henry Worsley had a wife and two children. By all accounts, theirs was a close and loving family. And yet, in spite of this sustaining,  joy giving element in his life, he chose to go forward with an undertaking so punishing and dangerous it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would not survive the attempt.

In fewer than 145 pages, David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon, has penned one of the most riveting narratives I’ve ever read. And at its heart, a profound question; namely, what does a person with an obsession like Henry Worsley’s owe to the people who love him?

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

After Emily, by Julie Dobrow

November 25, 2018 at 4:29 pm (Book review, books, Poetry)

    After Emily is subtitled: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet. The two women were Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham.

Yes, they were both remarkable. Although they strove relentlessly for the same goal – the publication in full of Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters – their temperaments could not have been more unlike. Mabel Loomis Todd was ambitious, outspoken, and gifted in many areas of endeavor: art, writing, and music among them. In an era of almost Victorian restraint, she was unabashedly sensual. Finally, into the bargain, she was beautiful. 

Author Julie Dobrow describes trips to far flung locales where Mabel’s astronomer husband David Peck Todd made fruitless attempts to observe a total eclipse. (The skies invariably clouded over at the crucial moment.). But this is really an Amherst story. In 1881, David secured a position as astronomy professor at Amherst College. David and Mabel began socializing with the Dickinson family, who were prominent members of the community.

Emily Dickinson and her sister Lavinia lived at the Homestead, where they cared for their elderly, ailing mother until her death in 1882. Their brother Austin, his wife Susan, and their three children lived close  by. When Mabel Loomis Todd and her husband David moved to Amherst, they rented a house not far  from the Dickinson domiciles. Indeed, Amherst was a relatively small village; no one lived very far from anyone else.

This fact greatly facilitated the relationship between Mabel Loomis Todd and William Austin Dickinson. That relationship swiftly moved from friendship to love affair – a fervent bond only lightly concealed by Mabel and Austin. It continued, only growing in intensity for nearly thirteen years, up until Austin’s death in 1895.

Mabel’s husband David was among those who knew about the affair. He was the epitome of the complaisant spouse, allowing his wife and her lover plenty of space in which to pursue their desires. Not so Austin’s wife. Susan Dickinson was the very epitome of the Woman Scorned. Her fury extended well beyond Austin’s death. It had a perverse and lasting effect on efforts to make the poetry and letters of Emily Dickinson available to the reading public.

In fact it is the story of those efforts, doggedly pursued by Mabel and then taken up by her daughter Millicent, that takes up the bulk of this narrative, particularly its latter half. It is a very complex tale, involving copyright and other legal issues. At times, it was hard not to get bogged down. Yet I was held, especially by the depiction of the strange complexity of the relationship between Mabel and Millicent, a rapport not helped by the fact that the latter was left in the care of her distant grandparents for long stretches of time. Like her mother, Millicent had a restless, brilliant intellect; among her many achievements, she was the first woman to obtain a doctorate in geology and geography from Harvard University. Unlike her mother, she was of a conservative bent. It took her a long time to fully come to terms with Mabel’s and Austin’s connection to each other. But eventually she became reconciled to its truth, even its legitimacy.

On the surface, Millicent Todd Bingham would seem less interesting than her colorful, flamboyant, and strong willed mother. Yet in a way, Millicent is the more admirable of the two, seeing the value of Mabel’s quest, adopting as her own, and ultimately seeing through to completion.

Finally, one comes  full circle, returning to the wellspring of this somewhat tortured narrative, to the elusive, reclusive genius that was Emily Dickinson. Of the many poems that I am familiar with, this is the one that haunts me the most:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
**************
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
*************
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

The first edition of poems by Emily Dickinson, published in 1890

 

 

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

American Mystery Classics – Take Two

November 16, 2018 at 7:41 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Yesterday’s Washington Post features an article by Michael Dirda on American mystery classics. He begins with Leslie Klinger’s hefty anthology, which includes The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen,  The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine, The House Without a Key (in which Earl Derr Biggers introduced the Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan), W.R. Burnett’s Little Caesar, and Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.

The only one of those five that I’ve read is Red Harvest. With regard to the plot, I don’t recall any of the specifics but I’ll probably always remember what a wild ride it was. The body count alone was impressive – somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-three! Good guys  and bad guys, guilty and innocent, male and female – they kept stumbling into a shooter’s cross hairs or the wrong end of a knife.

Red Harvest is not a Sam Spade novel; rather, it features protagonist known only by his job title: the Continental Op, an operative of the Continental Detective Agency of San Francisco.   The famous first sentence more or less sets the tone for  the rest of the novel:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.

