Sigh. Well, I think posting a monthly (and even half-year) reading recap a full three weeks into the next month has to be some sort of record, even for me, but here we are. And I admit that at this point I’d even been contemplating holding off another week so as to combine this with the July recap, but (1) since this is also the recap for the first six months of the year, and (2) I’m back to my usual routine of books averaging some 300 pages in length, and have hence read a greater number of books in July than I did in June, I eventually decided that combining this update with the one for July would be too much of an overload.
I’m still going to make this a joint recap post for June and for the first half year of 2021, though, with the half-year highlights built into the various sections of this post as they relate to my reading projects (links for individual books go to the respective reviews). For the detailed stats as to my reading in the first half of 2021, see HERE.
My regular reading projects were supplemented and to a certain extent sidelined in June by two additional elements: a buddy read with a number of former BookLikes friends, of Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, as well as my summer reading, which this year — given that both the Summer Olympics and the European Football (Soccer) Championship were moved from 2020 to 2021 because of the pandemic (as well as three of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments take place when it’s summer in the Northern hemisphere) — comes under the heading Summer Games.
In other blogging news, I took some time in June to rework this blog’s home page: I know that once you’ve decided to follow my blog — and a big thank you to all who do! — you’re no longer overwhelmingly likely to pay any attention to its home page, but there is a certain likelihood that it’s going to be the first thing that new visitors to the blog see, and it’s been bothering me for some time that there was considerable room for improvement there; so I’m glad I’ve finally had a moment to take care of this.
I’ve also posted the final posts of my alphabet of likes and dislikes blogging series; I effectively completed them in the last days of June and had been planning to post them in a bulk on June 30, but not for the last time this summer RL intervened with my blogging (I was offered an ad-hoc Corona vaccination appointment, which first involved some driving and, when I was back home, ended up having me fall asleep on my living room couch), so the actual moment of posting them was moved to July 1; but I still consider the project completed as of the end of June.
In terms of total number of books read, despite the 1000-page historical fiction buddy read whopper (Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour) I’m on track for my average of the past couple of years, with 200 or more books read over the course of the entire year (105 at the end of June).
Average rating of books read to date: still a rousing 4 stars as of the end of June, which I think testifies to the overall success of my reading projects, as the high ratings are spread fairly consistently across all projects.
In terms of genres, the breakdown for June again seems to be skewed decidedly (2:1) in favor of mysteries, but as Sharon Kay Penman’s book is easily 3 or 4 times as long as the average of the other books I read, the actual amount of reading material is actually much more evenly spread. The overall figures are (June vis-à-vis first half year of 2021):
|June 2021||First 6 Months|
|Mysteries / Crime Fiction||10||60*|
*Of these, 44 Golden Age mysteries.
†Of these, 5 historical mysteries.
The gender balance is still solidly on the side of the female authors, even if it continues to be a bit below the earlier 2:1 ratio — it’s currently still more in the vicinity of 3:2, but that’s easily good enough. — For background on why I decided to track this, and incidentally also ethnicity, see HERE and the addendum HERE.
(Summary chart as of 07/05; detailed statistics for January – June 2021 here)
My Reading Projects
The Buddy Read
Sharon Kay Penman: The Sunne in Splendour
To be reviewed separately — but definitely the stand-out read of June 2021 and, moreover, also one of the stand-out reads of the first six months of the year, period. Wonderfully-written and epic in every respect.
“Summer reading” is another one of the reading project traditions that I’m continuing from my time on BookLikes; my first summer reading project was Summer of Spies (2018), followed by Summer of Sherlock (2019), Summer Sojourn (2020) and, this year, Summer Games. Although, as explained above, this year’s project is inspired by the various international sports competitions taking place this summer, it isn’t limited to books featuring sports but every sort of activity coming under the heading of “game” or “gam(bl)ing”; i.e., also cards games, chess, casinos, etc. My (tentative) reading list is HERE. As with my other reading projects, I’ve tried to pick books that also fit the criteria for at least one other ongoing project, so as to avoid the otherwise predictable overload.
Dorothy L. Sayers: Clouds of Witness
June being Dorothy L. Sayers’s birthday, a revisit of her books was in the cards anyway — and speaking of which, the topic of this year’s summer reading project pretty quickly also determined which books I would be picking: Clouds of Witness, where card sharping is a key plot element, and The Five Red Herrings, which is all about fishing.
The title of Clouds of Witness derives from the bible (Hebrews 12:1: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight […] and let us run with patience the race that is set before us”), and it is the first of several instances where Sayers, even before taking to theological topics outright, in her detective fiction, too, reveals herself as the daughter of a pastor and as a passionate Christian lay scholar. The biblical cloud of witnesses from Hebrews 12:1 are the prophets referred to in the preceding book, Hebrews 11, testifying to God’s standing by his people even in the face of adversity; translated to Sayers’s novel, this is a reference to Lord Peter’s (and his fellow sleuths’) standing by his brother, the Duke of Denver, in the face of all the evidence seeming to paint him a murderer.
The book was only Sayers’s second Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, and there rarely is such a marked step up from book 1 to book 2 of a series: while in book 1 (Whose Body?) Lord Peter doesn’t really know yet whether he wants to be a cipher or a fully-rounded character, a Bertie Wooster look-alike or a man of his own, a character appealing to an “everyman” audience or an audience of his peers in intelligence and education, by the time we get around to the sequel there can be no doubt that what we are looking at was a finely-honed picture of the figure bound to become one of the most iconic and lasting characters of detective fiction. The mystery, too, is very well thought out, and as from this book on, Wimsey’s world has come together in almost every respect; family, friends, and faithful retainer alike — everybody but the love of his life, whom we and he will be equally surprised to meet a few books later, under circumstances just as perilous as those in which Wimsey’s elder brother is placed here.
Setting is another forte in Clouds of Witness, from the sombre Yorkshire moors all the way to Paris and, finally, the lofty House of Lords; and the lawyer (and legal historian) in me gets no slight kick out of the final description of the Duke of Denver’s trial, where an ordinary blue serge suit singles out the accused as the pariah present among the ermine and toques of his peers more brutally than prison garb would in any other courtroom: for sheer splendor, proceedings in any part of the British Houses of Parliament beat those in pretty much any other parliament around the world even on a daily level, and when it comes to a trial of the high and mighty, give me the House of Lords over any of the rest of them every time. Yet, Sayers describes all the pomp and circumstance of the proceedings with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek — not for her to admire form over substance and be dazzled by appearances.
Something else that Sayers has firmly settled on from this book onwards is that she is writing for her own peers in intelligence and education: not so much in a class sense but as reflecting brain power and the way it is being put to use in daily life. While Agatha Christie very consciously wrote for everybody, deliberately used short sentences and a simple vocabulary, and only mildly satirized her fellow Brits’ xenophobia (towards none more prominently than Hercule Poirot) and their bumbling about abroad — if they went abroad at all — with their exceptionalism firmly in place and without, frequently, even a rudimentary knowledge of foreign languages, Sayers was not adverse to complex sentence structures and vocabulary, cultural references that take the reader’s understanding for granted without so much as a whisper of explanation, and the frequent use of French, the hallmark of education all the way from the 18th century to interwar Britain; a language that Sayers herself loved and had mastered well enough not only in its contemporary but also its various historical forms to be able to translate the medieval Song of Roland (even the Penguin edition on sale today still contains her translation), and which public school and university graduates like herself, as well as — thanks to herds of French nannies and governesses — British aristocrats spoke almost as fluently as native speakers, Lord Peter and his family, of course, being no exception to that rule.
