Crime fiction: First lines of note

May 5, 2019 at 10:47 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

I’ve recently come across two memorable beginning sentences in works of crime fiction.

From The Secret Pilgrim by John Le Carre:

Let me confess to you at once that if I had not, on the spur of the moment, picked up my pen  and scribbled a note to George Smiley inviting him to address my passing-out class on the closing evening of their entry course–and had Smiley not against all my expectations, consented–I would not be making so free to you with my heart.

The entire paragraph consists of this one sentence. The Secret Pilgrim is copyright 1990 but might as well be dated 1890, or even earlier, so graceful and old-fashioned is it, in its expressiveness.

For me, A Legacy of Spies (2017) was triumphant return to form for John Le Carre (not that he was ever really off form). And there is a new novel on the horizon: An Agent Running in the Field, due out here in October.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley. The Secret Pilgriim is dedicated by Le Carre to Alec Guinness, “with affection and thanks”

 

John Le Carre, at his home in Cornwall. What kind if expression is that: querulous? quizzical? inscrutable? some combination?

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A completely different case is presented by the opening gambit of the story “Dark Waters” by Freeman Wills Crofts:

For years Weller, the solicitor, had handled Marbeck’s affairs, and when he received the old man’s letter saying that he wanted to realise some securities, it struck him like a sentence of death.

Well, gosh! Talk about in medias res!

The story is off to a frantic start; Crofts sustains the pitch right through to the end of this brief and powerful tale.

“Dark Waters” appears in Bodies from the Library, an excellent new anthology featuring, according to the subtitle, Lost Tales of Mystery and Suspense by Agatha Christie and Other Masters of the Golden Age. As for Freeman Wills Crofts, he is one of the Golden Age writers whose works are  currently being reissued as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics initiative.

In the 1920s high culture priest T.S. Eliot, an avid detective fiction reader, classed Crofts with R. Austin Freeman, a still-active contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle, as the two greatest living detective novelists. Of Crofts, Ivor Brown, drama critic and Oxford graduate in the Classics, sics, humbly declared: “Before his invention, mine eyes dazzle.”

Curtis J. Evans, Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920–1961

The meticulous account of detective work, coupled with the ingenuity of the construction (and deconstruction) of the alibi were  to become Freeman Wills Crofts’ hallmarks, and they sett his debut novel apart from the competition. Over the next twenty years, the book sold more than 100,000 copies.

Martin Edwards on The Cask, in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books

The Cask is excellent; I highly recommend it.

Freeman Wills Crofts  1879-1957

 

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‘It’s a fascinating subject, the study of this venerable civilization….’ – Queens of Egypt at the National Geographic

May 2, 2019 at 8:14 pm (History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Yes, there she is, in all her beauty and mystery: Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt, wife of Akhenaton, the iconoclast Pharoah who instituted worship if the sun as the sole deity of the kingdom. But this exhibit at the National Geographic is not about him. Rather, it is about her, and the other notable queens whose reigns span this remote and exotic era.

The bust pictured above is a copy of the original, which was found in Amarna by a team of German archaeologists led by Ludwig Borchardt. It currently resides in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, much to  the annoyance of its country of origin, which has been trying to get it repatriated since 1924. Museum officials claim that the bust is too fragile to travel.

Meanwhile, it is listed on Time Magazine’s list of Top Ten Plundered Items.

I digress. But it’s hard not to, when dealing with so vast a subject.

Six queens are highlighted in this exhibit. The first is Ahmose-Nefertari; her dates are 1539 BCE to 1514 BCE.

I quote from the exhibition guidebook:

Ahmose-Nefertari was the first queen of the 18th dynasty and of the New Kingdom. She was a powerful and influential queen who enjoyed widespread acclaim. After her death, she and her son were deified in Deir-el-Medina, where she was worshiped as a goddess of resurrection.

Ahmose-Nefertari   1539-1514 BCE

Hatshepsut (1479-1425 BCE), rather singular and remarkable, reigned as Pharoah for some twenty years in the mid-fifteenth century BCE. (The exact dates are disputed.) To emphasize her masculine qualities, she was sometimes depicted as bearded:

Hatshepsut with beard

 

Hatshepsut, clean shaven, as it were

The third queen was Tiye (1390-1340 BCE):

Tiye is found at the nexus of powerful rulers, being the Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep III, mother of Amenhotep IV, who became known as Akhenaton, and grandmother of Tutankhamun. Still, she held her own in the game of power.

Queen Tiye 1390-1340 BCE

Tiye’s mummified remains were discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1898:

Then, there was Nefertiti, wife of AmenhotepIV/Akgenaton (see above).

Nefertari was the Great Royal Wife of Ramesses II. At a time when life expectancy was all too brief, Ramesses II reigned for an astonishing sixty-six years. He ascended the throne in 1279 BCE, ruling until his death in 1213 BCE.

Ramesses lived to be ninety-six years old, had over 200 wives and concubines, ninety-six sons and sixty daughters, most of whom he outlived. So long was his reign that all of his subjects, when he died, had been born knowing Ramesses as pharaoh and there was widespread panic that the world would end with the death of their king. He had his name and accomplishments inscribed from one end of Egypt to the other and there is virtually no ancient site in Egypt which does not make mention of Ramesses the Great.