First appearing in 1929, The Roman Hat Mystery was the first novel by Ellery Queen, the pseudonym of joint authors (and cousins) Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. This hugely successful collaboration rolled merrily along until 1971, the year of Lee’s death. I recently wrote about Ellery Queen in the post entitled American Mystery Classics, selected  by Otto Penzler and published by Penzler Publishers.  In that post, I mentioned The Chinese Orange Mystery. This is one of eight mysteries newly reissued by Penzler. According to Michael Dirda, it is “…probably Ellery Queen’s most dazzling case.” I didn’t much care for the novel, finding it too gimmicky and full of uninteresting characters, including, alas, Ellery himself. (The author and the investigator share the same name, a somewhat disconcerting device which you eventually get used to.)

I had previously read and enjoyed Calamity Town, first in a brief series of Ellery Queen titles set in the fictional New England town of Wrightsville. Additional reading of critics and bloggers directed me back to the Wrightsville novels (and stories).  Ergo, I am currently reading- and very much enjoying – the second book in the series, The Murderer Is a Fox.

If you scroll to the bottom of the American Mystery Classics blog post that I linked to above, you will find several interesting observations on Ellery Queen by Xavier L., my occasional gracious and very knowledgeable online correspondent. Xavier has written an article entitled “Ellery Queen in France;” it can be found on his blog, At the Villa Rose.

About The Roman Hat Mystery, Michael Dirda says this:

Here was a classic Golden Age puzzle — Ellery Queen’s first case, in fact — and virtually all the characters were caricatures, the dialogue was stilted and corny, and the elaborate plot verged on the ludicrous. What more could one ask for?

He goes on to observe:

That sounds paradoxical, but artificiality is a welcome attraction in many vintage who-and-howdunits. The stories deliberately leave out the messiness of real life, of real emotions, thus allowing the reader to mentally just amble along, mildly intrigued, feeling comfortable and even, yes, cozy. In this case, the key clue — where is the murdered Field’s missing top hat? — drives home the difference between then and now: We are a long way from deranged fanatics armed with semiautomatic weapons.

I have to interject here that the dialog in The Murder Is a Fox is  anything but stilted. It is real and urgent. Here is part of a conversation between Ellery Queen and a local judge:

“How familiar were you with the proceedings?”

“I followed it fairly closely at the time.”

“And your sympathies?”

“In my business,” remarked Judge Martin to his stogie, “if you have any such, you sit on ‘em till they smother to death.”

“Then you did have some.”

“Perhaps.”

“For the victim or the defendant?”

Judge Martin tapped ashes into his wastebasket. “Young fellow, you’re not going to pump me on that. Where my sympathies lay is irrelevant—purely emotional, you understand. No basis in fact, no evidential value, no standing in court.”

“What did you think of the verdict?” persisted Ellery.

“My personal opinion?” Judge Eli squinted at him through the acrid smoke. “I don’t like the kind of evidence they convicted Bayard on. As a judge, I mean. I prefer something substantial when you’re trying a man for his life and liberty—like fingerprints.”

Ellery is desperate for some kind of information that will corroborate his view of the case.

As I noted previously, The Roman Hat Mystery came out in 1929. I can only assume that the Queen cousins learned something about writing dialog between then and 1945, the publication year of

The Murderer Is a Fox.

Ellery Queen, aka Manfred B. Lee (left) and Frederic Dannay

 

 

Permalink 1 Comment

The sweetest music

November 7, 2018 at 10:17 pm (Music)

In my youth, I became a great fan of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and sometimes (Neil) Young. I still enjoy their music.

Recently I came upon this YouTube video of a concert they gave in 2014. They’re singing “Our House,” a song that is much beloved by their fans. Anyway, it’s obvious almost from the start that as he sits at the keyboard, Graham Nash is being distracted by something. At about 1:55, you find out what – or rather, who – that distraction is:

To see this veteran rocker, white haired, still handsome, and still possessing a pleasant singing voice, so obviously enchanted by this little child, his granddaughter – well, to me it was a thing of beauty.

Permalink 1 Comment

Crime fiction and the Man Booker Prize

November 6, 2018 at 5:22 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

   It used to seem like an article of faith for book loving observers: Not only did Britain’s Man Booker Prize not go to a work of crime fiction, but works in that genre were not even considered for that prestigious accolade. Then in 2016, His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet made it onto the shortlist. (It did not win.) And this year, Snap by Belinda Bauer made it onto the longlist (but no further).

I read His Bloody Project shortly after it came out two years ago. I had this to say about it in a post from early  last year entitled ‘Current trends in crime fiction part three, the books: historical mysteries‘:

Wow! A standalone novel of tremendous depth and power. The year is 1869. Amid the oppression of a community of Scottish crofters by cruel and heedless overseers, a young man’s anger and resentment build steadily until they reach the boiling point. His Bloody Project made the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2016, apparently astonishing certain folk among the ‘literati.’