Sayers was probably aware that this choice in defining her audience would necessarily limit that audience to a certain extent; but I think she felt that do otherwise would simply have meant not remaining true to herself: Intelligence and education were the two assets that she had come to value most in her own life, and which according to her views (as expressed, most notably, in the two addresses published under the title Are Women Human?, as well as the novel Gaudy Night) should be the sole determinative factors in any person’s position in society; regardless whether male or female, and regardless of their social or national origin. Sayers was by no means a social revolutionary — if anything, her world view leaned towards the conservative, and she detested the term “feminist” because she saw it as expressive of posturing more than of substance — but is is clear in her writing, in parts even in Whose Body?, but definitely from Clouds of Witness onwards, that she appreciated genuine brains and a person’s desire for education and for a well-informed perspective and she despised stupidity. Lord Peter feels brotherly loyalty towards the Duke of Denver, but neither he nor any other character possessed of a modicum of intelligence in this novel leaves the slightest doubt that the heir to the Denver title isn’t anywhere near the sharpest blade in the family’s armory; and his wife is dismissed (by the author and characters alike) as the functional equivalent to an empty jewel box with all of its diamond sparkle strictly on the outside, to the point that her poor husband ends up feeling compelled to seek genuine human sympathy in much lower quarters, only to get himself tangled up in a murder trial as a result. By contrast, while Bunter is of too humble an origin to ever make it even into the middle class range socially, there is no question that — besides Chief Inspector Parker and Peter’s own mother, the supremely impressive Dowager Duchess of Denver — there is nobody whose opinion Lord Peter values as much as that of his butler. Similarly, there is nothing aristocratic and everything middle class about Parker (probably even lower middle class, since his education doesn’t extend to the Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut, which would have been a book every educated member of the British middle class would have been familiar with at the time, and in a later Wimsey novel we learn that Parker does not have any schooling in painting and the visual arts, either); yet, Lord Peter doesn’t hesitate for a second to encourage a liaison between Parker and his sister Mary, solely because he appreciates Parker’s considerable mental abilities and practical common sense (and because he sees just how genuinely Parker cares for his sister). And the same is true for every other character of the novel as well: Goyles may be posing as an intellectual, but he is quickly unmasked as a blustering fool (and a coward into the bargain). Mrs. Grimethorpe may be a Yorkshire farmer’s abused wife, but not once does Sayers permit herself (or the reader) to merely pity her and thus make her small; instead, she is raised in the reader’s estimation by her courage and the vestige of pride that she has maintained even after years of abuse — whereas her husband is shown as a vicious bully; yet, Lord Peter is able to outmanoeuvre him in every situation, physical disproportionality notwithstanding, because Grimethorpe is, literally, as dumb as an ox. (No offense to the oxen of this world.) Undoubtedly the novel’s most tragic figure is its version of Manon Lescaut‘s Chevalier des Grieux, Denis Cathcart, who (like the Abbé Prévost’s original character) understands perfectly well how far below everything expected of a “gentleman” he has sunk in the futile pursuit of his love and yet is too weak to alter his course.
Clouds of Witness wasn’t the first Wimsey book that I read — nor, for that matter, was Whose Body? — but it shot up to the rank of one of my all-time favorites from the very first and has never abandoned that spot; nor is that likely going to happen. I can even forgive Sayers for its whiplash-inducing resolution … which only stops being just that once you realize that Sayers really was not merely writing a detective novel but deliberately updating Prévost as well.
Left: North Yorkshire Moors (photo mine);
Right: The House of Lords (Image source)
Dorothy L. Sayers: The Five Red Herrings
Dorothy L. Sayers is occasionally accused of having gotten too caught up in her research for a given book; and the two mysteries that routinely come up in this context are The Nine Tailors (bell ringing, published in 1934) and, well, The Five Red Herrings (1931), which, although chiefly concerned with fishing and painting, also contains an in-depth discussion of Scotland’s southwestern lowland train connections between Glasgow, Kircudbright (pronounced KirCUDbree, in case you’d been wondering) and other places in Galloway, fit to bring tears of joy to Sayers’s fellow Detection Club founding member Freeman Wills Crofts, who was a railway engineer by training and often included train-related plot elements in his own mysteries.
As a matter of fact, to anyone making a serious attempt to follow the various lines of investigation into train schedules and the murderer’s (and the murder suspects’) presumed travels on the day of the murder and afterwards, this book can’t fail to give a serious headache: if it really was Sayers’s intention to give a nod to Crofts, she has to be complimented for doing the thing rather too well. And if this had indeed been a Crofts novel, I’d have either abandoned it halfway through, or ruthlessly and shamelessly skipped ahead to the big reveal — none other than Julian Symons dubbed Crofts one of the masters of the “humdrum” detective novel, which relies on plodding rather than plotting and doggedly follows the investigating officer’s every step; and by and large I find myself very much in agreement with Symons.
Luckily, however, this is not a novel by Freeman Wills Crofts; in fact, when I read this book for the very first time, I hadn’t even heard of him. So although it was clear early on that the purpose of all the elaborate discussion of who might have taken which train from where to where, and what exactly that meant for the murder investigation and that person’s position as a suspect, was intended to provide the murderer with an apparently unbreakable alibi, as well as distracting the reader’s attention towards one or several of the “red herring” suspects instead, I soon decided not to bother with it at all, and instead focus on the novel’s characters as well as on the remainder of the plot — and that’s the way I still approach it, many years and several rereads later. And once you’ve made up your mind not to let the train schedules get in the way (which is of course easier in a reread, when you know which bit of information really is important and why), there’s plenty to like here indeed.
First and foremost, the novel benefits from the fact that Sayers, as she did in several other books, set the novel in a place she knew and loved herself; as in Clouds of Witness (Yorkshire), Have His Carcase (Cornwall), Busman’s Honeymoon (Hertfordshire) and, particularly, Gaudy Night (Oxford) and The Nine Tailors (Fen Country), the novel has a strong, undeniable sense of place. (A similar sense of place also pervades Murder Must Advertise, which is set in a London advertising agency recalling the work environment from which Lord Peter Wimsey eventually allowed Sayers to escape.) And it is for this sense of place that I love the novel first and foremost; as well as for the seven principal characters (besides Lord Peter and Bunter), all members of the informal resident artists’-cum-fishermen’s colony (like the setting itself and the train schedules based on reality: there actually was a Kircudbright Artists’ Colony, and it even boasted several prominent members, though this book’s characters are all fictional): one painter-fisherman the eventual victim and six others the murder suspects, all looking equally guilty, even if one of them will ultimately be revealed as the murderer and the five others as the eponymous Five Red Herrings intended to confuse the reader and draw away our attention from the real perpetrator of the dastardly deed. Structurally, Sayers here does something similar as Agatha Christie would do five years later in Cards on the Table: she effectively assigns (or has the Chief Constable of the County and the Detective Inspector in charge of the investigation assign) separate strands of the investigation to different investigating officers, which has the effect of making all of them (including the two senior officers themselves) view the evidence assembled in such a divergent way as to build five different cases against five of the six suspects, with each of the investigators focusing on a different suspect as the guilty person — only to then have Lord Peter reveal his own conclusions to their collective bafflement and prove his case by way of a reenactment of the crime.
In another parallel to Agatha Christie, whose Miss Marple owes her roots as much to Christie’s own granny as to a supporting character in a novel written several years earlier (Caroline Shepard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), The Five Red Herrings also contains the seeds of one of Sayers’s few other recurring characters, a traveling salesman named Montague Egg featured in the short story collections Hangman’s Holiday (1933) and In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939) who has a brother in spirit (and in trade) in The Five Red Herrings, who in turn ends up providing the final clue which enables Lord Peter to solve the mystery. Montague Egg, incidentally — who is of working class origin — is another case in point for Sayers’s valuing intelligence above class and social standing, as is yet another supporting character from The Five Red Herrings, one of the artist suspects’ butler, who is not only loyal to a fault to his master but also manages to protect his master from the investigation in a downright ingenious manner.
Taken all in all, the train schedules run enough interference with my enjoyment to ever make this novel rise to the very top of the list of my favorites in the Wimsey canon, but I still like it well enough and had great fun revisiting it for this summer’s double purpose of Summer Games and Dorothy L. Sayers’s birthday celebration.
(Image source: Wikimedia)
Georgette Heyer: Duplicate Death
This is the penultimate of Georgette Heyer’s Inspector Hemingway mysteries, and while in other books Hemingway and his former boss, D.I. Hannasyde — as whose sergeant Hemingway appears in the first four novels of the eight-book arc — occasionally make reference to previous cases they’ve been involved in, outside of the fact that the four mysteries focusing on Hemingway operate as a collective sequel to the four Hannasyde books as such, this is the only instance of a later mystery constituting an express sequel to an earlier one. I didn’t know this when I read Duplicate Death for the first time, and I reread it again, this time around, without having gone back to its D.I. Hannasyde prequel (They Found Him Dead); but if there is one case in point for reading the Hannasyde and Hemingway mysteries in publication order, it is the sequence of these two books, especially as Duplicate Death contains, literally on its very first page(s), a major spoiler for one of the key plotlines in They Found Him Dead, as well as several allusions to the plot and characters of the earlier book that make a lot more sense to anyone already familiar with it by the time they’re reading the later book.