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Here is the beautiful Nefertari:

Nefertari 1279-1255 BCE

As the passage above indicates, Ramesses was plentifully supplied with wives and concubines. But Nefertari was his great love. On the wall of her tomb enclosure he caused the following to be inscribed:

“My love is unique — no one can rival her, for she is the most beautiful woman alive. Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart.”

Just by passing, she has stolen my heart….

As well as  being a loving helpmate, Nefertari was apparently an accomplished woman in her own right:

She was highly educated and able to both read and write hieroglyphs, a very rare skill at the time. She used these skills in her diplomatic work, corresponding with other prominent royals of the time.

Wikipedia

In 1904,

Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of Queens was unearthed by a team of Italian archaeologists. It is an exceptionally gorgeous burial place.

 

This picture depicts Nefertari playing an Egyptian board game called Senet. According to Wikipedia, the rules of this game are not precisely known, yet a site called Discovering Egypt provides a  fairly complete description of how the it is played.

The Geographic exhibit had two stations set up side by side, and folks were trying their hand at it.

Finally, Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt(51-30 BCE). What can one say about this storied woman? Perhaps we had best leave it to Shakespeare:

‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies;’

……

‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.’

Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene 2

What did Cleopatra look like? The exhibit featured this sculpture, purportedly of her:

Yet it’s my understanding that no one is certain of the answer to this question and that the most reliable likeness is to be found on a coin:

For a more in depth look at  the life of Cleopatra, see this article from the Smithsonian Magazine. This piece features a number of striking images, including, inevitably, that of Elizabeth Taylor.

I also recommend Stacy Schiff’s biography. What I remember best from this book is the author’s description of the city of Alexandria. It sounded so glorious, I wanted to go there immediately. Alas, a period of some two thousand years separates us from that magnificent ancient city.

The Geographic exhibit was about more than just the queens. For instance, there was a set-up whereby people could inscribe their own names and see what they would look like in hieroglyphic script. I found a site online where you can do the same thing, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Here’s what my name looks like: You can try it with your own name by clicking here.

One of the most fascinating components of the exhibit concerned Deir el-Medina. This was a village composed of artisans whose brief it was to help build the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It was located on the west bank of the Nile in Thebes. There was a recreation of the place being shown on a large screen in a dimly lit room. I kept circling around and coming back to it. I’d just sit on the bench and stare. In short, I was mesmerized.

Our docent – a wonderfully knowledgeable young woman – passed around two items of great interest. One was a swatch of linen of the type that would have been used in the mummification process. The other was a piece of actual papyrus. This last was thrilling to me. It felt like a kind of nubby parchment. It was strange  to hold it in my hand and rub it gently between my fingers.. I was reluctant to give it up.

Numerous archaeologists won fame in the course of their explorations in Egypt. The exhibit featured one, a woman – two, actually – of particular interest, whom I’d never heard of: Margaret Benson (1865-1916) and her friend Janet Gourlay (1863-1912). There’s a detailed recounting of the life and professional accomplishments of Margaret Benson on the site of Egyptologist William H. Peck.

Janet Gourlay, left, and Margaret Benson

In 2013, an historical novel came out about ancient Egypt. Written by Kerry Greenwood, it was called Out of the Black Land. Once I got it, I could do nothing but read it. It brought the era of the rebel Pharoah Akhenaton so vividly to life that I was  seeing it in my dreams. I particularly remember the description of Queen Tiye, Akhenaton’s mother, struggling to give birth, her women grouped around her providing help and support.

An amazing  book.

“It is a fascinating subject, the study of this venerable civilization, extending back to the childhood of the human race, preserved for ever for our instruction in its own unchanging monuments like a fly in a block of amber. Everything connected with Egypt is full of an impressive solemnity.  A feeling of permanence, of stability, defying time and change, pervades it.  The place, the people, and the monuments alike breathe of eternity.”

R. Austin Freeman, The Eye of Osiris: A Detective Romance, 1913

 

 

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So many mysteries….

April 19, 2019 at 8:49 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

 

I felt like reading another British Library Crime Classic, so I picked up Thirteen Guests. J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White is the book that kicked off this series of reissues. Not all of these books have worked for me, but that one certainly did. If not quite as gratifying as Mystery in White, Thirteen Guests was nevertheless an enjoyable read. Luckily, there are more titles available by Farjeon. I intend to feast on all of them.

I wanted to read Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters because I was intrigued by a character in the Maigret series that I first encountered in Maigret and the Dead Girl. That character is the above named Lognon, commonly referred to be his police colleagues as Inspector Hard-Done-By.

Lognon is in fact an excellent investigator, but luck always goes against him. He wants more than anything to work alongside Maigret and his team at their headquarters in 36 Quai des Orfevres. But inevitably, his performance falls short of that dream. And so he trudges home to his invalid wife – a woman rather hard done by herself, I’d say – and their cramped little apartment, with very little to show for his considerable efforts. This includes, in the course of dogged pursuit of criminals, taking a beating that puts him in the hospital.

(As of September 2017, the headquarters of the Police Judiciaire is no longer at Quai des Orfevre, but has moved to premises on the Rue De Saussaies. The Research and Intervention Brigade, however, still operated out of the older location.)

I recommend both Maigret novels, but then I’m somewhat indiscriminate in my affection for this series.