A word to the wise: if you’re thinking that the title betokens great violence, you would be correct. That violence seems to occur in the blink of an eye; it follows an extended period of almost relentlessly escalating tension and anger. The bloody climax is indeed terrible, but it does not come out of nowhere. Rather, it is the culmination of a cruel and heedless exercise of power over the powerless, one of whom reaches the breaking point, with catastrophic results.

I read Snap some time ago, so its contents are not fresh in my mind. Here’s what I do remember. In this novel, a combination of domestic suspense and police procedural, Belinda Bauer posits two seemingly unrelated story lines. You know they’ll eventually converge, but you’ve no idea how. When it finally happens, you’re treated to one of those ‘aha’ moments so beloved by readers of crime fiction.

Each story line features a young woman who is pregnant. Right away this fact ratchets up the reader’s anxiety level. (I like to think that this would be true for both female and male readers.) And then there’s the wonderfully named Jack Bright, a fourteen-year-old boy who is something of a hero, this despite certain of his actions, which are after all born of desperation on behalf of his two younger siblings.

In searching for reviews, I discovered that Snap was in fact inspired by an actual crime that occurred in 1988 and still has British police baffled. (Fair warning: details concerning that atrocity are fairly well described in the novel’s opening sections. There is no overt violence – just a terrible mystery hanging over the heads of three children.)

Snap is extremely well written, and Bauer tells a very compelling story. Highly recommended.

Permalink Leave a Comment

American Mystery Classics, selected by Otto Penzler and published by Penzler Publishers

October 30, 2018 at 6:17 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I think of Otto Penzler as the American counterpart of Martin Edwards. Edwards has long been devoted to advancing the recognition and popularity of British crime fiction. He’s also added substantially to scholarship in the field with such award winning tomes as The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. In 2014, he was designated a series consultant for the highly successful British Library Crime Classics series of reissues. In this capacity, Edwards has provided introductions to numerous novels in this series; in addition, he has edited several short story anthologies for the series. (He is also the author of the Lake District Series and the Liverpool Novels.)

Here are six examples of books from the British Library series. (I really loved Murder of a Lady – very atmospheric and beautifully written.)

Now we have Otto Penzler bringing us American Mystery Classics. Here are the first twelve entries:

 

 

  

 

  

 

The first six of these titles became available this month (October); the remaining six are due to come out in March of next year.

Otto Penzler is the founder and owner of the venerable Mysterious Bookshop, currently located in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. Wikipedia states: ” It is now the oldest and largest mystery specialist bookstore in the world.” The store hosts numerous book signings by distinguished authors; in addition, Penzler, like Martin Edwards, has edited quite a number of anthologies. This one just came out this month: .

I found this one, from last year, highly entertaining:

The site for American Mystery Classics has this to say, in the way of a recommendation:

Each book has been personally selected by Otto Penzler, whose more than forty years of experience as an editor, critic, publisher, and bookseller brings an unparalleled expertise to the line.
***********

The Ellery Queen mysteries were actually written together by cousins Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay. The name Ellery Queen is also given to the protagonist – a quirky character and some time author. He investigates various crimes but has no official standing to do so. The cousins’ collaboration began in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery and continued until 1971, the year of Lee’s death.

Last year I read Calamity Town, my first foray into the Ellery Queen opus. I thoroughly enjoyed it, for reasons enumerated toward the bottom of a post entitled Best Reading in 2017: Classic Crime.  Before me sits The Chinese Orange Mystery, which I just finished. Alas, it did not thrill me. I found the crime at once preposterous and uninteresting. More fatally, Ellery Queen himself does not appear in an attractive light. He comes across as a louche dilettante, proclaiming his insights in a drawling manner. The supporting characters often verge upon caricature. The dialog often attempts a sort of noir hipness but doesn’t quite achieve it. (Having recently read Raymond Chandler’s stellar Farewell My Lovely, I’m somewhat sensitive to this particular trope.) I yearned for an appealing love story, but there was none.

While giving due credit to the ingenuity of the puzzle at the heart of the novel, the Kirkus reviewer says the following:

It’s easy to see why Queen’s exercise in deduction has dated badly: Everything about it is creaky and artificial, from the incredible logistics of the murder to the alleged passions of the characters.

Sadly, I agree.

Other readers and reviewers feel differently. For instance, The Chinese Orange Mystery received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.  And I hasten to add that my enthusiasm for this new publishing initiative remains undiminished. I note that one of the March 2019 releases is a Perry Mason mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner. I sincerely hope that Otto Penzler will consider placing at least a few of Gardner’s Doug Selby novels in his list. There are only nine of them. I’ve read six and loved them.

 

 

Permalink 6 Comments

« Previous page · Next page »