The mystery’s title references duplicate bridge, as it is during a bridge party using this method of the game that the first of the book’s murders takes place, and later on, a second murder occurs, using exactly the same method as the first one. Both victims, as is usual in a Heyer novel, have it coming to them in a major way; and while the novel may lack some of the acerbic wit of Heyer’s other mysteries, it at least also spares us the embarrassment of contemplating whether or not we can bring ourselves to like any of the several youthful TSTL characters featured (as Patricia Wentworth all too frequently pushes her readers to do) — in Heyer’s book, a TSTL character is almost invariably either a satire that literally makes you laugh out loud or as unlikable as the murder victim, even if they don’t end up as the victim themselves. Indeed, somewhat untypically for Heyer’s mysteries, Duplicate Death features a comparatively straightforward and even conservative love story, with plenty of protective knight in shining armor flashes, and the only reason why I don’t mind this — to my surprise, it’s one of the elements of the book that I rather like here — is because the lady in question really has been through the wringer in more ways than one, even if the most salient aspect of which is one no longer half as significant in today’s society as it was back then, and the knightly young man doesn’t ham the shiny armor protection act but is, particularly by the standards of the time, fairly low key about it: it’s more a matter of lending a friendly arm to lean on (and cry on if she weren’t manifestly too proud to do that) instead of strong-arming her for her ill-perceived own good.
Duplicate Death doesn’t quite reach up to my very favorite Heyer mysteries (No Wind of Blame, Envious Casca, and Behold, Here’s Poison), but it makes for a fitting sequel to They Found Him Dead (which I also rather like, even though it’s decidedly more on the conventional side than some of Heyer’s other detective novels) and I had fun revisiting it for this year’s Summer Games.
(Image source: Wikipedia)
Molly Thynne: He Dies and Makes No Sign
One of the standout books of last year’s holiday reading was Molly Thynne’s The Crime at the ‘Noah’s Ark’, the first of her three Dr. Constantine books, and I instantly resolved to read more books by her. It turns out, though, that POV may be important to my enjoyment of a book (who knew?!), and sometimes I seem to enjoy a series’s leading character better if presented with him through the eyes of another character than by an author ostensibly writing in the third person, but very substantially from the POV of the lead character himself (as well as the POV of his policeman friend, who however is as deadly series as Dr. Constantine is, too, here). Or maybe it just shows that by the time she got around to this book, Thynne had already tired of writing mysteries: economically she didn’t need to do it, after all, what with being a member of Britain’s high aristocracy: her real name was Mary Harriet Thynne; the number of marquesses, dukes and earls in her paternal line alone will make your head spin, several of her relatives, including her father, held high positions in His Majesty’s government and diplomatic service, and one of her cousins (a society lady also named Mary Thynne) was a bridesmaid at the wedding of the future King George VI and his wife Elizabeth, née Bowes-Lyon, the parents of the present Queen Elizabeth II. (By way of an embarrassment of riches, through her mother she was also related to several well-known artists, including James McNeill Whistler, and she had met Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and other authors of the time even as a child).
Be all that as it may, one of the key features that had charmed me in The Crime at the ‘Noak’s Ark’ was the exuberant spontaneity of its narrative voice and its quirky characters; yet, while traces of that same voice still remain in place here, few if any of the characters can be described as “quirky”, and spontaneity has largely given way to a more mature and self-assured style — which may all be to the good in terms of her development as a writer, and which ordinarily would be something I would welcome, but which somehow here seems like a bit of a mixed blessing: even if you replace a glass of champagne by a very fine and mature wine, you may still find yourself missing the sparkle of the champagne.
Like any good writer, Thynne sets the tone for the novel in its very first paragraph, and that paragraph has chess enthusiast Dr. Constantine returning from the Continent after having unexpectedly lost at a tournament there, being met by rain, rain, and nothing but rain upon his arrival in England, all the way from Dover to Victoria Station, after having survived a rough Channel crossing to boot, and consequently finding himself in “one of his rare moods of depression.” A call for help from a blue-blooded friend seems to provide some distraction: her only son, one of the country’s most eligible bachelors, must — if Mama is to have any say in the matter — be untangled from an undesirable “involvement”, about which the young man proposes to do the honorable thing even though not in the least compelled to do so by Circumstances. (Expressed more prosaically, he has fallen head over heels for a young woman whose only crime is to be his social inferior by a considerable margin, with the interesting sideline that his own father is very much in favor of the marriage, whereas the young lady’s only living relative, her grandfather, in his turn seems to be opposed to it in a reverse application of the class issues that the young man’s Mama seems to find so shocking). Ordinarily, of course, as we know from The Crime at the ‘Noak’s Ark’, Dr. Constantine would find this just the sort of amusing distraction the doctor has ordered, and would contrive to bring about a happy ending (for the couple — with Mama eventually manipulated into favoring the match) in a brace of shakes, but in this instance, an evildoer intervenes and all plans for the future have to be put on hold when the young lady’s grandfather first disappears and, shortly afterwards, is found murdered.
While the change in narrative tone (and characters) is this book’s greatest difference vis-à-vis The Crime at the ‘Noak’s Ark’ (admittedly my only point of reference to date when it comes to Molly Thynne’s writing), I also found the mystery as such decidedly less intriguing, as essentially every major element of the solution is telegraphed early on and the red herrings are easy to spot; and where the earlier book featured plenty of skillfully sketched characters straddling the line (but never tipping over) into caricature and a number of highly entertaining nightly chases and searches (likewise always just about bordering on slapstick without ever fully crossing the line), the present novel ends in a chase for the perpetrator more reminiscent of a gangster movie (which probably was in fact Thynne’s intention), with only a single brief interesting moment, courtesy of a feat of brazen daring on the part of the murderer, and ultimately ending in tragedy.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still an entertaining mystery; and quite possibly, if this had been the first book by Thynne, I might have enjoyed it better. Unfortunately, however, I read a better book first … I think for my next experience with her writing I’m not going to tackle the remaining (middle) Dr. Constantine novel, but go even further back to her beginnings as a writer, in the hope of recovering some of that exuberance that made The Crime at the ‘Noak’s Ark’ stand out so gloriously to me when I read it last December.
Leonard Gribble: The Arsenal Stadium Mystery
I’d set this as my book to accompany the England vs. Germany match during this year’s European football / soccer championships but I should probably make it clear that it wasn’t the fact that Germany lost (deservedly) in a major tournament match against England for the first time in decades that made me lose my patience with this book. Rather, it was Inspector Slade himself, who is frequently unnecessarily brash and aggressive: while he makes a point of being polite to club owners and dealing with them at eye level, towards the players and coaches he’s the type of bullying cop who went out of fashion even in American TV shows and police procedurals eons ago, and I’d basically had more than enough of him already before the “real life” match even began (and ended up souring my mood even further). It certainly also didn’t help that Gribble’s portrayal of the two main women characters is clichéd beyond endurance.
What I found even more disconcerting, however, was the book’s unwitting concurrence with this Euro championship’s events surrounding Danish star player Christian Eriksen, who, much like the victim in this book, suddenly broke down on the playing field, with his life in serious peril (in fact, his heart had stopped and it took instant emergency revival procedures to bring him back). Now, in the real life situation, this was a shock serious enough to immediately call a halt to the match in question (Denmark vs. Finland); and when, some time later, the decision was made to resume the match after all, despite the fact that all players (but especially the Danish team of course) were profoundly traumatized, UEFA (the body organizing the European championships) were roundly — and rightly — criticized for not having any procedures in place to deal with this sort of situation, and for putting added pressure onto the already-traumatized players to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to resume the match, instead of giving them the necessary time to settle down and seek counseling if they so chose, and only resume the match on a later day. In Gribble’s book, by contrast, the match in question is barely interrupted long enough to carry the collapsed player off the field; and moreover, even though he is visibly in mortal danger, it takes a minor eternity for a doctor to even be called (not to mention that no doctor is standing by as a matter of standard procedure to begin with). I don’t know to what extent all of this is, in fact, reflective of football / soccer matches in the 1930s, but reading the book only a very short time after the real life events surrounding Eriksen, I found it very hard to stomach. It may be unfair to judge a book by a recent, similar real life event, and by the standards and considerations applied to this sort of situation now, instead of those of the time when it was written, but my ratings are subjective and do reflect my personal reading enjoyment; and even a built-in concession along the lines of “it may not be you, book, but me,” thus, doesn’t do anything for my rating as such.