A Suspicion of Silver is the ninth novel in the series featuring Sir Robert Carey, a character based on an actual historical personage from the Elizabethan era. A while back, I led a discussion with the Usual Suspects of the first series entry, A Famine of Horses. There was strong feeling in the group that Chisholm had made too free use of Archaic vocabulary without providing a glossary. Well, for this latest outing, she included a very lengthy glossary in the notes at the front of the novel. (“She listened!’ Frank exclaimed.)

The Silver in the title refers to ore which is being illegally gotten from a mining operation overseen by German emigres, experts in the process. Very interesting, and historically accurate as well. As for Sir Robert, he’s his usual resourceful, irreverent self, and still pining for his beloved – and married, though lovelessly –  Lady Elizabeth Widdrington.

From 1593, we go back to 1549 and the tumult and disorder of the reign of Edward VI. Not really Edward’s fault: he was twelve years old at the time. His reign was being overseen by a council of regents led first by his uncle Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, and subsequently by John Dudley, 1st Earl of Warwick, who in 1551 became Duke of Northumberland.

Tombland is the seventh entry in C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. Shardlake, a Sergeant-at-law, carries out commissions assigned to him by the likes of Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and Queen Catherine Parr. In Tombland, he is tasked by the Lady Elizabeth with looking into the murder of  the wife of John Boleyn,  a distant relation of hers. Elizabeth will one day be queen, but at the time this story takes place, her position is somewhat precarious; for instance, despite being the daughter of the late King Henry VIII, she is not permitted to call herself “Princess.”

Shardlake’s investigation takes him Norfolk, in the East of England, just as a peasant revolt is heating up. Soon Kett’s Rebellion has burst onto the scene. Shardlake becomes legal advisor to its leader Robert Kett, partly in order to save his own skin and that of his assistants, as the politically and religiously fueled mayhem gains momentum. His investigation is  forced, at least for the time being, into abeyance.

Andrew Taylor, himself a writer of excellent historical crime fiction, says this of C.J. Sansom’s series:

Where Shardlake goes, so do we. Sansom has the trick of writing an enthralling narrative. Like Hilary Mantel, he produces densely textured historical novels that absorb their readers in another time. He has a PhD in history and it shows — in a good way. He is scrupulous about distinguishing between fact and fiction.

Tombland is some eight hundred pages long. It provides the reader with a fully immersive experience in the turbulence of mid-sixteenth century England. Sansom has appended an afterward of some fifty or sixty pages of historical explication. So: a commitment, for sure, but well worth it, in my view.

Michael Connelly has reached a point in his career as a writer of police procedurals where he’s hitting them out of the park, one after another. In the beginning, there was Harry Bosch; then came Harry’s half brother and lawyer Mickey Haller. Now they’re appearing together. Then came Renee Ballard. She debuted in the excellent novel The Late Show. Next, she appears with Harry in Dark Sacred Night. And it all works – beautifully!

Lately, I’ve been listening to these books on CD. They’re usually read by Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch on the Amazon Prime TV series. Most recently, I listened to Two Kinds of Truth. Among other things – there’s always a lot going on in these books – Harry undertakes an undercover assignment where he’s embedded in an operation run by drug dealers who enlist addicts to score prescriptions for opioids and other saleable drugs at so-called “pill mills.” Vivid, true to life, and very scary!

Author Gallery

Georges Simenon

P.F. Chisholm (Patricia Finney)

Michael Connelly

 

C.J. Sansom, with a most excellent feline companion

What’s up next for me in this, my favorite genre? I’m currently reading Overture to Death, the next Usual Suspects selection. The author is Ngaio Marsh, whom I greatly admire. Then I’m very much looking forward to new entries in three of my best-loved series: Hitmen I Have Known, a Harpur and Isles (Yes!) mystery by Bill James; Cold Wrath by Peter Turnbull (Hennessey and Yellich are back, to my delight.) and Rough Music, the fifth Cragg and Fidelis historical mystery by Robin Blake.

 

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Mysteries: from India to Italy in one enriching leap

April 15, 2019 at 7:06 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

In February, Marge led the Usual Suspects in a discussion of A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee. This is the initial entry in a series set in post-World-War-One India, and it’s a great example of a first time author who hit the ground running. Beautifully written, this novel takes full advantage of its exotic setting, all the while weaving a tale of intrigue and introducing us to a memorable cast of characters. Chief among these is Captain Sam Wyndham, veteran of the Great War, who has been recruited to serve in the police force of India’s British Raj. His Sergeant is Surendranath Banerjee, called ‘Surrender-not’ because Sam and others have trouble pronouncing his name. (At any rate, it proves an apt nickname; he does not surrender to difficulty easily but is persistent and resourceful, and a great help to Sam.)

  Oh, and there’s a love interest for Sam. I just finished the second book, A Necessary Evil – also excellent – and all I have to say is, Make your wishes known, Sam, for heaven’s sake! Remember: He who hesitates….

Meanwhile, tensions between the Indians and their British overlords are portrayed with blunt realism. Even back then – undoubtedly before then – Indians were agitating for independence. Reading about the attitude of the British toward the native population, it’s no wonder. Enough to make you seethe with indignation, on their behalf.

Yet amidst all the turmoil, the allure of the place persists. From A Necessary Evil:

We left him and followed Sayeed Ali along a corridor whose walls were lined with murals that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Kama Sutra, and into a cloistered courtyard dominated by a huge banyan tree….We walked through another arched doorway into a stairwell, climbing two flights before entering a well-apportioned sunlit apartment. The room was divided by a carved teak screen peppered with small holes. In front of the screen, the marble floor was covered with a black and gold Persian rug, strewn with silk cushions.

There are those who maintain that this sort of meticulous description does not belong in crime fiction. I for one love it.

Banyan trees, by the way, are rather startling entities. Growing up in South Florida, I remember seeing them from time to time:

A Rising Man won the 2017 Historical Dagger Award, and was a finalist for the Gold Dagger, the Barry for Best First Mystery, the Edgar for Best Mystery, and the Macavity Award for Best Historical Mystery.

A Necessary Evil was a Gold Dagger finalist ,as well as a finalist for  the Historical Dagger and for the Barry Award for Best Mystery. The third entry in the series, Smoke and Ashes, is already out.

(This information and more is “at your fingertips” can be found at the site Stop!YoureKillingMe.com)
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  Then it was off to Italy, or more specifically, to Venice. Actually, the way that Donna Leon writes about La Serenissima, it seems less like a part of Italy and more like a separate principality, which, of course, it once was….

Unto Us a Son Is Given is, by my count, the 28th entry in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. Of these, I’ve read at least twenty. The Commissario and I are old friends; likewise, his wife Paola and children Raffi and Chiara. The latter has become an ardent conservationist; Brunetti is proud of her and her new found commitment to the cause.

The Brunetti family members are all getting older but at a blessedly slow rate. Reading each new book in this wonderful series gives me the chance to spend time with them in their magical dwelling place.

Brunetti’s fellow police officers are also on the scene, both those he genuinely likes, like Vianello, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, and Claudia Griffoni, and those whom he has learned to tolerate, like Lieutenant Scarpa. (That name always makes me think of Scarpia, the arch villain in Puccini’s Tosca.)

The plot – it’s not much of a mystery, really – concerns one Gonzalo Rodriguez de Tejada. This elderly gentleman is a wealthy friend of Brunetti’s father-in-law, Count Orazio Falier. Gonzalo is openly gay and, at this late stage of his life, is preparing to adopt a young man as his son. Gonzalo has no other immediate family, but he does have several siblings, including a sister to whom he is quite close. At any rate, Falier has his doubts about this prospective adoptee and asks Brunetti to see what he can discover about him.

This novel has an unusual structure for a mystery. Progress in the investigation is slow and methodical, yielding very few surprises. Then, about three quarters of the way  through the book, there’s a murder. It’s sudden, and deeply shocking.

I really liked this book – well, I like every book in this series. Donna Leon is one of my favorite authors. She never disappoints – at least, that’s the case where this reader is concerned.

 

 

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‘…it is a “locked room” mystery written by Sophocles.’ – The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

April 9, 2019 at 4:51 pm (books, True crime)

I’ve had a strange experience, reading this book. It begins, of necessity, with  recounting of the circumstances that led to the murder of Andrew Borden and his wife Abby. Immersed as I’ve been  recently in this story, I didn’t discern anything new in Cara Robertson retelling. This, despite the fact that every time I revisit this scenario, its mixture of strangeness and horror grabs hold with great force.

I read on. The chief body of the text concerns the trial. I found that the minute retelling of the witness testimony began to drag. I was having to push myself to keep going.

One note that was sounded throughout the proceedings concerned the demeanor of the defendant: “Throughout the trial, Lizzie Borden remained a sphinxlike cipher.” Her lack of responsiveness puzzled all who saw her. Where were the tears, where the shuddering? I had the sense that some among the observers went from puzzlement to exasperation, even to anger, in the way that our feelings sometimes evolve when we simply cannot figure something out.

At any rate, the trial dragged on. At one point, I was close to throwing in the towel. But then the unexpected occurred, in the form of the closing arguments. George Robinson for the defense; Hosea Knowlton for the prosecution. For me, the pace of the narrative changed suddenly. The eloquence of these two attorneys held me spellbound. I fairly raced through to the conclusion.

Except there was no conclusion. There I was, eagerly flipping the pages, ready for more, when I found that I’d reached the Acknowledgements. From the storehouse of her vast and meticulous research, Cara Robertson had told all she had to tell.

From George Robinson, for the defense:

“Right at the moment of transition she stood there waiting,between the Court and the jury; and waited, in her quietness and calmness, until it was time for her to properly come forward. It flashed through my mind in a minute. There she stands, protected, watched over, kept in charge  by  the judges of  this court and by the jury who have hr in charge. If the little sparrow does not fall unnoticed to the ground, indeed, in God’s great providence, this woman has not been alone in this courtroom, but ever shielded by His  watchful Providence from above, and by  the sympathy and watch[ful] care of those who have her to look after.”

Cara Robertson observes that Lizzie’s lawyer has portrayed her as “an orphan in need of paternal guidance and protection, a ward of the court rather than a prisoner in custody.” And she cannot resist adding, with more than a touch of irony:

It was a neat rhetorical sleight of hand, considering that Borden was on trial for having created her own orphanhood.

(Robinson’s closing lasted just under  four hours. At that time, lengthy closing arguments were not all that unusual.)

From Hosea Knowlton, prosecutor:

“It was not Lizzie Andrew Borden, the daughter of Andrew J. Borden, that cme down those stairs, but a murderess, transformed from all the thirty-three years of an honest life, transformed from the daughter, transformed from the  ties of affection, to the most consummate criminal we have read of in all our history or works of fiction.”