The mystery itself, too, only proved moderately entertaining at best; which meant that the book’s virtually sole remaining point of interest was the insight it provides into football / soccer club life and match organization in 1930s England, and that in and of itself doesn’t rate any higher than two stars at most. — A final comment, in this context, on Martin Edwards’s introduction to the book: Edwards says that in today’s environment the book’s basic setup — a professional team facing an amateur team — would no longer be imaginable: He may or may not be right about England (or any other of the several British leagues, for that matter); in any event, in leagues other than those on the British Isles, this sort of thing still happens with great regularity; Germany’s national cup, for example (the second major national competition, besides the national championship) is deliberately organized so as to include the leading amateur teams from all parts of Germany in the first round, and it is not at all unheard-of for amateur teams to survive that first round (or even several rounds) of the cup: in the 2020-21 season, a team from a regional division even made it all the way into the quarterfinals. (The national championships, by contrast, are decided between the 18 first division teams.)
Arsenal Stadium, the club’s home from 1913 to 2006
This project consistently proved a rousing success in the first half of the year; not only am I ahead of schedule in terms of the total number of books read for it (15 / 25 at the end of June, with 12 / 25 (or 13 / 25) having been the target for the first six months of the year); a fair amount of the best books I read during the first half year of 2021 were picks for this project, too — and the share of books by non-Caucasian and minority authors included in my reading is still at 20%, which, although down from the just under 30% at the end of March, is double my 2020 overall average of just about 10%). So, hooray for this project all over again.
Favorites So Far
Barack Obama: A Promised Land
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Kamala Harris: The Truths We Hold
Toni Morrison: Sula
Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Broken Road
Patricia Highsmith: Carol: The Price of Salt
Olivia Manning: The Spoilt City
Zahra Hankir (ed.) & Various Authors: Our Women on the Ground
Nella Larsen: Passing
Joy Harjo: Crazy Brave
Marcie R. Rendon: Murder on the Red River
Graeme Kent: Devil-Devil
New in June 2021
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun completely bowled me over when I read it a few years ago. Purple Hibiscus, too, took me in, though never as absolutely, when I read it the following year; for a first novel, it’s very impressive indeed. I seem to be doing somewhat less well with Adichie’s nonfiction, however, even though I do not substantially disagree with any of her statements in this book (Dear Ijeawele) or in We Should All Be Feminists, which I read last year.
In Half of a Yellow Sun (and, to a slightly lesser degree, also in Purple Hibiscus), Adichie grabbed me on a fundamental gut level: it didn’t matter one iota that both books are firmly grounded in her native Igbo culture (of which I know next to nothing and, in fact, less than nothing from personal experience). Ultimately, both books are about our common humanity; there may be an additional level of personal identification for her (and for any fellow Igbo reader of hers), but that’s an added element, it doesn’t change the books’ essential nature. No human being, regardless who they are and where they live, should have to face war, torture and starvation. No woman should have to suffer abuse, whether at the hands of her husband, father, or at the hands of any other man. This is the message of the two novels, and it comes through loud and clear and without any limitation whatsoever, be it implied or explicit.
And that, in a nutshell, is the difference, for me, between the two novels and Adichie’s nonfiction writing. Now, obviously it is in the very nature of an essay that it contains express analysis; but if that essay is to make as broad as statement as Adichie’s two novels (and both Dear Ijeawele and We Should All Be Feminists intend to make an equally broad statement: No woman should suffer — or be made to suffer — discrimination of any form or in any context whatsoever), the argument underpinning it must be of equally broad and instinctively universal appeal as the statement itself. And it is here that the slight disconnect comes in, at least for me.
Obviously, with regard to the statement as such — women’s right to equal treatment is as much a human right as the right to life and to freedom from harm –, Adichie is preaching to the converted as far as I am concerned, so as far as that statement itself goes, check, consider us fully aligned, gut level and all. I also agree with her “suggestions” (or sub-theses), set forth in an attempt to show how independent female thinking and self-esteem can be boosted from early on.
That said, there are essentially two ways in which Adichie’s essays nevertheless don’t work perfectly for me: First, she adduces a plethora of examples of discrimination specifically tied to Nigerian culture. To a certain extent, this is understandable: it’s what is closest to her, and Dear Ijeawele, moreover, has its roots in a request by a Nigerian friend — and more generally speaking, no argument will of course ever be entirely convincing without being buttressed by examples of its practical application. But while the Biafra war in Half of a Yellow Sun is, for all intents and purposes, a stand-in for any and all wars, regardless where and why they are fought (and who of us can really, absolutely, 100% be sure they will not ever have to confront war in their own lives?), some of the examples mentioned by Adichie in this essay and in We Should All Be Feminists reflect specific situations that are extremely unlikely to ever come up in my personal experience. So my response is only in part “gut level” and instinctive, namely to the extent that I am a woman, but it is not a spontaneous response along the lines of “I know exactly what she is talking about” — rather, my imagination has to kick in for me to say “what a terrible situation; this should absolutely not be happening;” and this creates an added element of distance. Perhaps not a big one, but it is there, and at least in the first instance, it (wrongly) makes Adichie’s essays come across as less relevant to me personally.
Secondly, a number of the theses and arguments that Adichie raises here have, in fact, been part of the feminist debate for at least the past 200+ years and were first formulated by writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy L. Sayers (some even as far back as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, by the likes of Christine de Pizan and Moderata Fonte). Yet, Adichie packages them so as to sound as if she had just thought all of them out for herself. Well, maybe she has (though I do believe her to be familiar with, at the very least, Wollstonecraft’s and Woolf’s writings, as well as those of the three above-mentioned 19th century American feminists) — and I suppose as long as you consider Dear Ijeawele just as a private, individual letter to a friend, it doesn’t even make much of a difference to what extent Adichie’s ideas are original and to what extent she just agrees with others who have said the same thing before. And of course, all of this doesn’t change one iota about the fact that these arguments are right on their merits and substance. But the moment you turn the private letter at the heart of this publication into a book released to a worldwide readership (just as is We Should All Be Feminists), at least those readers who are familiar with the broad outline of the history of the feminist debate and the writings of the above-named authors are bound to do a bit of a double take at the form in which Adichie presents her arguments. In addition, putting Adichie’s line of reasoning into the wider context of the feminist debate also alters the general thrust of her argument: It’s no longer “look, this is the way things are, and it’s high time somebody finally did something about it” (as Adichie makes it sound) — instead, it becomes “this is the way things have been for centuries, and isn’t terrible how little has changed and that we still have to debate the same issues?” And I don’t think Adichie’s arguments would have suffered from the added weight of history; rather, the notion that “it’s high time somebody finally did something about it” would have gained considerably in urgency.
Again, I have no major disagreements on substance with anything that Adichie writes here (or in We Should All Be Feminists) — but I think I will stick to her novels in the future; they seem to be working so much better for me.
Around the World in 80 Books
Technically, every book that I read counts for my Around the World reading project, so in my month / quarter / year in review posts I tend to highlight only the books by minority authors and / or not written by authors from, or set in, the UK or the U.S. So obviously, there’s a certain (deliberate) overlap with my Diversity Bingo project, but even outside the exclusion of U.S. and British authors from the Around the World tally, it’s not 100%, as nationality or setting is the only determinative factor for purposes of this particular project, whereas in the context of Diversity Bingo, obviously a book has to meet the criteria for one of the bingo squares.
Favorites So Far
Patrick Radden Keefe: Say Nothing
Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Broken Road
Olivia Manning: The Spoilt City
Zahra Hankir (ed.) & Various Authors: Our Women on the Ground
Robert van Gulik (transl.) & Anonymous: Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee
Graeme Kent: Devil-Devil
New in June 2021
My June 2021 Diversity Bingo read:
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Dear Ijeawele
… as well as:
Gary Corby: The Ionia Sanction
The Ionia Sanction is the second book in Gary Corby’s mystery series set in the Athenian Republic of Pericles and the great philosophers, and I picked it as an introduction to the “actual” book I’d been planning to include in my Summer Games reading project — the series’s third book, which is set during the Olympic Games (Sacred Games). Having also read that book in the interim, I think I just may have chosen a bad book to start with, but I confess that after having finished this particular installment, I was in grave doubts whether to even read a single other book from the series at all.