As is by now well known, George Robinson and his defense team won the day. When the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict was read out, the courtroom erupted in shouts of rejoicing, which were in turn taken up by  the crowd outside the courthouse building. Lizzie finally let her feelings show. She was thrilled with her  exoneration and couldn’t express sufficient gratitude to her attorneys, the jurors, and various other  friends and supporters.

The good feeling did not last….

Lizzie and Emma could have gone anywhere else to live, at that point. But they elected to remain in Fall River – although not in the same house, the seemingly accursed domicile on Second Street. It was now 1893. As time went on, relations between the sisters began to deteriorate. In 1905, Emma moved out of their house. The sisters never spoke again.

Lizzie Borden herself never publicly commented about the case that altered the course of her otherwise drab life. Like the town that bred her and then ostracized her, as she aged, Lizzie Borden turned inward, reclusive, and, above all, silent.

Lizzie – by then, Lizbeth – Borden, at her house on The Hill, dubbed Maplecroft, with her dog, Laddie

As I was reading – and in some part laboring to get through this book, I kept saying to myself, okay, this is it – this is the last book I read on the subject of the Borden murders. Well, at this point, all I can say to myself in response to that assertion is: Hah!!

Next up – eventually, most likely:

 

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Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas

April 8, 2019 at 1:36 pm (Art, books)

Yesterday I came home from the library with two art  books that were vastly different from each other in size.

The Degas is voluminous! It weighs 5.5 pounds, and is 10.5″ x 13″, with a thickness of 1.25 inches. In contrast – and what a contrast! – The Manet book is petite in the extreme: 4.5″ x 5.75. It is maybe a quarter of an inch thick and weighs about 5 ounces.

I very nearly missed the latter, as it was wedged in between larger volumes on the shelves of new nonfiction. As soon as I pulled it out, I was enchanted. Small and almost delicate, the tiny volume was a delight. I soon noted that it contained several paintings by Manet that I hadn’t previously seen. I was particularly pleased to make the acquaintance of this one:

Le Bon Bock (A Good Glass of Beer), 1876

A number of my favorites appear as well:

Gare St. Lazare, 1872-73

The Old Musician, 1862

Both of the above paintings reside at our own National Gallery, for which I am profoundly grateful. It means I actually get to see them from time to time. To my mind, Manet more than any other painter renders nineteenth century Paris palpably real.

It may seem as though the small format of Looking At Manet would render the art reproductions less than satisfactory. Oddly enough, I do not find it so at all.

Apparently the writer Emile Zola was an ardent supporter of  Edouard Manet. His commentary on the artist and his works provides the main text for this book.

Right from the beginning, you know where Zola is coming from:

At the age of seventeen, on leaving college, [Manet] fell in love with painting. What a terrible love that is–parents tolerate a mistress, even two; they will close their eyes if necessary to a straying heart and senses. But the Arts! Painting for them is the Scarlet Woman, the Courtesan, always hungry for flesh, who must drink the blood of their children, who clutches them panting, to her insatiable lips. Here is Orgy unforgivable, Debauchery–the bloody spectre which appears sometimes in the midst of families and upsets the peace of the domestic hearth.

Okay, Monsieur Zola – now tell us how you really feel about the sensibilities of the French bourgeoisie!

Looking at Manet is as good an example as I’ve seen recently of a book that should always exist in physical space. I not only enjoy reading it in this form, but also just handling it.  I may have to buy it. And there are others like it, in a series called Lives of the Artists, from Getty Publications.

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The Degas volume, by Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge, is a huge doorstop of a book filled with fascinating facts and wonderful reproductions. I obtained it through interlibrary loan because there was a still photo in it that I wanted to see. This photo would serve as confirmation that the bearded gentleman seen in this film clip is in fact Edgar Degas:

Here is the photo:

(This linkage was pointed out in a comment on YouTube.)

The video clip comes from a documentary called Ceux de Chez Nous made by by Sasha Guitry in 1914-15. This film also contains footage of Renoir painting and Claude Monet conversing with an unidentified man.

By 1915, Degas was nearly blind. It’s hard to reconcile the image in this video with the vigorous artist as he appears in earlier self-portraits, such as this one, from 1863 . For more, see this poignant article on the Open Culture site.

Edgar Degas died in 1917 at the age of 83.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Addendum to the recent post about ‘Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen’

March 31, 2019 at 8:53 pm (Art, Family)

My daughter-in-law Erica and grandson Welles also came with us on our recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. This made everything more festive.

Welles got to see the museum’s impressive collection of arms and armor.

Both Welles and Etta love to stop in the Family Room of the museum’s Ryan Learning Center. There’s always a new crafting opportunity on offer there – and Welles and Etta are both very crafty children!

Each time we go, there’s a different craft theme. This time it was textiles.

 

Etta and her Mom gearing up for ‘work’

Welles and Grandma ‘Berta – the least crafty person on the planet!

Along with others making crafts, Welles donated one of his creations to the ‘craft wall.’

The art theme carried over when we got home. Ron and I both felt that Welles’s creation here was museum-worthy:

Etta, on the other hand, migrated over to the culinary arts. There was a small impromptu gathering taking place in the backyard, and Etta decided to make a dish of hors d’oeuvres for the visitors. These consisted of small pieces of cheese, green olives, and sugar snap peas threaded onto tooth picks.

 

Etta presented a tray full of these items to the guests – adults and children both – and they ate all of them in record time!
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In Camille Laurens’s book about Marie Genevieve van Goethem – the eponymous Little Dancer – she mentions photos  in which Marilyn Monroe gazes, seemingly transfixed, at the sculpture. (At the time, it was situated in the apartment of a wealthy New York collector.) The author seemed to feel that her readers would be familiar with these pictures. I had never seen or heard of them:

Interesting commentary on the occasion of this photo shoot can  be found on the art history blog Alberti’s Window and on another blog, Maison Roos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine forges ahead into the Digital Age

March 29, 2019 at 4:14 pm (Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

For years now, the arrival of the quarterly publication Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine has been cause for rejoicing.  Loaded with astute criticism, numerous reading recommendations (with helpfully assigned letter grades), and author news and information, this splendid periodical is a must read for fanatical crime fiction fans like Yours Truly.

The Editor/Publisher of Deadly Pleasures is Mr. George A. Easter. In this effort he is assisted by Associate Editor Larry Gandle and a number of knowledgeable and perceptive contributors.

In the Winter 2019 issue, Mr. Easter made known his intention to transform Deadly Pleasures to a digital only entity. When I first read this announcement, I admit that my heart sank. I prefer my newspapers and magazines to be in hard copy. But Mr. Easter has good reasons for making this switch. He gives those reasons in a special editorial, where he also acknowledges that for some readers, this will be not be a welcome change.

He offered to send me the PDF version of this issue of the magazine. I admit I was deeply impressed. My doubts pretty much evaporated.

And now is the moment to say that this issue of Deadly Pleasures, in any format, is a real triumph. To begin with, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Bouchercon Mystery Convention. To mark the occasion, George Easter was asked to come up with two booklists. One is entitled “Most Influential Novels of the Bouchercon Era,” and the other is “Great Reads from the Bouchercon Era, 1969-2019.” Mr. Easter is soliciting input from readers on both lists, but for myself, I can’t think how either one could be improved.

The second one, especially, is so full of excellent titles that I wanted to drop everything else and just read my way through it. This, despite the fact that I’ve already read several: The Laughing Policeman by  Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker, Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman, Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, The Dead of Jericho by Colin Dexter, and so on. These are all great inclusions, and there are many, many more.

But wait! In addition to these, there are Best of 2018 lists, starting with George Easter’s own selections. I particularly loved this list because – well, the fact is I often like the same books that George likes, to wit: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan, Snap by Belinda Bauer, The Fox by the venerable Frederick Forsyth, and three of my absolute favorite titles from last year: Broken Ground by Val McDermid, The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry, and November Road by Lou Berney.

This issue is fairly bursting with ‘Best of 2018’ lists. Three by distinguished mystery fiction experts  Oline Codgill, Otto Penzler, and Marilyn Stasio, followed by two pages of lists from various publications and websites.

There’s more… But let’s stop there and let me now guide you directly to this cornucopia of crime fiction. George Easter is most eager for folks to subscribe to the digital version of Deadly Pleasures. Toward  that end, he is graciously allowing me to post the link to the PDF of this Winter 2019 issue of the magazine. Here it is:

https://filedn.com/lw969DNk35fFeYTvNXSLMOY/Deadly%20Pleasures%20Mystery%20Magazine%20-%20Winter%202019%20-%20Issue%2085.pdf

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‘Her name was Marie Geneviève Van Goethem.’

March 27, 2019 at 9:26 pm (Art, Family)

  The above sentence opens the first chapter of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Camille Laurens.

Marie Van Goethem, originally from Belgium, was one of three sisters. She joined the Paris Opera, primarily because her family needed the money. (Young members of the corps de ballet were frequently called “les petits rats” – Little Rats, or Opera Rats.) When the opportunity to pose for Edgar Degas came along, it meant additional income.

When completed, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was not universally loved. In fact, the reaction of contemporary viewers was quite the opposite. They had their reasons. Laurens describes of the zeitgeist prevalent in the Paris of the 1880s:

France was industrializing, and its working class was  growing in importance….The ruling classes needed to be reassured about their privileges. Small wonder they clung to theories that “proved” the natural superiority of the bourgeoisie over the working class, the rich over the poor, whites over blacks, and men over women.

With regard to the sculpture itself:

The bourgeois viewer looked at the work and saw his own antithesis. Hie preference was for Madonnas, or for plump, healthy young women. He could not fathom why a common, hardworking Opera rat with the face of a “monkey” and a “depraved” aspect should be the subject of a work of art.

Degas himself was a complex personality, not an easy person to know. At one point, the author offers the observation:

It seems that Degas shared the misogyny that was rampant at the end of the nineteenth century….

Yet Degas and Mary Casssatt were good friends and genuinely admired each others’ work:

The American expatriate painter Mary Cassatt and the French artist Edgar Degas formed a long, if tumultuous, artistic relationship and friendship in the late 19th century that lasted for decades. The two admired each other’s work during the early 1870s, years before they met. In 1877, Degas visited Cassatt in her studio—possibly their first official meeting—to personally invite her to exhibit with the Impressionists, bringing her into the fold of the Parisian avant-garde.

From The Saint Louis Art Museum site

The friendship endured for many years. Neither artist ever married.