The Athenian Mysteries’ protagonist is a sculptor’s son named Nicolaos, who in book 1 (The Pericles Commission) had — or so we learn at the beginning of book 2 — been appointed investigator by Pericles himself, who again calls on him when the proxenos (trade representative / ambassador / honorary consul) of Ephesus is found murdered in his Athens home. Now, I might have forgiven the spelling of “Nico”‘s first name (correctly, it would have to have been Nikolaos (Νικόλαος) — the Greeks invariably used the letter “k” where the Romans used a “c”; in fact, they still do), even though this sort of inattention to detail usually doesn’t bode well, but arguably it makes sense to adjust the spelling to the Latin-Anglicized spelling of names such as Pericles (Περικλῆς, i.e. Perikles in Attic Greek); and I’ll concede to Corby that generally his books are well-researched.
But the first time I did a real double take was when I learned that not only does our Nico know Pericles, he also has a younger brother named Socrates … and yes, we really are talking about “that” Socrates, the king-of-philosophers-to-be, as Nico’s father is one Sophroniscus, of the deme (Athens subdivision) Alopece, and guess who the real Socrates’s father was — and to rub it in even more, we learn about young Socrates’s incorrigible penchant to hang around with the philosophers of the day at every conceivable opportunity. And it turns out that Nico himself doesn’t only hobnob with Athens’s leading politician and (with all the grudging affection of an elder brother routinely outsmarted by his younger kin) with the boy who will become one of the greatest of all philosophers, from Ancient Greece to the present day, either … he also gets to meet famed general Themistocles, hero of the battles of Marathon, Artemisium and Salamis, who by this time has been banned from Athens for alleged treason, and has become the governor of the Persian province of Magnesia, after having been granted shelter by Persian King Artaxerxes I (the very ruler whose armies and navy the Athenians, under Themistocles’s command, had roundly defeated in the above-mentioned battles). And not even enough with all that: after Nico’s investigation has taken him first to Ephesus and then (you guessed it) to Magnesia on the Maeander, he gets to spend time at Themistocles’s court, is taken into confidence by Themistocles’s devil’s brood of an offspring … and eventually plays a crucial role in bringing about Themistocles’s end, which according to some (albeit contested) reports was due to poison. Now, I could live with virtually all of the above if Corby had picked as his protagonist a member of the Athenian upper class (regardless whether real or fictional), i.e., somebody who had at least a minimum expectation to meet some or maybe even all of these personnages of note, and to be involved in at least some of these events. And, by the same token, I respect Corby’s use of fiction to bring these events (back) to the modern reader. But come on — a humble artisan’s son? The son of a man who repeatedly has to struggle to keep his business afloat, and is therefore counting on his eldest son to make a good marriage (i.e., marry a rich Athenian citizen’s daughter with a dowry and family connections to match)? Even Nico’s close connection with Pericles stretches believability; even more so does all the rest. By the time we got to Magnesia, my eyes were rolling so fast it was making me dizzy; and their constant twirling picked up even more speed from that point on.
As for Nico himself, he is an odd and hard-to-believe combination of utterly TSTL on the one hand (it’s a wonder he even makes it out of Ephesus alive, instead of getting himself killed due to a mixture of bumbling, ignorant, credulous tourist behavior and an inexplicable lack of circumspection in light of the fact that he knows he is pursuing an extremely crafty killer and his own life is in danger for a multitude of reasons) and an equally incredible amount of political and strategic savvy on the other hand. His character is a bit more balanced in the subsequent book, so I am willing to put this obvious imbalance down to the fact that this is the series’s sophomore entry and may, therefore, be considered part of Corby’s apprentice phase as a fiction writer. But in addition to everything else that I found exasperating in this book, it was just one more jarring element. Virtually the book’s only saving grace, in addition to the colorful historical setting as such, was Nico’s lady love Diotima, conveniently having become a priestess at Ephesus’s famous temple of Artemis after the events in book 1; a lady inferior to Nico in social rank (and thus, according to his father — who would need to consent to the match — manifestly inappropriate marriage material), but infinitely his superior in brain power. — The fact that Nico is (apparently) intended to function as a sort of Watson to Diotima’s Sherlock(ia) Holmes goes some way towards explaining his lapses of judgment and intelligence; and, as I said, his character is more balanced towards an average level of brains in book 3, but I was still glad I at least had Diotima to cheer for in The Ionia Sanction.
So, not the most auspicious of beginnings (and I doubt I’ll ever go back to book 1; or if I do, it won’t be anytime soon). Nevertheless, it was probably a good idea to start the series with at least one book prior to the one I had picked for my Summer Games project, as the series features a continuous story arc as far as Nico’s and Diotima’s back story and personal lives are concerned, and even by the end of book 2 they have already accumulated such an amount of joint experience and adventures that it would be impossible for any author to adequately summarize all of these events by way of background to the subsequent book’s developments — and the brief summary to which Corby is necessarily compelled to limit himself in book 3 can’t possibly even begin to convey the weight of the load they must both be carrying at this point.
Appointment with Agatha
Appointment with Agatha is a Goodreads group read project, inspired by the October 2020 centenary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. As part of this project, since October 2020, we are reading all of Agatha Christie’s full-length novels in the order of their publication, plus a monthly topical “side read” by another Golden or Silver Age mystery author.
Favorites So Far
Agatha Christie’s Novels
New in June 2021
Agatha Christie’s Novels
The Seven Dials Mystery
The Seven Dials Mystery marks our second (and in Bundle’s case, alas, final) meeting with Lady Eileen “Bundle” Brent and Scotland Yard Superintendent Battle, both of whom we first encountered in The Secret of Chimneys. While they both were (key) supporting characters there, here Bundle gets star billing, and that’s a very good thing, because she is one of the most accomplished (in every sense) examples of Agatha Christie’s strong, independent young women characters, easily on par with Tuppence Beresford, whom she resembles in many respects.
The book’s plot — premise, action, ending and all — is just about as preposterously unlikely here as it is in Bundle’s and Battle’s first outing and in The Secret Adversary; in fact, it’s yet another reprise of the “the young, intrepid adventurers and the secret society” theme that dominates both of the other two books, but I’ve reread it and rewatched the delightful 1981 screen adaptation starring Cheryl Campbell as Bundle so many times at this point that it doesn’t even give me pause for a single second; it’s really all about Bundle, her lovable scatterbrained father, Lord Caterham (John Gielgud in the TV adaptation), and plenty of dazzling, mysterious atmosphere. Sir Oswald and Lady Coote, as well as George Lomax, all of whom we also know from The Secret of Chimneys, reappear and provide a good part of the latter … as well as almost as much merriment as Lord Caterham; Christie even pulls an Austenesque stunt between Bundle and the hapless Lomax worthy of the proposal scene between Mr. Collins and Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. And I do think it’s a minor stroke of genius for the TV adaptation to have Bundle’s amateur co-investigator Jimmy Thesiger being portrayed by James Warwick (also Tommy Beresford in the 1980s’ TV adaptation of Partners in Crime starring Francesca Annis as Tuppence), because even though The Seven Dials Mystery was actually adapted for the small screen before the first two Tommy & Tuppence books, in hindsight this choice of actor only enhances the way in which Christie plays with her readers’ expectations in The Seven Dials Mystery (as she does, too, though in a slightly different way, in The Man in the Brown Suit, The Secret Adversary, and The Murder of Dr. Ackroyd) — and something similar can be said for the portrayal of Bill Eversleigh by Christopher Scoular, who at the time was often cast as the type of the thoroughly goodnatured, harmless and not overly intelligent young man about town (see, for example, his role as Lord Peter Wimsey’s friend Freddie Arbuthnot in the adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Wimsey & Vane canon starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter).
By and large, I vastly prefer Agatha Christie’s mysteries to her particular blend of rom-com and thrillers, but whenever I’m in the mood for something lighter (however silly its plot), this is definitely one of my go-to books, as are the first Tommy & Tuppence books (and their TV adaptation). It’s a pity that Bundle only appears in two novels total: she is so similar to Tuppence Beresford that Christie may have felt there was no point giving her more face time, particularly as Tommy & Tuppence by this time had already cornered the “married young intrepid sleuths” storyline, too; besides, Christie was off to new adventures both in her writing (enter Miss Marple) and in her private life (enter Max Mallowan) soon after she had finished this book — but it would still have been nice to see her again occasionally, just as Christie had Tommy & Tuppence reappear sporadically at various points of their life in later years.