The story of their relationship is not told in Camille Laurens’s book. Yet her intense focus on Marie and her likeness in bronze pays dividends. She forces us to look more closely, and to question:

What is she thinking about? What is her inner world like? Do her face and pose reflect concentration or relaxation? Boredom or pleasure? Is she taking herself elsewhere, and if so, to what foreign parts? Is she filled with a sense of her own self or does she savor the vacuum at its core? What lies behind her closed eyes, her skinny chest? Tears, dreams. unspeakable emotions? Or a kind of absence, a beneficent nothingness in suspended time?

This past weekend, while we were in Chicago, I looked forward to our now customary visit to the Art Institute. I wanted to contemplate Marie once again, with those questions in mind. And my granddaughter Etta also wanted to see her again.

The Little Dancer, in her accustomed place in the Art Institute

Alas, when we reached the gallery where the French Impressionist paintings are hung and where we have heretofore encountered the Little Dancer, she was not there. There was information desk right outside the gallery, but the individual staffing it was sadly clueless as to Marie’s whereabouts. Had she somehow mysteriously absconded? Yet another question…. A small couplet stole into my brain:

Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen,
Little Dancer can’t be seen.

Ah, well; Etta and I must hope for better luck next time. And of course, it’s not as though we didn’t have plenty of other objets d’art with which to occupy ourselves:

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 1740-1741 by Michele Marieschi

 

Portrait of Marthe-Marie Tronchin, 1758-61, by Jean-Etienne Liotard

 

Calvary, Artist Unknown, Guatemala, 1760-1800

 

Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles, painted in 1889, just a year before his death

 

Being of a scientific bent, Etta was interested in this device, located in a corner of one of the galleries. A museum guard, delighted by her question, explained that it was a hygrometer, a device for monitoring humidity in enclosed spaces.

 

This time around my favorite new discovery:

Adoration of the Christ Child, Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen and Workshop, 1470-1475

 

And of course, we always make time to revisit our favorites – which are hopefully in their usual place:

Roman Theatre Mask, with Etta imitating as best she can

And finally, Un dimanche après-midi à l’îsle de la Grande Jatte, par Georges Seurat, 1886-1886:

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Here is Camille Laurens’s poignant conclusion to the story of Edgar Degas and Marie van Goethem:

The shade of Marie melts into the deep shadow that Degas himself disappeared into. Her ghost is carried off, buried  with his remains. Nothing can separate them any longer. If we  take their two lives as one, at that point in time when  their trajectories intersected, like a momentary couple glimpsed through  a pane of glass, the resulting life is neither resounding nor insignificant. It is a life of hard  work. And also sadness, I believe. Yet it is a remarkable life, sovereign and vast in import. Both of them while still alive, she posing and he sculpting, had  the experience of death. The little statue restores their absent presence. It is their monument, their requiem.

A very special book, slight in length yet filled with grace and meaning, beautifully written by Camille Laurens and meticulously translated from the French by Willard Wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Death of Grace Brown, 1906

March 21, 2019 at 1:48 am (True crime)

The Borden killings are baffling and appalling. The same can be said of the killing of Bobby Franks by Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold.

The murder of Grace Brown is certainly just as appalling as the above named, but it is not baffling. On the contrary, considering the circumstances in which it occurred, it was almost inevitable. Above all, it is heartbreaking.

In Bringing Down the Colonel (2018), Patricia Miller tells the story of the scandal that broke in 1893 when Madeline Pollard brought suit against W.C.P. (William Campbell Preston) Breckinridge for breach of promise. In the early 1880s, in the words of the jacket copy, Breckinridge was “…a handsome, married, moralizing lawyer running for Congress” when he initiated an affair with Pollard, then a student at Wesleyan Female College, now known simply as Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. The relationship continued for nearly a decade. The inevitable pregnancies – note the plural – resulted. When Breckinridge’s wife died in 1892 and the anticipated marriage proposal failed to materialize, Madeline Pollard had reached the end of her tether.

Very early in this absorbing chronicle, Patricia Miller states the following:

The charges were shocking, given that Breckinridge was such a well respected figure. What was even more shocking, and novel, however, was what Madeline had to sacrifice to bring the suit. She had to reveal herself as a “ruined” woman–a woman who had acquiesced to sex outside of marriage. Few things could be more injurious to a woman in late nineteenth-century America. A woman’s chastity was  the bedrock of her social capital. Its loss, the specter of the “fallen” woman, haunted society.

When stating her purpose in bringing this suit, Madeline Pollard declared bluntly: “I’ll take my share of the blame. I only ask that he take his.”

Pollard was no ingenue. She was reasonably experienced in the ways of the world, particularly when those ways involved powerful men. Grace Brown was another story altogether. An unworldly farm girl from a small town in upstate New York – South Otselic, in Chenango County – she had come to the “big city” – Cortland – in 1904 to work in the Gillette Skirt Factory. She had a married sister in that city, with whom she could live. Her family back home could use the money she would make at the factory.

In 1906, Chester Gillette, a scion of the factory owner’s family, arrived in town to work at the skirt factory. He and Grace struck up a friendship which soon turned into a love affair.

According to an account told to a reporter after Grace’s death, Chester met Grace when a ring, an inexpensive gold band with an opal stone, slipped off her narrow finger and rolled across the factory floor until it came to rest at his feet. He picked it up and made a bow and a remark before handing it back to her.

From Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon

By such small gestures are our fates determined….

The relationship was secretive. For one thing, Chester was eager to rise into the upper crust of Cortland society. There was simply no place there for Grace. In truth, she was a stopgap for Chester, someone to make him feel less lonely as he was  learning the ropes in an unfamiliar environment.

Just as Chester was starting to pull away from Grace, she gave him news that he did not want to hear: she was pregnant. In those days, if you got a girl “in trouble,” you married her. No question; it was simply what was expected and what was done. Grace was desperate for the marriage to take place. But Chester was just as desperate not to do it.

Chester advised Grace to quit her job at the skirt factory and return for a time to her home in South Otselic. This she did, but once there, she was miserable. She loved her mother and her siblings dearly, but she could not bring herself to confide in them. Eventually, she and Chester made  plan to meet in another town and travel north into the Adirondacks. It was Grace’s fervent hope that they were running away to be married. And yet, in one of her last letters to Chester, in which she describes bidding farewell to the places and people she loves, she betrays her anxiety:

And mamma! Great heavens, how I do love Mamma! I don’t know what I shall do without her (…) Sometimes I think if I could tell mamma, but I can’t. She has trouble enough as it is, and I couldn’t break her heart like that. If I come back dead, perhaps if she does not know, she won’t be angry with me.”

At length, they came upon a place called Big Moose Lake. They took rooms there.

The lake was beautiful; the country, secluded. They rowed to a remote spot. Chester claimed that Grace, though fully clothed, had suddenly jumped into the water. Unable to save her, he swam back to shore. The boat, overturned, remained out on the lake; there was no sign of Grace. Her body was recovered the following day. Soon after, Chester was arrested.

The trial was a sensation. Grace’s letters were read, bringing many in the courtroom  to tears. Meanwhile,  when speaking of Chester, prosecutor George W. Ward let loose like an avenging angel:

“He has more stability of purpose, more determination, more cunning than a wolf has got…and when a pretty flower had come down from the hills he scented her out as the instrument of his lust, plucked the petals one by one and threw them under his feet.”

Quoted by Craig Brandon in his book

Chester was judged guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. A subsequent appeal was denied.

There is of course much more to the story than what I have heretofore related. The post on  NewYorkUpstate.com provides a good summary of events and some excellent visuals. If you need more – and I definitely did – I recommend Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon. (Be sure to seek out the revised and updated edition, copyright 2016.)

Part Two of Brandon’s book is entitled “The Murder That Will Never Die.” First there was Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, based on the events described above and published in two volumes in 1925. This work was adapted for the stage in the early 1930s. The film version, with the same title, came out in 1931. The film A Place in the Sun, a somewhat looser adaptation, came out in 1951. I simply must interject here that this to me is one of the most brilliant films ever made. It starred an impossibly handsome Montgomery Clift, an impossibly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor – at the time of the filming, nineteen years old! – and Shelley Winters as the doomed and desperate Alice Tripp. Utterly riveting.

Finally, an operatic version of the original novel was commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The premiere performance was presented in 2005. The composer is Tobias Picker.

In his introduction, Craig Brandon reprints the words to a ‘murder ballad’ called Omie Wise. The crime to which it refers occurred in 1807 or 1808:

I’ll tell you a story about Omie Wise,
How she was deluded by John Lewis’s lies.

He promised to marry her at Adams’s spring;
He ‘d give her some money and other fine things.

He gave her no money, but flattered the case.
Says, “We will get married; there’ll be no disgrace.”

She got up behind him; away they did go
They rode till they came where the Deep River flowed.

“Now Omie, little Omie, I’ll tell you my mind:
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.”

“Oh, pity your poor infant and spare me my life!
Let me go rejected and not be your wife.”

“No pity, no pity,” the monster did cry.
“On Deep River’s bottom your body will lie.”

The wretch he did choke her as we understand;
He threw her in the river below the mill dam.

Now Omie is missing as we all do know,
And down to the river a-hunting we ‘II go.

Two little boys were fishing just at the break of dawn;
They spied poor Omie’s body come floating along.

They arrested John Lewis; they arrested him today.
They buried little Omie down in the cold clay.

“Go hang me or kill me, for I am the man
Who murdered poor Naomi below the mill-dam.”

(This ballad exists in several versions; this one is offered by  Bob Waltz.)

Also in his introduction, Craig Brandon offers this provocative theory concerning why  the story of Chester Gillette and Grace Brown has such a hold on the popular imagination:

The real question–why do we still care about Chester after all this time?–continues to evade us. What is it about this story of a cruel and self-centered young man who murders his pregnant lover in a lake only to be discovered and executed? One answer that comes up over and over again is that the story is what psychologist Karl Yung called an archetype, a psychological script so compelling that, once initiated, forces the protagonist to follow it, powerless to resist–and, in this case, compels others to tell the story over and over.

So, did Chester Gillette actually kill Grace Brown? The better question is, Was he responsible  for her death? Craig Brandon quotes this summation by a reporter for the Utica Daily Press:

Whether Chester Gillette struck the cruel blow which killed the girl who loved and trusted him, or whether he overturned the boat with the purpose of drowning her, or whether, according to his own statement, he drove her to suicide by refusing her the only reparation in his power and then cold-bloodedly left her to drown without making one attempt to save her, makes little difference in the essential fact that he was morally her murderer.

Grace Mae Brown, March 20,1886-July 11, 1906

 

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