The cast of the 1981 TV adaptation, from left: Superintendent Battle, Jimmy Thesiger, Bundle Brent, and Lord Caterham (Harry Andrews, James Warwick, Cheryl Campbell, and John Gielgud)
A British Library Crime Classics Rerelease
Ellen Wilkinson: The Division Bell Mystery
The Division Bell Mystery is one of my favorite BLCC republications to date — though not on account of the actual mystery, which, setting (The Houses of Parliament) aside, doesn’t have much going for it: the “locked room” / impossible crime scenario has (as even series editor Martin Edwards acknowledges in his introduction) a plot hole deep enough to sink the whole ship right from the start; basically, if the investigating police had done their job properly on day 1, there would have been no locked-room scenario and little enough mystery even as to the “who” and “why” to begin with.
Nor am I particularly taken with our amateur investigator, Robert West, a young Tory politician who gets caught up in the investigation as the murder victim — a self-made, super-rich American financier — had an important, confidential appointment with his boss, the Home Secretary, but who is altogether too easily distracted by the slightly questionable exoticism of a young lady named Annette figuring in the investigation (and, in turn, fairly obviously using Robert in order to try and manipulate the course of said investigation, in a spot-on instant assessment of his mental faculties).
Rather, the actual star of the show is the author herself, “Red Ellen” Wilkinson, one of Britain’s first female M.P.s (Labour), and her insight into the political life of the era in general, the national debt in particular, women’s role in public and private life, and the inner workings of Parliament and Government. Martin Edwards, in his introduction, asserts that Wilkinson wisely met her readers halfway, as it were, by not telling the story from the POV of the one character obviously doubling for herself in the story (a Labour M.P. named Grace Richards), but from the POV of an up-and-coming, sympathetically-portrayed young Tory. Well, I’ll grant him the wise choice (Wilkinson’s political views, as her popular nickname shows, were more than occasionally controversial with her contemporaries), but even taking 1930s attitudes and public opinion into account, I’m not so sure about Robert’s sympathetic portrayal:
“Like most young politicians (male) he had given as much thought to the rôle he should assume when he entered Parliament as a newly elected woman M.P. gives to the costume to be worn on her first appearance. After considering several models he had decided that a slightly cynical air of detachment from the worries of common man, an unruffled calm amid political storms, coupled with a keen watch for the right moment to intervene, was to be his special rôle. As he kept these decisions carefully to himself no one could tell him that every young politician (male) had made a similar decision during the days between the count at his winning election and taking his oath in the House of Commons.
Actually Robert West could not maintain the slightest detachment even from a street dog-fight. It was as a dog-fight that politics interested him, though he was always assuring himself that some time or other he would settle down to find out how the country ought to be run, and why politicians made such a mess of running it. But as a popular young bachelor he found life too interesting at any particular moment to acquire sufficient of that knowledge to be awkward to his part whip.
That was why, at twenty-nine, in his second year in Parliament, he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary, was known to every one as Bob, and was well inside the comfortable fairway which leads in due but long course, when the tides of youth have ebbed, to that placid company of politicians who decorate the Front Bench of any particular Government, whose names are seldom remembered during its lifetime and forgotten the day after the dissolution.”
“The attitude of Robert West to the modern young woman was typically of that of a very young man. He preferred the intelligent woman. He liked to be seen about with one who was making a name for herself. But while he was interested in her he expected her to put her own affairs into the background, and devote herself to his. When she was no longer needed she might be permitted to pick up her own threads again, but she must not trouble him. This he called allowing a woman to live her own life.”
Consequently, although Robert mentally and patronizingly dismisses the opinions of a fellow Tory M.P. named Stuart-Orford (a fossilized left-over from the Victorian Age) on national finance and the government’s alleged “selling out” to Unspeakables — American financiers like the murder victim in the instant case — as “whin[ing] like ladies in reduced circumstances, like genteel governesses always talking about the glories of the old families” and as “patriotism that could only see a little island leading the world” (sound familiar, anybody?), Robert’s only personal answer to the financial pressures of the day is that there is nothing wrong with obtaining cash from wherever it’s to be had because you have to move with the times, and presently the times are essentially under the sway of America. But he has never thought about, nor does he have any answer as to the wider implications of national finance and its impact on social peace and stability:
“The price of bread. The costliness of Annette. But a bread-march was not like England. Robert suddenly realized that he had never seen a bread-march in his life before. He had read of the demonstrations of the eighties and nineties, the long parades of unemployed in 1911. But the unemployment benefit had settled all that. Now it had been cut to the bone, and so …
[…] The House with its lighted windows seemed the quiet centre of the whirlpool that was London. A harassed Cabinet Minister negotiated with an American financier inside, and outside the raw material of their transactions, the people who elected the Minister and would have to pay interest on the loan, surged and demonstrated. They wanted bread. It wasn’t like England — Stuart-Orford was right about that. But it was the new England, and what was to be done about it?”
“Qu’ils mangent des brioches” … and before Marie Antoinette could blink twice, she had blinked her last and France was a Republic.
Indeed, if there is one thing that this novel highlights from an early 21st century perspective, it’s the notion of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose when it comes to British politics. In the last 10 years alone, Britain has undergone another period of so-called “austerity”, with government benefits cut right, left and center — and frighteningly huge numbers of British children from unprivileged backgrounds growing up in poverty and literally going undernourished. British exceptionalism and nostalgia for the Victorian Empire are alive and well and recently brought us all the dubious “gift” of Brexit. Just as described by Wilkinson in the 1930s, 21st century British Government is still characterized by the irreconcilable dichotomy of the elected political leadership on the one hand and a career Civil Service whose members are appointed on the basis of merit and qualification, and who are (these days, even openly) disdainful of the elected government.
And, just like in Wilkinson’s novel, potentially scandalous events are still brushed under the carpet, so as to spare the government the embarrassment of being dragged through the mud “in the Opposition press”, in the age of social media more brazenly than ever before — or maybe it only appears that way, as more embarrassing messes actually do seem to come out: this, incidentally, is of course not an issue limited to Britain alone. (Nor is the idea of politicians clinging to their jobs instead of resigning even in the face of a manifest scandal.)
Yet, Wilkinson is intelligent enough not to judge explicitly: She describes the events associated with the financier’s murder, and the machinations that have ultimately brought it about (as well as a second murder in its immediate wake) matter-of-factly and leaves it up to her readers to decide whether to admire the bold, swift sagacity of those in high office who eventually take charge of the matter and stamp out every spark of a scandal before it can develop into a wildfire, or whether to condemn the same persons for keeping things under wraps and for preventing even those who, faced with the unconscionable consequences of their irresponsible course of action, offer to take public responsibility, from doing just that, because it would bring down the entire Government; first and foremost, the Prime Minister himself. In this narrative approach, which treats her readers as adults capable of judging for themselves, arguably lies the greatest strength of Wilkinson’s novel; particularly in light of the fact that many of “Red Ellen”‘s fellow Labour Party members might conceivably have expected her to nail this book’s fictional Tory government as firmly to the pillory as they themselves would in their speeches, and the “Opposition press” in its publications, the real Government of the day.
Taken all in all, Wilkinson’s book may only rate as a footnote in the canon of Golden Age mystery writing, as a document fictionalizing the politics of the era alone it is well worth of notice, and I am glad it was included in the BLCC series.
The Appointment with Agatha “side reads” tie in neatly with my own Detection Club reading project; notwithstanding that so far I’ve already been familiar with most of the books selected by the Appointment with Agatha group. While my own reading project does have the members of the “actual” Detection Club at its core (and of course, Agatha Christie was a founder member of that most illustrious of all crime writers’ societies), it effectively extends to any and all books and authors discussed by the current Detection Club president and chief historian, Martin Edwards, either in The Golden Age of Murder or in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (reading list HERE); as well as to Golden Age crime fiction as such, particularly as recently republished in the British Library Classic Crime series — edited by Martin Edwards — or by publishers such as HarperCollins, Dean Street Press, and Arcturus Press. This latter aspect, in turn, makes for another natural overlap with the Appointment with Agatha “side reads”.
Favorites So Far
New in June 2021
Harriet Rutland: Blue Murder
Harriet Rutland (real name: Olive Shimwell née Seers) only published three novels: I had (largely) enjoyed, even without being overly impressed with them, her first two ventures into detective fiction, Knock, Murderer, Knock and Bleeding Hooks, both of which feature a sort of “extracurricular” Scotland Yard detective named Winkley, but I had decided to leave her final novel (Blue Murder) for last, as based on the reviews of friends I had reason to expect it to be the best of the lot. And wow, did that expectation ever pay off.
In Blue Murder, Rutland dispenses with any and all aspersions to the conventions of cozy Golden Age detective fiction. Rather, this is a no-holds-barred social portrait of small-town England during WWII, and a behind-the-scenes look at the ugly daily realities of the life of one of the (fictional) portrayed small town’s supposedly leading families, pulling aside the frayed curtain of sham respectability to reveal a household characterized by bullying, spousal abuse, lechery, jealousy, xenophobia, manipulation, extortion — and ultimately murder, not surprisingly the end result of the lethal mix of personal traits and behavior patterns characterizing this particular household. According to the book’s introduction by Curtis Evans (who blogs at The Passing Tramp), Blue Murder may in part have been inspired by events in Rutland’s personal life, which, in addition to the onset of WWII, might also explain the time lapse between its publication and that of Rutland’s two earlier novels: be that as it may, this book reads like it was the one book that Rutland was destined to write, and which in and of itself justifies that her novels should have been pulled from the claws of oblivion and been republished nearly a century after first having appeared in print.
Given its topic, obviously this is not a pleasant read: Rutland’s skill at characterization, which stands out even in her much lighter first two novels, is in evidence more than ever, and there is no such thing as a benign moment here — even incidents that may appear innocuous on the surface are laden with hidden significance. Woe to the person, then, failing to recognize these moments’ and events’ deeper meaning; and one can’t fail to wonder about the wisdom of our POV character (and de-facto narrator, even though formally the book is written in the third person), a would-be writer from London, who has chosen this of all places to compose a mystery novel “away from the bustle and distractions of Town.” Although Rutland plays merry havoc with the trope of a writer’s oeuvre reflecting the events actually happening all around him (or perhaps rather inspiring these very events?), the identity of the murderer is not all that hard to guess based on such things as character and opportunity, but even this does not take away from the novel’s impact — as mentioned above, there is nothing of the Golden Age “whodunnit” about Blue Murder, and suspecting the identity of the murderer only increases the reader’s anxiety as to the well-being of the other (remaining) characters.
Rutland’s first two books may be not much more than amuse-bouches, but if you read one book by her, make it Blue Murder: it may end up turning your stomach, but it should never have vanished from the reading public’s awareness of the body of crime fiction to begin with, and I hope it has now gained a more lasting readership once and for all.
(Dead) Author Birthdays
This is a reading challenge associated with the (Mostly) Dead Writers Society on Goodreads; I decided to join it because it, too, is as much an invitation to reconnect with the classics as it is one to walk down literary paths less traveled; so it, too, ties in nicely with my own reading goals for this year. In June, I kept the “birthday boy / girl” read to two books by one of my all-time favorite (and personal canon) authors, Dorothy L. Sayers, both of which also are on my Summer Games reading list (above) and are thus only mentioned here by way of recap, Clouds of Witness and The Five Red Herrings.
Favorites So Far
New in June 2021
From my Summer Games reading list (see above):
- Dorothy L. Sayers:
- Clouds of Witness
- The Five Red Herrings
(Dead) Authors in Residence
Authors in Residence is another (Mostly) Dead Writers Society challenge. While I only read a single book for it in the first quarter of 2021, the second quarter — with the authors in residence this time being John Steinbeck and Ursula K. Le Guin — was off to an excellent start in April and continued almost as strongly in May and June.
Favorites So Far
New in June 2021
John Steinbeck: The Moon Is Down
My final venture into John Steinbeck’s oeuvre in the context of the (Dead) Authors in Residence challenge, and once more I found confirmation of everything that made me a fan of Steinbeck’s all the way back in my teens: vision and prescience of judgment, exquisitely fine characterization and, perhaps most of all, infinitely great humanity.
Although set in a small fictional English-speaking mining community, The Moon Is Down was actually inspired by the German invasion of Norway towards the beginning of WWII. Originally conceived as a play and widely read in occupied Europe, in 1946 it won Norway’s King Haakon Liberty Cross; and arguably, no honor could have been a more appropriate match for the work’s passionate plea for freedom — individual and collective — and democracy in the face of terror.
“Free Men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd man who win battles and the free men who win wars. You will find that is so, sir,”
the occupied town’s Mayor tells the commander of the occupying troops, and when his wife protests that they can’t arrest the Mayor, he adds:
“No […] they can’t arrest the Mayor. The Mayor is an idea conceived by free men. It will escape arrest.”
Authoritarianism and the leadership crystallized in the person of a dictator like Hitler and Mussolini, in other words, is destined to fail. Only freedom and democracy, and a leadership institution filled by successive, temporarily- and freely-elected office holders, is bound to survive. “The moon is down; I have not heard the clock,” Banquo’s son Fleance says in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: darkness is bound to descend on Scotland, but although Banquo is murdered, Fleance survives, and it was to Fleance that later generations of rulers (including the Stuarts, who a few years before Macbeth was written had also inherited the English throne) mythologically traced their origins –so the impending dark days are temporary, Shakespeare says; there is light at the end of the tunnel. And of course Steinbeck, borrowing Shakespeare’s image for the title of this 1942 novel, would be proven right within a matter of three years.
Although The Moon Is Down was the final book I read in the context of the Authors in Residence project, I am glad the discussion group’s Steinbeck threads will be kept open, as revisiting his work over the past three months has inspired me to extend that revisit and build other books by Steinbeck into my reading for the rest of the year, both books that I’m not yet familiar with and rereads of past favorites. I may not agree with (or even understand) the Nobel Committee’s every choice for the Nobel Prize in Literature over the course of the past century, but in Steinbeck’s case I wholeheartedly agree, and although he more than earned the award on the basis of The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden alone, even if he had written neither book, the award would still be justified in light of exquisite pieces of fiction like this one. In awarding the 1962 prize to John Steinbeck, the Nobel Committe praised “his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception,” and Steinbeck responded in his acceptance speech:
“Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches – nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tinhorn mendicants of low calorie despair.
Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.
The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species.
Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. My great predecessor, William Faulkner, speaking here, referred to it as a tragedy of universal fear so long sustained that there were no longer problems of the spirit, so that only the human heart in conflict with itself seemed worth writing about. […]
The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.
Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat – for courage, compassion and love.
In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation.
I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.
The present universal fear has been the result of a forward surge in our knowledge and manipulation of certain dangerous factors in the physical world.
It is true that other phases of understanding have not yet caught up with this great step, but there is no reason to presume that they cannot or will not draw abreast. Indeed it is a part of the writer’s responsibility to make sure that they do.”
The Moon Is Down is a testament to this belief of Steinbeck’s at least as much as The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and East of Eden. — as well as my previous two reads in the context of this project, Travels With Charley: In Search of America and The Winter of Our Discontent.
Ursula K. Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea
While my first two Le Guin reads for the (Dead) Authors in Residence challenge were both taken from Le Guin’s final years, for my last book I went back to her very beginning and picked the first book of her Earthsea Cycle. And, while I know that this is an awardwinning milestone of (YA) fantasy and I have no doubt that I would have loved it to distraction if I’d first have read it in my own youth, I find that coming to it for the first time now, at a later point in life, I’m somewhat less enchanted than I might have been otherwise (and than, based on Le Guin’s more mature writing, I expected to be).
Oh, sure, there’s still plenty of gorgeous prose and the world building holds together beautifully, but (1) this is very obviously YA writing, full of lessons about growing up, character building, and the acquisition of wisdom, and this sort of thing appeals to me less and less, the further I am growing away from that phase of my own life; (2) the lessons — and indeed the entire learning arc — are, at heart, those that can also be found in virtually every other fantasy novel (YA or not), and (3) the world building, while imaginative, is also essentially similar to that of many another fantasy novel. Again, it might have made a (conceivably huge) difference if I’d read this book earlier, and some of the literature I have read in the interim may have been — indeed, probably was — influenced by Le Guin’s writing in turn, and that may have contributed to further skewing my perspective; but there is no denying that Le Guin’s Earthsea, like almost every other fantasy novel published during the second half of the 20th century and after, in the first instance owes a colossal debt to Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Lewis’s Narnia; and I find that I still prefer the originals to the books that followed in their tracks.
The writing and world building is nevertheless enjoyable enough to easily rate four stars, and I will probably continue reading the series; I might even acquire, one day, the illustrated omnibus edition published shortly after Le Guin’s death. But having now sampled three very different examples of Le Guin’s writing, I find that what seems to work best for me is her nonfiction, followed by her later and / or historical fiction (I’m really looking forward to exploring her Orsinian Cycle); more so than the books that established her reputation as a writer to begin with.
Other Books, including Comfort Reading
The huge Sunne in Splendour buddy read took almost all of my reading time not otherwise dedicated to specific reading projects in June; I only managed to squeeze in one additional book, but by and large it was an enjoyable one. Favorites in the first half year of 2021 were evenly split between four revisited comfort reads by favorite authors (Agatha Christie and Martha Grimes — two books each) and four newly-read books; perhaps unsurprisingly, mysteries one and all.
Favorites So Far
Agatha Christie: A Pocket Full of Rye and A Murder Is Announced
S.J. Rozan: China Trade
Michael Jecks: The Chapel of Bones
Ann Cleeves: Red Bones
Martha Grimes: The Man With a Load of Mischief and The Old Fox Deceiv’d
Val McDermid: Still Life
New in June 2021
Mystery Writers of America Presents: Odd Partners
A few years ago, I read a Mystery Writers of America short story compilation named Face Off, which featured short stories where two different authors’ series detectives / protagonists teamed up to solve a given crime, with each of the authors writing part of the respective story. I thought that was an interesting (and surprisingly successful) venture, not least because it required the contributing authors to have a very firm grip on the writing styles of their respective writing partners and the character details of their protagonists — and by and large the contributors to that volume acquitted themselves vastly better than the members of the famous Detection Club, who had tried something similar in a 1933 round robin called Ask a Policeman.
Odd Partners is, in a sense, the inverse approach to this sort of scenario, in that it features stories by a single writer, but where two seemingly ill-matched, antagonistic, or otherwise just “odd” partners (not all of them human or even corporeal) team up to either solve a crime or, more often than not, simply overcome a dangerous situation. It is, at the same time, also more typical of my overall reading experience with such anthologies, in that it features a number of stories that will remain with me for a long time and others that I can barely remember even now that I’m finally sitting down to write a review. By and large it seemed to be a case of a more or less steady downward slide the further I progressed in the book as a whole, but with a somewhat wobbly upward curve towards the end.
In the order of the stories’ inclusion in the anthology:
- Volume editor Anne Perry’s opening story, Reconciliation, is definitely one of the book’s biggest highlights; a deeply atmospheric and heart-stoppingly suspenseful tale of two WWI soldiers — one British, one German — working together to save a young comrade-in-arms of the Brit from (almost) certain death in the tunnels below the front line trenches. Perry can be excessively long-winded in her novels; maybe she should write more short fiction, because it seems to have a highly salutary effect on her writing.
- The second story, William Kent Krueger’s The Nature of the Beast, has a human amateur fisherman unwittingly working with a wolf that he had saved from starvation some time earlier to preserve a pristine piece of wilderness. The story’s ending is somewhat predictable, but the atmosphere and the friendship between the man and the wolf are drawn beautifully and with loving detail.
- Joe R. Lansdale’s Sad Onions is an entry from his Hap and Leonard series; the “odd partners” are the two protagonists themselves, of course, who on their way home from a fishing trip stop for a woman flagging them down because her husband has been killed (in a road accident, she says) — only to very soon regret having listened to their better instincts.
- Jacqueline Winspear’s The Wagatha Labsy Secret Dogtective Alliance is a bit too contrived to be entirely successful, but hey, no story featuring a pack of canine detectives can be entirely bad, can it?
- Shelley Costa’s Glock, Paper, Scissors is a rather well-crafted example of the dictum that revenge is a dish best served cold — here, as applied to the unusual WWII friendship between a Paris street urchin and the daughter of a Jewish family, and its coda several decades later on a nightly New York City street.
- Charles Todd’s Blood Money features the mother and son (Caroline and Charles Todd) writing team’s series protagonist Inspector Rutledge, who ever since WWI has been haunted by the ghost of a fellow soldier whose death is weighing on his conscience. Here, Rutledge is called upon to solve a murder rooted in the moral ambiguities of the “Great War” as well (I preferred Anne Perry’s foray into the WWI setting, though).
- Lou Kemp’s The Violins Played Before Junshan was one of the stories that did absolutely nothing for me, which was due to the writing itself as much as to the fact that it’s an odd and, I thought, fairly pointless combination of historical and speculative fiction with save-the-world overtones.
- Lisa Morton’s Whatever Happened to Lorna Winters?, by contrast, was one of the real stand-out stories from the middle of the book, sending a film restorer on the track of a minor Hollywood starlet who had vanished decades earlier — courtesy of a snippet of film that chance has blown into his hands.
- Claire Ortalda’s Oglethorpe’s Camera is, in a sense, the feline counterpart to Winspear’s dog detective story; except that we’re dealing with a single cat here, who moreover, while providing a vital clue, never so much sets out to detect anything himself but is trailed by his (up to that point) TSTL owner. By and large, an example of mystery chick lit that I could easily have done without.
- Robert Dugoni’s The Last Game also didn’t do a whole lot for me; it concerns a baseball-loving traveling salesman who suddenly finds himself without his passport and without a ticket on a plane trip to an unknown destination that he doesn’t remember having booked in the first place. Well, I detest amnesia stories (and stories riding on the amnesia trope for other purposes), and in this case the solution was telegraphed early on, so scratch this one, too …
- Adele Polomski’s NO. 11 SQUATTER by contrast is, to the extent you can use complex diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia credibly within the confines of a mystery short story, a fairly successful exercise in doing just that, where an elderly forgetful lady is compelled to work with her nurse / companion in facing up to a dangerous criminal, while at the same time wresting some freedom and self-respect back from her concerned but overbearing daughter.
- Mark Thielman’s A Cold Spell is a piece of historical fiction writing set in the midst of winter in a Puritan New England community: I didn’t find it entirely convincing — linguistically contrived, only partially well-researched as to historical detail, and with a rather rushed and questionable solution.
- Georgia Jeffries’s What would Nora Do? is another example of thriller meets chick lit meets slapstick comedy, centering on a psychotic episode experienced by a woman convicted of having killed her philandering husband and recently released from prison. “Nora” is Ms. Ephron, incidentally, and I am not entirely sure if she were still alive she’d have appreciated the compliment (neither of the story as such nor of the attempt to emulate her style of writing).
- Amanda Witt’s Hector’s Bees suffers from way too much narrative stuffing and too little focus, though I did like the idea of a recently-widowed woman de facto “teaming up” with her husband’s beloved bees to unmask his murderer; and I also really loved the Southwestern (Sangre de Cristo Mountains) setting.
- William Frank’s Georgia in the Wind, likewise set in the Southwest (yey!), marked the beginning of the upwards-curve towards the end of the anthology more pronouncedly than the preceding story; it concerns a private investigator specializing in stolen art who is compelled to work with an art thief to find a murderer and recover, in the process, a stolen painting by Santa Fé artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
- Ace Atkins’s From Four Till Late has Atkins’s series protagonist Nick Travers trawling the streets of the Big Easy together with a wealthy middle-aged Mississippi socialite in search of her teenage daughter. In the best of Atkins’s style, big on New Orleans atmosphere, gutter cynicism, and snappy dialogue (and snappy writing, generally). I rather liked it.
- Allison Brennan’s Bite Out of Crime tries to pack a few things too many into the confines of a short story (it also has somewhat moralizing overtones and a laughably unbelievable ending), but its central character, a teenage jewel thief who, after rescuing a neighbor’s dog, is caught up in the investigation of that neighbor’s murder, is likeable enough.
- Stephen Ross’s Songbird Blues was the final story that did absolutely nothing for me; it’s more horror / psychopathic thriller than mystery or crime story, and to even mention who the “odd partners” are would constitute a major spoiler (so I won’t) — let’s just say that if you’re into jazz and blues music and if graphic violence and a sinister atmosphere don’t turn you off, this might be your kind of thing. It manifestly wasn’t mine.
- Fortunately, the book ended with another absolute highlight, Jeffery Deaver’s Security, which concerns the security detail to be provided to a controversial, populist Presidential candidate obviously modelled on Donald Trump — and true to Deaver’s best work, it has more than a few twists, turns and surprises to offer, including (again) as to the identity of the “odd partners” themselves.
Georgia O’Keefe: Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock-Hills (Ram’s Head and White Hollyhock, New Mexico), 1935; Brooklyn Museum, 1992.11.28_PS11